Jordan has a post up about the challenges facing Labour and the changes it needs to make to its internal structure to get back in the game. Here’s his short-list:
- a record low vote, lowest since the 1920s
- low and static membership in the past three years
- over centralisation of control over policy and strategy, with too little power for members
- an inward focused ‘divide the pie’ approach by too many party units
- a cultural acceptance of low to no organisation in too many places, and a related culture of federalism divided between electorates rather than a sense of a nation-wide, cooperating organisation
- too much belief that our connections with a wide range of Kiwis are strong, when they are weak
- a sense that we ‘own’ the voters that went to the greens and nzf, and that they are bound to return to us
- a perception among some parts of the electorate that we are out of touch with their hopes and dreams
- a structure that incentivises our inward focus
I’d narrow almost all of this down to the problem of candidate selection. The primary goal of a candidate is to win votes for themselves and the party, but Labour doesn’t seem to value this quality in any of their candidates or MPs. They’re chosen for attributes that seem mysterious to the rest of the country, usually from a small pool of parliamentary staffers, unionists and activists and then farmed out to electorates to which they pretend some spurious connection (‘whanau in the region’).
By way of example, let’s talk about Maryan Street. According to her Wikipedia biography she was born in New Plymouth, educated in Wellington, taught in Auckland, became involved in the union movement there, worked at Auckland University, spent much of her career in Auckland – yet she’s been the Labour candidate for Nelson for the last two elections, during which Labour’s party vote in that electorate has dropped from a sizeable plurality (45%) to 32%. And Street was Labour’s fifth highest ranked list MP during the last Parliament. Front row. The A team. Officer class. Presumably because she represents powerful factions within the party – but in this core role of getting people to give the party their votes she’s deficient. And there’s not much point in having a powerful faction in a party if this factionalisation helps keep the party out of power.
But if you let local electorates pick their candidates then they’ll act as advocates for those electorates instead of the various factions. And then all those other problems will fall into place. Locals will be able to draw on existing networks to organise and fund-raise. The party won’t have to ‘listen’ to the people: the electorate candidates will actually have a connection to their local communities – beyond a tiny base of local Labour activists – and be screaming at the party leadership about things that concern them. Nationals’ backbench electorate MPs drive the party’s Wellington based political staffers crazy, because they’re always running off to the Prime Minister and complaining about ‘some trivial little rural issue that no one in Wellington cares about’. Labour’s MPs are, increasingly, former political staffers who share the same elite background and Wellington-centric focus.
Of course parties need these Wellington-centric staffers. They know how things work. But notice how carefully National divides the roles of staffer and MP. With the exception of Paula Bennett – who was Murray McCully’s electorate secretary – I can’t think of any former staffers who are now National MPs (I guess there may be other exceptions). Generally their MPs are locals with some background of achievement who bring in the votes; the staffers are Wellington based professionals who know how government works. Labour’s caucus and candidate list is increasingly dominated by staffers. They tend to have degrees in political science, are extremely well connected and media-savvy and are well-thought of amongst their fellow elites – there’s just one problem: voters don’t vote for them.
Take Deborah Mahuta-Coyle, a Labour communications advisor who was given a high list position (although not high enough) and ran as a candidate in Tauranga, explaining that she grew up ‘further along State Highway One’ (SH1 does not run through, or near Tauranga). With Mahuta Coyle as a candidate Labour’s party vote in Tauranga was one of the worst in the entire country, declining by 33% (Labour’s nationwide decline was 20%).
Jordan endorses getting in touch with the voters, and Shearer’s said the same thing. Great. But Phil Goff spent a year ‘getting in touch with voters’ after the loss in 2008. The Labour team drove around the country in a bus singing songs and meeting with ‘real New Zealanders’ like, uh, Darren Hughes’ uncle. Goff then went back to Wellington and cheerfully went about promoting his own office staffers as electorate candidates, including Mahuta-Coyle.