Labour Party general secretary Andrew Kirton - interviewby Jane Clifton
Labour’s top organiser is charged with revitalising the once-fearsome party machine.
Here’s a familiar story: you’re racing up a vertiginous corporate ladder abroad, still in your 30s and personable, with a CV to die for, and you step off to get into politics back home in New Zealand.
Generally, the idea is that a couple of chapters later, you’re a party leader – or at least on the front bench.
It’s tempting to ask Andrew Kirton, who has come home with designs not on a nice safe seat but to become the poorly polling Labour Party’s general secretary, “Are you mad?” It appears what he is is committed. A Labour supporter since his teens, he says he has always shaped his career choices towards equipping himself for a job in politics – but never as an MP.
“I think we’ve got to get away from that thinking,” he says. “There are lots of ways people can help and can make a difference, and lots of people who do make a contribution over the course of many years, without having to be an MP.”
Kirton’s job is to galvanise more people into finding those ways in the service of Labour. As its new top organiser, he’s charged with revitalising the once fearsome party machine – perhaps the most Sisyphean of gigs in our politics. Labour and National alike suffer prolonged slumps in coffers and grass-roots morale in opposition, but by this time in the electoral cycle, change is usually in the wind.
For the first time, those year-seven and -eight portents are way off. A 30% poll rating is Labour’s bare minimum for comfort, given a three-way Opposition vote-split with the Greens and New Zealand First, and it has just sunk below that.
Kirton does not minimise the challenge. He has been in the job less than a month and his first priority was to email all members asking for their perspectives. Another was to analyse the controversial revised structure of Labour’s constitution.
“We’ve gone through a really good period of review. We’ve had a fair bit of revision to do. It’s a living document and there are always ways to be able to improve our internal democracy.”
Kirton expects the constitution will be subject to continual change. Naturally, he’s not about to tell the Listener what changes he would like – not after three weeks here and probably not ever. GenSecs do not have public opinions on such matters and Kirton is accordingly tactful in all his answers.
He needs to be. The union and membership empowerment of the 2013 reforms rebalanced the eternal tension between caucus and party – in the party’s favour. On paper, this should be a plus for the party boss. But it allowed the party to effectively crown a leader that the bulk of the caucus did not want. The result: decisive defeat and fresh leadership instability.
That instability is now at an end, despite what the polls show. And judging by the enthusiasm with which Kirton talks of Andrew Little, it’s clear his admiration for the latest leader was a prime factor in his decision to leave his London job, with global construction giant Mace, for this one. He says he’s also seriously impressed with Labour’s – still mostly secret – policy development.
Caucus tension similarly dogs the Labour Party in the UK, but Kirton sees positives in the controversy surrounding its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. He says he’s had little involvement with British Labour beyond a little campaigning for a local candidate, but he’s convinced Corbyn’s election has refreshed the system.
“The rise of Corbyn, and of Bernie Sanders in the US, brings a new authenticity and a message about age; that older people can bring something new and valuable to politics. And I think people who have felt ignored now feel there’s someone listening to them and as though there are new possibilities that haven’t been talked about for a while. That’s a good thing.”
As for NZ Labour’s refreshment, Kirton says he has seen the direction of the policy work – “we’re not short of policy” – and is in no doubt Little is the right leader to sell it. Furthering MMP relations won’t be his direct remit, but “up to Andrew”. For now Kirton is still getting to grips with the party’s systems and resources, and what it’s up against in the well-funded, perma-polling National Party machine.
Kirton says polling is important to a modern, responsive political party, but not as a tool to determine policy. “Polling can help you decide how to speak to people, how to frame your message, so people know what you stand for.”
But polling doesn’t provide the answers, Kirton says. He’s well up with the emergent research showing that the eyeball-amassing power of social media doesn’t provide the answers either. Internet campaigning worked wonders for President Obama, but there were other factors in play. Subsequent social media campaigners have found no correlation between clicks, or even “likes”, and votes.
Kirton says doorknocking, and “getting Andrew out to meet people” are still the building blocks.
Kirton’s building blocks – his family’s dairy farm and a boarding school education – don’t instantly strobe “Labour destiny”. On the contrary, his father, Weston, stood for National in the old Taupo electorate. But Kirton says he saw plenty of hardship in the Taumarunui district, lived with kids from all walks of life at Sacred Heart College and got an early lesson in politics when his parents’ farm halved in value overnight through Sir Roger Douglas’ reforms. Later, Ruth Richardson’s reforms affected people in his home district in other ways, furthering his political education. “The freezing works closed. A lot of people were left struggling.”
When he pictures his father in that era, it’s doing the milking with a phone wedged under one ear, chewing over the latest local issue. “I learnt from my old man the sense of public service. He was always off delivering a load of firewood or helping someone. And when it was haymaking, every one would come and help us.”
Kirton says it’s that spirit of inter-connectedness that drew him to Labour. “If you’re poor, then I’m the poorer for that. We’re all in this together.”
Student politics at Lincoln University firmed his political leanings. He co-chaired the University Students’ Association and chaired Student Job Search while doing his double degree – though he ruefully points out that flatting with viticultural students did leaven the earnestness of varsity life. After graduating in commerce and management, he worked as an organiser for the finance sector union Finsec, then joined the Beehive staff of Pacific Island Affairs Minister Winnie Laban in 2006.
Little over a year later, he was moved to the Prime Minister’s office, to be Helen Clark’s communications adviser – a serious vote of confidence in a political newbie. Off for the requisite OE in 2009, he scored a comms job with the British Airports Authority, working his way up to become head of public affairs for Heathrow Airport. Three years ago, he moved across to head corporate comms for international construction group Mace. That’s a solid seven years’ insight into a heady public policy nexus: infrastructure, security, international trade, transport, major public works (not least the 2012 Olympics) and urban planning.
Kirton may be a one-man policy resource for Labour. He’s abashed at the suggestion, saying, “Oh, I’m happy to bore anyone about airports!” He already has one new recruit for Labour’s efforts on the ground. “My old man has said he might deliver some leaflets and have signs up at his place – but as for anything else, he’s not sure.”
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