The trouble with not being troubled by the mood of New Zealand as a whole, is that the party hands Labour a political dog

Labour has done a fine job of selling the democratic virtues of their new way electing a leader; it rolls off the tongue to say that 40 percent of the outcome is determined by rank and file members. But whose democratic interests does it really serve?

In 1980, the Labour Party in Britain similarly gave party members a say in the leadership; but, as Tony Blair points out, the reforms lacked "any appreciation of the vital necessity of ensuring that, as well as MPs or leaders being accountable to the Party, the Party was accountable to the electorate".

Given its paltry membership, Blair goes on, UK Labour "became prey to sectarian groups from the Ultra-Left", a decent explanation for why the party remained in opposition for seventeen years after "empowering" members.

Last Thursday, I argued in the New Zealand Herald that the Labour leadership contest should not be confused with a 'primary' since only five thousand or so members participate, fewer than one percent of all Labour voters. In a typical contested primary – I used the example of South Carolina where more than half a million Democrats voted in 2008 – around one-quarter of party supporters cast a ballot. That would translate to around 150,000 votes in the New Zealand context, or thirty times more than turned out for Cunliffe, Robertson and Jones last year. 

Beyond a semantic quibble over the misappropriation of the word “primary”, there’s a substantive discussion worth having about whether or not the model for electing the leader makes the party more appealing and relevant.  

If there is a case to be made that Labour's current membership is representative of the party's broader constituency – which I take to include supporters and would be supporters  – I'm yet to hear it. For a start, members are heavily concentrated in urban pockets; in most suburban and provincial electorates, they number in the dozens at best. Activists also tend to be older and, inevitably, sit way to the left of the political spectrum. To most people, especially post-Boomers, joining a political party is so out of kilter with modern sensibilities it almost qualifies as oddball behaviour.

Contenders for Labour's leadership used to compete for votes among fellow MPs who were motivated primarily by how the outcome would affect their own electoral fortunes. Naked self-interest is never pretty, but it helped the party remain tethered to public sentiment. Party members are far less troubled by electoral considerations and, in the case of today's Labour, many see populism as apostasy and disparage attempts at attracting new voters.

Because leadership candidates are fighting for the support of this narrow band of party activists, the danger is they pitch their campaigns in ways that further alienate Labour from the New Zealand electorate.

Take Grant Robertson's argument that Labour needs to campaign more aggressively against banks and supermarkets, as if insufficient hostility to corporate interests caused potential Labour voters to embrace the National Party; or that the problem with banning fast trucks was not with the policy itself but how it was 'framed'.

Blaming packaging, not product, is a familiar refrain whenever a political party wants to avoid scrutiny for a failed campaign or policy misstep.  It’s understandable that Robertson – or any other candidate for that matter – would resort to the frame-blame game. Telling unpalatable truths about a campaign into which activists poured their hearts and souls is no way to win their votes. 

Of the four candidates in the running so far, David Parker seems the most likely to say aloud what he really thinks about Labour’s predicament even at the risk of turning off “primary” voters. He doesn't seemed wired for pandering.
It would be a loss for Labour, and New Zealand, if the party's own processes rendered the most credible alternative Prime Minister unelectable as leader. 

Comments (11)

by Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere on October 13, 2014
Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere

Beyond a semantic quibble over the misappropriation of the word “primary”

Well done, Tim, for taking up that quibble. I find the desperation of some media outlets to create analogies (where none credibly exist) with or otherwise adopt various terminologies in the American political system very odd and unnecessary.

That said, one analogy - Democratic or Republican candidates tacking to the left or right during primary campaigns before both rushing to the centre during the presidential campaign seems to be apposite here. The only problem is: one party (National) doesn't need to do the first part since it's already selected its 'candidate'. The consequent mismatch in processes is real problem for Labour for the reasons you express. 

by Mark Murphy on October 13, 2014
Mark Murphy

I appreciate your perspective, Phil.

What Labour needs to keep sight of in choosing its next leader is the sort of thing that is most likely to get lost in the scramble for members and union votes; to become government, Labour needs to appeal to a group of NZers who haven't voted Labour for a very long time now, over 6 years, possibly more. In other words, the next leader needs to appeal to 'National voters'.  

