Tuesday 20 November 2012

Revolution On The Conference Floor

Reclaiming The Party: "Today's the day we take our party back!" Len Richards challenges the Caucus's attempt to blunt the rank-and-file's campaign for democratisation at the 2012 Annual Conference of the Labour Party. (Photo by John Chapman)

HOW DO REVOLUTIONS BEGIN? With ordinary people discovering their power. When someone or something previously regarded as all-powerful is suddenly seen to falter and fall.
Is it over-the-top to call what happened last weekend at the Labour Party’s annual conference in Auckland a revolution? Do twenty-first century political parties even wield that sort of power anymore? Hasn’t “revolutionary party” become an oxymoron?
Maybe. But something is changing in the world of progressive politics and the radical changes ratified by the 622 delegates to last weekend’s Labour Party Conference have put New Zealand squarely into the vanguard of that change.
And that’s not just because Labour’s membership voted themselves a decisive role in choosing their party leader. After all, the British Labour Party did something very similar thirty years ago. Nor is it a matter of members having left their parliamentary wing very little in the way of wiggle room when it comes to implementing party policy. All of these changes were important, but a long way short of revolutionary.
No, the revolution really began when a number of senior members of Labour’s Parliamentary Caucus attempted to water-down the rank-and-file’s radical changes to the Party’s constitution.
Suddenly all the pent up frustrations of a membership long accustomed to being treated as little more than an enthusiastic applause-machine boiled-over into a bitter but utterly gripping floor-fight for the heart and soul of the Labour Party.
Those who had not made the minutiae of Labour Party politics their special study (which these days includes most of the Parliamentary Press Gallery) may not immediately have grasped the import of what was unfolding before their eyes last Saturday.
Historically-speaking, Labour’s traditionally restive rank-and-file have been ruthlessly whipped into line by a combination of Members of Parliament, Labour Electorate Committee (LEC) Chairs and/or trade union bosses. At the close of conference business, seated comfortably in the nearest pub, they may have groused to one another about remits they were “forced” to support or reject, but only very rarely did the membership make a fight of it. Victories for the rank-and-file were rarer still.
On Saturday, however, events unfolded very differently. At issue was the number of Labour MPs needed to “trigger” a leadership vote in which the whole party could participate. The percentage of the parliamentary caucus required to activate the party’s new Electoral College (comprising 40 percent MPs, 40 percent ordinary members, and 20 percent trade union affiliates) had originally been set at 66 percent. After loud protests this was amended to 55 percent and then reduced again by the conference delegates to 50 percent + one.
So far, so good.
The debate then shifted to the number required to precipitate a membership-wide vote after each general election. It was proposed that any party leader failing to secure the support of 60 percent of his or her caucus colleagues would have to fight it out in the Electoral College. In other words, the post-election trigger for a party-wide vote would be set at just 40 percent.
Many Labour MPs construed this as an attack directed at Labour leader, David Shearer, by his erstwhile rival, David Cunliffe. Not since the dark days of the 1980s and Rogernomics had an annual conference of the Labour Party echoed to such bitter thrusts and counter-thrusts.
But while the intense personal rivalries currently besetting Labour’s Caucus undoubtedly accounted for much of the vitriol flying back and forth last Saturday, rank-and-file resentment at being ignored and over-ruled by their parliamentary representatives was an even more important driver of dissent.
Ordinary members of the Labour Party knew their preferred candidate for party leader, David Cunliffe, had been passed over by the Caucus in favour of David Shearer. It was this decision, following years of being dictated to by the parliamentary leadership, that generated the great wave of constitutional reform which broke over last weekend’s conference.
But another factor was at work on the conference floor last weekend. In the minds of many delegates were the bitter memories of a Caucus which had not only over-ruled but betrayed the party membership: the caucus that unleashed Rogernomics.
When delegate Len Richards declared “Today’s the day we take our party back!” He was alluding to much more than last December’s leadership vote.
In the end, and despite all the arm-twisting and brow-beating by Mr Shearer’s surrogates, the 40 percent trigger – symbol of the rank-and-file’s newly-minted authority – was approved: 264 votes in favour, 237 against.
Pebbles rolling down a hillside, you may think. But landslides – and revolutions – have to begin somewhere.

