Labour's dilemma: The unelectable leader

The trouble with not being troubled by the mood of New Zealand as a whole, is that the party hands Labour a political dog

Labour has done a fine job of selling the democratic virtues of their new way electing a leader; it rolls off the tongue to say that 40 percent of the outcome is determined by rank and file members. But whose democratic interests does it really serve?

In 1980, the Labour Party in Britain similarly gave party members a say in the leadership; but, as Tony Blair points out, the reforms lacked "any appreciation of the vital necessity of ensuring that, as well as MPs or leaders being accountable to the Party, the Party was accountable to the electorate".

Given its paltry membership, Blair goes on, UK Labour "became prey to sectarian groups from the Ultra-Left", a decent explanation for why the party remained in opposition for seventeen years after "empowering" members.

Last Thursday, I argued in the New Zealand Herald that the Labour leadership contest should not be confused with a 'primary' since only five thousand or so members participate, fewer than one percent of all Labour voters. In a typical contested primary – I used the example of South Carolina where more than half a million Democrats voted in 2008 – around one-quarter of party supporters cast a ballot. That would translate to around 150,000 votes in the New Zealand context, or thirty times more than turned out for Cunliffe, Robertson and Jones last year. 

Beyond a semantic quibble over the misappropriation of the word “primary”, there’s a substantive discussion worth having about whether or not the model for electing the leader makes the party more appealing and relevant.  

If there is a case to be made that Labour's current membership is representative of the party's broader constituency – which I take to include supporters and would be supporters  – I'm yet to hear it. For a start, members are heavily concentrated in urban pockets; in most suburban and provincial electorates, they number in the dozens at best. Activists also tend to be older and, inevitably, sit way to the left of the political spectrum. To most people, especially post-Boomers, joining a political party is so out of kilter with modern sensibilities it almost qualifies as oddball behaviour.

Contenders for Labour's leadership used to compete for votes among fellow MPs who were motivated primarily by how the outcome would affect their own electoral fortunes. Naked self-interest is never pretty, but it helped the party remain tethered to public sentiment. Party members are far less troubled by electoral considerations and, in the case of today's Labour, many see populism as apostasy and disparage attempts at attracting new voters.

Because leadership candidates are fighting for the support of this narrow band of party activists, the danger is they pitch their campaigns in ways that further alienate Labour from the New Zealand electorate.

Take Grant Robertson's argument that Labour needs to campaign more aggressively against banks and supermarkets, as if insufficient hostility to corporate interests caused potential Labour voters to embrace the National Party; or that the problem with banning fast trucks was not with the policy itself but how it was 'framed'.

Blaming packaging, not product, is a familiar refrain whenever a political party wants to avoid scrutiny for a failed campaign or policy misstep.  It’s understandable that Robertson – or any other candidate for that matter – would resort to the frame-blame game. Telling unpalatable truths about a campaign into which activists poured their hearts and souls is no way to win their votes. 

Of the four candidates in the running so far, David Parker seems the most likely to say aloud what he really thinks about Labour’s predicament even at the risk of turning off “primary” voters. He doesn't seemed wired for pandering.

It would be a loss for Labour, and New Zealand, if the party's own processes rendered the most credible alternative Prime Minister unelectable as leader.