Tuesday 28 February 2012

Sitting Ducks?

Temporary Focus: Mr Shearer is a man who likes to get all his ducks in a row before he takes decisive action. He'd better hope that his ducks, when finally brought into line, turn out to be high-flyers. Because, should his long-awaited policy announcements prove to be ideological canards, the Labour Party has other leadership options.

DAVID SHEARER is the sort of man who likes to get all his ducks in a row before taking decisive action. Presumably, that’s what he’s doing now – lining them up. The trouble is, Labour’s ducks are cantankerous fowls. Persuading even one of them to stay put can be mightily time-consuming. And time is something Mr Shearer doesn’t have – at least not in great quantities.

Mr Shearer’s successful leadership bid was a naked assertion of the power Labour’s Caucus continues to wield over its own Party. Had the rank-and-file’s wishes been the deciding factor, there isn’t the slightest doubt that David Cunliffe would’ve been elected leader. But, Caucus reckoned it knew better and imposed its own choice on the party organisation.

Over-riding the will of one’s own party is always a very risky proposition, as many of Labour’s older MPs know only too well. Phil Goff, Annette King and Trevor Mallard were all members of the fourth Labour government, which began life in 1984 with a party numbering 85,000 members and came to an end six years later with a membership of less than 10,000. Confronted with a caucus that consistently over-ruled the wishes of its party organisation, the overwhelming majority of Labour members simply voted with their feet.

If the Old Guard who threw their weight behind Mr Shearer last December think they can get away with that sort of exercise a second time, then they should think again. Labour’s current membership sits somewhere between five and ten thousand. Attrition on the scale of 1984-1990 is not an option.

The task Labour’s Old Guard has set Mr Shearer is to prove to the party’s rank-and-file that he has more to offer than their beloved Mr Cunliffe. He can do this by letting the public opinion polls demonstrate the wisdom of the caucus’s choice. Or, by assuming the role of radical reformer within the Labour Party. If Mr Shearer were to place himself at the head of a strong internal movement for constitutional, organisational and policy “modernisation”, the rank-and-file would have good reason to reconsider their allegiances.

My suspicion, however, is that Mr Shearer has already opted for the first option. His knowledge of and affection for the Labour Party is weak, and his experience as a UN administrator suggests a preference for working behind the scenes with a small group of trusted advisers to get all his “ducks in a row”, and then moving swiftly and decisively to tick-off a series of agreed objectives.

Among Mr Shearer’s principal advisers are his Chief-of-Staff, Stuart Nash, and policy-consultant, John Pagani. Neither of these men have a great deal of patience for the Labour Party which Helen Clark fashioned over the fifteen years she spent at the top. On the contrary, they believe that by 2008 Ms Clark’s Labour Party had driven a fatally large number of former Labour supporters into the arms of its electoral rivals – including the National Party.

Team Shearer’s principal target – among these defectors – are the people who, forty years ago, would have been found working in New Zealand’s import substitution industries and swelling the (compulsorily assembled) ranks of her powerful trade unions. Forty years on, in 2012, such people are to be found swelling the ranks of independent contractors, small business owners and the self-employed. The sort of people which Mr Shearer, in a speech delivered to Grey Power last Friday, pictured “at the kitchen table filling in GST returns”.

Any successful pitch to these voters is almost certain to be couched in terms that are both economically and socially conservative. At risk are Labour’s current policy commitments to remove GST from fruit and vegetables, increase income taxes, and extend increased financial assistance to the unemployed, solo parents – and (more importantly) their children.

It’s a major gamble on the part of Mr Shearer and his advisers. Their bet, essentially, is that the sort of New Zealander who still votes is much more likely to back a “responsible” and “moderate” Labour Party. If they’re right, then the polls will reflect the truth of their assumptions and Labour’s left-wing membership will be bludgeoned into silence by the irrefutable cudgels of success.

Perhaps this explains Mr Shearer’s reluctance to move too swiftly to establish his electoral credentials. If he can time his conquest of the polling heights to coincide with the anniversary of his election as Labour’s leader, and stay there for six months, then his rivals will have no option to abandon all thoughts of a leadership change until after the 2014 general election.

When it comes to deposing kings, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is right: “If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.

And Mr Shearer had better also be right. Because if his conservative ducks refuse to fly, then Labour’s radicals will serve them up on a platter – alongside Mr Shearer’s head.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 February 2012.


Anonymous said...