David Shearer’s Sunday speech – full of bold, radical and unmistakably Labour rhetoric and policy – was his direct response to the party membership’s noisy determination to reclaim their party.
They received Mr Shearer’s speech with whoops and cheers because, in truth, they had written it themselves.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 20 November 2012.


Galeandra said...

Funny how the MSM wants to cast the changes purely in a factional light with the emphasis being on a phantom challenge by the Devil-made-Cunliffe.Of course Gowers 'reportage' which provides much of the evidence might have simply been an outcome of the workings of the caucus old-guard upon a gormless sock-puppet.Or something more sinister.

Anonymous said...

Chris, you make a bold claim in that post but give no evidence for it...

"Ordinary members of the Labour Party knew their preferred candidate for party leader, David Cunliffe, had been passed over by the Caucus in favour of David Shearer."

Really, did you poll all the members (because I wasn't asked. Maybe all the branches, no, no, I would have noticed.

You can not back up the statement that this vote was a direct result of leadership election last December, or that Cunliffe was the preferred candidate at that time, any more than the 'Old Guard' can back up their assertion that Cunliffe was behind Saturday's proceedings.

David Cunliffe is the architect of his own perils at the moment, all he had to do was say he was backing his leader - period. Come February he could have voted how he wanted (after all - its a secret ballot).

Steelykc said...

Chris - your response to all this palaver is actually really tiring. You talk about ‘ordinary members’ of the Labour Party who knew their preferred candidate David Cunliffe had been passed over for David Shearer. I’m sorry but are you referring to the whole party around the country or just in Auckland? I'm a member, and I am unaware of a groundswell of grassroots support for David Cunliffe. Your analysis is sour grapes having spent much time recently building Cunliffe up to be the answer to the crisis we find ourselves in. For God's sake get over it and stop inserting your own obsessions and historical perspective into every situation as if it's all a re-enactment being played out purely for your own cynical enjoyment. You know jolly well what happened and to say it was manufactured by some senior MPs is disingenuous. Surely the closed door affiliates meeting didn't miss your observation?
I was involved in the last Labour Party split, as were you. Do you really want this to happen again?
You are deliberately confusing the two remits together of the 40% threshold and the 40 40 20 college split. There was excellent support for the 40 40 20 - the part where 'ordinary people' get a bigger say. Our LEC was entirely supportive of that. The 40% threshold was different thing altogether and you are insinuating that to oppose that was to oppose democracy. Rubbish. Many people could see the way the remit was written could cause continuous instability and many spoken too who voted for this afterwards did not understand that this 40% challenge could eventuate at any time. Many thought it only applied to a once a year February vote. Again, confusion.
You, and Brian Edwards and Bomber et al are now left trying to look like you didn’t see this coming and so we are treated to language like, ‘crucifixion’, ‘revolution’ and ‘priest’ - as you try and mop up what actually happened. No script was written for this. Cunliffe and supporters underestimated. It’s over. Many of us members are entirely over this. I don’t want to see Cunliffe go, I want his talent to help us win. But he’s not the leader. Nor does he need to be to contribute.
We all want this Government gone. Let’s get on with it.
Katherine Curran

Brendon said...

Chris I would call it a counter revolution. The revolution was rogernomics which was part of the world wide neoliberal wave.

Rogernomics so traumatised New Zealand that there was an upswelling from the people that resulted in MMP. That was the first part in the counter revolution.

The dictorial process of implementing neoliberal policies caused our two main political parties to lose their broad mass of membership. The parties became small, centralised and top down creatures.

