Caucus Takes Charge: Newly elected Prime Minister, David Lange, surrounded by his Cabinet, 1984. Paradoxically, electoral victory often signals defeat for a political party. When Caucus becomes Government the ability of the party organisation to hold its parliamentary representatives to account is fatally weakened.
DOES THE CASTLE STREET BRANCH of the Labour Party still exist? Back in the 80s it boasted over 400 paid-up members – many of them academic staff from the University of Otago. The British political scientist, author and broadcaster, Austin Mitchell, had founded the branch in the early 1960s. Like its counterpart at the University of Auckland, the much more famous Princes Street branch, Castle Street saw its role as trailblazing progressive (sometimes radical) policy suggestions well ahead of public opinion: Labour’s future manifestoes.
Back then progressive/radical reform was synonymous with social reform: liberalising the laws forbidding abortion and homosexuality; cutting off contact with Apartheid South Africa, declaring New Zealand nuclear-free and even decriminalising cannabis. Given the makeup of the branch’s activist base, discussion of these issues tended to focus not on whether such changes should be made, but how far they should go.
Then came Rogernomics – and consensus went out the window. A narrow majority of the active branch members opposed Roger Douglas’s neoliberal reforms, while a determined and well-connected minority supported them staunchly. The discussions ceased and the debates that replaced them were bitter and hard fought affairs. And while the left may have had the numbers in Castle Street and the wider party, in the only institution that truly mattered, Labour’s parliamentary caucus, Roger Douglas and his allies continued to hold sway.
Just how absolutely Labour’s future lay in the hands of its MPs was driven home to me the night David Butcher put in a guest appearance at the Castle Street Branch. Naturally, the left-wing members of the branch were giving the MP for Hastings a very hard time. Most of all they wanted to know whether he and his colleagues would abide by the party’s firm stance against the privatisation of state assets.
Butcher’s response chilled me to my bones. The Government, he said, was implementing the policies the country needed. He would rather lose his seat than support policies detrimental to New Zealand’s interests.
I knew then that, as a genuine social-democratic party, Labour was finished.
The only political leverage that the ordinary members of any party have over their MPs is the threat of deselection. But here, in front of us, David Butcher was affirming proudly his readiness to lose his parliamentary seat rather than reverse Roger Douglas’s reforms. We all knew then that Rogernomics was set to roll on – no matter what the party said or did.
We also knew that division within Labour’s ranks meant certain defeat. Defeat, in turn, meant National. And by the late 1980s National was as committed to pushing ahead with neoliberalism as Roger Douglas and David Butcher. For the Labour Left it was a Lose/Lose scenario. For the Rogernomes, however, it was Lose/Win. While they might fall as loyal soldiers in the battle, Neoliberalism itself would triumph.
What has all this, the minutiae of branch life in the Labour Party of 25 years ago, got to do with the political dynamics of 2014?
As it turns out, quite a lot.
Like the Castle Street Branch of the 1980s, the Labour Party of 2014 boasts a narrow left-wing majority. That majority, after changing the party rules, elected David Cunliffe as its leader and is in the process of constructing a binding policy platform for the next Labour Government. At first glance, then, the lessons of the 1980s appear to have been learned.
All but one – and that the most important of them all. Majorities mean nothing outside the only Labour Party institution that truly matters: the parliamentary caucus. If you cannot control the caucus, then you simply cannot reassure the party that its best efforts will not be rendered worthless through the calculated insubordination of a clique of rebellious caucus members.
This is especially problematic when these insubordinate rebels (most of whom are securely ensconced in safe Labour seats) believe it will be easier for like-minded politicians to protect “the policies this country needs” if David Cunliffe and all that he represents loses the forthcoming general election.
Butcher’s gambit is as powerful today as it was 25 years ago.
What are Cunliffe’s options? Obviously the option of splitting the Labour Party and forming “NewLabour” – the Labour Left’s choice in 1989 – is not available to the party leader. Which leaves the other option put forward by Matt McCarten back in 1988.
“It seems obvious to me now that the right-wing MPs have put their hands up and threatened the party”, Matt told Labour’s president, Rex Jones. “So we should call a special conference of the party and expel them … The Labour Party made a mistake selecting these people so sack them. Throw them out and let them stand against us. They’ll lose and the Labour Party can rebuild itself.”
“You mad little fucker!” Rex replied.
Maybe. Maybe not.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 June 2014.