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21 September 2021updated 22 Sep 2021 12:43pm

Keir Starmer’s proposed rule changes are a power grab by the Parliamentary Labour Party

The potential return of the electoral college for leadership elections is a distraction from a far bigger prize.

By Stephen Bush

Keir Starmer is putting together a controversial package of measures to rewrite Labour’s rulebook, bringing back the old electoral college to elect the leader, tightening the trigger ballot system to make it harder to deselect Labour MPs, and cutting the overall number of motions debated on the floor of Labour Party conference. Taken together, they represent a significant attempt to reassert the power of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the trade unions within Labour’s rulebook at the expense of the lay membership.

The proposed changes to the electoral college will surely be the most discussed, in part because they are the changes that will be the most embarrassing for their advocates. One of the few reliable rules in this ever-changing world we live in is that, if you wait long enough, every available position in Labour politics is occupied by every available faction, and many members of Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet are on the record opposing the electoral college as a democratic outrage.

Although several trade union leaders are privately of the view that the abolition of the electoral college is a long-term disaster for unions, that scrapping it is currently identified with the party’s right means that it is a big political sacrifice for them to back it and that, consequently, it is unlikely to happen. But what it also does is draw the heat away from what is surely a bigger prize for the Parliamentary Labour Party and the unions: the changes to parliamentary selection rules and the moves to limit what is debated on the conference floor.

The benefit to Labour MPs in making it harder for their members to deselect them are obvious, but tightening the rules would also benefit the unions. Before Jeremy Corbyn’s rule changes, for a Labour MP to be deselected, they had to do a number of things. They had to alienate their own membership to the point a majority emerged in their local parties both to trigger a full selection battle and to elect an alternative candidate, and as the last set of selections showed, when both Margaret Hodge and Diana Johnson lost their trigger ballots but won the ensuing selection, one doesn’t necessarily follow the other. They also had to make an enemy of the trade unions, who could protect MPs from the wrath of their members if they so desired. 

We can see the consequence of this playing out most obviously in Labour’s internal debates over airport expansion, in which, broadly, most of the major unions are in favour of airport expansion and most of the activist base is opposed. If you’re a Labour MP at present, your interests are much better served by going along with your party members than the unions. 

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As far as Starmer’s political project is concerned, it’s surely freeing up his MPs to have less to fear from their selection processes that benefit him the most, politically speaking. The voters he is targeting are ones in the towns and suburban areas that have been moving away from Labour since 2005: seats that are both more socially authoritarian and less economically left than the ones Labour continues to hold. His policy positions thus far have been pretty Miliband-esque, and he has said that he wants to make bold announcements: so that means he is almost certainly going to want to, at the least, swerve a lot of “culture war” topics. That is, of course, easier if MPs feel they have less to lose from staying silent on those topics and more to gain by embracing the things Labour is saying about workplace rights and similar topics.  Reducing what gets onto the conference floor, of course, increases the control of those who decide what gets onto the floor in the first place, which again strengthens the parliamentary party and the trade unions at the expense of Labour members.I’m not saying that Starmer will be upset if, somehow, there is a majority on the conference floor to return to the electoral college: I’m just saying that I think the bigger prize for the Labour leadership are the changes to the job security of Labour MPs, and the increased influence of trades unions and MPs at the expense of party members, which are currently not really being discussed and are surely the biggest of the prizes on offer for Starmer.