Friday, 30 August 2013

Irresistible Forces Meet Immovable Objects

Something's Gotta Give: Labour's leadership contest has become an exercise in political tectonics: the slow build-up and sudden release of massive and competing political energies.
 
NEW ZEALAND’s MAIN POLITICAL FAULT LINE doesn’t run between National and Labour, it separates the Nominal Left from the Real Left. Only very occasionally does this struggle within the Left produce a genuine rift between the major parties. Most of the time, and on most of the important issues, Government and Opposition maintain a bipartisan consensus. Were this not the case, it is doubtful whether our democratic institutions could survive the resulting earthquakes.
 
But even the strongest consensus will be weakened by events large enough to undermine the public’s faith in its core assumptions. The Great Depression, for example, or, more recently, the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), gave rise to widespread fears that the economic system, upon which we all depend, had been fatally compromised.
 
Inchoate and confused though they may be (just think of the “Tea Party” and “Occupy” movements in the USA) the popular demand that “something must be done” renders the consensus-based politics of more settled times untenable.
 
This is precisely what’s been happening in New Zealand since the onset of the GFC in 2008-09.
 
Between 1999–2008 the Labour-led Government of Helen Clark and her National Party Opposition were able to preserve a pretty broad consensus on the big economic and social issues. The market-led policies introduced by the Fourth Labour Government during the 1980s and entrenched by National in the 1990s remained firmly in place. Labour made no effort to restore Jenny Shipley’s swingeing benefit cuts.
 
Labour’s loss of the 2008 General Election and the departure of Helen Clark put an end to all that. Among the party’s rank-and-file and its trade union affiliates there was a growing clamour for Labour to acknowledge that the market-based policies of the past 25 years had failed and that it was time to return to the labour movement’s core principles for answers to the burgeoning economic and social crises of the Twenty-First Century’s second decade.
 
Within Labour’s caucus, however, there was a profound unwillingness to step outside the quarter-century consensus it had forged with National. So long as that consensus endured it was possible for Labour MPs to go on believing that modern politics, stripped of all its distracting rhetoric, was still mostly about the orderly rotation of political elites.
 
For politicians like Phil Goff and David Shearer, the job of a Labour leader was simply to assemble a credible alternative government: a group of competent, professional politicians ready to take over the efficient running of the country when the incumbents, exhausted by the demands of office, were no longer able to muster the required level of electoral support.
 
Theirs was a purely nominal leftism: rhetorical, formulaic and reliant on a faded symbolism which very few professional Labour politicians any longer took seriously. Like Helen Clark before them, Messer’s Goff and Shearer and their nominal leftist colleagues were alarmed by the party’s insistence on infusing Labour’s message with genuine left-wing ideas. The last time the party had done that was under the leadership of Norman Kirk – and that had not ended well.
 
People often wonder why David Cunliffe is so disliked by so many of his colleagues. The answer lies in Mr Cunliffe’s realisation that the GFC and its aftermath requires a comprehensive rethink of Labour’s entire approach to contemporary politics.
 
It’s a position that obliges Labour MPs to become genuine leftists. It’s why Mr Cunliffe’s colleagues have gone to such lengths to prevent him becoming the Leader of the Labour Party. It also explains the rank-and-file’s steely determination to change the rules governing the Leader’s election.
 
Labour’s “primary” election is, therefore, much more than a contest between three Labour MPs for leadership of the party. This is political tectonics: the slow build-up and sudden release of massive and competing political energies. Either Mr Cunliffe and the irresistible forces of Labour’s Real Left will be lifted up to victory and radical change. Or, he and his followers will be driven down deep by the Nominal Left’s immovable objects.
 
This essay was originally published  in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 30 August 2013.

29 comments:

Stuart Mathieson said...

Just read this in ODT. Absolutely spot on. Others have called this the betrayal of the left. But the solution is not a return to Albanian politics. That prompted the Douglas excesses in the first place. National had no choice but to go further. That was the genius of capturing Labour and of course once you sell out to Babylon that's it.

