Guest Post – Why is Labour Struggling in 2014? An Essay on the History of Labour’s Predicament

David asked me to guest post this while he was away so here’s some reading over this stormy Easter weekend (I’m in soggy Christchurch as I write this). With Labour consistently polling between 28 and 34% (current poll of polls has Labour at just under 31%) since its defeat in 2008, it has a number of problems convincing voters that they are an alternative government in waiting for the 2014 election. Labour’s problems are three fold and the purpose of this essay is to posit the origins of their problems by drawing on my time inside Labour to provide some explanations:
1 – Why its policies are less appealing to the vote rich centre ground of NZ politics
2 – Why Labour has such a shallow pool of caucus talent from which to choose an attractive leader
3 – How, under MMP, Labour have boxed themselves into a relatively narrow ideological centre left electoral corridor crowded out to the left by the Greens and Mana and to the right by National

Labour’s current woes began 25 years ago during the latter years of the Lange 4th Labour Government. Prior to the divisions over Rogernomics that rent the party asunder in 1989, Labour had been a true broad church mainstream party. Whilst it did have its factions, these were held in check by the fact that no one faction dominated the party. When you draw from a broad cross section of society, it means that the activists who are the engine room of the party bring their diverse world experiences to the task of party organization and policy formation. Whilst Labour always was a centre left party, it managed to be a home for not just radical left wing unionists, academics and feminists but also more moderate small business owners, trades folk, working men and women, school teachers and lawyers. Political parties are the incubators where party activists become candidates who in turn became MPs. Whilst National always manages to draw MPs from a wider cross section of NZ society, the gap between Labour and National in that regard in the 1970’s and 80’s was not that wide.

The 1978, 81 and 84 elections brought into Parliament (by the time Labour won in 1984) one of Labour’s most talented caucuses ever seen. Labour’s front bench, upon becoming the government, was brimming with energy. The pent up demand for reform after the stultifying Muldoon (and earlier) years was enormous and this post does not need to rehearse the dramatic revolution that became known as Rogernomics. The rapid embrace of lmore right leaning economic policy was brought to a head by Roger Douglas’ flat tax proposal after Labour’s extraordinary 1987 election victory and it became the lightning rod for the left inside the party and caucus to fight to take the party back. Lange, influenced by his affair with his left leaning speech writer Margaret Pope, fought back and was ably assisted by Jim Anderton, Helen Clark and Michael Cullen. The warfare that then ensued within Labour was intense and bitter. Newly installed PM Geoffrey Palmer was soon out of his depth and Mike Moore was elevated to the leadership in 1990 to prevent a total First Past the Post annihilation of Labour. Mike Moore brought a talented and political savvy team to the Leader of the Opposition’s Office (dubbed the Beagle Boys because the inner circle that included Moore protégé Clayton Cosgrove got so little sleep they had dark circles around their eyes). Mike Moore posed a major problem to the left. As a senior Lange-Douglas front bencher (Minister of Overseas Trade) and member of the infamous ‘fish and chips brigade’ (an influential inner circle of senior MPs in the run-up to the 1984 election comprising Lange, Douglas, Bassett and Moore) Moore, despite his union and socialist roots, remained a vocal supporter of Rogernomics. In the eyes of the left who were soon to assume control of the Labour party at every level, the extent to which you were associated with Rogernomics (and your subsequent attitude to it) became the litmus test to survival in the post 1990 party. Douglas and Prebble, as key architects of Rogernomics, after the internal bloodletting of 1989/90 knew they had no future and quit Parliament and formed the ACT Party. Various junior Ministers in the Palmer and Moore administrations either kept their powder dry re. Rogernomics (Clark), spoke out against it in Cabinet (Cullen – appointed by Lange to Cabinet to blunt the reforms) or quickly recanted once out of government (Goff and Caygill). Mike Moore’s problem was that he wouldn’t leave Labour or Parliament, he wouldn’t recant and he was considered too ideologically impure and, to the nascent LOO in waiting Helen Clark and her fellow travelers (dubbed ‘The Sisterhood’), had to be gotten rid of.

