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25 September 2021

Keir Starmer has inched closer to passing his party reforms – but at what cost?

The Labour leader has made two big bets. The second is riskier than the first.

By Stephen Bush

Keir Starmer has all but secured agreement on a series of reforms to the Labour Party party rulebook, including the scrapping of the registered supporters scheme, a requirement to have joined the Labour Party prior to a leadership contest to be able to vote in it, an increase in the proportion of MPs’ signatures required for a candidate to make the ballot for the leadership and deputy leadership from 10 per cent to 25 per cent, and a tightening of the rules to make it harder to deselect sitting Labour MPs.  In addition, the number of policy motions brought to the conference floor will be reduced from 20 to 12, while the party will return to putting its manifesto together under something that will look a lot more like the national policy forum and a lot less like the Clause V process that was used in 2017 and 2019.

The measures must still be ratified by the ruling National Executive Committee and party conference, but given that the Labour leader enjoys a comfortable majority on the NEC at present, that is essentially a formality. The support of Unison, the GMB and Usdaw (the first, third and fourth-largest affiliated unions respectively) ought to mean that the measures pass the conference floor given that even a heavy 60-40 defeat among lay members would be enough to pass the proposals.

But measures to restore the electoral college are, in effect, dead, though agreement has also been reached to review how the party elects its leaders, particularly how to better increase the influence of political levy-payers (that is to say, trade union members who pay the political levy to the Labour Party as part of their dues).

Taken together, the measures, if passed, would sharply increase the power of the Parliamentary Labour Party and boost those of the trade union movement at the expense of the lay membership. As I wrote when the reforms were first mooted, the electoral college had, to my eyes, the unmistakable whiff of a negotiating tactic and something of a ploy to distract from the overall package of measures. 

By historical standards, if the measures pass Labour’s ruling NEC, Starmer can consider this a good start to conference: an acrimonious first meting of the Trade Union Liaison Organisation (Tulo, the umbrella organisation that represents all 12 affiliated trades unions) in which even sympathetic general secretaries made loud and well-reported demands of him and criticisms of his policy, followed by an agreement on much of his reforms is a pretty good outcome. 

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But most Labour leaders haven’t had to conduct their fixes in a world of 24-hour media and relentless social media updates. By historical standards, the arm-twisting around Labour’s Brexit policy in 2018 and 2019 was very well done: but it was not perceived as such and it did considerable harm to perceptions of Jeremy Corbyn as a different kind of politician. 

The bet Starmer has made in pursuing internal reforms at this conference is that the crisis in the energy markets and the looming cut to Universal Credit will act as a firebreak, whatever happens: Labour are not going to be the main story in town for very long and it’s likely that they won’t even be the main story in town during the party conference itself. (They weren’t the top story on music radio this morning, which would usually be upsetting to the Labour leadership during conference season but they will take this time as a blessed relief.)  That bet is essentially certain to come off.

But the other bet that the Labour leadership is making is that party’s present way of doing things, which essentially builds in fraught, eleventh-hour deal-making of this kind, doesn’t need wholesale change but simply needs to have a greater share of power given to the trade unions and the Parliamentary Labour Party. Indeed, the reduction in the number of conference motions and the return of an NPF or “Warwick-style” (so named because they were last held at Warwick University) process will mean more, not less, of this kind of behind-the-scenes jockeying. What Starmer is betting is that voters will care about the outcome, not the process, and that retaining and increasing the parts of Labour’s rulebook that lead to fraught negotiations of this kind are a good trade-off for freeing MPs to worry less about what their internal party structures are. That bet looks to be altogether more risky. 

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