Rather than trying to rein in dissent, the Labour Party should be encouraging a full and frank debate on not just its leadership, but its deep-seated structural problems. Attempts to chill open criticism are misguided
Morgan Godfrey, one of the New Zealand internet scene's most prolific opinion generators, derided my use of the term 'Orwellian' to describe Labour's new anti-sledging rules. He was right to do so.
I've made fun of people on exactly the same grounds, pointing out that, as Gordfrey did, that most people who invoke Orwell haven't read him.
And there I was, deservedly, the butt of my own withering put down. It was pompous hyperbole, a rhetorical misdemeanor, to deem Labour's edict 'Orwellian'. The decision by the New Zealand Council to specifically outlaw speech considered disrespectful or denigratory during the leadership primary campaign is merely heavy-handed, obnoxious and unnecessary.
Since the Council's decree replicates existing powers to discipline wayward members, this wasn't about addressing a deficiency in the party's rules. The move is designed to rein in the respective cheer squads of Labour's leadership contenders who, in the heat of battle, are at serious risk of saying out loud what they really think (a 'fan-ban', if you will). To Labour's governing elite, this cannot be allowed to happen because they believe public bouts of excessive honesty are will further alienate voters.
This stems from the popular but ludicrous theory that Labour's repeated electoral drubbings are due to perceptions of disunity. The appeal of this argument is obvious: it allows you to avoid facing up to far more complex and deep-seated structural shortcomings -- party organisation, policy and personnel, for example -- while evading any personal responsibility; disunity, after all, is invariably someone else's doing.
Even if it's true that voters will reject Labour until the party masters the art of faking unity (which it isn't), the new rules will only deepen the divisions they are designed to paper over. No-one outside of his own clique trusts General Secretary Tim Barnett to impartially police the gray area between healthy discourse and harmful discord. In fact, many in the party consider his freshly minted authority to do so alarming.
Because Barnett understands this, yellow cards will stay firmly in his pocket to avert an all out factional war. And if it's true (which it is), why create the rules in the first place if they're politically untenable to enforce? Answer: for their chilling effect. (It might work: a party member told me she now hesitates before favouriting my tweets in case doing so catches Barnett's attention).
This is all hopelessly misguided palace politics. The source of Labour's woes isn't the perception of disunity but the stark reality of its disconnection with voters. Our problem is not too much debate, but too little -- and now is precisely the worst time to tell members to watch their tongues.
For the price of a few news cycles three years out from an election, we risk depriving ourselves for the third time of a painful but necessary examination of Labour’s seemingly inexorable drift away from electoral viability.
Of course party members and supporters should encourage each other to keep the debate civil and substantive -- and the rules are already in place if individuals cross the line into the destructive or defamatory. But now is the time to start building a bigger, broader, better Labour. Let the voices be heard. Tear down cloistered walls.
And Head Office, who might benefit from adopting a tone of contrition and humility in light of the party's worst defeat in 92 years, should spare us the bossy britches.