Monday 8 November 2021

Sweet Surrender.

Who's Ya Mama? What makes Labour’s decision to dilute the power of the Electoral College so puzzling is that Jacinda Ardern would undoubtedly be elected by Caucus and Party with near unanimous support.

THERE IS ALWAYS something deeply depressing about the phenomenon of people voluntarily surrendering their political power. That sense of tragedy is only compounded when the power being surrendered was hard-won. To have power ripped away from you by force is bad enough, but to meekly hand it over is morally reprehensible. Why, then, has the Labour Party chosen to behave reprehensibly?

The hard-won power under scrutiny here is the right of the Labour Party’s rank-and-file members and its trade union affiliates to participate in the election of the Labour Leader – alongside Labour’s Parliamentary Caucus. This was significantly diluted at Labour’s “virtual” Annual Conference which took place over the weekend just passed (6-7/11/21).

Utterly inadequate coverage of the issue by the mainstream news media (assisted greatly by the Labour Party organisation’s decision to bar journalists from witnessing the entire decision-making process) has given rise to a certain amount of uncertainty. Will the new electoral regime operate only when Labour is in government, or all the time? Assuming it’s the latter, then the electoral college will only ever come into force if a candidate for the leadership fails to secure two-thirds of the votes of his or her Caucus colleagues.

The most common argument advanced by those favouring this revision of the Party’s constitution was historical. Members were encouraged to look at the record. The Electoral College delivered Labour David Cunliffe and Andrew Little. The Caucus, on its own (because the election was less than three months away) delivered Labour – and New Zealand – Jacinda Ardern.

Cunliffe led Labour to its worst result since the 1920s. Ardern lifted Labour’s vote to the point where Winston Peters could anoint her Prime Minister. According to this argument, the Electoral College has been road-tested to the Party’s near destruction. Labour’s recent political history proves that party leaders are best chosen by the candidates’ parliamentary peers: the people uniquely positioned to see them up-close and personal. In short: Caucus should elect Labour’s Leaders, because Caucus knows them best.

Superficially, at least, this argument has a powerful attraction. There is no doubt that David Cunliffe was not well-liked by a significant number of his Caucus colleagues. Nor can it be disputed that his conduct of the 2014 election campaign was, at best, erratic. There are, however, a great many reasons why an ambitious member of any parliamentary caucus might end up being despised by his or her colleagues. Likewise, there are many factors contributing to the production of an erratic campaign.

A clever and ambitious parliamentarian who refuses to recognise the political pecking-order, and/or is unwilling to join one or other of the dominant party factions, preferring, instead, to set about constructing his or her own, will very, very swiftly acquire some pretty powerful enemies. Their enmity will only intensify if it becomes clear that the upstart has made him or herself the darling of the party. Throw ideological heterodoxy into the mix (almost certainly the explanation for Cunliffe’s popularity with Labour’s anti-neoliberal rank-and-file) and that enmity will turn deadly. The senior Labour MPs behind the ABC – Anybody But Cunliffe – group certainly recognised a dangerous interloper when they saw one.

A party caucus containing a majority of political enemies can inflict a great deal of damage on the best of leaders. Private off-the-record briefings against Cunliffe began long before he was overwhelmingly elected to the Labour Party leadership in September 2013. His exposure of the yawning ideological gulf separating Labour’s Caucus from the Party’s rank-and-file only made matters worse.

The open and relentless hatred directed against Cunliffe arguably kept him emotionally and politically off-balance. Running an effective Opposition election campaign is hard enough when your party’s heavy-hitters are all behind you. Battling one’s electoral opponents, while attempting to fend off one’s political enemies (and their well-briefed media allies) makes the job well-nigh impossible.

That Grant Robertson failed (by the narrowest of margins) to defeat Andrew Little in the second (and last?) leadership contest was in no small measure due to the membership’s smouldering resentment at the Caucus’ all-too-evident failure to support their choice for leader. That resentment congealed into something approaching despair when it became clear that Little, himself, saw his job as “healing the divisions” within both the Caucus and the Party by more-or-less jettisoning just about every left-wing policy victory that had been achieved since the departure of Helen Clark in 2008.

It was into this dank and sullen slough of despond that Jacinda Ardern descended like a star-shell just a few weeks prior to the 2017 General Election. The Caucus knew that it had no other choice, and the Party was glad it didn’t. Jacinda’s hands were refreshingly clean of fratricidal blood; she made people feel good; and, Jeez! she could hardly be any worse than her predecessors. Hardly! From her very first press conference it was clear that “Jacinda” had been hiding her light under a bushel. From the moment she began to speak, the assembled media’s mouths fell open in frank amazement. Here was a communicator to rival David Lange.

What makes Labour’s decision to dilute the power of the Electoral College so puzzling is that Jacinda Ardern would undoubtedly be elected by Caucus and Party with near unanimous support. For that matter, her most likely successor, Grant Robertson, would, almost certainly, be elected by a similar, unequivocal, margin. For the foreseeable future, therefore, the Electoral College process poses no threat to Labour’s succession planning.

What is it, then, that lies behind the Labour Party organisation’s self-limiting impulses? The answer, sadly, is the general antipathy to the fundamental processes of democracy that characterises so much of the thinking of the Professional and Managerial Class. Since the 1990s, this class has emerged as the dominant social and political force: not only within the Labour Party, but across New Zealand’s public and private bureaucracies.

This frankly elitist mode of governance seeks to achieve two key objectives. The first is to centralise decision-making wherever possible. Handing-off the most important judgements to those with the requisite credentials and experience to make them. The second, related, objective is to insulate and protect these decision-makers from the ill-informed and all-too-easily-manipulated masses. Only in this way can the world (and the Labour Party) be protected from its demagogic Cunliffes. Only then can the ignorant and the importunate enjoy the benefits of its dazzling Arderns.

