A Changed Trajectory: The days of MPs lobbying only their colleagues for the votes needed to become Labour's leader are over. Now they must face Labour's wider membership and convince them that they have the right - or should that be the "left" - stuff to lead the party. (Photo: John Miller)
SOCRATES, THEY SAY, was condemned to death for “corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens”. The fate of Ancient Greece’s most famous philosopher stands as a warning to all teachers: think very carefully about the ideas you instil in the next generation. Socrates paid a high price for the selfish and cynical political leaders his former students grew into.
Do the teachers of Labour’s three leadership contenders deserve the fate of Socrates? Have they instilled in David Cunliffe, Grant Robertson and Shane Jones the sort of cynicism and sophistry that distinguished Socrates’ most infamous student, the silver-tongued but treacherous Alcibiades?
Not if their speeches are any guide. All three of Labour’s leadership contenders have courted their party’s membership with reaffirmations of its founding principles and promises to advance its policies significantly to the left of their current settings. (Although, Mr Jones’ campaign promises have been somewhat less comprehensive and emphatic than his rivals’.)
The cause of this sudden resurgence in left-wing rhetoric is undoubtedly Labour’s new system for electing its leader.
For the whole of the party’s history, right up until November 2012, the normal institutional trajectory of Labour’s MPs has taken them further and further away from the party membership. The party activist became a parliamentarian. The back-bench MP won promotion to the front-bench (or Cabinet). The “rising star”, backed by his or her caucus colleagues, became the party leader and then, if he or she was any good, Prime Minister.
Only at the very beginning of their careers were Labour politicians dependent on the support of the party’s rank-and-file. Once in Parliament the focus of their attentions shifted irreversibly to their caucus colleagues – and the wider electorate.
Satisfying this latter group often came at the expense of the rank-and-file’s fondest aspirations. Opinion polling and focus groups easily trumped the outpourings of Labour’s Policy Council – to the point where the parliamentary party largely gave up trying to lead public opinion and began, instead, to follow its every contradictory twist and turn.
Except, of course, in the case of the Fourth Labour Government. In implementing “Rogernomics”, Labour MPs committed themselves to neoliberal polices that were favoured by neither the Labour Party nor the wider electorate. When the party rank-and-file objected, the Rogernomes proudly proclaimed that they would rather be voted out of office than abandon their government’s economic course.
Those who could not accept this split from Labour to form the NewLabour Party and, eventually, the Alliance. The members who remained were obliged to cede more and more control over the party’s overall policy direction to the Leader’s Office and caucus. It rankled, but for the 15 years Helen Clark led the Labour Party there was very little the rank-and-file could do about it.
Following Clark’s departure, however, the pressure for a wholesale democratisation of the party grew steadily, until, at Labour’s 2012 annual conference, it became irresistible.
The changes to Labour’s rules have exactly reversed the institutional trajectory of its parliamentarians. To have any prospect of capturing the party leadership, the most ambitious members of caucus are now required to secure the support of not only their fellow MPs, but of the broader party membership. In practical terms, this requires them to demonstrate an ability to lead, and not simply follow, public opinion.
To lead, organise and mobilise public opinion is precisely the reason why political parties were formed in the first place. The organisation’s whole purpose is to persuade voters that their interests are best served by supporting its mix of policies.
In 2013, after nearly 40 years of marginalisation, Labour’s members are, once again, exercising real influence over their country's political future. The significance of the rule-change is best gauged by the fact that had it been in place in 1984 Rogernomics couldn’t have happened.
Or, maybe not.
The conventional wisdom of political scientists is that Messrs Cunliffe, Robertson and Jones are currently engaged in a purely rhetorical exercise. That the moment Labour’s new leader is installed, he and his caucus colleagues will immediately exchange the campaign trail’s radical leftism for a mealy-mouthed and unadventurous centrism. And that, should Labour win the election, it will be as much a government of big business, by big business, for big business, as National.
The Death Of Socrates: Ancient Greece's greatest philosopher was condemned by the people of Athens for denigrating their democratic institutions and inculcating sophistry and cynicism among the city's future leaders. Even today, there are political scientists who warn their students that Labour's democratised system should not be taken seriously. That the eventual winner, having campaigned from the left, will instantly manoeuvre to the centre and then govern from the right. Where's that hemlock!
Socrates was required to swallow poison for inculcating such cynicism in Athens’ future leaders. The corruption of hope being the only truly unforgiveable political crime.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 6 September 2013.