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  1. Labour leadership race
4 February 2020

Keir Starmer has just made his most important campaign announcement yet

The overwhelming favourite for the Labour leadership has hinted at reducing the powers of the NEC.

By George Grylls

All the indicators suggest that Keir Starmer will be the next leader of the Labour Party. Among fellow MPs he was the most popular candidate; he leads on endorsements from affiliates and trade unions; and, most importantly of all, he is far ahead on Constituency Labour Party (CLP) nominations. Currently he has more than double the number of his nearest rival Rebecca Long-Bailey (144 to 63). 

Experienced Labour MPs are now working on the assumption that Starmer will win — with some even predicting that he could achieve a landslide victory with two-thirds of the membership vote in the first-round ballot. The questions they now seem to have moved on to are: does Starmer have the mettle to stamp his authority on the party? And, if so, what sort of party does he then want to lead?

“He’s either Ed Miliband or Neil Kinnock,” says one former supporter of Jess Phillips. “I’m thinking he’s more of an Ed Miliband. I’d like a Neil Kinnock.”

Today, Starmer has done his best to lay out his Kinnockite credentials by turning his attention to the structure of the Labour Party. In among the laudable, though fundamentally vague, commitments to increase accessibility for disabled members and to maximise cooperation between the party and trade unions, he has hidden some specific announcements that will set alarm bells ringing for those on the left of the party.

Of the eight policies, three seek to undermine the influence of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) — on which the party’s left currently has a majority. Firstly, Starmer has proposed ending the ability of the NEC to impose its preferred parliamentary candidates on CLPs; secondly, he wants to force the NEC to publish details of its decisions on the Labour Party website; and thirdly, Starmer will appoint independent bodies to investigate complaints rather than allowing an NEC committee to decide. 

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Read together, these announcements come across as a critique of the Corbyn leadership. They are proposed solutions to the most damning questions Labour has had to face over the past few years. Broadly speaking, these questions are: why were the leadership’s preferred candidates parachuted into safe constituencies? Why was decision-making so opaque? Why did it take so long to expel anti-Semites from the party?

The symbolism of these announcements matters almost as much as the substance. Most MPs sympathetic to Starmer believe that he could shape the NEC in his own image if he so wished. They have calculated that the Corbynite wing of the party currently has a majority on the NEC of around six. If elected, Starmer would be able to replace the three positions allocated to shadow cabinet members with his own three appointments. At a stroke, the majority for the party’s left would be wiped out. And, given his glittering array of affiliate endorsements thus far, it is thought that Starmer could cement his own majority on the NEC with the help of cooperative unions. 

The accuracy of these calculations is up for debate. But, if we do believe the maths, and Starmer does have a good chance of refashioning the NEC, then why has he risked antagonising the party’s left by announcing structural changes during the leadership contest? Well, it is a statement of intent. Starmer is telling parliamentarians — along with the few Labour members who pay attention to Kremlinology — that he is his own man. He is no Miliband. But he is also delivering a coded message to the other party structure perceived to be close to the Corbyn leadership: Labour Party Head Office on Victoria Street.

With these dull announcements on structure, Starmer has provided a major clue about how he views Labour’s direction. Figures on the left might not be best pleased.