Keir Starmer won the rule changes he really wanted, while managing to make it look like a defeat. He was forced to abandon the plan to go back to the three-part electoral college for electing future leaders, which looked like a humiliating retreat, but he secured the change that mattered most to him, which was to lift the threat of deselection hanging over his MPs.
The rule change that matters was buried in some complex clauses setting out how a selection battle in a local party can be triggered. To simplify, the trigger was one-third of party branches or one-third of affiliated trade union branches, and will now be half of party branches and half of local trade unions. That is a significant change. The previous rules, as Jonathan Reynolds, shadow work and pensions secretary, told the conference, meant that an MP could have to go through a full reselection even if they had the support of two-thirds of their local party.
Shabana Mahmood, the national campaign coordinator, complained that she had “spent the whole of the summer of 2019 talking to my own Labour Party members about myself” when she should have been talking to the voters about the general election that immediately followed. “I never want a Labour MP diverted in that way again,” she said.
Starmer believes that the change will allow his MPs to turn outwards to face the electorate rather than having to look over their shoulder to their activists – hence his curious-sounding claim to the shadow cabinet last week: “Our rules as they are right now, focus us inwards to spend too much time talking to and about ourselves.” Many of his own supporters were puzzled about this, as he seemed to be proposing to spend the opening days of Labour conference on internal matters, but I am told that the Labour leader regarded a bit of mockery as a small price to pay for getting an important reform through.
The trouble was that it wasn’t just a bit of mockery that he had to endure, but a full headline-grabbing defeat, as he was forced to back down from the return to the electoral college – by the very trade union leaders who would have gained influence on future leadership elections as a result of it.
Which is doubly ironic, because changing the leadership election rules is of no interest to Starmer personally: they will be invoked only when he leaves, either after many years of successful Labour government, or after an election defeat. He didn’t even try to change the rules to make a challenge to his leadership harder. That threshold remains 20 per cent of Labour MPs (currently that means 40 of them) nominating a rival candidate.
So all the fuss and drama is over changes that will have no advantage to him personally. He selflessly sought to change the rules to protect the party from something like a Jeremy Corbyn leadership in future, got pilloried for it, including by many of the people who were supposed to be on his side in the party, and then still managed to get some important changes through.
The rules voted through tonight raise the threshold for nominating a candidate to the same level, 20 per cent of MPs, if there is a leadership vacancy. In 2015 the threshold was 15 per cent, which was low enough to allow Corbyn on to the ballot paper, obtaining 36 nominations at the last moment, when he needed 35 – many of them from MPs who had no intention of voting for him.
That was the rule change that Corbyn’s many supporters in the conference hall didn’t like. One after another they came to the platform to complain that this would give MPs more power – many of them using the same argument, that if the 20 per cent threshold had been in place in previous elections, only one woman would have qualified (Margaret Beckett in 1994) and no ethnic minority candidates. This was usually topped off with the punchline that the last contest would have been between Keir Starmer and Keir Starmer. It is the sort of happy myth of persecution that many Corbynites thrive on. Of course, the rule would have stopped Corbyn in 2015, and everyone knows that this is the point of it, but if the threshold had been different, nominations would have been different and other candidates would have thrived.
Mahmood rejected the argument that the higher threshold would restrict diversity, pointing out that half of the parliamentary Labour Party are now women: “The idea that we as MPs would deliver you a leadership election which is pale, male and stale – you’re having a laugh.” She was blunt: “The last few years have shown that a sufficient base in the parliamentary party is utterly crucial. If you cannot persuade one-fifth of your colleagues to make you a leadership candidate, you will struggle to persuade the people of this country to make you prime minister.”
Starmer didn’t get the full changes that he originally wanted, but what he did get was everything that mattered to him personally, and almost everything that matters to his supporters who seem to be prudently making plans for what should happen if he fails to deliver a Labour government.