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Who Will Save Labour Now?

Nov 18, 2014 Politics

Unless moderate lefties rejoin Labour, we will all lose out.


If you’re left-leaning and vaguely sane then please join the New Zealand Labour Party. Five times Labour has been in government and each time, for better or worse, it left an important legacy:

1.    The welfare state, albeit on a far less generous scale than it exists today.
2.    Equal pay for equal work.
3.    The comprehensive, no-fault ACC system and the Treaty of Waitangi Act.
4.    A rational economic model and an independent foreign policy.
5.    Paid parental leave, Working for Families, and a return to stable, pre­dictable government after a quarter-century of turmoil.

Even National’s fiercest supporters acknowledge their party can’t compete with that. The blue team exists mainly to temper the wilder redistributionist, social-engineering and anti-American excesses of the red, a noble enough cause.

Labour, too, is essential in checking its opponent — preventing National from succumbing to its tendencies towards crony capitalism, corporate welfare, oligarchy and laziness. And, from whichever side the prime minister hails, he or she must remain at constant risk of defeat to avoid the delusion of global importance. The Mt Albert Rugby League Club and the Helensville Baptist Church Hall are always more important than the Palace of Versailles.

Those in charge of today’s Labour Party are undermining all these rules.

In the days of mass-membership political parties and compulsory unionism, both National and Labour could be relied on to be relatively mainstream. National was better positioned for the new era of narrower membership because, broadly speaking, its activists are quite comfortable swinging from Muldoonery to Ruthanasia and all the way back to Joycery again, as long as it is their people in power.

For Labour’s last few thousand remaining members, politics is much more serious. They really do think it matters what the party thinks about Gaza. Labour’s rump is deeply ideological. They still see 1984 as the watershed year but not in the way most people do.

That was the moment, their story goes, that New Zealand moved from being an idyllic egalitarian paradise to a harsh “neoliberal” hellhole. How this can be reconciled with the reality of Muldoonery and the nine years of Helen Clark’s rule is just one of those mysteries.

For this group, John Key’s is not a modest, moderate government but indistinguishable in substance from that of the early 1990s, just with better PR. Those who fall for Key’s sinister spin are branded mere “sheeple”, voting against their interests and barely worthy of the franchise. Consequently, the lesson they take from Key’s success is not that elections are won in the centre but that “extremist” policies can be hidden behind the right words.

These are the people to whom David Cunliffe was speaking when he held aloft a bunch of red roses and declared them the international symbol of socialism. It was to them he spoke when he condemned Labour under his predecessors for being “light blue” — and to whom he promised that the Labour he led would be “true red”.

It is this same group, including the paid union staffers in Wellington, who decided to transfer the power to select the party leader from those accountable to voters to the faceless men and women of the party. It was they who rejected giving a strong mandate to Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern as the first post-baby boomers to lead a major party, and who instead pushed for Andrew Little, one of their own.


Labour’s new leadership team should be regarded as strictly temporary. The inherent contradiction between those whose business it is to win elections, the parliamentary wing, and those whose priority is ideological purity, the unions and membership rump, remains. It will take just a few months of polls below 25 per cent, or just one or two below 20 per cent, and Labour’s slow self-immolation will recommence. Remaining members with lives outside politics will drift away, further empowering the fanatics.

Personally, of course, my first response to all this is hilarity, not grief, but that is short-sighted. Two months into National’s third term in power, there is no sign of an agenda from Key except for a state-housing policy announced in 2013, labour-relations changes of profound irrelevance to the overwhelming majority of the workforce, and resource management reforms unlikely to do the smallest fraction of what either their proponents or opponents claim. The Prime Minister is showing worrying signs of enjoying the company of his international counterparts more than those who give him the ticket to attend.

New members of the Labour Party will no doubt be appalled by the freak show they encounter at their first local meeting. But they owe it to all of us to persist, to get their like-minded friends to join too, so they can establish a majority within the party to maintain the two-party system that has served us all pretty well over the past 80-odd years.


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