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.