British court shuts thousands of party members out of key Labour vote

The ruling deepens the split in the party and disenfranchises almost 130,000 new Labour members. That could be bad news for embattled party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP/File
Leader of Britain's Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn speaks at the launch of 'Labour In for Britain', ahead of June's EU referendum, in London, May 10.

Britain's opposition Labour Party has the right to prevent tens of thousands of new members from voting in the party's leadership contest, Britain's Court of Appeal ruled Friday.

The left-of-center party is in turmoil amid an attempt to unseat leader Jeremy Corbyn. The party's more centrist members consider the 67-year-old left-winger ineffective and unelectable.

He is facing a challenge from legislator Owen Smith in a leadership election that will be decided by party members and supporters, with the winner declared next month.

The party executive ruled last month that only members of at least six months' standing could vote in the contest. Five Labour members challenged the decision, and on Monday a judge agreed the party was wrong to disenfranchise people who had joined believing they would be able to vote.

But the party lodged an appeal, and on Friday three judges said the lower-court judge had "erred in law."

Announcing the ruling, judge Jack Beatson said Labour's National Executive Committee "has the power to set the criteria for members to be eligible to vote in the leadership election in the way that they did."

The ruling deepens the split in the party and disenfranchises almost 130,000 new Labour members, many of them thought to support Corbyn, who was elected leader a year ago.

He remains popular among party members. But most Labour lawmakers accuse Corbyn of failing to present a compelling alternative to the Conservative government and of showing half-hearted support for European Union membership during Britain's recent referendum campaign.

The divide between pro- and anti-Corbyn factions has grown bitter, with allegations of bullying on social media and a heated atmosphere at local party meetings.

The party's internal rift was laid bare shortly after Britain's historic vote to leave the European Union, as Fiona Hill, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe told The Christina Science Monitor in June.

'Corbyn has had his mandate taken out from underneath him just like [former Prime Minister David] Cameron has,' she says. 'He's just as much a casualty.'

A longtime critic of what he once described as the 'serious democratic deficit' of the EU, Corbyn channelled the discontent of Labour's Northern England, working-class grass roots into a progressive platform. In 2008, he voted against the Lisbon Treaty, which laid the constitutional groundwork for the union. A year later, he said the project was designed to create 'huge free-market Europe, with ever-limiting powers for national governments.' 

'He was never really accepted by the upper levels of the party membership,' says Ms. Hill. 'He scraped in on a grass-roots ticket. But the grass roots expected him to stick to his guns and reflect their views, so when he opted to campaign for Remain – which was inevitable – he got caught out.'

The latest decision could leave Corbyn further out in the cold.

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