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What David Evans Really Thinks – Understanding the Attacks on Labour Party Democracy

“With hundreds of thousands of Labour Party members opposed to the leadership’s attempt to pull the party dramatically to the right, the leadership will feel the need to once again attempt to neuter members’ influence.”

John Stewart, Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP, warns that Labour’s right wing need to further undermine party democracy if they are to succeed in their assault against the party’s left.

It’s sometimes helpful for understanding what the people who have now taken control of the Labour Party really think, by looking at what they said previously when they felt less constrained in expressing their views.

Back in 1999, Keir Starmer’s General Secretary, David Evans, was a more junior employee of the Labour Party in the North West region and was assigned to drawing up a restructuring plan to neuter the influence of party members. In those days, Tony Blair was Prime Minister and at the height of his power. Today, Labour’s right wingers are embarrassed by Blair’s name and go out of their way to tell anyone who will listen they never agreed with him. In those days, it was common for the party’s right wing to openly sneer at the concerns of rank and file party activists and advocate the need for a Labour Party that was ‘massive but passive’ where members were simply there to deliver leaflets and have no real say in determining policy. David Evans was the man Blair asked to come up with a way to make that happen.

In the summer of 1999, David Evans presented his report to Blair and the party leadership. It was designed to cut the influence of party members by reforming what it described as Labour’s ‘ramshackle’ machine. It stated that Constituency Labour Parties were ‘dysfunctional’ and spent all their time talking to one another rather than to voters. The newspapers at the time picked up on the memorable phrase ‘the majority of local Labour parties are more like Trotters Independent Traders than Marks & Spencer…. We are a ramshackle confederation of market traders.’

Evans’ report recommended a radical overhaul of the party to ‘empower modernising forces and marginalise Old Labour.’ He recommended abolishing membership fees and turning members into supporters. While saving on the annual fee, members would lose their rights of determining policy and the political direction of the party. He also wanted the abolition of the party’s General Committees, delegates elected by party members in their branches to represent them at CLP level, in favour of amorphous all member meetings where members could come together occasionally to talk about policy but would have no right to progress any decisions up the party’s structures. Enfield Southgate CLP pioneered this approach in the 1990s but later reverted to an elected delegate structure.

With the current unease in the Labour Party over Starmer’s abandonment of the policy pledges he made in the leadership campaign and his assault on the left using the powers of the General Secretary’s Office, we should expect a resurrection of the ideas Evans promoted in 1999.

With hundreds of thousands of Labour Party members opposed to the leadership’s attempt to pull the party dramatically to the right, the leadership will feel the need to once again attempt to neuter members’ influence. We should do everything we can to resist that and to preserve the rights enjoyed by party members in our representative structures.

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