Friday, 6 March 2009

Labour: Political Party or Cosy Club?

National Secretary of the EPMU - and now Labour Party President - Andrew Little.

IS Labour still a political party or has it become some sort of cosy club for parliamentary aspirants? I only ask because the announcement earlier this week that the positions of party president and vice-president had both been filled unopposed (thereby relieving the organisation of that grubby and disruptive business known as a contested election) gave me pause to wonder.

And that absence of competition; that pervading sense of some back-room deal having being done; has delivered a Labour president who’s about as exciting as a wet week in August.

Because the lugubrious Andrew Little doesn’t really come across as one of the downtrodden and dispossessed’s most inspiring champions. But, perhaps that doesn’t matter. Of more importance in these cash-strapped times may be the fact that Andrew is well liked by the business community.

Which, on the face of it, is a bit strange, because, in addition to being Labour’s new president, Andrew is also the National Secretary of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU).

Call me old fashioned, but a union leader who receives loud plaudits from the business community makes me nervous.

Either they’re being really good sports; as in: "By God that Andrew Little’s a tough negotiator, isn’t he? We were determined to limit our pay offer to the rate of inflation, but somehow he screwed a ten percent increase out of us. I tell you, that guy makes Matt McCarten look like a big fluffy pussycat!"

Or, they’re doing their best to hold onto the good thing they’ve got; as in: "I can’t believe we got away with it - again! I was positive that this year the EPMU would be demanding at least a ten percent wage rise. But, no, they settled for their usual cost-of-living adjustment. I can’t begin to tell you what a positive influence Andrew Little has had on the company’s bottom line. Seriously, the guy’s worth his weight in gold!"

"Militant union swashbuckler", or "responsible partner in the quest for improved productivity"? Hmmm? I’m pretty sure Andrew’s not a swashbuckler.

And that, unfortunately, is the problem.

Labour, defeated at the polls and denuded of funds, is in desperate need of a swashbuckler – someone to breathe not only life, but passion and enthusiasm into a movement at serious risk of imploding under the weight of its own extraordinary timidity.

Just consider the sequence of crucial leadership changes in the Labour Party since the General Election. There have been no elections, no contests, no debates – just a series of "orderly transitions".

It would seem that power is no longer won in the New Zealand Labour Party, it is bestowed – for good behaviour. Providing you’re willing to keep your nose clean, follow the rules, never rock the boat, and wait patiently until it’s your turn: power will come to you on a plate.

Contrast this democracy-free-zone with the fervent, fractious – but indisputably living thing that Labour used to be. A party in which hundreds of registered delegates could metaphorically slug it out on the floor of their annual conference to decide whether Jim Anderton or Ruth Dyson would lead them into the 1990 election.

That Labour Party was alive with ideas, and roiling with policies as vociferously challenged as they were passionately defended. A party whose members, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, still believed they could make a difference.

Sadly, that party no longer exists.

So, when people ask: "Do you think Phil Goff is the right person to lead Labour?", I always reply: "No. But, at the moment, nobody else is either."

I’d probably say the same of Andrew Little if required to comment on the Labour presidency.

It’s a grim admission: made even grimmer by the probability that in New Zealand’s prime political market of Auckland – home to 1.3 million people – Labour can boast fewer than 2,000 paid-up party members.

That’s the challenge Andrew Little must face, but frankly, I think Davey Hughes, the extraordinarily charismatic boss of Swazi Apparel, would stand a better chance of rebuilding Labour’s grass roots support than the boss of the EPMU.

On the bright side, however, if Andrew Little manages Labour’s recovery in the same sober fashion as he’s managed New Zealand’s largest private sector union, I think it’s safe to say that his popularity among the nation’s capitalists will remain undiminished.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 6th March 2009.


Anonymous said...

“It would seem that power is no longer won in the New Zealand Labour Party, it is bestowed – for good behaviour. Providing you’re willing to keep your nose clean, follow the rules, never rock the boat, and wait patiently until it’s your turn: power will come to you on a plate.

