Labour can't keep rewarding failure

Chris Trotter has missed my point. It's not a factional coup d'etat Labour needs but a coup d'élan to jolt the party onto success

A recent column I wrote in the NZ Herald earned a rebuke from noted left-wing commentator Chris Trotter on the Daily Blog website. Trotter went to great lengths to point out my deep and long-held ties to the so-called Right faction of the Labour Party.

Perhaps because of a temporary Google malfunction, Trotter missed the chance to bolster his case by adding that I spent several years in Melbourne and Canberra as an active and paid-up member of the Labor Unity or Victorian Right of the ALP, including as a staffer to the faction’s legendary godfather, Senator Robert Ray, as well as a parade of other Right-aligned luminaries such as Simon Crean, Steve Bracks and Gareth Evans. It is not clear if Trotter’s disparagement of me as a "right-winger” in the Labour context is intended as a revelation of something I have attempted to conceal, but my CV makes a mockery of any such claim.

The choice for any political party with a membership of more than one has never been between having factions or not having factions; rather it's been how dissent and diversity are managed, and how decisions about policy and personnel is divvied up accordingly.

In Australia, proportional representation in internal elections at all levels means that explicitly acknowledged factions need to exist as a practical matter. The ALP model is far from perfect, but at least it ensures that minority elements within the party — take, for example, the Pledge, a hard-left group to which someone of Mr Trotter’s politics might comfortably align — receives positions of influence roughly commensurate to its albeit meagre numerical strength within the Party.

I am all in favour of minority groups within political parties receiving a fair share of influence because, when they do not, they invariably give up and walk away, either joining or forming other political parties or opting out of the whole exercise.

Excluding, and ultimately excommunicating, dissident elements in this way has been the preferred modus operandi of many far-left (and far-right) political movements over the centuries, but it rarely ends well. What you end up with is an entity comprising solely consensus-breathing careerist clones so narrowly based that it becomes incapable of producing policy innovation or organisational rejuvenation, both essential features of successful political parties.

Of course, Trotter hasn’t the first clue about my political views, but nor would I expect him to. Most of my published writing about New Zealand politics has focussed on my fears (partly outlined above) about how the party has become too narrowly based to win elections.  

As it happens, I suspect my political views would place me comfortably to the left of Trotter on most issues. Like him, I think the neoliberal economic experiments of the 80s and 90s were mostly a disaster, particularly in Africa where I have worked for several years. I believe GST is regressive and set too high, and that it is outrageous that we don’t tax capital gains at least as much as income. I would double school spending (while admittedly sacking bad teachers); legalise and tax cannabis and decriminalise the rest; and advocate prison reforms so progressive they would make Sue Bradford blush.

As a gay man, I support same sex marriage as a matter of basic human rights, but share the concern of the radical wing of the LGBT community that the monomaniacal focus on the issue suggests a troubling fixation with heteronormativity. I am, in other words, a fairly doctrinaire leftie, but I am also respectful of the fact that many in the party will disagree with me on matters of policy and principle and that we have have democratic means at our disposal to resolve those differences.  

I am acutely aware of how the arrogance, Nihilism and electoral tone-deafness of many on the left fringe imperil the prospects of any sort of progressive change at all. If this makes me an incrementalist and a right-winger, then tell me where to buy the t-shirt.

Back to Trotter’s column, the guts of it being this passage:

The Labour Right regards this stubborn refusal [of the party “rank and file”] to abandon principle in the name of power as evidence of utter fuckwittedness. So much so that he concludes his column with a frank call for heads to roll down at Party HQ.

“If Labour fails to break well into the 30s, the party president and general secretary should resign and party council members should convene urgently to consider their own positions.” Back in the old Soviet Union this would have been called a purge.

Trotter is right to say I regard the Labour party organisation hopelessly incompetent – a point he leaves notably uncontested – and right again that I hope these officials have the decency to resign post-election if they are unable lift the party vote into the thirties (hardly a high bar). But Trotter's subsequent wrongness is such that it exposes his argument for the fallacious nonsense it is: I am not suggesting for one minute that the “purge” involves replacing this bunch failed party officials with replacements from my “right-wing” faction.

Such a capricious and antidemocratic manoeuvre would be precisely as Stalinist as Trotter claims – and if I were guilty of suggesting it, I would happily frog-march myself into political exile. Of course, as much as Trotter hoped I had, I said no such thing.

My ‘faction’, even if it existed in any meaningful sense, is in no position to storm Fraser House even if we were of a mind to do so. The notion is laughable.

I am simply suggesting that we can't keep rewarding failure; dominant party elites should find an alternative group of officials who can at least engage in the job of politics and electioneering with a modicum of competence. We seek not a coup d’état, as Trotter menacingly suggests, but a coup d'élan. Among the "rank and file" whose minds Trotter seems so apt at reading, he might be surprised at the depth of enthusiasm for the idea of such a root and branch rejuvenation.