Keir Starmer has been accused of sparking “civil war” in the Labour Party, as he tried to rewrite the rules by which leaders are elected.
Under the proposal, the one member, one vote (OMOV) system would be replaced with a return to the electoral college made up of the unions and affiliate organisations, MPs and party members.
Sir Keir has briefed the shadow cabinet on his plans and will set them out to trade union leaders on Wednesday ahead of the Labour conference which starts on Saturday.
“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,” Starmer said.
“These are two things that have got to change if we are serious about winning the next election.”
The Labour leader is understood to favour the three parts of the electoral college having an equal share of the vote.
The move to reduce the weight of members’ votes has sparked fury on the Labour left, with warnings of a new “civil war”.
Former leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “Removing the current system of electing Labour’s leader – again reducing the members’ vote to one third while increasing the vote of MPs to one third – would be deeply undemocratic.
“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, said a return to the electoral college system would “treat members with contempt and must be rejected as anti-democratic”.
Frontbencher Rachael Maskell also criticised the plans, saying that as an MP she should have “no greater say” than other party members.
“The members are ultimately the party and they should equally elect their leader.
“OMOV is the most democratic system. Let’s respect our members, let’s respect party democracy.”
‘Principles are important’
The other changes proposed by Sir Keir are reforms of the reselection process and a shake-up of the policy-making process.
“These rules won’t be presented on a take it or leave it basis. I am prepared to take suggestions and ideas, and have a conversation and to try and build consensus. But the principles are important to me,” Sir Keir said.
“I know that this is difficult – change always is – but I think these changes are vital for our party’s future.
“I have said I will make the Labour Party the party of working people, I am determined that the Labour Party I lead focuses on the country, on the concerns of voters, so we need party reforms that better connect us with working people and re-orient us toward the voters who can take us to power.”
Although the changes will be presented to unions as an attempt to bolster their position, Unite – Labour’s biggest donor – is opposed to the move.
Unite’s general secretary Sharon Graham has written to Labour MPs saying the proposal to ditch the OMOV system introduced in 2014 was “deeply disappointing”.
“Unite believes in democracy and this proposal to reduce the entire membership to one third of the vote, while inflating the vote of Labour MPs to one third, is unfair, undemocratic and a backwards step for our party,” she said.
The TSSA transport union is also opposed to the “gerrymandering” move.
In a letter to Sir Keir and Labour general secretary David Evans, TSSA chief Manuel Cortes said: “Planned changes to Labour Party rules which give MPs a golden vote whilst reducing the value of the votes of ordinary Labour Party and affiliated members is the kind of policy associated with Victorian Tories. Such a policy has no place whatsoever in a democratic socialist party.
“Our union will have no hesitation in voting against this gerrymandering if this proposal makes it anywhere near conference floor.”
The Momentum campaign group, which was born out of support for Corbyn’s leadership, also criticised the plan.
Momentum vice-chair Callum Bell said: “Any attempt to take these rule changes to conference would mark the start of a civil war in the party.
“Grassroots members will have no choice but to mobilise all our strength to fight back against this bureaucratic attack. Conference will get very messy, very fast – and there is no saying who will come out on top.”