Apparently Phil Quin, Josie Pagani, Stuart Nash, Nick Legget, and some others want to start a think tank called “Progress”, which might, supposedly, endorse candidates. (Yes, yes, there will be inevitable jokes about think tanks containing Stuart Nash) Predictably, and with all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, Greg Presland at the Standard has compared this to the Douglas-ite Backbone Club.

I can’t see why the supposed think tank is at all controversial. Quin, Pagani and co share a certain vision for the party. They want to advance this vision by advocacy; in order to advocate more effectively, they’ve decided it would be best if they formed a collective to amplify their voices. Those are all good left-wing principles.

Now, obviously Nash has to be careful. Unlike in the UK, where Progress, Compass, Socialist Campaign, and the Tribune Group are able to operate with MPs taking a significant role, New Zealand’s stricter expectations of caucus discipline probably constrain Nash from heavy involvement in a group that might disagree with official party lines. But individual rank and file members of the party shouldn’t have to worry about maintaining strict adherence to the party line, as long as they make it clear that they aren’t speaking on behalf of Labour, and avoid simply running the party down.

In the long run, of course, the Labour Party is a democratic(-ish) institution. If the membership disagree with the ideas “Progress” advocates, then they can vote them down. This might require left-wing members of the party to articulate ideas of their own and organise to get them into policy, and to support and develop candidates of their own. This would also be a good thing, particularly from the point of view of the left of the party.

The Labour Party under Clark was almost entirely devoid of ideological disputes, as a way of repressing the unresolved issues of the 1984-1993 era. Internal party elections were fought purely on personalities and factional allegiance in the worst sense of the word. This lack of internal ideological structuring meant that when, in the post-Clark era, the party was forced to develop novel political strategies, it lacked the intellectual armoury to do so. Internal decision-making still avoided any fundamental ideological component, and devolved into crude factional struggles based on patronage networks. The routes to advancement within the party did not reward the development and articulation of political theory or policy, but were instead dependent on patronage and personality.

Particularly frustratingly from a left-wing member’s point of view these patronage networks, which generally maintained lip service to the notion of “left-wing Labour” or a “true-red Labour”, allowed centrist, or even right-wing, careerist politicians to position themselves on the “left” of the party without in fact making any commitment to left-wing principles or policies.

An internal debate between left and right offers an opportunity for the party to move away from a purely patronage based model of internal organisation. This can only be good for the party as a whole. In particular, it offers an opportunity for the left of the party – which, after all, maintains that it is the largest grouping – to organise, proffer coherent and attractive ideas, and support strong candidates.

How Labour Should Change

Labour is out of touch. It had too much policy, and the leader was unable to explain to everyday New Zealanders just what the consequences of those policies would be. Major spending promises were seen as opportunistic and unrealistic, while important taxation changes weren’t seen as credible. The overall narrative was trapped in negative opposition, without ever articulating a coherent positive vision for the nation. The party itself lacks members, lacks skilled activists, and is continually short of money.

This is a description of the New Zealand Labour Party from, roughly mid-2007 to now. The details change, but the overall picture doesn’t, and the result remains the same: electoral underperformance.

There are, of course, various proposals floating around at the moment aimed at turning around this decline: Phil Quin or Micheal Wood or Lew Stoddart’s or …, and in due course, the Party’s own review recommendations. These proposals are all valuable, even if they do have a tendency to reflect the author’s own preoccupations – not that this article doesn’t.

But we’ve been here before. We had exactly the same problems at the last election, and we had a review, and we made changes, and yet here we are again. Why? I think there’s two important points: firstly, and somewhat fatalistically, Labour is not entirely in control of it’s destiny – there are external factors that matter, and it’s important not to overrate the importance of those things we can control. But those external factors, important as they are, have to be put to one side. Labour needs to focus on those things it can control.

Secondly, the NZLP is deeply resistant to change. Institutionally, it is hugely conservative. So at the last review, a series of big, important changes were put forward: campaigning hubs, women-only shortlists, direct member involvement in selections, creation of a supporters register, party-wide election of the leader, reformed policy making processes. Some of these changes happened: we have a democratic process for the leader, we have a different policy process now. Some didn’t: the supporter’s register, women’s only shortlists, direct member involvement in selections. Some happened, but never really clicked – campaigning hubs.

