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13 July 2016

Why did Labour’s NEC agree to these rule changes?

Labour's executive committee is under fire for restricting new sign-ups and members from voting. Here's why it happened.

By Stephen Bush

Schrödinger’s candidate is alive after all. Jeremy Corbyn has cleared probably the biggest hurdle in his path to being re-elected as Labour leader, with the party’s ruling national executive committee deciding that he will be on the ballot by right and will not have to seek nominations from 20 per cent of MPs and MEPs.

At first glance, the ruling represented a killer blow to the rebels’ hopes of defeating Corbyn. So elated were his allies that staffers in the leaders’ office broke into chants of “Watson, Watson, what’s the score?” when the result – an 18-14 majority for Corbyn on the NEC – came through on their phones.

But much of Westminster began to believe that Corbyn might be beatable thanks to further rule changes, voted on after Corbyn had left the meeting to attend a campaign rally. The £3 registered scheme has been effectively scrapped, with the price of entry hiked to £25 and the window to join cut to just 48 hours from 18 July to 20 July. In line with the cut-off point for other internal elections, the six-month freeze date for membership – waved for the first time for the 2007 deputy leadership election and in abeyance ever since – is back again.

Corbyn’s supporters in the grassroots are furious, and they blame Corbyn’s enemies on the NEC. But at Westminster, the leadership’s allies are intensely relaxed about the whole thing. “I’d be happy to fight on either terms,” said one senior loyalist. Another reflected that it will likely reduce the margin of Corbyn’s victory and be a blow to “Jeremy’s vanity” but it will not change the contest.

So why did it happen?

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The vote only passed because some of Corbyn’s allies switched sides

It’s worth noting that, contra much of the reporting of the vote, the questions over the freeze date and the £3 scheme were advertised in advance – indeed, my colleague George reported on Monday that they would both be decided at the crunch meeting, and loyalists have long been relaxed about their ability to win regardless of the rules as long as Corbyn was on the ballot.  Although Corbyn had left in triumph, the pro-Corbyn majority on the NEC remained intact. What decided the vote was that the trade unions, who voted with Corbyn’s allies on the question of whether to keep him on the ballot, switched to vote with the Corbynsceptics, as, I’m told, did Ann Black, a longstanding member of the left slate on the NEC.

So why did they do it? Across the pro- and anti- Corbyn factions on the NEC, delegates had been troubled by the administrative burden that the £3 scheme had placed not only on party staffers but on volunteer officials in constituency Labour parties, who were being given 1000s of names a week to shift through. The trade union delegates, meanwhile, believe that it represents an opportunity for them to sign up more people who will then be able to vote in the contest, as members of affiliate organisations will retain their capacity to sign up for a free vote in the contest.

(It is unlikely that there will be mass sign-ups via affiliated organisations other than trade unions. Most have either got small staff, like the Fabian Society or the Co-operative Party, so will impose their own freeze date to avoid a surge they are not set up to handle, or are run on a voluntary basis. Scientists for Labour have opted to shut off applications already, and I am told that Christians on the Left and the Labour Campaign for International Development will both do the same.)

Officials at Unite are particularly excited about their Unite “community membership” scheme, which they hope will enjoy a boost thanks to the leadership vote.

Corbynsceptics have taken the wrong lessons from last year’s defeat

Why did Corbyn’s opponents on the NEC vote for the rule change?  Among many Corbynsceptics, the meme that Corbyn “only won because of £3 supporters” has become an orthodoxy in much of the PLP and among the third of the grassroots that remains opposed to his leadership.

In reality, Corbyn won by 170,000 votes – well in excess of the total number of £3 supporters, let alone the 88,000 he secured from £3 voters. Even if the franchise had been restricted to full members in 2015, Corbyn polled 49.59 per cent of the vote in the first round and would have picked up enough votes to win when the 5.54 per cent of full members who voted for Liz Kendall’s second preferences were re-assigned or “exhausted” (that’s what happens when someone casts just one preference in a preferential voting system).

My instinct is that Corbyn will clear that 50 per cent mark this time.