Keir Starmer and David Evans have pledged to “close the gap” between the Labour leadership and the party’s councillors in an effort to decentralise power and support those representatives on the frontline in local government.
In an online event with Labour councillors this afternoon, the Labour leader and general secretary of the party were joined by deputy leader Angela Rayner and Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary Steve Reed.
The leadership used the meeting to emphasise the message Starmer sent to councillors during the Labour leadership elections earlier this year when he called for an end to the “stifling over-centralisation of power in our politics”.
Commenting on the pledge made to councillors in February, Starmer told those watching this afternoon: “I made it really clear in my leadership bid in the early part of this year that I was going to close that gap.
“That I wanted every councillor, council leader, everybody who is representing us in their area to feel that the gap between the leader and the leadership of the Labour Party and them was closed and closed properly.
“So that we could work much, much closer as one team. And also so that we could showcase what you’re all doing because we need to prove that voting Labour makes a difference.”
He added: “I run an election planning meeting with David every Wednesday afternoon for an hour and a half, every single week, planning into the 2021 elections.
“The first item on the agenda for that every week is the view from someone in one of the regions and areas on the ground, a local leader coming into us and telling us what the issues are for the elections as they see them.
“In addition to that, every shadow cabinet member has got a linked local authority leader now, which is really excellent and Nick Forbes [leader of Local Government Association Labour group] sits on the shadow cabinet now week in, week out…
“All of this is to demonstrate to you that the commitment we made that we would work in a different way and close that gap is very, very real.”
The meeting also offered Labour councillors the opportunity to hear directly from the new general secretary David Evans, who was favoured for the role by Starmer and appointed by the national executive committee in May.
Evans said today: “This is my second time in the employment of the party. I worked for the party for 15 years about 20 years or so ago. I was a local organiser, a regional official and assistant general secretary.
“Every single job I had working for the Labour Party then, the truth is, my job was to get local government to shut up, be quiet and behave, focus on winning parliamentary elections…
“I now absolutely understand and value the importance of local government and for me our regeneration, our resurgence and our victory will come from the ground. It will come from and through local government.”
Evans served as a councillor in Croydon, south London, between 1986 and 1990. He became regional secretary of Labour in the North West between 1995 and 1999 and assistant general secretary between 1999 and 2001.
Local Labour parties were told by Evans last month that motions relating to the suspension of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn – including expressions of solidarity – would be “ruled out of order”, and a number of members have been suspended.
Asked by one attendee this afternoon how Labour groups of councillors can “improve relations” between them and their Constituency Labour Parties, Evans told the meeting: “I speak as a former councillor, I was a councillor in my 20s.
“I’ve got to admit I did it badly. You know, I hold my hands up. I mean, I hope one day I might be able to atone for being a poor kind of 23-year-old councillor and go back and do it better…
“Mario Cuomo said you govern in poetry, you campaign in prose. By which he meant, when you campaign, you’re campaigning with the heart and our members are impatient for us to be able to implement their values.
“I get why sometimes they might be frustrated about lack of progress. Councillors, be they in opposition or in office, have to deal with the day-to-day. So, I think part of it is helping our councillors translate what they do.”
He added: “I think if members understood that vital work that councillors do better, then that would improve relationships… It’s about building that relationship with trust and confidence and above all doing practical things together to campaign.”
Shadow Local Government Secretary Steve Reed said: “We’re trying to move away from passing motions, which can sometimes be empty words that don’t make change in the real world, and replace them with policy panels.
“We get a group of members to engage with people in the community and providing services to tackle that problem and they come up with recommendations… Then we all work together to hold the decision-makers to account.”
Starmer wrote for LabourList in February pledging to devolve power to councils, give councillors a bigger voice in Labour, let them lead on campaigning, involve councillors and mayors in policy development and promote diversity.
“I want councillors to have a voice at every level in the Labour Party. I will argue for increased representation of councillors on the national executive committee,” the Labour leader wrote as a leadership candidate in February.
Asked this afternoon whether the “new focus on local government” would be reflected by changes to the structure or number of seats on Labour’s NEC, Starmer pointed out: “That would require rule changes.”
The leader said: “I would have thought that the engagement in the practical decisions about what we’re doing in response to Covid, cuts, etc, and what we’re doing might be a lot more influential than sitting on the NEC for hours on end.
“We’ll certainly look at everything, but that would require rule changes. When I was standing for election, people were focused on the NEC because they thought that’s the way to influence what the party is going to say and do and the way it’s run.
“Actually, I think in the way that we’ve operated over the last few months, there’s at least an equal way of influencing what we’re doing and where we’re going.”
Councillors contribute over £2m to the party annually via the councillor levy. In February, Nick Forbes argued nearly one in three councillors would be prepared to withhold it unless the party “improved its relationship with local government”.
On the levy, Starmer said this afternoon: “I hope that in a sense you’ve already seen in the last eight months that you’re getting much more in return… that although the level is being paid the engagement is much greater…
“If we can can do what we’re all set out to do, which is deliver a Labour government, then it is money well spent. It is particularly galling when you’re paying money in and we’re losing elections.
“But, you know, it’s an investment in a Labour government and we will sweat blood every day, week, month and year until 2024 to deliver back what you are putting in through the levy that you are paying.
“You will all be part of that because in the end we’re not sustaining the party for the sake of the party. We’re sustaining the party and driving the party because we want to formulate the government, change lives for the better.
“Just think what the relationship will be like if we have a Labour government, because you will have myself, Steve and Ange in government working with you, which is so much better than being in opposition working with you.
“A bit of a long answer but it’s basically to say thanks and please keep paying and supporting us – in response, we want you to be part of the team, we really do.”
Addressing the levy question, Evans told the audience that “there is much work still to be done in councillors feeling undervalued and paying that money and being treated as, I don’t know, an easy buck for the party”.
He said it is up to him and the leadership to “change that and change it quickly”. But he also warned that the party faces “very tough financial challenges” and told those present that he did not want to “overcommit or over-promise”.
Evans added: “But I do commit to make more transparent and bring into practical effect better support and better engagement and a better relationship.”