Time to turn Labour Inside Out: In a challenging blog-post, Labour Policy Councillor, Jordan Carter (above) offers a way out of the party’s ideological stalemate.
"WHAT LABOUR MUST DO", says Labour’s influential Policy Council member, Jordan Carter, in a 17 January posting on the blogsite Just Left, is "turn itself inside out."
"For better or worse," says Carter, "the fifth Labour government was a baby boomer government. The political methods of the 70s and 80s were those which ran it: it was tightly managed and focused. I get the sense though that people are looking now for something a little different. Some in Labour look at Key’s hands-off approach and see a weakness. I see a strength. The rise of ICT, the end of ‘deference’ towards authority, and growing generations of people who are as comfortable online as offline mean that a political party that is centralised and top down cannot really capture the public imagination."
This is a challenge of no mean measure – not only to the Labour leader, Phil Goff (a classic representative of the "baby boomer" generation) but also to the top-down style of governance perfected by and inherited from Helen Clark. It follows, and provides a measure of ideological cover to the open Caucus rebuke which Wellington Central MP, Grant Robertson, and Party President, Andrew Little, delivered to Goff following his controversial "Nationhood" speech to Grey Power Palmerston North on 26 November 2009.
Robertson’s and Little’s warning shots across Goff’s bow were generally interpreted as proof that any serious attempt to divert Labour down the path of social conservatism will be strenuously resisted. In reality, all that the knee-jerk reaction of the party’s social-liberal wing confirmed was that the debilitating intellectual lock-down of the Clark years has yet to be lifted.
Like that eerie rock video from the mid-90s, in which an ethereal young woman moves through city streets holding high a placard saying: "Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt", the social-liberals’ hair-trigger sensitivity to the slightest philosophical challenge reveals a political party that is not only fresh out of ideas, but frightened of finding new ones.
It is this debilitating ideological stalemate that Carter’s gutsy posting seeks to address:
"What Labour must do is turn itself inside out … we also have to invite people in to join with us and help shape what we are doing next … We need to be the party that people see as grassroots based, and where they know that if they want to raise an issue or a concern, it will filter through to what our policy is …We have to do this if we are to be relevant, and if we want to win there is nothing more important than being relevant."
But, is Carter’s call for Labour to radically democratise itself a serious one? Because, historically-speaking, it was the ten years of democratic radicalisation between the election of Jim Anderton as Labour Party President in 1979 and the split which gave birth to his New Labour Party in 1989 that led to the "centralised and top-down" political machine Carter is now urging his party to move beyond?
There is no disputing the sense of openness and excitement which Anderton’s five-year tenure in the presidency brought to the party. Membership swelled, conferences grew livelier and more assertive, and the policies which "filtered through" to Labour’s Policy Council demanded increasingly radical social and economic changes.
The irony, of course, was that as Labour’s rank-and-file were moving steadily to the Left, the Parliamentary Labour Party was moving steadily to the Right. The unleashing of "Rogernomics" in 1984 ignited a firestorm of opposition within Labour’s organisational wing that engulfed – and eventually divided – the whole party.
Carter is too young to remember what a radically democratised Labour Party looks like: the regional conferences where hundreds of delegates passionately argued their case as the media waited outside; the annual conferences where long queues of speakers lined up behind the microphones to debate contentious remits in the full glare of the television lights; and where non-MPs like Margaret Wilson, Rob Campbell, Rex Jones and Pat Kelly became household names.
To rebuild such a party, Carter and his comrades would first have to re-draft Labour’s current constitution: a product not of the 70s and 80s but of the "new managerialist" 90s; and purpose-built to de-fang and demobilise the party’s rank-and-file. The committee- and workshop-based structures, in which the MPs and their hand-picked "voices of moderation" hold sway, would need to make way for the raucous plenary democracy of the conference floor, and the ability of Policy Councillors (like Carter himself) to rip the radical guts out of rank-and-file remits long before they reach that conference floor, curtailed.
And, as if these changes aren’t dangerous enough, Labour would also need to increase its membership by a factor of at least five: actively recruiting a new generation of young New Zealanders every bit as bolshie as their parents and grandparents, but armed, in the 21st Century, with all the anarchic potential of the Internet – from organising websites and personal blogs, to Facebook and Twitter.
Such an influx of new members – most of them gloriously unaltered by the neutering experience of the party’s university branches – would instantly put a great many of Labour’s existing members’ noses out of joint. As would any attempt to reassert the rights of the Party over those of its parliamentary wing.
That said, Carter’s formula for reinvigorating Labour’s "brand" would definitely "work". And, pretty soon, "relevancy" would be the least of his problems!
The full-scale democratisation of a mainstream political organisation in the age of the Internet has the potential to revolutionise the practice of democracy – as Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for the White House, and the Republican "Tea-Baggers" counter-attack – have so dramatically illustrated. For the first time in 70 years, ordinary citizens possess the means to stage a successful end-run around the traditional gate-keepers of national politics: party bosses and the news media.
If that’s the sort of change Labour’s up-and-comers really are looking for, then here’s a test. Throw all the party’s organisational resources behind the Unite trade union’s petition for a Citizen’s Initiated Referendum to lift the Minimum Wage to $15.00 per hour – and shame Labour’s MPs into leading the charge.
The Unite campaign offers vast potential for Goff and his caucus to demonstrate "the statecraft of the party". It might not turn Labour "inside out" – but it would at least get the insiders out on the street.
This essay was originally published in The Independent of 28 January 2010.