Party reform

Written By: - Date published: 8:44 pm, December 2nd, 2011 - 36 comments
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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.



36 comments on “Party reform”

  1. Colonial Viper 1

    Can Labour institute a ‘mindset reform’ amongst its members and activists? That’s a real challenge.

    • Draco T Bastard 1.1

      What sort of mindset reform did you have in mind?

      Although, I doubt it. Ones mindset is a function of the environment that they grew up in and thus to change it they’d have to remake themselves.

      • Colonial Viper 1.1.1

        Things that you and I take for granted. For starters, Labour members have to recognise that their key voting base has been eroded away after 30 years of neoliberalism and pursuit of individual benefits instead of societal benefits.

        And that the pursuit of even more academic policy detail based on a BAU world is going nowhere.

        Basically the old comfortable world that Labour became a powerful force in is gone (and they helped usher that world out of existence); Labour principles and values are timeless but too many people don’t know or don’t care today.

        • burt


          You are deluded if you think the support base has been eroded by neoliberalism. Wake up you fool it’s been eroded by self serving interests who through their sense of entitlement to other peoples money make it obvious the best interests of the unions are not the best interests of the workers.

          • Draco T Bastard

            Neo-liberalism is the embodiment of “self serving interests”.

            • burt

              Yes of course Draco, whatever you and your fellow 27% say must be true.

              • felix

                Are you still an ACT supporter, burt?

                • burt

                  No. I haven’t been for a few years. Sorry to steal your thunder on 1.2%….

                  • felix

                    Good for you burt. So when you were supporting a party polling 3-4-5%, did you consider those numbers to be a factor in the correctness or trueness of your (or their) ideas?

                    If not, why not? And why does the same logic not apply to Draco above (as long as we’re pretending Draco is a Labour supporter)?

                    • burt

                      I think you are misisng my point felix, perhaps I didn’t clearly communicate it. Perhaps I didn’t have on when I dismissed Draco.

                      But if you want to play the percentage game then consider that my departure from ACT coincided with the same from others. The remaining 1.2% are the ones insisting that they had it right and still have it right now. I’m not one of them for ACT. The remaining 27% are for Labour, I’m not one of them either. This isn’t about me felix.

                    • felix

                      So ACT were right and Labour were right at the same time.

                      And now they’re both wrong.

        • Nick C

          If Neo-liberalism really caused all the harm that you think it did then why surely this would increase Labours voting base?

          • burt

            Perhaps we have finally found something that is only bad when Labour do it ! makes a change….

          • Colonial Viper

            Nick C: neoliberalism fragmented organised workers and community groups, and many have bought the story line that they can only succeed or fail as atomized individuals.

            In other words, many have given up on the concept of society and of building a better community, and replaced it with a belief that markets and market forces will do it for them.

  2. J. Andels 2

    I do not agree with reforming Labour party lines along the Australian Labor Party model.
    I do believe that the labour party in Australia has not got in touch with it’s grass roots, the new generation born from those of Aboriginal, Lebananse, Greek and a multitude of others descent.
    The time has changed for them, and so it has for us.
    We have a future with NZ Labour, if they are willing to listen. It is not decided with the local delegates, but with the youth.
    The youth have clearly demanded a Green party vote, based on the conservation of our country and her resources. I am one of those, I voted Green because I did not believe the Labour party vote really protected us from foreign ownership that exploits our resources and our land, that we will be safe working a job without being fired at will, that Labour will encourage us to stay in New Zealand.
    A sign of good faith is all we need, but right now all I hear is the the cry for freedom in social affairs and to stop the country climbing down the gutter economically and conservationally.
    My family are :Labour party members, but none of them seem to have conviction.
    Convince us, please. Get us out to vote.

    • seeker 2.1

      @ J. Andels 3.03am

      “I voted Green because I did not believe the Labour party vote really protected us from foreign ownership that exploits our resources and our land, that we will be safe working a job without being fired at will, that Labour will encourage us to stay in New Zealand.”

      Why did you not believe? Did you not read the really detailed, principled policies Labour wrote addresssing these very issues.

      • Colonial Viper 2.1.1

        Policy wins only a minority of votes; heart, sincerity and vision wins the rest. So a simple question – where and what is Labour’s heart sincerity and vision?

        • Ari

          You forgot trust. I think a lot of people actually do believe in Labour’s vision, they just don’t trust them any more, or at the very least, they don’t trust them to win so don’t want to bother voting.

  3. Posters here tend not to like criticism (like anyone) and can react strongly – and sometimes with abuse – against it. But if they want to see a rebuild of a stronger Labour party they need to be prepared to look at what has gone wrong and what needs to be done about it.

    John Armstrong makes some tough but reasonable points.

    Labour was offering a better past. But no-one lives there any more. Labour had lost touch with middle New Zealand.

    The party kidded itself – as it had done since losing power – that voters would come “home” to Labour once they came to their senses and realised the overwhelming superiority of its policies and that John Key is not quite what the media cracked him up to be.

