Tuesday 30 September 2014

Changing Leaders Will Not Be Enough

Trial By Ordeal: The techniques of the Seventeenth Century Witchfinders-General might be preferable to the process Labour has adopted to uncover the reasons for its woeful performance in the 2014 General Election. It's a pity the Party has not allowed itself to be guided by the National Party's response to its own, even worse, debacle back in 2002.
WHY DOES LABOUR do this to itself? Yes, they have just suffered an unprecedented (post-1922) election defeat, but that’s only because the 2014 General Election was itself unprecedented (post-1951).
And, besides, I’m tempted to say ‘so what?’ In 2002 the National Party suffered an even more embarrassing result when Bill English led his party to its worst defeat ever. National’s Party Vote plunged from a bad 30.5 percent in 1999, to an even worse 20.9 percent in 2002. (A whopping percentage point slide of 9.6, compared to David Cunliffe’s 2.8.)
The interesting thing about that debacle, however, is not what the National Party did in response, but what it didn’t do.
For a start, it didn’t change its leader. National understood (as Labour apparently does not) that a debacle on the scale of 2002 has many more contributing factors than simply a poor performance by the party leader. Defeat on such a scale is clear evidence of systemic – as well as personal – failures. Which is why the first priority of National’s hard-headed businessmen and farmers was to give the party organisation a very solid kick in the bum – not to sack Bill English. (He would keep.)
In the months following its 2002 defeat National thoroughly renovated itself: achieving for the Right what Jim Anderton, between 1979 and 1984, had achieved for the Left. Namely, the transformation of an ageing party into a vehicle more appropriately aligned to the economic, social and political context in which it operated.
Crucial to the success of such operations is the concentration of decision-making power in the hands of those best equipped to wield it. Under MMP, one of the most important functions to  streamline is the formation of the Party List. National has achieved this by means of an all-powerful board of directors; the Greens by giving the job to their party members. For Labour, however, the list formation process remains the Party’s Achilles’ heel.
Bluntly, party list formation in the Labour Party is a colossal rort; a travesty of democratic principle on the scale of the “rotten boroughs” that once allowed the British aristocracy to control the composition of the House of Commons. More horse-trading takes place during this dangerously opaque process than at an Irish county fair – with considerably worse outcomes.
It’s ironic really, because Labour once boasted the most ruthless and centralised mechanism for selecting candidates of all the political parties. Seventy years ago it was the selector representatives of the all-powerful Labour Party Executive who called the shots – and they seldom missed. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then National, when renovating its structures, post-2002, paid Labour the most fulsome of compliments.
The tide of democratisation which has swept over Labour since the departure of Helen Clark (a “Red Tsar” if ever there was one!) rules out any return to the days of Peter Fraser’s politburo. The next logical step, therefore, is to follow the Green Party’s example by passing over the responsibility for drawing up Labour’s List to the whole membership.
Applying the principle of one-person, one-vote, would necessitate another important reform of Labour’s rules: the identification of every member of an affiliated trade union wishing to be associated with the Labour Party. This would mean that the opinions of trade unionists would be registered individually, by secret ballot, not collectively, in public. It would also end forever the frankly corrupt practice of trade union general secretaries cogitating alone in their Wellington offices, and then voting “on behalf” of their unasked and voiceless membership.
Those New Zealanders who have been puzzled by the glaring discrepancy between the votes cast for Labour’s electorate candidates and Labour’s share of the Party Vote, have yet to grasp the level of distortion the Party’s list selection processes have wrought upon the public’s perception of what Labour has become. There are Labour MPs and candidates (Stuart Nash take a bow) who are both well-known and well-liked in their electorates. And then there’s the Labour Party itself, an institution which, to an increasing number of New Zealanders, is neither well-understood nor well-liked.
If Labour learns anything from its latest drubbing at the polls, then it should be this. Electoral success must no longer be left to the vagaries of candidate and list selection processes which owe more to ideological obsessions and sectoral horse-trading than to the needs of Labour’s electoral base. Labour’s great failing is that its representatives, with a handful of worthy exceptions (mostly Maori and Pasifika) have gradually ceased to resemble the people whose Party Votes it demands.
The National Party, upon being sternly reprimanded by the voters for similar political failings, quietly and efficiently set about making sure that their players matched their supporters. The results were spectacular. If Labour accomplishes a similar transformation, then it can expect the same.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 September 2014.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

Maybe I'm just not getting things this week but what do you want them to do Chris? You want them to choose better candidates? You want to fire all the old guys and bring in a whole lot of bright new fresh faces? Left-wing faces I hope :-).

