Labour conference: ‘Discontent in party’, left-wing MPs say, as Starmer targets rule changes

Labour leader appears to have fallen into ‘a strange rabbithole’, MP says

Lamiat Sabin
Saturday 25 September 2021 14:09
<p>Sir Keir Starmer [L] is seeking to change leadership rules that saw the election of his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn [R] as Labour leader </p>

Sir Keir Starmer [L] is seeking to change leadership rules that saw the election of his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn [R] as Labour leader

MPs have claimed those on Labour’s left are “afraid to say anything”, as internal tensions threaten to overshadow the party conference in Brighton.

Senior left-wing figures within the party have told The Independent some members are concerned over Sir Keir Starmer’s attempts to rewrite leadership contest rules and criticised disciplinary procedures.

Ian Lavery MP said that some members, councillors, and MPs – overwhelmingly supporters of former leader Jeremy Corbyn – are being silenced by letters the party sends out after it deems them to have broken its rules.

He said: “For the first time I can remember, people are worried about what they can talk about – genuinely afraid to say anything.”

Earlier this month, Jarrow MP Kate Osborne received a “notice of investigation” from Labour’s Governance and legal Unit (GLU). She said that the party, in the letter, made “serious allegations of breach of the Party rules”.

A statement on her Twitter also says: “The charges were completely baseless. The evidence relied on made no sense.

“There never was anything that was a breach of the rules. I was told I could not discuss the matter with anyone – except the Samaritans.

“Shortly after the legal letter [from her solicitor] the Party withdrew the investigation claiming it was an ‘administrative error’ and apologised for the mistake and the distress it had caused me”.

Jess Barnard, chair of Young Labour, was sent a similar letter a week after Ms Osborne – over tweets she had posted. After complaints, the GLU rescinded the complaint against her that it said was “issued in error.”

Wansbeck MP and former Labour chair Mr Lavery fears that the party would lose more members after up to 150,000 members have resigned or been expelled.

He said the number is an “immense loss” and that the party appears to be going through “an identity crisis” since Mr Corbyn was succeeded by Sir Keir as Labour leader.

Mr Lavery added that the party is “absolutely rudderless” as voters and members are “less aware of who [Sir Keir] is and what he stands for”.

He said: “People thought he would be a safe pair of hands ... but he is Her Majesty’s Opposition in name only.”

A senior Labour source told The Independent that there has been a “degree of tension” before conference started, including among members who voted for Sir Keir to lead the party.

The MP spoke out as Sir Keir was preparing to submit a raft of rule changes to a National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting on day one of the annual conference.

One of the new plans - Sir Keir’s scheme to replace the one member one vote (OMOV) system with the electoral college - was abandoned at the eleventh-hour.

The idea has been branded as “backwards” by critics, as it sought to undo mechanisms put into place by former leader Ed Miliband that allowed Mr Corbyn to succeed him in 2015 with the help of registered supporters.

“My understanding is the electoral college is not coming to the NEC”, deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said.

Other proposed rules set to be debated and voted on by the NEC include raising trigger ballot threshold to 50 per cent, increasing the number of nominations needed to become a leadership candidate, the scrapping of registered supporters, as well as the proposal to cut the number of conference motions.

The anonymous MP, a Corbyn ally, said that “there is a lot of discontent” over Sir Keir’s plans and described them as “backwards top-down elitist reform”.

He accused Sir Keir of seeking to split the party, after having promised when he first became leader to be a uniting force.

He said: “There’s extreme irritation among people who voted for Keir – he’s testing their loyalty.

“Why have these new rules emerged at this stage? Why are we not targeting the government?

“People are quite stressed about this. He has betrayed them. He promised to unite the party, but this is not unifying.”

Former shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said that Sir Keir appears to have fallen down a “strange rabbithole”.

He said that the Labour leader’s focus on rule changes is “troubling” at a time when the UK is battling with the effects of the Covid pandemic, Brexit, and government policies such as a proposed reduction in benefits.

The Leeds East MP added: “This makes Labour look irrelevant and out of touch.”

“His focus on internal arcane rule-wrangling and waging battles against party members is at odds with the realities that people face day-to-day.

“It makes him look politically small. People want big ideas and solutions to their problems.”

The MPs – who are members of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs – have also said that there has been “no movement whatsoever” on whether Mr Corbyn will have the whip reinstated.

In 2020, the Islington North MP was suspended from the party after 54 years of membership and nearly five years as Labour leader. He was then unsuspended, but had the whip withdrawn.

Mr Corbyn wrote on Twitter on the first day of the conference: “At Conference, I hope to hear how Labour will bring in a wealth tax to fund a National Care Service like the NHS, take the radical action needed to decarbonise by 2030, stand against the drumbeat of a new Cold War, and rein in the runaway wealth and power of a tiny elite.

“I know our trade unions and members have developed these policies.

“But the signs are that the leadership wants to shut down debate, sideline members and trade unions with the end result that Labour props up rather than challenges our broken political and economic system.”

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