Keir Starmer pushes to scrap ‘one member, one vote’ Labour leadership elections and return power to MPs

The change would likely lock the left out of the party leadership for good

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Tuesday 21 September 2021 19:07
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<p>Starmer intends to put the change to the party at conference</p>

Starmer intends to put the change to the party at conference

Keir Starmer is pushing to scrap Labour's “one member, one vote” approach to party leadership elections and move to an “electoral college” system dominated by MPs – in a move that would likely lock the party's left wing out of power for good.

Labour’s National Executive Committee is expected to hear the plans at a meeting on Friday evening, with the leadership's intention to put the change to the party’s annual conference next week.

Under the system, the vote for leader would be split one third between MPs, one third between unions, and one third between constituency Labour parties – in contrast to now where all party members get a single equal vote.

The change, which critics say is a factional move to permanently disempower opponents of the leadership, would return Labour to a similar system to the one used until 2014, when one member, one vote (Omov) was introduced by Ed Miliband.

Labour MPs, most from from the left of the party, broke ranks on Tuesday to slam the proposal – warning that it would undermine party democracy.

“As a Labour MP, I should have no greater say in leadership elections than other Labour members,” said Rachael Maskell, the shadow culture minister.

“The members are ultimately the party and they should equally elect their leader. Omov is the most democratic system. Let’s respect our members, let’s respect party democracy.”

Veteran left-winger Jon Trickett said on Tuesday night that any such move was “a wrong-headed backwards step which ought to be rejected”. While former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said it was “critical Labour MPs make it clear they reject this proposal and reassert right of members to elect the leader”.

Sir Keir, who has not publicly mentioned wanting to change the Labour party rules before, told a shadow cabinet meeting on Tuesday: “These rules won’t be presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. I am prepared to take suggestions and ideas and have a conversation and to try and build consensus. But the principles are important to me.

“I hope [the trade unions] will support me. I believe these changes are good for their members and they strengthen our link. I know that this is difficult - change always is – but I think these changes are vital for our party’s future.

“I have said I will make the Labour Party the party of working people, I am determined that the Labour party I lead focuses on the country, on the concerns of voters, so we need party reforms that better connect us with working people reorient us toward the voters who can take us to power.”

Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the TSSA transport workers union, said the proposal amounted to factional "gerrymandering".

In a letter to Sir Keir and his general secretary David Evans he said: “Our union will have no hesitation in voting against this gerrymandering if this proposal makes it anywhere near conference floor.”

Callum Bell, vice chair of left-wing caucus Momentum, said the leadership's move was "a new low" for Sir Keir.

“Any attempt to take these rule changes to conference would mark the start of a civil war in the party. Grassroots members will have no choice but to mobilise all our strength to fight back against this bureaucratic attack. Conference will get very messy, very fast – and there is no saying who will come out on top,” he said.

“This marks a new low in Starmer’s leadership. Clearly, all his pledges of unity and left-wing policy made during the leadership campaign were barefaced lies. Starmer holds the membership in contempt. And still, we're six points behind the Tories.” 

No Labour MPs have yet publicly endorsed the plan or made arguments for it, but many moderates privately support it as a way of marginalising their factional opponents. Some commentators have proposed various justifications for removing the vote from members, such as that MPs represent non-member constituents, that members cannot be trusted, or that the party leader needs to be on good terms with MPs.

The party leadership also plans to change the rules to make it harder for party members to challenge unpopular MPs with a “trigger ballot”. Most political parties in the UK have members select their candidate for MPs before the election, but Labour sets a higher bar for challenges to prevent members from ousting MPs and ruining their careers.

Under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership the rules were changed so that an MP could be challenged for the party's nomination if one third of either party branches or affiliate branches in a constituency voted in favour of it. However, the LabourList website reports that the leadership wants to raise this bar to a majority rather than one third.

Sir Keir was elected leader on a left-wing platform aping Jeremy Corbyn's 2017 manifesto, but has quickly shed many of his his campaign promises and appointed Blairites to key positions in the party.

The proposed rule change for electing the party leadership is expected to effectively lock the left out of the leadership in future because the right wing of the Labour Party dominates the parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). The rule change to make it harder to challenge sitting MPs would “double lock” the system so that MPs remained overwhelmingly aligned to the party’s right or centre.

If the rule change is to happen the proposal it must first get through the NEC and conference. Left-wing NEC members say it should be ruled out of order because it was “sprung” on them at the last minute.

Passing the motion would also require the support of moderate-led unions, including Unison, Usdaw and the GMB. Sir Keir set to meet with affiliated trade union leaders tomorrow in order to try and win their support.

It is currently unknown whether the leadership could get the plan through the party’s conference. While the party’s left has still come top in all internal elections since Sir Keir was elected leader, tens of thousands of mostly left-leaning members are thought to have left the party, with more suspended or excluded by the party’s staff ahead of the annual meeting.

The current one member, one vote system was originally introduced on the initiative of Labour’s right-wing to make it harder to elect left-wingers to the leadership, but the system’s original proponents miscalculated their own popularity and ended up with Jeremy Corbyn.

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