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The plan by the leader of the UK Labour party to take on leftwingers by changing the leadership election rules at next week’s annual conference was hanging in the balance on Wednesday after union leaders urged him to delay the move.
General secretaries from several unions urged Sir Keir Starmer to focus on “bread and butter” issues facing voters rather than become mired in a battle over the party’s internal rule book.
The leader of Britain’s main opposition party is proposing to scrap the one-member-one-vote approach to leadership elections and give MPs a bigger role in the process, a move that would neutralise the “hard left” because most MPs are more centrist than the broader membership.
Allies have described the move as a show of strength, with one saying: It would show we have the guts to take risks. Instead of looking earnest, boring, weak, it would show him as a strong leader.”
Starmer spoke to union leaders on Wednesday to discuss the proposals, which will be formally debated at a meeting of the party’s governing national executive committee on Friday.
One union official who supports the plans admitted that the vote was likely to be “on a knife edge” given misgivings in the movement. “The timing couldn’t be worse, I thought Keir would want to talk about his ambition for Britain, tackling the cost of living crisis, rather than internal machinations.”
Manuel Cortes, leader of the TSSA rail transport union, said that given there was no conference in 2020 this was Starmer’s best opportunity to talk about how a Labour government would change people’s lives.
“At a time when ordinary people are likely to be facing shortages and the biggest squeeze in living standards for a decade, the focus of the Labour party conference should be on proving to the British public how a Labour government will tackle those important issues,” he said. “And now we will be doing navel gazing instead.”
Unison and Usdaw, two of the biggest unions, are so far ambivalent about the proposals, which are supported by the GMB and opposed by Unite.
Sharon Graham, the new leader of Unite, has urged Starmer to focus on worker issues instead. “People will remember that at their conference Labour talked about rules not issues. That’s a huge error for them.”
One member of the shadow cabinet said the proposals showed that Starmer was “up for a fight” and was prepared to change the party permanently. Some Labour aides believe that Unison and Usdaw could end up endorsing the plan despite their lack of public support.
But another senior figure said it was possible that the rule changes might not even make it to Friday’s NEC. “It’s still possible between now and Friday evening that if support ebbs away it could be pulled,” the MP said. Even if it reaches the conference floor in Brighton it would be an “extremely close vote”.
Ed Miliband, the former leader, scrapped the party’s old “election college” system in favour of an entirely democratic approach in 2014. That led to the surprise election of Jeremy Corbyn, a radical leftwinger who had spent decades protesting from the backbenches, to the horror of many MPs. He more than doubled the party’s membership to more than half a million but in 2019 led Labour to one of its biggest election defeats in decades.
Momentum, the pro-Corbyn pressure group, has warned that the rule changes would mark “the start of a civil war” in the party.
The opposing wings of the Labour party will also clash next week as left-wingers seek to oust David Evans, who as general secretary is the most senior official at party headquarters in Victoria. His appointment will be put to a vote that Unite is determined to oppose, citing a programme of voluntary redundancies in the party.
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