NZ POLITICS DAILY: Labour calls off the search for the missing million
Labour’s foreign youth internship scheme was meant to help foster a “youthquake” or at least somehow mobilise a good part of the so-called “missing million” non-voters.
It was a smart objective – any success in such an endeavour could make a huge difference in getting Labour into government in three months’ time. But one of the many lessons from the debacle that sprung up yesterday is to reinforce the difficulty of that project. Alienated and youthful non-voters aren’t simply going to clamour aboard the Labour Party train just because 100 foreign students have come into the country to campaign. And given the apparent inadequate resourcing of this project – as well as a fair dose of deception – it was probably inevitably doomed.
The result was the exposé published yesterday by Richard Harman – see: Labour Party volunteer workers rebel over living conditions.
According to Harman, “The students rebelled over their accommodation and their disappointment with what was supposed to be a high-powered learning programme but which appears to be not much more than political campaign drudge work. Now party heavyweights have had to step in to rescue the programme and deal with the complaints from the students. The scheme, which required the students to work for free, was to involve lectures from Labour party heavyweights such as Helen Clark and Andrew Little.”
Exploitation and poor organisation
Labour’s programme has been widely condemned as exploitative and dishonest. Of course, many of those condemning it are Labour’s political opponents. Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox was fierce in her comments on Labour’s scheme: “That is slave labour, not free labour, and they should be ashamed of themselves” – see Sam Sachdeva’s Labour under fire over foreign student volunteer scheme.
Fox is also quoted saying that Labour had “duped” the foreign students: “We all need volunteers, we all need people to come and work on our campaigns, but we don’t do it by misleading them and putting them up in poor substandard accommodation.”
National’s campaign manager Steven Joyce has said: “If the allegations are correct, Labour has brought international students to New Zealand on false pretences, failed to look after them, and failed to meet their obligations to the students in the most basic way, while at the same time campaigning against exploitation of migrants.”
Labour’s apparent hypocrisy
All of this bad press is particularly harmful to Labour because it makes the party look hypocritical. And in particular, the message it sends to the public appears to be strongly at variance with some of the party’s core values and campaign policies.
Toby Manhire says: “It’s all made much worse by the way it so gruesomely dovetails with Labour’s recent chest thumping rhetoric on immigration, student visas, and shonky educational opportunities, not to mention the commitment to workers’ rights embedded in the party’s founding ideals, its philosophical DNA, that sort of thing” – see: ‘The whole team went rogue’: the gruesome political reality of Labour’s campaign for change.
Right-wing political commentator Matthew Hooton goes much further than this, saying the scandal contradicts Labour’s policy messages: “You have a major political party promising to offer people better houses, to cut down on immigration, to introduce higher minimum wages and to get rid of dodgy education courses and their own party is undermining all four of those by bringing in unpaid interns to substandard accommodation with the promise of courses that don’t even exist” – see Jason Walls’ Labour called out over ‘hypocritical’ student volunteer situation (paywalled).
In case you think that’s simply the view from the political right, see the No Right Turn blog post: The latest Labour muppetry. He says, “using foreign student volunteers to campaign against foreign students is simply hypocritical. And failing to treat your volunteers properly? That's stupid as well as wrong.”
And, of course, the timing of the scandal is particularly unfortunate for Labour. Barry Soper explains: “Labour never lets the opportunity to shoot itself in the foot to be lost. Just when it had the National Party on the ropes over the Todd Barclay debacle, it jumps into the ring to self-flagellate” – see: Labour's opponents are rubbing their hands with glee.
Another side to the story
Of course, there are always two sides to any story, and the Herald has published an account that paints a very different picture of life inside the Campaign for Change – see: US intern defends Labour's 'fellowship' campaign programme from 'sweatshop' claims.
This article reports on the views of an anonymous American student: “She believed the complaints and leaks to the media were driven by one or two interns who had a beef with the programme. She claimed one was dropped from a leadership position on the programme after allegedly taking bottles of wine from Labour MP Jenny Salesa's house after Salesa hosted a meal for them.” According to this account, the media had inaccurately portrayed what had gone on, and she disagreed with any notion of "sweatshop" conditions and "slave labour."
And one of the US students has blogged about their experience here, and it’s fairly positive – see: Jordan Pawlicki’s Extravagant Week One For the International Newbie.