This conference tries to reverse that process so is part of the counter revolution.

The final part will be when neoliberal economic policy is replaced. This is just a matter of time as the public has learnt from the global financial crisis not to trust unregulated markets.

On a practical note Obama's lesson for the left is you need a good 'ground game' of active members to win elections. The lesson from the Republicans is that having extremist local political organisations is more of a hinderance than a help.

Walsingham said...

David Cunliffe does represent a significant, perhaps majority, portion of the Labour Party following who see policy in terms of housing, jobs, health, education and ethnic social stability.

The perfumed wrath with which the LP careerists have turned on him is worthy of the mean, petty and small that distinguishes part of the list. Hopefully Shearer sees this- keeps Cunliffe on the front bench (what is his treacherous crime?) understandably under a watchful eye. The man's obvious talent, energy and popular perception would see this as only pragmatic. Looking for witches and Jews (I suspect the former!) will morph into the worst of the Inquisition. At the expense of the party itself.

Calm, cool heads looking to the consequences of demoting, silencing or expelling the spokesman for traditional Labour Party ideas and his supporters- will hopefully prevail. This might even strengthen the leadership when effective problem solvers are needed? Godzone needs all New Zealanders and the gates of the Labour Party used to be wide enough to welcome all.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Katherine Curran & Recess Monkey

My claim that Cunliffe was backed by a clear majority of Labour members is based on the testimony of - David Shearer.

I had a beer with him in Kingsland back in February where he freely admitted to me that, in his view, he "won" only one of the membership meetings he attended with David Cunliffe.

Who am I to argue with your own party leader (pro tem)?

Anonymous said...

And John Key must be loving the show. Is this how Labour is going to win the next election? Honestly, I despair.

Kat said...

Winning only one of the membership meetings may have been David Shearers 'view' at the time, but was it reality?

And the left forces, force Shearer left! Some consolation for you it seems.

So it seems the conference was a success then Chris?

Ennui in Requiem said...

Touche Chris. Just looked at TheStandard, looks like the usual suspects have not perceived the real issues. Takes me back to Napoleons statement that the revolution began with the Affair of the Diamond Necklace which amply demonstrated that the regime has lost legitimacy, years prior to the Bastille. Shearer like Louis sits with members of a parliamentary aristocracy, even he and the opposition are members of this group, oblivious to the will of the people, in the pay of those who leach off the backs of the people.

As you said the people have said "no more, you will do our bidding". The problem with Labour caucus is that it appears very few have the insight to perceive that the people are restive, that their will and resolve wont be put off. Labour party members are demanding their MPs do their bidding, not just that of moneyed and corporate interests. Take heed or ignore at your peril Shearer et al. heads woll roll.

Enzo Giordani said...

Katherine Curran, you wrote: "Many people could see the way the remit was written could cause continuous instability and many spoken too who voted for this afterwards did not understand that this 40% challenge could eventuate at any time. Many thought it only applied to a once a year February vote."

Come on, really, it's not that difficult. Read the remit again. The 60%+1 threshold for a vote in caucus only applies once every three years in the February after an election and as a one-off in February next year. The rest of the time it's a simple majority and that rule was passed almost unanimously. Stop trying to confuse matters.

Anonymous said...

That is somewhat of a climb down from what you claimed in your earlier post.

Perhaps you should have said "some of the Ordinary members of the Labour Party who attended the leadership debates knew their preferred candidate for party leader, David Cunliffe, had been passed over by the Caucus in favour of David Shearer, but no one did a poll. Many other members were not asked".

As I have stated on Recess Monkey, I know of at least one MP (who is reportedly a keen Cunliffe supporter) where the membership in their electorate clearly stated that they preferred Shearer - we have no idea if that MP went with the members views or their own.

If we all focused on combating the inequality and poverty in NZ rather than trying to get "our" guy the top job, maybe we could win in 2014. As long as we continue this farce, we are letting ourselves, and kiwis down. It's time for Camp Cunliffe to build a bridge and get over it, for the good of all of us on the left.

