Labour's annual conference meets in Auckland this weekend. It's the most important conference in a generation. Changes are on the table that will fundamentally change Labour, bringing it closer to the public and making it fit to lead New Zealand again.
Stepping back from the day to day rush (and the chitter chatter about leadership issues, which is wildly overblown), Labour has taken the past few months to consider its structure and the way it organises. It hasn't been an internally focused review, though the outcomes being debated this weekend are focused on what Labour does.
The focus has been: how do we build a party that is better connected with the community? How do we organise and campaign better with MMP? How do we change from an industrial age hierarchy into a less centralised, more democratic structure?
These are the right questions for Labour to ask, and the answers the review has come up with are broadly right too.
New Zealanders have no patience these days for political parties or governments that claim to know it all. People no longer accept that Wellington Knows Best (if ever they did). Pushing decisions downwards and outwards to communities and to local democracy has been an important part of politics now for years.
That's why we brought in elected DHBs. That's why we extended the remit of local government. That's why an earlier Labour government brought in Tomorrow's Schools. People know what they need and what they want, and the central State doesn't always have to make those calls for them.
Labour's internal structures have not kept up, and nor has its culture. We can all cite examples in the 2000s and before when Labour left an impression of knowing best. The whole "Nanny State" thing could never have emerged without some substance behind it, after all.
Why does this matter?
There are two fundamentals in a political party. One is leadership selection and the other is decisions around policy. Together, those affect strategy, electoral appeal and relevance, political success and eventually, access to power.
This weekend's debate will include the chance for Conference to massively widen the constituency that selects Labour's leader: from 30-50 MPs to tens of thousands of members of the Party and affiliated trade unions.
That is as it should be. People who want to lead should have to demonstrate that they can win support from a cross-section of the public. I am damn sure that the Labour Party membership and members of our affiliated unions are a more diverse and representative cross-section of New Zealand than the Labour caucus is. The new process will require people to show they can win support from that broader constituency before they become leader.
It's a much needed reform, and will bring Labour in NZ into line with almost all other social democratic parties around the world. The ALP will remain the only organisation with backroom boys making these sorts of calls. They are welcome to that splendid isolation.
I am confident Conference will adopt this change. It is brave but necessary change.
There's a similar reform proposed on policymaking. There will be a wider mandate for policy: a Platform (the first ever draft of which is online here) would structure the party's manifesto and election policies. All policy would have to be consistent with the Platform and could only depart from it for a reason (e.g. a coalition negotiation) and with a supermajority of the party's Policy Council (a mix of MPs and activists) in agreement.
To draft, debate and adopt the Platform will involve hundreds of people across the party's branches and regions and sectors. It will involve reaching out to industry, to community groups, to advocacy organisations in every sphere of public life.
Once it is adopted by the Conference, it will be a standing framework that gives people a clear sense of what Labour stands for, and how it will govern. It will shift the right to make fundamental decisions about the party's direction and approach from the Parliamentary wing alone, into the whole organisation.
Both these reforms cut to the heart of what it means to be a modern political party. They acknowledge that not all wisdom resides at the centre. They celebrate the diverse perspectives and ideas that come from really listening to the community, and debating (sometimes with great passion!) the big picture of what Labour stands for and what Labour will deliver.
They are about making Labour the party that is most relevant to the country's future.
Look at our opponents and see the difference. National party members have no real say in policy. It's left to the Board (of seven) and the Cabinet. National tramples on local democracy whenever it can - look at the tragedy of Christchurch and the theft of water resources being given a stamp of legitimacy in Canterbury. Look at the efforts to take community representation away from Polytechs and Universities. Look at the efforts to wind back the powers and responsibilities of local government.
At precisely the moment that New Zealand's government and politics needs to be humble about its own abilities, and respectful of the ideas that the public can bring to the table, the National Party is going the wrong way.
There are other important changes on the table, and you can read the full list here. The overall package is a far-reaching set of reforms. Once we deal with candidate selection next year, a full overhaul will have been done, based on grassroots debate, international comparison and hard-headed analysis of what we need to change.
Labour's got it right. That is why this conference is important. We need to change our party if we are to win a mandate to change the country.
I've been writing about this for a while. It's part of the necessary process I identified in 2010 on this blog - of "turning ourselves inside out":
As we say "this is what we are hearing, what do you think?", we also have to invite people in to join with us and help shape what we are doing next. We have to use the best technology there is to do it, as well as the traditional means of face to face and direct mail politics. We need to be the party that people see as grassroots based, and where they know that if they want to raise an issue or a concern, it will filter through to what our policy is and what our politicians are saying and thinking.
Changing a political party is slow work, but we are heading in the right direction. The historic decisions we make this weekend - the most important changes to our party for a generation - will show just how serious we are. By themselves these changes won't achieve nirvana, but what they do do is this: they give Labour the foundation on which to build a winning campaign in 2014.
Changing Labour so we can change New Zealand, and see this country live up to its promise. That's what Labour is for.