Does Jeremy Corbyn Need the Support of 51 MPs to be on the Leadership Ballot?

by George_East on July 11, 2016

labour logoBy the end of Wednesday we will have a new Prime Minister, as Theresa May succeeds David Cameron, without challenge. The Tories will to power is once again triumphant – they made the mistake once in 2001, choosing IDS over Ken Clarke – we know now that they won’t make it again. Andrea Leadsom will not be the Conservatives’ Jeremy Corbyn.

Meanwhile Labour’s civil war continues with no sign of imminent resolution and with a formal split seeming more likely by the day. Angela Eagle couldn’t even keep the press at her leadership launch, as the Leadsom withdrawal stole the day’s political news.

Tomorrow Labour’s NEC will meet to determine whether that, now a formal leadership challenge has been made, whether Jeremy Corbyn will need to have the support of 51 MPs or MEPs to be on the ballot paper for leader.   The proponents of this interpretation cite the precedent of Neil Kinnock in 1988, when he was challenged for the leadership by Tony Benn (eagerly supported by Jeremy Corbyn – no cries of ‘traitor’ then you will note).

Although the decision is in truth a highly political one (is it in reality possible to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper without the party going into an even greater meltdown?) it is at base a question of interpretation of the Labour Party’s rules, which the NEC is charged with upholding. It is said that there are two contrary barrister’s opinions: one obtained by the NEC favoring the interpretation that Corbyn requires the nominations like any other candidate. And another obtained by Corbyn, which says that as an incumbent leader he does not.

So let’s take a look at those Rules:

Election of leader and deputy leader

a.The leader and deputy leader shall be elected separately in accordance with rule C below, unless rule E below applies.

b. Nomination

i. In the case of a vacancy for leader or deputy leader, each nomination must be supported by 12.5 per cent of the Commons members of the PLP. Nominations not attaining this threshold shall be null and void.

ii. 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.

iii. Affiliated organisations, the ALC, Young Labour, and CLPs and Labour Members of the European Parliament may also nominate for each of the offices of leader and deputy leader. All nominees must be Commons members of the PLP.

iv. Nominees shall inform the General Secretary in writing of the acceptance or otherwise of their nomination at least two clear weeks before the commencement of the procedures for voting laid out in rule C below. Unless written consent to nomination is received, nominations shall be rendered null and void.

v. Valid nominations shall be printed in the final agenda for party conference, together with the names of the nominating organisations and Commons members of the PLP supporting the nominations. In the case of a vacancy under E below this information shall be included with the documentation circulated with any ballot.

vi. Nominees who do not attend the relevant party conference shall be deemed to have withdrawn their nominations, unless they send to the secretary – on or before the day on which the conference opens – an explanation in writing of their absence satisfactory to the CAC.

This is horribly drafted and far from clear (hence the two conflicting opinions). However, in my view, the better interpretation is that Corbyn does not need to obtain nominations to be on the ballot paper. Rule b (i) applies where there is a vacancy for the leadership. That is clearly not the case here – Corbyn has stubbornly refused to resign. It therefore is not relevant to the situation that the Labour Party finds itself in, save to say that rule b (ii) is clearly designed to distinguish the situation where there is no vacancy: where there is a challenge to an incumbent.

In this case the first sentence makes it clear that each year, ‘potential challengers’ to the leader can seek nominations.   The second sentence states that ‘any nomination’ must be supported by 20% of the Parliamentary Labour Party. However the most natural interpretation of ‘any nomination’ in the second sentence is that it relates back to the first sentence, that is to say it means ‘any nomination of a potential challenger’. This is supported by the words ‘in this case’ at the beginning of the second sentence.   It seems an odd use of the language of ‘nomination’ to use it to cover the incumbent leader when the only nominations permitted to be sought in the first sentence are those of ‘potential challengers’.   It would in effect require a whole new sentence to be read into the language – that if a potential challenger hits the necessary threshold then any candidate requires the nomination of 20% of the PLP.

The best argument that those saying that Corbyn requires support of 20% of the PLP have is that the mechanism under (iv)-(vi) makes little sense unless nominees include the current leader.   This does indeed lend ambiguity to the Rules and certainly the approach of the Court will be to interpret the meaning of (ii) in the light of the Rules as a whole. However it seems to me to do far more violence to the language of the operative Rule (ii), to read it as requiring Corbyn to require the nominations in the light of (iv)-(vi) than to read the use of ‘nominee’ as meaning ‘candidate’ in (iv)-(vi).

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ray_North July 11, 2016 at 7:17 pm

I think you’re right. It seems that this was drafted by those who feared that a ‘right-wing’ incumbent might face a challenge from the left.
Fascinating times. (other adjectives are available)

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Ceri July 12, 2016 at 8:43 am

Thanks for this. As with Jackie North’s election guides it includes important info and analysis which you just don’t find elsewhere.

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