Chris Trotter said...

If you want to know what I want them to do, GS, just read the previous posting.

Will they do it?

Of course not.

And I'm in no position to make them.

Anonymous said...

In my view, the current voting process of having to "tick" a party list is a poor process

There have been a couple of parties where I have been more inclined to vote for that party based on their policies, but totally dis-inclined due to the high list position of one or two members that I would find very hard to vote for.

(Sue Bradford, Margaret Wilson, Don Brash come to mind).

Countering those people have been people like Sue Kedgley who I very much wanted to see in Parliament. Net result - while Kedgley and Bradford were in the same party (Green), my dislike of Bradford over-rode my preference for Kedgley and I never voted green while Bradford was on the list. I would have liked a STV option for list members so that I could order my preference within a party at election time. Then I could vote for the party of my preference (say Green), and put the people I didn't like (like Bradford) last

Labour has the same problem. Too much deadwood too high on the list. And no way for the individual voter to be able to express their preference.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Still not sure – it's been that sort of a day – but you are correct. If you want them to do something sensible, they almost certainly won't. Too many vested interests.

Brendan McNeill said...


I take the view that New Zealand needs a viable opposition party that commands the respect of 35%+ of the electorate. I’m not a socialist, or a ‘progressive’ but I would be happy to see a functional Labour party that has ‘built footpaths where people walk’ or words to that effect.

It would consist of candidates like Damian O’Conner, David Shearer and others whom ordinary Kiwi’s recognise as being ‘like us’. MP’s who are aspirational for their regions, for their constituency, for the country as a whole.

Not MP’s who are hell bent on re-shaping us into their image.

Not MP’s who have a utopian vision that can only be reached across an ocean of blood, and even then the shoreline recedes faster than we can approach it.

Do I think Labour as it is presently constituted can achieve this?

No sadly I don’t.

Give them another two election losses, and personnel refresh and it may happen.

Genuinely, I hope it does.

Anonymous said...

First things first: safe electorate MPs have got no business being on the list at all.

Mark Wilson said...

Chris you are a dangerous man from the Right's perspective but thankfully Labour will not listen.
National is nothing if not pragmatic - if winning requires them to dump people they will bring in a bulldozer.
The Greens, Maori seats and the Left wing in Labour stick to their principles (excluding Clark who just wanted to win)while National sticks to ruling.
The natural order of things of course.

Anonymous said...

How can they hope to win in 2017 with such open in-fighting? Where is the maturity and togetherness? They should just appoint a new leader.
They are in a shambles, and the airing of dirty laundry is being done in the wide open. National must be loving it.

John Key will be in power for another decade at this rate.

pat said...

agree Chris that the formula is relatively simple..fear however that the implementation will prove nigh on impossible....if it all turns to custard, which faction gets custody of the moniker?

Anonymous said...

Re: Anonymous, if my reading of the Fijian election is correct, the public cast a party vote directly for the candidate they wanted most, allowing the public a measure of selection of the party list. That would make unpopular candidates unelectable no matter what the party numbered them. I do wonder if having the Labour membership at large selecting the party list would have the unintended consequence of demoting the more electable MPs popular with the public but not seen as left-wing enough by the rank and file...

Davo Stevens said...

There is an option: Move the Parliamentary Term out to 4 years and then have mid-term elections every two years where people vote for the list candidates in the order they would like.
That would give people a sense of having more say in who's in Parliament.

Make gerrymandering and coat-tailing illegal too.

There would still be a problem with peeps not voting but I suspect that they would be more inclined when they know that they are having a real say.

Wayne Mapp said...

Well 4 terms makes sense. The normal period of govt would be 8 years with an occasional govt doing 12. It would lead to more consistent govt policy and a bit less short termism.

You can't stop parties doing deals in electorates without being fundamentally undemocratic. The Nats had candidates in both Ohariu and Epsom.
Are you really going to make it illegal for party leaders to say for instance UF and ACT are good partners, voters we want you take the hint. This is different to the coat tail provision, of bringing in extra members if they win the seat.

Charles Etherington said...

