Keir Starmer is facing the prospect of defeat or a humilitating U-turn over his plans to change Labour leadership election rules, after he failed to secure the backing of trade unions at a crucial meeting.
A rejection or backtrack over the controversial plans would be a major blow to Sir Keir’s authority ahead of his first in-person party conference as leader, which is due to kick off in Brighton at the weekend. Critics have even raised the possiblity of a fresh leadership election if he presses ahead with the proposals.
The Labour leader met with union chiefs at the party's trade union liaison committee on Wednesday, and was hoping to secure their votes for the changes on Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) and at conference next week.
But The Independent understands that all unions in the room were either hesitant or outright opposed to the rule change, leaving Sir Keir with the choice of either shelving the changes or pressing ahead and potentially losing the vote.
Under the proposals, outlined yesterday, Labour would ditch the system of ‘one member, one vote’ introduced by Ed Miliband in 2014 – under which both Sir Keir himself and his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn were elected.
Instead, the party would move back to an electoral college system, in which Labour MPs’ 199 votes would hold as much weight as the party’s entire 430,000-strong membership.
Critics say the move amounts to “gerrymandering” and a factional ploy to lock the party’s left out of power by concentrating power in the hands of MPs, but Sir Keir’s allies say MPs’ votes should count for more than those of ordinary members.
Yet sources present at the meeting say Sir Keir failed even to secure cast-iron support from moderate-led unions such as USDAW and Community, traditional allies of the Labour right, whose votes he would need in order to pass the changes.
One key union, the GMB, did not attend the gathering, though its position is still undecided. The Independent understands that its general secretary, Gary Smith, could not attend as he already had plans to meet with members in Yorkshire. One GMB source said: “He is very members-first.”
Some union chiefs are said to be particularly nonplussed at having the rule change sprung on them at the last minute, while one source on the Labour left described the electoral college plan as “dead” following the meeting, despite assurances from the leader’s office and unions that discussions would continue.
Labour’s former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, a key figure on the party’s left wing, said Sir Keir should hold a leadership contest over the proposals if he wanted them to go ahead.
“If he wants to plough ahead, in all honesty he should go back to the people who elected him in the first place and say, look, this is what I didn’t tell you. This is what I want to do.
“And yes, that does mean a leadership election... why not? If he feels so strongly about this,” said Mr McDonnell, speaking on the Northern Agenda podcast.
In a joint statement, the Labour Party and Aslef’s Mick Whelan, the chair of the committee, said: “Keir Starmer and Labour’s affiliated trade union leaders had a positive meeting this afternoon to discuss the rule changes that the Labour leader would like to bring to conference in Brighton.
“There was broad consensus on the need to refocus the Labour party on the country and concerns of working people. Discussions will continue.”
Sir Keir’s plans to strip members of equal votes in leadership elections have been fiercely opposed by MPs on the party’s left wing, with veteran MP Jon Trickett saying on Tuesday that any such move was “a wrong-headed backwards step which ought to be rejected”.
To pass, the proposals would need to be approved by the NEC at a scheduled meeting on Friday evening. Sir Keir ordinarily has a majority on the committee for most business, but relies on the support of moderate-led unions, who are not convinced of the plan.
If the plan makes it through the NEC it will then be considered by the party conference, where the outcome is more uncertain as much would depend on the balance of forces among delegates, whose allegiances are not always obvious.
Issuing his own statement after the meeting, Sir Keir said: “Today’s TULO meeting was a welcome opportunity to set out some of the rule changes I believe will strengthen our party, our link with the unions and our ability to win the next election.
“We had a positive conversation and I look forward to continuing those conversations through the coming days, because the principles are important and we have to look at how we need to change to win again.
“I said yesterday this was never a ‘take it or leave it’ conversation. I am continuing to take suggestions and have discussions about how we do everything we need to in order to make the Labour Party the party of working people again.”
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