David said...

The other issue, of course, even though the majority of New Zealanders want to ignore it, is manmade climate change. Those who recognise just how serious a threat this is, know they have no choice but to vote for the party that takes it seriously, which, of course, is the Greens. Unless the Labour Party genuinely starts to take this seriously, it will continue to bleed liberal voters to the Greens. Once these voters do change their allegiance, they will not return to Labour until they are 100 percent certain they are genuine, which may take a number of years.

charles kinbote said...

Although top contender for Leader of Labour, Cunliffe could probably be called a divisive character.
From Mr Trotters article where he ascribes Cunliffe's words on the Hawke Bay health board as ‘ swashbuckling eloquence’ .. Cunliffe described the health board as “ a nasty little nest of self perpetuating provincial elites.” Not really eloquent, just thoroughly nasty, arrogant and pompous.
Yes this is the man,many people
don’t like him at all, but the fact is that the elections in New Lynn saw him with good leads over Tim Grosser [ Nat] even when the party vote was running with National
I see him as Julia Gillard in drag. He may drag back votes from green, but that changes nothing. I doubt he can take votes from Nat. Possibly some votes from NZ First. People vote positively for John Key and the Nats. Those positive votes will not go across to Cunliffe against Key he may appear the know all evangelist.
If Labour do make in roads to Nat , it could be worth placing any $NZ currency you have into Canada. A Green coalition will see a 5% or more devaluation in NZ currency

David said...

Stuart
We don't need "Albanian politics" to take collective responsibility for the poorest and least fortunate in our society - rather than beat up on them as the present government seems to enjoy doing. Adequate welfare provision, properly funded education and health systems and progressive taxation ... this is not Stalinism, this is what we used to - and still should - know as social democracy.

If the Labour Party does not reclaim its social democratic heritage soon, they will wake to find the Greens have run off with it.

Jigsaw said...

An electorate vote of enough size to put such a government in place simply does not exist in New Zealand any more. While socialists of a comfortable middle class background may yearn for such a government, there are simply not enough ordinary voters to elect it.
Cunliffe if elected leader of Labour will soon trip over his massive ego. It will be a train wreck waiting to happen.

thor42 said...

"... the market-based policies of the past 25 years had failed..."

Really?

Is not the National government following "market-based policies"?

Hasn't New Zealand's economy weathered the last five years better than *any other economy* in the world?

I'm sure that your answers will be "yes' and "no". In that case, I would like you to point to a country that has weathered the last 5 years better than we have.

I am betting that you will say "Australia", forgetting that they are on a sharp downward slope and that they have (cough) a *Labour* government - at least for the next few days until the Coalition gets in and has to repair the massive damage that Labour has done.

Chris Trotter said...

To: David.

Google David Cunliffe's "The Dolphin and the Dole Queue" speech.

The Greens may not have to wait all that long after all ;-)

To: Thor42.

Weren't you watching "Mind the Gap" last night on TV3?

Anonymous said...

I get sick of all this free trade/market bullshit talk. Arguably, the best performing economies in the 20th and into the 21st century have been the Japanese, the German, and the Chinese. The Japanese worked very, very hard, and generally ripped off the small businessman. The Germans are pure efficiency, and yet seem to be able to give their trade unions a fair go, as Walmart found out. Chinese – well as Chou En- Lai is supposed to have said – 'too early to say'. But what you can say about ALL of these countries is that they have not had a bar of free trade. Neither has the USA. They are all fiercely protectionist. It's economic regulation, works in practice, but the right don't like it because it doesn't work in theory :-).

Olwyn said...

The main reason I want David Cunliffe to lead Labour is this: he is less likely than any of the others to ask the "market's" permission before drawing a breath. I watched "Mind the Gap" last night, and came away from it with the thought that nothing can change so long as permission is needed from people who presently enjoy almost complete license.

