Labor members have signed on to rule changes proposed by Keir Starmer to give MPs more influence over the leadership election, but the new rules were adopted after the Unison union gave its last-minute backing.
The narrow conference victory ended a difficult week for Starmer, in which he was repeatedly forced to water down his proposals, although his allies said he was delighted with the end result – 53% in his favor – which he says will draw a line in internal party debates.
The changes will double the threshold for MP nominations needed by candidates for future leadership elections, which the left says will ensure a less diverse shortlist. It will also be more difficult for members to deselect MPs.
Ahead of the vote, shadow cabinet ministers were dispatched to pressure members and unionists with rumors that Starmer could lose him. But with hours to go, Unison delegates chose to support the changes, giving it an almost certain victory.
However, the debate in the conference room, watched by Starmer from the stage, was dominated by criticism of the Labor leader and the proposals. Dave Ward, general secretary of the CWU, said the conference was “misled” by the rule changes. “We were not consulted, which I believe was informed. We think we’ve bounced back and even at this late stage I think Keir should give it some thought. “
One delegate said the changes would have prevented “labor giants” from accessing historic ballots, including Margaret Beckett, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott. “In 2020 we would have faced Keir Starmer or Keir Starmer,” he said.
Another called the changes “a failure of leadership … this is lacking in the people we are here to represent and who are in desperate need of a Labor government”. Another called the changes a “disaster … melting away everything that’s wrong with the party.”
Parallel Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Reynolds stepped onto the podium amid critical speeches to advocate for rule changes – especially those protecting MPs from the challenges of deselection. He said the trigger ballots, which were made considerably easier under Jeremy Corbyn, took a crucial time leading up to the general election. “We are sending MPs to fight the Conservatives with one hand tied behind their back,” he said.
At the end of the debate, MP Shabana Mahmood said rule changes were needed for the party to focus on the debate in the country. “If you cannot persuade a fifth of your colleagues, you will have a hard time persuading the country to make you its prime minister,” she said.
She said the parliamentary party – in which women are now in the majority – would not allow the rule change to present a shortlist of all-white men. “The idea that we will sit idly by and have a future pale, masculine, stale leadership competition, then you laugh,” she said.
Mahmood said changes to end registered supporters who pay to vote for the leadership would end elections biased by non-members. “You are not signing up for a man or a woman, you are signing up for the movement. These changes restore the rightful place and the rights of members, ”she said.
Another key change saw the party approve a new independent complaints process, sparked by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report on anti-Semitism within the party. The watchdog had ordered the party to make the changes.
Prior to the debate, delegates were repeatedly warned against booing or heckling from speakers and flags were banned from the room. However, there was a standing ovation in the room for former MP Ruth Smeeth, a key figure in the Jewish Labor movement, who spoke out in favor of the EHRC changes, saying it would “send a message to the vile racists and bullies who thought our party could be a hotbed for hatred of Jews ”.
Smeeth said she still didn’t feel safe at the party. “This is my 22nd trade union conference, and yet I feel sick about being in Brighton, knowing that I will be the target of even more racist abuse. But I’m here to help keep the promise Keir made when he became a leader.
Margaret Hodge, president of the Jewish Labor Movement, said it was time to turn a corner. “Never again will anti-Jewish racism be able to pollute our party. We can never again become a hostile environment for the Jews. Never again can the complaints process be manipulated, serious complaints being ignored and victims silenced. “
The changes were opposed by the core group Momentum, which said there were serious concerns about the power the secretary-general would have over an independent process.
A Momentum spokesperson said: “The proposals we are voting on today are a misinterpretation of the report. The EHRC report itself described the office of the secretary general as a political body. Therefore, review boards and complaints committees reporting to the Secretary-General cannot, by definition, be independent.
Mahmood, chairman of the disciplinary committee of Labor’s national executive committee, said the rule changes would apply to all forms of discrimination and racism. Mahmood said she had “seen my colleagues in my Labor family be heartbroken for the hatred they saw… it has been a shameful time in our history.
“Today we decisively turn the page and apologize wholeheartedly to our Jewish members and the community at large and we decide that no community will ever see this pain again.”