Labour pains

With Parliament and the courts in recess, and many people sunning themselves on the beaches, August marks the height of the “silly season” when newspaper editors will print almost anything in order to avoid having blank pages in their publications.

It is usually about this time of year that the Western Telegraph has a splash about the big cat spotted prowling around the Tiers Cross area by someone on their way home from the pub.

But 2016 is different – at least for the national press – because the gap left by the holiday period is being more than adequately filled by the spectacle of the big beasts in the Labour Party tearing at each other’s throats as they seek control of the party.

And the courts are particularly busy as the two sides battle over the interpretation of the party’s rule book.

So far, this legal jousting has gone the way of the Corbynistas, though that could all change when the Court of Appeal rules on the disagreement over who is allowed to vote in the leadership election.

The first dispute arose over whether Mr Corbyn’s participation in the leadership contest required him to obtain the signatures of 51 of his parliamentary colleagues.

The relevant rule states:

“Where there is no vacancy, nominations may be sought by potential challengers each year prior to the annual session of party conference. In this case any nomination must be supported by 20 per cent of the Commons members of the PLP. Nominations not attaining this threshold shall be null and void.”

Opponents of Mr Corbyn claim that this is ambiguous, though, unless the Leader of the party can challenge himself, it is not easy to see why.

When, just prior to the meeting of Labour’s National Executive (NE), Lord Collins, the party’s former general secretary and Corbyn opponent, was interviewed on the Today Programme about this he made three points:

1. He wrote the rules and, therefore, he was best placed to interpret their meaning.

2. When he wrote the rules he intended them to mean that the present leader needed to obtain the support of 20% of the MPs and MEPs.

3. Labour was a democratic party and therefore, if a majority of the National Executive (NE) supported his view, that was it.

Greater contempt for the Rule of Law it is difficult to imagine.

His first point is very similar to that made by the county council’s European Officer when Cllr Jacob Williams questioned whether the provisions in the grants procedure manual were being properly applied in the case of certain well-documented cases in Pembroke Dock.

The email read: “I shall answer your e-mail because as the author of the CPGS Procedure Manual I know better than anyone how it should be interpreted.”

It has long been a principle of statutory interpretation that, providing the wording is clear and does not lead to an absurdity, the courts will not seek to look inside the minds of the legislators when deciding what a rule means.

In the event, the NE rejected Lord Collins’ interpretation of the rule and as Mr Justice Foskett said, when the NE’s ruling was challenged in court, examination of the relevant clauses “reveals a natural and ordinary meaning that seems to me to be entirely clear”.

But it is Lord Collins’ third point that gives most cause for concern because it is the complete antithesis of what it means to live in a democracy under the Rule of Law.

The majority make the rules and can change the rules, but it cannot be the arbiter of what the rules mean, otherwise you have what former Tory Lord Chancellor Lord Hailsham labelled “an elective dictatorship”.

So had the NE ruled that Mr Corbyn did need the support of 20% of the MPs and MEPs it would almost certainly have been overturned by the courts.

However, at the same meeting the NE did make a rule that only members of six months’ standing would have an automatic right to vote in the leadership contest, though anyone who didn’t qualify could join the franchise by paying an extra 25 quid.

Understandably, some of the members who had joined in the previous six months regarded this as a breach of their contractual rights.

Not only was this a unilateral change in the terms of their membership, but it was also retrospective and, not surprisingly, when they took the matter to the High Court, Mr Justice Hickinbottom came down in their favour.

In his written judgement he said: “At the time each of the claimants joined the party, it was the common understanding as reflected in the rule book that, if they joined the party prior to the election process commencing, as new members they would be entitled to vote in any leadership contest.”

The Labour Party has now taken the matter to the Court of Appeal though it is not easy to how how it might reach a different conclusion.

Of course, these problems all stem from Ed Miliband’s crackpot decision to allow members to join for the cut-price sum of £3 – an open invitation to the sort of entryism that has seen the ultra-left take control of the party.

And there is no easy way back because these new members are now the majority and are unlikely to rewrite the rules to allow the Blairites to regain power.

All this raises the interesting question of sovereignty in the Labour Party.

Is the membership sovereign, or is it the MPs?

To my mind it is clearly the membership and if it decides that Mr Corbyn remain as leader the MPs will find themselves in an uncomfortable position.

Do they follow the democratic will of the party members, or do they go off and form another party with policies more to their liking?

Whichever way it goes, this civil war is set to keep the newspaper pundits busy for the next twelve months and more.

Over in America a similar battle has been fought between the supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton.

In the case of both Corbyn and Sanders it is the younger voters who are calling the shots.

The Remain campaign keep telling us that the views of these younger voters should be given special consideration because their future is at stake.

Strange, when it comes to the young’s desire to help build Corbyn’s socialist utopia, this particular line of argument doesn’t seem to appeal to the middle-aged Labour MPs who want to see the back of him.