If the NZLP is serious about change, it needs to start by being committed to change. At present, far too often, the party refuses change. The institutional structure has too many veto players, and the culture of the party is too conservative and insular. The governance structures of the party are weak, and too dominated by factionalism and patch protection. Too often, the party is dominated by heavily institutionalised members who have been there for a very long time, protecting fiefdoms that are increasingly irrelevant and out of touch. This doesn’t mean jumping for every change possible, but it does mean acknowledging that previous efforts at reform have been stymied by excesses of caution and conservatism.

The 38%

This is a guest post by Labour activist Sophie Rapson.

It’s been a difficult couple of years being a progressive Labour member.  On one hand a lot of constitutional change has gone through, substantial and good change to this fairly anachronistic organisation.  On the other hand, some of these changes have been fraught with politics and tainted by factional warfare, which left the outcomes of the constitutional changes less than ideal.

As a young woman, my expectation for constitutional change was gender equity provisions.  The focus where many of us wanted to see constitutional change was the level of women in caucus.  After many submissions, meetings, and Annual Conference it was decided that at least 45% of the Labour Party caucus had to be women (because apparently 50% was too difficult).  To say that I was incredibly disappointed was an understatement.

The leaders of an organisation I so greatly respected and the organisation I see as the best vehicle for social change decided that having 50% women in caucus was too high a target.  Because having 50% women in caucus in 2014 was too fast a transition and would lead to us losing the 2014 General Election.  Which appeared to be code for – some male members of the caucus would miss out and the faction numbers would be disrupted.

Instead of quitting the Party, I acknowledged that change and good, lasting change is incremental.  Politics is a long game, and good people need to stay and stick it out for the long haul.  Make sure that progressive change eventually comes.  So I accepted that my gender would be underrepresented in the Labour Party for another 3 years, oh and since the beginning of time.  Let’s not forget that women have been underrepresented forever, but no, we shouldn’t move too fast, we’ve only known about this problem for… oh wait.

So I was happy to continue and live to fight another day when I could again put a constitutional amendment up to have at least 50% women in the Labour Party caucus.

Then Shane Jones resigned and a reshuffle occurred.

Hey I thought, this might be an opportunity for improvement to the 40% women ranked caucus figure.  Maybe balance out the caucus gender mix, not expecting the world, maybe for it to remain the same.

The reshuffle resulted in a ranked caucus made up of 38% women and 62% men. (Only the first 26 out of the 34 member caucus is “ranked”).

It also contained a number of promotions for male members of caucus.  Although Nanaia Muhuta was promoted (she is now the first woman Māori caucus leader!) and Jacinda Ardern moved up one spot. The overall result was a number of woman demoted and a greater number of men promoted.

So on the eve on an election, where we are supposed to be achieving 45% women in the resultant caucus we decided to drop the level of women in the ranked caucus to 38%.  (Let’s not even discuss the unranked MPs situation.  I also haven’t addressed other diversity issues in caucus, specifically Maori and other ethnicities representation, which is a subject for a whole other rant.)

When are we going to start to realise that collectively our performance and effectiveness as representatives decreases as the caucus becomes less diverse.  Better decisions are made when a varied perspective is present.  On what planet does having over 60% of the caucus as men going to lead to good decisions.  I thought we were the party of inclusion, fairness, and equity?

I wrote this not to signal my resignation from this Party, but as an assurance to those in power that I’m going to continue to question and challenge you on this issue.  I will challenge that this issue is an election killer.  I will remind you that the number of competent women not engaging and getting involved in politics because of this bullshit will continue to increase.  Those women that we so desperately need to reach that 45% target.  Or heaven forbid, 50% one day.

I will watch with interest at how the moderating committee handles Rule 360 of the Labour Party Constitution.  At this point I wouldn’t be surprised if that gets messed with.  But please, PLEASE prove my cynicism wrong.

Yours in solidarity
Disappointed Labour Woman

Doing politics

One of the most frustrating things that I’ve ever had to deal with when working with elected politicians is the excessive value that some of them put on some of the most ridiculous things. For example, how determined some of them are to put out press releases that no one will ever read, or the effort that some of them put into speeches in the House that no one (certainly not any undecided voters) will watch.

Of course, this is all part of the beltway echo-chamber, handily reinforced by people like David Farrar using number of press releases issued as a key performance indicator.

Which is why it is refreshing when you see an MP who is able to break free of what could be seen as traditional politics, and actually get out there and interact with the world like a real human being. I’ve got two recent examples I’d like to share.

The first is Gloria De Piero, a British Labour MP. From the Guardian…


A group of workers, in green and white uniforms, have gathered shyly, but De Piero doesn’t give anyone a chance to feel intimidated, shaking hands and gabbling away about waking up at 3am after working for seven years at GMTV.

