Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Litmus Test: Will Labour’s Rank-And-File Revolution Roll On – Or Be Halted – In Palmerston North?

Revolution On The Conference Floor: At the 2012 Labour Party Conference in Ellerslie, Trade Unionist Len Richards told the Labour leadership: "Today's the day we take our party back!" But will the forward march of Labour's rank-and-file be halted at this weekend's 2015 Conference in Palmerston North? (Photo by John Chapman)
 
“ONLY ONE political party conference matters in New Zealand”, says veteran political journalist, Richard Harman. “The National Party’s conference is little more than a PR presentation; NZ First keeps theirs behind closed doors and the Greens is entirely predictable.” But, according to Harman, Labour conferences are different. As recently as 2012, he says, “Labour’s has been coloured by political blood on the floor.”
 
There’s a very good reason for paying attention to what goes on at Labour Party Conferences, and that’s because the political fault line dividing the defenders of the status quo from the advocates of real change runs right down the middle of the conference floor. It’s been that way since the 1980s when a small cabal of Labour MPs, led by Roger Douglas, seized control of the party’s parliamentary caucus and, upon winning the 1984 General Election, introduced a slew of far-right economic and social reforms that transformed not only New Zealand but the Labour Party as well.
 
Prior to the 1980s, the political fault line ran – much more naturally – between the Labour and National parties. Yes, there were radicals and conservatives in both organisations, but on neither side of the ideological divide did the opponents and advocates of change step outside the traditional boundaries of Left and Right. Labour’s values were collectivist, solidaristic and firmly rooted in the public sphere. National’s instincts, by contrast, were resolutely individualistic and fiercely protective of private enterprise.
 
By the time “Hurricane Roger” had blown itself out, the Labour Party was barely recognizable. Tens-of-thousands of members had simply voted with their feet – deserting a party that had unquestionably deserted them.
 
Those traditional left-wing members who opted to stay, resisted Roger Douglas’s “free market” reforms in a series of increasingly bitter rear-guard actions, until it became clear that a narrow majority of party membership simply could not be persuaded that there were viable alternatives to the policies “their” government had introduced. At that point, roughly a third of the remaining Labour membership split from the organisation to form the NewLabour Party, led by Jim Anderton. A few years later, Douglas’s hard-core followers did the same. Despairing of Labour ever again uplifting the banner of market reform, they split away to form the United and Act parties.
 
With the party in tatters, and the remaining membership evincing an alarming “My party, right or wrong!” attitude to politics, Labour, as a political force, was reduced to its parliamentary caucus; parliamentary staffers; paid electorate personnel; the party secretariat, affiliated trade union officials; and the handful of individuals in each electorate upon whom each Labour MP depended for personal and/or campaign support. Included in all these groups (bar the caucus) were a clutch of ambitious individuals determined to win public office.
 
This was the Labour Party over which Helen Clark presided for the best part of 15 years. Its active core was comprised of people whose professional and political gaze was focused upwards, on the needs and deeds of the party leadership, rather than outwards, to what remained of Labour’s rank-and-file membership. It was a party dominated by what the Soviets used to call apparatchiks – men and women of the apparatus – who were extremely protective of the party leader, as well as the formal and informal structures which supported her. They were also deeply suspicious of, and often overtly hostile towards, dissident behaviour.
 
One of the few remaining entry points for dissidents in this increasingly oligarchical Labour Party were the handful of private-sector trade unions which had, in spite of all that had happened in the 1980s and 90s, remained affiliated to the Labour Party. From these, paid officials and active delegates could be fed into the party’s annual conferences in numbers proportionate to their union’s affiliated membership.
 
It is difficult to overstate the impact of these unionists on the morale of ordinary members. They brought with them the direct experience of the working-class people who still constituted the bulk of Labour’s support in the electorate. Not being employees of the party, or Parliamentary Services, they had no reason to defer to the opinions of Labour’s caucus and often contradicted their pronouncements. Such open defiance of the hierarchy was infectious. Very slowly, individual party members relearned how to assert themselves against the apparatchiks.
 
From 2005, with growing momentum, Labour’s annual conference began to recover an increasing measure of autonomy vis-à-vis the party’s parliamentary leadership. “My party, right or wrong!”, was fast becoming “The wrongs of my party can be righted.”
 
