Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 8. 1969.
Labour Party Conference — Leftism by Blackmail
Labour Party Conference
Leftism by Blackmail
Some issues did make an appearance at Labour Party Conference. The 1970 All Black Tour managed to creep into Mat Rata's Maori Policy Committee report after having been endorsed in Big Norm's Parliamentary party report. Security was investigated and found insecure. The areas of silence remained predictable—economic and foreign policy radicalism. Gorden Dryden found it inexpedient to attack protectionism: neither. Toby Hill nor Martyn Finlay mentioned Vietnam. But as compilation the left was allotted the usual committee of investigation on homosexuality, won on Omega and corporal punishment and got a veiled promise from Kirk that Brigadier Gilbert would go if Labour won. This is an indication of how much the Left can extract in blackmail from the Labour leadership for backing out of an election year confrontation.
This, then, was the kind of conference well-dressed ex-Trotskyism with Labour candidatures talk about when arguing that outside Labour there is only the wilderness. Yes, the Labour left can win—but only isolated battles, never the whole campaign. In this case, it's strategic retreat could turn out to be even more ignominious than now appears. To present an alternative electoral policy to Kirk's is to be taken in by Kirk's pretensions as an election winner, and to concede already the post-election postmortem on why Labour lost. The Labour left always backs down before right-wing claims that it lacks electoral realism: it can never realise that this failure of nerve is equivalent to political suicide. The conference once again confirmed that Big Norm faces no opposition prepared to state bluntly that Labour will lose in November, as much because of Big Norm as any other factor. Confrontation was more worthwhile tactically for the left at this conference than it was last year; its absence ensures that Big Norm will still lead the Parliamentary Opposition in 1971.
The failure to make any advance in Labour policy on radicalism—highlighted by Kirk's slighting the Maori Policy Committee over the All Black tour and the definitive suppression of Rhodesia as an issue—is a very marked, and dangerous concession to pressure groups like the Rhodesia Society by both left and right on the Labour Party. In a predominantly while country, susceptible to, but not yet affected by, the racialism which is endemic elsewhere, one scents trouble when the major opposition party leaves an honest discussion of race to its Maori policy Committee. Here Norm Kirk seems to be following the footsteps of Harold Wilson and the British immigration restriction acts. Particularly prominent straw in tht wind was the conference's absolute lack of interest in a pleas by a spokesman for a Cook Islands branch that Niueans should be as eligible as other New Zealanders for social security payments.
On the more obviously electoral issue of the economy, the conference failed to convince most observers it has a more radical policy to offer on economic planning than the National Party's National Development Conference. The party's obvious division over what attitude to take to the NDC went undiscussed and therefore unresolved—perhaps the major policy default, perhaps the definitive election-loser. Ruth Butterworth, the 1968 burnt offering on the altar of Party unity, has written in the Labour journal New Zealand Statesman:
Corporatism's grip is institutionalised in the forms and procedures of the Development Conference. The object of the conference is to arrive at a definition of the national interest which will produce the maximum possible satisfactions and rewards to private and corporative concerns, The thirteenth-hour [sic] decision, in response to public pressure, to establish an additional committee to study community needs is just so much unconvincing eyewash.
This opinion was not that of many conference delegates, and one prominent Labour candidate, Eddie Isbey, with the backing of the Federation of Labour, had actively participated in Dr. Butterworth's "thirteenth-hour" committee. Was it more than just coincidence that this particular NDC Committee issued its report during the sitting of the Labour Conference? Whatever the story. Labour, even if it were to accept Dr Butterworth's views, would still offer no more effective planning policy than the NDC, and indeed, could offer only a financially incredible social security programme as an alternative to the NDC 'quality of life' committee's very sensible recommendations. The NDC simply beat Labour to the draw.
The issues where the Labour left captiulated at this Conference, economics and foreign affairs, are precisely the areas where one important member of the Labour shadow cabinet Warren Freer, is pressing for closer co-operation with the National Party—for a 'bi-partisan approach to the development of this country of ours' on the same lines as 'the very important issue of external affairs' where "for very many years we have had a bi-partisan approach."
Mr Freer's advocacy of bi-partisanship is designed to provide "a degree of certainty for the commercial community"— the logic of an electoral appeal to small business ends in a political merger operation. When the merger finally goes through we can leave it to the academics to argue about which party has taken over which.
The left this year might have upset Big Norm's campaign: therefore it was persuaded it was part of a big happy Labour family where everyone got, within reason, what they wanted. Unlike Oliver Twist, the left decided not to ask for more; and what it got was not very impressive. Radicalism was permitted in the areas the hierarchy thought were safe; and the hierarchy proved to be right in believing it could get away with this. This conference was managed, unlike last year: but with sophistication and finesse: persuasion replaced confrontation; compromise replaced the bludgeon. The left was so relieved nobody was making after it with an axe, it look the hierarch's professions of fraternity as good coin.