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Sir Keir Starmer’s efforts to change Labour’s leadership rules have run into an early setback after failing to secure union support.
The Labour leader has set out plans to end the one member, one vote system which elected Jeremy Corbyn and replace it with a return to an electoral college which would give MPs and unions a greater say.
He presented his proposals to Labour’s affiliated unions on Wednesday but sources said they were opposed to putting the measures to the party’s conference which starts on Saturday.
Unions are understood to want more time to consult their members and Sir Keir said he would come back to them in the next few days.
The Labour leader had favoured a system where MPs, unions and ordinary members would each have a third of the vote in any leadership election.
"Why are we talking about rules changes in Labour in a crisis. They should focus on the issues that are facing workers and communities and how they can affect change." @UniteSharon #MembersGS pic.twitter.com/49JpFhpM0W
— Unite the union: join a union (@unitetheunion) September 21, 2021
Following the meeting a joint statement from Labour and Mick Whelan, chairman of the trade union and Labour Party liaison organisation (Tulo) said: “Keir Starmer and Labour’s affiliated trade union leaders had a positive meeting this afternoon to discuss the rule changes that the Labour leader would like to bring to conference in Brighton.
“There was broad consensus on the need to refocus the Labour party on the country and concerns of working people.
“Discussions will continue.”
In a separate statement, Sir Keir reiterated that his proposals, which he believes would “strengthen” his party’s ability to win the next election, were “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,” he added.
The move to reduce the weight of members’ votes sparked fury on the Labour left, with warnings of a new “civil war” from the Momentum campaign group.
Despite attempts to present it as increasing the unions’ voice, Sir Keir has faced resistance from senior figures including Unite general secretary Sharon Graham.
There is frustration on the Opposition backbenches as well over the move, with former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, a Corbyn ally, backing calls for a Labour leadership election if Sir Keir pushes through with the reforms.
He told the Northern Agenda podcast: “If Keir wants to plough ahead, in all honesty I think he should go back to the people who elected him in the first place and say look, this is what I want and I didn’t tell you.
“So yes, that does mean a leadership election, why not? If he feels so strongly about this.”
A Labour spokesman said the planned reforms were about turning the party’s focus “outwards”.
Asked how the proposals could help win a general election, the spokesman said: “What it is about is changing the culture within the party so we are in a situation where we are making sure that, whether it is on the policy measures we have, whether it is on trigger ballots for MPs or on how we elect our leader, that we are in a situation where the focus ensures we are facing outwards rather than inwards.”
The spokesman denied it would “overshadow” events at the party’s conference in Brighton.