Owen Smith, the Labour leadership challenger, has backed a proposal to bring back shadow cabinet elections before a debate on the issue when MPs return to parliament.
The MP told BBC News that restoring the system of annual elections to the shadow cabinet – a long-standing party institution until it was abolished by Ed Miliband in 2011 – could help restore unity in the party.
On Monday night, Labour MPs are expected to debate a motion proposed by Clive Betts at the weekly meeting of the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) for shadow cabinet elections to be restored. The proposal is seen as one that would constrain Jeremy Corbyn, who remains leader despite 75% of MPs backing a motion of no confidence in him earlier this summer, because it would stop him packing the shadow cabinet with his supporters, although Betts himself insists he is acting in the interests of party unity and not to oppose Corbyn.
Asked about the plan, Smith said that bringing back shadow cabinet elections was “probably a good idea” and that “getting rid of them was a mistake”.
He continued: “It’s proved to be a way in which the Labour party can remain united in future. So I will be supportive of that. But we need to see whether that comes forward.”
Corbyn and his allies are not keen on a return to full shadow cabinet elections, although they do hope that some of the non-Corbynites who resigned from the shadow cabinet will return if he is re-elected leader, and they have hinted that they might support letting Labour MPs elect at least one shadow cabinet member.
After an expected debate on the proposal at the PLP on Monday, Labour MPs could have a formal ballot on the issue later this week. But for the rule change to come into effect it would then have to be endorsed by Labour’s national executive committee, where Corbyn has a small majority on some issues, and by the party conference.
In an email to Labour MPs explaining his plan, Betts said: “Whatever the result of the leadership election on the 24th September, it is clear that the PLP must take steps to come together …. [Holding shadow cabinet elections] would ensure that the shadow cabinet has the support of backbench Labour MPs and that the entire PLP can become an effective opposition and hold the government to account from a position of unity.”
In his BBC News interview, Smith also dismissed a recent YouGov poll of people voting in the Labour leadership contest giving Corbyn a 24-point lead.
“There’s only been one poll so far, and the only real vote that we had was in the GMB, and the GMB had 40,000-odd people voting – 26,000 of those voted for me, just 17,000 for Jeremy,” he said.
“I think that this is still balanced on a knife edge, and I think lots of people are still to make their mind up. And I’m not being blown off course by that one poll in the Times.”
Earlier, Ed Balls, the former shadow chancellor, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that it had been a “catastrophic mistake” for Miliband to get rid of Labour’s electoral college and to allow registered supporters to vote in leadership contests. The new system helped Corbyn win his overwhelming victory last year.
Balls said he had told Miliband that he was “very worried” about the proposed reform but that he was unable to stop it going ahead. “I didn’t foresee how bad it would be, but I knew enough about Labour history to be worried and the outcome has been much worse than I expected,” he said.