She says she knows they probably don’t think much of politicians. “I’m not here to get you to vote Labour,” she says. “I’m not here to talk politics, I’m going to try and not talk too much at all. It’s about listening.”

For the next hour or so, other than prompting a few quieter ones to have their say, she is true to her word.

It’s this attitude that has made De Piero, who has spent several weeks meeting women across the age, class and income brackets around the country, such an asset to Ed Miliband. Her findings have played a key part in influencing the Labour leader, who made a speech on Friday positioning himself as the champion of the middle classes.

The second example is from closer to home. While the New Zealand Parliament is still in recess, and little has been heard from any of the major parties yet this year, senior Labour Party MP Phil Twyford is publicising a kayak trip around the Waitamata Gulf. In his words…

Tomorrow morning, weather permitting, I’m pushing the boat out. I’m heading off on a 50 km four day kayak journey around the Waitemata Harbour.

It is part-homage to this amazing stretch of water we live next to. It is a thing of beauty, an extraordinary playground where we swim, fish, sail, and paddle right in the heart of this country’s biggest city.

The trip is also an investigation into the declining ecological health of the harbour.

The Waitemata, and the wider Hauraki Gulf, are facing big challenges from urban development. Fish stocks in general have not recovered from decades of plunder. Shellfish populations are under threat. Toxic metals from run-off are contaminating estuaries. Invasive species are on the increase. And too many of our beaches are unsafe to swim after heavy rain because of sewerage and storm water overflow.

It is easy to write off actions like these as stunts or PR exercises – but with more and more people feeling disconnected from politics and their elected representatives, I think there is a great deal of value in actually getting out there and behaving like a real human being.

More on Labour’s selections

Earlier this month I posted about Labour’s upcoming selections, as Jenny Michie on the Daily Blog has pointed out, Labour has been particularly silent about them. Despite selecting some great candidates, they seem to be hesitant to tell anyone about it. Not a single mention of the process or the successful candidates can be found on the party website, Facebook page or Twitter stream. 

As well as this, I’ve found it extraordinary that as a member I haven’t even been sent an email about what is happening in terms of selection. In the latest copy of the regular magazine that the Victorian Labor Party sends to members, there were practical tips about how to get selected and get involved in the party – really simple stuff, but it makes a huge difference to members who want to get involved (okay, it would be expensive to produce a magazine, but fairly easy to pull together email updates).

Not only does it seem pretty out of touch to be selected candidates without telling the membership, it also seems to be in direct contrast to the recommendations of the organisational review, started just after David Shearer became leader. From the ‘Communication and Organising’ recommendations that came out of the review:

a) We will develop more effective two-way communication with members nationally, regionally and locally. Party and Parliamentary communications will be well integrated and planned.
b) We will use modern tools to have readily available up-to-date information for Party members, as well as guidance for activists and office-holders. This needs to include improvement of our website.

I would find it hard to justify keeping members in the dark about selections against these recommendations.

It would be interesting to see what other review recommendations the party hierarchy is choosing to ignore or forget…

Returning officers

The Australian Labor Party often gets a bad rap when it comes to internal democracy, words like “faceless men” are used so often they become meaningless. I’ve been in Australia for less than two months however, and there are some aspects of ALP internal democracy that I think we could learn from in New Zealand.

The one that has really surprised me has been the party’s returning officers. From what I can tell (and I might be wrong, their rules are just as Byzantine as those in NZ), each party branch, from an electorate level right up to the federal executive, has to have a returning officer as a special officer – separate to the rest of the executive. They tend to be long-standing esteemed and very neutral party members. This is quite unlike New Zealand where the returning officer is the relevant secretary, or in the case of national-level elections, such as the leadership, the General Secretary. Given political positions, such as the General Secretary, are inherently going to have skin in the game – removing them from this vitally important role seems like a no-brainer.

As I said, I have no idea how they go about appointing their returning officers, but from what I can tell both sides of the factional divide in Australia think that it is one of the better parts of their system.

Organisational review: delegate numbers

The Labour Party has a system for heieracrhical representation based on delegates – which will be familiar to anyone who has worked in a similar organisation, but totally alien to anyone who has not.

In effect, each branch appoints delegates to it’s Labour Electorate Committee, and to regional and national conference, based on the number of members it has. This is covered by rules 163a (Representation at Annual and Regional Conferences/Congresses) and 171 (Representation at a branch-based Labour Electorate Committee).

