Orwellian?

Labour Party member Phil Quin yesterday posted the contents of an email from party president Moira Coatsworth to members. His blog title? “Moira Coatsworth’s Orwellian Gambit“. One might think, from a title invoking Orwell, that Ms Coatsworth’s email contained some fairly strong stuff. Well, judge for yourself:

New Zealand Council last night agreed the following expectations for Party members.

Robust exchanges about the merits of any candidate for leadership need to be based on performance and attributes which are relevant to their ability to be the Labour Leader.

Members (including candidates for leadership) should not directly or indirectly refer to a candidate for leadership in a way which is denigrating or disrespectful.

Members should be cautious to ensure that any statements they make are factually accurate and fair. They should ensure that any public comment on the candidates, the Party and the leadership election system uphold the status of the Party and its chances of election to Government, and do not bring it into disrepute.

To my mind, Ms Coatsworth’s missive reads more like an appeal for polite, reasoned discourse, than a despotic crushing of free speech. As it happens, Mr Quin this morning recanted, posting on Pundit an admission that perhaps Orwellian was a rather silly word to use.

That was as far as the retraction went:

It was pompous hyperbole, a rhetorical misdemeanor, to deem Labour’s edict ‘Orwellian’. The decision by the New Zealand Council to specifically outlaw speech considered disrespectful or denigratory during the leadership primary campaign is merely heavy-handed, obnoxious and unnecessary.

Phil Quin will not be silenced, which is fair enough. He also appears to fundamentally distrust Ms Coatsworth and General Secretary Tim Barnett, which is, again, fair enough – they presumably belong to a different faction to Mr Quin, and factional infighting is certain alive and well in the Labour Party.

However, where Mr Quin goes wrong is his assumption that the public doesn’t care about disunity:

The source of Labour’s woes isn’t the perception of disunity but the stark reality of its disconnection with voters. Our problem is not too much debate, but too little — and now is precisely the worst time to tell members to watch their tongues.

I’ve previously noted that no matter how the Labour caucus gelled during the election campaign, it was never going to overcome the previous two and a half years of the party’s self-mutilation. Going feral in public may be highly satisfying for those involved, but it’s not likely to a) end Labour’s current factional war, or b) engender any modicum of respect for Labour from the voting public.

As an outsider looking in, I can only shake my head and wonder what precisely Phil Quin hopes to achieve by releasing his email communications with Moira Coatsworth. If it’s an attempt to undermine Coatsworth and Barnett, then it’s possibly a cunning plan. Beyond that, it simply feeds into the narrative that Labour are too busy fighting each other to bother attacking National.

The leadership contest is (another) opportunity for the candidates and their supporters to engage in a reasoned debate about Labour’s role in New Zealand politics and its future positioning. Attacks like Mr Quin’s are a less than constructive addition to the debate…

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2 comments

  1. He wasn’t the only one to release it. I have a screen grab, from a protected account, of a member of the Young Labour exec posting it and questioning if they can abide by the second expectation. As I pointed out in my post this morning, the issue is that Labour have tried to lay ground rules for their membership, but so far, have not issued any guidance to MPs or candidates. So they are trying to control their membership, who they have no real ability to discipline, yet they are not doing the same for the one group they have a remote chance of disciplining.

    1. MPs are still party members, so would be subject to the same expectations. Besides, it seemed that Chris Hipkins had tried to ban MPs from speaking full stop, before he and Coatsworth backtracked hurriedly!

      And “expectations” is a key word – they’re not rules. Essentially, it’s a reminder from the party president that public personal attacks aren’t especially conducive to a) a positive leadership contest in the here and now, and b) getting elected in 2017. Given the very public spats between various Labourites recently, the reminder was probably timely…

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