When I was growing up and starting to become politically aware, I became a strong Labour supporter. I could see no redeeming feature in any other political party and so joined the Labour Party immediately I left school. At university, I was a Labour Party and student activist and gradually progressed my way through the Party until I became a Parliamentary candidate at the age of 29, and an MP shortly thereafter.
I was an enthusiastic member of the Fourth Labour Government, supporting both its bold economic and foreign policy decisions as it sought to rebuild New Zealand after the Muldoon era. I marvelled then at the breadth and diversity of the Labour Caucus, encompassing a range of experiences, skills, and backgrounds. It seemed to represent New Zealand at its broadest. But when Labour started to implode during its second term in the wake of the Sharemarket Crash my first doubts started to stir. I remember talking at the time to then senior National MP George Gair, a liberal who often seemed more comfortable with Labour policies than those of his own Party. I well recall asking him why he had joined the National Party. He replied that, “Only a fool believes his Party is right all the time. I joined National because I agreed with more of what it stood for, than I disagreed with.”
That conversation set me thinking about my own situation, especially once Labour went back into Opposition and tried to turn its back on all that it had done in Government, under the fatuous slogan of its then leader: “Labour’s coming home.” I rapidly realised that particular home was not a place where I wanted to be, and that I did not quite fit anyway. I was not able to tell Caucus of the privations of being brought up in a state house, the way so many others did, and I did not feel my personal experience of being the oldest of four young teenagers raised by my mother on a widow’s pension in a middle class suburb was anyone else’s business but my family’s.
I suppose it was no real surprise, therefore, that I was to leave the Labour Party after more than 20 years as a Party member, in favour of establishing a more centrist, liberal Party. But that is not the real point of this story. Rather, it is to hark back to the Gair comments and the folly of “my party, right or wrong” politics.
I remember being lectured at University that to understand New Zealand politics one had to appreciate that Labour was too hide-bound by its principles and its past, and consequently too often unelectable. National, on the other hand, stood for nothing other than not being Labour, and beat them more often than not at election time as a consequence. Harsh, perhaps, but certainly true.
So when I heard the current Labour leader berating the former Labour Mayor of Porirua as not “true Labour” for allegedly contemplating standing for the National Party, I felt I was back in the time warp. “My party, right or wrong” thinking has returned with a vengeance under the current Labour leadership. The focus seems to be more on building a cadre of proper-thinking members, rather than a broad based organisation, capable of accommodating many different voices, but coalescing around some common broad goals to present to the electorate. No, the primary goal now seems to be to ensure the ideological purity of those who represent the Party, which narrows its base considerably. The test for advancement is no longer merit based, but on whether one is “true” Labour or not, however vaguely that is defined. Labour’s leaders used to proclaim it was a “broad church”, but now it has become a “narrow sect”.
In my darker moments, I think of the Labour Party I joined and how it has changed over the years. I feel sad, not bitter, that it has moved away from so many people like me, who used to be its advocates, and has written off people of independence and aspiration as not fitting its core values. Yet, we still have a burning social conscience, and still believe there is a place for a major Party of compassion that can balance the accounts, and preserve the environment. Today, National has well and truly outflanked Labour on those scores, and only Labour seems not to realise it.
As the ultimate pragmatists, New Zealanders ditched the notion of “my party, right or wrong” and rigid party identification a generation or two ago at least. The advent of political diversity under MMP makes that point exceedingly obvious. And it certainly makes the Labour leader’s preoccupation with supporters being “true Labour” that much more irrelevant and unfathomable.