Keir Starmer still ‘in discussions’ on Labour leadership rule changes

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

Keir Starmer is in “discussions” about whether to press ahead with radical changes to the way Labour elects its leaders, after pulling plans to put the proposals to a vote at the party’s ruling national executive committee (NEC).

The Labour leader had been expected to push the package of reforms at a meeting on Friday evening. But after he addressed sceptical union leaders on Friday afternoon, Starmer’s office said they would not be tabled.

Instead, they suggested, discussions were ongoing. Trade union sources said Starmer had made an emollient speech to TULO, the group that represents the Labour-supporting unions – but that none of the unions present had backed the plans.

One source suggested Starmer had received a “mauling” for announcing the plans to drop the one-member-one-votesystem to elect the party leader without consulting unions in advance.

Starmer now faces a tough decision about whether to press ahead in the face of union opposition, water down the proposals, or pull them altogether, rather than risk a humiliating defeat in Brighton, where the party’s conference will open on Saturday.

It emerged on Friday that Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, had added her voice to those in the party who oppose the idea of overshadowing conference with a wrangle over rule changes.

Rayner, the shadow secretary of state for the future of work as well as Starmer’s number two, has privately made clear that she would like the conference to focus instead on attacking the government and setting out Labour’s offer to the country.

She is understood to be concerned by the timing of the changes and the principle of ditching one member, one vote.

Rayner was the latest senior party figure to question Starmer’s tactics. The battle over the proposals rages just as he prepares to set out what Labour stands for in a keenly awaited party conference speech next Wednesday.

The Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, also questioned the move, telling the Daily Record: “I don’t think it should be our focus. It is certainly not my focus. I’m going to conference to talk about the issues I care about.”

The Labour mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, appeared lukewarm about the changes this week, saying: “It’s not at the fore of my mind.”

Many senior party figures were blindsided when Starmer announced to the shadow cabinet this week that he would like to see a return to an electoral college for choosing his successor, reversing the shift made by Ed Miliband to a one-member-one-vote system.

An electoral college would give one-third of the vote to unions and a third to Labour MPs, with members making up the rest. The backing of the unions helped Miliband clinch the leadership over his brother David in the 2010 contest.

Labour members tend to be more leftwing than MPs, so the move is seen by many on the left as an attempt to avoid a repeat of the 2015 leadership contest, which swept the radical outsider Jeremy Corbyn into the leader’s office.

However, critics claim that Starmer – who has previously stressed the importance of party unity – is being drawn into a factional showdown with the left when he should be challenging Boris Johnson over the cost-of-living crisis.

The NEC is expected to meet again on Saturday and Sunday, and the leadership could decide to table the proposals then. They would then have to come to the conference floor for a vote.

Sarwar’s deputy, Jackie Baillie, is proposing an amendment to the electoral college plan in which MSPs, Welsh assembly members and Labour councillors would be given a vote as well as MPs, to better reflect the makeup of the party’s elected representatives.

As well as changing the leadership rules, Starmer also wants to streamline Labour’s policymaking process, shifting power away from the annual conference, and to make it harder to reselect sitting MPs.

Unite’s new leader, Sharon Graham, has criticised the plans, writing to Labour MPs to urge them to reject the return to an electoral college, calling it “unfair, undemocratic and a backward step”.

Recent Labour conferences have frequently been marred by battles over rule changes, including a failed attempt in 2019 to abolish the deputy leader Tom Watson’s job on the eve of the annual gathering.

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