Tuesday 6 December 2011

Let Shearer Build It - And They will Come

A Light In The Darkness Of Defeat: The conventionally wise would say that David Cunliffe, as the Labour politician best qualified to guide his party to victory in 2011, should become its leader. Except that it was the very same conventional wisdom that persuaded Helen Clark to annoint Phil Goff in 2008. After its most crushing defeat in more than 80 years, perhaps it's time for Labour to ignore the conventionally wise and take a risk - on David Shearer.

IT HAS TO BE DAVID SHEARER. A week from today, the 34 members of Labour’s caucus must reject the known quantity that is David Cunliffe and take a risk on the new and untested Mr Shearer. Why? Because “known quantities” are not what New Zealand needs.

Labour is a “known quantity”: a known quantity which three out of every four New Zealand voters decisively rejected on 26 November. Choosing the smooth-talking Fulbright scholar over the rough-hewn UN trouble-shooter would be spitting in the face of that electoral judgement. It would be an admission that Labour is only interested in returning, as quickly as possible, to the politics of business-as-usual.

But, business-as-usual is National’s game. Labour cannot beat John Key by playing on his field and according to his rules. The party needs a new set of rules and a new field.

But, before laying-out that field, a great many entrenched interests must be cleared away. In five years’ time, Labour, New Zealand’s oldest political party, will celebrate its centenary. In 95 years, a vessel’s hull acquires many barnacles. It’s long past the time that the good ship Labour was hauled up on to the hard and had its bottom scraped.

“[T]he Labour Party has just become too focused on process”, Mr Shearer told The Nation’s Sean Plunket on 3 December. “We end up going to meetings where we talk about process, and it hasn’t become a contest of ideas, of really open ideas, and therefore it’s become boring, and people join political parties because they want to have this contest, they want to argue stuff together and they want to see good stuff moving forward, and I think we’ve lost that, and I think we’ve lost some of our good thinkers.”

Re-constructing the Labour Party, so that it may once again become a forum in which ideas can be openly argued and contested, would be a genuinely radical political act. It would mean stripping-out the numerous “Sector Groups” from Labour’s Constitution, and moving the central policy debates out of the MP-dominated Policy Committees and returning them to the floor of the party’s annual conference. Allowing the votes of Labour’s rank-and-file delegates to once again set the party’s course.

That would be risky. The speeches of ordinary rank-and-file delegates have the potential to severely embarrass the party hierarchy. “Unenlightened” delegates might advocate policies that offend the socially liberal sensibilities of the infamous “Bowen Triangle”. The news media would undoubtedly zero-in on dissenters and single-issue zealots, and the whole edifice of “professional” media management (or should that be manipulation) might come crashing down. But, at least the policy that emerged from the “really open contest of ideas” that David Shearer is seeking would be recognisably “popular” – in the sense of arising from the people – and would attract many more votes than the endlessly refined products of the policy elites.

Liberating Labour from the tutelage of its interest groups would also mean doing away with the present system of trade union affiliation. A new form of affiliation: providing for like-minded organisations to send observers to party gatherings, and allowing them to contribute to – but not vote – in its debates and elections, should be introduced.

Trade unions wishing to move beyond advocacy to full-scale deliberation should encourage their members to take out ordinary party membership. The image of union affiliation which I still retain from my years in the Labour Party is of a single union secretary collecting all of the ballot papers allocated to his affiliated union, filling them in himself, and stuffing every single one into the ballot-box on behalf of a candidate his members had never been given the opportunity to either endorse or reject.

It’s that sort of behaviour which has persuaded so many rank-and-filers to give up in disgust. And, as ordinary membership of the party has dwindled, the power of the affiliated unions has grown, until the point was reached where the abomination that was the 2011 Labour Party List became inevitable.

If the 2011 election result hasn’t convinced Labour’s caucus that these sort of root-and-branch reforms of the party are urgent and essential, then I strongly suspect David Cunliffe will be the next leader; and that, in eighteen months’ time, we’ll end up going through the same exercise all over again – with a new set of contenders.

“I’ve got a bit of freedom to talk to you frankly,” David Shearer told the Tertiary Education Conference on 28 November, “because [the election result] was a message for me and for my colleagues in Labour that we need to change. We didn’t emerge as the party voicing the dreams and aspirations of New Zealanders.”

In David Shearer Labour has already found its Kevin Costner. If the caucus will only let him build Kiwi voters a new “field of dreams” – they will come.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 6 December 2011.


Anonymous said...

This is very interesting, but as an objective observer I still can't see why going for an unknown player is the wiser move. Or, rather, what is so bad about Cunliffe that makes a move to an inexperienced MP in a safe seat the valid option. This was tried with Lange and look what happened; and Lange was articulate, good on TV, witty, while Shearer obviously isn't.

It's been a long time since I went to a political party meeting, but I recall they were mostly about process. Quoting Shearer about party members wanting to argue about stuff, besides being somewhat vague, is a bit naive. If there are issues about union involvement are we sure that Shearer is the great reformer. Cunliffe is not exactly a union man either.

