Apparently Phil Quin, Josie Pagani, Stuart Nash, Nick Legget, and some others want to start a think tank called “Progress”, which might, supposedly, endorse candidates. (Yes, yes, there will be inevitable jokes about think tanks containing Stuart Nash) Predictably, and with all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, Greg Presland at the Standard has compared this to the Douglas-ite Backbone Club.
I can’t see why the supposed think tank is at all controversial. Quin, Pagani and co share a certain vision for the party. They want to advance this vision by advocacy; in order to advocate more effectively, they’ve decided it would be best if they formed a collective to amplify their voices. Those are all good left-wing principles.
Now, obviously Nash has to be careful. Unlike in the UK, where Progress, Compass, Socialist Campaign, and the Tribune Group are able to operate with MPs taking a significant role, New Zealand’s stricter expectations of caucus discipline probably constrain Nash from heavy involvement in a group that might disagree with official party lines. But individual rank and file members of the party shouldn’t have to worry about maintaining strict adherence to the party line, as long as they make it clear that they aren’t speaking on behalf of Labour, and avoid simply running the party down.
In the long run, of course, the Labour Party is a democratic(-ish) institution. If the membership disagree with the ideas “Progress” advocates, then they can vote them down. This might require left-wing members of the party to articulate ideas of their own and organise to get them into policy, and to support and develop candidates of their own. This would also be a good thing, particularly from the point of view of the left of the party.
The Labour Party under Clark was almost entirely devoid of ideological disputes, as a way of repressing the unresolved issues of the 1984-1993 era. Internal party elections were fought purely on personalities and factional allegiance in the worst sense of the word. This lack of internal ideological structuring meant that when, in the post-Clark era, the party was forced to develop novel political strategies, it lacked the intellectual armoury to do so. Internal decision-making still avoided any fundamental ideological component, and devolved into crude factional struggles based on patronage networks. The routes to advancement within the party did not reward the development and articulation of political theory or policy, but were instead dependent on patronage and personality.
Particularly frustratingly from a left-wing member’s point of view these patronage networks, which generally maintained lip service to the notion of “left-wing Labour” or a “true-red Labour”, allowed centrist, or even right-wing, careerist politicians to position themselves on the “left” of the party without in fact making any commitment to left-wing principles or policies.
An internal debate between left and right offers an opportunity for the party to move away from a purely patronage based model of internal organisation. This can only be good for the party as a whole. In particular, it offers an opportunity for the left of the party – which, after all, maintains that it is the largest grouping – to organise, proffer coherent and attractive ideas, and support strong candidates.