The ‘Ambiguity’ Explained

July 12, 2016

by Martin Odoni

As I mentioned a few days back, the rules of the Labour leadership contest are not ambiguous, but the ‘Red Tories’ and their allies in the Labour Party are insistent that the rules on nominations have been misinterpreted.

Even as I type, the party’s National Executive Committee is in the midst of heated discussion of how the rules should be understood, and the outcome of these deliberations could be announced at any time. Sadly, my fear is that the decision is liable to be settled on the basis of whether more people on the Committee support Corbyn or oppose him. That will be a corruption of the process, regardless of the outcome.

I do not claim to be impartial in this, but to the best of my ability, I have attempted to form an objective view of what the rules say, as follows; –

What needs identifying chiefly is on what precisely the rebel Labour MPs base their objections. To reiterate the wording of the disputed paragraph in the rulebook – Clause 2 Subsection 2A, sub-clause ii; –

“Where there is no vacancy [at the leader position], 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.” (Bold emphasis mine.)

It appears to be the use of the word any that the rebel MPs are saying can make the rule apply to the incumbent leader. In isolation, that part of the sentence can indeed appear to mean exactly that.

The supposed 'ambiguity' highlighted.

Screenshot from a BBC video explaining the supposed ‘ambiguity’ in the Labour Leadership contest rules.

However, when reading the paragraph in full, we can see that this is in fact a nonsense interpretation. Indeed, it is a classic fallacy. The words any nomination have, in effect, been ‘quote-mined’, i.e presented out of context to make their apparent meaning differ from their actual meaning.

By only focusing on the words any nominaion, the rebel MPs are ignoring the fact that they are preceded by the words In this case. That in itself establishes specific conditions and circumstances would have to apply, thus reducing the scope of the word any. Furthermore, the term, In this case always dictates that the sentence must refer back to conditions itemised in the previous sentence or sentences.

Sure enough, when you follow that reference backwards, you see that the nominations in question are explicitly referred to as being sought by potential challengers. The incumbent, by definition, cannot be a challenger. Indeed, at no point does the rulebook establish that a nomination is the same as a candidacy. Nor should it. Therefore, the word nominations cannot objectively be interpreted as necessarily referring to all forms of possible candidacy. An incumbent leader, so long as he or she wishes to continue the role, is another form of candidacy. There is no restriction on an incumbent leader’s right to stand mentioned anywhere in the book.

It would probably have helped if it had been worded as ‘any such nomination’, to set in stone what was being referred back to, but even without it, it is still quite clear from the context that challengers, and only challengers, are subject to this clause. Even if the wording were genuinely ambiguous, without an explicit reference to the incumbent, an impartial observer would probably still rule in Corbyn’s favour.

The Red Tories’ position is, if not ridiculous, then certainly counter-intuitive. Their stance on sub-clause ii can only be sustained through biased interpretation. That interpretation is entirely possible of course, especially with shameless Blairite-sympathisers like Margaret Beckett on the Committee. But if the NEC does indeed bar Corbyn from standing, the ruling can and will be subject to a legal challenge.


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