Could Labour conference really reject general secretary David Evans?

Sienna Rodgers

The Unite the Union executive committee has voted in favour of refusing to approve Labour general secretary David Evans at conference, LabourList sources have confirmed. “The general secretary shall be elected by party conference on the recommendation of the NEC,” Labour’s rulebook states. The ruling national executive committee (NEC) goes through a process of longlisting, interviewing, shortlisting and finally selecting the general secretary, who is usually then endorsed by acclamation at conference. But – in light of the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn, the banning of certain local party motions and the disciplinary action taken against Corbyn supporters – the appointment is genuinely divisive this year and may well go to an actual vote at conference.

It has been suggested to LabourList that a full vote on Evans is expected to take place on day one of Labour conference later this month. It would be a card vote, rather than a show of hands, because the weight of the unions is more accurately represented this way. The conference chair, thought most likely to be NEC chair Margaret Beckett on the Saturday, can decide whether to have a vote at all. Historically no vote has been taken: instead, the chair has told conference how the NEC voted and their pick has been endorsed with ‘aye’s. The chair could therefore choose this path (and their ruling could only be overturned by a two-thirds majority). However, Keir Starmer allies are confident that a card vote on Evans would be won, which would be a show of strength and a way to disillusion those opposed to the current leadership early in the conference.

Can anyone can be confident about votes at Labour conference 2021? In a card vote, the balance of votes between local parties and affiliates is 50:50. The political make-up of local party delegates this year is less predictable than in previous years: LabourList has spoken to both Starmer supporters and his critics, and the estimates vary. It could be 60-40 either way, some say, and some votes will be close. The only real certainty is that there will be many fewer Corbynite delegations than compared to the last two annual conferences. One source estimates that the Labour left needs 63% of CLP delegates to win card votes, taking into account the reliably left union votes, and nobody has suggested to LabourList that they will reach that level.

From the affiliate section, Unite has around 12% of votes, while UNISON, GMB and Usdaw have around 10% each, give or take. As the general secretaries of UNISON and Usdaw are supportive of Starmer, as ever, this puts the GMB in the driver’s seat on an important vote like the Evans one. New general secretary Gary Smith is seen as unpredictable: although Starmer backers celebrated his win, he has already paused funding to Labour. His union, like Unite, also held an indicative ballot on potential strike action among Labour staff (who voted yes). But sources say so far it looks like the GMB is not keen on making the incredibly bold move of rejecting Evans at conference – and if that holds, a rejection of the general secretary is unlikely. A formal vote on the matter would nonetheless be a key moment at conference, if the leadership is still willing to take a bit of a gamble by then.

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