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Keir Starmer endured a “car crash” meeting with union chiefs on Friday afternoon in which he failed to drum up support for changes to Labour party rules.
The opposition leader had wanted to rewrite the regulations for his party’s internal elections in a move critics said was an attempt to “gerrymander” future leadership elections to the disadvantage of the left.
But Sir Keir looked set to lose his first major conference battle after catastrophically misjudging the level of opposition to the move – which would have ended “one member, one vote” and brought in an electoral college system whereby MPs and unions would hold most of the power.
If all had gone to plan, Sir Keir would have won support for the change at the meeting on Friday afternoon before taking the proposal to the party’s national executive committee (NEC) in the evening for approval – and then on to conference next week.
But after union leaders panned his proposals for a second time this week, Labour sources admitted on Friday evening that the proposals would not be brought to the NEC meeting.
Allies of Sir Keir are now thought to be trying to negotiate a “face-saving” rule change that would give the leadership a desperately needed win to restore its authority – and potentially still dilute the power of the left.
But Sir Keir’s critics from within the party celebrated the apparent death of the electoral college plan.
“Starmer’s attack on democracy is floundering,” said Gaya Sriskanthan, co-chair of left-wing campaign group Momentum.
“This delay has been won by the grassroots members who have taken action to organise their delegates, lobby their unions, and mobilise ahead of conference.
“But it’s not over yet. We have to keep up the pressure to make sure this rule change, and all the other regressive changes concocted by the leadership, get comprehensively rejected.”
The NEC will meet again on Saturday morning, and Sir Keir’s allies hope they will have agreed something concrete with union chiefs in advance that they can bring to conference.
Sources say the meeting with the trade unionists on Friday afternoon was characterised by even those who are normally allies of Sir Keir giving the leader a hard time over the policy.
As was the case earlier in the week, some unions were openly hostile to the proposals, with even moderates unconvinced.
Before Friday’s meeting, Unison, the country’s biggest union, appeared to set itself against the plan after a majority of members on its Labour Link committee, which governs its relationship with the party, released a statement saying they opposed the change.
Sir Keir ordinarily has a majority on the party’s NEC as long as he has support from moderate-led trade unions, but he failed to win their support for the proposals on this occasion.
A return to the electoral college has little support in Labour ranks outside its Blairite right wing, which would benefit from such a change because it has minority support within the membership but a major caucus among MPs in the parliamentary party.