Labour must change

If just changing the leader was the solution, then Labour would have solved its problems long ago. We've had three leaders since 2008.

Labour's problems can't just be fixed by a switch at the top. Change requires more than that. It must challenge the intellectual, organisational and cultural fundamentals of what it means to be Labour.

And if that change is not making us uncomfortable, then its not real change. For some in charge of the party machine it has to be accountability for failure, and the willingness to stand aside and let others have a go.

If Labour can’t confront the deep structural explanations for defeat it can’t recover.

Intellectual reform.

1. If your principles are popular but you are not, then you are not being true to your principles.

So much debate runs along the lines of ‘we are here, but the voters are over there, so we need to work out how much we compromise.’

That analysis is intellectually flabby. It is the main reason Labour is so often flat-footed, talking about trivia or seen as cynical. It's not about compromising to win the baubles of office. It's about being true to Labour principles.

Here’s an example: At the last election I made myself a heretic when I wrote a column mentioning how unpopular the policy of paying Working For Families to beneficiaries had been on the campaign trail. Labour voters on low incomes clearly didn't think it was fair to use an in-work tax credit to increase benefits.

Yet Labour, under David Cunliffe, dropped that policy. Except that he didn’t highlight the change, so Labour ended up in the worst of both worlds: Reckoned by many to have a policy that it couldn’t defend, and also setting itself up to disappoint the remaining supporters who expected the policy would be delivered.

It should have gone back to the principe of Labour’s Working For Families: that we are the party of work. That's why we're called the Labour Party. We represent the aspirations of people who work hard for a wage and want the same opportunity to get ahead as someone who was born luckier.

Only when we do that job properly do we win the trust of people to increase benefit levels; because another Labour principle is compassion. We will be there for you when you're down on your luck and lose a job. And we'll make sure you are treated with dignity by having a high enough benefit to live on.

David Cunliffe should have owned that policy change as a sign of robust intellectual strength.

2. You can’t tell a good idea from a bad one unless you are prepared to contest them.

If people can’t debate new ideas within Labour without being excluded and demonised, or suspected of treachery, then they will be incentivised to drift away because the debate will occur elsewhere. And Labour will be the victim of the contest of ideas, not the owner of it.

3. Stop barking at every passing car, trying to please every passing car. Labour's job is to make working people better off. Do that job first. Let other organisations lobby on obesity or animal testing or dead trees. Let them win support and make their case. But when it comes to dead trees versus jobs, Labour shouldn't think twice about being on the side of jobs.


National are really, really good at organisation. Labour’s head office told us it would win with its ground game. There was some spectacular ground-game effort by Labour people out there, let down by a head office that is awful.

1. It is implausible that President Moira Coatsworth and General secretary Tim Barnett have not already resigned. If 24% is not enough to bring about their accountability, how bad would it have to be? Do they have no sense at all how heartbroken and devastated, Labour people feel?

Stuart Nash and Kelvin Davis, (plus wins in Te Tai Hauauru and Tamaki Makaurau) were the only bright spots. Both battled head office interference, when they should have been asked to run things.

I know of several people who have worked for the Labour Party in the past and now they work for corporates - not one of them has been rung and asked for a donation.

2. Democratisation and transparency

The president should be directly elected like the leader was.

When any position in the party from branch secretary to NZ Council comes up for election, everyone eligible to stand should receive an email telling them how to nominate.

The culture of patronage and rotten boroughs has to be broken. Sector groups are a sign of diversity in the party, but when your success in the party relies on your ability to get the patronage of the Unions, the Rainbow sector or others, then you are excluding people who have neither the inclination nor the time to play palace politics.

I am supportive of Labour’s affiliate membership arrangements but we haven’t got it right. It is implausible that there are people who can vote in leadership elections and selections and no one knows who they are. If you want to be part of Labour you need to indicate it to the party and candidates need to be able to lobby and influence them.

Share their names and addresses so others can contact them.


I am least confident about Labour’s ability to confront some deep-seated cultural problems.

1. There was a tone of entitlement from people who cheered the departure of Shane Jones, Many would-be Labour supporters felt that their values, language and lifestyles were being sneered at.

2. Related to this is the hostile tone of too much debate on the left. I welcome vigorous debate of ideas and policy, but the personal abuse and vilification is damaging for Labour’s support, especially among women.

Most of the aggression directed at me comes from men. Criticise my argument all you like but the personal vilification and marginalising have no place. It needs to be confronted.

Deb Mahuta-Coyle got the same torrent of invective when she dared to voice opinions on TV last week as well. There is a pattern of condemnation here.

I would personally try to change the left’s aggro at women before I brought in rule changes like all-women shortlists because the aggro is going to drive women out.

When half the country have just voted for John Key there is no future in vilifying him or persuading them he is evil. It sounds like a tantrum and a frustrated lashing out.

I think the Greens usually get this in a way that Labour does not (and the far left never will): For all the horrible attitudes exposed in Dirty Politics, the left can’t take the high ground when many on the left attack the person not the issue.

We should be known for our better way of doing politics.

Change in the party has to start from the members up, not the leader down. No more heretic seeking. Time to open the doors and welcome people, even if you don't agree with everything they say or do.

Being inclusive is part of what it is to be Labour.