The mechanics behind Labour’s broken claim to represent workers’ values are simple. As I argued in a previous post, there are deep incompatibilities between workers’ values and progressives’ values. Labour claims to represent both value groups, but is not effectively managing these incompatibilities. Obviously, part of this is the poor state of Labour in general, but part of this is the party’s new leadership selection rules.
Labour’s new leadership selection process effectively forces candidates to undergo a US-style primary campaign that openly pits the silent centre against the loud left. While the new process is more democratic, there is a trade-off between representation and efficacy. This primary dynamic tends to push candidates away from the centre and towards the disproportionately progressive membership to win selection. Since the progressive voice is particularly loud in the membership, only leaders with progressive credentials stand a shot at winning leadership at present (sorry Shane, you’re out of luck). This progressive dominance flows through to the issues prioritised by the party, and shapes the public’s view of the party.
The domination of progressive issues is accompanied (and reinforced) by a party structure that effectively excludes workers from the highest levels. This is caused by the party’s well-established pathways that turn young university politicians into party/union positions, then into MPs. I’ll have more to say about this in an upcoming post.
The dominance of progressive values pushes the more conservative social values of workers from the agenda. When the party claims to represent the workers while appearing out of step with workers’ values, it creates dissonance.
This dissonance is amplified when a wedge issue separates non-progressive MPs (such as Ross Robertson, Damien O’Connor, and Su’a William Sio) from the party’s progressive wing. This occurred with Louisa Wall’s (excellent) Marriage Equality Bill. Robertson, Sio and O’Connor voted against the Bill, much to the chagrin of the progressives. However, polls by Campbell Live and the New Zealand Herald showed 77% and 48% of respondents opposed marriage equality (admittedly, these are shoddy polls). While the Bill was a historic achievement, it trumpeted Labour’s progressive values. You may love marriage equality (I do), but we need to recognise that a lot of working kiwis do not, and these workers vote.
The promotion of progressive issues and progressive individuals, coupled with the exclusion of workers and their values, leads to the party appearing radically different to those it claims to represent. This dissonance makes Labour’s claims to represent workers ring hollow. This hollowness loosens the ties between workers and the Labour party, allowing them to drift towards the blokey blokes in National and New Zealand First, who better reflect the social conservatism of many workers.
So what can Labour do? I’ll have more to say about that over the next week. But in short, I believe the best tactical hope for the Left is for progressive issues to be fronted by the Left’s most coherently and authentically progressive party- The Greens. I think Labour should return to its roots and represent workers’ values and concerns, and bring them home to the Left.