First and Second of the Third Way: Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson felt obliged to destroy the British Labour Party in order to save it. This is precisely NOT what David Shearer and his team should do.
TONY BLAIR transformed the British Labour Party by means of root-and-branch reform. His priorities were as clear as they were ruthless. Disable the party. Re-write its rule-book. And, most importantly, make sure Labour’s MPs were accountable to nobody but themselves.
Blair’s reforms were driven by the strategic thinking of his chief henchman, Peter Mandelson. In essence, Mandelson’s strategy boiled down to just three, fundamental, political insights:
One. Since the British working-class has no serious political alternative to Labour, the party can safely ignore its interests.
Two. Since no party can be elected without the support of the British middle-classes, and since these have multiple electoral options, Labour must not, under any circumstances, advance policies that might upset middle-class voters.
Three. To retain the support of middle-class voters, Labour must never allow its political rivals to out-bid it on matters relating to “sound” economic and social policy.
Blair’s and Mandelson’s strategy made a brutal kind of sense in the light of the British Labour Party’s recent history, and within the wider context of British electoral politics.
The party had endured years of bitter factional strife, with those who regarded Labour as the last bastion of working-class resistance to Thatcherism fighting a desperate rear-guard action against the bleak electoral logic of the “modernisers” analysis.
That logic was, of course, underpinned by the First-Past-the-Post electoral system, which allowed the Conservative Party to win large parliamentary majorities in spite of attracting considerably less than half of the popular vote.
Labour’s “modernisers” also had to factor-in the impact of globalisation on the size of Britain’s industrial working-class (the core of both the traditional Labour vote and the more militant trade unions) and the more recent ideological triumph of capitalism over its Soviet rival.
IN 2011, the strategic choices confronting the New Zealand Labour Party’s new leader, David Shearer, are very different to those which taxed Tony Blair in the mid-1990s.
Rather than a fractious, activist and openly antagonistic party organisation, Mr Shearer inherits a party in which rank-and-file members have sunk to the level of what one wit describes as “MP fan clubs”. At its upper levels, the party is caught in the grip of a sclerotic, self-selecting oligarchy based in Labour’s insular and largely unaccountable sector-groups. In effect, Mr Shearer’s Labour Party is rapidly disabling itself. His first and most urgent priority is to kick it back into life.
To do this he must, like Blair, re-write Labour’s rule-book. Not to marginalise the party and insulate the caucus from its influence, but to do exactly the opposite. Mr Shearer needs to grow his party. At 6,000 members, Labour is only slightly bigger than the Greens. If it is to re-claim the Treasury Benches it must once again become a mass party, with a membership measured in the tens-of-thousands. And that cannot happen unless those members are equipped with real powers. These include the power to determine (and not merely “contribute” to the making of) party policy. The power to choose and rank the people on Labour’s Party List – as the Green Party members do. And, lastly, the power to choose their party’s leader. (Either directly, by a postal ballot of the whole membership, or, as the British do, through an electoral college composed of the rank-and-file, affiliated organisations, and the Parliamentary Caucus.)
Unless Mr Shearer moves swiftly to force rule-changes along these lines, all of his rhetoric about wanting to “listen” to New Zealanders will ring hollow. The most effective way to “hear” what ordinary Kiwis have to say about their country’s future, is to encourage them to join your political party by promising to translate their ideas into policy. Mr Shearer needs to convince the tens-of-thousands of Labour members who have walked away from the party that he’s committed to a future in which rank-and-file votes not only shape what Labour stands for, but who stands for Labour.
The fate of Damien O’Connor points the way. Rejecting the influence of Labour’s oligarchs over the content and ranking of the Party List, Mr O’Connor staked his future on an all-or-nothing bid for the West Coast-Tasman seat. The Coasters were only too happy to reward his courage. On 26 November, alone of all Labour’s candidates, it was Mr O’Connor who took a seat off the National Party – and by a handsome majority.
Mr Shearer has another great advantage over Tony Blair. He’s assumed Labour’s leadership in a world embittered and angry at neoliberalism’s botched ideological recipes. In 1998 Peter Mandelson infamously remarked that Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. In 2011, far too many people are drowning in the rich’s filth for any sensible Labour leader to utter such dangerous apostasy.
To win in 2014, David Shearer need only steer Labour in precisely the opposite direction to that of Tony Blair.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 20 December 2011.