Regular readers will know that my “guest posts” aren’t always to be taken seriously. But this guest post is a genuine one.
The post was written five days before the Labour leadership ballot, and sent to a prominent left blog who did not run the post. I thought it deserved a wider audience.
I had to write. It’s got to the point where I can no longer hold my silence. Dear Labour members who write and comment here: Either support Shearer, or destroy the Party, and rebuild it again.
I’m not a Labour member. I’m not likely to ever be. After a brief teenage dalliance with the Militant Workers Forum, I joined the Greens, and there I’ve remained, with a belief in their ability to deliver the ecologically sustainable and socially equitable future we need.
As far back as the 1999 campaign, I remember being disappointed with Labour, unconvinced of their commitment to meaningful social change or even the labour rights they were founded on. That didn’t abate in 9 years; in which greenhouse gases skyrocketed, the state broadcaster gave the nation tabloid news, and nobody got back their right to overtime. Eventually I got tired of complaining to friends on the left, camped out at an Australian university and resigned to an eventual incoming National government restarting its unfinished revolution, this time couched in centrist rhetoric and MMP-appropriate caution. Yet, despite all of this I remained impressed by the many friends of mine who stuck through in anticipation of getting what they believed in towards the Cabinet table and thus affecting the lives of every New Zealander. Since 2008 they’ve remained faithful, and put in hundreds of hours driven by conviction and belief. It is their Labour Party.
During the last few decades, in spite of all its flaws, Labour has been able to win elections. Not consistently; a distorted FPP system put that out of reach, but sufficiently often that Labour was a very good vehicle for putting policy into power. (Too good, as Roger Douglas demonstrated) My own party frequently disappointed me, as it was convinced that being right was sufficient to eventually garner a good share of the votes. I’ve been rather happy lately, as that notion has been disabused.
Without a strong Labour Party capable of winning elections, we will have a 3rd and 4th term of National, or the parasitic, reactionary and destructive force of NZFirst hanging around Labour and the Greens necks. It dragged the Clark Government to its defeat, and her defence of Peters was pitiable. We, the left (and we, the Greens) need Labour to get it together, pull itself out of the miserable gutter it lies in, and stand up straight and project itself to the world as a potential government. If you can’t convince yourselves of your ability to govern, you won’t convince others.
In a sense Mike was right. For all the embarrassing folded arms and head-scratching and the faults of personality that usually accompany such behaviour, those at the Summer School are the real Labour Party. Without disrespect to the many excellent people I know who attend such events, there are also some who consider the party self-evidently right and would doorknock for a centre-right potato if it claimed to be a Labour candidate. With enthusiasm. I know, because I’ve seen it happen. It’s time to shift the balance back from them, through cooperation or by force.
Shearer was almost certain to win the upcoming caucus ballot, and those who put him there will remain. Ignore the leadership, and work on building up your grassroots support with genuine action at the local level (rather than the self-conscious posturing and banner-waving that convinces nobody). Building electorates firewalled from career-servers should not actually be all that difficult; there were only 23 electorate seats won at the last election, and several of those MPs are rapidly approaching retirement. The rest are denizens of the list, and can be moved if you’re able to win the fight over control of the list.
These are your communities. Use the upcoming local body elections as the practice round and get into all levels of government the good people you need to represent you. Flush with cash, sore from their 2010 humiliation in Auckland, and watching a wounded Labour, the right will walk into these elections with confidence. There remain just weeks before Labour and the Greens will have to start fighting. If you’ve just joined the Greens, or are thinking of doing so, consider heading back – I’d like a strong and coherent Labour, and we need good people for that to happen.
Now, does this mean that this is the Labour I want, which will allow us to have the Government we need? No. It will remain what it is, and you on the inside know that better than I do. But it will be much better than National, and in the coming years you’ll have further opportunity to replenish, change, and build from within. It’s happened in many parties in many places, and the last two decades of Labour should not foreclose that possibility.
If this is truly unpalatable, then the alternative is not to let Labour languish in mediocrity, but to pull it up by the stumps, and plant something fruitful instead; to act with ruthlessness at the branch and central levels, and eject those who stand in your way.
Stop complaining. If you don’t like MP X, or the useless candidate that Wellington has foisted on you, then stack the LEC and throw him out. If that’s not possible, organise conferences to change the constitution and give yourselves more of the democracy you so desire. Shake up the list and throw rightists, hacks, and time-servers to oblivion. Marginalise the centrist undemocratic unionists who stand in your way and empower the ones who seek socialism and democracy. Rip up policy documents and write better ones. This might take a term, or even two. It will be painful, it will feel like a war, and probably be quite destructive. But if it must be done, it must be done. Let the media paint the party as up in flames, and throw on some gasoline. Such a process need not be harmful if engages democracy and empowers the many thousands of New Zealanders who want a major party that can bring back fair and comassionate government, and restore equilibrium to their lives.
I don’t know where you stand. I really don’t. That’s a choice for you to make. But to watch the comments threads fill with criticism that cannot move the party meaningfully in either way is not just disappointing. It’s tragic.
George is currently based in Timor-Leste where he works on a malaria prevention project. These views do not represent those of his employers