Back in the early 90s the first party conference I went to was very nearly my last. Intransigent foes who used the mic to assault each other was my introduction to the Labour party ‘working’ with each other. It wasn’t pleasant. Nor was it particularly productive. Over the years this dropped into the kind of stratified coldwar and eventually into a kind of rigid formal dance. And I viewed the remit floor as being just boring and largely meaningless. All the volunteering that I did was outside it.
Now I’ll confess that amongst my reasons why I decided to go to this party conference on a media pass was that I could avoid splatter if war broke out again. There are two interest groups in the conference. One is the caucus/beltway. The other is an irritated and frustrated membership and affliates who’ve been feeling increasingly less involved with the party. This second group includes many amongst our authors and commentators.
Damn was I ever wrong about the splatter. And there were a couple of obvious ways to see change happen today.
Firstly the remit hall was full. The delegates were flogging chairs from the journos1. There were people I’d last seen at Young Labour’s summer schools as teens turning up after a hiatus as thirty-somethings (I’m getting too old).
Secondly, there was a single card count. A distinguishing feature of Labour conferences is that when they get down to having card counts on remits and amendments then you know that something is being bitterly fought or very tight.
Most votes are done on voice2 or they are done with a show of hands. Usually the yea or nay is clear. But card counts3 can be called for. Usually what it means is that it is quite tight on a count and one of the other side wants to be absolutely sure that it was that actual card votes that carried it.
When you get a succession of card votes then there is some kind of war for the soul of the party. Now that is what I saw in the early 90’s and I was rather expecting it to happen today. After all over the years more and more control in the party had accreted from the party members into caucus. It has steadily become a more and more frustrating issue for party activists to deal with. The caucus is quite naturally inward looking, incestuous, and far far too concerned with seemingly trivial issues that have bugger all to do with running a decent campaign on the ground.
But war didn’t break out today. This is the healthiest that I have ever seen a conference – ever. And I include the congress in 1999 when we knew we were about to hammer the Nat’s out of the Beehive.
The single card vote was on the most sticky and debated point; the trigger percentage of caucus that a leader had to get after an election to not go to a leadership election with members and affiliates. It started out as a mere third when sent out for discussion. It came back as 45% or 50% (voted down almost without stopping), or to go to 60%. This required a card vote to get accepted.
The issue was essentially that after an election that had been lost or even won, 40% of the caucus could trigger a leadership vote amongst the members and affiliates (“the tail wagging the dog”). The alternate view was that if the caucus had 40% of it’s members so disgruntled that they would petition against incumbent then the party should get involved in making the decision about how to fix the problem.
The card vote resulted in 264 for the 60% requirement and 237 against – really close
After that, the pattern was set and the delegates and MP’s settled down to make the maze of amendments workable. It was clear what the delegates wanted and there really wasn’t any point in dogged resistance.
Now this may have some implications in the short and longer terms with leadership. But it is does appears to be pretty clear in principle. If caucus can’t agree who to support as leader, then it will go to the party and the caucus to vote on. You can guarantee that the outcome with the vote weightings of the caucus 40%, the membership 40% and affiliates 20% is not going to be simple. The party won’t reward people that are perceived to be stirring up trouble nor incumbent leaders who let things get to the state that 40% of the caucus petition to have them removed.
I’d expect that any effective party leader will try to make sure that their most effective MP’s are fully and gainfully employed. Which is what the party and affiliates will want as well. And any MP(s) and their supporters wanting to have a shot at leader will have to be effective. These are the things that party members and affliates will look at.
All MP’s apart from the deranged will probably prefer to keep the dispute away from the party vote because they might not like the judgement passed on them. Getting any resolution in a caucus that has less than 40% malcontents is going to be a whole lot safer than whatever the party metes out.
What does this mean for the short term? Up until February nothing much. In February, it wouldn’t surprise me a leadership petition caused the party vote. It wouldn’t surprise me if it did not. But keep your membership up to date especially in the early part of next year. If anything falters in caucus and there is a disaffected rump there, then the party will need to sort the MP’s out. It is something that I’m sure the MP’s really don’t want to see happen. Not to mention that it will interfere with the political buildup for the next election.
Of course I’m pretty sure that the mainstream won’t spin it in quite that way. Mass actions and political feedback systems don’t make for as simplistic and as easily understood a story as the epic personal conflict of two protagonists to fill those endless minutes (or some other Randian rubbish).
Long term, with the other things that Moira and Tim, the NZ Council, and the policy council were starting to put through today, Labour are looking at a improved party to work with at the next election. It isn’t going to have everything done. But it does look more hopeful to me than it did a few days ago.
1. BTW delegates – that is a bad bad thing to do. You’re wanting them to write nice things about Labour and you steal their seat?
2. Or there is some idiot who thinks that a loud shout fools anyone.
3. The card is your name tag and permission to be at the conference, and also has the number of votes you can wield. The latter is a bit like hit points in games. So you will see delegates carrying around cards with nothing (non voting members), the more common “1” (delegate), and a few barbarians from very far far away carrying “4” on a large card that almost hangs to the loincloth……. ummm ok that last bit was a joke in poor taste about the south island delegates in Auckland