Standing in the Shadow of the Red Flag

There was a brief discussion on The Standard about whether it appropriate for Phil Goff to win the Auckland mayoralty as an independent. Regular commenter Atiawa asked this question:

“Why would Goff stand for the Auckland mayoralty as an independent candidate considering his life-long commitment to the Labour Party?”

Why indeed?

In the parties century of political activism, I can’t find any Auckland mayor who officially stood under the Labour banner. The nearest I can get is Ernest Davis, who was a millionaire beer baron back when being a millionaire meant something. Davis was clearly associated with the workers’ party, but again, I can’t find any record of this staunch (and complex) Labour supporter actually flying the red flag in his successful campaigns. Readers with better historical knowledge may be able to point to instances where this has happened and I’m happy to have the record corrected.

Of course, Auckland was a much more narrowly defined area until the Lange Labour government introduced local government reforms in 1989. These changes ended the independence of neighbouring boroughs such as Newmarket, Mt Eden and Mt Roskill and established the Auckland City Council as arguably the most powerful single local government body. The more recent reforms have further consolidated the Queen St council as the major player in local government. The role of Mayor of Auckland can reasonably seen as being as politically significant and, in some ways, equivalent in power to a Government Cabinet Minister.

Actually, I have no problem with Goff standing as an independent this time. To be an effective Auckland mayor, he will have to appeal across the political divide. The repeated endorsements from John Key will certainly help!

National, as we know, preferred to use the Citizens and Ratepayers vehicle (now Communities and Residents). Prior to the formation of the National Party, the Reform and United parties stood joint tickets. There have been many left leaning coalitions and City Vision was probably the most successful of those, ending decades of of C&R dominance in the Queen City. Many current left MP’s in the Greens and Labour have cut their teeth as City Vision councillors and local board members. The same applies to the Future West coalition in the city’s western suburbs. Good results and good experience.

I know that there have been candidates in other council elections in the past who have officially represented Labour. For example, veteran campaigner Richard Northey stood and won the Maungakiekie-Tamaki ward in Auckland under the Labour banner.  The local local board there also went to Labour candidates, as did the local boards in Mangere-Otahuhu and Otara. However, it’s clear that the vast majority of candidates at every level in Auckland, and from every political perspective, stand as independents.

It appears that both major parties accept that at local government level, the tickets should de-emphasise the links to national politics and present as broad community groups. This concept has worked since the twenties, but I think it might be time for Labour to re-think the strategy. If not in Auckland, where the coalition with the Greens is clearly working, then maybe in the provinces, where the party struggles to make headway.

New Zealand seems unique in this approach. The major parties in the UK, Europe and the USA most often stand under their own name. Council elections are regarded as both workouts for general elections and important indicators of a party’s prospects nationally. But not here, apparently.

I’m a firm believer in the Popular Front. The Bulgarian communist leader Georgi Dimitrov recognised the fascist threat in the early thirties and campaigned for progressive parties to put aside their divisions to oppose the common foe. His was a hard fight at a time when Stalinism was being established in the USSR and the naive alternative, Trotskyism, was still convinced that a purist worldwide revolution should be the goal. In the face of a direct threat, unity is vital. Division is often fatal, particularly when the opposition is singular in its purpose.

But these are different times and there are limits to the political effectiveness of united fronts for the constituent parties. Subsuming your own identity within the electoral grouping does not enhance a party’s wider prospects. As noted above, it can be a great learning experience for candidates and a test of a party’s electoral machine, but it does little to broaden the appeal of a individual party.

For the Labour Party I think it’s time they seriously consider putting up tickets in next year’s council elections under the red flag. If the left is to win Government, Labour must pick up more support in the provinces. It’s not good enough to just have a few MP’s outside the major urban areas. The provinces have been abandoned to their fate by National. If it isn’t Labour championing the needs of towns like Gisborne, Whanganui and Dunedin, who will?

My proposal is that Labour pick a couple of small towns and one larger city and run a Labour ticket in next year’s council elections as an experiment. Let’s see if we can win under our own name and then let’s look at the results in the General Election eighteen months later and see if there is a related improvement. I reckon local Labour Party members will embrace the chance to fly the red flag in their communities. I’m equally sure that local voters will be happy to see that the Labour Party is more than just the Parliamentary caucus and is not just a 3 yearly parliamentary electoral machine.

I don’t think it would hurt Labour to stand under the scarlet standard in council elections. I believe there is nothing to lose and much to gain if candidates are proudly and publicly Labour at a local level. Could it hurt to try? Readers, would you be more interested in local body elections if you knew for sure what the politics of the candidates were? I suspect the answer might be ‘yes’.


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