Parting Company: Little’s reaching out to Greg O’Connor and Willie Jackson – both of them social conservatives – was a test of whether Labour winning in September mattered more than ideological purity: and the social liberals discovered that they could not pass it.
WHAT AN EXTRAORDINARY WEEK it’s been! Two years of exemplary discipline within Labour’s ranks have been unceremoniously ditched in favour of rank insubordination and revolt. Poto Williams’ intervention and its aftermath have left Andrew Little’s carefully cultivated image of unity and loyalty in tatters. No amount of “robust and honest conversation” can hide the fact that a depressingly large number of Labour Party members would like nothing more than to punch their supposed “comrades” in the face.
Williams’ decision to publicly challenge Little’s recruitment of Willie Jackson represents the breaching of a dam behind which huge amounts of anxiety and anger has been building up since November 2014.
The Labour Party’s social liberals may have cringed when their leader, David Cunliffe, said he was sorry for being a man, but they also loved him for it. With his enforced departure, the allegiance of his faction shifted decisively in favour of Grant Robertson. Their champion’s defeat, by the narrowest of margins (50.52 percent/49.48 percent) left them with no other practical option except to swing-in behind Little and breathe through their noses. Three leaders in six years was enough. The party had no chance of winning in 2017 if it failed to rally convincingly behind the fourth.
It is now agonisingly clear that while the party membership and caucus may have marched behind their new leader, by no means all of them were enthusiastic followers.
Little’s powerbase in the affiliated trade unions made many of them uneasy. Labour’s activist base of highly-educated middle-class professionals were only too aware that the people represented by Labour’s mostly blue-collar union affiliates came from socio-economic backgrounds very different from their own. A party leader who owed his position to the votes of working-class New Zealanders was unlikely to be guided exclusively by the policy priorities of the professional-managerial class.
If Little was to deliver to his working-class base, then he would have to expand Labour’s demographic reach well beyond its inner-city nuclei of metropolitan social liberalism. The party’s catastrophic collapse to just 25 percent of the popular vote in 2014 could not be repeated without throwing Labour’s long-term survival into serious doubt.
Rousing the Registered Non-Vote and winning back the defectors to National was, therefore, essential to Labour’s success in 2017. But these twin objectives could only be achieved by making Labour much more attractive to all those voters who had turned away from the party in 2008 and not returned.
For Labour’s social liberals the logic of Little’s strategy was at once self-evident and threatening. Deep down they understood that the number of New Zealanders who subscribed to their ideology was far too small to win the Treasury Benches unaided. They also understood that the hundreds-of-thousands of ordinary working-class people whose votes made a Labour-led government a feasible proposition were by no means wholehearted in their embrace of the social liberal values to which Labour’s inner-city activists subscribed. After Brexit and Trump, the latter were fearful that the willingness of working-class voters to go on acting as the uncomplaining enablers of social liberalism’s policy agenda might be compromised.
This was their dilemma. They grasped that Labour must broaden its electoral appeal if it was to win. But, at the same time, they knew that if Labour once again became a “broad church”, then their position in both the party and the caucus would be seriously – perhaps fatally – weakened.
Little’s reaching out to Greg O’Connor and Willie Jackson – both of them social conservatives – was the test: and the social liberals discovered that they could not pass it.
Though they could not admit it in as many words, their loud and very public rebellion against the recruitment of Willie Jackson made it crystal clear that if the choice was between winning the election, or compromising their social liberal ideology, then they were willing to give up winning the election.
They could do this because their position in New Zealand society was sufficiently secure to endure another three years of National Party government without significant material hardship. Moreover, yet another electoral failure would, paradoxically, strengthen, not weaken, their ideological grip on the Labour Party. As a shrewd trade unionist once observed of the cynical political strategy of the Soviet era Socialist Unity Party: “Better to keep control of the losing side than lose control of the winning side.”
Unfortunately, the losing side in 2017 will be made up of the least securely positioned members of New Zealand society. Those impoverished and marginalised citizens whose endurance will be tested to breaking-point, and beyond, by another three years of National Party government.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 11 February 2017.