There’s a fair bit of disillusionment out there at the moment re the divisive goings on within Labour. Choosing a representative voice at random, the post by Scott Yorke of Imperator Fish fame attracted a bit of attention, so I’ll use it as a prompt and context for framing a response to the disillusioned.
I’ve reached the point where I really can’t be bothered fighting for a Labour government any more. I don’t really know what the party stands for, and there is an immense amount of crap going on behind the scenes. It’s coming to the fore and it looks ugly.
I’m not impressed with these goings on either. There’s no quicker route to electoral oblivion than internal division. It’s painful to watch some of that going on with Labour right now. But I keep in mind two points, that such divisions exist in all parties of size n > 1 (e.g. the current factional fights within National), and that most of us are seeing this only through the excitable and unreliable lens of the media. Labour needs to get its house in order, but rumours that the house is burning down are just so much self-serving nonsense.
I also sense a leadership void at the top. I thought David Shearer was the answer to the party’s woes, but now I wonder. I don’t have any inside knowledge, but the perception is growing that he can’t control rogue members of his caucus team. A leader who can’t control his team doesn’t deserve to lead. I know Shearer’s new to the leadership role, but he has to step up. Maybe he will, and perhaps this latest crisis in Labour will bring out some previously unseen strengths in the man.
I think Shearer can be an excellent leader and an excellent PM, given time to grow in to the job. Whether the sensation-hungry media, and the nervous Labour caucus, give him the time that he needs, that’s an open question. But to the nervous I’d say – get a grip. Leader of the opposition is the hardest job in politics. They’re never going to be close to an incumbent PM in the (almost meaningless “preferred PM”) polls, and the bulk of the public doesn’t even begin to get to know them until election time. So every new leader deserves a shot at at least one election. Talk of leadership change now is nuts.
But I am no longer the optimist. When I hear David Shearer speak he sounds to me more like a National Party leader. I’m sure his advisers are telling him to chase the middle vote, but all we seem to be promised is a slightly softer version of what we already have, and without asset sales. Why is he off chasing the votes of business groups and rural voters, when the main reason why Labour did dismally in 2008 and 2011 is the failure of traditional urban Labour voters to get to the polls? They are typically the poor, the young, Maori and Pasifika. They don’t give a crap about the knowledge economy or reforming the Reserve Bank Act. Many of them have figured Labour just doesn’t care about them. I’d like to assure them they are wrong, but are they?
The day that I think that Labour doesn’t care about its traditional voters is the day I’ll be turning in my card. I believe that Labour does care, it’s in the DNA of the party, we’ll see that in the lead up to the next election (which, let’s remember, is still 2 years away). And yes, Labour does have to turn out its traditional voters to win, but I don’t think that it’s wrong to woo “the middle vote” as well. Labour has surely recognised two basic facts, that the political left is well supplied with viable parties, and that their next government will be in coalition with those parties. So to worried activists I’d say “think MMP”. Think about the next Labour led government rather than the Labour party in isolation. The next Labour led government will be thoroughly of the left, and if Labour can bring some middle voters to that coalition, so much the better.
I have a fine local MP in Phil Twyford, and I will continue to support him. There are also a lot of amazing and dedicated people within the party, many of whom are immensely frustrated by what they see going on. I admire their commitment and energy, and the huge amount of patience they have. Many of them remain fiercely optimistic in situations where I just fall into despair.
I’ve only been a member of the party for a short time, so I can perhaps be criticised for being naive. I’m not renouncing my membership, or anything as dramatic as that, nor do I mean this post to sound like a prolonged flounce. I’m just going to stop helping for a while. I have many other uses for the energy that party activism requires me to expend.
In my experience the risk of falling “into despair” is highest in the early years. Survive them and you take a longer perspective. Politics is a long, slow game, ruled by a natural cycle that is actually pretty hard to influence. Every now and again your favourite party will get the wobbles. It’s inevitable, it’s transitory, and it doesn’t matter much, as long as the heart of the Party is in the right place. And the heart of the party is not the leader, or the current crop of MPs, it is we the members. The party will be exactly as good or as bad as we make it. So for the moment, I’m in.