Keir Starmer bruised by defeat over leadership rules as Labour conference starts

A badly-bruised Keir Starmer will ask the Labour conference to back a watered-down shake-up of leadership rules, after an embarrassing defeat in his bid to scrap the system that elected Jeremy Corbyn.

The five-day event got off to the worst possible start for the Labour leader, who was forced into a U-turn that dented his authority and created a rift with his own deputy, Angela Rayner.

After the trade unions opposed the change – to return to an electoral college, handing power from members to MPs – diluted proposals will be put to delegates in Brighton on Sunday.

One-member one-vote will survive, but candidates will now need the backing of 20 per cent of MPs to reach the ballot that goes to members, making a left-wing challenge far more difficult.

Under Mr Corbyn’s leadership, the threshold was lowered to 10 per cent – but even 20 per cent is another defeat for Sir Keir, who had pushed for 25 per cent.

Strikingly, Ms Rayner refused to endorse the proposed change ahead of the morning meeting of the ruling National Executive Committee (NEC), as had Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar.

The deputy leader appeared to be furious that her own major announcement to bolster workers’ rights had been eclipsed by yet more Labour infighting over party rules.

Mish Rahman, a Momentum-backed member of the NEC, accused Sir Keir of trying to “destroy the right of ordinary people to shape the future of the party” by handing power to “the Westminster elite”.

“If the 20 per cent threshold applied to the 2020 leadership election, it would have been a contest between Sir Keir Starmer QC and Sir Keir Starmer QC,” he said.

The leader’s pick as party general secretary also suffered a bumpy ride in the conference hall, as he was heckled while discussing why people joined Labour.

When David Evans told delegates “everybody remembers why they joined Labour”, before asking “what was it for you?”, the response from some was shouts of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn!”

A left-wing attempt to oust him failed when his appointment was endorsed, but only by 59 per cent of votes to 41 per cent.

Sir Keir attempted to put a brave face on his setback, after his deal with the unions was endorsed by 22 votes to 12 at the NEC.

The package will also abolish registered supporters, where voters pay a one-off fee to vote in a leadership election, and require six months of membership to take part.

The percentage of local party members whose backing is needed to trigger a reselection battle for an MP will rise from one third to 50 per cent.

“I’m very pleased these party reforms have got the backing of our NEC,” Sir Keir said.

“These proposals put us in a better position to win the next general election and I hope constituency and trade union delegates will support them when they come to conference floor.”

There is certain to be anguished inquest into why the leader chose an internal battle, ahead of what is regarded as a make-or-break conference – the first he has addressed as party leader.

Many are mystified why, needing the unions’ support, he failed to roll the pitch for the changes instead of suddenly unveiling them less than one week ago.

Sir Keir will hope to recover to use the conference to convince the public that Labour has the answers to the cost-of-living crisis that threatens to make the coming months another winter of discontent.

But other flashpoints loom over any backing away from Mr Corbyn’s commitment to faster curbs on carbon emissions and over trans rights, after Canterbury Rosie Duffield said she feared for her safety if she travelled to Brighton.

And the former leader – still suspended from sitting as a Labour MP – will stalk the conference fringe with popular speaking slots at the nearby The World Transformed event.

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