Wayne said...

Chris, if you are using Len Richards as the example of delegates reclaiming Labour, then Labour is in real trouble.

Grant Hay said...

I for one am taking great delight in witnessing some aggro on the floor of the Labour conference. I am someone who was brought up in a family with working class Labour Party supporting roots. Like many of my friends and family I have not voted Labour for 25 yrs. The reasons for this are obvious, both to those who feel that the Labour Party left us and to those who hijacked the party to use for their own purposes. Clearly the current aristocracy of the Party decided a long time ago that they didn't need or want the support of people like me...

Anonymous said...

I'm now very uneasy about the power clique in the caucus. I don't think Cunliffe deserved demotion. What he deserved was perhaps to be deputy. But I don't think Shearer is running caucus. My guess is he is manipulated by Robertson and Co. The last thing they want is a strong leader who will lead rather than ask them what to do. This is a sad day. I expect NZ First and the Greens to profit majorly.

peterpeasant said...

Good grief! National wins 2014 by default. Labour does a no show.

I am seriously thinking of emigrating to Burma or Brazil.

What would the difference be between a Shearer or Key led government?

peterpeasant said...

Shearer trying to demonstrate how how "strong" he is does nothing to bring back the missing labout voters from the last two elections.

What does Shearer and his party offer to to the people who did not vote for him, or his party in the last two general elections.

Bill Rowling (+ guitar) kicks wannabe Norm Kirk in the gooleys, is going to win 2014?

Yeah right!

Sean Fliegner said...

Sean Fliegner here - Cunliffe did not endorse "the leader" - so what ?

If Cunliffe doesn't want to at Conference why should he ? Why ?

Maybe Cunliffe thinks he is a better leader. Maybe he is right. Maybe not. Why exterminate discussion ? Why shouldn't Cunliffe say "I am better" if he wants to ? It's called democracy.

Why - when Labour is sorting out where we are going, what we stand for, do we have to back "the leader."

Especially when backing "the leader" thwarts the contest of ideas about our direction. When backing "the leader" closes down - terminates - on pain of accusations of treason - the contest of ideas we need to define ourselves.

We're not North Korea yet.

At Conference why can't Cunliffe say "I'm a better leader" ? or in ALP terms "I want to call a spill" ? Why shouldn't he ? Why ? Where best to make his case than Conference.

Conference is the forum for debate, agreement, dissent, revolt - democracy in Labour. That's in our rules and in our traditions.

Different if Cunliffe has a history of putting ego first, debate about policy and direction second. Does anyone say Cunliffe is a myopic one man ego trip ? Seriously is he ?

Jack Scrivano said...

Debate is good. Exchanging ideas is healthy. But, as far as I can see, that is not what those at the pointy end of the Labour Party are doing. They are just scrapping like kids in a playground – while occasionally pausing to pull faces at Mr Key’s gang.

If Labour wants to reclaim the Treasury benches any time in the next 20 years or so, it needs to start convincing the electorate that it has good ideas, that it can quickly make a positive difference to the lives of the vast majority of New Zealanders. And it does need to convince a vast majority.

jh said...

Ordinary members of the Labour Party knew their preferred candidate for party leader, David Cunliffe, had been passed over by the Caucus in favour of David Shearer

but who are the rank and file. Unions no longer channel the views of the workforce; instead the vacuum is filled by urban liberals with stubble on the chin.

The focusing on Cunliffe versus Shearer hides the real issues.
On radionz a couple of nights ago an Oxford University researcher with Bryan crump waxed lyrical about migration and the possibility of open borders... "and when you get an influx of people you get cheaper service in restuarants (the theme was "win/win") and economic growth"... yes for crying out loud. He/they would be the ones in the restuarant (with Professor Paul Spoonley , Helen Clark and David Cunliffe).