Gordon Campbell on the Labour Party annual conference
by Gordon Campbell
It seems to be a basic law of political thermodynamics that centre left parties can only ‘lurch’ or ‘swing’ when they
begin to sound more assertive. This lateral motion always takes them further leftwards, allegedly in response to the
primal, atavistic demands of left-wing ideology, and at the prompting of trade union heavies. Think about it. Has anyone
ever heard of a major New Zealand political party being publicly described as having “lurched” to the right? It never
happens. They just don’t swing like that. Interesting fact: ideology and extremism is commonly found to be virtually
invisible at centre-right wavelengths on the political spectrum, where it tends to strike even seasoned political
commentators as sheer common sense. Or as the credible politics of centrism. Coverage of the weekend’s Labour Party
conference offered some pretty good examples of this interesting cosmological imbalance.
Point being, it was really hard to recognise the Labour Party conference taking place at the Air Force Museum in Wigram
from the descriptions being bandied about beforehand in the mainstream press. If words like “radical” “left wing”
“extremists” “intervention” etc were a drinking game, much of the media would have been flat on its back even before the
conference started. Personally, the prospect of Labour leftists lurching leftwards seemed pretty enticing to me. At
conference, would there be nooks full of goateed delegates holding eager discussions about Gramsci? On Saturday night,
was Gerry Brownlee likely to be awakened by the rattle of Labour Party tumbrils over the cobblestones outside Chez
Not so much, as it turned out. Anyone attending the conference would have been hard pressed to find either sight or
sound of revolution in the air. The main policies unveiled at the conference were (a) the proposal to create a
competitive Kiwi insurance company along the lines of Kiwibank, and (b) a detailed blueprint for resolving the crisis of
affordable housing in Christchurch. This would focus the initial thrust of the Kiwibuild uber-plan to build 100,000
homes over the next ten years on the needs of first home buyers in Christchurch. There would also be an intensive
scoping exercise to identify if any buildings close to the red zone could be fixed or shifted, rather than demolished.
This was hardly the Communist Manifesto. Cunliffe’s wide ranging keynote speech - which he delivered Obama style, by
moving out from behind the lectern and interacting with the audience, was especially well received.
Without exception, the conference remits amounted to a mere modernisation of the party’s traditional stances and
founding issues. In that respect, the quota remit to increase the representation of women among Labour MPs from the
current 41% to 45% (after the 2014 election) seemed unexceptional. Party President Moira Coatsworth described the goal
as being readily achievable, given the calibre of women candidates now coming forward for inclusion in a party list
likely to be finalised by next April. Would any men of merit be likely to be displaced by such a quota? Theoretically.
Yet for years, Coatsworth pointed out, women candidates of merit have been disadvantaged on the grounds of their gender.
As a consequence, 51% of the population still comprise only a third of all MPs in Parliament, 120 years after universal
suffrage had been won. Given that context, Labour’s quota amounted to a small but significant step towards balance and
opportunity. As the business of conference rolled onwards, it was noticeable that remits were being amended, passed or
voted down by delegates without any intervention by those mythical trade union heavies, so beloved by the media.
For their part, the delegates looked like a fairly representative sampling of middle New Zealand. There were young
Labourites in their 20s alongside timeworn veterans of Labour Party conferences of decades past, all the way back to
1971. Grey Power members sat beside young Internet entrepreneurs. Lorde’s hit song “Royals” - and not the Red Flag - was
the preface to Cunliffe’s keynote speech. What I’m getting at is that - on the evidence at Wigram - the current Labour
Party seems distinctly non-threatening. All claims to the contrary, Cunliffe was not installed by the unions, and nor is
he being induced to lurch leftwards by their agenda. The less dramatic reality is that the government’s looming changes
to industrial legislation are so far wide ranging (and yes, so extreme and ideologically driven) that any centre left
party would feel obliged to oppose them. Yet if anything, the current trade union hierarchy seems somewhat reluctant -
as it was in 1991 over the Employment Contracts Act - to lead any national industrial stoppage protest action that might
endanger Labour’s election prospects. Such as it has been, the grassroots campaign against the new employment
legislation has been a genuine, but carefully managed response.
For the last couple of years at least, Cunliffe has enjoyed enthusiastic support from a very broad spectrum of the party
membership that far out outnumbers any trade union component. That membership is feeling freshly motivated less by
ideology than by the demonstrable fact that large numbers of New Zealanders are suffering under the current policy
settings of the Key government. Again, that’s hardly a radical view. Go to any food bank and you will see the evidence.
Unfortunately, a few Chicken Lickens in the media (and elsewhere) feel the sky is falling because a Labour opposition
party has begun to oppose current practice, and to propose alternatives to a status quo that is socially unsustainable.
This change looks more like democratic choice working as it should, and not like some hydra-headed outburst of
radicalism. It is only because we’ve seen Labour being the other party of business for so long, that some are finding it hard to recognise it.
As an illustration, take one of the prime examples of the radical vs. conservative divisions alleged to exist within
Labour, over its stance towards the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal. If one believed the mainstream press, Labour’s
left wing radicals oppose the TPP because of the threat it poses to New Zealand’s sovereignty. If so, they’re in good
company. In the US Congress many Democrats, a good number of moderate Republicans and the Tea Party faction have voiced very similar concerns that the TPP presents a unique threat to national autonomy, So
does the acknowledged guru of free trade, Professor Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University, who explained his concerns
about the TPP in an exclusive interview with Werewolf last year
. In sum, if having misgivings about the TPP (and the way it is being negotiated) is a radical position, radicalism is
now a very, very broad church. On the issue of the TPP at least, leftists and libertarians share common cause.
