Sir Keir Starmer has been forced to water down his planned overhaul of Labour rules at the opening of the party’s conference in Brighton, as he was accused of an “almost pathological fear of democracy” in pushing for change.
The Labour leader had sought to use the Brighton gathering to alter the rules on how the party elects future leaders, including an abandonment of the system that saw Jeremy Corbyn twice elected to the party’s leadership.
However, amid opposition from trade unions and deep unhappiness from Labour’s left wing, Sir Keir watered down his package of reforms as his first in-person conference as Labour leader was threatened with being overshadowed by more internal party battles.
Sir Keir’s retreat on party rule changes included abandoning his proposal to return to an “electoral college” – made up of unions, affiliate organisations, MPs, and party members – for electing leaders and their deputies.
But Sir Keir did manage to get some reforms accepted by Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) at the start of the Brighton conference on Saturday.
• Increasing the threshold of support (from 10% to 20% of MPs) a leadership hopeful must secure before becoming an official candidate in a leadership contest
• Scrapping the “registered supporters” scheme which allowed people to pay £25 to vote in a Labour leadership election
• Making it harder to current MPs to be de-selected by raising the threshold for triggering a selection contest
Those rule changes approved by the NEC are set to be voted on Labour members in Brighton on Sunday.
And parts of Labour’s left wing have already vowed to continue their opposition to Sir Keir’s proposed reforms.
Mish Rahman, a senior figure from the Momentum group who sits on the NEC, said: “Changing the threshold like this will destroy the right of ordinary people to shape the future of the party.
“If this rule change passes, Labour will be well on its way to becoming the party of the Westminster elite.
“If the 20% threshold applied to the 2020 leadership election it would have been a contest between Sir Keir Starmer QC and Sir Keir Starmer QC.”
And Labour’s former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, a long-time ally of Mr Corbyn, said: “These desperate attempts to restrict the influence of party members demonstrate an almost pathological fear of democracy amongst the Labour leadership and bureaucracy.
“Defeated on their main attack on democracy they now pick away wherever they can.”
As Labour’s factions continued their battle over the party’s rulebook in Brighton, the party’s national campaign coordinator Shabana Mahmood told Mr McDonnell he “ought to know better”.
“Because actually a leader should be able to command the respect of at least one fifth of their colleagues in order to be a functioning political party in parliament, in order to try and become the government of this country,” Ms Mahmood told Sky News.
“If you can’t even persuade your colleagues who you would one day hope to be your ministers, your supporters in your own government, then how can you possibly say to the county ‘make me prime minister’?
“Keir is sending a clear message to the country that we are a serious political party, we are committed to being a functioning force in parliament, we are committed to trying to be the government of this country.
“And I’m afraid to say those who don’t like this package of measures perhaps had other reasons for what they expect a political party to be.
“We are not any one man or one woman’s fan club, we’re a serious political party and under Keir’s leadership we’re going to try and be the government of this country.”
Sir Keir himself said he was “very pleased” that his revised package of reforms had been backed by the NEC.
“These proposals put us in a better position to win the next general election and I hope constituency and trade union delegates will support them when they come to conference floor,” the Labour leader said.
Are Starmer and Rayner a new Labour odd couple?
By Jon Craig, chief political correspondent, in Brighton
Sir Keir Starmer looked a little embarrassed when his deputy, Angela Rayner, paid him a tribute during her barnstorming speech at the start of Labour’s conference.
“What a contrast our leader is to the current prime minister,” she said. “Ours has a lifetime of public service. Theirs a lifetime of self-service.”
Sitting a few feet away, the Labour leader smiled awkwardly. And their hug at the end of her speech looked even more awkward and was rather half-hearted.
The relationship between Labour’s top two is awkward, too. Labour’s odd couple? Maybe. But the party is used to those: Blair-Prescott, Corbyn-Watson.
But has Ms Rayner forgiven Sir Keir for attempting to strip her of many of her responsibilities after Labour’s humiliating by-election defeat in Hartlepool in May? Almost certainly not.
And her support for her leader in the run-up to Labour’s conference and here in Brighton as he attempted to re-write Labour’s rulebook was at best lukewarm and at worst non-existent.
She either had little enthusiasm for his proposed changes or didn’t see why she should lift a finger to help after his treatment of her in May.
The Starmer inner circle will have been annoyed, too, by her glossy photo-shoot and interview in The Times’ Saturday magazine in which she said she’d like a tilt at the Labour leadership one day.
The end result of the turbulent past few days is that without his deputy’s strong and vocal backing for his reforms, Sir Keir was forced into a humiliating retreat and major concessions and has been left looking seriously weakened.
Sir Keir’s first in-person conference is widely viewed as hugely important to the Labour leader’s hopes of shaking off his critics and offering hope that he can lead them to victory at the next general election.
But there were signs some at the conference were unwilling to move on from Sir Keir’s predecessor.
Labour general secretary David Evans faced heckles of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn!” as he asked members from the conference stage why they joined the party.
Yet Mr Evans later won a vote he called himself on his position, suggesting both he and Sir Keir retain the support of a majority of members in Brighton over their efforts to reform Labour’s structures.
Among those who have been touted as a possible replacement for Sir Keir, Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner used a pre-conference newspaper interview to confirm she would be willing to stand as a leadership candidate in the future.
“I think a lot of the time, especially when women get asked this question, we say ‘oh no, no, that’s not what we want’,” she told Sky News.
“And it makes us look like we’re not ambitious. I want every woman in this country to be ambitious.”
In her conference speech on Saturday, Ms Rayner spoke of her ambition to be deputy prime minister in a future Labour government as she unveiled Labour’s plans to boost employment rights.
And she compared the current post-COVID pandemic situation to the post-Second World War choices facing British voters.
“In 1945, the country faced a choice between a Tory government who sought the credit for our shared achievement but longed for the status quo that preceded it, where the state would step back and the market would rule again, where people knew their place and took what they were given,” she said.
“Or a Labour government that would harness the values that saved a nation, and make a country fit for those who had fought for it.
“Our country chose to face that future. Now conference, let us face the future again.”
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