Keir Starmer stunned even some of his close colleagues earlier this week when he abruptly announced his intention to make a radical overhaul of the way Labor elects its leaders at the party conference in Brighton.
Leaders of the Labor support unions were furious that they had not been consulted in advance, and some members of the shadow cabinet appeared puzzled at the timing of the risky move, just as the government grappled with a winter crisis imminent.
Starmer had repeatedly insisted he wanted Labor to look outward, not inward – after the by-election defeat at Hartlepool in May, he said the party had spent too many time to “talk to each other”.
Yet this week’s conference began with tense negotiations over how his successor will be chosen.
Starmer was fired from a meeting with the unions on Friday without their support for the plans, then forced to turn around late that night and drop his favorite proposal to return to a constituency.
But after hours of negotiations, a reform package was agreed on Saturday that the majority of NEC members could embrace – a plan that included the requirement for future leadership contestants to secure the support of 20% of MPs, against 10% under current rules. .
The phenomenon of a wave of new members swaying the result, like the “three quidders” who swept over the Labor Party to support Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, will also be avoided: members must have joined the party at least six months earlier to take part.
It will also be more difficult to force sitting MPs to face a re-election battle, with the support of 50% of members and affiliates now needed to start the process.
Many around Starmer see this as the most crucial win of the package, although most of the headlines revolve around the changes in leadership.
They argue it will prevent MPs from spending months before the next general election fending off resistance from their own constituency parties. A supportive shadow cabinet member suggested Labor could now have 10 more MPs, had it not been distracted in 2019 by re-election battles.
The reform package was passed on Sunday afternoon after a sustained lobbying effort from the top MPs, including in the conference hall, and Starmer supporters now believe the high-stakes bet with his own party has bearing fruit.
Despite the embarrassment of dropping out of the Electoral College, the proposals have delighted ardent party centrists, who have spent much of the past five years pondering how best to prevent a political aberration like Corbyn from winning again.
Deeply marked by this period, which culminated in a damning report on the handling of complaints of anti-Semitism by the Commission for Equality and Human Rights and the worst electoral defeat since 1935, they consider it essential to remove obstacles so that future candidates jump.
A spokesperson for Starmer said the package “would put us in better contact with workers and redirect us to voters who can bring us to power.”
By pushing for reforms, however, Starmer seems to have definitely ended any lingering feeling that he would seek to act as a bridge between warring factions of Labor. Instead, he seems determined to face and defeat the Corbynite left.
Some senior party officials blame a small group of advisers around him obsessed with preventing the party from falling into the hands of a leftist. But supporters of the plans argue they will help Labor fight for the next general election, leaving next year’s conference free to prepare for the stall of a possible 2023 general election.
A veteran of Corbyn-era battles said Starmer had “done his duty to the institution” of the Labor Party.
But in doing so, he once again pitted one wing of the party against another. NEC members from rival camps fought openly on Twitter on Saturday after the reforms were discussed.
During his leadership campaign, Starmer was able to use the Brexit issue to bridge Labor’s large left-right divide, winning over many former Corbyn fans. But in Brighton this weekend, the party’s deep divisions were clearly visible.