Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Political Roundup: Labour's broad church under threat

The Labour Party sees itself as a broad church, with room for all sorts of political progressives who want to build a better society. But can different ideological factions really co-exist peacefully? And how should the leadership deal with apparent threats to party unity?
Labour Party leader Andrew Little. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour Party leader Andrew Little. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Is there something rotten in the Labour Party? TVNZ's Andrea Vance thinks so, and she's not the only one drawing attention to problems in the party at the moment. In her column, Little doing a poor job of telling Labour's story, Vance reflects on the state of the main opposition party, particularly in the midst of the latest infighting, involving leader Andrew Little. She draws attention to the clampdown on various MPs in the party, as well as the rather aggressive approach towards real and potential opponents, saying "Little and his office look intent on forcefully shutting down any internal debate or discussion." Vance argues that the overly-zealous approach is "poisoning the well of fresh ideas that Labour badly need. It also makes Little and his office look thin-skinned, weak and paranoid."

Labour's disunity problem

Labour MP Stuart Nash. Photo / Paul Taylor
Labour MP Stuart Nash. Photo / Paul Taylor

At the centre of the latest controversy is a relatively minor - yet, perhaps, symbolic - episode whereby Little clamped down on Labour MP Stuart Nash associating publically with ex-Labour political activists.

One of these is Porirua Mayor, and now Wellington City mayoral candidate, Nick Leggett. The background to this is explained in Tracy Watkins' article early last week: MP no show after Labour feathers ruffled by mayoral race. Leggett alleges there's a diversity problem in his former party: "It confirms the problem with Labour, and a kind of heretic hunting culture that's crept into the party. Anybody with a different view or position is excluded or pushed out."

So are there really major factional problems in Labour? Certainly this latest scrap has, according to Tracy Watkins, provided "an insight into the resurgence of Labour's age old battle between the left and right factions of the party" - see: Ankle tap or leg up? Why Andrew Little's assault on Leggett might backfire. She says that whereas "Helen Clark kept the factions united by being careful with her favours", "Little's approach hints at a purge, rather than a leader prepared to make allowances to keep the party's right wing under the roof of the one broad church."

Ultimately, she says, the clampdown by Little has been counterproductive: "If Little's intention in taking on Leggett was to give Lester a leg up it could just as likely backfire. It exposes the extent to which national politics has crept into local body elections, something that may not sit well with all voters. It also rips the scab open on Labour's left right divide. And given the party's brutal history on that front - think back to the Lange, Douglas years - he might regret going there."

In another column on the matter, Tracy Watkins asks: Is Labour's tent no longer big enough for the 'right wingers'? In this, Watkins paints a picture of disagreements in Labour over identity politics, the Greens, and economics. She suggests that previously, Clark was keen - unlike Little - to keep the Nash/Goff/Shearer faction in the party, because they "are also in touch with Labour's more conservative voters, whether that's among blue collar workers, the Pacific community, or provincial and middle New Zealand."

Similarly, Fran O'Sullivan argues that "If Labour is to occupy the centre ground - or at the least get its votes at next year's election - it would pay to keep onside MPs like Nash, Kelvin Davis and David Shearer, who have broad appeal to business, not simply the centre-right" - see: Of trade deals, gulags and black boxes. O'Sullivan also suggests that "It's a joke that a party which once campaigned for freedom of association is now stamping down on MPs who exercise that right."

Little's clampdown was a costly "blunder" according to Audrey Young, because it reminded the public of Labour's precarious internal factions: "It reminded people that Labour has factions - which usually lie dormant between leadership coups and leadership elections. But it sent a message to voters who identify with similarly conservatives lefties in the caucus, such as David Shearer, Stuart Nash, Damien O'Connor, and Kelvin Davis (and Jones when he was there) that Labour might not be their natural home. And any voter looking around for an alternative to the two big parties will find a welcome mat outside New Zealand First" - see: NZ First's salvoes hit home in war of words.

