As he begins his new role, I thought I’d send some thoughts to the new Labour Party general secretary David Evans with the benefit of being elected on the national executive committee (NEC) less than three months ago.
Like many others, I’ve been trying to understand the causes of the unprecedented defeat suffered by Labour in December 2019. I worry about the scale of the challenge ahead: to return a Labour government at the next general election.
The Labour Together review is hugely welcome as an evidenced and detailed report on the causes of the defeat and as a set of recommendations aiming to fix the issues identified. I particularly welcome the call for a “root and branch reform of our party organisation and structures, bringing it into the 2020s” and the statement: “We need to be a well-led, professional, innovative organisation with a more inclusive culture.”
I came to Labour’s NEC with a wide breadth of experience of governance in various organisations – as a former local councillor, in school governance, in the office of the second largest police and crime commissioner area in the country, in charities and campaign organisations. A key factor that distinguishes many of these from the Labour Party is that governance is inspected and measured. This in turns leads to determined efforts to understand and implement good governance.
One thing I can say after just three months on the NEC is that there is a huge governance and competence deficit in the Labour Party. My simple message to you as incoming general secretary is: if we want to convince the country that we are the best party to govern this country, we must get our own house in order.
For voters to have trust in us as a party aspiring to govern, we must be a model of good governance itself. Anything less leads to constant setbacks, distractions, internal rows and being in the media for the wrong reasons – giving the appearance of constant inward focus. And we know voters don’t like that!
This means dealing with antisemitism and fixing our complaints system. Fixing our policy-making processes and refreshing our policy offer. Fixing our internal democracy and selection processes. Fixing our organisation and election-fighting capabilities. These are all aspects dealt with in detail by the Labour Together review.
The election review also called for a shift in party culture. We must understand that structural changes will fail without cultural change underpinning our attitudes and approaches.
Whilst these concerns are shared by a range of NEC members left and right, the experiment of the last few years, despite all the lofty talk, has been a failed opportunity. Where those on the hard left once spoke of the importance of member involvement, they quickly reverted to the same old tactics of imposing candidates and stitch-ups. Where they once advocated openness and inclusion, they instead advanced factionalism. Where they once organised for their supposed left principles, they were shown to be driven by grubby self-interest and self-preservation.
On the NEC, these characteristics have come together in a culture of secrecy, factionalism and stitch-ups. Members who are involved in a governance capacity in any organisation – councillors, school governors, trustees, management committee members, etc – will be shocked to hear that despite requests we have not been provided a copy of the current budget and latest monitoring report. Most NEC members therefore have no understanding of variances to the budget, debtors and creditors, cashflow or what the current volatility in markets means for the Labour Party pension fund.
I found out through enquiries that despite the NEC terms of reference requiring a scheme of delegation, there has never been one produced for NEC members to approve. The absence of a clear process means decision-making and accountability is opaque at best.
When I first stood for the NEC in 2018, I called for a diversity audit of all staff. I was pleased to see the Labour Together review and indeed Keir Starmer have also called for this move. I understand that the party already carries out staff diversity monitoring, however. Despite requesting a copy, the party’s HR department is still to decide whether NEC members can have one. What is there to hide?
David, we desperately need to fix the governance deficit in the party. The two key principles that underpin good governance in an organisation like the Labour Party are transparency and accountability. We need a culture change that ensures we all put the interests of the party before any factional interest. In my CLP, I may not agree with key officers on every policy issue, but I do agree with the need for an efficient, well-run organisation that maximises opportunities for members to be involved, that prioritises campaigning, fundraising and compliance.
To increase transparency, we must have a system of registering interests and declaring interests in NEC meetings. We need to end the culture of secrecy, and replace it with a presumption of information and documents being made available to members apart from in exceptional circumstances. This means publishing minutes, financial information, data in relation to membership, complaints and disputes and documents governing decision-making in the party.
For genuine accountability, we need clear frameworks for decision-making – including a scheme of delegation that clearly defines who has what power, who makes what decision, who is consulted and where it’s reported. All policies and procedures governing aspects of the party should be published, and there should be a presumption that members decide matters wherever possible. The use of the infamous ‘NEC delegated powers’ by national and regional officials must be the very rare exception rather than a convenient tool for factional advantage.
If we get this right, I truly believe that a lot of factional manoeuvring will become redundant and help fulfil Keir Starmer’s desire for party unity. The ability to weaponise the party’s structures or key powers will diminish massively. Clear rules and availability of information will create a level-playing field for all our members. This would allow for improvements to equality and diversity at all levels, more efficient and effective organisation, and smoothing the path to a truly broad church Labour Party. As your representative on the NEC, this is something I will continue fighting for.