    This toxic combination of false hope and unfathomable arrogance was shattered last Saturday.

    False hope has been dashed but has still been evident continuing here in the week since the election, as has arrogance.

    Contributors to this blog can contribute to a Labour recovery if they take on board the many criticisms they are sure to hear, and if they explore how to deal with them.

    Aiming shots at the messengers simply feeds the alienation and ends up hitting their own feet. Again.

    It is in everyone’s interest to have a strong and credible government in waiting, so expect attention from people you would prefer just to keep dissing. Being ignored would be worse, then you will know you have a terminal problem.

    • seeker 3.1

      Pete George, you are unbelievable…………….

    • Colonial Viper 3.2

      PG – forget it mate, no one is voting for you, national politics or local politics. Frak off you insincere hanger on.

      • burt 3.2.1

        Realistically nobody is voting for Labour CV – you need to remember the following 4 points;

        1. Everyone has critics.
        2. Your critics are not your enemy.
        3. They are probably trying to help you
        4. At least some of them will actually be pointing to the solution you need to find.

        • Colonial Viper

          Last I looked 27% of voters supported Labour, far more than supported National in 2002.

          BTW I don’t take advice from insincere losers (not referring to you).

          • burt


            Winners, losers… critics are critics. FFS CV, Pete Gorge offered an opinion on Labour, he expressly noted that aiming shots at messengers is not the way to take on board some valuable criticism. You then hard out attack the messenger and continue to do so.

            When I posted the comment above I thought perhaps your hard out attack on Pete was a joke. So I ignored that and just reitterated what Pete had said in easily consumable chunks for you. But then you continue calling him an insincere loser. You are not getting this ‘reflect and adapt’ thing are you.

            • Ari

              I don’t particularly think his criticism is very valuable, and I have no real vested interest in Labour since I never voted for them and don’t intend to start.

              Labour supporters should be willing to take on board genuine opinions of voters that might actually support them, (which PG is not) and useful, well-founded criticism.

              That doesn’t mean everything some government troll or inane pundit says needs to be treated as sage advice. 😉

    • Hanswurst 3.3

      Sorry, but if there was ever an example of a well-meaning, out-of-touch irrelevancy, it would be John Armstrong. His claims that anyone else is “out of touch” should be viewed through that lens.

      Why is there even any suggestion that the political journalists would be more in touch than the politicians themselves?

    • Uturn 3.4

      You and your type define “arrogance” as the refusal to bow to your special style of condescension. Anyone who doesn’t take up your commands and ideas is “arrogant” if they have their own alternative and voice it in equal measure to your obscene instructions. For some reason you persist in believing that a fragile electoral win is proof of every further idea from same bunch as being universally true. Why you are tolerated here at all defies sensibility.

  4. AnnaLiviaPlurabella 4

    One important reform will be the defining of roles and responsibilities for the salaried staff: briefing the Press Gallery to run down David Cunliffe because he holds people to account is not in their job description.

  5. Craig Glen Eden 5

    It is not labour policy that is our main problem it was our Packaging. Cunliffe showed this morning on the Nation why he is the bloke who can rectify this, no wonder National want Shearer.

  6. Glenn 6

    Gillard has a salary higher than Obama and Cameron.
    All the pollies in Oz have their snouts in the trough at the moment.
    Just an observation…

  7. randal 7

    All the party has to do is get back to its roots and find some people who are down to earth and know whats what.
    at the moment the people who run the focus groups seem to have control and have lost sight of the wider issues.
    Also the party needs to modernise its media stance. If tribesmen in remote parts of Pakistan and Tadjikistan can operate micropulse radio staions to get their message across then I dont see why the NZLP cant do it here and cut the slimeballs like radio skawbak and leighton smith off at the knees instead of allowing them unlimited airtime to psuh their rotten views.

  8. Policy Parrot 8

    All those who suggest fundamental policy changes in Labour’s manifesto to “come on board with the new times” ignore that it was largely these types of policies and Labour’s failure to effectively combat them (or enactment of them) that has lead to the depletion of Labour’s voting base. Yes, there has been some gentrification of the vote since the 1990s, when parties ostensibly opposed to the National Party won consistently over 60% of the vote.

    At the last election, Labour had a broad plan to lead the country forward – although I have some particular issue with some of the policy settings, the broad settings were approximately correct. The problem was that those opposed tended to cherry pick out the components they didn’t like, and promote these as “damaging to the economy”. Labour needs to review how these policies will be introduced and work in practice, but not dump them.

    There was also a reference to National in 2002, and how many commentators were concerned about the potential for the “death of National”. National certainly didn’t change their policy spots, they just became more cunning and conniving about where and what they said they would do. As randal said, it doesn’t help that many of the popular media commentators have no scruples in terms of their political positioning – NewstalkZB for instance would about as balanced as Fox News.

    Phil was right, Labour’s time will come again, but advancing that happy day is in the interest of all Kiwis.

  9. Greg 9

    Good to see my MA thesis is being referred to!

  10. Mike Smith 10

    It was a good one.

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