THIRTY YEARS AFTER he quit the party in disgust, a man called Mark has re-joined Labour. That’s remarkable. It’s also a tribute to the power of Jacinda Ardern, and to the strength of the hopes she has kindled. People who once wanted nothing more to do with Labour are returning to the fold. The Coalition Government’s failure to deliver on child poverty, affordable housing and a more equitable tax system has not disillusioned them. They are standing firm: willing Jacinda to succeed. Willing to cut her enough slack to secure a second term.
What remains to be seen is whether the Labour Party – thirty years on from 1989 – can fulfil the expectations of Jacinda’s hopeful recruits. After reading “Politik” editor Richard Harman’s report of the party’s annual conference, I’m doubtful. This is how he began:
“For over 30 years the Labour Party could have only dreamed of the conference it has just held. Labour has finally found its happy space; devoid of factional rivalries; bitter personality feuds or fundamental challenges from the party activists to the Parliamentary wing. Delegates who were there for the fights of the 80s or even more recently the Cunliffe challenge in 2012, were left reminiscing about the bad old days. Otherwise, the 400 or so who attended spent the weekend basking in the Whanganui sun and cheering and applauding their leadership with considerable enthusiasm. This was not the Labour Party we once knew.”
Harman has a gift for understatement! The entity he describes isn’t merely a far cry from “the Labour Party we once knew”, it barely qualifies as a political party at all! It certainly has nothing at all in common with the inveterately quarrelsome and rambunctious political movement that, for more than a century, accommodated the overwhelming majority of the New Zealand Left. A progressive party without factional rivalries, personality feuds, or party activists hankering to challenge the Parliamentary wing has lost every defining characteristic of a living left-wing movement.
Nowhere was this lack of living political sentiment more evident than in the election of Claire Szabo. The 300-400 delegates assembled at Whanganui (a number well down on previous conferences) opted to elect not a party president but a curriculum vitae. Indeed, it would be difficult to come up with a more perfect example of the modern political professional. Szabo’s first interview with the news media struck Radio New Zealand’s Kim Hill as “a string of platitudes”. She was being kind.
The presidential election result did, however, serve to clarify what the Labour Party no longer sees itself as representing. Szabo’s principal challenger for the party presidency was Tane Phillips, a working-class Maori battler and trade union leader from Kawerau. It was people like Phillips who reclaimed every last one of the Maori seats for Labour in 2017. Their highly effective campaign (which drove the Maori Party from Parliament) spoke not to the Maori middle-class, but to the strong working-class communities in which most urban Maori still live. That sort of success would have been enough to get the Secretary of the Pulp & Paper Workers Union elected president in the old Labour Party – but not Jacinda’s new one.
Jacinda’s Labour Party would have had a pink fit if a woman of Szabo’s outstanding professional credentials failed to head-off a burly trade unionist. Certainly, all the bright young things currently polishing their own CVs would struggle to understand what sort of outfit they’d signed up to if degrees from Trinity College, Dublin and Harvard Business School could be outclassed by qualifications from the School of Hard Knocks!
Not that such an upset was ever on the cards. Well, not on the 56 E-Tu Union card votes carried around by the Labour affiliates’ superannuated bag-man, Paul Tollich, anyway. For more than three decades the combined votes of the Affiliates and the Women’s Council has dictated the outcome of annual conference ballots. Maybe, if the blue-collar Pulp & Paper Workers had affiliated themselves to the party, then things could have turned out differently? But, probably not. Mark, returning to Labour after 30 years – and finding “Tolly” still “doing the numbers” – would have known in an instant which horse to put his money on.
Anyway, it’s impossible to argue with the optics. Standing side-by-side, Szabo and Ardern speak eloquently of a party well-and-truly equipped for the third decade of the twenty-first century. The idea that politics might be a struggle between rulers and ruled; bosses and workers; rich and poor: well, that’s just so twentieth century! A modern – nay, a post-modern – political party is there to recruit and indoctrinate the personnel necessary to ensure an “orderly circulation of elites”. It’s slogans aren’t drawn off the placards of union picketers and Climate Strikers; they’re carefully crafted by copy-writers, and then focus-group tested by public relations professionals and advertising executives.
What’s more, Claire Szabo is taking up her presidential role after serving as the CEO of Habitat For Humanity. Which is absolutely perfect! After KiwiBuild was so comprehensively mismanaged by Phil Twyford, the party has not only elected a new president from a thoroughly respectable not-for-profit, but one who has also actually managed to get real “affordable houses” built!
When Mark walked out of the Labour Party in 1989 he was not alone. It was in May of that year that Jim Anderton led between a third and a half of the NZ Labour Party into “NewLabour” – soon to become the Alliance. Except, of course, Anderton’s NewLabour Party wasn’t really “new” at all. The imaginations of those who followed Anderton overflowed with visions of a rebirth of the sort of working-class power that enabled Michael Joseph Savage to transform a Depression-ravaged New Zealand into something the whole world could admire. But, it was not to be. No matter what Labour did to its working-class base, they never deserted the party. Like the loyal draught-horse, Boxer, in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, they soldiered-on. That’s why Anderton’s Alliance is long gone and Labour’s still here.
There’s a lot of dying in an old and trusted brand. While Labour’s leaders can still raise people’s hopes, they’ll always be in with a chance.