Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Labour's Caucus Still In Charge

Caucus Takes Charge: Newly elected Prime Minister, David Lange, surrounded by his Cabinet, 1984. Paradoxically, electoral victory often signals defeat for a political party. When Caucus becomes Government the ability of the party organisation to hold its parliamentary representatives to account is fatally weakened.

DOES THE CASTLE STREET BRANCH of the Labour Party still exist? Back in the 80s it boasted over 400 paid-up members – many of them academic staff from the University of Otago. The British political scientist, author and broadcaster, Austin Mitchell, had founded the branch in the early 1960s. Like its counterpart at the University of Auckland, the much more famous Princes Street branch, Castle Street saw its role as trailblazing progressive (sometimes radical) policy suggestions well ahead of public opinion: Labour’s future manifestoes.
 
Back then progressive/radical reform was synonymous with social reform: liberalising the laws forbidding abortion and homosexuality; cutting off contact with Apartheid South Africa, declaring New Zealand nuclear-free and even decriminalising cannabis. Given the makeup of the branch’s activist base, discussion of these issues tended to focus not on whether such changes should be made, but how far they should go.
 
Then came Rogernomics – and consensus went out the window. A narrow majority of the active branch members opposed Roger Douglas’s neoliberal reforms, while a determined and well-connected minority supported them staunchly. The discussions ceased and the debates that replaced them were bitter and hard fought affairs. And while the left may have had the numbers in Castle Street and the wider party, in the only institution that truly mattered, Labour’s parliamentary caucus, Roger Douglas and his allies continued to hold sway.
 
Just how absolutely Labour’s future lay in the hands of its MPs was driven home to me the night David Butcher put in a guest appearance at the Castle Street Branch. Naturally, the left-wing members of the branch were giving the MP for Hastings a very hard time. Most of all they wanted to know whether he and his colleagues would abide by the party’s firm stance against the privatisation of state assets.
 
Butcher’s response chilled me to my bones. The Government, he said, was implementing the policies the country needed. He would rather lose his seat than support policies detrimental to New Zealand’s interests.
 
I knew then that, as a genuine social-democratic party, Labour was finished.
 
The only political leverage that the ordinary members of any party have over their MPs is the threat of deselection. But here, in front of us, David Butcher was affirming proudly his readiness to lose his parliamentary seat rather than reverse Roger Douglas’s reforms. We all knew then that Rogernomics was set to roll on – no matter what the party said or did.
 
We also knew that division within Labour’s ranks meant certain defeat. Defeat, in turn, meant National. And by the late 1980s National was as committed to pushing ahead with neoliberalism as Roger Douglas and David Butcher. For the Labour Left it was a Lose/Lose scenario. For the Rogernomes, however, it was Lose/Win. While they might fall as loyal soldiers in the battle, Neoliberalism itself would triumph.
 
What has all this, the minutiae of branch life in the Labour Party of 25 years ago, got to do with the political dynamics of 2014?
 
As it turns out, quite a lot.
 
Like the Castle Street Branch of the 1980s, the Labour Party of 2014 boasts a narrow left-wing majority. That majority, after changing the party rules, elected David Cunliffe as its leader and is in the process of constructing a binding policy platform for the next Labour Government. At first glance, then, the lessons of the 1980s appear to have been learned.
 
All but one – and that the most important of them all. Majorities mean nothing outside the only Labour Party institution that truly matters: the parliamentary caucus. If you cannot control the caucus, then you simply cannot reassure the party that its best efforts will not be rendered worthless through the calculated insubordination of a clique of rebellious caucus members.
 
This is especially problematic when these insubordinate rebels (most of whom are securely ensconced in safe Labour seats) believe it will be easier for like-minded politicians to protect “the policies this country needs” if David Cunliffe and all that he represents loses the forthcoming general election.
 
Butcher’s gambit is as powerful today as it was 25 years ago.
 
What are Cunliffe’s options? Obviously the option of splitting the Labour Party and forming “NewLabour” – the Labour Left’s choice in 1989 – is not available to the party leader. Which leaves the other option put forward by Matt McCarten back in 1988.
 