David’s silence is deafening. The only way Labour is going to survive the next 20 years is a radical overhaul that would make Machiavelli proud. If it fails, they are destined for the opposition for the next three terms. They need to purge out the deadwood, HC idolisers, the gay activists, the patronising social engineers, the looney tune eco-nuters and lastly the character assassins that play the man and not the ball (not much left really). Case in point - not one constructive comment from the Labour party on how they would get people off benefits costing 20 million a day, in the current debate over welfare reform – just the same old drivel of benefit bashing. Until they cast adrift, their time warp 1930’s image of New Zealand and Michael Savage carrying a couch into the first state house, but intsead focus on how to get my kids back from Australia growing their economy and not ours - they are Toast.

I suspect somehow, this is a bridge too far and the labour machinationists (aka Cuncliff etal) are already plotting his demise and planning a Coup d'├ętat; Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him". Quote (Act III, Scene II).

KjT said...

If Labour remains just a softened form of radical right wing Neo-Liberalism, which is wrongly identified as being centrist these days, they will sink into well deserved irrelevance.

Anonymous said...

" Labour leader David Shearer joined striking Ports of Auckland workers on the picket line yesterday to hear first-hand how they were being affected by the continuing dispute. "I wanted to chat to some of the guys and their families who are affected," he said."

That's the way.

Well said David.

Neither for nor against, just chatting.

He could so easily have stuffed up there.

Like, "I wanted to make it clear to the guys that the Labour party is on their side in this dispute. This is a class issue. The Port employers are totally in the wrong and we Labour people will neither forgive nor forget. With the best of our focus and with all our energy we will mobilize our members to help drive away the scabs and raise some serious dollars to beat back this capitalist attack, to secure the wharfies unionised jobs as one small step forward to the international socialisation of the means of production and exchange."

Well avoided there David. Your have faithfully preserved your party's traditions.

mel said...

f Labour remains just a softened form of radical right wing Neo-Liberalism, which is wrongly identified as being centrist these days, they will sink into well deserved irrelevance.

Yes indeed!!!!

cousin Brown said...

Anonymous has got the benefit thing wrong. The biggest chunk of beneficiaries is made up of pensioners who are living longer than ever, collecting the pension (which is not means-tested) for decades. I'm one, but I would vote for raising the start of super to 70 as I can reasonably hope to live into my eighties or nineties.
Who made it policy to raise the age of entitlement? Labour got it right on that and CG tax.

Olwyn said...

I have a few scattered thoughts about this post, which by the way is very good and to the point. Firstly, there is this tendency to disclaimers. According to Vernon Small recently, David Shearer is "not ideologically Labour" and I see one of these posts saying that he went to the picket line merely to "chat with some of the guys and the families that are affected." Key might present himself as a moderate, but he does not dissociate himself from National Party values, and it is unthinkable that he would visit the Chamber of Commerce, and claim that it was merely to chat with members and their families. Disclaimers do little to inspire confidence in whatever it is you are hoping to sell. If you are leading the Labour party it does not help to speak of it the way a teenager speaks of embarrassing parents.

There is also the question of image politics versus conviction politics. Do Labour's strategists intend for Labour to go out to bat for the people on contract, or merely appeal to their prejudices, real or imagined? Take Winston Peters for example: as Minister for racing he really did go out to bat for the racing industry, and did so effectively. Is Labour planning to do something similar for the group they are supposedly targeting?

If not then they need some new strategists. I nominate Victor, who often comments here, and is very good at conceptualising a centre-left position that incorporates small business, workers and beneficiaries without short-changing one on behalf of the other. In NZ those positions are often interchangeable anyway. Many people have at different times been all three.

However, I can't help but think that some of these people whom you call the "old guard" seem to now regard the Clark years as an aberration, and yearn for the Palmer-Moore years. It is too late for that guys - we have arrived at the end of the neo-liberal rainbow and there is nothing there.

Bill Bennett said...

"Mr Shearer’s successful leadership bid was a naked assertion of the power Labour’s Caucus continues to wield over its own Party."

I've been wondering about this lately. It feels like a by-product of the MMP system, what I can't figure out is whether Labour is this way because it understands the best way to operate under the MMP system, or because it doesn't.

For all its faults, the National Party seems more in synch with its grass roots.

guerilla surgeon said...

Did an undergraduate essay about 'New' Labour some years ago. It's just neo-liberalism with some tinkering at the margins. So yes they're going nowhere.