Laila Harré, David Shearer and the case for pluralism

In the unlikely event I get a say over Laila Harré's likely bid for Labour's nomination in New Lynn, I would enthusiastically vote for her opponent. Among the many questions today's Labour has to ask itself, Laila Harré is the answer to precisely none of them.

But I do not dispute Harré's right to rejoin the Labour Party; nor do I think she should be prevented from standing because of her nominal ineligibility (party rules require at least one year's continuous membership).

Technicalities aside, Harré is well within her rights to present her credentials to New Lynn party members, and ask them to determine whether her re-entry to Parliament is in Labour's, or the nation's, best interests.

It's no secret that my answer to that question is a resounding, lectern-thumping “no”. But I also concede there are many others within the Labour movement who support Harré for various reasons. If they prevail, and nominate Harré for New Lynn, so be it. Them's the rules.

As an advocate for a broad church Labour Party, it would be churlish and hypocritical for me to issue some kind of fatwa against Harré or any other potential nominee whose politics offend me.

Harré hates free-trade and opposed the TPPA. She regards the recently deceased Fidel Castro as a hero worthy of formal parliamentary recognition. On both counts, I could not disagree with Ms Harré more. The TPPA set a new benchmark for international trade deals, and its failure (which had nothing to do with Jane Kelsey's droning opposition) is a blow to our region's economy. Castro was a murderous tyrant who imprisoned dissenters, executed thousands and failed to bring about democracy over 50 years of ironfisted role. I understand where Harré and others are coming from: after all, Castro hated America as much as they do, and that alone will earn forgiveness from the anti-imperialist left for any number of atrocities. So it was with Stalin and Milosevic.

But Labour needs to be broad enough to encompass the views of Lila Harré and people like me if it is to form a viable alternative government.

And yet the party's culture and rules explicitly prohibit that kind of ideological pluralism. Its organs of power — the NZ Council and the list moderating committee, most critically — are elected on a first past the post basis, meaning that the dominant clique is able to shut out any and all dissenting voices. That New Zealand Labour has no factions is an enduring but preposterous myth. The truth is, it is a monofactional party, controlled by a handful of elites and apparatchiks determined to shape Labour in their own image. Anyone who refuses to play along is deemed, often by Little himself, as a right-wing troublemaker. But if the party provides no room for dissent, what other path do we have available to us but to express our frustrations in the public arena?

By contrast, the Australian Labour Party, of which I was a member and activist for 12 years, actively encourages a diversity of views via an overtly factional system built on proportional representation. In an ALP context, both Laila Harré and David Shearer would enjoy institutional backing commensurate with their respective support among members. If, for argument's sake, Shearer and his allies were able to command 20 percent support, they could expect this to be reflected on the NZ Council and in the list selection process. This could allow them to operate freely, expressing their sincerely held views on public policy matters without fear of being ostracized or expelled by a single dominant clique who regard the mere presence of moderates like Shearer in caucus as anathema.

It's the difference between power-sharing and power hogging. To my mind, it is Labour's embrace of the latter, more than any other single factor, that has led to its diminution as a political force in New Zealand.

No number of defeats at the ballot box will persuade the existing party elite that reform, including the introduction of proportional representation in internal ballots, is needed. In fact, in the absence of real power, the spoils of defeat are the only things left to fight over, and human nature dictates that beneficiaries of the status quo are the last to countenance change.

For such essential democratic reforms to occur, it will take a leader capable of understanding that the party's rules and associated ethos of heretic hunting is a significant contributor to the party's electoral malaise. Calling Labour are "broad church" does not make it so. Serious reforms aimed at making the party truly reflective of its supporter base — equally home to Laila Harré and David Shearer — will make the earn the trust of enough New Zealanders to allow them to lead a viable government in 2017 and beyond.