There's no problem with people not voting. It's a complete red herring. Irrelevant to your deserved problems.
One solution for Labourites other than taking up basket weaving would be a return to FPP. Key could save you with the stroke of a pen.
But no. For it's sins, Labour has been sentenced to suffer the Greens, making them too unelectable. You now join them in the wilderness.
Now their dear leader has been infected with the contradictions the Greens are notorious for. He wants to resign so he can be re-elected and thereby save the party and win the next election. Ha! Keep him!

pat said...

the last we want to do is entrench any of them for 4 years ...the short termism being displayed by the markets has nothing to do with electoral cycle...but then I guess all sorts of irrelevant agendas will be advanced during this window of opportunity.i see no-one appears willing or able to nominate which faction deserves the "Labour" title..which speaks volumes as the answer to that question is also the answer to their current dilemma..the rest are but fellow travelers.

Anonymous said...

I'd opt for a totally NEW party, to be honest, the "brand" Labour has been spoiled beyond repair now, over three decades.

I have some great ideas, and it can be pulled off very successfully, if some smart people would bother to put their individual or past party preferences aside.

There is a space for a new left of centre, also environmentally minded, yet pragmatic, possibly business inclusive party, that would definitely be a massive alternative for Key and his "old " Nats.

Let us move ahead and forward, found a NEW progressive party, that embraces what Labour once stood for, and more that we cherish now, with more diversity.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Jesus Charles, I don't remember you being this gracious when National had a worse election defeat.:-) Calm down, these things go in cycles, always have, always will.

Chris Trotter said...


The Left in New Zealand is going through an extremely unhappy time at the moment.

As we work our way through it, Bowalley Road will continue making space for conservative commentary - but only on the strict proviso that it offers something constructive and/or thoughtful to the on-going debate about the Left's future.

Those with nothing to offer Bowalley Road's readers but supercilious gloating and schadenfreude are strongly advised to find another site.

For the foreseeable future, I will be moderating all such comments with an iron hand.

You have been warned.

Davo Stevens said...

@ Wayne Mapp:
No definitely not. If we were to extend out the Parliamentary term to 4 years then THERE MUST BE A GOOD WAY FOR VOTERS TO CONTROL WHAT HAPPENS IN PARLIAMENT!! The mid-term elections would do that.

Secondly, At present there is nothing illegal about a party writing letters to it's members and supporters instructing them to vote for another party e.g. ACT. You know ACT; the party of "Self Reliance", "Hard Work" and "No Hand-outs" who wouldn't be in Parliament now if it hadn't got a hand-out from the Nats. They did the same with Peter 'Wind-in-the-Willows' Dunne. He'd be gone now too.

Having a mid-term election would allow voters to judge a party list MP by their own merits. Not having the MP's imposed on them. That, my friend, is Democracy! It would keep the Govt. in power honest.

Another option is to have binding referendae that the Govt must follow on all major issues. Like Switzerland has. That doesn't mean areferendae for everything but for the most important issues like selling off assets. That too is DEMOCRACY mate, power to the people!

As an aside: Will David Fletcher have to go through a 90 day probationary period like the rest of us must do? Can't see that myself.

Victor said...

Seeing our voting system has again become subject for comment, may I offer the following approach:

1) A smaller House of Representatives to be voted in on a list basis only, thus getting rid of coat-tailing and removing the confusion still apparently befuddling voters over the relevance of their two votes

2) The reduction of the threshold to 4%

3) A second chamber, with powers to discuss, delay and revise legislation, elected on the STV system within large multi-member constituencies

4) A four year term with set termination dates

We are one of the few developed countries with a single chamber legislature and we can hardly any longer claim to be one of the best governed. So maybe it's time to revert to the global two chamber norm.

We also need to address the key dilemma of all proportionally representative systems.

Lists can provide you with the degree of clarity necessary for government but can turn MPs into ciphers of their party machines and/or place-people for special interests, whilst divorcing them from the pressures of looking after their electors.

STV, by contrast, tends to reduce the power of party managers and increase that of local electors. It favours candidates with large personalities, strong local links and a capacity for service.

So let's put it all into the melting pot again and come up with a system that gives us the best of both worlds.

I, of course, assume that a list system and STV are the only two approaches worth considering, as all others are insufficiently proportional and, hence, insufficiently democratic.

Any takers?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I don't know about the rest of what Victor is advocating, but I did vote for STV or somesuch when we got a vote on this. MMP looked a bit clunky – though it is streets ahead of F P P.

pat said...

i am sure revisiting our electoral system and proposing hypothetical solutions will be of great assistance to those members of the Labour party with a hand in its future form....but then spending time and energy off topic was probably what placed it in the precarious position it now finds itself in.