Contrast this democracy-free-zone with the fervent, fractious – but indisputably living thing that Labour used to be. A party in which hundreds of registered delegates could metaphorically slug it out on the floor of their annual conference to decide whether Jim Anderton or Ruth Dyson would lead them into the 1990 election.”

Some romanticisation here Mr Totter. The Labour Party had been organisationally deaden before.

It was however Ruth Dyson by a 50 vote nose as I recall. Branch votes being exercised from all over the Country – I might have almost had as many as Pat Kelly usually exercised.

It will be interesting to see whether Mr Little can or even wants to re build the Labour Party. Members are not hugely relevant to modern election campaigns and the Labour Party rules disincentivise getting them or having the skill to get them.

For such a formally fractious organisation, the series of coronations could be both a sign of discipline and also weakness.

XChequer said...

Nice post, Chris. Very good last two paragraphs which hit that issue right on the head, I feel.

I have commented on a few of your points at my blog if you have a minute to spare a look, I would appreciate it.


Joseph said...

Socialists say "We WON'T pay for their crisis". We didn't cause it, and where workers are threatened with redundancies, we point to the examples of factory occupations in Chicago, Waterford and Buenos Aires as an alternative to capitalist greed and mass unemployment.

The new film from the EPMU differs in tone. Whilst it puts forward some valuable economic information and gives rank and file workers a voice to raise their fears, it also sees the Union's role as softening the effects of the Depression in partnership with employers, rather than fighting them militantly for every job. SA presents the film and welcomes readers to post their take on the EPMU's line.

Crunch Time. For workers, for bosses and for union bureaucrats.

Dave Brown said...

Jim Anderton made a fatal mistake when he walked out of the Labour Party. He actually rejected the democratic vote which lost him the Presidency. I seem to remember you were part of that walk-out. You can't have it both ways.
If you claim to be in a democratic organisation and find yourself in a minority you don't abandon the party, you fight to win the majority. As it happened while Jim and you and a few others abandoned the party most of the left in Labour didnt, and the NL and later Alliance split cost Labour many seats in 1990 and 1993. Had the split not taken place Labour would not have lost the 1990 election by such a huge margin.
Anderton's role in 1993 was especially undemocratic. Not only did he stand against Labour costing it the election, he had the cheek with an almost hung parliament to be the kingmaker with National offering to support it if it abandoned its neo-liberal agenda.

Steve Withers said...

No one likes a trouble maker. So if one is going to make trouble, it has be in support of a very clear and achievable goal. No one wants to die in a ditch losing a fight against the wind.

There is a lot to be said for being positive and constructive, while at the same time making it clear that MUST be reciprocated. Union militancy is best as reflection of employers who refuse to negotiate or compromise. Each case on its merits and lets all start out assuming we are working together.

With a National-lead government, that is harder to achieve as businesses will have the temptation to lobby "their" government for laws that enable their business goals and restrict the rights and capacity of their employees to object.

Let's not forget all that good "anti-terrorism" law now on the books. What a wonderful coincidence is was all put into place prior to a crash.

Cactus Kate said...

Perhaps Labour members are smart enough to realise Chris that they shouldn't put their name forward to sell cakes at a stall at the moment, such is the unpopularity of the Party.

I hear Jordan Carter and Kate Sutton are about to battle over the deceased Auckland Central Labour organisation. Good luck to both of them. If the winner gets the organisation, I don't want to know what 2nd prize is.

Rodders said...

It is interesting to read Chris Diack's comments.

April will be the 20th anniversary of the Auckland Regional Labour Party conference when the use of the union "card vote" boiled over.

The TVNZ coverage made memorable viewing. Someone called out (possibly Mr Diack ?) to Pat Kelly questioning how many votes he had and Mr Kelly held up a finger (not in an impolite way) to indicate he only had one.

Unknown said...

Interesting that Chris Diack should comment on democracy within the Labour Party. Wasn't he the person who surreptitiously changed the rules of the Hugh Watt Society to take from the party its own property? And perhaps he should comment on the use of pacific island special branches and their role in his failed attempt to become the MP for Onehunga.