The current 'hustings' and process will not support this. But when we say this are we really saying something much more radical and depressing (for a Labour member such as myself) - that the current party will not support this?


by Nick Gibbs on October 13, 2014
Nick Gibbs

UK Labour survives as the official opposition in a FFP electoral system. MMP means we're likely to see a new official opposition party before to long. NZF under Shane Jones would be a dead cert as the repalcement.

by Alan Johnstone on October 13, 2014
Alan Johnstone

"Take Grant Robertson's argument that Labour needs to campaign more aggressively against banks and supermarkets,"

Sigh, not the Ed Milliband, 35% strategy.

Doomed to failure, Robertson has enough personal factors (gay, wellington based, never had a proper job outside of politics) making him difficult to elect without abandoning the centre ground.

Even Labour wouldn't be so stupid surely.........

by Lee Churchman on October 13, 2014
Lee Churchman

Because leadership candidates are fighting for the support of this narrow band of party activists, the danger is they pitch their campaigns in ways that further alienate Labour from the New Zealand electorate.

Or the converse is true: that Labour takes its core supporters for granted, whereupon they depart for another party or simply don't turn up at the polls (the latter becoming an increasingly popular – and daresay rational – option).

Labour don't seem to realise that many people would rather put up with having a neighbour they hate rather than having to take back a cheating husband. 

by Brendon Mills on October 14, 2014
Brendon Mills

So Phil,

What policies would you have the NZLP drop or pick up?

And what is wrong with taking on the power companies? They have been creaming it for 20 years, since power went from being something regarded as a commercial service, to being regarded as a commodity to have a profit made from? The reason power is so expensive is because power companies have to pay out dividends. Power would be a lot cheaper if we had more public ownership/control, not less.

by Charlie on October 15, 2014

Brendon: The reason power is so expensive is because power companies have to pay out dividends.

If only you were right!

My power company dividends have been average to poor so far. :-(


by stuart munro on October 19, 2014
stuart munro

They should've stuck with Cunliffe - the neo-libs are a rump with no future. The four proposed look pretty 'none of the above' through the post-election haze.

by John Hurley on October 19, 2014
John Hurley

What Peter Hitchen's said.

by John Hurley on October 19, 2014
John Hurley

And this doozy:

When I was a Revolutionary Marxist, we were all in favour of as much immigration as possible.

It wasn't because we liked immigrants, but because we didn't like Britain. We saw immigrants - from anywhere - as allies against the staid, settled, conservative society that our country still was at the end of the Sixties.

Also, we liked to feel oh, so superior to the bewildered people - usually in the poorest parts of Britain - who found their neighbourhoods suddenly transformed into supposedly 'vibrant communities'.

If they dared to express the mildest objections, we called them bigots.

Revolutionary students didn't come from such 'vibrant' areas (we came, as far as I could tell, mostly from Surrey and the nicer parts of London).

We might live in 'vibrant' places for a few (usually squalid) years, amid unmown lawns and overflowing dustbins.

But we did so as irresponsible, childless transients - not as homeowners, or as parents of school-age children, or as old people hoping for a bit of serenity at the ends of their lives.

When we graduated and began to earn serious money, we generally headed for expensive London enclaves and became extremely choosy about where our children went to school, a choice we happily denied the urban poor, the ones we sneered at as 'racists'.

by John Hurley on October 19, 2014
John Hurley

Helen Clark appears to have taken on the role of Chief Social Engineer (apparently ignorrant of sociobiology).

"I find your society genuinely admirable in many ways. For example, I met Helen Clark while I was in Wellington. I was invited to her official residence, and waved in by a lone policeman who didn't even check who I was, then I had a barbecue with her. I congratulated her on the public's enlightened attitudes towards racial issues, but she disagreed. She said to me that New Zealand was really a very racist country, and she was determined to do everything she could as prime minister to change that. I thought that was a very bold, honest statement to make to a foreigner, and I really respected her for that."

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