|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 Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 8 November 2021.