The Labour Party is in far better shape now that it no longer has the lunatics of the far left and the idiots of the far right in its ranks. It is a much saner organisation.

And those with long memories will recall that the party was walking dead in 1990 after the last loss. It is in a far better and more rejuvinated position now than it was then.

All political parties have suffered from a loss of activists. Political activity is no longer the thing that many do. But in terms of workers on the street my estimation overall is that Labour had as many workers last election as National had. And after three years of depression and job losses, not to mention the undermining of NZ's climate change response I suspect that the parties of the left will be back stronger than ever.

unaha-closp said...

"Militant union swashbuckler", or "responsible partner in the quest for improved productivity"? Hmmm? I’m pretty sure Andrew’s not a swashbuckler.

And that, unfortunately, is the problem.


Whilst Labour was the government "the rock no boat/everything is wonderful" stylings were perfectly understandable. Nothing loses Labour elections faster than unions being "swashbuckling" on their watch. And since our largest unions are entirely controlled by a "cosy club for parliamentary aspirants" (nice phrase) we have had 9 years of the EPMU/SFWU bending over for the employers. And Chris be honest, you would have jumped down on Andrew Little's balls if he had led union action during the benevolent paradigm of the Clark/Cullen government - you'd have condemned him for disrupting the greater good.

But now the National Party are in power. So we will have the swashbuckling, dynamic union movement of your dreams. They will be militant and aggressive and scrap for every margin. This will benefit the Labour Party and get the "cosy club" back into power.

I tell you, that guy makes Matt McCarten look like a big fluffy pussycat!

For the next 3, 6 or 9 years Andrew Little (or successor) will make Matt McCarten look like that fluffy cat. Matt McCarten is independent of the Labour Party and advocates for his members on the basis of their interests not political expedience. Matt McCarten will get a better deal for his members in the long run, but Matt McCarten will never be Prime Minister. Andrew Little may well be our next PM and he will need to manipulate the union movement to get there.

backin15 said...

Chris, I'm not sure why you feel the need for the old divisions of Labour's troubled '90s? A contest of ideas is a wonderful thing but isn't only signalled by brawls surely. From some distance, it seems to me that Andrew's ascendency is entirely merited even if it's uncontested. He's successfully run the largest union in the country for a number of years, surely that makes him a leading candidate? The fact that he's not been guilty of also weilding a megaphone with intent to injure hardly disqualifies him?

An orderly transition mightn't make good copy, but to me at least it reflects the stability of Labour, stability that enabled it to govern for nine years. I'd rather that if the alternative is some Pythonesque parody of insignificance to the population.

Anonymous said...


That wasn’t me although I was there.

Mikey Savage:

Facts matter my friend.

Actually the High Court said the property was held in trust for the members of the Party (beneficiaries). This pre dated any subsequent ownership structure and was utterly unaffected by rule changes.

Thus “Party” never owned anything actually and still doesn’t.

As to special branches in the old Onehunga electorate in 1992 – again wrong. The membership was audited in detail by Head Office under the supervision of Maryan Street the then VP. She attended the LEC meeting and advised that there was only one issue. One person was found to be underage resulting entirely from the families misunderstanding. The 14yr old child was removed from the list. If you seriously consider that Maryan Street would overlook any membership irregularities or that my candidacy would rest on these then you seriously misjudge both of us.

For what is it worth the reality is that the overwhelming number of members supported my candidacy and voted accordingly.

Of course modern Labour selection rules make it very difficult for local candidates to prevail against the wishes of Head Office. The relative power between local and central is always a matter of balance. I think Labour may have shifted the balance too far in favour of the central. By doing so they disincentivise one of the rationales for having a local party. It also rewards candidates who don’t have organisational skills. My view has always been that it is better for candidate selection rules to in some way mimic the process that candidates face in electoral contests – i.e. gaining votes of the broader group. I also acknowledge that under MMP electorate contests are less important.

