NZ Labour's Self Inflicted Wounds

A version of this post was published in the NZ Herald

I can't enjoy New Zealand politics for the same reason the rugby-loving parent can spend the weekend glued to Sky Sport but barely watch as their underweight and modestly coordinated child pulls on his boots. I care too much. I feel every blow. It’s viscerally upsetting.

This has been especially true since arriving back in New Zealand last year, a few months before the election, and witnessing my beloved Labour Party conduct a campaign so operatically awful that I wondered at times if it wasn't a performance art piece.

I made this case in a series of pre election opinion pieces and during a handful of media appearances, and was promptly branded a heretic by fellow party members.

“Do us all a favour,” one wrote“and just quietly leave the room. Please…We are nearly there”. Nearly where exactly, I wondered. It turned out the “there” to which we were “nearly” was the worst electoral defeat in ninety-two years of Labour history: we barely limped to 25 percent — after two terms in opposition, the point at which, in the normal scheme of things, we should be banging down the Beehive’s door.

Labour’s electoral problems are not especially complex or mysterious: the party’s appeal has shrunk to a handful of urban and suburban pockets; it has failed to rejuvenate in policy, personnel or organisational terms since its repeated drubbings; and it operates under a set of self-serving delusions, foremost among them the unshakeable belief that the tide will go out on National eventually so shut up and wait our turn.

Maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps it is disloyal to point any of this out. Maybe the key to electoral success lies in never questioning; in mindless devotion to whoever happens to be in charge. There is certainly a plausible case that Labour will win the next election due to the unwritten rule that Kiwis like their governments on a nine-year rotation. The next election will certainly remove any doubt on that point: if this Labour Party, broke, moribund and bereft of ideas, can win the 2017 election then the three term rule will rise to immutability.

Others say that I should take these criticisms inside the tent. In principle, this is correct — but there is a problem in practice. The Labour Party does not tolerate dissent — not just in a cultural or attitudinal sense, but in its rules. The governing bodies of the party are elected en masse via first past the post. Sector Councils ensure that minority groups have a place at the table, but there is no space whatsoever for minority opinions.

Take the recent example of Labour’s stance on New Zealand’s role in the fight against ISIS, where I find myself (not for the first time) on the fringe. For argument’s sake, let’s say five to ten percent of the party’s membership agree with me that Labour should support the deployment of military trainers because, however modestly in scale, New Zealand should do its part in a broad alliance to stop and prevent ISIS atrocities. This is by no means an outlandish point of view — it’s shared by centre left governments and political parties the world over — but within New Zealand Labour, it renders you a sell-out, a secret Tory, an apostate. What recourse do we have? Because members of the NZ Council and other governing entities are elected, clone like, from the same plurality of members, there is no one capable of advocating on behalf of minority views or looking out for the rights of dissenters. This flows through all the party processes, including candidate selection. Damien O’Connor retains a place in caucus not because of, but despite, the fact he represents an important if unfashionable strand of Labour’s constituency. However hard the party tries to alienate voters in regional New Zealand, they can’t stop O'Connor from winning West Coast-Tasman.

Which brings me to Northland. Seven years in opposition to an Auckland-centric Government should have made a by-election in a neglected regional seat an enticing prospect for Labour, especially in light of Sabin’s messy departure — but Northland is way out of reach. Colmar Brunton has NZ First and National tied on 36 percent with Labour on 20; on 3 News, Labour’s 16 percent is in line with its party vote in the seat last year. Faced with these numbers, Andrew Little dropped hints on TVNZ’s Q&A that Labour supporters should back Peters, as if the party’s emergence as a spoiler in Northland wasn't entirely predictable — and avoidable. Meanwhile, the candidate herself continues to believe she enjoys Little’s full backing, and the party is sending emails as recently as today seeking donations to help her. The source of the confusion lies in Labour’s own sanctimonious huff-puffery over National’s deal-making in Epsom where they appeared to espouse the principle that parties are obliged to contest every election at full throttle, even when doing so is against their interests. The problem with casting as diabolical the very practice of politics is that you can't evade accusations of hypocrisy when you try it yourself.

Labour’s amateur hour drags on interminably. Late last week, cameras showed Willow Prime’s supporters heckling Winston Peters as he held a street corner meeting. They were telling him he was too old to represent Northland, including an unkind reference to a walking frame (Peters, at sixty nine, would make a youthful US Senator). When I pointed out on Twitter the absurd misguidedness of Labour members doing this, aprominent Auckland party activist responded that they weren't heckling at all, but expressing an opinion – as if interrupting a speaker to express an opinion isn't the dictionary definition of heckling. Parallel universe.

Heckling Peters, like Labour’s entire Northland strategy, defies common sense, and begs the question: who is in charge of this circus? Where is Little’s chief of staff, the much vaunted Matt McCarten, or the luckiest man to still have a job in politics, General Secretary Tim Barnett? The goal of any opposition is to inflict maximum damage on the government and, in this case, that takes the shape of Peters defeating National in Northland. This was blindingly obvious the moment Peters emerged as a candidate. Labour can't come anywhere but third and, worse, success means failure if it helps the Nats over the line. If Willow Prime — who, by her own account, is still in it to win it — siphons enough votes from Peters to deliver victory to the government, John Key won’t have dodged a bullet; Andrew Little would have stepped into the bullet’s path.