Matt McCarten: Fine plan emerges amid aura of poised confidence

24 Jul

Green’s Russel Norman (left) and Labour’s David Shearer. Photo / Doug Sherring

By Matt McCarten,
Herald On Sunday July 22, 2012

This week the Labour Party finally got its act together and made public their long-awaited constitutional review.

We’ve had six MMP elections in this country. In every one Labour ran a first-past-the-post electorate-based campaign.

They pour their resources into incumbent MP seats at the expense of regional “get the party vote” campaigns.

Last election they had more local electorate candidate hoardings than party vote messages. Voters wouldn’t have known who the Labour Party leader was, let alone why they should flick him their party vote. No wonder the Greens got whopping party votes in strong Labour strongholds.

The spin was that Labour’s vote collapsed and went to smiley John Key. Any proper election analysis shows that isn’t true. Hundreds of thousands of Labour’s voters just stayed home. To win next time Labour doesn’t need to claw votes back off National. All they need is to get their working class base to believe it’s worth trundling down to the voting booth.

For that to happen nothing but a complete overhaul was required post-election. Despite his inexperience, David Shearer was the only choice. David Cunliffe was a better performer, but Labour had to break with the past and bring in a completely new face.

The election of Shearer signalled the party was prepared to do what was necessary. How far the review then went would be the next indication of the level of seriousness Labour was showing to right the ship.

I am amazed at the thoroughness of Labour’s review. Their working party has done a great job.

Assuming the recommendations pass at their conference, the Labour Party has the tools to become a formidable machine.

I spent 15 years as a fulltime political party boss and have, with a few others, managed more national and local campaigns – not all successfully – than I prefer to remember. What I learned is that if your opponent is vulnerable, then having enthusiastic volunteers well organised and directed wins every time.

Labour’s review got it right on what matters.

Leadership: Caucus coup speculation, which is very disabling, ends. The caucus can’t roll a leader by ambush. No challenger will ever reach the new 70 per cent threshold to roll a leader. Contenders get a shot after each election. If a leader wins government they get to rule without being undermined. If they lose they go.

Having the branches equalling the caucus by having 40 per cent of the vote gives the activists ownership. The affiliates get 20 per cent. Because every vote is preferential, no parliamentarian, union or faction boss can control the vote. Deals between factions can’t be delivered under this form of voting.

Policy: The party sets the vision and policy framework. Caucus must implement it, allowing for coalition practicalities. But meaningless remit-making is gone. A vision is set and everyone gets on with it.

Party organisation: The branch and electorate monthly meetings go quarterly. Everyone hates going to them anyway – except for losers without a life. All the action moves to newly-created regional organising hubs. Campaigns and actions are the norm. Winning party votes and Maori seats will be the focus.

Membership: Make a donation and you’re in. Groups, not just unions, can affiliate. More money, more activists.

Candidate selection: The old process was a joke. Faction bosses do deals. Talent is traded for loyalty. The huge unwieldy “moderating committee” is going. The ruling council takes over. Their new directive is: Don’t do tacky compromises, get the best candidate.

On the day this review came out I dropped into the conference of Andrew Little’s old union, the EPMU. I went to listen to the Greens’ Russel Norman and the new Labour leader.

I must have spoken to close to 30 Labour-aligned activists. They all enthusiastically supported the review’s recommendations. Their confidence must have rubbed off because both Shearer and Norman performed the best I’ve ever seen them. You could feel the chemistry and the poised confidence.

Everyone in the room felt they were in the presence of the next leaders of a new government-in-waiting.

This week’s report will give them the machine to make it happen.

By Matt McCarten Email Matt McCarten


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