Not Waving, Drowning: Herein lies the problem. Labour must change. Labour will change. Labour cannot change. Not even under the blows of an electoral sledgehammer called Twenty-Four Percent.
WHERE HAS LABOUR’S worst defeat in 92 years, left the Left? Before answering that question, it might be helpful to offer a few suggestions as to where National’s stunning electoral victory has not left it.
The wailing and gnashing of teeth from some left-wing tweeters and bloggers notwithstanding, the Left is not in some antipodean approximation of Nazi Germany, or even Fascist Italy. Nor has it been deposited, overnight, in the Kiwi equivalent of George W. Bush’s post-9/11 America. John Key is not der Fuhrer, or even il Duce. And Steven Joyce is not Dick Cheney, waiting to be whisked away to “an undisclosed location”.
No. The Left, along with everybody else, is still right here in staunchly democratic New Zealand: still in full possession of all the rights and privileges required to mount another assault on the Treasury Benches in 2017.
And Labour is also here. The largest of New Zealand’s left-wing parties can be found sitting dejectedly amongst the wreckage of a pretty comprehensive election defeat. But that’s alright, because Labour’s been there before, and, if history is any guide, will be there again – although, hopefully, with a decent series of election victories in between!
But before it can raise its arms above its head in triumph, Labour has a very long vale of tears to pass through.
It will be a bitter and painful journey for many within the party. There are groups and factions which have waxed powerful in what used to be Labour’s big tent – not noticing that, as they grew larger, the number of ordinary party members who were ready and willing to remain inside the tent with them was growing smaller and smaller and smaller.
What these groups also fail to acknowledge is that no matter how big and powerful they may have grown within the Labour Party, in the world outside their size and influence is considerably less.
The unions, for example, remain one of the key components of Labour’s institutional architecture, but in the much broader context of New Zealand society as a whole union density has fallen from roughly 50 percent of the workforce to just under 20 percent. (In the private sector it is even worse, with barely one in ten workers belonging to a trade union.)
Similarly, in a country where so many young women still feel the need to preface any discussion of gender relations with the disclaimer “I’m not a feminist …” just how sensible was it to require gender quotas to be written into Labour’s constitution? Or to speak out loud and long in defence of a “man ban”?
Perhaps the Women’s Council of the Labour Party should draw a lesson from the fate of Sweden’s “Feminist Initiative”. Founded in 2005, this left-wing feminist political party has consistently failed to breach Sweden’s 4 percent electoral threshold. In the Swedish general election of 14 September, the Feminist Initiative polled just 3.1 percent of the vote.
Labour women might also ponder the significance of a recent poll showing fewer than one New Zealand male in five being willing to cast a Party Vote for Labour.
Of course, anyone attempting to make this case within the Labour Party will be howled down as a right-wing misogynist stooge of the employing class.
And therein lies the problem. Labour must change. Labour will change. Labour cannot change. Not even under the blows of an electoral sledgehammer called Twenty-Four Percent.
Resolving this conundrum will require some exceptionally canny political management.
One solution might be to commission two external reviews of Labour’s values and structures: one from the democratic-socialist Left, the other from the social-democratic Right. And since it is pretty clear that Labour’s caucus is spoiling for a fight, let the contenders declare their preference for one or the other. That way the inevitable Leadership Contest can double as a party-wide plebiscite on which ideological and organisational future the membership feels most inclined to follow.
If the membership opt to go Left they will be voting to turn Labour into a niche party without the slightest hope of ever again receiving 40 percent of the Party Vote. But, if they turn Right, Labour will lose 40 percent of its members.
As Jim Anderton advised me 34 years ago; so would I advise them now: “Build your footpaths where the people walk.”
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 September 2014.