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Starmer looks to future after being forced to water down Labour rules reform

·5 min read

Sir Keir Starmer has suffered a humiliating start to the Labour conference after being forced to water down proposals to the party’s leadership rules.

The Labour leader arrived in Brighton insisting the conference would be a chance to “set out our vision for the future”.

But behind the scenes, a series of key meetings set out opposition from the unions and Labour’s left to proposals which would have increased MPs’ say over the election of a new leader.

A revised set of plans has now been put to the party’s ruling National Executive Committee.

Labour Party Conference 2021
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and deputy leader Angela Rayner arrive at engineering firm Ricardo in Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex, ahead of the Labour Party conference (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Deputy leader Angela Rayner said it was her understanding that the electoral college plan would not be discussed at the NEC meeting, so would not be voted on by delegates at the party conference this weekend.

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether leader Sir Keir’s proposals were likely to be voted on at conference, Ms Rayner added: “Some will, some won’t because that’s the natural rhythm of how conference works.”

Pressed on whether the reforms for how a future leader is elected will be voted on, she replied: “My understanding is that the electoral college is not coming to the NEC, so therefore that wouldn’t.”

Under the original proposal, the one member, one vote (OMOV) system would have been replaced with a return to the electoral college made up of the unions and affiliate organisations, MPs and party members.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said she understood the NEC would not discuss a return of the electoral college (Ian Forsyth/PA)

Sir Keir was understood to favour the three parts of the electoral college having an equal share of the vote, meaning Labour’s 400,000 members would have the same weighting of the vote as the party’s 199 MPs.

Instead, the PA news agency understands those plans have been diluted, although party sources insisted there would still be “significant changes” put forward.

A Labour spokesman said: “Keir said on Tuesday it wasn’t a take it or leave it deal.

“That’s how we’ve approached it and we’re pleased with where we’ve ended up.”

PA understands the leadership rule changes discussed by the NEC included raising the amount of Labour MP support a candidate requires to get on to the leadership ballot from 10% to 25%, and abandoning registered supporter involvement.

Under the proposals, members will also need to have been signed up for six months to be allowed to vote in a future leadership contest.

Sir Keir also wants to make it more difficult to deselect MPs by raising the threshold for triggering a selection contest, with 50% of local branches in the Constituency Labour Party (CLP) and affiliated union and socialist groups needing to back such a move.

Under the current rules, an MP selection race can be ignited if only one-third of CLP branches or affiliated groups is in favour.

Sir Keir sought to put the row behind him as he arrived in Brighton for his first chance to address an in-person party conference as leader.

“We’re all really, really looking forward to this, our first chance to speak to the party in person and set out our vision for the future,” he said,

“We’re obviously in a crucial time for the country and this Government is letting people down so badly, whether it is hammering working people on tax and Universal Credit, whether it is shortages of food and fuel.”

In a statement, left-wing campaign group Momentum vowed to fight against the fresh proposals.

Mish Rahman, a member of the NEC and Momentum’s national co-ordinating group, said: “The central measure of Keir Starmer’s attack on democracy has comprehensively failed. The electoral college is dead.

“Now to make sure all the other regressive rule changes concocted by the leadership share the same fate.”

The reforms are unlikely to be the only controversial issue debated by delegates on the south coast.

Other conference flashpoints for the leader could include rows over Labour’s position on trans rights, commitments on tackling climate change and changes mandated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission after its investigation into anti-Semitism.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (left) during a visit to engineering firm Ricardo in Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex, ahead of the Labour Party conference
Sir Keir Starmer during a visit to engineering firm Ricardo in Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex, ahead of the Labour Party conference (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Of the various motions covering 50 different areas up for discussion, one is on the decriminalisation of drugs, referencing the Portuguese model of seeing addiction as a health issue.

On Thursday, Sir Keir expressed support for a decision to relax drug laws for those found in possession of class A substances in Scotland.

Some 139 local party groups also submitted motions pushing for Labour to support a change to a proportional representation electoral system.

This was backed by pressure group Compass in a report released ahead of the conference.

The conference is a significant moment for Sir Keir’s leadership, with pressure certain to mount if he fails to make a major impression on the public.

Ms Rayner used a Times interview to say that she would be prepared for a run at the party leadership in future: “If I felt that it was the right thing to do for the party and the right thing for the country, then I would step up and do it.”

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