Let The Party Speak: Only by striking down the blatantly self-protective rules with which the parliamentary wing of the Labour Party has surrounded itself, can the rank-and-file and affiliate members recover their autonomy and rebuild their organisation into a political force capable of rescuing the nation. (Painting by Paulo Zerbato)
LAST WEEKEND, Labour’s governing body, the New Zealand Council, endorsed a comprehensive overhaul of the party’s constitution. These new rules have the potential to revolutionise left-wing politics in New Zealand – but only if Labour’s rank-and-file membership and its trade union affiliates summon all their courage and imagination to the party’s annual conference in November. That is the moment to reclaim the Labour Party from an ideologically suspect, intellectually moribund and morbidly self-protective Labour Caucus. If the moment is allowed to pass, then the Review Committee will be remembered only for giving Labour MPs new rules for committing old trangressions.
The rule changes on affiliation to the party, for example, could see a host of advocacy groups bringing political commitment, membership and, most importantly, bold, evidence-based policies, to the process of constructing Labour’s new election “platform”. Imagine Mike Smith and his Fabians as fully-fledged affiliates, with votes to cast, debating economic policy. But, why stop at the Fabians? If left-wing activists with interests ranging from the arts and public broadcasting, to urban planning and industrial democracy, decide to get their act together they’ll incorporate a society or institute, affiliate it to Labour, and feed their ideas directly into the party's deliberations.
A party offering potential members vibrant regional forums where new and radical ideas are debated and refined for presentation to the electorate, and where opportunities for effective, street-level political activism abound, is likely to grow by leaps and bounds. The party’s national leadership would be able to identify in potential parliamentary candidates qualities more substantive than assiduous personal networking, ruthless back-room vote-trading or three years as a parliamentary researcher or communications manager. Men and women entering Cabinet with practical plans for social and economic reform would offer a welcome contrast to past Labour cabinet ministers who were content to let civil servants tell them what was and wasn’t possible.
What Ms Coatsworth and her team of reformers have done is devise a set of Twenty-First Century mechanisms for resurrecting the Labour Party of the 1970s and 80s.
Labour had expanded rapidly in the late-1970s as New Zealanders, horrified by the authoritarian instincts and philistine excesses of the Muldoon-led National Government, flocked to the Opposition’s banner. Though there was no formal opportunity for affiliation, members of the extra-parliamentary anti-apartheid, anti-nuclear and feminist movements joined up in their hundreds and swiftly applied their expertise to the task of turning activist aspiration into party policy. There was of course considerable overlap with the trade union affiliates, whose organisers provided important logistical and voting support at annual conferences. By 1984 this proudly independent and fiercely democratic Labour Party had more than 85,000 branch members and close to quarter-of-a-million affiliated trade union members. There was an active party presence from Kaitaia to Bluff.
A party this strong took a lot of breaking, but break it Rogernomics did. The Parliamentary Party has always presented the organisational wing of Labour with problems. Labour MPs are more than mere party “delegates” in the House of Representatives, they are also the nation’s legislators and, when Labour is in office, Cabinet Ministers with all the responsibilities of Government. But these perennial structural tensions look trivial when compared to the open enmity that divided the rank-and-file and affiliate membership from the Caucus, and ultimately split the party.
It was a scoundrel time, when loyalty and treachery traded uniforms on an almost daily basis. A time when a Cabinet Minister, Richard Prebble, could injunct the governing body of his own party to prevent his political enemies from taking over his electorate committee. A visit to the current Labour Party website, however, discloses only a single bland reference to this awful period (which saw Labour’s membership plummet from 85,000 to 15,000 in less than six years):
The Fourth Labour Government (1984-1990), led successively by David Lange, Geoffrey Palmer and Mike Moore took difficult and long overdue decisions necessary for the modernisation of the New Zealand Economy.