What happened next goes to the heart of why Labour is struggling today. The left had been so seriously outflanked by Douglas and Prebble that they vowed not only to wrest control of the party back but to prevent Labour from ever again being taken over by right wing economic elements. Party officials prominent in supporting Douglas and Prebble were the first to go; of their own accord and most to ACT. In the days of FPP, all MPs were electorate MPs and so the only way to ensure a caucus that would elect a leader that would do the job of purging the party of Rogernomics was to influence electorate selections. With Labour’s caucus after the 1990 election at a record low in numbers and the Bolger – Richardson government unpopular due to the welfare cuts and the ongoing post 1987 crash recession, the likelihood of a larger rejuvenated Labour caucus entering Parliament in the 1993 election was high. If Clark was to ensure a more left leaning caucus then she needed to ensure her supporters were selected in winnable seats. The first step in the campaign was to ensure that the Party Head Office and NZ Council were behind her. With fewer centre right activists in the wider party, it was not hard to get Ruth Dyson elected as President, Tony Timms as General Secretary and Murdo MacMillan as Assistant GS. This trio worked closely with union delegates and Regional Council Chairs to ensure as many Clark supporters as possible were selected in winnable marginal seat candidate selections. Labour’s Constitution allocates electorate candidate selection panel delegates on the basis of paid up party membership. A candidate selection panel in 1992 would comprise 3 Head Office delegates (always behind a Clark supporting candidate), 2 from the local LEC (Labour Electorate Committee) if the electorate had a paid up membership under 500 (the norm) and 3 if they had more than 500 members. Finally a 6th (or 7th) delegate was selected on the night of the selection meeting from the floor of paid up party members from the electorate in attendance at the meeting. It took a good deal of consistent organizing effort to keep your paid up membership above 500 and Clark knew few electorates managed it. As more selection meetings were held where Head Office’s influence overrode local support (for broad centrist candidates) in favour of a Clark anointed candidate, Mike Moore and his staff scrambled to help key electorates (especially of his supporters) to get over 500 paid up members AND to turn out their supporters on the night of a selection to ensure a 4 – 3 blunting of the Clark/Dyson nomination juggernaut. In the majority of selection meetings, due to having fewer than 500 members, this was not possible.

Why is this detail relevant? Because in making sure that Labour’s incoming 1993 caucus was configured in such a way as to engineer a successful Clark coup against Moore, significant talent was shut out – the kind of talent that would be a broader representation of middle NZ and thus vote in caucus more in line with the centrist sentiments of the wider country; the kind of talent that could’ve given Labour a broader electoral appeal and eventually the kind of talent that one day could go on to be an attractive Party Leader to take on a popular incumbent National Prime Minister. In Clark’s headlong pursuit of the numbers to topple Mike Moore, she made sure that the Labour Party selected people from her narrower world view. Thus it was that over the course of the 1993, 96 and 99 elections, Clark created a Parliamentary party more in her image and that meant the caucus became overrepresented by academics, feminists (or men favourable to their cause), gays, unionists and other activists known to be pure from any historical centre right economic tendencies. The Parliamentary party came to be dominated by Clark supporters such as Dyson, Wilson, Street, King, Hodgeson, Maharey, Dalziel and Tizard.

Clark knew that getting a caucus that would enable her to topple Moore was not enough. She needed to ensure that that caucus remained on her side through multiple hoped for terms in office. The attempted coup by Cullen in 2006 [correction typo – 1996 hat tip mickey savage] after a string of disastrous polls for Labour under her leadership was a sharp reminder of the political vulnerability of any LOO. Making Cullen Deputy PM and Finance Minister was a master stroke by Clark as it kept him occupied and away from plotting. The advent of MMP however was to give Clark the last tool she needed to shape and keep the caucus on her side. Clark knew that the former Moore supporters (such as Cosgrove, Robertson, O’Connor, Hawkins, Duynhoven, Goff, Barker etc.) were mostly siloed in safe(r) electorate seats that, as long as they kept their local electorate party membership up, they were relatively immune from being ousted internally. But the party list is where the action is and the list became increasingly important to Labour as National began to win back suburban and provincial seats across the country. The Labour list ranking is entirely dominated by Head Office and so Clark and co could ensure that the rising generation of MPs would be in her mold and be more likely to do her bidding. This meant that the base from which candidates were drawn remained narrow for over a decade.

