All Washed Up? Perhaps Labour could be saved if, like the ancient Romans, they were willing to install a dictator to “save the Republic” from its enemies (in the case of Labour’s membership that would be themselves!) someone capable of turning the party into a lean, mean electoral machine. Except, of course, Labour, as presently constituted, is never going to do that.
IF IT HAD ONLY HAPPENED ONCE, I could have written it off as a simple overstatement. Politics lends itself to exaggeration, and there was a lot of that associated with the Labour Party’s Review of the 2014 General Election. But, what I’m describing wasn’t the usual bluff and bluster of the instant commentariat. What I was hearing was coming from “civilians” – people without a platform – ordinary folks. And, what they’ve been saying to me, over and over again, in the week or so since the Review was leaked to TV3’s Paddy Gower, is the same statement-cum-question: “I think Labour’s finished as a major party – what do you think?”
Now, this is a not the sort of statement/question that political parties ever want to hear. Because it isn’t just another complaint about this leader, or that policy. No, this is an existential query: and existential queries only get made when the subject has already got at least one foot (and a good portion of leg) in the political grave.
I recall people saying very similar things about the Alliance after it split apart over Afghanistan. And they’ve been writing off Act as a zombie party for at least the past six years (quite correctly, in my opinion). Some people were even moved to question National’s future after its Party Vote plummeted to 20.9 percent in the general election of 2002.
The difference between National’s response to its electoral nadir and Labour’s reaction to its worst result since 1922, is that the former took its thrashing seriously and Labour isn’t. Long before the Review was complete, Labour insiders were already speculating on whether or not it would be big enough to make a passable door-stop.
National looked upon its defeat as a catastrophic market failure. National Incorporated’s share price had crashed, the Bank was ready to call in its overdraft, and the receivers were hovering. Time was of the essence. The Board of Directors had to do something.
What did they do? Well, they did what every big business in trouble does. They called in the political equivalent of McKinsey & Co. – consultants in extremis – and ruthlessly refashioned the National Party into a lean, mean electoral machine. National’s review panel didn’t just lop-off the dead wood, they fed it into the wood chipper, mixed it with the blood and bones of several sacred cows, and spread it over their flower beds!
This sort of ruthlessness isn’t an option for Labour. National’s whole purpose, from the moment it was founded in May 1936 (less than 12 months after the election of the First Labour Government) is to remove Labour from office whenever voters have been incautious enough to put it into government; and to remain in government for as long as humanly possible whenever Labour’s in opposition. Labour’s purpose is – or should be – very different. It’s supposed to be about ideas, and change, and nationhood. They’re supposed to be socialists, social-democrats, the workers’ party.
Except it isn’t. Hasn’t been since the mid-1980s. A workers’ party, that is. Labour’s still a party of ideas – even if they’re not the sort of ideas ordinary working people cotton-on to (that doesn’t seem to matter anymore). And the changes Labour’s promoting? Well they don’t find many takers either. Not that a distinct lack of voter support is likely to persuade the party to do things differently. Because, whatever Labour has lost in the trust and confidence of its electoral base, it’s rank-and-file members have more than made up for in democratic constitutional practice.
Democracy is one of those things (like fairness) that National tends to honour more in the breach than the execution. Indeed, it’s the Tories’ iron chain of command that allows them to campaign so effectively. Labour, on the other hand, is just one big tangle of chains: pull on one and, instantly, a dozen others jerk violently in the opposite direction.
Perhaps Labour could be saved if, like the ancient Romans, they were willing to install a dictator to “save the Republic” from its enemies (in the case of Labour’s membership that would be themselves!) someone capable of turning the party into a lean, mean electoral machine.
Except, of course, Labour’s never going to do that. Which is why so many people are telling me “Labour’s finished” – and why, regretfully, I’m agreeing with them.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 June 2015.