House wins in party politics

17:00, Sep 12 2013

If it's anyone but Cunliffe what will happen to the Labour Party? It's a question many Labour members will be asking themselves as the hours between wondering and knowing dwindle.

What began with a dizzying head-rush of hope and enthusiasm is ending in doubt and worry.

At the heart of the membership's concern is the likely behaviour of the Labour caucus. Many will be wondering why, when the new rules were being drafted, so much influence (40 per cent) was reposed in Labour's parliamentary delegation. Especially when the British Labour Party gives its MPs only one third of the say in who becomes leader.

As the contest has progressed, the simple mathematics of the voting system has driven home the alarming fact that each MP, in their own right, wields a vote worth 1.2 per cent. Just 34 individuals, out of a party membership of around 8000 ordinary members, will account for 40 per cent of the outcome.

In the first flush of their democratic revolution, the rank-and-file of the Labour Party rather naively anticipated "their" MPs being guided by a mixture of the party's will and the sentiment of the much larger group of New Zealanders who, while not holding membership cards, nevertheless vote for the Labour Party in election after election.

These are, after all, the people who put the Labour MPs where they are. Why wouldn't Labour's caucus pay heed to their wishes?


It's a very good question. But, then, another very good question was: why didn't the Labour caucus heed the wishes of the party membership in 2011? Why were they willing to squander 20 precious months on a man who, while possessing many impressive qualities, was demonstrably unsuited to the role of Labour leader?

The answer, of course, is because, for a variety of reasons, a majority of the Labour caucus was unwilling to see David Cunliffe assume the leadership of the Labour Party.

Mr Cunliffe's enemies have gone to extraordinary lengths to persuade the news media that their adamant opposition is grounded in the man's personal shortcomings.

This is not the case. The vicious attacks launched against Mr Cunliffe by his ostensible "colleagues" are driven by the oldest of political motives.

These include the narrow political interests of those who have identified Mr Cunliffe as either a threat to their present position within the Labour caucus, or as a barrier to their further personal advancement. Indeed, the more obvious it becomes that Mr Cunliffe really is the choice of the party rank-and-file, and of Labour voters generally, the bigger threat and barrier he looms.

There is also a broader apprehension among Mr Cunliffe's enemies that he (and the party organisation) will require the Opposition to adopt a more unequivocally social-democratic ideological stance.

But, such a position has already been condemned by Mr Cunliffe's critics as "naive and stupid". This is because a surprisingly large number of Labour's caucus no longer believe in social democracy (let alone the "democratic socialism" enshrined in their party's constitution). To them, Labour is simply the party which replaces National. They want no part of a labour movement that sees itself as a direct and progressive challenge to the ambitions of the Right.

The Right-wing members of Labour's caucus who think this way will not be swayed by the wishes of the party's rank-and-file, or the votes of its trade union affiliates. They will vote with only one intent: to prevent David Cunliffe becoming Labour's leader.

And, if enough of them think like this – they'll succeed.

Should that be the outcome, the scale of disappointment and disillusionment within the Labour Party's ranks will be unprecedented. Many will do their best to accept another Cunliffe defeat with a brave and loyal face. Others will simply turn away in disgust. A few will defect to the Greens – or even Mana.

But, for most, it will be taken as proof that participating in politics is no different from participating in casino gambling: the House always wins.

The Dominion Post