The rules for annual and regional congress in effect give one delegate for each 50 members, the LEC rules are somewhat more complicated.

In the organisational review, there is a proposal to change rule 171 to give delegates using the following allocation:

10-20 members  1 delegate
21-50 members  2 delegates
51-125 members  4 delegates
126-200 members  6 delegates
201-300 members  8 delegates
and one delegate for each 100 members or part thereof

It is my understanding that this change, which introduces a new delegate allocation at 21 members, is designed to encourage very small branches to grow. Which is an admirable thing. I am supportive of any efforts to grow the party.

The thing is, this solution only encourages growth of very small branches. If you have a branch with 301 members, and you want to grow your delegate entitlement, you have to find another 99 members just to get one more delegate. If you were in that situation you’d be much better off forming a new branch with the 99 members, which would be represented by 4 delegates.

So I’m going to send in a recommended amendment to this proposal, which keeps the new delegate entitlement at 21 members, but also flattens out the delegate growth so branches continue to get another delegate for every 50 members. It would look like this:

10-20 members 1 delegate
21-50 members 2 delegates
51-100 members 3 delegates
and one delegate for each 50 members or part thereof

And just to make things easier to understand, I’ve graphed what it would look like, with the current proposal in red against my new proposal in green:

I’ll be putting this idea forward, and I hope it does get some support.

However, this does not solve all the problems. I think ideally we would have rules 163 and 171 aligned so that the delegate entitlement is unified in all situations, thus making the organisation of the party much easier to understand. Perhaps that’s something I’ll work on for the next organisational review…


Organisational review: University of Labour?

In my post late last night, I said that the regional hubs might be a good idea, but they are a structural solution that probably won’t, in of themselves, solve our struggles with the party vote.

One of the ways that we can improve this is by training our members about how to run a better campaign. I’ve heard many times about gripes about how one campaign or other didn’t do well enough at getting party votes, part of the problem is likely to be that no one ever told them how.

An idea that I’ve seen thanks to Progress is the concept of a ‘University of Labour’. From Progress

Labour’s general secretary Iain McNicol has made clear that Labour can’t win using ‘the old playbook’. But what will replace it? An essential part of the new playbook should be the training programme Labour has for its members. A new training programme should build on the strengths of the current ‘Train to Win‘ programme and become an accredited, effective and meaningful ‘University for Labour’ that is accessible to every party member.

We know that a well-trained volunteer is far better prepared for the rough and tumble of party activism than one with minimal to no ongoing training. Therefore, the new University for Labour should make its mission the creation of well-trained volunteers at the variety of levels required to win elections. By engaging its diverse membership, Labour can drive innovative and forward thinking approaches to community organising, grassroots recruitment, fundraising, campaigning, policy analysis and speech writing.

Now, this is not a totally new idea. In early 2011 Labour held a candidate and campaign managers conference, and in a couple of weeks time Young Labour are hosting their first ever campaign leadership school. It’s probably also too late to get a University of Labour, or similar, included in the organisation review, but given that it wouldn’t take any rule changes to implement the basic concept, that certainly doesn’t have to be a show stopper.

At the end of the day, if we want to run better party vote campaigns (and electorate, and local government), the first step has to be making sure that our members have the skills to do so. And that is a project I would love to be a part of.

Organisational review: A very quick thought on regional hubs and the party vote

I’ve been to several last minute meetings about Labour’s Organisational Review recently, it’s now something I feel like I know like the back of my hand. Yesterday I was at a meeting for members of my local LEC, and heard something that I’d heard many times before: the regional hubs will be a campaigning body which will focus on the party vote (not a direct quote, but I think it will suffice).

While I do have some problems with this particular solution, which I’m not going to go into now, something struck me yesterday. Every time this party vote problem that the regional hubs are meant to address, one generic example is dragged out – local campaigns which focussed too much on the candidate at the expense of the party vote.

The more I think about it, the less I agree with the regional hub model being a proper solution to the problem. That said, I don’t think regional hubs are a terribly bad idea. I think the concept needs a bit of work, but may fix some other problems the party has.

The point I’m getting to is that if we want to campaign better for the party vote – we need to run better campaigns, and the solution is probably going to be cultural and operational rather than structural.

I think if all the effort that will be devoted to setting up 16 regional hubs was spent on training candidates, campaign mangers and activists, and building up and sharing a body of knowledge around campaigning, we would be far better off.

Of course, it’s not an either/or situation, and regional hubs may fix other problems. But if the problem we are trying to fix is to run better party vote campaigns, I think there are better ways of getting there.