Party reform is high on the agenda of the ALP conference, being held in Sydney this weekend. While conferences do not ordinarily make riveting television, it is being carried live on Sky TV. Party reform is also high on the agenda of the NZLP – President Moira Coatsworth announced that Labour would conduct an organisational review after the election in her speech to Labour’s Conference in May. It was a prescient move.
In Australia, the ALP is a minority government, facing some huge challenges. Here the NZLP has just emerged from one of its worst defeats. Britain’s Labour Party also conducted a review after its defeat last year. All the English-speaking social democratic parties faces similar challenges, but there are also significant differences.
Defeat is never pleasant, but it can be salutary. In my view while the NZLP can learn much from our fraternal parties such as the ALP, UK Labour and the NDP in Canada, we can also learn from our opponents. The National Party suffered an even worse defeat than Labour’s in 2002, going down to 22% of the party vote. Three years later they were ahead in both parties’ tracking polls of right up till election day. Helen Clark and Don Brash would have both gone to bed on election night in 2005 thinking Don had got the job.
National contracted Steven Joyce to conduct their 2002 review. I don’t have a copy, but Gregory Stephens wrote a thesis about it – you can find it here. thesis Joyce identified that National had not understood the significance of the party vote. It’s communication was disorganised as decision-making was decentralised to relatively autonomous regions. Joyce recommended centralising decision-making authority, and moving to a corporate model. The party’s response was to ask him to become the manager, and the rest, as they say, is history. He certainly aligned their message of “change the government” in 2005, with the Exclusive Brethren using it too, apparently coincidentally. National Party decision-making is centralised and its messaging disciplined.
But it wasn’t just a corporate review. One of their shrewder moves was to bring in Judy Kirk as President, to reactivate the old National party grassroots. That has worked well.
I am certainly not advocating that the Labour Party adopt a corporatist or centralised organisation, but I do hope that Labour’s review process brings in some competence from outside the Party, and includes the parliamentary party as well as the constituency party. I was a member and observer of the Labour caucus for the best part of nine years, and in my view many of its habits and procedures are well overdue for overhaul.
The ALP with its factions entrenched in the unions is much more corporatist than the NZLP. Nine years ago Simon Crean commissioned ALP Premiers Bob Hawke and Simon Crean to review the ALP organisation. They made 17 key recommendations; I went to their special conference in Canberra and it boiled down to one – union delegate representation at the Federal conference should be reduced from 60% to 50%. Of the many party conferences I have attended, this was the most dispiriting and anodyne. The factions delivered the result, but no-one was happy.
Julia Gillard also commissioned party heavyweights to report – in this case former Deputy Premier John Faulkner, and former State Premiers Steve Bracks and Bob Carr. It is here Review2010Report But the priorities in her speech are about organising, not about representation rights.
We can set a recruiting challenge. We can adopt a community organising approach.. And we must lead in the new world of campaigning on line.. We can move to modern structures.. Allowing members to organise around policy areas that reflect their interests and ideas.. And offering new opportunities to participate in policy development through genuine forums which include parliamentary, union and directly elected representatives.. More opportunities to have a say and a direct vote in important decisions. . Starting with a National President, elected by members, to serve a full, three-year term.
These are all issues for the NZLP as well. The most important is the community organising approach. It was crucial in the lead-up to Labour’s win here in 1999; and to the ALP’s win against Howard’s Work Choices in Australia in 2007. New Zealand doesn’t have the same problems with opportunities for policy development – much good work has been done in recent years led by Phil Twyford and Jordan Carter. However the Australians in my view are better at systematic implementation.
I am sure our representatives will return from Sydney with many good ideas. Moira Coatsworth is also just the right person to reconnect with the Labour party activists and the Greens as well.
One final thought – as I said at the start, the conference has been carried extensively on Sky. And there have been some lively debates. Former AMWU Secretary and now Senator Doug Cameron has cut to the heart of things as usual as world events vindicate his honesty. The ALP will debate same-sex marriage at its conference instead of in the caucus. Maybe it’s time for a rethink here – Labour’s 2010 conference would have made good television too.