In parallel to this candidate purge was the voluntary exodus of the party’s more moderate membership base. Each LEC that was subject to the 1993 (and onwards) ‘sisterhood’ interference in selections suffered from resignations or non-renewals of party members dedicated to the election of their more moderate centrist friends. When you see no pathway forward from Head Office’s more leftist control, you realize that your ability to influence the party for good is over and some just move on. The last Labour Party meeting I ever attended as a member was a Canterbury LRC meeting in early 1994 when a decision was made to sell the local party’s family silver to pay the Head Office dues arrears for a couple of the lazy safe Labour electorates in the region. This asset was making an excellent return on investment and its retention was so obviously wise and prudent. People like David Caygill and I argued cogently for its retention only to be subjected to a tirade of abuse and demagoguery from Clark acolyte (and future Cabinet minister) Marian Hobbs whose impassioned speech swayed council members into making the sale. I knew then that the lunatics had taken over the asylum and it was time to move on and it was the straw that broke the camel’s back after the bitterness of the Clark coup and I resigned my membership soon after.

I remained friends with various party members even after resigning my membership. One was a solicitor who was a rising regional party star. He was intelligent, articulate, likeable, telegenic with a family from casting central and business savvy yet with a good social conscience – IMO a future and eminently electable future Labour party leader. He was trying to get into Parliament in the late 1990’s but was never able to obtain a reasonable list ranking and was shut out by Head Office for selection in safe Labour (or winnable National marginal) electorate seats. He was gutted after his abysmally low list ranking and unsuccessful selection bids and I told him that because he was a white, heterosexual, Anglican Church attending male with business experience there was no future for him as an MP in the Labour Party. This has proven to be the case. Multiply this story a hundred times over and you get the picture as to why Labour’s current caucus is so bereft of talent. Clark’s scorched earth policy to purge the party of Rogernomics and ensure there were no upstarts to her throne has left the party with a caucus deprived of serious talent and not representative of middle NZ and its values. The same is true for the wider party because the middle class, centrist moderate party members have also voted with their feet. This once proud party that was home to so many across the spectrum is now dominated by trade union hacks, rainbow activists, academics, government sector employees, feminists and PC metrosexual men. These groups make up maybe 15 to 20% of New Zealand’s population and have a political orientation much further to the left than mainstream New Zealand.

One of the reasons why Helen Clark needed to have such iron control over her caucus was she knew the electoral reality that power lies in the centre. She knew the party’s instincts are to the left of middle NZ and that National has deeper and broader roots in that middle ground. Clark needed to use her power to keep Labour as close to the middle as possible whilst still throwing enough left wing bones to the base to prevent a revolt. Her centrist strategy would cause disquiet in the caucus and the wider party but because she and her supporters controlled the list and the nomination process for almost all electorates, the risk of a coup was minimal. She also knew that the Greens’ extremism posed a big electoral risk and that they needed to be shut out of government. Under Donald and Fitsimmons, the Greens were more of a genuine environmental party but had enough nuttiness to derail Labour’s re-election not to mention all their image problems of Morris dancing at their conferences and having a cannabis-using Rastafarian as an MP. Clark knew the Greens had nowhere else to go and so shutting them out of government and throwing them a few policy bones was easy to do. Clark was able to govern with first the Alliance (who were dominated by New Labour or people who came out of Labour and thus were not that far way ideologically) and then Jim Anderton’s Progressives when the Alliance collapsed. With Labour polling at least 38 to 40% under Clark it was always the overwhelmingly dominant partner in a coalition and so coalition management for her was relatively easy.