As to your post 1990 comments – agreed. Still I would not be surprised to find that Labour membership is in the 3 – 5k range and probably closer to the 3 than the 5. There is little point in belonging in the modern centralised professionalized party.

I await to see whether Labour is the propagation ground for new ideas in public policy. That often requires people to think the unthinkable not the uniform acceptable. The unthinkable thinkers have by and large exited Labour.

It could be the quiet of the cemetery or Bastion Point for you my friend.

Unknown said...


"Actually the High Court said the property was held in trust for the members of the Party (beneficiaries). This pre dated any subsequent ownership structure and was utterly unaffected by rule changes."

So why did you cause the rules to be changed, and why did the society under your guidance purport to exercise control over the party's assets? BTW did the trust funds get used for the benefit of the Act party?

Just a comment about candidate selection, my perception is that the current group of MPs and likely candidates are of higher quality than at any other time I can think of. There are plenty of thinkers left. If you are referring to the backbone club then that comment about Muldoon about how kiwis emigrating to Australia increased the IQ of both countries has a ring to it.

Anonymous said...

I rather like Labour as a club, going back to the grassroots, trying to reconnect with much of society, bring on the cake stalls and the walkabouts by previous ministers, it's very refreshing. Labour will come back, and already National have made some blunders.

Anonymous said...


Again that is the problem with the modern Labour Party you substitute abuse for analysis. Rather than addressing what people say you attempt to turn the argument about who is saying what. Why should you be taken seriously?

You claimed a property belonged to Labour Party - this is false.

You claimed that rule changes of an incorporated society alienated the said property from the ownership of the Labour Party – this is false.

You claimed that there was something irregular about the membership of special branches in Onehunga – this is false.

You then go in to make more false allegations dressed up in the “when did you stop beating your wife” drag because having made a series of false allegations you want to keep going until you get some sort of satisfaction.

I would simply move on my friend – everyone else has.

Actually Anderton as President selected some very good candidates – the quality of these had some relationship with the effect Muldoon had on some of the middle class.

Labour probably made a mistake in returning most MPs who lost their electorate seat to parliament via the list up to 2005. This probably weakened their electioneering gene pool even if it resulted in greater caucus stability. And consider it’s very hard to loose a modern electorate - there is significant value in incumbency.

Finally the quality of any Party’s MPs really rests on what they do and how they respond to the public policy challenges of their time.

Chris Trotter’s basic contention that the modern Labour Party seems a bit lifeless is irresistible. While that has something to do with who left, and the further centralisation of its structures, it also has a lot to do with modern professionalized parties that don’t really need members. As to whether Mr Little will rebuild the house of Labour - we will see. Having watched him at a Select Committee he under whelmed; he makes Goff seem as fun a night in a Nevada brothel.

Anonymous said...

Democracy has been dead in the Labour Party for some time.

Sadly for members of the CTU while Labour was in office they were like mice and their members suffered lower wages as a consequence. McCarten is doing what trade unions should do raise the living standards of their members. What Little and the many drones on the labour benches have done is use the un ions to get into Parliament.

Unknown said...

Chris Diack

"You claimed a property belonged to Labour Party - this is false."

The High Court decision was to declare that the property was held in trust for members of the Labour Party in the Onehunga area. Is this the same as the property belongs to the Labour Party or are you saying there is a difference?

"You claimed that rule changes of an incorporated society alienated the said property from the ownership of the Labour Party – this is false."

The case was about the rule changes and I understand that the Court ruled that the Hugh Watt Society held the property in trust for Labour Party members. I guess that the rule changes eventually did not alienate the property from the Labour party but you gave it a really good go. But for the High Court the rule changes would have alienated the property.

"You claimed that there was something irregular about the membership of special branches in Onehunga – this is false."

The branches were used to try to support your selection as candidate. It was 1993 and I guess that since you did not succeed the debate is a bit academic.

"You then go in to make more false allegations ..."

I do not think so. Do you want to specify what these are.

You make it sound like there was never a problem. Why did the Labour Party have to take you to the High Court successfully if there was no problem?

Anonymous said...