Between 2011 and 2014 the power of the ordinary and affiliated members was extended to include the election of the party leader and the drafting of the party platform. Terrified, the parliamentary caucus struck back: destroying the reputation of the party’s choice for leader, David Cunliffe; and allowing the party’s share of the popular vote to fall to levels not seen since the 1920s.
 
Whether Labour’s rank-and-file revolution continues to roll on at the 2015 Annual Conference (being held this weekend in Palmerston North) is what POLITIK blog proprietor, Richard Harman, and The Daily Blog’s editor, Martyn Bradbury, are most interested in finding out. Will the present leader’s, Andrew Little’s, trade union background, and the recent merger of the conservative Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union with the much more radical Service and Food Workers Union, mean more union agitation on the conference floor, or less? Will the presence of former union officials Matt McCarten and Neale Jones in the Leader of the Opposition’s Office allow the parliamentary leadership to, at last, fasten a lid on the ferment down below?
 
The litmus test will be the conference’s ability to claim a role in shaping the party’s position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Little and his team of ex-union apparatchiks will be working hard, even now, to prevent any attempt by the rank-and-file to re-commit Labour to its former stance of qualified opposition. Crucial to their success will be the attitude of the Party President, Nigel Haworth. Will he, like Jim Anderton’s successor as Party President, Margaret Wilson, sanction an open, party-wide debate?  Or, will he use his gavel to shut down the voices of dissent?
 
Will the litmus paper turn red – or blue?
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 3 November 2015.

29 comments:

peter petterson said...

Has to be red or dead.

Anonymous said...

The non-endorsement of the TPPA would be a real "point of difference" between Labour ( supported by the Greens and NZ First ) and the sitting National government at the 2017 election. I do not believe that Little, McCarten, Jones and the Labour caucus have the balls to run "non-endorsement of the TPPA" as a policy plank. I sincerely hope the rank and file do not agree to endorsement. peter petterson has said it for me.

greywarbler said...

Chris you seem unequivocal about this -
Little and his team of ex-union apparatchiks will be working hard, even now, to prevent any attempt by the rank-and-file to re-commit Labour to its former stance of qualified opposition.
So if you get Little you get TPPA? There goes the neighbourhood.

Tiger Mountain said...

yep, you read it here first, if the Labour Conference cannot resuscitate the “5 point TPP Bottom Line” it is bye bye 2017,
rejecting the TPP is “the one ring to bind them” in terms of NZ First, Green and Mana Movement being able to agree on something that numbers of the public are also now interested in

Nolajo said...

It was interesting that a lot of interest and support has been stimulated both in the UK and USA by the whiff of a real alternative track to the current neo-lib agenda, though whether either Corbyn of Sanders will ever gain the traction to do much is doubtful. No sign of Labour here putting its head above the parapet though. I recently joined Labour, and almost the first party communication was a PR question asking me to say why I was proud to be a member! How naff can you get? I was hoping to find a way into discussion of real alternatives, but it looks as if it is going to be difficult. Political parties as footy teams. Oh dear.

Michael Smythe said...

'... comprised of ...'??! Okay, having got that out of my system ...
This bipolar requirement to be red or blue is simplistic. The thirst for 'blood on the floor' is childish. Labour is a grown-up party that sets out to be inclusive and integrative. If the voracious media permits we might appreciate the fact that everyone does not agree with each other and enjoy a good discussion. Or am I asking too much of the free society we hold so dear?

Wayne Mapp said...

TPP might be grist to the mill for left wing activists, but the rest of New Zealand has already moved on, and is assuming that TPP will be implemented.

So Labour would rather stupid to have an agonising debate on TPP. The reality is that Andrew Little, in terms of the politics, has called this one correctly. There is after all no chance that Labour would withdraw from TPP. Even Mr Shaw of the Greens recognises this. So such a policy is fantasy land for relics from the days of the Alliance and Mana parties.

Far better for Labour to concentrate on policy for the future, not endlessly re-litigate battles already lost.

Anonymous said...

"There is after all no chance that Labour would withdraw from TPP."

At any rate, not until the "disputes resolution" litigations start.

Tiger Mountain said...

au contraire Wayne, “battles” are certainly lost when agreed positions are undermined without reference to the appropriate party bodies, which I would contend given the close enough proximity of the LP conference to the Groser briefing is the membership in this case–not a small group of caucus members

greywarbler said...

