Revolution On The Conference Floor: At the 2012 Labour Party Conference in Ellerslie, Trade Unionist Len Richards told the Labour leadership: "Today's the day we take our party back!" But will the forward march of Labour's rank-and-file be halted at this weekend's 2015 Conference in Palmerston North? (Photo by John Chapman)
“ONLY ONE political party conference matters in New Zealand”, says veteran political journalist, Richard Harman. “The National Party’s conference is little more than a PR presentation; NZ First keeps theirs behind closed doors and the Greens is entirely predictable.” But, according to Harman, Labour conferences are different. As recently as 2012, he says, “Labour’s has been coloured by political blood on the floor.”
There’s a very good reason for paying attention to what goes on at Labour Party Conferences, and that’s because the political fault line dividing the defenders of the status quo from the advocates of real change runs right down the middle of the conference floor. It’s been that way since the 1980s when a small cabal of Labour MPs, led by Roger Douglas, seized control of the party’s parliamentary caucus and, upon winning the 1984 General Election, introduced a slew of far-right economic and social reforms that transformed not only New Zealand but the Labour Party as well.
Prior to the 1980s, the political fault line ran – much more naturally – between the Labour and National parties. Yes, there were radicals and conservatives in both organisations, but on neither side of the ideological divide did the opponents and advocates of change step outside the traditional boundaries of Left and Right. Labour’s values were collectivist, solidaristic and firmly rooted in the public sphere. National’s instincts, by contrast, were resolutely individualistic and fiercely protective of private enterprise.
By the time “Hurricane Roger” had blown itself out, the Labour Party was barely recognizable. Tens-of-thousands of members had simply voted with their feet – deserting a party that had unquestionably deserted them.
Those traditional left-wing members who opted to stay, resisted Roger Douglas’s “free market” reforms in a series of increasingly bitter rear-guard actions, until it became clear that a narrow majority of party membership simply could not be persuaded that there were viable alternatives to the policies “their” government had introduced. At that point, roughly a third of the remaining Labour membership split from the organisation to form the NewLabour Party, led by Jim Anderton. A few years later, Douglas’s hard-core followers did the same. Despairing of Labour ever again uplifting the banner of market reform, they split away to form the United and Act parties.
With the party in tatters, and the remaining membership evincing an alarming “My party, right or wrong!” attitude to politics, Labour, as a political force, was reduced to its parliamentary caucus; parliamentary staffers; paid electorate personnel; the party secretariat, affiliated trade union officials; and the handful of individuals in each electorate upon whom each Labour MP depended for personal and/or campaign support. Included in all these groups (bar the caucus) were a clutch of ambitious individuals determined to win public office.
This was the Labour Party over which Helen Clark presided for the best part of 15 years. Its active core was comprised of people whose professional and political gaze was focused upwards, on the needs and deeds of the party leadership, rather than outwards, to what remained of Labour’s rank-and-file membership. It was a party dominated by what the Soviets used to call apparatchiks – men and women of the apparatus – who were extremely protective of the party leader, as well as the formal and informal structures which supported her. They were also deeply suspicious of, and often overtly hostile towards, dissident behaviour.
One of the few remaining entry points for dissidents in this increasingly oligarchical Labour Party were the handful of private-sector trade unions which had, in spite of all that had happened in the 1980s and 90s, remained affiliated to the Labour Party. From these, paid officials and active delegates could be fed into the party’s annual conferences in numbers proportionate to their union’s affiliated membership.
It is difficult to overstate the impact of these unionists on the morale of ordinary members. They brought with them the direct experience of the working-class people who still constituted the bulk of Labour’s support in the electorate. Not being employees of the party, or Parliamentary Services, they had no reason to defer to the opinions of Labour’s caucus and often contradicted their pronouncements. Such open defiance of the hierarchy was infectious. Very slowly, individual party members relearned how to assert themselves against the apparatchiks.
From 2005, with growing momentum, Labour’s annual conference began to recover an increasing measure of autonomy vis-à-vis the party’s parliamentary leadership. “My party, right or wrong!”, was fast becoming “The wrongs of my party can be righted.”
Between 2011 and 2014 the power of the ordinary and affiliated members was extended to include the election of the party leader and the drafting of the party platform. Terrified, the parliamentary caucus struck back: destroying the reputation of the party’s choice for leader, David Cunliffe; and allowing the party’s share of the popular vote to fall to levels not seen since the 1920s.
Whether Labour’s rank-and-file revolution continues to roll on at the 2015 Annual Conference (being held this weekend in Palmerston North) is what POLITIK blog proprietor, Richard Harman, and The Daily Blog’s editor, Martyn Bradbury, are most interested in finding out. Will the present leader’s, Andrew Little’s, trade union background, and the recent merger of the conservative Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union with the much more radical Service and Food Workers Union, mean more union agitation on the conference floor, or less? Will the presence of former union officials Matt McCarten and Neale Jones in the Leader of the Opposition’s Office allow the parliamentary leadership to, at last, fasten a lid on the ferment down below?
The litmus test will be the conference’s ability to claim a role in shaping the party’s position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Little and his team of ex-union apparatchiks will be working hard, even now, to prevent any attempt by the rank-and-file to re-commit Labour to its former stance of qualified opposition. Crucial to their success will be the attitude of the Party President, Nigel Haworth. Will he, like Jim Anderton’s successor as Party President, Margaret Wilson, sanction an open, party-wide debate? Or, will he use his gavel to shut down the voices of dissent?
Will the litmus paper turn red – or blue?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 3 November 2015.