I don’t really want try and teach a socialist about the concept of property generally or the law’s notions of legal and equitable ownership specifically – if you are really interested to learn go to law school.

But in short you are wrong – the Party does not have either legal or equitable ownership of anything. And no. To be clear: your property isn’t that of the Party.

You are also wrong about the rules either before or after changes - they had no bearing on the legal or beneficial ownership of the property. Nor were any of the changes invalidated. Nor did the rules acknowledge, disclose, create or result in a trust.

You wrongly link the remedy with an allegation that some action of the Society or me was the cause of the mischief. This is incorrect.

Regarding memberships (and Branches) at the selection I contested – virtual 100% sign off by the Vice President of the time after audit. What is true is that I gained 75% of the first preference vote cast of an electorate that had 10% of the total membership of the party at the time. A minority of the members voting were from special branches. Your observation that I did not win the selection as the local favourite is profound – you have a flare for stating the obvious.

In fact you alleged a breach of fiduciary duty by me – an allegation made in Court found to be entirely without merit by the Court. In fact the Judge got irritated when it was pressed along with similar nonsensical cause of action founded in breach of contract.

But this is all ancient ancient history - it has little bearing on the state of the modern moribund Labour Party.

Unknown said...

Chris Diack

You have to be kidding?

The property in question is now owned by Labour Party Properties Incorporated as trustee for the members of the Labour Party.

And you lost the case. You put up a good fight, funded probably by the party's property but you lost. Your years of activity changing rules and jacking up memberships failed.

I have read the case and the Judge was prepared to hold that a breach of fiduciary duty occurred. And you hid behind the Hugh Watt Society Incorporated which you effectively controlled.

It is ancient history. But many members remember your actions and I am sure that karma will occur at some stage in the future.

Anonymous said...


When in a hole stop digging.

If you read the case you are clearly a bit slow on the uptake.

Yes. The Court found a breach of fiduciary duty but not by any of the respondents nor did it arise by any commission or omission by the respondents in the case.

How could I have lost the case – none of the causes of action against me succeeded.

Again you make a false allegation – no Labour Party property was used in defending the case.

Concepts of legal personality, legal and beneficial ownership are laws 201 – you so perhaps you don’t understand them.

Labour Party Properties Inc is a legal person and isn’t actually the Labour Party which is a statutorily recognised unincorporated group.

You are closer when you acknowledge the property is held in trust. That’s the legal interest. The beneficial ownership is vested in the beneficiaries. In this regard the trust is similar to many others and is unremarkable. The judge left open the issue of the beneficiaries wishing to access their property by way of their beneficial interest. That matter wasn’t determined because it wasn’t before the Court.

If the Trustee is operating the trust property blind to the interests of the beneficiaries or preferring its own interests or those of another unincorporated group then it is probably in breach of Trust. The terms of most trusts (and the one we are discussing) don’t allow for this. It could possibly be explicitly authorised by the beneficiaries.

For example, if a trustee used trust property to secure loan made to a related party who is an unincorporated group (who may or may not be solvent) for purposes other than those related to the trust fund this could be contrary to the terms of the trust and/or might require authorisation by either all or most of the beneficiaries of the trust.

I serious doubt Labour Party members’ ability to have any influence my karma – and what is that old saying about living in rent free space in someone else's mind.

On the broader point your mindset is what really interests me. Many leftwingers have to demonise their opponents individually it gets their dander up. They have to hate personally to engage politically. The political tactic of playing the man not the ball is an odd approach for people who profess to love humanity. If they are not already privately unhappy, I think the tactic soon makes one so.

I tend to think like Bomber Harris that one only attracts personal flack from the left when is one is over the target.

So my anonymous friend Micky if you disagree with what I say, by all means analyse it and disagree with it. If you think there is no germ of truth in what I say then your actions and those of others will be entirely unaffected.

Finally you should rest uneasy in the knowledge that I regard my time in the Labour Party with some affection. It was a remarkable time in New Zealand’s history, I learnt a lot and got to meet some remarkable New Zealanders.