M Smythe -
Labour is a grown-up party that sets out to be inclusive and integrative. If the voracious media permits we might appreciate the fact that everyone does not agree with each other and enjoy a good discussion. Or am I asking too much of the free society we hold so dear?

This could be expanded to bring greater truth and understanding.
Labour has grown up, grown old and cynical (lost its youthful vitality and idealism) and now is about following recipes that suit the present middle class.

British Austin Mitchell MP lived in NZ and lectured at southern universities, and this from Wikipedia about this time for NZ Labour.
In the 1960s and 70s, New Zealand remained a milder version of the socialist laboratory it had been since 1935. In the 80s and 90s, the same socialist Labour party's government transformed it into an open market economy. These drastic changes provided ample subject matter for social analysis, and 30 years later Mitchell wrote Pavlova Paradise Revisited (2002),

The change was demonstrated by Mitchell's comment when he revisited in 2002, about our choice of wines that seemed not discerning. That is the emphasis for NZ Labour now, which isn't too different to the Brits.

Now to break through that complacency and BAU, constant chipping away is required. This is desperate work, and the annoying noises grate on the RW media, career politicians and delicate Neo-Labour ears. But we must break free for our own Shawshank Redemption. And hope that happens while we can still recognise the NZ we knew and loved.

Anonymous said...

Wayne Mapp 'Labour to concentrate on policy for the future' I very much doubt that Labour will develop policy for the future that will show clear and definitive differences with them and National for the 2017 election. The TPPA gives them that opportunity.

Roztoz said...

Chris I think you have misread the mood of the party.

The 'members' (the coalition of some unions and West and South Auckland) gained control of the Party, decided conference decisions and even elected their own leader. It was a massive failure. Not because the PLP 'allowed the party's vote to decline', but because that leader and that faction were extremely incompetent at running the party. Basic decision-making ground to a halt.

I think now people just want to win. Sadly that means abandoning some of the members' revolution. But there's a feeling that we had our fun and we fucked it. Now it's time to give the party back to the adults.

I'm not saying I agree with this analysis, but it is the feeling amongst the membership (at least outside Auckland). People are sick of losing.

greywarbler said...

Wayne Mapp -
So such a policy is fantasy land for relics from the days of the Alliance and Mana parties.

Which means those who haven't sold their souls for a heap of potash or whatever.

I decided years ago at school that it wasn't pragmatic or practical for each in the class to dissect a frog in science. So made a small step to the side and refused to participate. What small steps from the mainstream that you have taken can you remember Mr Mapp?

greywarbler said...

If Labour wants to do something useful for ordinary NZs trying to build something in the community, promoting good ideals etc. they could act to cut the unreasonable costs being imposed on mini businesses. A co-operative for organic food is apparently to be charged a $6,000 audit fee every so often, may be annually.

Audits seem to be a movable feast for very big concerns and a big money-making proposition for giant international names which may provide a Harry Potter-type cloak of invisibility. A small outfit using volunteers to assist the few paid staff are expected to pay this impost to peer into what is a relative piggy-bank?

Another impost was the one on a one-person goat cheesemaker, something like that. She was going to have inspectors come in regularly in the same way as a large-scale factory would, and her small output, and particular product, would be uneconomic with the red tape and health and safety costs.

The problem of course is that so many things can be imposed by individual entities which have wide-ranging regulation capacity, so the bureaucrats actually are doing the shaping and governing of the country with no let or hindrance by any politician taking a wider view.

Someone in the National playpen was going to go through old legislation and toss some out, and possibly toss out the baby with the bathwater. (We must remember that some of today's rights and standards are built on old customary law and in no way just because it's old do we want it scrapped.) We could have instead a sweeping view of the value of some of the present punitive regulations, and the standards set, and aim to make them more people friendly.

Labour could get some of their keen young people onto that. Just dropping regulations, freeing up stuff, should arouse caution - it must be done carefully. We've dropped and freed up some things to suit the fast boys, so what about the real working class, including the small traders, getting what is reasonable and workable for them?

alwyn said...

