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Labour has previously “tied its own arms behind its back”, Sir Keir Starmer has said, as he admitted the Tories were difficult opponents to pin down in a 12,000 word essay setting the direction of his party.
The Labour leader said his party was consumed by “self-doubt and navel gazing” and pointed to the Tory party’s ability to modernise as an obstacle to him becoming Prime Minister.
Sir Keir on Thursday sets out his plan for Labour after the pandemic, ahead of the first in-person party conference for two years, which begins this weekend.
Accusing his colleagues of focussing on internal issues, Sir Keir wrote in an essay for the Fabian Society that disputes over Tony Blair’s legacy has meant Labour “felt like separate families living under one roof".
“The strength of the Tory party is in no small part due to its ability to shed its skin,” he wrote.
“The Conservatives are not an easy opponent to pin down – and even less so when Labour has tied its own arms behind its back.”
He also called for Labour to embrace a “contribution society” in which businesses and the state worked together - recalling David Cameron’s 2010 Big Society initiative.
“I believe we are living through a time when the individualism that prioritises personal entitlement, moral superiority and self-interest is receding in society’s rear-view mirror,” he wrote.
His essay is a warning shot to Labour members who are criticising him over a plan to change the rules of the party’s leadership elections.
Just 24 hours after announcing plans to abolish the “one member, one vote” (OMOV) system used to elect Labour leaders, Sir Keir admitted on Wednesday he may water down his proposals or delay them.
Left-wing MPs have suggested Sir Keir should make the rule changes a confidence issue, and trigger a leadership election if he wishes to continue with them.
Several of the most powerful trade unions including Unite, Labour’s biggest funder, are opposed to the idea of returning to an “electoral college” - the system used before Ed Miliband’s tenure as party leader.
Sir Keir’s team had hoped reform of the system could be pushed through at this year’s party conference, which begins on Saturday. It is thought that an electoral college would favour moderate candidates and prevent the rise of another hard-Left leader.
The electoral college system gives members, unions and Labour MPs each a third of the votes in a leadership election. Under the current system, every individual person in the Labour movement gets one vote.
Sir Keir’s first in-person Labour conference has been billed by some as a “Kinnock moment” where he will take on Corbynites he believes make the party unelectable.
But several MPs and shadow ministers in Sir Keir's own team oppose the move to abolish OMOV, believing it represents an undemocratic power grab.
John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor of the exchequer, said Sir Keir had attempted a “grubby stitch up” of the conference and suggested Corbynites could push to topple him.
"If (Keir) wants to plough ahead, in all honesty he should go back to the people who elected him in the first place and say: ‘Look, this is what I didn't tell you. This is what I want to do,” he said.
"And yes, that does mean a leadership election. Why not? If he feels so strongly about this."
Sam Tarry, a shadow minister and close ally of Angela Rayner, Sir Keir’s deputy, said: “I cannot support a regressive plan to dilute Labour members’ votes and divide our movement.”
Sir Keir had hoped he would secure the backing of more moderate unions, such as Unison, GMB and Usdaw, for his plans.
But in a meeting of the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation (Tulo) on Wednesday, no unions gave their backing to the plans, while GMB failed to attend.
Tensions could erupt again
Meanwhile, Unite, Labour's biggest union backer, called for the plans to be delayed until after the conference, with insiders claiming on Wednesday night that their calls had been echoed by the other unions present.
The Labour leader himself sought to play down the suggestion he was at odds with the unions, describing his conversation with general secretaries as “positive”.
“I look forward to continuing those conversations through the coming days because the principles are important and we have to look at how we need to change to win again," he said.
"I said yesterday this was never a 'take it or leave it' conversation.
"I am continuing to take suggestions and have discussions about how we do everything we need to in order to make the Labour Party the party of working people again."
It appears increasingly likely that the plans will not be brought forward at next week’s conference.
A final decision on whether the motion will be put to Labour members and the unions will be taken no earlier than Friday.
Allies of Sir Keir on Wednesday night insisted that he had not backed down in the meeting, adding that discussions about taking forward the plans into conference would continue overnight and into Thursday.
One added that figures close to the Labour leader remained determined to settle the matter at conference, suggesting that tensions could erupt again before the weekend.
Meanwhile, Sir Keir was also facing a backlash from moderate MPs on his own wing of the party on Wednesday night, who claimed they had been blindsided by the proposed rule changes.
One criticised the decision to announce the changes without consulting MPs first, telling The Telegraph: "Everyone was caught on the hop by it. A load of people had argued under Ed Miliband that this [moving to one member, one vote] was the right thing to do, and now they're being asked to support going back to the electoral college."
Others expressed their frustration at Sir Keir's failure to attend a scheduled meeting on Wednesday with Labour's parliamentary backbench committee to discuss the proposals.