Labour's problems on the right

Andrew Little. Photo / Peter Meecham
Andrew Little. Photo / Peter Meecham

There appears to be some fear in Labour that a new breakaway party could emerge. This would see the right of Labour establish a new organisation, or even try to take over the existing party. This is something that Chris Trotter ponders in his blog post, Dangerous Company: Andrew Little quarantines the Labour Right. He says "it is easy to see how Little and his supporters might fall prey to the notion that Nash and his kind constitute a right-wing 'Labour Party-in-waiting' with all manner of helpful friends in the business community, PR circles and the news media. Friends who, given the 'right' line-up on Labour's front bench will be quick to offer a helping hand." Trotter suggests: "The dangerously accurate sniper-fire kept up against the Little-led Labour Party by the likes of Josie Pagani and Phil Quin... can only have contributed to the siege mentality so obviously gripping the Leader of the Opposition's office."

Or could some of the more conservative Labour MPs, activists, or voters even shift to New Zealand First? Richard Harman reports on some of this, saying "Peters was seen at a Wellington social function this week deep in conversation with Shearer and Nash. (Peters was also talking to other MPs from both main parties). But there is a fear that he could win over some of Labour's more conservative supporters. Polling this year has shown a flow of voters out of Labour and towards NZ First. That situation would be compounded if former right wing Labour Minister, Shane Jones stands for NZ First in Whangarei" - see: Is Little "looking to purge" Labour's right wing?

Labour's external problems

Porirua mayor Nick Leggett. Photo / File
Porirua mayor Nick Leggett. Photo / File

But maybe Labour's problem comes from elsewhere. It's the media that's to blame, according to Martyn Bradbury - see: Labour get a master class this week in learning how vested Media's interests really are. He suggests that it's no coincidence that "the corporate mainstream media chose to focus on Stuart Nash not getting his own way" just at the very time that the opinion polls were looking good for Labour. Bradbury strongly approves of Little clamping down on destabilising factions: "What Andrew was doing was stamping his authority on the Labour Party so that the factional bullshit that has plagued Labour for such a long time doesn't and won't grow.... Labour has had its factional fights over the last 8 years. The Left took out David Shearer's leadership and the Right destroyed Cunliffe's election chances, an uneasy truce has broken out under Little because both sides are too exhausted to continue fighting."

Others are also pointing to forces of the right and status quo supporting Labour's rivals. For example, on The Standard blogsite, Mike Smith has two posts about those behind Nick Leggett's Wellington mayoral campaign - see: Leggett in Parkin's pocket? and Leggett in Gollins' pocket too!.

Other successes and failures for Labour

Andrew Little. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Andrew Little. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Stacey Kirk summarises Labour's last week in politics in her Sunday column, Opportunity squandered, Labour flounders without focus. She outlines how "The party started the week polling in one of the strongest positions it's been in since leader Andrew Little took the reins" but then "Little dropped more poles than New Zealand's equestrian team."

The good news poll was TV3's latest, as reported by Patrick Gower - see: Poll: John Key could lose grip on power. This showed National's support dropping, and when Labour and the Greens support is added together, it rivalled National's total (albeit leaving New Zealand First yet again as the likely kingmaker).

Labour's rising fortunes were being put down to the housing issue - see: Housing issues causing 'mood change' among voters, says Labour, and Sam Sachdeva's Labour puts foot back on Government's throat over housing. And Gower also reported that 56 per cent of voters support Labour' "policy of building 100,000 affordable homes over 10 years for first-home buyers" - see: Labour's KiwiBuild popular with voters.

Labour and Little made some other policy announcements of significance. A new student loan policy in development that would wipe some of the debt for graduates who worked in some regional jobs was relatively well received - see, for example, The Press editorial, Labour's scheme for the regions and wiping student debt is worth exploring.

Labour then turned their sights on landlords claiming tax deductions on their rental properties, with a policy to "crack down on negative gearing" - see Claire Trevett's Labour to remove tax breaks for property speculators (

Less successful, however, was Little's musing on a referendum to decriminalise cannabis, which he then quickly backpedalled on - see Nicholas Jones: Labour would consider a referendum on decriminalising cannabis.

Finally, for satire about Andrew Little's bad week, see Steve Braunias' Secret Diary of Andrew Little.

- NZ Herald

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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