Number One Of Three: In David Cunliffe Labour now has a leader who is willing to be as radical as his party. Significantly, it is the third leg of the tripod - the Labour Caucus - which is visibly wobbling. The KiwiAssure policy is a worrying case in point. Radical in intent, radical in expression, but disappointingly conservative in execution.
LABOUR’S NEW “KIWIASSURE” policy neatly expresses the party’s current strengths and weaknesses.
At first blush it seems to represent a radical leftward lurch all the way back to the 1970s – as Economic Development Minister, Steven Joyce, gleefully pointed out. Upon closer examination, however, KiwiAssure, is considerably less than it seems.
Before being signed-off by the next Labour-led government, the proposed insurance company will have to pass what finance spokesperson, David Parker, calls a “business test”. Mr Parker also makes it clear that KiwiAssure will not come with a government guarantee.
Now, the average Labour supporter might well object: “What on earth is the point of a state-owned insurance company that will, in every respect that matters, be indistinguishable from its private sector competitors?”
Given the fate of AMI, that same voter might also ask what would motivate the ordinary Kiwi family to put its faith (not to mention its future financial security) in a state-owned insurer that not even its own creator is willing to stand behind?
Radical in its intent; radical in its expression; but deeply conservative in its execution: Kiwiassure is symbolic of a Labour Party whose three key components have yet to mesh together.
At the summit of the Labour Party stands its new leader and his hand-picked team of professional advisers. David Cunliffe has surrounded himself with men and women of considerable talent and experience. Not quite JFK’s Camelot, but certainly a reasonable approximation of Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing”.
Mr Cunliffe’s team, and the business people who have agreed to act as his sounding-boards, all display a rare willingness to embrace the radical visions of the “policy aggressor” Labour’s new leader is shaping-up to be.
This radical vision is answered overwhelmingly, and with undisguised enthusiasm, by the Labour Party’s rank-and-file branch members and trade union affiliates. Indeed these latter give Mr Joyce’s quip about the 1970s more than a little substance.
The eighth decade of the twentieth century represented the high-water mark of social-democracy in the post-war era. At the beginning of the 1970s, predictions of capitalism’s imminent demise did not seem at all exaggerated. By their end, social-democratic parties all around the world were in headlong retreat before the extraordinary force of the neoliberal counter-revolution.
As is so often the case with New Zealand, neoliberalism arrived here five years late and on the arm of the most unlikely of promoters. Sir Roger Douglas was also a policy aggressor, but unlike Mr Cunliffe, his aggression was informed by and implemented on behalf of the Right from a strategically pivotal position within a party of the Left.
That made Sir Roger and his followers the most dangerous cuckoos ever to take up residence in Labour’s nest, and it has taken the best part of 30 years to eradicate their legacy within the party organisation.
Observing the party closely since the departure of Helen Clark in 2008 has been a little like watching Rip Van Winkle rousing himself from twenty long years of slumber.
The radicalism which had built up such a head of steam in the Labour Party following the 1981 Springbok Tour, and which helped to generate the record 93.7 percent voter turnout at the 1984 snap election, was brought to a shuddering halt by Rogernomics.
But the civil wars of the 80s and 90s are over and the long reign of Queen Helen has ended. Radical political pressure in the rank-and-file’s boilers is again rising and David Cunliffe is ready to put it to good use.
Which leaves only the third component in Labour’s machine – the Caucus. At the conference just concluded a distressingly large number of Labour MPs put on a display of childish pique that bodes very ill for the party’s future.
This surly, sulking behaviour is driven by the fact that the caucus’s understanding of itself and its role has proved to be the most difficult legacy of Rogernomics to eradicate.
Before Rogernomics, Labour’s caucus arose almost organically from the party organisation: its values and the party’s values being both consistent and compatible. But the imposition of neoliberalism from within the framework of a left-wing political party radically recast the caucus’s role. Rogernomics required Labour MPs to overawe and repress the rank-and-file. Far too many Labour MPs still see their role as bringing the membership into line with their views.
And so we have KiwiAssure: a policy announced by a radical party leader; supported by a radical party membership; but whose final shape was dictated by the doubts and objections of a not at all radical Labour caucus. A caucus that still insists (albeit where neither its leader nor the party’s rank-and-file are listening in) that it knows best.
Meatloaf reckons that “two out of three ain’t bad”, but to win, all three of Labour’s moving parts must be in sync.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 5 November 2013.