Labour general secretary David Evans has declared that elections are “always about the future, they’re never about the past” in a rare public appearance offering insight into strategic thinking at the top of the party.
“I’m not a politician, I’m an oily rag. My business is running the Labour Party and to supply the people on this call with the very best possible election machine to help us win power,” Evans told an event organised by SME4Labour.
Referring to online criticism, he added: “Despite the fact that I’m an oily rag, sometimes I can’t believe the extent of my own power and influence and indeed downright mendacity that I read about on social media.”
Hosted by the group centred on small- and medium-sized enterprises, the event ‘How Britain Ends: English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations’, was also joined by broadcaster Gavin Esler and party activist Emily Wallace.
Evans said he thought nationalism could be “the greatest challenge we face as a party” and linked it to “a huge chunk of our historical coalition” abandoning Labour in a “dramatic way” at the last general election.
“I think that process has been long in the making. Probably well over a decade, two decades, it’s been gestating. To point to the last Labour regime and lay all the blame is simplifying to the point of of Trump-esque proportions, in my view.
“Devolution for me offers a key part of the remedy,” Evans added during the online event. “You can’t blame people for grasping simple solutions to complex problems when politics is so opaque and remote.
“It’s our challenge to translate it into accessible terms. You only get trust when you give it, and that’s what the Labour Party has to learn to do. My contention is that actually we’re not very good at it.”
The general secretary said: “While politics is a mystery and a secret art that is conducted in Westminster, we will always struggle to get that engagement and that participation that actually is intrinsic to our political values.”
“We are supremely self-conscious when talking about Englishness”, he added. “The vast proportion of the people in England who we have to get back – Labour people, traditional Labour people – are not self-conscious.”
Stating that his Labour-voting friends “have no problem literally wrapping themselves in the George cross”, he later said it was “not good enough to call [voters] subliminally racist because they want to wave a George cross”.
Evans said he was putting a lot of faith into Labour’s constitutional commission, and explained that it must first involve “honest conversations with ourselves… before we go out and engage with communities” as part of the work.
A former Labour organiser, Evans said he used to be a “gamekeeper” whose “job was to get local government to shut up and be quiet”. But he now promises local government he will be “their poacher general secretary”.
On the challenge that Labour faces in Scotland, with Holyrood elections in May, Evans said: “We have to gain some traction and become a credible message-carrier, and Anas [Sarwar] will be a great asset in doing that.
“On a trivial level, I think Richard Leonard takes a lot of the blame that wasn’t actually his fault – but that’s politics, isn’t it? But he had an English accent. Anas has got a Scottish accent, apart from being a very able communicator.”
After Leonard suddenly stepped down as Scottish Labour leader in mid-January, a leadership contest took place. Glasgow MSP Sarwar, an ex-MP and former deputy leader, was elected as leader on Saturday.
In an address to the parliamentary party tonight, Sarwar said winning in Scotland is essential and “Scottish Labour’s path to recovery… relies on the UK Labour Party winning back the trust of the Scottish people”.
Describing Labour as “the party of devolution”, the newly elected leader added: “That means respecting that decisions on Scottish policy will always be made by Scottish Labour, just as decisions on Welsh policy will be made in Wales.”
Towards the end of the event, Evans endorsed John McTernan’s view that “all politics is Maslowian”: security needs come first, before you have “permission” to talk about meeting people’s aspirations, and finally “the benevolent society”.
Labour’s most senior official also said the party had not understood “the logic or the politics” of setting up devolved institutions, but that he hopes the constitutional review can “work through a lot of these issues”.
Commenting on Labour’s electoral chances, Evans said: “Elections are always about the future, they’re never about the past.” He expressed concern that voters may, however, support the government.
“People might be inclined – because we’re not out of the pandemic – feel inclined to vote [Conservative] not to say thank you to the government but to cling to nurse for fear of something worse.
“We’ve got to obviously portray the fact we’re not worse, we’re better. The point I’m coming to is where good local can be framed, they trump the national.” He suggested that Labour’s role is to offer a national framework.
Local elections due to be held in 2020 were delayed due to Covid-19. With the contests pushed back, the May 2021 polling day will now cover 184 councils, 13 directly-elected mayors and 40 police and crime commissioners.