Reclaiming The Party: "Today's the day we take our party back!" Len Richards challenges the Caucus's attempt to blunt the rank-and-file's campaign for democratisation at the 2012 Annual Conference of the Labour Party. (Photo by John Chapman)
HOW DO REVOLUTIONS BEGIN? With ordinary people discovering their power. When someone or something previously regarded as all-powerful is suddenly seen to falter and fall.
Is it over-the-top to call what happened last weekend at the Labour Party’s annual conference in Auckland a revolution? Do twenty-first century political parties even wield that sort of power anymore? Hasn’t “revolutionary party” become an oxymoron?
Maybe. But something is changing in the world of progressive politics and the radical changes ratified by the 622 delegates to last weekend’s Labour Party Conference have put New Zealand squarely into the vanguard of that change.
And that’s not just because Labour’s membership voted themselves a decisive role in choosing their party leader. After all, the British Labour Party did something very similar thirty years ago. Nor is it a matter of members having left their parliamentary wing very little in the way of wiggle room when it comes to implementing party policy. All of these changes were important, but a long way short of revolutionary.
No, the revolution really began when a number of senior members of Labour’s Parliamentary Caucus attempted to water-down the rank-and-file’s radical changes to the Party’s constitution.
Suddenly all the pent up frustrations of a membership long accustomed to being treated as little more than an enthusiastic applause-machine boiled-over into a bitter but utterly gripping floor-fight for the heart and soul of the Labour Party.
Those who had not made the minutiae of Labour Party politics their special study (which these days includes most of the Parliamentary Press Gallery) may not immediately have grasped the import of what was unfolding before their eyes last Saturday.
Historically-speaking, Labour’s traditionally restive rank-and-file have been ruthlessly whipped into line by a combination of Members of Parliament, Labour Electorate Committee (LEC) Chairs and/or trade union bosses. At the close of conference business, seated comfortably in the nearest pub, they may have groused to one another about remits they were “forced” to support or reject, but only very rarely did the membership make a fight of it. Victories for the rank-and-file were rarer still.
On Saturday, however, events unfolded very differently. At issue was the number of Labour MPs needed to “trigger” a leadership vote in which the whole party could participate. The percentage of the parliamentary caucus required to activate the party’s new Electoral College (comprising 40 percent MPs, 40 percent ordinary members, and 20 percent trade union affiliates) had originally been set at 66 percent. After loud protests this was amended to 55 percent and then reduced again by the conference delegates to 50 percent + one.
So far, so good.
The debate then shifted to the number required to precipitate a membership-wide vote after each general election. It was proposed that any party leader failing to secure the support of 60 percent of his or her caucus colleagues would have to fight it out in the Electoral College. In other words, the post-election trigger for a party-wide vote would be set at just 40 percent.
Many Labour MPs construed this as an attack directed at Labour leader, David Shearer, by his erstwhile rival, David Cunliffe. Not since the dark days of the 1980s and Rogernomics had an annual conference of the Labour Party echoed to such bitter thrusts and counter-thrusts.
But while the intense personal rivalries currently besetting Labour’s Caucus undoubtedly accounted for much of the vitriol flying back and forth last Saturday, rank-and-file resentment at being ignored and over-ruled by their parliamentary representatives was an even more important driver of dissent.
Ordinary members of the Labour Party knew their preferred candidate for party leader, David Cunliffe, had been passed over by the Caucus in favour of David Shearer. It was this decision, following years of being dictated to by the parliamentary leadership, that generated the great wave of constitutional reform which broke over last weekend’s conference.
But another factor was at work on the conference floor last weekend. In the minds of many delegates were the bitter memories of a Caucus which had not only over-ruled but betrayed the party membership: the caucus that unleashed Rogernomics.
When delegate Len Richards declared “Today’s the day we take our party back!” He was alluding to much more than last December’s leadership vote.
In the end, and despite all the arm-twisting and brow-beating by Mr Shearer’s surrogates, the 40 percent trigger – symbol of the rank-and-file’s newly-minted authority – was approved: 264 votes in favour, 237 against.
Pebbles rolling down a hillside, you may think. But landslides – and revolutions – have to begin somewhere.
David Shearer’s Sunday speech – full of bold, radical and unmistakably Labour rhetoric and policy – was his direct response to the party membership’s noisy determination to reclaim their party.
They received Mr Shearer’s speech with whoops and cheers because, in truth, they had written it themselves.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 20 November 2012.