11 December 2011

How defeat can focus the mind

An oft-noted trend in contemporary democracies is a steady decline in political-party membership numbers. One possible cause of this is the risk-aversion of party elites, and their desire to control things from the top. Members feel irrelevant, and they drop out.

Setting the example for inclusive party rules, though, is the Green Party, which can genuinely boast more democratic internal processes. That gave them two strong co-leaders and a well-supported campaign – and their best result ever. The Maori Party too are well known for 'going back to their people'.

It looks like Labour is taking this idea on board, and there have been very well attended meetings around the country at which the contenders for leader and deputy leader have set out their visions for the party, for the country, and of course for the next election. The winner could one day be our next PM, so that could explain the bigger-than-expected turn-out. Defeat may not be so discouraging to members if they are invited to participate in the future of the party.

Only the caucus get to vote for the party leader under Labour's rules, of course, and this will happen on Tuesday. It's a tough choice for Labour MPs (who are now rather fewer in number), as the candidates are all excellent in their own ways.

But this more open leadership selection process has been a success for Labour. While there are risks associated with revealing internal rivalry, the process has generated considerable media attention for Labour, plus pre-selection public feedback on the candidates, and simultaneously reinvigorating membership interest and involvement. What could have been demoralizing defeat can thus be turned into an opportunity to gather up support again.

There can be no doubt that Labour has to do things differently in future, or suffer humiliation again in 2014. The recent round of party leadership meetings may actually indicate an intention to become, internally, a more democratic and open party. Now, that would be a change all on its own.

Leadership change is about to happen no matter what. But then there is the complicated question of credible policies and narratives about NZ and its future that would be powerful enough to bring disaffected former Labour voters back into the fold - or to inspire young people who have never voted. Anyone who can motivate a good portion of those who abstained last month could be on a winning streak.


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