Is that the best that Labour could come up with? The Labour Party list for 2011 can be described as conservative, a poor use of the MMP list system, promoting non-performers and careerists, and effectively it amounts to ‘incumbency protection’. But more than anything else, the list proves once again that Labour cares more about ‘identity politics’ than ‘class politics’. Quite simply, the party is so consumed with the social backgrounds of its candidates – especially their gender, ethnicity and sexuality – that it forgets about socio-economics and actually being a workers’ party. These are the points that I tried to get across yesterday in interviews on RNZ's Morning Report (listen here) and TVNZ's Close Up (watch here). This blog post elaborates on the points I tried to make on the radio, as well as analysing some of the demographics involved in Labour’s likely list MPs, and it surveys what other commentators have been saying about Labour’s list. [Read more below]
The 2011 Labour list is incredibly conservative and unadventurous. The party has chosen to put up a fairly safe set of MPs with nothing significant in the way of surprises, no radical new candidates, and nothing out of leftfield. Instead it’s only put incumbent MPs in the top 14 positions – essentially the ‘old guard’ of the party. In fact there are only two non-MPs in the whole Top 30 winnable positions.
For a party that is on its knees and needing some sort of game changer, you might have expected the party to take some risks with its party list, to put in some interesting new candidates, and try to impress the New Zealand electorate. Instead they’ve decided not to rock the boat, but to put forward a moderate and expected list. This suggests that Labour really is sleepwalking to defeat.
The name of the game seems to be ‘incumbency protection’ – the list has obviously been put together, not for the greater good of the party, but to protect the parliamentary seats of the front bench and favoured loyal followers. The party hierarchy seem to be more concerned about making sure that they retain their own seats than anything grander like increasing the party vote. Otherwise they wouldn’t have gone for such a self-interested ranking.
Even Andrew Little might have expected to be somewhat higher than number 15. After all, he has been the president of the party for the last few years, he’s the leader of the largest private sector union in the country, and he’s supposedly a future leader of the party – perhaps the person to take over from Phil Goff – and yet he’s ranked a relatively lowly 15. If Little really is the rising star of the party then he could have expected to at least be in the Labour Top 10, if not the Top 5. Certainly his ranking of only 15 is hardly a vote of confidence in Little’s future leadership potential.
As David Farrar has pointed out, ‘Only three new candidates are ranked above Caucus List MPs’ and ‘The latest poll (Roy Morgan) has Labour at 31.5%. If this was the result and the assumptions are correct, then Steve Chadwick would lose her seat, and the only new [list] MPs would be Andrew Little and Deborah Mahuta-Coyle’ – see: Labour’s List. It’s hard to disagree with Farrar, who says, ‘they could have put candidates like Kate Sutton, Jordan Carter and Josie Pagani higher into a more winnable spot - all three would do miles better than Rajen Prasad’.
It’s hard to see how even the current talent in Labour’s caucus has been promoted in Labour’s new list – quite the opposite in fact. There are a lot of non-performers in very high winnable list positions. Most notably, Ruth Dyson is at #5, Parekura Horomia at #6, Sue Moroney is at #10, Darren Fenton is at #18 and Moana Mackey is at #19. These are all fairly lacklustre MPs. And isn’t Horomia supposed to be on the way out? Apparently he wasn’t even sure last week if he wanted to stand again, so it’s odd to rank him so highly.
And if the 2011 list is compared with that from 2008 the great leaps forward for some of the lacklustre MPs is striking. Dyson, for example, is up eight places on her list position of 2008. Fenton leaps up 15 places, while Mackey is up six places.
Interestingly, Maori politics specialist and blogger, Morgan Godfery has expressed puzzlement at Fenton and Mackey’s high positions: ‘Darien Fenton and Moana Mackey are placed at 18 and 19 respectively. I do not know what they did to deserve such high a placing. Blog posts on Red Alert maybe? I do not recall them doing much else.
In stark contrast, Phil Twyford is put at #33 – well below his caucus ranking of 16, and a demotion of seven places since 2008. As Patrick Gower says, ‘Twyford deserves better treatment than this. What are the Labour hierarchy going to do to Twyford next? Poke him in the eye?’. Similarly, the No Right Turn blog says, ‘The losers are Phil Twyford and Rajen Prasad, who get demoted even though retirements have opened up space for everyone to move up. I wonder what they did to offend Phil Goff...?’
Another ‘loser’ in the party list is Shane Jones (#16). Of course his effective list demotion was predicted last year, with commentators saying that Labour’s feminist faction would take revenge on him during the list-selection process because of the revelations of his use of pornography. But added to this, Jones suffers from not being part of the ‘identity politics’ brigade in Labour.
