The Labour leader’s allies can put a brave face on the climbdown on the over changes to the party’s rulebook, but it is not the start to conference he would have wanted
On the opening day of Arbeid’s annual conference, the “lines to take” in media interviews issued to its MPs said: “Labour is a party focused on winning the trust of people feeling let down by a government that just isn’t up to it at the moment.”
Yet Labour once again risks looking to the public like a party contemplating its own navel. Keir Starmer has been forced by trade union opposition to beat a retreat over how the party elects its leader in future. He has had the pain of an inward-looking row, without the gain of defeating the left.
Starmer wanted to prevent another hard left victory by replacing the “one member, one vote” system which propelled Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership in 2015, by returning to an electoral college in which MPs, unions and party members each had a third of the votes. But his left-wing critics pronounced the plan “dead” and Starmer will have to settle for some less dramatic tweaks to the voting system. Leadership candidates would need the support of a larger proportion of Labour MPs (up from the current 10 per cent to perhaps 25 persent), which would likely restrict the number of runners to two or three.
The party would scrap the involvement of “registered supporters” who could sign up to get a vote and members would need to have been in the party for at least six months to take part. Another rule change would make it more difficult to oust sitting Labour MPs; half rather than a third of the members and unions in a constituency party would be required to trigger a reselection contest.
Such changes, if approved by the Brighton conference, would strengthen the influence of MPs and make it less likely the party elected a leader like Corbyn with only minority support in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Starmer allies are putting a brave face on it, saying the “significant” changes will ensure the party is never again hijacked by the hard left as it was in 2015. They say his plan was never set in stone. One told me: “Two steps forward, one step back. It doesn’t stop him advancing again.”
But to voters, headlines about a climbdown risk making the Labour leader look weak. The only consolation is that he avoided a humiliating defeat on the conference floor; that would have been noticed by more people than the tactical retreat that became inevitable.
His internal critics are enjoying the taste of schadenfreude. Left-wingers say Starmer tried to follow the Tony Blair playbook and has now shown his true colours, abandoning the promise to unite the party on which he was elected (under the same system as Corbyn. One left-winger said: “He tried to bounce the party on the eve of conference and the unions were not having it. It was naïve.” It is true that Starmer didn’t prepare the ground in advance to ensure he was picking a fight he would win.
Another worrying sign for Starmer is that some senior figures declined to come out in support of his proposals, including his deputy Angela Rayner, the mayors of Greater Manchester and London Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan and Labour’s Scottish leader Anas Sarwar.
Starmer is not going to make much headway as a one-man band; he will need such people to rally behind him because his botched reforms will make it open season for counterattacks from the Corbyn left. Corbyn himself, suspended from the PLP but still a party member, will enjoy a high profile in Brighton.
This setback makes sets the already high bar for Starmer’s closing speech to the conference on Wednesday even more daunting. It is a test he cannot afford to fail.