If National can adapt to change, why can’t Labour?


Pundit: 7 October, 2014


Keywords: Political Economy & History;


Once upon a time National was a party dominated by farmers and their rural base. Its first townie leader, Sid Holland, had to have a farm bought for him in the 1940s, to maintain his status in the party. It was such a country party that there was a view in the 1960s that as New Zealand urbanised National would lose voter share because Labour was so much stronger in the cities. National continued with its rural roots – about half of the Bolger cabinet were farmers and others had been in rural servicing. Yet National slowly inched its way into the cities – especially Auckland, where it won more seats in this election than Labour and more list votes than Labour and the Greens together. The next Key cabinet, like his earlier ones, will have far fewer of those who have a rural background.


This successful renewal of the National Party forms a background to the self-examination that the Labour Party is undergoing. Why has Labour not been able to hang onto its urban advantage and renew itself too?


Its parallel with farmers is trade unionists. In 1951, 17.4 percent of the labour force were in farm occupations, and 36.8 percent of it in unions. Today farmers are down to 4.7 percent and trade unionists are 16.6 percent. These declines are international trends reflecting different forces.


Interestingly, the Labour Party abandoned its unionists earlier than National its farmers. There was but one in the 1984 Lange cabinet, ranked 15th, and Stan Rodger came from the white collar PSA. There remain unionists in its caucus today – the most senior is Andrew Little, previously secretary of the largest private sector union, the EPMU (Engineers, Printers, Manufacturers).


The question of the role of the union movement in the Labour Party is a contentious one, but I don’t want to review that directly here. What I want to ask is why has Labour not been able to renew itself in the way that National has, whose success may reflect its organisational structure? Its local branches responding to their changing social circumstances and, as the country urbanised, they rebalanced becoming urban too.


There was a push to extend Labour’s coverage to a ‘rainbow’ coalition. It had recruited Maori in 1938 and its recent success in south Auckland suggests it has been successful with Pasifika, although Asians are more pro-National. Women were markedly involved in the Labour Party earlier than in National (tea and scone making aside), but while there remains an imbalance, National is steadily making up its women’s deficit. Similarly gays joined Labour earlier (open gays of course, National has long had closet ones) but they are beginning to appear in other parties. So while Labour may be proud of its rainbow leadership, it no longer has an exclusive franchise.


Another dimension of the rainbow is the young. Labour seems to think it can reach out to them with young politicians (who sometimes have spent all their adult lives in politics) but often they seem as disconnected from younger generations as their elders.


In the late 1980s Labour tried to connect with the equivalent of the Kim Dotcoms. Rich businessmen were an important source of funding the 1987, they fled in 1990.


Admittedly, following the political debacle of Rogernomics, Labour has made a lot of effort to re-incorporate the dissatisfied who fled to New Labour, the Alliance and political withdrawal. Has the energy required there prevented Labour from reaching out elsewhere?


However I was struck just how feeble was the previous Labour government’s thinking about social welfare. The world moved on but it seemed stuck in a pre-1972 nostalgia. (Don’t tell me that Working-for -Families represented progress, but that is for another time.)


Then there is the curious story of the Greens, who first appeared as the Values Party in 1972. Labour has had some successful environmental policies but it never really tried to reach out to environmentalists even though they include people with the energy and commitment which in different times would have contributed to the renewal of the party. It is too late now; under MMP the Green Party is likely to be around for some time.


Perhaps the last two paragraphs are a part of the explanation of the difficulty Labour has had with its renewal. It has been too often backward looking. Perhaps understandably, given that Rogernomics forced it to defend the values on which the party was historically based, but so much so that they did not think about how to apply them to the evolving world, and certainly not to thinking about the new challenges that, say, the environment poses. (There are caucus members who do, notably David Parker.)


These are but preliminary observations, but it is important that the analysis does not get so obsessed with the particularities of Labour that is cannot learn from the success of National.


A final thought. National’s shift to becoming an urban party has led to a lot of discomfort in the countryside. I regularly see articles in farmer newspapers advocating the establishment of a Country Party. It is not impossible given MMP. I almost wish it would, so I could watch how National would deal with the challenge. Smoothly is my guess.