Similarly, Jordan Carter is supposedly to be very highly regarded within the party for his hard work and talent with policy development, yet he’s been given the almost unwinnable list position of #40. This shows how much regard the Labour Party currently has for policy innovation. Or perhaps Carter’s just seen as too leftwing for the Labour leadership.
Who else has done well? According to No Right Turn, ‘The big winners are those who have won a frontbench position in the past term - David Parker, Clayton Cosgrove, Charles Chauvel and Grant Robertson’. And Robertson has certainly done well since 2008 – jumping up 32 places on the list. Also, Chauvel is up 16 places, Kate Sutton is up 27 places, and even Rick Barker is up nine places!
Identity politics still embodies the Labour Party
So how do we explain the anti-meritocratic inclinations within Labour? Danyl Mcloughlin at the Dim-Post blog suggests that Labour has a problem of a ‘poisonous entitlement culture’:
I blame the poisonous entitlement culture within Labour on Helen Clark – she turned it into a party of MPs that didn’t have to do anything to keep their jobs other than remain loyal to her. Now her replacement leader is saddled with a caucus filled with dead weight that have no loyalty to the party and no values or convictions except that they should have highly paid jobs and safe seats and/or high list positions.
Undoubtedly there’s some truth here, but more than this, the plight of people like Phil Twyford, Stuart Nash and perhaps even Damien O’Connor is representative of the very strong identity politics ideology that still rules within Labour. To be able to make it within the party it isn’t necessarily having the ‘right connections’ but having the right background, because Labour as a party is still obsessed with where people “are from” rather than where they “are at”. So your background, your ethnicity, your gender are more important than your talent, your leadership, and your ideology. Therefore we get people like Phil Twyford at a low place of 33 in the list, and we get Nanaia Mahutu in number 12. It seems that Twyford is not only too leftwing for the Labour Party, but he’s also too white and too male.
This point is also made by TV3’s Patrick Gower on his blog post entitled ‘White men can't jump the Labour list’ who uses the example of MP Stuart Nash, who is ranked at only 27 on the new list:
Stuart Nash is another whose main crime in the Labour list selection seems to be being born. His main crime is being born a bloke. Nash is one of a number of first-term Labour MPs who came in at the last election. A few of them, like Nash, who don't have safe electorate seats to fall back on. Nash has done a good job. He's hard-working, economically literate and good in the House. But for some reason Nash is ranked below Jacinda Ardern; Rajen Prasad; Raymond Huo; Carol Beaumont; Kelvin Davis; and Carmel Sepuloni. Even Deborah Mahuta-Coyle who hasn't been in Parliament is ranked ahead of him. Now I'm not going to get into the reasons why they are ahead of Nash or who's better or who's worse. But let’s just say that of that list of seven ahead of him, not one is a white male. It may just be a coincidence. I doubt it. It’s hurt Nash. He's at number 27. Safe on current polling but not if the vote collapses a bit. Nash is suddenly in the danger zone. What did he do wrong again? Nothing. Except be born a Pakeha fella. This is a blatant quota system and in my opinion it’s too extreme. O’Connor’s comments, particularly about gay people, are out of line but he has raised an issue and Labour continues to shoot itself in the foot.
Of course Damian O’Connor’s statements to the media have became the central story about Labour’s list this week. His allegations about a ‘gaggle of gays’ has proved rather polarising, and there have been a number of commentators rightly denouncing his use of language – it’s certainly true that O’Connor’s words were rather unfortunate and bizarre.
It would also be unfortunate if O’Connor’s poor expression caused the substance of his arguments and grievances to be overlooked. Regardless of the very conservative way that he made his argument, it does appear that he raises some worthwhile questions about Labour’s list. And aside from his rather bizarre and probably offensive way of expressing himself, O’Connor does have a point when he says that the list ‘does not truly represent the rank-and-file members and delivers a list that is not truly representative of those who vote Labour’.
David Farrar dealt very well with this issue in his Kiwiblog post, O’Connor attacks labour list domination by gays and unionists:
'A gaggle of gays'? Pretty insulting to his caucus colleagues…. O’Connor could have made the point that straight white males struggle to get good list rankings, due to the identity politics in Labour, without labelling people as a “gaggle of gays”…. So let us look at the effective list for Labour, and see if the substance of Damien’s comments are accurate. How many non-union straight European males (such as Damien) have list spots? In the top 15 effective spots, there is only one – David Parker. In the top 30 effective spots, there are only two – Parker and Nash. So Damien has a legitimate gripe, but the way he has gone about expressing it does him little credit.