You suggest that " NZ First keeps theirs behind closed doors " and imply that Labour are different.
It would appear, if the NZ Herald journalist is correct, that Labour may be going to adopt the NF approach and limit the public's view of proceedings.
http://www.nzherald.co.nz/politics/news/article.cfm?c_id=280&objectid=11539577

pat said...

'TPP might be grist to the mill for left wing activists, but the rest of New Zealand has already moved on, and is assuming that TPP will be implemented."

...has NZ Wayne?....you may have exclaimed prematurely as the US has yet to ratify.

manfred said...

Chris, I really think that there needs to be some sort of entente between the parliamentary third way types and the party membership. Labour really can't afford to be in opposition after September 2017, which is where they will be if there is more internal turmoil.

The ABC's seem to have acquiesced to Little's leadership and I believe, as well as being electable, he is a true social democrat who understands the values. Why don't the radicals reciprocate the ABC's acquiescence with moves towards unity and a common manifesto for 2017? I hope they will.

There are a number of moderate but bold reforms that pretty much all of NZ Labour agrees with. Despite National's centrist posturing, these reforms would represent a huge swing to the left and a significant wealth transfer to the poor and the precarious middle classes that are holding on by their fingernails.

These include Kiwibuild, better rights at work, more state housing, better deals for students and beneficiaries, restricting property sales to foreigners and funding more infrastructure development.

The NZ electorate does not have an appetite for a quasi-Trotskyist minimum programme, like the one propose by the Corbyn faction of the UK Labour party.

Nick J said...

Go and ask the people Wayne. You display a belief in the standard spindoctors mantra "lets move on, its done and dusted, forgotten tomorrow". Your arrigance reflects that of truly benighted entitlement. We wont forget.

Nick J said...

Good question Grey. My observation of people over decades leads me to observe that a majority of people tow the line. The more enthusiastic amongst them realise that the "system" rewards by adoption. Think teachers pet, Mr Goody Twoshoes. Maybe its a good trade, Waynes done well for himself. Where these types piss me off is their assumption that this makes them right. Very predictable these people but scarily aligned with status quo.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

TPP
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dave-johnson/what-to-look-for-when-the_b_8473562.html

Nick J said...

So Manfred the NZ electorate does not have an appetite for what Corbyn proposes (i.e that which we had from 1935 to 1984 which was hardly Trotskyist). Free education to tertiary level for all, livable benefits, free and available healthcare, full employment policies etc. So Manfred do you not think a huge portion of the electorate would not support that if given the option?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Wayne will always give you a political answer. Because of course he is a politician. So there's no admitting of mistakes, no signs of weakness or anything like that. Jonathan Hunt did it – I always remember every time he was asked a question that suggested something wrong his first words were "no not at all." Winston does it better than anyone. And when there's something that's too hard, that they cannot find an answer for because they are so obviously and undeniably wrong, they disappear. Like "Afghanistan/Iraqi is stable." Eh, Wayne?

Nick J said...

So Manfred the NZ electorate does not have an appetite for what Corbyn proposes (i.e that which we had from 1935 to 1984 which was hardly Trotskyist). Free education to tertiary level for all, livable benefits, free and available healthcare, full employment policies etc. So Manfred do you not think a huge portion of the electorate would not support that if given the option?

jh said...

Some how when Roger Douglass comes up it is forgotten that Labour made the most basic change of all: "population replacement ".
A generation whose father's fought WW2 saw a new narrative locked down in the official discourse: "diversity is super duper" (or as Stephieboy sneers on Kiwiblog "Aotearoa isn't just for white people").

jh said...

Cluching her chest at the Bailey's auction a Kiwi woman with eyes aglow exclaims: "oh look! We're being out bid by diversity !

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Dammit that's TOE the line. Why all of a sudden is everyone spelling it tow? It's an old boxing expression, nothing to do with tow trucks.

Unknown said...

Wayne Mapp
So Labour would rather stupid to have an agonising debate on TPP.
...
Thanks for the concession over tour guides. They do it for a while, gain residency then drive busses. The National Government gives then a fresh coat of Kiwi paint.

Nick J said...

Interesting GS. I did wonder before typing (I use a phone with no autocorrect so mistakes aplenty)..just Googled..its a track and field expression. Toe it is.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Oh – I thought it must be AutoCorrect :-). Sorry you're right it is track and field rather than boxing. Boxing is "up to scratch".