Can Labour learn from Act’s leadership primary? (part 2)

This post was originally published at Liberation.

In the last post, I looked at the background to the Act Party’s 2004 leadership primary, which saw Rodney Hide win election over three other contenders. In this post, I consider some new information passed from a former Act insider, who wishes to remain anonymous. The comments are a cautionary tale as to what can go wrong with a primary contest. Based on this information and analysis, I ask whether Labour will end up going the same way that Act did following its destructive primary.

An Act Party insider writes:

I’m bemused by the commentary on the current Labour Party leadership ‘primary’. While I’m not, in any way, trying to provide oxygen to ACT’s corpse, I haven’t seen any mainstream media comment regarding the fact that Labour’s primary is not the first time this has happened. In fact, some of the commentary is quite breathlessly talking of an epic change in NZ party politics. That’s wrong – ACT did it to replace Richard Prebble in 2004 (who also stood down after being dirked by a member of his own caucus BTW). There were 4 contenders for the position. We ran a 7 week primary campaign around the country with Catherine Judd declaring that this process would re-unite and invigorate interest in ACT’s membership. 

The second, but I think more important part of the story is that ACT’s leadership primary laid the foundation for the divisions that destroyed it. There were dirty deals, false offers (eg 4 people were offered the role of deputy by the same candidate), factions formed, people were enrolled into the party in order to vote who, when asked to continue their membership 12 months later didn’t even know they were members of ACT (and over 12 of these lived at 1 address and struggled to understand english!). In short, no matter who would have won the ACT primary, the path to destruction was paved.

I think Labour will suffer a similar fate by pursuing this.

I was very interested to read these comments. It is clear that a “dirty tricks” campaign went on during the 2004 Act primary, including mass and possibly false registrations of members. The insider’s view of the Labour primary in 2013 is clearly coloured by Act’s experience.

This is all ancient history as far as the now all-but-moribund Act is concerned, but are there any lessons for Labour in 2013? Will Labour end up the way of Act following its primary – riven by internal division? I think there are several reasons, both technical and more systemic, to believe the opposite.

First, the technical reasons:

  • The “code of conduct” rules  for the Labour primary prohibit a negative campaign, with candidates banned from being able to “personally denigrate any other candidate or to disparage the NZLP or its officers”. This makes a dirty tricks campaign much less likely, with the ultimate sanction of expulsion from the race.
  • The deadline to become a member with voting rights was set as the day Shearer resigned, which prevents Robertson, Cunliffe or Jones from using mass-recruitment of (phony) members as a campaign tool.
  • The election process is being overseen by a third-party contractor,, rather than the party itself, which will presumably make for a more robust and trustworthy election process. It is a short, sharp race – just 3 weeks rather than Act’s 7.

And three systemic factors:

  • Having a primary in a big party arguably makes more sense for a large party than it does for a smaller one such as Act. Labour is a large party which is frequently described as a “broad church”. For Act, the same should not be the case. After all, the point of a small party is to focus on a narrower range of interests. But yet, the 2004 Act primary showed that there were almost as many factions as MPs – and the fact that almost half of the caucus (4/9 MPs) put their hand up to be leader emphasises the division. (By comparison, only 3 MPs are contesting the Labour leadership in 2013, out of a caucus of 34).
  • The media and commentators are largely treating the Labour primary seriously – it is dominating the political debate. This has much to do with Labour being a major party. While there has been the expected criticism from Labour’s opponents, who argue that the new leader is being selected by the unions and that the primary only shows how divided Labour is, this has been secondary to the main plot. Overall, coverage to date has been remarkably focused on policy and personality differences between the three candidates. The 2004 Act primary, by contrast, was treated more as a sideshow and something of a joke. While there four candidates, all but Hide were arguably purists competing to different factions of the party, rather than serious leadership material. This was only underlined by the inevitable result, a Rodney Hide victory.
  • There is a sense that the Labour Party genuinely wants a contest. The new rules were passed at the 2011 conference and the primary represent the thrashing out of a new consensus for the party’s direction in the post-Clark era. There is also a sense that the new leader will genuinely unite the party and that the losers will accept the result in the knowledge that the party has held a vote. Moreover, it seems very likely that both losing candidates will be given senior positions in the caucus. This will be very different to Act’s experience, which could not unite under Hide’s leadership and had to engage in  a fight for survival as it was crushed under the weight of the much more popular National Party. Just two Act MPs were elected to parliament in the 2005 election.

For the reasons I have outlined, I think the Labour Party will be more likely to be strengthened by a democratic leadership process, rather than weakened. Above all, a primary leadership process gives members a real reason to belong and a stake in Labour’s success or failure. A stronger membership which believes their views are seriously being taken into account can only be a good thing, in a country which has seen party membership – across all parties – decline massively in recent decades.

However, the Act insider is much more negative about the consequences of primaries and believes that they can only accentuate division and a drift by disgruntled factions to smaller parties:

If it is accepted that leadership primaries only strengthen divisions within a party and set up long-standing resentments, then the Labour Party will be weaker, perhaps forever, as a result of this exercise. This doesn’t develop our democratic rights and freedoms but rather establishes the environment for the opposite to flourish.

There is also the possibility that the National Party might, in the vacuum following John Key’s departure, decide to have its own primary. Further weakening and divisions might be applauded by those wanting to see the small parties occupy more electoral space but the reality of a multipolar parliament would be chaos.

At the post Vietnam War peace talks in Paris, the senior American General stated that one only needed to examine the body count to know that the US was enjoying considerable military success right up to the end of the war. His North Vietnamese counterpart said “That is true, General – but also irrelevant”.

And the same could be said to the person claiming victory through having the most votes in the Labour primary.

Whether the Labour leadership primary of 2013 ends up being a blessing or a curse will be seen in due course.  My thanks goes to the former Act insider who supplied me with the material I have used in this post.

Homepage photo credit: Mr Munnings on Tour / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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