The scale of Labour’s attempts to weed out infiltrators will cast further doubts on the integrity of the contest and ramp up claims by Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters that they are victims of a purge.
The extent of the problem, which has dogged the Labour leadership campaign, has been revealed ahead of a crisis meeting on Tuesday when Corbyn’s rivals Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall meet senior party figures in an effort to get a grip on the voting process.
With polls suggesting Corbyn is heading for a runaway victory, Burnham has demanded extra checks on those voting in the contest amid fears that it has been hijacked by Conservative saboteurs.
Burnham has claimed that unless more is done to detect rogue voters, then the outcome could be subjected to a legal challenge.
Yesterday the controversy surrounding the process escalated when the former Labour first minister Lord (Jack) McConnell described the contest as a “shambles”, saying the party had got itself in a “ridiculous situation”.
Across the UK, Labour is undertaking the laborious task of vetting thousands of voting applications from those who are not fully paid-up party members but want to take advantage of new rules to participate in the contest.
Under a system introduced by Ed Miliband in an attempt to increase interest in the party, voting rights have been extended beyond the party membership, which currently stands at around 300,000.
Also allowed to vote are those who have paid a £3 fee to register as a “supporter”, as well as members of affiliated trade unions who have paid the political levy. There are 121,295 registered supporters, who have paid their £3, plus a further 189,703 affiliated members of a union or socialist society.
The race to succeed Miliband has been marred by claims of “entryism”. Corbyn’s rivals fear Conservatives have been registering so they can vote for Corbyn in the hope that the election of the radical left-winger will consign Labour to permanent opposition.
Although the vetting process is not yet complete, Scotland on Sunday understands the early indications are that almost 10 per cent of the 310,000 or so registered and affiliated “supporters” can be shown to be “entryists”.
“Just a week into the process MPs and local parties are sending back between 30 to 50 applications. We estimate the average is around 40 for each of the 650 Commons constituencies,” a senior Labour source told this paper.
“It is a mixture of people who are members of other political parties, including the Conservatives and SNP, who are obviously mischief-making and people who can be shown to be flat-out anti-Labour. As things stand, we are looking at at least 25,000 people and that could rise above 35,000.”
Those involved in the vetting process have been going through lists of voters and at the same time trawling their Twitter and Facebook accounts as well as canvass returns to see if it can be demonstrated that they are not genuine
Labour supporters. Local teams are sending lists of those they believe to be ineligible back to Labour HQ, where they are scrutinised by party staff. The lists are then considered by three members of Labour’s procedures committee.
If the procedures committee agrees the voter should be disqualified, then the individual is informed that his or her vote will not count.
So far around 4,000 people have been told officially they cannot vote, although that number is expected to rise dramatically before the results are announced in just under three weeks’ time on 10 September.
Many within Labour trace the difficulties back to Miliband’s decision to open up the leadership contest to registered voters at a special conference before the general election.
“We were told we were going to win the general election so the need to use the new system would not arise,” said one Labour source.
Speaking to the BBC, McConnell said: “This is a ridiculous situation. I cannot believe that when the initial decision was made in May to open up the membership in this way over the summer, that somebody at a high level in the party or somebody in one of the, at that time, three main campaigns didn’t express some concerns.
“It seems, I think, in many ways to encapsulate what’s wrong with the running of the Labour Party over recent years and why we’re in this mess in the first place. I think at the end of the day we need to be very careful that we don’t allow this issue to overshadow the importance of electing a new leader who has a vision and the right values to take the party and the country forward over the years to come.”
The Labour peer said the party membership should have only been opened up for a few weeks following the general election.
“This is a shambles and this decision to open up the membership over the whole summer should never have been taken,” he said.
But Katy Clark, the former MP for North Ayrshire and Arran and close ally of Corbyn, said she hoped the vote would be respected.
“The right wing of the Labour Party is used to being in control and is used to winning,” she said. “There is something going on with the Corbyn campaign and they don’t really understand it. If individuals feel they have been excluded and that’s the wrong decision, they should query it. Mistakes have been made.”
Labour’s acting leader Harriet Harman insisted the contest was being run rigorously and the result “will stand”. Harman said the election has been run with constant legal advice and all Labour supporters will get a vote.
She said: “Because this is the first time we have operated these new rules for electing a Labour leader we have acted constantly on legal advice, we have taken legal advice every step of the way and I am absolutely certain that no court would decide that we had done anything other than apply the rules in a rigorous, fair, robust and even-handed way,”
“So whoever is elected, they will be legally elected and the result will stand.”