Thoughts on Labour’s 2015 Review from a former Labour insider

’s third post-election defeat (the 2015 edition) was leaked to Paddy Gower of TV 3 News earlier this week. As with the previous reviews in 2009 and 2012, it focused on all the wrong things and offers virtually nothing to solve Labour’s systemic problems. Paddy Gower said he could’ve taken 40 seconds to come up with what’s wrong with Labour not the eight months it took Bryan Gould and his team and spared Labour the hassle and he’s right!

Over Easter 2014, I published a lengthy essay on why Labour is in the position it is in right now. This latest review merely confirms their plight. Labour have lost the last three elections because they have moved away from being a broad church party that once was a home to centrist moderates such as small business and socially conservative people who have a social justice bent. The party is now dominated by more left leaning narrower sector groups such as feminists, trade unionists, academics, beneficiaries and rainbow groups and their sympathisers. Combined together, these groups represent maybe 20% of the voting population leaving another 5 to 10% comprising left leaning floating voters or habitual ingrained Labour supporters who will never leave them. A portion of the socialist and environmental left (the less politicised youth vote that actually votes and the Wadestown socialist set) have mostly gone over to the Greens. The left’s core vote seems to be stuck at its bedrock support of about 36% (if you add in Mana).

What is the impact of changing a party from being a broad based party to a narrower interest group driven party?

  • The loss of moderating voices who are either driven out by strident leftists or leave because their voices are no longer listened to. This loss is keenly felt during the policy making, and in the candidate selection, processes.
  • The party machinery, once captured by the Clark faction (sometimes dubbed the ‘sisterhood’), set about turning the party into an institution that became more controlled by the same likeminded activists who come from the same limited sector groups. This has created an echo chamber where it is difficult for dissenting views, once tolerated, to thrive and act as a moderating influence. Spend a few days at The Standard and you’ll see this tendency vividly on display.
  • The left tends to favour centralised control to enforce cultural and policy purity. This has led to the narrow factional groups selecting candidates in winnable electorate seats and for the upper electable half of the List from the ranks of those who think like them.
  • The party’s activist base is more ideological and this tendency favours the incubation of more left wing policies and a tendency to reward doctrinal pureness over the more appealing pragmatism more often proposed by moderate centrists.
  • The smaller number of members makes it easier to impose the views of the harder left activist base onto the whole party. An example of this was the 2012 Constitutional Amendment changing the election of the party leader to a primary involving the wider party and the affiliated unions. This amendment was one of the longest suicide notes in NZ political history but the party’s base is so insulated and tone deaf to the negative electoral reality of this change that they still congratulate themselves on their democratic generosity giving little heed to the consequences that are now so readily evident in the quality of the two leaders since the change.
  • A smaller membership base has enhanced the power of the unions as their privileged position has remained constitutionally enshrined leading to union favoured candidates now twice winning the leadership; both over the wishes of their caucus.
  • Having purged the party of Rogernomics, the institutional instinct to never again be suckered into right leaning polices has led to party-wide resistance to moving to the centre.
  • Repeated electoral failure, ossification of the caucus (the refusal to weed out the dead wood due to the need for successful leadership challengers to pay off factional support in caucus) and the failure of the extra-Parliamentary party leadership to have or retain a professional fundraiser has led to Labour’s impoverished financial state.

The review instead focuses on mostly the wrong things. It identifies the impact of the lack of fundraising without really drilling down to the nub of the problem. It obsesses over red herrings such as the so-called missing million – a canard that even their own supporters have told them to give up on. It recommends internal structural and procedural changes that will do nothing to enhance Labour’s electoral appeal and indeed some (e.g. the List Committee) will reinforce centralised control over candidate selection and ensure precisely the types of centrist candidates that would appeal more to middle NZ are NOT selected. It genuflects in the direction of PC touchstones such as recommending acknowledging the Treaty of Waitangi more on the hustings (a sure fire way to turn OFF Waitakere Man) and it reflects the flawed leftist mindset that first their left leaning policies must be hidden from view to prevent their opponents from defining them and then explained more articulately; again built around the false assumption that the problem is less the message and more the messenger. There is no mention of any of the REAL reasons for Labour’s unpopularity and utter and complete denial as to the parlous state that it finds itself in for the reasons listed above and thus no strategy to reverse course and win back the middle.

