Labour’s party conference comes at a key time for Keir Starmer. It is his first live conference since being elected leader in 2020 and it comes at a time of existential crisis for Boris Johnson and the Conservative government. The predicted bad effects of Brexit are now feeding through with food and fuel shortages. And the proposed cuts in benefits are very unpopular. So why has Keir, instead of firing up conference-goers and landing blows on the Tories, chosen to open conference by picking a fight with his own members about constitutional change?
One explanation is sheer political ineptitude. Because Keir looks like the archetypal white male authority figure, people forget that he had only been an MP for five years when he became leader. And he doesn’t have the background in local authority politics or trade unions that might have helped him acquire some political smarts.
Keir’s most important proposed constitutional change was the reintroduction of an electoral college for electing Labour leaders. The idea was to scrap the current one person, one vote system and create what was, in effect, an MP veto. It didn’t seem to occur to Keir that even not particularly left-wing Labour Party members would object to having power stripped from them in this way. Maybe this was because he was not actually an MP when the system was introduced, and he had not followed the years of ferocious internal debate on the subject. But the worst aspect of his botched attempt to introduce an electoral college was that he did not consult trade unions. Anybody who knew the first thing about the Labour Party would have known this was essential. So predictably, the electoral college idea has sunk without a trace. This is a serious embarrassment for Keir. But he has to pretend that he does not care.
His second tier of constitutional reform was raising the threshold of MP support needed to put someone on the shortlist for leader and make it harder to deselect MPs. Starmer has been more successful with these. But raising the threshold to 20 per cent means that on all the previous leadership shortlists there would have been only one woman (Margaret Beckett) and no black people at all.
I have to declare an interest. In 2010 I ran for the leadership and the new rule would have kept me off the shortlist altogether. No doubt Keir’s right-wing supporters would say that would have been a good thing. But changing the rules to make it more likely that the leadership shortlist will be “pale, male and stale” is scarcely a progressive move.
I disagree entirely with the way Keir has presented these reforms. The argument is that somehow making it harder for them to be deselected will give MPs more time to engage with the public. I know a bit about reselections. I have fought eight general elections as a Labour MP and could have been reselected, and possibly deselected, every time. But my enemies in my local party never bothered with a reselection, because they never thought that they could win. The truth is, the things an MP needs to do to win a local reselection are exactly the same things they need to do to engage successfully with the public. These include actually living in the constituency, being a halfway pleasant person, going out with local members to knock on doors and campaign. So, a reasonably conscientious local MP has nothing to fear from reselection.
Starmer’s new friend Peter Mandelson is ecstatic about the constitutional changes. He says that they are a “triumph” for Starmer. But it is no type of triumph if Starmer’s most important change is dead in the water. And he only won anything at all with union support. So the emerging chasm between Starmer and the still largely left-wing Labour Party membership does not bode well for his future.
Diane Abbott is the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington
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