Keir Starmer's Labour reform plans will expose not just his politics, but his competence

When Keir Starmer held his crunch meeting on his Labour reform plans, the distance between him and the trade union bosses wasn’t just because everyone was on Zoom. While there was no rancour, there was something a little more worrying: a united front from disparate unions, all agreed that this year’s conference was too soon for big changes.

The more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone of even friendly union general secretaries in Usdaw, Community and Unison made plain their discomfort at being bounced into long-lasting constitutional reforms. Shrewdly, Unite had picked up on the unease and proposed that more time was needed for momentous changes like a return to an electoral college for leadership elections.

In the week before the annual conference, the union meeting normally seeks consensus. Crucially, general secretaries are acutely aware of the huge power they have (50 per cent of the votes at conference, with 50 per cent for party members) over constitutional changes. When some in Jeremy Corbyn’s team pushed for mandatory reselection of sitting MPs in 2018, even the usually supportive Len McCluskey joined other union chiefs in coming up with a compromise instead.

This time, some unions were more concerned with practicalities, such as the sheer financial costs and practical difficulties they might be faced with if two million of their members were given ballot papers. And even unions friendly to Starmer worried that they were being lined up for the backlash if they supported the reform. “Why should they take the hit for Keir?” one insider said. “Unions are furious they’ve been put in this position,” another added. “It’s dead in the water, at least for this year’s conference.”

Crucial to any success would be Britain’s biggest union, Unison. General secretary Christine McAnea is already under pressure from her Left-dominated national executive, which is furious at being denied attempts to call for the reinstatement of Corbyn as a Labour MP. Unison’s LabourLink Committee elections are ongoing and won’t be resolved until October, with both Left and right claiming they could tip the balance of power.

What spooked several involved was the lack of spadework to square off big unions privately before Starmer went public with his dramatic proposals this week. Allies of the leader say, somewhat mysteriously, that there were good “logistical” reasons of internal union politics that prevented that pitch-rolling. But many on the soft left, including MPs, saw it as just inept machine management.

One senior party insider said Starmer had allowed himself to be manipulated by the hardline former Blairites around him. “It’s not just factional, it’s damaging to Keir. He has no politics and this proves it.” Supporters of the leader counter that he made his own mind up about ending the one-member, one-vote system. “If anyone thinks Keir is malleable, they’re mistaken,” said one.

Given the unease, Starmer could park the electoral college plan, hold a special conference in a few weeks’ time and focus instead on easier wins in Brighton. Unions appear to be more on board with moves that make it harder to trigger the deselection of sitting MPs and reducing the number of motions discussed at conference.

Backers of the reforms say that even a special conference could still pass the reforms. Only smaller unions like the CWU, FBU and TSSA outright opposed the plans on the Zoom call. The downside of delay is that Starmer would face both the humiliation of not getting his way at his first in-person annual conference, as well as weeks more distraction as local parties and unions were forced to pick a side.

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Some party staff point out that Starmer’s new director of strategy Deborah Mattinson’s very first presentation to the leader’s office focused heavily on the feedback from voters that Labour had to stop talking to itself and had to look outwards to the public. Starmer himself has spent weeks repeating his message that he wants to turn Labour “inside out”.

One backer of the electoral college idea claimed that it would send a strong message to floating voters that there will “never again be a danger of a Corbyn taking over”. Others claim leftwing party members’ concerns are divorced from mainstream concerns of the voters. “In recent years, we’ve had the spectacle of Labour members waving Palestine flags at conference. The public might wonder why they aren’t waving union jacks instead,” one said.

Critics of the plan felt its biggest error was in exposing Starmer’s political inexperience. “He risks looking weak and humiliated at precisely the moment he should be attacking the Tories, and when we are all united around the cost of living crisis,” one MP said. 

But others say Starmer has to follow through, rather than delay. “Are GMB, Usdaw and Unison really going to tell the leader of the Labour party that he can’t carry out the reforms to the Labour party he wants? Especially when he’s offering them more power as unions, not less?” Starmer could still roll the dice and push his plan at a meeting of Labour’s ruling national executive on Friday night.

There is another bigger danger, however. Giving MPs more power over choosing their leader could tempt the right of the party into actually replacing Starmer himself, especially if they see him as a “lame duck” incapable of winning the next election. “Keir should remember that in politics you often have to be careful what you wish for,” one former minister tells me.

After more than a year of being accused of failing to define himself and his party, the next few days will certainly tell us more about what kind of leader Starmer is. How he responds to union unease over his biggest reform may tell the public more even about him than the 14,000 word essay he’s publishing overnight.

Starmer’s big play at the next election will be competence, attacking Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic, public services and the cost of living. If he bungles his party reform plan, just like he botched his shadow cabinet reshuffle earlier this year, a reputation for Ed Miliband-esque haplessness could start to stick.

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