High court challenge could derail Labour leadership race

Judge expected to rule on Thursday whether Jeremy Corbyn needs MPs’ nominations in order to run again

Labour could be forced to reopen its nomination process for the leadership contest if a high court judge rules on Thursday that Jeremy Corbyn must have the support of his MPs to appear on the ballot.

The court heard on Tuesday from lawyers for the Labour donor Michael Foster that the leadership contest rules make “no trace of distinction” between an incumbent leader and a challenger, and thus both should be required to seek nominations.

Acting for Foster, Gavin Millar QC told Mr Justice Foskett that his client was not seeking to skew the result of the contest. “The claimant has no wish to deny the second defendant [Corbyn] a fair opportunity, which can be achieved in this way, of obtaining the requisite number of nominations,” he told the court.

Had the rules intended to suggest an incumbent leader did not need the support of MPs, “we would respectfully suggest that would have been so important it would be said in the terms [of the party rules],” Millar said.

Corbyn’s rival for the Labour leadership, Owen Smith, will pledge on Wednesday to create a shadow secretary of state for Labour dedicated to workers’ rights, but the leadership battle may be pitched into disarray depending on the high court ruling.

Meanwhile a poll for ICM put Labour 16 points behind the Conservatives, Labour’s lowest figure since October 2009 in the final days of Gordon Brown’s government.

Labour party donor Michael Foster
Labour party donor Michael Foster brought the case that the leadership contest’s rules draw no distinction between incumbents and challengers. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

Millar told the high court that the party’s national executive committee, which ruled Corbyn did not have to seek nominations as the incumbent, was “an elected body, intensely political” and could not be considered an independent expert.

Mark Henderson, acting for Labour’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, said Corbyn had gained that nomination threshold when he was first elected. “The incumbent will always have satisfied the requirement already – he got that 15%,” Henderson said. Martin Westgate QC, acting for Corbyn, said the court had no reason to “disturb the decision of the NEC unless the decision was unreasonable”.

Both Smith and Corbyn will press on with their campaigns while the judge deliberates, with a decision expected on Thursday plus any application for appeal.

In his speech on the site of the Orgreave colliery in Rotherham, Smith will say he wants to scrap the trade union bill and zero-hours contracts. “I want to take Britain from being the poor man of Europe for job insecurity and workers’ rights to being the envy of the world for the quality of our jobs and the protections we enjoy,” he will say. “People should have a right to have proper notice of the shifts they’re supposed to work and compensation for cancelled shifts,” he will say, pledging to guarantee equal rights for agency workers and to ban companies recruiting solely from abroad.

With Labour so divided and at such depths in the polls, at least one Labour donor, Hull City owner Assem Allam, who backed the party under Ed Miliband has publicly said he would fund a new centrist progressive party. However, there is little appetite for such a drastic move among other well-known Labour donors, or a groundswell of support for Smith’s challenge to Corbyn.

Stoke City’s chair, Peter Coates, a founder of betting site Bet365 who has given more than £400,000 to the party in the past, said he was hesitant about backing any candidate in the forthcoming leadership election when the party was in such disarray. “I have never seen a more bleak or depressing picture than what confronts us now,” he said. “There’s no way I can support any left-of-centre, progressive party on the basis of what I am seeing now.”

Solicitor Ian Rosenblatt, an Ed Miliband supporter who has given £65,000 to the party, said he would cautiously back Smith, adding that he did not expect the former shadow work and pensions secretary to win an election. “All one can hope is that if he wins then he will be able to bring back people into the shadow cabinet who have real talent, real ability,” Rosenblatt said.

Rosenblatt said he had been contacted by different people about the possibility of his backing for a new party. “It is not an option and all the people who talk about doing it are aggrandising elitists who fancy the idea,” he said.

David Abrahams, a businessman from the north-east who has given the party more than £650,000, also expressed some caution about backing a completely new political outfit, but said he believed the way forward was for the party’s anti-Corbyn MPs to form their own opposition in parliament.

No party at the moment appealed to working people, he said. “We have to give the people of this country what they want,” he said, citing investment in the north-east, controls on immigration and better school standards as examples.

Abrahams said he would prefer opposition MPs, without Corbyn, to keep the Labour party name, but said there needed to be a new incarnation “without the baggage, with clear, precise policies that work for the north, for the working class, for the middle class, for all the places that felt like they wanted to kick back against government when they voted to leave the EU.”


Jessica Elgot Political reporter

The GuardianTramp

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