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‘Unfair, undemocratic and a backwards step’

Unions and the Labour left condemn Sir Keir's plans to diminish members' voting power in leadership elections

by Our Parliamentary reporter @TrinderMatt

THE Labour left warned of an impending “civil war” in the party today as Sir Keir Starmer put forward plans to hand more power to MPs at the expense of thousands of ordinary members.

Labour MP Zarah Sultana said that proposals to return to an electoral college system were “elitist nonsense,” while transport union TSSA said the attempt at “gerrymandering” was the “sort of thing associated with Victorian-era Tories.”

And despite Sir Keir’s attempts to present the proposals as beneficial to unions, Unite, Labour’s biggest donor, also quickly came out to oppose them.

General secretary Sharon Graham wrote to Labour MPs to decry the “deeply disappointing” plans, branding them “unfair, undemocratic and a backwards step.”

Under the proposals, which would need approval from delegates at the party’s conference in Brighton this weekend, the one-member-one-vote system under which Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader would be abolished.

An electoral college would return instead, with MPs, unions and rank-and-file members likely to get a third of the vote each. One MP’s vote would therefore become equivalent to thousands of ordinary members’ ballots.

Sir Keir has briefed the shadow cabinet on the proposals and will set them out to union leaders on Wednesday.

“Our rules as they are right now focus us inwards to spend too much time talking to and about ourselves, and they weaken the link with our unions,” Sir Keir claimed. 

“These are two things that have got to change if we are serious about winning the next election.”

Sir Keir has also proposed reforms to the reselection process which would make it harder for unions and members to challenge a sitting MP, as well as a shake-up of how policy is made.

“These rules won’t be presented on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis,” he said. “I am prepared to take suggestions and have a conversation to try and build consensus, but the principles are important to me.”

Mr Corbyn warned that reinstating the electoral college would be deeply undemocratic, adding: “It’s time to stop attacking Labour members’ democratic rights and take the fight to the Tories.”

Richard Burgon, secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, likewise warned that the proposals “treat members with contempt and must be rejected as anti-democratic.”

His colleague Jon Trickett said that MPs and members are “all equal and our votes should count for the exact same,” while former shadow chancellor John McDonnell urged critical MPs to make their voices heard.

In a letter to the Labour leader and the party’s general secretary David Evans, the TSSA warned that members “would have no hesitation” in opposing the proposal if it were put to conference.

Momentum vice-chairman Callum Bell said that the situation could turn into “civil war” at this weekend’s gathering.

“Grassroots members will have no choice but to fight back against this bureaucratic attack,” he said. “Conference will get very messy, very fast — and there is no saying who will come out on top.”

The row came after delegates at the TSSA’s annual conference in Birmingham backed a call for members to be consulted on the union’s affiliation with Labour.

Monday’s motion, which was put forward by the union’s London Underground branch, criticised Sir Keir’s failure to properly oppose the Tories’ “corruption, shameless cronyism and blithering incompetence” during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The motion, which was opposed by the union’s executive council but passed with 51 per cent of the vote, was seconded by Euston branch secretary Sarah-Jane McDonough, who warned that the crisis has left workers “on their knees.”

“Workers’ rights are under attack and trade unions are needed more now than ever before, yet the party which claims to represent us has done nothing,” she charged. 

The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union is poised to vote on whether it should sever formal ties with Labour next week over threats to expel the union’s national president Ian Hodson.

Labour has been contacted for comment.

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