IT ISN’T DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND why Labour’s caucus was just a little diffident about the party’s new electoral college. Restricting the franchise for electing Labour’s leader to MPs offered the latter at least two huge advantages.
Firstly, it protected the parliamentary party from the pressures of Labour’s trade union affiliates and its ordinary rank-and-file members. These latter are almost without exception several degrees to the left of their parliamentary representatives and so, historically, it’s been considered vital to restrict their influence over policy formation.
Secondly, by limiting the franchise to the parliamentary caucus it really didn’t matter how popular an individual MP was with the party rank-and-file. The only people who counted when it came to selecting a leader – or keeping a leader in place – were his or her parliamentary colleagues.
But now everything has changed.
The changes endorsed by the 2012 Labour Party Conference have introduced a whole new set of political dynamics to the business of leading the Labour Party. It is now possible, for example, for an individual out of favour with his or her caucus colleagues to nevertheless receive an unassailable mandate from the wider party. It will be a brave MP, or even a faction of MPs, which now dares to set itself up against the will of wider membership. Any refusal to follow the leader (and by extension the party) will henceforth constitute prima facie justification for deselection.
The power of the party organisation has thus been enormously expanded, and the MP who would be leader is now obliged to pitch his case for election at what he perceives to be the rank-and-file’s consensus over policy and direction.
This process is already startlingly evident in the inaugural leadership contest currently underway. The need to attract and hold membership support has forced all three contenders: David Cunliffe, Grant Robertson and Shane Jones; to pitch their appeal several degrees to the left of what would normally be their ideological comfort zones.
On the controversial issue of labour relations, for example, both Cunliffe and Robertson have adopted positions that promise a radical reconfiguring of employment relations law should Labour win the 2014 General Election. Legislating for the a “living wage” for all government employees will happen within the first 100 days of a Labour victory – along with the repeal of the amending legislation brought in by National’s Kate Wilkinson and Simon Bridges. How far this will go? Who knows? By the end of the two weeks of scheduled meetings party members could be looking at a firm promise to reintroduce universal union membership!
The performance of the three contenders at the first of the two Auckland meetings – held in the Otahuhu Events Centre on Sunday afternoon – closely reflected their political personalities.
By far the best-crafted and coherent of the speeches came from the ever-competent Grant Robertson. The leadership contest has forced Robertson to shed his “beltway” skin of cautious moderation in all things and reveal to the nation the strongly left-wing light his close friends have always known he carried, but which he had felt it prudent to keep under a fairly hefty bushel. Outed Grant! But not, perhaps, in the way the pundits expected.
David Cunliffe undoubtedly had the room. But this was hardly surprising, given the people of South and West Auckland are his most fervent supporters. Overall, however, his speech lacked the discipline and distance required of the man who would be New Zealand’s next prime minister. He must learn to say more with less and not play so obviously to the crowd – even when it is overwhelmingly his.
For sheer oratorical heft, however, it was impossible to go past Shane Jones. He is a man of the marae and has absorbed many of its rhetorical tropes and rhythms. Jones speaks without obvious effort and with the kind of tightly-coiled passion that hints of a power the audience has yet to measure. Cunliffe could learn much form this man’s speaking style.
Coming away from the meeting, it was impossible not to conclude that, for the first time in decades, belonging to the Labour Party offers ordinary citizens a genuine opportunity to shape the future of their country. Party members count for something now – and the MPs know it.
Whoever wins this race stands to inherit a revolution.