Trial By Ordeal: The techniques of the Seventeenth Century Witchfinders-General might be preferable to the process Labour has adopted to uncover the reasons for its woeful performance in the 2014 General Election. It's a pity the Party has not allowed itself to be guided by the National Party's response to its own, even worse, debacle back in 2002.
WHY DOES LABOUR do this to itself? Yes, they have just suffered an unprecedented (post-1922) election defeat, but that’s only because the 2014 General Election was itself unprecedented (post-1951).
And, besides, I’m tempted to say ‘so what?’ In 2002 the National Party suffered an even more embarrassing result when Bill English led his party to its worst defeat ever. National’s Party Vote plunged from a bad 30.5 percent in 1999, to an even worse 20.9 percent in 2002. (A whopping percentage point slide of 9.6, compared to David Cunliffe’s 2.8.)
The interesting thing about that debacle, however, is not what the National Party did in response, but what it didn’t do.
For a start, it didn’t change its leader. National understood (as Labour apparently does not) that a debacle on the scale of 2002 has many more contributing factors than simply a poor performance by the party leader. Defeat on such a scale is clear evidence of systemic – as well as personal – failures. Which is why the first priority of National’s hard-headed businessmen and farmers was to give the party organisation a very solid kick in the bum – not to sack Bill English. (He would keep.)
In the months following its 2002 defeat National thoroughly renovated itself: achieving for the Right what Jim Anderton, between 1979 and 1984, had achieved for the Left. Namely, the transformation of an ageing party into a vehicle more appropriately aligned to the economic, social and political context in which it operated.
Crucial to the success of such operations is the concentration of decision-making power in the hands of those best equipped to wield it. Under MMP, one of the most important functions to streamline is the formation of the Party List. National has achieved this by means of an all-powerful board of directors; the Greens by giving the job to their party members. For Labour, however, the list formation process remains the Party’s Achilles’ heel.
Bluntly, party list formation in the Labour Party is a colossal rort; a travesty of democratic principle on the scale of the “rotten boroughs” that once allowed the British aristocracy to control the composition of the House of Commons. More horse-trading takes place during this dangerously opaque process than at an Irish county fair – with considerably worse outcomes.
It’s ironic really, because Labour once boasted the most ruthless and centralised mechanism for selecting candidates of all the political parties. Seventy years ago it was the selector representatives of the all-powerful Labour Party Executive who called the shots – and they seldom missed. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then National, when renovating its structures, post-2002, paid Labour the most fulsome of compliments.
The tide of democratisation which has swept over Labour since the departure of Helen Clark (a “Red Tsar” if ever there was one!) rules out any return to the days of Peter Fraser’s politburo. The next logical step, therefore, is to follow the Green Party’s example by passing over the responsibility for drawing up Labour’s List to the whole membership.
Applying the principle of one-person, one-vote, would necessitate another important reform of Labour’s rules: the identification of every member of an affiliated trade union wishing to be associated with the Labour Party. This would mean that the opinions of trade unionists would be registered individually, by secret ballot, not collectively, in public. It would also end forever the frankly corrupt practice of trade union general secretaries cogitating alone in their Wellington offices, and then voting “on behalf” of their unasked and voiceless membership.
Those New Zealanders who have been puzzled by the glaring discrepancy between the votes cast for Labour’s electorate candidates and Labour’s share of the Party Vote, have yet to grasp the level of distortion the Party’s list selection processes have wrought upon the public’s perception of what Labour has become. There are Labour MPs and candidates (Stuart Nash take a bow) who are both well-known and well-liked in their electorates. And then there’s the Labour Party itself, an institution which, to an increasing number of New Zealanders, is neither well-understood nor well-liked.
If Labour learns anything from its latest drubbing at the polls, then it should be this. Electoral success must no longer be left to the vagaries of candidate and list selection processes which owe more to ideological obsessions and sectoral horse-trading than to the needs of Labour’s electoral base. Labour’s great failing is that its representatives, with a handful of worthy exceptions (mostly Maori and Pasifika) have gradually ceased to resemble the people whose Party Votes it demands.
The National Party, upon being sternly reprimanded by the voters for similar political failings, quietly and efficiently set about making sure that their players matched their supporters. The results were spectacular. If Labour accomplishes a similar transformation, then it can expect the same.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 September 2014.