According to the New Zealand media narrative on the TPP, Labour’s ‘radicals' are in stark opposition to veteran free
traders such as Phil Goff. In fact, the conference deftly handled this issue without bloodshed via two remits on
successive days. Bear with me. It is a good example of constructive politics in action. On Saturday, a remit emerged
with fairly innocuous wording had sought to make treaties and trade agreements subject to prior Parliamentary approval.
As in this wording: “The negotiating process will include disclosure to, and consultation with, New Zealanders about the
content of international treaties and agreements before the Executive signs them off.”
In essence, this amounted to a moderate attempt to re-assert the primacy of Parliament and to create a more transparent
system - mainly by limiting the ability of the Executive to commit New Zealand to trade deals and defence treaties
without prior disclosure and debate, via an order in council. However, this allegedly leftward lurching Labour Party not only opposed this mild remit in workshops, but it also voted it down on the conference floor. Somewhat
ingenuously, Phil Goff had risen to reassure delegates that Parliament would still have a role, in that it would get to
approve the subsequent legislation that would align our laws with the TPP provisions. This proved to be enough to defeat the remit.
This wasn’t the end of it, though. Another TPP remit surfaced the next day. The new remit wording aimed to commit Labour
to with-holding support for the TPP because the government had not been adequately transparent about the process, and
because it was taking unacceptable risks - “including the ability of companies to sue the government, and the role of
Pharmac.” Until full details were made available and until “clear evidence” was presented that the agreement was in the
best interests of New Zealand, Labour would therefore with-hold its support for the TPP. This remit - arguably a tougher
test than the one rejected on Saturday - passed with ease, and without rancour.
Two points need to be made about this conference process with respect to the TPP. One, it was an elegant solution to an
issue being touted in the media as potentially divisive. Secondly, the positions created by either remits were hardly
radical ones. If anything, they were weaker than the current position on the TPP recently adopted by the right wing UNMO government in Malaysia. UNMO’s current strategy? It has pledged to carry out an extensive cost benefit analysis of
the TPP, to publish the figures, and to hold a public debate about the TPP, all of this before moving to a further debate in Parliament about the final form of the deal, and a vote by all MPs on its contents. In this 23 October issue report in Malaysia’s Business Times
, note the bald assertion about the TPP timetable to which Malaysia is working. John Key may continue to cite a possible
deal on the TPP being clinched by year’s end. Yet International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed
plainly disagrees: “We will not sign the agreement by the end of the year, and will allow the public to use the
cost-benefit analysis as a basis for discussion. The Parliament will have a chance to debate on it." When it comes to
the TPP at least, Malaysia seems keen on open democracy. This admirable stance is in stark contrast to the situation in
New Zealand, where the TPP process has been a secretive travesty.
If the Labour Party can continue to steer its way through its debate on the TPP (and other potential flash points) with
the skill displayed in Christchurch, some of its past divisions may not damage it unduly next year. Still, some tough
debates lie ahead. Notably, around how Labour plans to manage its relationship with the Greens, a necessary ally still
seen by some party strategists as being ballot box poison for Labour. Also, clinging to a bland centrism will not
suffice. Not if Labour, as already announced by Cunliffe, really means to inspire and to re-motivate the 800,000
non-voters currently turned off entirely from any participation in the democratic process. That situation has arisen
partly because both major parties have shared an allegiance to the tenets of the economic strategy laid down in the
1980s, and only tweaked at most, since then.
All this bears repeating if only because the conformity between the two major parties has held sway for so long it has
become the only position regarded as economically and politically credible. Failure has been no obstacle to dogmatism on
this point. For years, the sense that there is no alternative has meant that Labour has been slowly chuntering downhill
on an empty tank and fumes from the so-called “Third Way” policies that it borrowed wholesale from Tony Blair and Bill
Clinton in the 1990s. In their infinite wisdom, the Third Way advocates have argued that Labour has needed to abandon
its blue collar and beneficiary constituents and focus instead on trying to win over those white collar professionals
who seem to be liberal on social issues. Problem being, the social issues that subsequently became Labour’s sole badge
of authenticity also earned it a good deal of mockery for being the out-of-touch party of political correctness. In the
process, Labour has quietly continued to embrace the dry economic policies that have systematically destroyed the jobs
of the party’s traditional base. For Labour, Rogermomics has been a very long suicide note.
That approach needs to change substantially, as Cunliffe pointed out in a speech to his New Lynn branch last year.
Labour has to define afresh what it stands for in the wake of a Global Financial Crisis that has driven the last nails
into the coffin of the neo-liberal economic orthodoxy that has failed most New Zealanders so thoroughly for the past 30
years. The virtual bipartisan consensus on economic policy will no longer do. As Cunliffe said last year: “When the
right-wing party says it’s going to cut your leg off...voters don’t want to be told that the left-wing party is also
going to cut your leg off, but cut it off a bit lower down and give you some anaesthetic.” Unfortunately, some Chicken
Lickens appear to feel that the sky is falling as a result, simply because a major opposition party has begun to oppose
current practice, and to propose alternatives.
It remains to be seen how much of an alternative economic strategy Cunliffe will be able to devise and be willing to
promote. It is no easy task to come up with a post GFC, post Third Way economic prescription. In Britain, Labour
opposition leader Ed Milliband is grappling with exactly the same problem. Like Milliband, Cunliffe is well aware that
simply opposing cuts to government spending, entitlements and services is not enough, in itself. For now though - and
for the first time in years - people are starting to look to Labour once again, as a source of fresh policy ideas. It
has momentum once more. For a government seemingly bereft of any strategy beyond selling state assets and hoping for the
best this has to be a worry.