Another interesting account can be read in Auckland University student radio station bFM’s Exclusive transcript with Labour student intern.
Labour’s damage control appears dishonest
One of the most deceptive elements of both the Campaign for Change, and subsequent attempts by Labour at damage control, is the claim this wasn’t a Labour Party campaign. Matt McCarten had sold it publicly as “non-partisan,” which was scarcely believable given his roles at the top of the Labour Party in recent times. And other Labour figures continue to argue Labour is simply coming in to clean up someone else’s mess, when it is clear this has been a Labour project from the start.
The involvement of Labour Party staffers is made apparent in the above bFM interview with one of the interns – who points to the various Labour people running the Labour camp. And in a blog post, David Farrar elaborates on who these staffers and officials are – see: Of course this was Labour’s scheme. Farrar says: “To argue this scheme was independent of Labour when it was called a Labour fellowship, and run by staff from the Leader’s Office and Labour field offices, plus a member of Labour’s National Council is beyond credibility.”
And today Newshub has revealed further internal organising details from the campaign, which suggest that not only was Labour centrally involved but a number of trade unions were being asked to contribute funding – see: Union money behind Labour's botched intern scheme.
In fact, could the Labour Party be even more responsible for the fiasco than they are leading us to believe? That seems to be the argument made by leftwing blogger and activist Martyn Bradbury, who had been involved with the campaign. He suggests it was actually the Labour Party leadership that killed off the campaign because they feared it was too leftwing – see: Why the Labour Party Student Intern ‘scandal’ is a smear.
Here’s Bradbury’s argument: “The campaign's focus was engagement and it had Labour Party signoff and union buy-in. What happened, however, was Labour Party HQ Wellington had become panicked by how big the campaign had become and, despite green lighting, it started dragging its feet until the thing fell over. A whispering campaign targeting the funders of this campaign strangled off money because Labour Party HQ Wellington’s preference is to win over voters who are existing voters because the policy platform doesn’t have to be particularly radical for that. What Labour didn’t want was a huge campaign to the Left of Labour pressuring them for a Corbyn or Sanders platform.”
Bradbury concludes that “the real story is Labour’s fear of a courageous left-wing platform. Blaming Matt McCarten and leaving him to twist in the wind is expected but it certainly isn’t honourable.”
Futile campaigning for the youthquake
Martyn Bradbury’s blog post explains how the Campaign for Change was an attempt to emulate some of the youth politics success recently seen in the US and UK: “The plan to use international students who had worked on campaigns like Jeremy Corbyn’s and Bernie Sander’s were going to be matched by domestic volunteers who were going to target 60,000 Aucklander’s who had enrolled to vote but hadn’t voted and 60,000 Aucklander’s who hadn’t enrolled at all.”
Essentially the whole project has constituted a short-cut attempt to mobilise a dormant part of the electorate. The problem is that party officials cannot simply artificially engineer such phenomena. You can’t just use your will and some simple tricks to magic up an exciting wave of enthusiasm for the parties of the left.
The British election youthquake – and other popular mobilisations – have been more organic. They’ve been genuine responses by the public to what they see as exciting and authentic leadership and bold programmes for change. And, here in New Zealand, that key ingredient is missing. So, yes, Labour is trying to emulate what British Labour succeeded in doing but, without the same conditions here, such an endeavour is always going to be more fraught.
This is the point I made last Friday evening when I went on TV3’s The Project, arguing we’re unlikely to see a youthquake here – see: Academic predicts a 'youth yawn' in New Zealand election.
Unless there is some sort of local version of Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders, the New Zealand Labour Party can run as many gimmicks, tricks or engineered campaigns as it wants, but it’s unlikely to create the buzz that comes from a real movement. And in lieu of that, any attempts to create one will probably lead to perverse outcomes, such as seen this week.
As leftwing blogger Steven Cowan has said, “The fact that Labour had to recruit workers from overseas, namely unsuspecting students, to work for it only goes to highlight the lack of local enthusiasm for Andrew Little's dull and cautious Labour Party” – see: Labour exposed exploiting overseas students.
Finally, to see what the various partisans across the political spectrum are saying about this scandal on the twittersphere, see my blog post, Top tweets about Labour’s foreign student intern scandal.