Labour gets chance to reinvent democracy

And still we wait. The 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China has been and gone and yet, at the time of writing, the world still doesn't know the identities of the dozen or so men and women who will govern China for the next five years.

The manner of choosing the ruling "Standing Committee" of the CPC's "Political Bureau" is nothing if not carefully managed.

The congress's roughly 2000 delegates are more-or-less hand- picked by a special party commission. Its task made easier by the fact that these potentially unruly comrades are only summoned once every five years.

That's a long time between drinks to the party's unconquerable unity, but it does ensure that the outcome of just about every vote is known long before it is taken.

How many, I wonder, in Labour's lacklustre caucus have gazed wistfully at the CPC's meticulously stage- managed "democracy" and wondered how it might be imposed on their own increasingly restless rank-and-file?

Especially this weekend, when said rank-and-file show every sign of reclaiming their party from a caucus whose use-by date - collectively-speaking - expired a couple of elections ago.

Most New Zealanders will not be much bothered. Such media coverage as the event attracts will focus almost exclusively on the real or imagined threats to David Shearer's leadership. If we are lucky it may also feature a few excerpts from the "make or break" speech he is scheduled to deliver on Sunday afternoon. The likely consensus of the assembled scribes? That "Shearer is safe" - at least until February 2013.

It was not always so. Forty years ago our single public broadcaster would park an outside broadcast van outside the Wellington Town Hall and deliver roughly 20 minutes of live interviews, commentaries, and recorded highlights of proceedings, each day the conference was in session. The usually three-day conferences of Labour and National would, therefore, receive an hour of television coverage.

That's because, 40 years ago, party conferences mattered. New Zealand boasted the highest level of political participation in the Western world. One in four was enrolled in one of three major parties: Labour, National and Social Credit. National, under Rob Muldoon boasted a membership of close to a quarter-of-a-million. Labour in 1984 had a branch membership of 85,000.

Party conferences were, therefore, events of genuine democratic significance. The policy remits of rank-and-file members alerted the electorate to how a very large number of their friends and neighbours were thinking - and were seriously debated. Mass party memberships also made it extremely difficult for National and Labour MPs to stray very far from their party's principles.

That is why the successful implementation of "Rogernomics" ultimately required Labour's destruction as a mass political organisation. Had upwards of 60,000 members not voted with their feet between 1985 and 1990, and had the remaining dissidents not decamped with Jim Anderton to form the NewLabour Party, such a treacherous mix of economic and social policies could never have endured.

And it is here that we come to the nub of Labour's present difficulties. If it expands and democratises itself, the party's incomplete (and, therefore, insincere) repudiation of neoliberalism will not be permitted to stand.

Helen Clark understood this very well, which is why she imposed a level of discipline on Labour that would have made the CPC blanch. Miss Clark's caucus removed the formation of policy from party hands. For the 15 long years of her domination, most of the senior positions in the party were filled by "elections" that were effectively uncontested.

In 2008, her reign over, she was permitted, in classic CPC style, to nominate and install her own successor.

This is the legacy that Labour's rank-and-file members are gathering at Auckland's Ellerslie Convention Centre this weekend to either decisively repudiate or, fatally, extend. If they seize the right to choose (and dismiss) their own party leader; to determine and enforce their own policy platform; and, by reaching out to their fellow citizens with genuine people-first-money-second policies, to rebuild a mass political organisation; then Labour will survive and prosper.

If they bow to the demands (no matter how silkily presented) of Labour's parliamentary caucus, then the party's long and increasingly dysfunctional descent into electoral disconnection and political irrelevance will continue.

The world has to wait for the CPC. New Zealand will not wait for Labour.

Taranaki Daily News