Keir Starmer’s approval ratings are significantly worse than those of Boris Johnson. Less than a third of Labour’s own voters think he is doing a good job, and more than six in 10 of all voters do not think he seems like a prime minister in waiting. This is a man sinking fast, in desperate need of a life raft. His last real opportunity to offer a compelling vision to a hostile nation arrives at the party’s upcoming conference. So it may seem baffling that Starmer has instead decided to focus on bitter internal party wrangling by reverting to the old rules for electing his successor, which will grant MPs far more say over who becomes the next Labour leader than grassroots party or trade union members.
When he informed his shadow cabinet of the plan to replace the “one member, one vote” rules with an “electoral college” system dominated by MPs, Starmer justified it on the basis that Labour needed to look outwards to potential voters rather than to its members. “If members had been listening to that meeting, they’d have cancelled their direct debits right there and then because what’s the bloody point,” one Labour figure attending the meeting told me. According to multiple sources, the architects of the proposed rule change include Starmer’s former chief of staff, Morgan McSweeney, who ran Liz Kendall’s doomed leadership campaign in 2015; his former political secretary, Jenny Chapman; and political organising manager Matt Pound. They have privately justified the proposed change of rules as a way to prevent a Jeremy Corbyn-style successor.
Starmer’s pitch in the 2020 leadership election was to unify the party. As his former aide Simon Fletcher wrote recently, if the leader had proposed to “return to the MPs’ golden vote” during that election, he would have been “comprehensively defeated”. How much Starmer shares the ideological commitments of his factional operators is unclear. Many Labour MPs and aides are adamant that he is a technocratic lawyer with “no politics”, but there is also a broad consensus he is thin-skinned, as prone to rage over critical leftwing tweets as jibes from Boris Johnson. Some suggest this character trait has been ably exploited. Others think Starmer does not understand the magnitude of what he has agreed to, and that those pushing for this change have taken advantage of the leader’s naivety to introduce new rules that leave him vulnerable to a leadership challenge from the right.
In practice, Starmer is a blunt instrument of the party’s rightest-most edges. MPs on the party’s right remain bedevilled by the same problem that led to the rise of Corbynism in the first place. They have no compelling policies for modern Britain, a defect they failed to rectify during the years they spent in the political wilderness. Instead they are defined purely by their antagonism towards the left.
In the shadow cabinet only Andy McDonald, the shadow secretary of state for employment rights, spoke against the change of rules. He argued that conference was about “presenting a vision to the country and unifying the party behind it, and this will do the exact opposite”. McDonald has spent the summer hammering out an ambitious programme of policies on employment rights with the deputy leader Angela Rayner’s team, while Ed Miliband’s operation has been pushing the leadership to take a more radical stance on the Green New Deal. All this will now be buried under an avalanche of factional spite. This is why Starmer’s new head of strategy, the pollster Deborah Mattinson (herself no leftwinger), argued against the changes, believing they would make conference into a show of internal wrangling.
Traditionally, those on Labour’s right argued that divided parties did not win elections. They portrayed the left of the party as obsessed with gaining control and defined solely by what it opposed. This narrative now seems to define Starmer’s operation. Many of Starmer’s supporters were burned by the experience of the 2015 leadership election – in which Kendall, who was widely regarded as the Arbeid right’s candidate, suffered catastrophic defeat. Some likely believed that Starmer’s competent reputation, combined with promises of party unity and radical domestic policies, was their route back to power. Yet whether on migrants’ rights, raising taxes on the wealthy or maintaining a broad church within the party itself, his tenure has seen these commitments abandoned in practice. Instead of presenting a vision for the country, those pushing to change the leadership election rules seem to believe that defining the party against the left will reap electoral dividends, even though pressing the ultimate nuclear button – suspending the former leader in 2020 – did no such thing.
Several senior Labour figures have been confused by Starmer’s acceptance of the proposals, highlighting the leader’s terrible personal ratings and the fact many Labour MPs have not moved against him purely because they fear the possibility that – under the existing electoral system for deciding the leader – he could be succeeded by someone to his left. The move to an electoral college would neutralise that concern. (Inderdaad, some Labour MPs and aides believe that figures around Starmer are prepared for the possibility he will be succeeded by a figure from the party’s right, such as the Blairite torchbearer Wes Streeting, who has been put forward for numerous broadcast interviews and newspaper profiles.)
Previous attempts to rewrite leadership rules have been consulted on for months, not bounced into existence days before the party conference. Those who are pushing this through are doing so because they fear a general election is imminent in which the leader will lose badly, and they need to control who succeeds him. Union leaders can stop this: while Unite has already expressed its opposition to the change of rules, the other two main unions – Unison and GMB – can rebut the farcical claim that giving MPs a whip hand in determining the next leader restores power to them.
And here is the tragedy. As one MP who formerly supported Starmer said, the sole aim of those around the leader is to “bury the left forever”. In place of a vision for the country is a vacuum filled by the Labour right’s determination to crush the left. The party’s forthcoming conference is set to be a showcase of internal division instead of an opportunity to set out a vision for the nation. For those on the Labour right who believe the leader is already a dead man walking, this is their comfort zone. For Tories planning a snap post-pandemic election, opportunity awaits.