How Labour Should Change

Labour is out of touch. It had too much policy, and the leader was unable to explain to everyday New Zealanders just what the consequences of those policies would be. Major spending promises were seen as opportunistic and unrealistic, while important taxation changes weren’t seen as credible. The overall narrative was trapped in negative opposition, without ever articulating a coherent positive vision for the nation. The party itself lacks members, lacks skilled activists, and is continually short of money.

This is a description of the New Zealand Labour Party from, roughly mid-2007 to now. The details change, but the overall picture doesn’t, and the result remains the same: electoral underperformance.

There are, of course, various proposals floating around at the moment aimed at turning around this decline: Phil Quin or Micheal Wood or Lew Stoddart’s or …, and in due course, the Party’s own review recommendations. These proposals are all valuable, even if they do have a tendency to reflect the author’s own preoccupations – not that this article doesn’t.

But we’ve been here before. We had exactly the same problems at the last election, and we had a review, and we made changes, and yet here we are again. Why? I think there’s two important points: firstly, and somewhat fatalistically, Labour is not entirely in control of it’s destiny – there are external factors that matter, and it’s important not to overrate the importance of those things we can control. But those external factors, important as they are, have to be put to one side. Labour needs to focus on those things it can control.

Secondly, the NZLP is deeply resistant to change. Institutionally, it is hugely conservative. So at the last review, a series of big, important changes were put forward: campaigning hubs, women-only shortlists, direct member involvement in selections, creation of a supporters register, party-wide election of the leader, reformed policy making processes. Some of these changes happened: we have a democratic process for the leader, we have a different policy process now. Some didn’t: the supporter’s register, women’s only shortlists, direct member involvement in selections. Some happened, but never really clicked – campaigning hubs.

If the NZLP is serious about change, it needs to start by being committed to change. At present, far too often, the party refuses change. The institutional structure has too many veto players, and the culture of the party is too conservative and insular. The governance structures of the party are weak, and too dominated by factionalism and patch protection. Too often, the party is dominated by heavily institutionalised members who have been there for a very long time, protecting fiefdoms that are increasingly irrelevant and out of touch. This doesn’t mean jumping for every change possible, but it does mean acknowledging that previous efforts at reform have been stymied by excesses of caution and conservatism.

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