This is not to say that you can blithely ignore the "market" - instead a successful leader must create space to negotiate with it on their own terms if they are to have any show of making more than a cosmetic difference. I was delighted, for instance, when Cunliffe replied to a question on Maori TV about the casino deal, "We could regulate them."He did not, as Jones did, say that the deal would have to be kept. He did not, as Roberston did, say that they may well change it, but would have to pay them out. Which is to say, he did not reveal his cards and then say, "But please, please, let me take a trick, just a small one..."

I do not know if it is possible for him to be as left as many of us would like, or even if he wants to be, but he is capable of drawing a much-needed line in the sand.

Brendan said...

"So long as that consensus endured it was possible for Labour MPs to go on believing that modern politics, stripped of all its distracting rhetoric, was still mostly about the orderly rotation of political elites."

Hi Chris, it's difficult to avoid that cynical view, one that I share with you to a greater extent, albeit from the other side of the spectrim.

I suspect Cunliffe will win the race for Labour leadership. I hope he is able to recast a new vision, one that is truly 'progressive' in the sense that it ceases to revisit the class wars of England past, and realizes that we are all part of 'project New Zealand' employer and employee alike.

Our future is based upon mutual interdependence, cooperation and productivity. Anything else will be divisive and destined to fail.

If Cunliffe can articulate that vision, then Labour may enjoy electoral success, anything else will see them decimated electorally by the Greens. I'd prefer that didn't happen.

Anonymous said...

Huh! It's only a 'class war' when the workers fight back.

RMJ1 said...

Thor has missed the real point. Hard to compare a 40% disparity in income to Aussie. Still real jobs here at award rates.....

The problem is all the NZers who are here have made the situation in NZ look good by fleeing here. Problemo el Capitain - no social security rights at all for most , so as age wearies them they have no choice but to go eastward to retire. I should know, its on the cards for me.

Another 200,000 pensioners coming to a WINZ near you.

Not supposition but fact.

Anonymous said...

Chris, your tectonic plate metaphor is far too dramatic. It's more of a localized mudslide.

Mick

Stuart Mathieson said...

I believe in collective responsibility but private enterprise can be made to serve the needs of the people as well.

Stuart Mathieson said...

All for collective responsibility but private enterprise can be made to work for the general welfare too. The trick is finding the right balance and that may have to shift from time to time.
The goal is to pretty much eliminate econo
Ic uncertainty and diversify diversify diversify. The only monopolies should be state monopolies but they need to be challenged in various ways. Falty Towers wouldn't last long if the "Manuels" outnumbered the customers.

Sanctuary said...

@" charles kinbote
...Cunliffe described the health board as “ a nasty little nest of self perpetuating provincial elites.” Not really eloquent, just thoroughly nasty, arrogant and pompous..."

Dude, you don't what you are talking about. Unlike you, I am from Hawkes Bay - as in, old school Hawkes Bay. Cunliffe's description of the DHB, and Mr. Trotter's description of the reaction ("...The Hawkes Bay “county” set were incoherent with rage. No one could remember when anyone, let alone some grubby little Labour Party oik, had spoken to them in such insulting language...") is perfectly accurate, and a handy moniker of what that entire province has turned into since it's economy was gutted by Rogernomics and collapsed into an insular, semi-feudal semi-third world.

I have a pet theory that holds that future generations will see 1973 as the most important year in NZ History since 1840. In our first display of independent foreign policy to displayour emerging narrative of who we are, we boldly sent two frigates to oppose French nuclear testing. The British shattered our illusions by joining the EU, causing a profound re-assessment of our place in the world. The first oil shock shattered our economic complacency.The last great expansion of the Welfare state was underway - ACC was being set up, and the DPB was introduced. The free flow of people between NZ and Aussie was established. The Springbok tour was cancelled. Waitangi day was made a national holiday. The reason why I recount this is that period, ending with the great culture vlash of the Springbok tour - 1973-81 - is when David Cunliffe became a man. Anyone born five years either side of 1963 would have had a profoundly different formative experience in NZ.

