The shadow chancellor said there was “less of a sense of urgency” around the need to pass an amendment at the party’s autumn conference to allow candidates to stand with the support of fewer MPs, because the nature of the parliamentary party had changed.
But he said there was still a demand for change and signalled a deal could be struck on changing the rules in future, if the issue became a battle when it is debated at the conference in September.
The proposed rule changes, known as the McDonnell amendment, would mean a candidate for the Labour leadership would need the support of 5% rather than the current 15% of MPs and MEPs in order to stand.
Critics believe it would make it easier for McDonnell to succeed his close ally Jeremy Corbyn as leader, after McDonnell was frustrated in his own leadership bids by lack of support among MPs in 2007 and 2010.
However, McDonnell once again firmly ruled out ever running for the leadership and played down the significance of the amendment.
He said: “For propaganda purposes people are calling it the McDonnell amendment, but I’ve distanced myself from it all along: one, I’m never standing for leader of the Labour party, and two, it wasn’t my idea in the first place.
“I think there’s a demand for change in terms of the nomination procedure, and in the usual Labour party way, if it does get pushed by some, there will be a compromise around what’s liveable. But the heat is off really; it’s not as critical for some people as it was in the past.”
Corbyn’s position as party leader has been bolstered by Labour’s election performance and rise in the polls, meaning there is no suggestion there will be another leadership contest for some time unless he decides to stand aside.
McDonnell said: “The nature of the PLP [parliamentary Labour party] has changed, so there’s less of a sense of urgency in that sense. The atmosphere’s changed; people are thinking it’s better to have a range of candidates if there’s a change of leadership at some time in the future, and what’s wrong with that.”
He said he would rather see a big debate at conference over how to get members more involved in policymaking and party democracy.
“Rather than battles at Labour party conference over detailed constitutional amendments, it’s more important to get this year a real discussion about how this party becomes a social movement. How do we use that fantastic resource of those members?” he said.
McDonnell is also turning his attention to the prospect of parliamentary battles this autumn, pledging to make life difficult for the Conservatives in the Commons after winning a “majoritarian position” on issues such as scrapping the public sector pay cap.
He said Labour’s tactic over the coming months would be to “divide them as much as we can, force the agenda about all those issues and then use the parliamentary system to expose their position and force as many votes as we possibly can.”
“We’re working on the basis that the government could collapse at any time,” McDonnell said. “What we’ve got to do is everything we possibly can to divide and demoralise them, and push that collapse, because that’s coming. But do that in a way that demonstrates that we are an alternative government, ready to go in.”
The prospect of disputes over Brexit when parliament returns hangs over both the Conservatives and Labour, as some MPs from both parties will make an effort to keep the UK in the single market and customs union when they debate the EU withdrawal bill.
But McDonnell urged his party to step back from arguments about which particular EU institutions Britain would remain a member of in 2019, and instead think about the practical benefits they wanted the new relationship with the EU27 to deliver.
“The problem is, it’s become theological,” he said. “Literally whatever I say, I either get condemned as a hard Brexiteer, if I’ve stated an obvious fact, or I then get condemned for selling out the referendum. It’s become theological. It’s like angels on the head of a pin.
“The bottom line for me is the new relationship we have with Europe should be designed on the basis that we can implement our manifesto.”
Corbyn continued his tour of marginal constituencies on Friday, stopping at a project designed to reduce food waste in Morecambe, Lancashire. He praised the volunteers for saving in-date and good-to-eat food that had been destined for landfill because of over-production or labelling errors, saying: “How do the supermarkets justify why they throw stuff away? I can see no reason whatsoever with this.”
On Friday evening, Corbyn addressed a large crowd in Southport along with former deputy prime minister John Prescott.
Asked about reports that the Labour mayors Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham would be denied speaking slots at the party conference, Corbyn did not guarantee them a place on the platform but said: “We haven’t even decided who’s speaking at conference yet.”
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