Labour’s electoral prospects have been hampered not helped by the introduction of MMP. In its early years, Labour benefited from MMP because the other party of the left was a creature that came from Labour. The Alliance was dominated by New Labour most particularly Jim Anderton. Anderton was a former Labour Party President before he became an MP and was a close colleague of Helen Clark. Once the Greens broke free from the Alliance and began to campaign as their own brand, Labour was forced to deal with an appealing and virginally new party to its left flank. When Labour could attract centrist votes off National, it could govern with the Greens numbers but keep their nutty vote killing economic policies away from the Cabinet table. I’ve said before, Labour is fighting for votes in a relatively narrow slice of electoral real estate boxed in by a very centrist (and occasionally left leaning) National Party which remains on good terms with its partner party to its right and an expansionist and aggressive Green Party to its left. The consequence of the collapse of Labour’s vote and the leakage of its left leaning supporters to the Greens and its centrist supporters to National, leaves Labour in the invidious position of relying 100% on the Greens to form a government and this time the Greens want Cabinet positions commensurate with their share of the coalition (as the Alliance, Progressives and NZ First all got from Labour at various times from 1999 to 2008). ACT is massively dwarfed by National and so realises it can only be in government with a few modest policy wins and not with any front bench Cabinet position. Labour’s demise and disproportionately greater reliance on the Greens means, no matter how much dodging, tough talking and fudging it may do in the run up to an election, that it must go to middle NZ voters as a government in waiting that will inevitably include front bench Cabinet positions from the Greens leadership and more substantial integration of the Greens’ more extremist anti-business nanny state and vote killing interventions.  Labour’s platform is effectively weighed down by the Greens’ worst publicly announced policy (and the even nuttier ones they are keeping under wraps until the day their leaders get Ministerial warrants!)

The ultimate irony is that the very people who could take Labour back to the vote rich centre are the MPs like Shane Jones who were ostracised, ignored by the bulk of the party and ultimately driven out. The centralisation of the selection process and its capture by the harder left activist base ensures that the new Shane Jones’ are ‘strangled at birth’ and never see the inside of a Labour caucus room. Labour is left to shuffle its leadership around its narrow pool of talent in the hope that someone, anyone will break through, take down John Key and ignite the missing million. Little clearly is not succeeding but what can Labour do? Bumble on to 2017 with Little’s periodic pratfalls or take a fifth punt on Robertson who offers himself as boring gay policy wonkish civil servant? Or run with a pretty new female face in the form of the vacuous Jacinda Adern? Only Nash or Davis have the centrist instincts, appeal and on-the-ground electoral chops to begin to take Labour back to its broad church days. Would the unions and the harder left base vote for either of them? Would both groups voluntarily surrender their own power to control future leadership elections? The answer to both questions is: not likely and therein lies Labour’s conundrum. It is actually trapped where it is and there is little institutional momentum on the horizon to properly change it. A fourth term in Opposition is the only thing that will see them embrace the radical surgery that this review utterly avoids recommending.

[UPDATE] I just listened to the Friday 5 June “Focus on Politics” on National Radio featuring an interview with the Greens’ new male co-leader James Shaw. It has relevance to discussion about Labour’s Review because he repeated the line about the need for pre-election coalition clarity mentioned in the review. Shaw thinks because Labour and the Greens hit polling highs just after their joint announcement of the Kiwi Power policy featuring the partial nationalisation of the power industry that this is evidence that joint campaigning is the way to get a Labour Green government elected in 2017. Both sides seem to think that the lack of clarity over how a Labour Greens coalition would work was part of the reason why both parties polled so low. Like the same comment in the Labour Review, this is delusional thinking on a grand scale. Knowing that Labour and the Greens want to have a stable coalition is not the problem. It’s WHAT that coalition would really implement as policies was the problem for voters. Even with their separate campaigning and relative coyness about what a Labour Greens government would look like was enough for middle NZ voters to conclude that National was a safer option. If Labour and the Greens think spelling out the contours of their coalition and talking about them governing together stably MORE would enhance their chances, good luck with that. Shaw, Turei and the authors of the Review don’t get that floating centrist voters see ANY government with the Greens in it as inflicting anti business nanny state environmental extremism on their wallets and they will vote for National for a fourth term to prevent that from happening.

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