So to my thinking, Cunliffe's age is crucial to understanding the guy. At 49, he is amongst the first generation Xers. He is Old enough to remember New Zealand economy and society before Rogernomics, young enough to to not be afflicted by the socio-political blindness engendered by the complacent acceptance of New Zealand egalitarian myths than most of the baby boomers suffer from.

Anonymous said...

"Our future is based upon mutual interdependence, cooperation and productivity. Anything else will be divisive and destined to fail."

Christ Brendan, you certainly do have all the right words, it's a pity the right never lives up to them. I'm pretty sure the what you mean by mutual interdependence is nothing like what I mean by, for instance. It's sort of like the old saw "workplace flexibility" – which means basically that workers have to work as and when required without being guaranteed any hours or wages at all. Not the sort of situation upon which one wants to depend for bringing up a family in this green and pleasant land. If we are mutually interdependent, then workers deserve some sort of say in what goes on in the workplace, similar to the situation in Germany perhaps. And workers also deserve some form of security and stability in their lives. Enough of this dog whistle bullshit please.

jh said...

Re Dolphin and Dole Queue speech.

I hope we can recognize that over population in foreign countries isn't our fault and we don't have a duty to take in more and more people? Which side of the great divide does that statement put me?
Is the great divide decided by numbers or perception of value of position (God and the apostles on one side unwashed on other)?

don Franks said...


Here are two poems for David Cunliffe fans.

One written in 2010 by David himself and the other by me.

Politics With, Not For

By David Cunliffe

Politics For separates the politicians from the people.

It does not begin with those it seeks to serve.

It does not build trust, but breeds cynicism.

Politics With starts with being. Not doing, not telling.

It comes from the heart. The gut, not the head.

It is grounded in relationship

It is built through partnership.

It is about the We stuff, not the Me stuff.

About a fair chance for every Kiwi kid.

Whatever their situation or the size of their parents’ wallet.

It means working together for a better future for all of us.

Politics With is worth fighting for.

It is in our DNA.

And how we must be.
_______________________

Politics With – what?

By Don Franks

Politics With Рwith what, apart from ancient clich̩,

About the heart and gut?

What's that waffle to a wheezy pensioner in Upper Hutt?

What, really, is a fair chance for every Kiwi kid?

Attending school at Harvard like you did?

Why prattle on about the size of parents purses?

what can your system fill them with but tears and curses?

Your better future for all of us

has you safe in your limosine while others miss the bus

Pure spin is all that's in your DNA

don't waste our precious time with it

just go away.

Chris Trotter said...

Really, Don, you're better than that - much better.

Tired old lines from a tired old fight that rote revolutionaries like yourself lost long, long ago.

If you were willing, as you once were - through the medium of some of the most bitingly satirical songs ever penned in New Zealand - to bring verve and wit to the left-wing politics of today, that would be great.

But this sad, grey, left-wing Eeyore-ism achieves nothing.

Or, at least, nothing that 99 percent of the electorate is willing to vote for.

Anonymous said...

I've just listened to Matthew Hooton on national radio. He reckons that all this left-wing rhetoric is just that. Never thought I'd ever agree with anything he said :-).

Don Franks said...

Cheers Chris

and how do you rate David's poem?

Loz said...

Scantuary: I'm originally from Hawkes Bay as well - the exodus of an entire generation has left local government firmly entrenched with established families. However, the scandal surrounding Cunliffe's sacking of the elected Health Board (only 72 days into its term) can't be dismissed with the "nests of self-perpetuating elites” label (unless the label referred to the senior ranks within cabinet).

The Hawkes Bay DHB was a conflict between an elected board and senior management involving the Minister's husband and another ministerial appointee whose financial interests in gaining contracts from the organisation were the subject of whistle-blowing.

The saga was a disgraceful chapter in Labour's recent history and in my mind, a shameful episode of David Cunliffe's past.

It's worth re-reading what the scandal was actually all about...
Bill Ralston ,
Robyn Gwynn ,
David Fisher (NZ Herald) ,
David Farrar ,
Keeping Stock

Chris Trotter said...

