Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – Why Louisa Wall was a problem for Labour (and democracy)

Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – Why Louisa Wall was a problem for Labour (and democracy)

Since announcing her retirement on Tuesday, MP Louisa Wall has been heralded as a great maverick who progressed important social legislation by operating outside of the usual Labour Party structures. Her failure to be elevated to the rank of Cabinet Minister, is being blamed on her outspokenness and refusal to toe the party line, as if Wall was punished for following her principles and being more interested in getting things done.

Wall’s partisan opponents have been particularly full of praise. Chris Bishop tweeted how sad he was to see her go, saying “Louisa achieved more as a MP than almost all Ministers from the party she is a member of”. And David Seymour described Wall as “the kind of person that every Parliament needs”.

There is, however, a different view of Wall’s parliamentary career, and it’s one that is more likely to be found amongst Wall’s own political side. As various commentators have noted, her announcement has been met with very little warmth by Labour MPs. In marked contrast to the praise from opponents and commentators, there have only been a handful of statements from her own side, and those have mostly been the kind of perfunctory or obligatory farewells that are expected from the party leader.

Even deputy leader Kelvin Davis’ choice of proverb to farewell her was interpreted by Herald political editor Claire Trevett as something that “could be taken as a poetic way of saying good riddance, bring on the replacement.”

Wall’s attempts to be an Independent MP within a party

The standard explanation for why Walls was shunned by her Labour colleagues is that she was difficult to work with, abrasive, and wasn’t trusted by other MPs, including leader Jacinda Ardern.

All of this might be true, and there is certainly a lot of evidence for it. But a more objective way of understanding her relationship to her party is that Wall operated according to a very different principle of democratic parliamentary representation. It was an elite approach that argued politicians should not be so encumbered by allegiances to political parties, but instead operate as expert individuals to make progress or change in ways that they think best serves the public.

This goes back to the thinking of 18th century British philosopher and politician Edmund Burke, who argued MPs should be free to vote in Parliaments how they see fit, rather than how their constituents or parties want them to. He argued politicians are the experts and should be trusted as individuals to come to the right decisions on a case-by-case basis. This went against the prevailing idea that politicians should campaign on the basis of manifestos and receive a mandate to carry out their promises.

Burke essentially wanted Parliaments to be full of Independents. And in reality, Louisa Wall often acted as an Independent rather than a member of the Labour Party. This meant that at times she was not seen as a team player. She once explained her way of operating as an individual like this: “If you give me the ball, don’t tell me how to run the ball. It’s my ball, I will choose.” Clearly Wall struggled with the discipline that is normally imposed by parties on their MPs to work collectively. And perhaps more importantly, she failed to realise that she only ever “had the ball to run with” because of the work of her party in getting her elected, which it continued to do even after she had undermined the party in various ways.

The cult of the private members’ bill

Following this Independent approach to its logical conclusion, Wall became a vigorous user of private members’ bills to make progress in Parliament – essentially rejecting the use of the Labour Party as the primary way to create change. This meant eschewing the traditional route of championing a cause, winning over the party, and then campaigning amongst the public for support to make the reform.

In the case of Wall, as we’ve seen with many others who have used private members’ bills to advance a cause, the political party and the public are cut out of the deal, in favour of more direct attempts to get a cross-party alliance of MPs to simply vote the reform in.

This approach has plenty of advantages, but it also has shortcomings, especially if it becomes an elite way of making change without democratically taking along society or even your own party. Arguably, there is now something of a fetishisation of private members’ bills in New Zealand – with the luck of having your bill pulled out of the old biscuit tin being favoured as a way of making social progress.

In praise of maverick MPs

Wall’s maverick nature has been praised by many commentators. For example, Stuff’s chief political reporter Henry Cooke has lamented that “MMP and our political culture discourage this kind of independence. In the United Kingdom this level of rebellion would barely raise an eyebrow, but in New Zealand it is a serious breach of decorum.”

Likewise, Newsroom’s Sam Sachdeva has saluted Wall for going against Labour Party discipline: “While the advent of MMP has had many benefits, it has concentrated parties’ power at a central level while leaving us with no end of sycophantic politicians – of all stripes – willing to ask patsies and defend their boss’s screw-ups to the dying end. As one of the MPs willing to speak out when warranted prepares to leave Parliament, we are all the poorer for it.”

What is often forgotten, however, is that maverick MPs can only flout their party’s collective solidarity for so long. If they have a truly principled difficulty with the direction of their party it is normal practice to resolve this by departing and becoming an Independent and then starting a new party. After all, there are many honourable examples of this, including the likes of Jim Anderton, Winston Peters, Tariana Turia and Hone Harawira. But in the case of Wall, she chose to both stay and try to operate more as an Independent.

We should also be careful before we wish for too many Independent MPs operating from within the existing parties. As Ben Thomas writes today: “A major parliamentary party full of Louisa Walls would be unmanageable, and possibly incoherent to the voting public. Moreover, individual MPs can be particularly bad judges of whether they are themselves motivated by a personal mission, a sense of service, or simply ego.”

Wall’s de-selection and compromise deal

It is not insignificant that Wall lost the confidence of practically her whole party, seemingly at every level – from the leader down to her own electorate membership. Normally those in an extremely safe seat such as Wall’s Manurewa electorate, which she held from 2011 to 2020, are able to embed themselves and build a strong coalition of supporters. But in her case she faced de-selection at the last election, with both locals and the party head office wanting to replace her with the relatively unknown Arena Williams.

Wall threatened to take legal action against her own party in order to retain her incumbency. Wiser heads prevailed, and reports came out of a negotiated compromise. As the Herald’s Audrey Young wrote at the time: “inherent in the deal is an understanding that Wall will be given a winnable position on Labour’s list and she may be helped to find a good appointment in the coming term to help her exit from Parliament.”

That seems to have come to pass. We will now have to wait and see if an appointment to a new job has been made by the Government as part of a deal. The fact that Wall announced her retirement so abruptly, in the middle of the parliamentary term and, along with her colleagues has refused to answer any questions about it certainly seems to point to some sort of “non disclosure agreement” between Wall and the Government.

Wall has indicated that she won’t answer any questions about her departure and new job until her valedictory speech on April 14. Several commentators are expecting fireworks – suggesting Wall will give her side of the story about life inside the Labour Party and how badly she has been treated. More likely, however, she will want to go out on a high note, using the speech to mend fences, especially if it’s also a launching pad to a new Government appointment.

Wall can now be saluted as someone who progressed important social change, and this will be her legacy. But her rise and fall also raises important questions. Do we need coherent and united political parties to put forward manifestos to pursue change and get a public mandate for these, or do we want more Independents pursuing alliances in the parliamentary chamber via the biscuit tin of private members’ bills?


Further reading on Louisa Wall

Ben Thomas (Stuff): Louisa Wall remained immoveable, despite the personal cost
Tova O’Brien (Today FM): Sad day for Labour party as MP Louisa Wall resigns
Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): Louisa Wall’s departure a loss for MP independence
Claire Trevett (Herald): Labour MP Louisa Wall leaves a legacy – at a cost to herself(paywalled)
Henry Cooke (Stuff): Louisa Wall achieved a lot in politics, but sometimes forgot it was a team sport
Lloyd Burr (Today FM): Looking back at Labour MP Louisa Wall’s 14 years in Parliament
Irra Lee (1News): Louisa Wall ‘remarkably effective’ MP, ‘a great loss to Labour’


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