Farrar, here, talks about Labour’s ‘effective party list’ – which is an important difference to talking about ‘all’ of Labour’s likely caucus, because about half of Labour’s MPs will come in by winning constituencies. It’s certainly helpful to make this distinction, and political scientists do distinguish between ‘party lists’ and ‘effective party’ lists. This is because in analysing party lists, the only relevant candidates are those that are actually likely to be list MPs – in terms of the Electoral Act 1993, those that win electorates do not come into Parliament via the list. Obviously the Labour Party list contains a combination of candidates that are either A) standing in reasonably safe electorates, or B) in standing in marginal seats, or C) list-only candidates. The only Labour candidates that are actually affected by Labour’s rankings therefore are those from categories B and C. Therefore the correct analysis of Labour’s rankings needs to be based on the ‘effective party list’. Therefore, Farrar is quite right to say that of Labour’s 2011 Top 30, there are two candidates that fit Damien O’Connor’s idea of a non-union, straight Pakeha male: David Parker and Stuart Nash. The rest of those in the Top 30 are either standing in a reasonably safe electorate seat, are female, non-Pakeha, or gay. (And in 2008 the Top 30 contained three such likely list MPs: Michael Cullen, David Parker, and Phil Twyford).
Of course there are some commentators that see it quite differently. For example, yesterday the No Right Turn blog suggested that Maori MPs face some sort of discrimination or are out of fashion within Labour’s list selection process: ‘Also notable for minor demotion are Parekura Horomia and Nanaia Mahuta…. they are Labour's most high-profile Maori MPs, and their demotion sends a message about what the party cares about ATM. And the answer seems to be "not Maori".
Similarly, Labour supporter Rob Carr thinks Labour hasn’t been able to create a party list that is gender-balanced enough:
the gender balance on the list is unfortunately 4/6 for each group on 10 MPs. As most of the electorates won will be by men this will mean the returned Labour caucus may have even fewer women than it does currently. Looking at the full list however there was not a lot of extra female talent they could have brought further up the list so perhaps they should consider for next election what they can do to draw more talented female MPs. Men and women can perform their roles as MPs quite differently and it is important to have a mix of both.
And today, some Labour supporters have attempted to analyse the Labour list in a way that disproves Farrar and O’Connor’s arguments about identity politics. The best example is Rob Salmond’s very good Pundit blog post, Self-serving malcontents and a gaggle of garbage. The analysis here is very worthwhile, but it misses the point by a mile (whether deliberately or not). The debate, after all, is about who the Labour Party has chosen to enter Parliament via the party list – it’s not about the wider issue of who will be in Labour’s next caucus – which includes all those MPs who win their local nomination and then win the actual electorate. So Salmond is comparing apples with oranges, and therefore his useful analysis is a bit moot in terms of this particular debate.
The new career politicians on the list
Much is made of Labour’s attempts to create a diverse party list, yet in crucial ways it actually appears to be increasingly narrow. When you look at socio-economics instead of identity politics, there seems to be an increasing sameness about the candidates. This probably reflects that Labour is attempting to look more like it’s target middle-income voter base, but it also relates to the fact that the more working class element of the party dropped out a long time ago. This is unfortunate for the New Zealand party system, elections, and Parliament, because this beige-ness ultimately means all the parties and options seem to blend into one another. As David Slack said about Labour’s candidates on Newstalk ZB this week, ‘If they stood against a white wall, you'd lose them’ – that’s how bland Labour's list is.
In fact, instead of being the ‘party of workers’, Labour is becoming a party of ‘press secretaries’. Parliamentary politics is increasingly populated by ex-journalists, PR professionals, and ex-parliamentary party staffers. Certainly in recent years Labour has been keen to bring such party professionals in Parliament – with the elevation of career politicians such as Kris Faafoi, Jacinda Adern, Grant Robertson, Chris Hipkins, etc. And now, with the 2011 party list, Labour has Deborah Mahuta-Coyle ranked at #26, making her the next party professional to enter Parliament. Apparently she is one of Phil Goff’s many media advisers. In this regard, Danyl McLauchlan also makes a salient and concise point on Dim-Post that, ‘If I were leading a party that was seen as out of touch and unable to communicate with the public I’d try and talent-search my new MPs from somewhere other than my communications staff’ – see: But what do I know?
But who is Deborah Mahuta-Coyle?
Mahuta is one of Goff’s press secretaries. One would think association with the incompetent Goffice would be a liability. It really is indicative of the poisonous patronage that pervades the Labour Party. Around a month ago I attended one of the local list selections here in Wellington. Obviously Mahuta was speaking. My impressions of her were less than flattering. Her speech was not notable in any way, she displayed no great insight, the speech itself was hardly rhetorically remarkable and I sensed an air of arrogance about her. In my opinion Josie Pagani, Michael Bott, Jordan Carter and Rino Tirikatene were far superior. According to the local members Mahuta, despite possessing no qualifications like intellect or character, was guaranteed a high placing by virtue of her position in the party.