Clark’s defeat in 2008, and her subsequent departure, has left a huge hole in Labour. Having molded a party around her and her acolytes, there was no surprise when her departure left the party rudderless and at the mercy of the factions that she was able to control via the dirt that Heather Simpson had, ministerial warrants and the selection procedures. In the wake of the unexpected loss in 2008 (and Key’s unexpected ease in the job as PM), Labour’s front bench and caucus have been shell-shocked. Goff could only manage to be elected as leader due to the shock in the immediate aftermath of defeat. Because he was part of the centre right block, normally he would be out of favour. The 2008 defeat weakened the left/feminist bloc because so many were on the list and in marginal provincial seats that National easily won whereas more on the right were in safer electorate seats. But Goff knew that the Clark’s purges had burnt off much of the centrist membership of the party and that Clark’s supporters still held all the levers of power in the party and that unless he pandered to the base, his days as leader would be numbered. So began Labour’s journey away from the vote rich centre – driven by the need to placate a harder left base because the pogrom Clark set in motion 20 years before left the party absent its former moderating influences.

While Labour sowed the seeds of its own demise as a dominant broad church party, the Greens got their act together. They tightened up selection procedures to ensure higher quality candidates, they elevated the more politically savvy Norman and Turei to the co-leadership enhancing their electoral appeal and they brought on board advisers who could work the media, exercise better message control and change the Green’s image from flakey tree huggers to a modern ‘responsible’ environmental party ready to govern with Labour. As Labour drifted rudderless, intent on internal naval gazing and pursuing uninspiring tactics (essentially engaging in personal attacks on John Key and hoping he would flounder and fail), the Greens became an easy repository for disgruntled Labour voters. As the 49th Parliament progressed, the power balance between Labour and the Greens shifted more in the Greens favour.

Key easily bested Goff in the 2011 campaign and so Labour looked to what new talent it had rising in its thinned ranks. In 2012 Labour experimented with a pseudo primary between the three Davids. Parker and Cunliffe had been reasonably capable junior ministers in the latter part of the Clark Administration and Shearer was a shiny new penny with the intriguing UN back story. Parker’s indiscretions soon counted him out leaving the left and right with their preferred candidates in Shearer and Cunliffe. The 2011 election cleaned out a few more of the left faction from the list after Goff’s disastrous showing and the right faction became the core of the ABCs (Anyone But Cunliffe). With Shearer untried and relatively unknown but seemingly attractive, it was felt he would be a fresh internationalist face to stand up to John Key.

Shearer ran hard up against the reality of what Labour had eventually become by the end of the Clark years – a rump of harder left activists from demographic groups that were far from the centre ground of electoral gold that National was actively mining. Shearer attempted the impossible – to simultaneously take Labour and its policies far enough to the left to placate its more radical base and stem the flow of votes to the Greens AND try and take votes off National from the centre ground. This task would’ve been easier in 2005 because the slightly harder right National under Don Brash. Brash was an easy target to ideologically paint due to his history as a disciple of neo liberal economic policies given to his pivotal role as Reserve Bank Governor during the Douglas – Richardson reforms so hated by Labour’s base. But Key was an entirely different animal. Pragmatic, flexible, populist in an average kiwi bloke way, a compelling rags to riches/State House to international money trader story and the strategic nous to position National firmly in the centre (and the personal ruthlessness to enforce it). Various Labour policies like WFF and student loans were left intact and an aggressive borrowing programme to shore up welfare spending after the GFC was undertaken. Right leaning reforms were gradual, incremental, signaled in advance, were well polled/focus group tested and were implemented ensuring always that manifesto promises were scrupulously adhered to. The combination of these tactics and Key’s likeable personality has proven to be a very difficult recipe for Labour to counter as scaremongering about Key’s ideological leanings proved hollow.

Shearer was seemingly undone by his poor media abilities despite coming across as a decent bloke but in reality ultimately he was undone by the shrinking electoral real estate that Labour found themselves in under MMP. With a strong, confident and comfortably centrist National Party commandeering the vote rich centre ground, Labour is left to fight for the centre left vote with not just the Greens but the new hard left Mana Party. If Shearer made overtures to the centre to chip away at National’s soft swing vote, Labour would lose more of its left flank to the Greens. If it veered to the left to counter the Greens and win back its traditional support, it shed more of what was left of its centrist voters to an unthreatening National Party.

