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. 

Comments (4)

by John Hurley on October 05, 2014
John Hurley

In the interests of good democracy , why can't we see past people to the ideas they represent?

It is assumed we understand what Labour represents (the old grandfatherly union delegate on the shop floor?), but that certainty of meaning has gone with the wind.

This is the age of globalisation and while some people are seeing stars some of us are seeing mud.

by Anne on October 05, 2014

What a load of over-egged nonsense Phil Quin. Whose side are you on?  It certainly isn't the centre/left Labour Party. 

I received a copy of the HO letter and I didn't perceive it in the least bit:

"disrespectful or denigratory" or "heavy-handed, obnoxious and unnecessary."

I have no doubt "Head Office" were responding to a plethora of complaints about the way some Labour caucus members went publicly feral within hours of the final election night result. A significant portion of the blame for that result can be placed fairly and squarely on two of Labour's ill-judged policy planks (or at least the way they were introduced to the public) -  the CGT and Superannuation.

Your ill-conceived attack on Tim Barnett certainly is "heavy-handed, obnoxious and unnecessary". Let's see you do a better job as General Secretary.  Nah... too much like hard work I think I hear you say?

Practice what you preach mate! 

by Phil Quin on October 05, 2014
Phil Quin

Anne, you may have received the email from Head Office (which we actually call it, not "Head Office")', but your comment suggests you didn't read it. I wasn't saying the email itself was disrespectful or denigratory; those are the tests established under the NZ Council for the General Secretary to assess whether a member's speech is unacceptable. That's the heavy-handed, obnoxious and unnecessary new rule to which I was objecting. If you had read the decree, you would have known that, and your critique might carry a little more weight. Otherwise, I hope you feel better after getting it off your chest. 

by Anne on October 05, 2014

Ummm... I used the term "Head Office" in inverted commas because it was you who used it in the first instance. Methinks you are being a tad pedantic.

"... those are the tests established under the NZ Council for the General Secretary to assess whether a member's speech is unacceptable."

And what "speech" are you referring to pray tell me?  To my mind the email reminder to MPs and ordinary members to keep things seemly as it were... was both timely and appropriate given the ill-judged comments/actions (not speeches) being made by those on both sides of the debate.


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