It’s interesting how little understanding there is of the state and politics within the Parliamentary Labour Party. A lot of the coverage of Labour’s internal workings has tended to personalise the tension – it’s been focused on Shearer vs Cunliffe without any questions about what lies beneath.
As always, there’s a lot more to it. Most of the drama within Labour since the last election can be put down to the power struggle between the Parliamentary party’s threefactions. I think it’s time to shine a light on what’s going on so members can better judge the behaviour of their parliamentary representatives.
Questions of ideology, loyalty, and personal advancement all play their part in the makeup of Labour’s three factions. Each faction has a core group of hard support as well as a handful of soft supporters who can and have switched allegiances from time to time. This is much looser and informal than the Australian system of factions.
Broadly speaking though, Labour’s three factions are as follows:
David Shearer (leader)
Within this faction is most of Labour’s experience, and it shows. While only a small minority in caucus, these guys know how to organise, scare, and run a solid internal political game. But while they’re good at the internal game, they’re completely shit at national politics as the last four years has shown. Goff, King, and Cosgrove are the core, and they’re currently running the show. Fa’afoi seems an odd fit here, much newer and younger than the others; it could be because he was taken under King’s wing. The Right hold five front bench positions.
David Cunliffe (leader)
Su’a William Sio
This is the largest and most diverse faction. You’ll find most of caucus’ Maori and women here. They haven’t done well with organising internally, and it shows because they’re currently out in the cold. But a lot of members believe this is real Labour – there is not a single former parliamentary staffer in these ranks. Andrew Little is a bit of wild card here, while his politics are firmly left you can’t count him on him voting for any one particular faction. The Left hold no front bench positions.
The Careerist Left
Grant Robertson (leader)
Of the 11 MPs in the Careerist Left, 7 are former parliamentary staffers. This group has some good people but there’s a strong thread of personal advancement running through it, which is why they’ve brokered a deal with the Right. Robertson is wary of the ‘Left’ faction, because he doesn’t think he’ll do as well out of a deal with Cunliffe. Many of his backers have made the same decision, and they’ve been duly rewarded in the reshuffle. Mallard and Dyson are in this faction by accident – they simply don’t like Cunliffe. Street is an odd fit with this faction, and no one I’ve talked to can explain what she’s doing there.
None of the factions by themselves have the numbers to control caucus, which is why the Right has built an alliance with Careerist Left. That’s who’s in charge now.
How long will this alliance last? It’s impossible to tell. While it’s clear something major needs to change in Labour, it’ll require either Shearer or Robertson to feel that it’s in their interests to break the relationship. Given the party membership and the unions are likely to favour the Left faction it’s not in the interests of either Shearer or Robertson to trigger a wider leadership election.
A break will probably require either an election loss or some seriously bad polling (in the 20s) that makes the softer members of the Careerist Left change tack out of fear of being booted out of Parliament.
As for the Left faction, you may be wondering why they failed to trigger a leadership vote in February when their faction had one more vote than they needed. It was simple bluffing. Moana Mackey and Iain Lees-Galloway voted Shearer because they thought he had the votes, and quite sensibly didn’t want to be punished by the Right – though it doesn’t look like it did either of them any good in the reshuffle.