To: Loz

As always, there are two sides to every story. The official inquiry's report tells the other.

To: Don Franks

Ummm. I think "not very good" would be an understatement ;-)

Anonymous said...

What would be welcome would be an article on how the new philosophy will work in practice.

I consider myself now bordering on the senior end of the workforce, starting in 1986. My memory stretches to pre-Rogernomics, and, although I know what it feels like to be a part of a national community, where the 'rising tide lifts all boats', it was as a child, and my memories of those times are of childish things. I'm lucky. A whole generation of voters only knew neoliberalism, even from birth.

As a worker/voter, I never experienced the detail of anything but neoliberalism. Most people younger than me would be the same. All we know is trickle-down-promises-that-never-happen, (sometimes) surviving endless games of corporate musical-chairs, and TINA.

I'm guessing that one of the strands of the new direction must be to help small businesses get bigger, then export (or offset imports). I can also see that our dollar is overvalued, but don't really know how we can truly fix that. That's about all I can imagine.

The new direction that Cunliffe & Robertson want to take us is certainly refreshingly fair and egalatarian to my mind, but I can understand why some people who never really experienced it before will be skeptical. There's been no detail, and that's currently making Cunliffe's & Robertson's pronouncements vulnerable to criticism from the establishment.

Also, while we make this new direction work for NZ, can we make it fit the context of a world that is slower to deviate from neoliberalism?

Chris, you are one of few well-placed to tell about these things. I hope you do.

Stuart Mathieson said...

I worry about this promise to "buy them out".
According to an article in Time or Newsweek, probably the latter about Xmas 75, thats part of the problem. Sell the community asset off cheap, strip it, buy the carcass back at inflated prices. This process effectively siphons public value into private pockets.

peter petterson said...

An interesting opinion. Time will tell! One thing we can be sure of is that one of the three amigos will be leader in a couple of weeks.

Jenny said...

Really, Don, you're better than that - much better. Tired old lines from a tired old fight that rote revolutionaries like yourself lost long, long ago. If you were willing, as you once were - through the medium of some of the most bitingly satirical songs ever penned in New Zealand - to bring verve and wit to the left-wing politics of today, that would be great.

But this sad, grey, left-wing Eeyore-ism achieves nothing.
Chris Trotter

Well put Chris.

Good rhyming Don, But I agree with Chris. Come on Don you can do better than this.

When in recent history have we had a mainstream politician who writes thoughtful political poems, questioning the political direction of this country?

Grant M said...

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Is Cunliffe the "canary in the coalmine” ?
–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

It looks like David Cunliffe will become the Labour Party’s next leader.

And, going by Cunliffe’s public statements over recent times, that outcome should represent at least some improvement over David Shearer’s right-wing mantras and political incoherence.

Here’s a couple of sound bites from Cunliffe:

"Sure, we will have to both protect dolphins and shorten dole queues,” said Cunliffe near the start of a speech in June 2012. "But actually, the nature of this crisis is far deeper and more fundamental than the standard environment-economy trade-off thinking might suppose. The coming crisis threatens more than just marine biodiversity. The species we are trying to save could be our own.”

And, two months earlier, Cunliffe had set the scene for a speech titled "Get your invisible hand off our assets!” with these words: "The major reason that voters didn’t vote for Labour, and sometimes didn’t vote at all, is simply that Labour failed to inspire voters that it was a credible alternative to National.” Here he defined Labour as "a left-wing party” which stood for "community ownership and/or control and/or responsibility”.

The reason why such sentiments earn Cunliffe the title of “radical” from the business media and other corporate propagandists is the abject surrender to capitalism by all Labour Party leaders from at least the time of Rogernomics.

It does seem as if Cunliffe has some appreciation that “business as usual” is unsustainable in the face of the systemic crises being ushered in by climate change, resource depletion and financial mayhem.

Maybe we should view Cunliffe as the "canary in the coalmine” as he warns of approaching dangers that will put an end to world capitalism as it has been.