Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has defended his decision to introduce changes to the party’s rules despite a backlash from members and MPs.
Sir Keir told Channel 4 News he made it “absolutely clear” during his campaign to become Labour leader that the party “needed to change” after it was put to him that many members, who supported his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, feel “duped”.
The changes voted through at Labour conference in Brighton this week mean a future leader of the party will have to first gain support from 20% of MPs, up from 10%, to get on the party-wide ballot.
The new rules also make it harder for local constituency parties to deselect sitting MPs, while the rule allowing ‘registered supporters’, who pay a one-off fee to vote in leadership elections, is scrapped.
Sir Keir Starmer (KS): It was a tough decision to change those rules. Lots of people were saying to me here, I can see the case for change, but wouldn’t it be better to delay? I took the view that if there’s a difficult, tough decision to take, then strong leadership requires you to take that decision and to do it now. And we’ve done it.
Gary Gibbon (GG): Could you see the case for change when you were running for the leadership, because you didn’t tell anyone you were going to do this?
KS: I told everybody in the leadership campaign. I ended every rally, every hustings, with the same message. I said, you’ve heard from me, you’ve heard from the other candidates about the wonderful things that we’re going to do. But if we don’t win an election, none of this is going to come to pass.
GG: About 50% of your vote probably came from people who voted for Jeremy Corbyn in the past. You were wooing them and you weren’t telling them you were going to do things like this. And they feel duped.
KS: I made it absolutely clear that we needed to change the party to win a general election.
GG: I’ve been going back through your leadership speeches. I can’t find a speech where you told anyone you were going to do the sort of thing that you just did now. What do you say to those people in there who feel hurt? They supported you, they might be heckling you tomorrow, who feel hurt, they feel that you pulled the wool over their eyes.
KS: I put my proposals to party conference on Sunday, and party conference passed them. Some people don’t like that. That’s what happens when you change. I didn’t change those rules on my own on Sunday. I asked the party to follow me in these proposals and my party and our movement followed me on those proposal. So the position we’ve got to now is not my personal position imposed on the party. The party took a decision on Sunday that it would close the door on anti-Semitism and change and face the future.
GG: The reason I’m asking this is because you make the accusation that Boris Johnson isn’t trustworthy and there are people now in your own party who are saying the same about you. So in the interests of openness, can you say that the reason you’ve changed the rules for the leadership election is to make absolutely sure the door is closed to the possibility of another leader like Jeremy Corbyn turning up? That’s why you’ve done it, isn’t it?
KS: My central aim has been the same throughout these changes, which is to allow our party to face the country. We were spending months and months and months of MPs, in the year we were going to have a general election, spending more time talking to their members because they were scared about getting deselected. We cannot allow that to happen again. I won’t let it happen again. And now I’ve got the changes that allow us to face the country and be in a position to put forward a programme as an alternative government.