Victor said...

"There is a space for a new left of centre, also environmentally minded, yet pragmatic, possibly business inclusive party,"

But we have two of those already!

markus said...

I'm by no means opposed to the Party adopting the techniques so effectively employed by the Witchfinders-General.

Particularly if it turns out various members of the ABC faction have committed (1) Heresy by Name, (2) Heresy by Thought or (3) Heresy by Deed.

In terms of your broad thrust, yep, I'm all for a democratisation of the List process, a general dilution of the power exercised by the entrenched Identity Politics factions, and for the selection of true local representatives as Electorate candidates.

Anonymous said...

Recently there's much use of the metaphor 'dead wood' to describe some of the Labour caucus. Can someone tell me what the metaphor means? Does it refer to the ABC club? Are they all old? Have they been in parliament so long they no longer perform? What makes me puzzled by the metaphor is that Mr Cunliffe's wife described Mr Cosgrove as past his use-by-date (another perplexing metaphor as he's only 44.) What exactly is dead wood in the Labour caucus?

Anonymous said...

I think the biggest problem facing Labour today is the lack of membership. Nearly all other problems flow from that one. A party with 5 to 6,000 members is going to have a hard time matching up to a party with the human resources of six times as many members, is going to find to harder to create good policy, will have fewer quality MPs, and is going to be distorted by the radicals - something that has become more apparent in recent times.

Difficult questions need to be asked as to why Labour is having such a hard time attracting new members. The Conservative Party has 8,000 so it isn't like people are no longer willing to join a party.

What discourages people from joining Labour? The conclusion I've come to is that potential members are scared off by the culture within the party, i.e. the existing membership has politics that are alienating to potential members; the kind of ordinary people who were once the very base of the Labour movement when it was mass membership party now mostly stay away. Somehow it must bring them back.

Davo Stevens said...

The Presidential Elections in France are under STV. The problem with that is that often the very one you vote for is not the one that you vote for ultimately. They also ban all polls for 6 weeks before an election, that stops people being influenced by fiddled polls.

I agree Victor we DO need a real Centre Left party. The Greens are more Centrist than left and that only leaves Hone's bunch.

The party can be centre left and still business friendly. And still support the poorer members of our society.

Get ready for a steep increase in fuel prices and a 'Belt-tightening" because of the drop off of the Dairy prices and the dropping of our Dollar.

Anonymous said...

Victor - your comment from 18.40 h on 02 October:

Well that is one of the problems, we have Labour with just some environmental policy, but also wanting to continue with the fossil fuel exploitation and use, and we have the Greens, being more profoundly environmental, and otherwise increasingly adopting policies that also please many in the centre and even some on the right.

A split force though, especially when they are not cooperating well during an election campaign, is not a good showing.

Hence it would be better to have a party that can embrace all the main policies of Labour, Greens, some of NZ First and Mana, and then represent a joint force, one party, that can be seen as a valid, competent alternative to the Nats.

It would require some compromises to have such a united party, so some of Labour's positions need to be changed or chopped, same as some of the Greens.

And as long as Labour is having various factions in caucus, too busy fighting each other, the present "left" is increasingly seen as a sad kind of laughing stock, and NO alternative in the eyes of most voters.

Make Labour and Greens both redundant, by creating a new party, covering most of the ground of what these parties stand for.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Please not an upper house. If you look at Australia and the U.S. they just get in the way. Plus we don't need another 50 or so rentiers bludging off the state. :-)

Charles Etherington said...

Hmmm. Sent a post from The US apologising for being a right winger but it has not appeared.
So yes sorry. You are in mourning and it is rude to gloat.
Myain suggestion for Labour is to first take back the ground Green and NZF hss stolen from you. Then later when you look again electable try for a share of the middle. May take 5 years but csn be done.
Dump Cunliff out of the party.

pat said...

The assertion that we need to create a left of centre super grouping encompassing Labour , the Greens et al is misguided and presumptuous...why on earth would the Greens or any of the others want to be bound to the debacle that the Labour Party has become? The very existence of these alternative organisations is because Labour was not providing the forum for their concerns....Labour must sort its own house out before any approach is made to these parties to construct an aligned left block that is capable of working together....dont hold your breath.

Victor said...