The real issue that I see here is that being able to perform in Parliament, and having a grasp of critical economic issues, are the two essential things for a leader to have. It is actually too early to know if Shearer is up to either, and we know Cunliffe is more able. But don't listen to me, refer to Bryan Gould's comments about the pendulum of major party politics. Most of all, stop playing the media game of annointing someone, who will only be torn down by them when they feel like it based on polling.

Olwyn said...

As I have said before on The Standard, I would not be deeply disappointed if either Shearer or Cunliffe led the Labour Party, provided neither's talents were shoved into the background in the wake of the selection, and the party was able to form a unified force behind them.

However, I have changed from tentatively favouring Shearer because of his popular appeal, to favouring Cunliffe because Cunliffe has unequivocally declared a position. I do not agree with much that comes out of John Howard's mouth, but I agreed with him when he said that in politics you have to come from a principled position - you can negotiate or stretch a point from there, but without it you lack traction.

Furthermore, the third way has done its dash, and "centre" increasingly means, "I really am a nice guy, trust me on this. I care about your "hopes and aspirations" and will bear them in mind (to some extent) when I work out what to do later."

Shearer has yet to reveal a position, & that is my main problem with him. Suggestion leaves me suspicious rather than warm-of-heart - I am more able to trust a stated position, in relation to which the person in question can be called to account should they abandon it.

Victor said...

As I see it, Shearer's the guy talking about the need for ideas and Cunliffe's the guy talking about ideas.

Similarly, it's long seemed to me that the "smooth-talking Fulbright scholar" is rather more of a straight shooter than is normal in senior roles in New Zealand politics. That might even be one of his problems with his party.

As to the "rough-hewn UN trouble-shooter", I'm still waiting for something other than verbal fudge from him.

With Cunliffe, we'd know we were getting a Social Democrat and a neo-Keynesian. What, in overall policy terms, would we be getting from Shearer?

Another David Lange, with an admittedly more impressive CV?

Anonymous said...

The UN doesn't do rough hewn.

Its an organisation of technocrats and only goes for problem solving within very clear bureaucratic guidelines.

Shearer may be the person to break the mould and set Labour on a new course but its not something he would have learned how to do working for the UN.

Jeremy Bowen said...

It is interesting to note that one big negative event at the polling booth makes it imperative for deep soul searching. These things happen, you either pick yourself up, dust yourself off and push on with new life in mind or you think, "I'm not up to this any more, I either have to retire or change to win". The last option is negative and depressive, it leads to further similar attitudes if it is chosen. Character means picking yourself up from defeat, reforming and getting on with it quickly. There's no big game, only simplicity and the new leader needs to grab that.

Anonymous said...

You seem to suggest that Shearer represents change, especially wrt Union voting rights in the party. When I read the transcripts from interviews it seems to me that both candidates are evasive on this question. Cunliffe talks about a clean-out (presumably only of the front benches?) and Shearer talks about a change of attitude that he can't seem to articulate further. Who has the real power to change the constitution? Presumably the exec and the voters at conference, who are surely the least likely to support structural change?

Galeandra said...

If I'm about to rejoin Labour, I want a leader who's tough, smart and able to tolerate being unpopular.

Unlike a lot of others, I think the electorate failed NZ at the last election, and Labour compounded that by trying to pander to them,even seeming to try to buy votes yet again.

The thought of self-restraint or settling for less is foreign to many of those who're doing ok, thankyou, and self-interest means that mockery is frequently the response to anyone concerned about social equity, OWS, climate, mining & pollution issues.

Suddenly, post-election the Herald et al have begun to critique National's lack of policy and peformance, and the shallow mandate for their mooted charter schools etc, but where was the depth of analysis before the election? Obviously the average NZer wasn't interested.

We need a tough, smart party to wake us up.The international debt crisis has already compromised two indebted European democracies with bankster-friendly puppet-governments, and at the rate the present lot are borrowing we might live to see the same thing here.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

The last contest of ideas Labour had resulted in Rogernomics.

Victor said...


"The UN doesn't do rough hewn."


I don't recall Paul Holmes or any other members of the pro-National commentariat having many good words to say about the world body of recent decades.

So it's quite piquant to read their fulsome acclamations of a former UN functionary.

What should we expect next? Paul Henry lauding Ban Ki-moon?

All very peculiar.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to note that Brian Edwards is now saying the same sorts of things as The Sentinel. Surely they're right.

Anonymous said...

Please, God, let Shearer be the new Labour leader. I know you're a right-winger, God - you can do this.

Shearer is the lipstick-on-a-pig candidate,God. Favoured by the old tuskers. Even better,God, he comes from the most useless organisation in the world.

The icing on the cake, God, is that he couldn't debate the skin off a rice pudding.

Thank you, God. Amen.

Cactus Kate said...

When did Kevin Costner last star in a great movie Chris?

Chris Trotter said...

Hmmm, Cactus Kate, you have a point there.