The constitutional changes proposed by Moira Coatsworth and her team will, hopefully, bring into being a Labour Party capable of seeing that sentence for what it truly is. Not simply a deliberate elision of all the brutalities and betrayals of Rogernomics, but a refusal by all subsequent Labour leaders and presidents to acknowledge (let alone mourn) the loss of the mass social-democratic political movement the Fourth Labour Government destroyed. A party unable, or unwilling, to tell the truth about the 1984-1990 period is a party in the deepest denial.
Helen Clark was the perfect person to lead such a party. She was so unquestioningly of the Labour Party that the membership felt unable to challenge her all-too-obvious unwillingness to repudiate the Roger Douglas legacy (many of whose champions remained in her caucus). Traumatised by the Rogernomics experience and the bitter split with Jim Anderton’s followers, the bewildered rump of members who remained were happy to see their policy-making role diminished and the power of the Caucus strengthened in return for the cessation of factional strife and a semblance of party unity.
Helen Clark as Miss Havisham: That which is prevented from growing, decays.
It was a bad bargain. Like Dickens’ Miss Havisham, Helen Clark refused to clear away the detritus of her party’s ill-fated nuptials with the New Right, allowing it, instead, to rot and fester throughout the party. Meanwhile the splendid social-democratic wedding-gown she had worn to her never-consummated “Third Way” marriage, faded slowly to rags on her back. In departing New Zealand for New York the best she could offer by way of a successor was one of Roger Douglas's earliest converts.
The painstaking reconstruction of a (nearly) independent Labour Party organisation has been the work of a small but determined group of activists. It was they who drove a reluctant Phil Goff steadily to the Left and compiled the most progressive Labour election manifesto in fifteen years. Their latest gift to the party is a draft set of constitutional reforms – the scope and potential of which are marred by just one, Caucus-driven, defect.
The democratisation of the procedure for electing the Party Leader has been effectively sabotaged by the suggestion that the deposition of a clearly unpopular and/or ineffective leader may be vetoed by just 34 percent of the membership of the Labour Caucus. A minority of MPs is, thereby, invested with the capacity to thwart the will of a clear majority of their colleagues – and the entire party organisation.
In the words of a Guest Commentator on the Labour-supportive blogsite The Standard:
At base the reforms presume there is a beautiful pyramid of power, with the Leader in Wellington at the top. The constitutional proposals entrench the Leader so that even if they only have the support of 33% of caucus, no challenge to the leadership is possible.
Only the most naïve Labour Party member could construe this provision as anything other than the Caucus Right’s SAAC (Shearer At All Costs) strategy elevated to the dignity of constitutional principle. All Labour MPs know that if the Shearer/Cunliffe choice was put to the party under the new rules, the proposed Electoral College (40 percent Caucus, 40 percent Members, 20 percent Affiliates) would deliver the leadership to David Cunliffe.
Rather than see that happen the unholy alliance of the talentless, the jealous and the ambitious that makes up the ABC (Anybody But Cunliffe) clique are only too willing to repeat the “crab antics” described in the New Zealand anthropologist, Professor Peter Wilson’s, famous study of the same name. According to reviewer David Vital, Professor Wilson’s book “tells us much about the harsh traditional method by which small peasant societies of the Caribbean maintain a primitive form of equality within themselves. In effect this is achieved by holding others back by attacking their reputation and claiming a false respectability to which all must conform. As a result few people dare to break out or think outside the box and so the status quo remains in force and everyone remains the same. It is a kind of forced equality where people do not want anyone to succeed, ‘all ah we is one’, but the society gets nowhere.”
If Labour is to get somewhere its members must use the upcoming November conference to strike down the blatantly self-protective measures with which the parliamentary wing of the party is attempting to surround itself, and afford its leader no more in the way of armour than his predecessors were content to wear. Both the Caucus and the Party must be empowered to test the legitimacy of an incumbent by formally petitioning for a Vote of Confidence. And if 51 percent was good enough for Mickey Savage, Norman Kirk and Helen Clark, then it should be more than good enough for David Shearer.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.