For those who follow British politics, the prospect of the coming General Election turning into a major train wreck for the British Labour Party looms large. Barely a day passes without another set of contradictory views or comments emerging from senior members of that Party. Most of the criticism inevitably finds its way back to the Party’s veteran socialist leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a man who, in a long political career has never been chosen to hold any Government office. For afficiandos, it is all fun and games, happening sufficiently far away not to be too bothered about. However, there are some similarities with the New Zealand situation which should not go unremarked upon.
Jeremy Corbyn was never elected leader of the British Labour Party by the Party’s MPs – indeed, only a few months ago, they passed overwhelmingly a vote of no-confidence in his leadership. Yet he remains, having twice been selected by the Party at large and its trade union base to be Labour’s standard bearer. New Zealand Labour has a similar selection system – current leader Andrew Little was installed in his role in 2014 with the backing of well under half his MPs, and then only narrowly because of the union vote. (Hardly surprising given his background as a former President of the Council of Trade Unions. It is tantalising to speculate how different the outcome might have been had Caucus favourite Grant Robertson with running mate Jacinda Ardern – the so-called Grazinda team – been selected at that time instead.)
As with Mr Corbyn, Mr Little knows that the key to his retaining the leadership, lies not with his MPs, but with the Party’s trade union affiliates. He has already shown his recognition of that by his installation of trade union officials as candidates in a number of seats around the country. Many are likely to feature high up on the Party’s “democratically” selected list. And, like Mr Corbyn, he has eschewed any prospect of Labour claiming the centre ground of politics, indeed going so far as to dismiss the political centre and those who occupy it as “irrelevant.” Both Mr Corbyn and Mr Little believe naively that there is a latent Labour majority out there – the missing million voters New Zealand Labour keeps talking about – that has only to be offered a “true” Labour Party for them to return home, and that in the meantime, there is therefore no need to reach out to any other voting group than the missing “true believers” waiting for the restoration of traditional paradise.
In Britain, so far, Labour’s campaign has been marked by public disagreements on key policies – whether it be how to deal with ISIL, or the future of the Trident missile system, where Mr Corbyn’s position seems to be at odds with the rest of his MPs. That is yet to come in New Zealand – principally because Labour seems to have no real policy for its MPs to disagree over – but there are clear signs Mr Little is prone to the same make-it-up-on-the-spot approach as Mr Corbyn. Witness the debacle over immigration policy. Last week, Mr little was reported widely as proposing to cut immigration numbers by 51,000. While the announcement came from nowhere, there was no denial by any Labour MP at the time that this was their policy. Now, over a week later, having been widely criticised for the announcement, Mr Little says he was misreported, that when he said immigration levels should fall from about around 71,000 to about 20,000, he did not mean a reduction of 51,000. It is difficult to know what else he meant, particularly when his defence was to confirm his original figures, and that he was talking about a drop of “tens of thousands” only. It was a pure Corbyn moment. (It came just a week after a similar moment when responding to National’s pay equity decision.) National will be hoping for many more over the next few months.
As the Antipodean Jeremy Corbyn, Mr Little must have groaned when Teresa May called Britain’s election for early June. New Zealanders are going to be able to watch a preview of his performance and likely fate, well in advance of our own election. And when the inevitable blood-letting takes place after the British train wreck, New Zealand Labour will struggle to avoid the spotlight being turned on its own Jeremy Corbyn, and his journey down the same track.