David Evans: Who is the new boss at Labour HQ and is he up to the job?
David Evans is Labour’s new general secretary.
He’s the most powerful person in the Labour Party you’ve never heard of, and Sir Keir Starmer’s wish for a strong, united front means its newly-appointed general secretary has a big job ahead of him. Kate Forrester reports
The movement’s ‘broad church’ has been rocked by divisions in recent years, reopening wounds that will take time and a careful approach to heal, and faces a turbulent few months as the Equality and Human Rights Commission prepares to publish the results of its investigation into anti-Semitism within it.
David Evans’ appointment earlier this week by the party’s ruling National Executive Committee was seen as a boost for Sir Keir, proving the leader and his allies can win key votes on party control.
A former Croydon councillor, who served as Labour’s assistant general secretary under Tony Blair and helped organise the successful 2001 election campaign, his name was not on the list of those originally touted for the top job.
Neither is he on social media, meaning those wanting to find out more about the new man at the top needed to seek out those who knew him best.
One senior Labour source told PoliticsHome: “I’d actually never even heard of him until a month ago, when his name came up as somebody who could be approached.
“But he fits in extremely well with Keir Starmer’s style – there aren’t very many noisy people around him, no show-offs. We need somebody who fits into that way of working, who sees the next steps on the journey in the same way the leader does.”
Mr Evans set up The Campaign Company, a research and communications outfit, after leaving Labour in 2001 and worked mainly with health, local authority and third sector bodies.
It was his “entrepreneurial instincts and experience of electoral politics” which attracted the attention of Sir Keir’s team, the insider said.
“He’s perfect for the role, because ultimately the constitution of the party and the way we campaign hasn’t changed all that much from when he was first there. Lots of the issues we are facing now are similar to those we have seen in the past.
“We need someone who is voter-centred and not internally or factionally focused. His tone is reassuring, his style is instinctively collaborative and we need to model that way of working at the top, so it permeates throughout the party.”
But not everyone is convinced. One NEC source told LabourList: “If Evans now takes us back to the toxic culture in HQ, purges of left-wing members and stitch ups of parliamentary selections exposed in the leaked report, his appointment will be the worst mistake of Keir’s leadership.”
Trade unions on the left of the party also expressed concerns over a 1999 report authored by the new man in charge which described local parties as “dysfunctional”, and his co-authorship of an examination of the party’s 2015 loss which called for Labour to be more “small c-conservative”.
Mr Evans began his career in politics as an activist when Margaret Thatcher was in Number 10 – with his support for the miners’ strike leading to his arrest.
“A petition objecting to his arrest, which was for something like highway obstruction as he delivered a food parcel to the striking miners, was apparently handed into the Home Office by [former Bolsover MP] Dennis Skinner and one Jeremy Corbyn,” one insider said.
“But I’m not sure if Jeremy would feel like talking about that at the moment.”
A councillor for four years between 1986 and 1990, Mr Evans has won praise for supporting Labour colleagues across the UK.
But it was during the Wirral South by-election campaign in February 1997 – months before Mr Blair’s historic landslide victory - that he really started to be noticed within party circles.
Labour's Ben Chapman managed to wrestle the former safe seat from the Tories following the death of incumbent MP Barry Porter, in a campaign organised by Mr Evans, who was the north west election agent at the time.
Former Delyn MP David Hanson, who held his own north Wales seat for more than 25 years, acted as the candidate’s aide and said the campaign was won through “organisation, strategy and message”.
“I can genuinely say David Evans is the best organiser I ever saw on the ground in all my 44 years in the Labour Party,” he told PoliticsHome.
“He had strategic vision, brilliant organisational skills and he is Labour through and through.
“Wirral South was at the time a safe Tory seat and that by-election was one of the most important Labour had faced in 40 or 50 years. While the tide was moving towards us, we didn’t know it at that point, and it was vital for us to win. If we hadn’t, we would have gone into the general election campaign in a much worse position.”
Mr Hanson said he believed Mr Evans was the “right choice” to put the party back on a successful campaign footing.
“We need somebody who reflects and understands the party in all its forms – in the Commons, the unions, the devolved administrations and the members – and David Evans does that.
“He put every sinew of effort into winning in Wirral South and I know he will be focused on supporting the party as a whole and delivering election victories.”
Despite leaving Croydon council behind 30 years ago, Mr Evans continued his involvement in the south London borough by helping Labour politicians behind the scenes.
Croydon Central MP Sarah Jones said: “David was a councillor before my time, but I’ve know him for years, since I became involved in the party after leaving university.
“He has been an incredibly valuable source of advice for me, giving a lot of time and never asking for any recognition or anything at all in return.”
Ms Jones, who is serving as shadow policing minister in Sir Keir’s new shadow cabinet, credits Mr Evans with Labour winning back control of Croydon Council in 2014.
“He did a lot of thinking and inputting into the strategy around that,” she said. “He’s a voice of reason, he never gets angry or stressed. He really understands how to lead a team.”
After his appointment was confirmed, Mr Evans said it was “an honour and a privilege” to land the top job.
“We face a defining period in the history of our great party, with a global pandemic, an imminent recession and a mountain to climb to win the next election. Through the strength of our movement, I know we can rise to this challenge,” he added.
“I look forward to working with our party, trade unions and members to build a team that can win us the next general election and give us the opportunity to once again serve the British people in government.”