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24 September 2021

Are Keir Starmer’s Labour rule changes dead in the water?

The Labour leader will have to pay a heavy price to have any hope of passing his reforms.

By Stephen Bush

Are Keir Starmer’s proposed rule changes dead, alive, or somewhere in between? Today’s meeting of the Trade Union Liaison Organisation (Tulo), the umbrella body that represents all 12 of Labour’s affiliated trade unions, has ended without agreement after what essentially everybody involved agrees was a fraught and difficult meeting for the Labour leadership. It means that the party’s ruling National Executive Committee will not vote on the proposals either way tonight.

Part of the problem is simply that many of the trade unions feel blindsided by the proposed rule changes, even those which are broadly sympathetic to the changes. Added to that, there is a feeling of resentment that while the Labour leadership has improved its stakeholder management in recent months, several trade union leaders still feel as if this improvement doesn’t extend to them. One senior official recently joked that Starmer’s office didn’t know its “Aslef [a small union of train drivers, on the left but a potential swing voter] from its Usdaw [on the right but also with interests of its own]”. 

Added to that, there is still confusion around the negotiating table about how committed the Labour leadership is to the whole of the package. That the leadership has had very few of its media surrogates out defending the most eye-catching of the measures – the return to the old electoral college for leadership elections – means that some stakeholders arrived believing that part of the agenda was essentially just for show. 

One reason why the meeting went badly, one source said, was simply that it still wasn’t clear what in the package of changes was there to be negotiated away and what the leadership was committed to. There is also a strong desire on the part of some trade union leaders to make it clear that the price of not consulting earlier is having to make bigger concessions. 

A further frustration was a feeling in the room that the Labour leadership didn’t have a clear idea what it was willing to give way on, policywise, to get its rule changes. Gary Smith, the general secretary of the GMB and no fan of the Corbynite left, berated Starmer over the party’s energy policy (the GMB is heavily supportive of nuclear power) and the minimum wage (Labour has committed to “at least” £10 an hour, the GMB is campaigning for £15 an hour for care home workers). 

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Does this mean that the changes are dead? No. Talks are very much ongoing and there is a deal to be made: the biggest indication of that is that no one on either side has yet made a significant on-the-record statement.