Vulnerable Medium: The young editors of the Otago Labour Regional Council's newspaper, Caucus, could only reach their readership through the expensive processes of the printing press. This gave their publisher, by virtue of its control of the purse-strings, the ability to shut the paper down if it strayed too far in the direction of controversy. That was in the early 1980s. Today's political bloggers cannot be silenced so easily - or so they thought.
THE FIRST ISSUE of Caucus appeared in September 1982 and the last in April 1983. The third (and final) issue featured a highly critical opinion-piece entitled: “Yes – I’m the Great Pretender: A Socialist Critique of David Lange.” Since Lange had only been Labour’s Leader since February 1983, the editors’ decision to publish the critique in a Labour Party newspaper was either exceptionally brave or extremely foolish.
The newspaper’s publisher, the Otago Regional Council of the Labour Party, did not have to wait long for Lange’s reaction. At its next meeting the Labour Leader turned up unannounced, asked the man on the door to point out the author of the offending article, took a seat beside him, removed a copy of Caucus No. 3 from his briefcase and tore it into little pieces.
The Port Chalmers Branch of the Labour Party went one better than their leader. After passing a motion of censure in the newspaper’s editors, all 200 of their branch’s copies of Caucus were burned.
A few days later, Caucus’s two young editors were asked to drive Labour’s then Transport spokesperson, Richard Prebble, to Oamaru for a “Save Rail” rally. Mr Prebble took advantage of his captive audience to deliver a stern homily on party discipline.
“Your first mistake”, he told the hapless twenty-somethings, “was to assume that the Labour Party is a democracy.”
Thirty years later, supporters of internal Labour Party democracy are facing many important differences from the early 1980s, but also some startling continuities.
The most obvious difference between 1982 and 2012 is the size of the party. Labour’s current membership is reportedly at an historic low, but thirty years ago it was at an all-time high. Putting to one side the trade unions’ affiliated membership, Labour’s branch membership in the early 1980s numbered more than 80,000. The very fact that a regional council possessed sufficient funds to publish its own newspaper points not only to the sheer scale, but also the organisational vitality, of what was indisputably a mass political movement.
It was also a time before the invention of the World Wide Web. To reach a mass audience in the early 1980s required the assistance of a printing-press – and that cost money. Having strayed beyond the paths of acceptable opinion, Caucus very quickly discovered that he who pays the piper calls the tune. Not that the Otago Regional Council would ever censor its own newspaper – perish the thought! It was simply a matter of budget priorities, which were deemed, in the weeks following the notorious Caucus No. 3, to NOT include a regional party newspaper.
The Offending Article: Said Richard Prebble to the editors of Caucus: "Your first mistake was to assume that the Labour Party is a democracy."
In 2012 no party subsidy is required for Labour members and supporters to speak to one another. The World Wide Web and the “blogs” it has spawned have relocated the no-holds-barred political debate which the young editors of Caucus had so courageously attempted to encourage in 1982-83 to “cyberspace” – a realm well beyond the financial veto of the Labour Party’s regional and national hierarchies.
Foremost among New Zealand’s Labour-focused blogs is The Standard (its name inspired by Labour’s nationwide newspaper of the 1940s and 50s) with a readership in the hundreds-of-thousands. Like Caucus, The Standard has earned the wrath of the party hierarchy (and especially Labour’s parliamentary caucus) for its outspoken criticism of Labour’s leader – criticism that’s only grown louder following the demotion of Mr Shearer’s purported challenger, David Cunliffe.
It is at this point that we encounter some powerful continuities with the Labour Party of thirty years ago. For it would seem that those participating in The Standard have made the same “mistake” as the editors of Caucus: that of assuming the Labour Party to be a democracy.
Stung by The Standard’s continued criticism of Mr Shearer, a “senior Labour MP” is reportedly seeking to limit the ability of Labour members to post articles and/or offer commentary on any blog operating outside the effective editorial control of the party organisation. Even more damning, from the perspective of a generation raised on the ethical protocols of the Web, information supplied in confidence to the Labour Caucus controlled blogsite, Red Alert, is allegedly being used to identify Labour members participating either anonymously or pseudonymously on The Standard and other blogs critical of Labour’s performance.
It is too soon to predict the outcome of this latest attempt to curb democratic debate within the Labour Party. It is, however, possible to draw some lessons from the fate of Caucus.
Prophetically, the author of “Yes – I’m the Great Pretender” wrote: “It is ironic that Lange leading the fourth Labour government will probably succeed in the reconstruction of capitalist relations where National has failed.” How very different Labour – and New Zealand – might have been had such prophetic insights been debated instead of suppressed.
Only a democratic Labour Party can re-construct a democratic New Zealand.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 11 December 2012.