In contrast, however, some others have good things to say about Mahuta-Coyle. For example, David Farrar says, ‘Mahuta-Coyle will be one of their better MPs if she makes it. She’s smart and feisty and will be good on policy’. Jake Quinn calls her ‘a sharp young Maori battler’. Rob Carr calls her ‘an incredibly talented woman’. I guess we’ll find out soon. (The photo above on the right is of Deborah Mahuta-Coyle, as published on Labour's Red Alert blog).
Not using the list system to its fullest
There are really no great surprises in the list. I thought the party might have something up its sleeve – some new ‘star’ or performer that has made their name in other field within New Zealand society. For example, when National was down on its luck in 2002 it brought in a lot of new talent at the election. Not only did future party leader John Key come in, but then Reserve Bank Governor Don Brash was recruited to come in via the party list – he was ranked at number 5.
The party lists are supposed to be used to bring talent into Parliament. That was how the system was sold to us back in the 1990s. And that’s how they often work in other countries with a party list system. Talented candidates and politicians that might not be good at winning one single electorate can be brought into public office via the list system.
Electorate candidates not going on the party list
The flip-side of using the list system to bring in wider talent, is the need for those candidates that have a good chance of winning their electorates to stand aside from the party list. In fact there’s a growing demand from the public for those that contest electorates not to go on the party list at all. Hence the decisions of Lianne Dalziel in Christchurch East, Ross Robertson in Manukau East and Damien O’Connor in Westcoast not to go on the party list will be seen by their potential electors as a very positive and honourable move. And so, regardless of the reason for O’Conner opting out off the Labour list, his line to West Coast voters will resonate well – he has said that his decision now gives West Coasters a clear decision ‘to either have me as an electorate MP or that's it - I'll get on and do something else’.
It seems that the concept of ‘backdoor MPs’ – those that unsuccessfully contest an electorate seat but come into Parliament through the party list – is one that continues to cause some concern about the MMP system. Perhaps parties should therefore reserve their party lists simply for those candidates no standing for elections in a constituency seat? In this regard, the Listener editorial this week, Noticeably listing, is notable for putting forward some suggestions:
One solution could be to emulate the many other countries using proportional voting that run “open” lists, offering voters the extra option of expressing preferences for which list candidates their chosen party vote should favour. In Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands, among others, popular list candidates can be advanced up the ranks and into Parliament ahead of higher-ranked candidates, if enough voters endorse them. As well as giving the public more say, such a mechanism here would put parties on notice against stacking their lists, for convenience and patronage, with people it knows perfectly well the public disapproves of, or regards as hacks. Imagine the embarrassment if Tizard et al were kept out of Parliament by popular vote.
A working class takeover?
Much is being made of the fact that ‘Six of the seven newcomers have a union background and were on the union affiliates' wish list’, and that therefore the party is returning to its union and working class roots. Such a notion needs a bit more investigation however. The type of new unionist that are being promoted are actually pretty much in the mould of Andrew Little – a middle class oriented unionist. Unlike the union leaders of the past that would rise up through the movement from the grassroots through to leadership positions and then into Parliament to represent their former comrades, the modern type of unionist comes into Parliament with a very different background. Andrew Little for example is actually a lawyer who really began union life as a lawyer for hire more than a rank-and-file worker and union delegate. He represents the modern very white-collar professional approach to union politics. Similarly, many of the other so-called unionists are not your traditional rank-and-file blue collar sort, but university-educated career union bureaucrats. So the unionists on Labour’s list are mostly of the very moderate and bureaucratic kind. They obviously have their place – and it needs to be strongly asserted that any political party with the label ‘Labour’ should have a lot of unionists in Parliament – more about this in a future blog post. But there has been a growing tendency for the unionists that go onto Labour’s list to be ‘career unionists’. And by shifting into parliament they’re simply transforming into ‘parliamentary careerists’.
A lack of regeneration
The regeneration of the Labour Party is clearly been happening too slow and too late. The 2011 party list was a chance for the party to come out with something unexpected, and with a lot of fresh new blood and faces near the top, but the party’s chosen to be ultra-cautious. Andrew Little’s placement at number 15 is the best they could do, but clearly that’s “too Little too, too late”.
The blandness of Labour’s list is reflective of the party as a whole at the moment. They party never seems to have anything bold to say – it appears to be highly scared of doing anything different or saying anything that might be radical or outside the mainstream view. In fact, as David Slack said this week, Damien O’Connor’s unfortunate outburst was in some ways actually a bit refreshing: ‘I think it's a pity for the party that they don't have people who are speaking with as much emotion as he is. I think that is really part of their problem, they've been so careful and dull that you don't know what the hell they're talking about’. Indeed, suddenly a Labour MP was departing from the party line and script. Labour needs to do that more – just perhaps with out the social conservative overtones of O’Connor.