Labour then codified its folly. The chickens of driving away it’s centrist and right leaning faction (that once formed part of its broad moderating church) finally came home to roost at the Party’s 2012 Annual Conference in Auckland. Whilst Shearer and the ABCs managed to beat down Cunliffe’s putative coup, they could not stop the harder left and more radicalized party membership from amending the Constitution to give the membership and the unions a say in electing the leader. Despite Cunliffe’s unpopularity in his own caucus, he is a hero to the party membership and left wing enough for the unions. Labour handed power to determine its leader to its membership that, over the last 20 years, increasingly represents a narrower left wing slice of the NZ electorate. The policy proscriptions that arise from this reality are predictable and were on display for all to see in the leadership primary. Robertson ran to give Cunliffe a run for his money but must’ve known the members and the unions were with Cunliffe. Jones gave a flurry of hope to the ABCs and the small rump of centre right members who have stuck it out through the purges but with a party so dominated by women and feminist thinking, a slightly misogynist blokeish man like Jones with the public humiliation of the porn incident still hanging over him, was never going to win. Cunliffe promised a deeper red Labour. The Labour activists swooned, true believers on the left like Chris Trotter and Martyn Bradbury had wet dreams of the first true left Labour PM since Kirk and the left leaning media drove Cunliffe and Labour to a temporary post primary polling jump in a frenzy of positive reporting.

Cunliffe’s failings as LOO have been well canvassed on this and other right leaning blogs and in the mainstream media. They are real and look set to seal Labour’s fate in 2014 barring some catastrophic scandal from Key and the Nats. But really the premise of this essay is that Labour would be in this pickle regardless of who in the current caucus was the leader. Clark made sure that no charismatic rising star would ever make it to caucus or Cabinet to interfere with her goal of winning four elections and eclipsing Holyoake as the longest serving NZ PM in the modern party era. I alluded to one such person I met in my time in Labour who, absent Clark and the sisterhood’s purge, would be causing Key and National major heartburn if he were the LOO today. Clark dispatched him and many others like him. Look at Labour’s entire caucus. Who in there could seriously challenge Key? There is no one. Even an 11th hour switch to Jones wouldn’t do it notwithstanding the fact that Jones would appeal more the centre. And even if he did manage to challenge Cunliffe to a fight, the harder left party membership would back someone from their faction (likely Jascinda Adern) over Jones Even with a fresh face the next hurdle is the policies. The harder left activist base that now controls who the party leader is means more of the same leftist policies that are proving very easy for National to counter. Anything Labour proposes that is remotely useful and workable, National pinches and the harder left stuff, that so excites the base, is easily dissected and rebutted if only by National pointing to a raft of improving economic indicators under its centre right watch. All Cunliffe’s election has done is stem the flow of voters to the Greens (and if he carries on with his pratfalls even that is not guaranteed). He has effectively surrendered the centre ground to National despite his reassuring appearances to business audiences.

Labour was once a great party. It attracted people of energy, passion and ability from many walks of life. It had reforming zeal usually tempered by the realism of its once broader membership base and if it went too far, the voters returned the Treasury benches to the safer hands of National. Labour’s 1984 to 87 Cabinet, despite their leftist roots, embarked on a series of dramatic reforms that have transformed NZ into the more vibrant and dynamic economy it is today. The left of the party waged a war so total and absolute to purge the party of that instinct that it has destroyed modern Labour and left it a shrunken left leaning shell of its former self that struggles to attract electable talent, will not rejuvenate its caucus, offers policies that excite only 25% of the country and fights with the Greens (who are seen as more pure and virginal) for the centre left vote. The harder left base are tone deaf to the electoral realities of New Zealand politics believing that they will win the day if the great unwashed knew what was good for them and if the policies of the left were articulated better. Without a major change of direction, Labour’s prescription is a recipe for long term electoral oblivion!

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