My proposal doesn't necessarily involve having any more parliamentarians than at present.

It merely involves splitting them up so that we can apply both forms of PR, gain the advantage of both and avoid their respective defects.

It's also a way of getting rid of coat-tailing without diluting proportionality, whilst providing voters with a stronger local voice and greater accountability.

Moreover, although I favour an enhanced regulatory role for government, I think we tend to have far too much rushed and ill-considered legislation, which is the kind of thing that a second chamber can help modify.

Of recent years, I've found it impossible to live in New Zealand without musing at least once a day on how badly we are governed.

This might just reflect the fact that I've grown old and curmudgeonly here and it might be that I'd think similarly wheresoever I chose to hang my hat. But it might also reflect an underlying reality.


"spending time and energy off topic was probably what placed it in the precarious position it now finds itself in."

Agreed, as far as Labour's leadership is concerned. But seeing the topic had come up......

"why on earth would the Greens or any of the others want to be bound to the debacle that the Labour Party has become? The very existence of these alternative organisations is because Labour was not providing the forum for their concerns..."

A question I would ask as a non-partisan and non-tribal centre-left voter (I'm a b...dy immigrant) is whether Labour should automatically be considered as the vehicle around which a re-united left could eventually cohere.

It seems to me that the Greens have almost as much right to this claim as Labour and already constitute a reasonably successful small "broad church", even if they tend towards fundamentalism on a few pet issues and are short on links to trade unions.

Many people in my age group take a similar view of New Zealand First, although I'm not of this view and sincerely doubt the party will have much of a future when its founder retires (which even he will do in time).

So "why Labour?"

And I'm not assuming this question can't be answered. I just want to know what the answer is!

Anonymous said...

@ pat, 10.34 am, 03 October: It is easier said than done, to "sort out" the "debacle" Labour has become.

You have some long serving electorate MPs, who could theoretically just as well sit on the more "centrist" fringes within National, and on the other hand you have some former union and other activist, all in one party, but being unable to create enough common ground, as it seems.

We are dealing with strong minded "personalities" there, who are not going to change, and that is part of the problem. You cannot "refresh" and "sort out" a party when the caucus is as it is, and the ones left will be there for another 3 years, if not longer.

A new party would instead offer space and opportunity for fresh faces, an new start, from scratch, without all the baggage there may still be associated with Labour, like those that once happily followed "Rogernomics" and the "third way" of the Tony Blair type of policies.

Also for too many out there, the Greens are still seen for what they once were, while a new party can present itself with new ideas, newly formed policies and more.

I would not simply dismiss any thoughts of a wider left of centre, progressive movement or party, which would make Labour and the others redundant. And some policies of NZ First may also be attractive, and we know, that party will hardly survive, once old age and health forces Peters to give up politics.

Davo Stevens said...

Pat is right, we tried a Left multi party back in the 90's called Alliance. It was a mishmash of all different policies and eventually blew apart. I can't see a multi party Left Block working together now either.

As I have said before; we need a genuine Left party, preferably a major party, so voters have a real choice between two separate policies as there used to be back in bad old daze of FPP.

pat said...

@anon 16.15 Oct3
I did say don't hold your breath...If they dont find a way as you imply they wont then I suspect they will wither and 24% may seem like a high point.
I dont dismiss wide appeal left grouping forming, but if we are considering certainly the next election or the election after then the left I believe needs one of two things (or possibly both)...Labour to sort its internal divisions well enough to present a credible alternative to the public or a substantial economic shock...we could do without the later .
Should Labour fail any resulting wide appeal newly formed left grouping is going to take a significant period to develop and build credibility with the electorate..I wouldnt see it as being a credible option to form a government in such a short period as 5 or 6 years.

TruthHurts said...

Too many career politicos whose allegiance is to themselves.

Lost connection with the voters who see a party that champions out loud and with unity Gay Marriage; but a party that is only a whisper when it comes to outstanding issues such as welfare for the rich (e.g. $1billion p.a. in tax cuts to the wealthiest 5%.)

82% of men DID NOT vote Labour. Yet nobody is talking about this. If this figure was lowered to a more realistic 60% of men, then a Labour lead coalition would be the government now.

So back to the beginning. To many career politicians whose allegiance is to themselves. These career politicos are generally of an educated upper middle class background and have no understanding of what it means to live in areas such as South Auckland. They hypothesize based on what they think should be done, not on what they know, or we the voters feel.