The tragedy inherent in this narrative lies in its substitution of the broad-based wisdom of crowds for the narrow prejudices of cliques. (A problem all-too-familiar to the National Party!) Expecting a self-perpetuating oligarchy to think beyond its own self-interest is the purest folly. After all, testing the acceptability of a political party’s leadership by regularly submitting it not only to the endorsement of its peers, but also – and more importantly – to the judgement of its members, is, what a properly functioning parliamentary democracy should encourage.

To see demos (the people) surrender kratos (power) to those who put no store by their judgement, is always a distressing sight. Perhaps it is time for the Electoral Commission to take its statutory obligation to ensure that all registered political parties follow “democratic procedures” a little more seriously?

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 8 November 2021.


Tiger Mountain said...

No lesser figure than Nigel Haworth deigned The Standard blog with his mighty presence on the weekend to defend in a rather opaque way what Chris describes so well above.

The sour look on Jacinda’s dial after Andrew Little’s narrow leadership win–caught unawares in a corridor by a TV camera, remains in my memory. Little got there due to affliated union votes and the NZ Dairy Workers Union Te Runanga Wai U in particlular, when a senior DWU leader changed his vote on behalf of members, as he was empowered to do.

The monetarist/managerialist mantra has long been “keep the people well away from exercising their power”.

CXH said...

The frightening outcome is it opens the door for Mahuta to take the reins when Jacinda finds the pressure to much.

The Maori caucus is just getting into its stride. These changes will enable it to move faster than any could have imagined.

wilfandnora said...

Well said Chris. You are reiterating what Peter Mair said long ago in his book 'Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy'. Bring back Cunliffe! As a lifelong Labour voter, both in the UK and here (as well as The Alliance for a time), I won't be voting next time. Labour cannot expect to be given a vote just because its seems there is nowhere else to go - the Blairite strategy which suits Ardern so well.

Anonymous said...

Totally disagree that Ardern is a great communicator. She is not in the same league as Lange.

Lange could paint word pictures with ease using as few words to represent a crystal clear graphic illustration. Remember this? "And I'm going to give it to you if you hold your breath just for a moment ... I can smell the uranium on it as you lean towards me!"

What a clear picture is painted in such a few words.

Ardern uses many words to paint smudged pictures. Nothing is crystal clear in her stand up press conferences. Much waffling about the back ground but no clear picture in the foreground to focus on.

She does not present "off the cuff" as good as Lange (or even Key) could. Ardern needs a script (written by a comms person in love with diatribe) to communicate.

She would do better if the binned the script and spoke from the heart in clear, simple and with as few well chosen words, to get a painted word message across.

The Barron said...

The Labour caucus has done well so far in not becoming a victim to it's own success. The last election saw Labour candidates winning in Electorates that are historically deep blue. Even the most optimistic of Labour strategists cannot see the retention of these seats outside the red euphoria of October 2020. With the overall party vote likely to be far more constricted than that result, we have a bottleneck of MPs looking for a list lifeline. This should weigh provincial concerns high in the Caucus, above the reflection of the membership demographics.

As such, I would expect that opening up Auckland while Covid19 is still in the community may get kick back from within the caucus. It does not seem that this is the case. The none in caucus seem to have been off-side with the Government, indeed, none in the Government have broken ranks. This is a very disciplined and unified Parliamentary party operation.

Much of this may be attributed to the fact that all Labour MPs recognize that Ardern's popularity outshines the party. All their political careers are tied to her continued success. I hasten to say, National's attempt to portray the Government as lacking depth beyond Ardern has little traction. Robertson, Woods, Hipkins, Wood, Mahuta, Jackson, Allen, Henare, O'Connor and Nash have all got strong public recognition for their portfolios. Others, such as Sepuloni and Williams have worked hard and, without the same profile, have respect within the Ministries.

Labour have now changed the leadership election rules. It is reasonable to ask the question whether at the moment caucus or the wider membership represent the profile of NZ in 2021. At the moment, the answer is caucus. But making constitutional changes based on what may be a one-off dominance of provincial NZ would seem either naïve or arrogant.

greywarbler said...

People here seem confused about the purpose of a Prime Minister. I think that probably reflects NZ as a whole which seems to have abandoned the idea of democracy being for the people and to their betterment individually and collectively.

Monty Python applied their own logic to the problem of picking a leader. Their wisdom once again:

DENNIS: Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
ARTHUR: Be quiet!
DENNIS: You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!

The Barron said...

Accidentally left David Parker off my list. More intent on the absence of Faafoi.

greywarbler said...

George Monbiot starts pulling apart the UK government slicing it up into a series of separate onion rings. This stabs us all in the side, with our warm and fuzzy clinging to the Westminster system that has been such a boon to us in NZ! This item goes back to 5 June 2020 but is just as relevant now.

The Prime Minister makes reckless public health decisions that could put thousands of lives at risk, apparently to dig himself out of a political hole. Parliament is truncated, as the government arbitrarily decides that MPs can no longer join remotely. As the government blunders from one disaster to the next, there seem to be no effective ways of holding it to account.

Established power in this country is surrounded by a series of defensive rings. As soon as you begin to name them, you see that the UK is a democracy only in the weakest and shallowest sense.

sumsuch said...

Can't disagree, since I said it first. The sour expression on Kimberley's face when her friend lost. Reality matters to the people -- and she was surprised.

So little reward from '84. And these creatures don't know that. See The Standard -- it's an abomination.