“It seems obvious to me now that the right-wing MPs have put their hands up and threatened the party”, Matt told Labour’s president, Rex Jones. “So we should call a special conference of the party and expel them … The Labour Party made a mistake selecting these people so sack them. Throw them out and let them stand against us. They’ll lose and the Labour Party can rebuild itself.”
 
 “You mad little fucker!” Rex replied.
 
Maybe. Maybe not.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 June 2014.

30 comments:

Martin English said...

The Government, he said, was implementing the policies the country needed. He would rather lose his seat than support policies detrimental to New Zealand’s interests.

Chris,
This is the sort of politician that the country needs. Of course, it only works if they believe in it.

On the other hand, you seem to believe that adherence to an ideology is more important than the good of the country (and by extension the people of that country). This, btw, is not a failing ourely of the "left", nor is it a purely New Zealand failing.

TL;DR; politicians are elected t serve the country not an ideology.

hth

Chris Trotter said...

Martin English's comment serves as a marvellous illustration of the sort of person who genuinely believes it is possible to separate "ideology" from a statement like "policies the country needed".

New Zealanders are constantly placing themselves and their society in danger by failing to adequately identify the ideological motivations of their political leaders.

To say that a politician like David Butcher acted without the benefit of strong ideological convictions is simply ridiculous.

And as for people who throw around the TLDR (Too Long Didn't Read) abbreviation; all I can say is that Bowalley Road is probably not the sort of blog they should be reading.

The postings on this site are primarily intended for people with an attention span longer than a gnat's. (Nat's?)

RedLogix said...

I do enjoy these short essays Chris, especially when you remind us of where we came from and why. History does not so much as go round in neat tidy circles but meander in big wobbly spirals. There are patterns that repeat, because the root causes remain the same.

Labour has not been able to grasp the root of this matter, capture of the party by the 'connected and powerful'. In this respect the Greens are a good deal better organised.

Which is why the establishment fears and mocks them so.

Anonymous said...

The account of David Butcher’s visit to the Castle Street branch struck many chords.
Butcher was one of the Rogernomic right’s useful idiots, and in declaring his indifference to the electoral consequences of the government’s policy he was only echoing the public statements of Douglas himself. Douglas frequently dismissed party concerns as damaging to the greater public interest. He said he intended to pursue that interest, whatever the personal cost.
In this as in much else the Rogernomes were hypocrites. Far from thinking that the shift to the right cost them electorally, they believed it brought them victory. They claimed that Lange won the 1984 election but Douglas won in 1987. Douglas seems genuinely to have believed that Lange’s dumping of the flat tax cost Labour the 1990 election.
It is here, rather than in mass sackings, that the key to caucus management lies. Nothing unites a caucus like the prospect of victory. Any number of dead rats will be swallowed at the thought of jobs in the cabinet. Very few of the members are true ideologues.
Cunliffe had an opportunity when he became the leader to inspire the caucus and convince them that he could take them to victory by making a Labour-led left a credible alternative to the National government. He hasn’t done it. His caucus colleagues dislike him as much as they ever did. It may be that he is inherently uninspiring and dislikeable. It certainly won’t be ingrained distaste for his philosophy that keeps his colleagues turned against him.

Alistair Young said...

Although I am convinced IMP will achieve nothing at the coming election, I'm bloody glad they've arrived - its really invigorated Bowalley road - in a way not seen since the 'great mirage' Cunliffe's ascension into leadership. His cynical move right (or maybe he was pushed by the unctuous neoliberals in the labour caucus) deflated you Chris - good to see Hone/Laila and John have put some puff into your sails again, only 100 odd days to go to determine if its all another mirage for the long neglected and ignored leftwing - or perhaps a glorious counter revolution against the neoliberal oligarchs - we shall have to wait and see.

Brendan McNeill said...

Chris your comments about expelling the despised ‘right wing’ members of the Labour party reminded me of a quote attributed to Bertolt Brecht, the German Marxist and dramatist. Apparently the very left wing Government of the day put out a communication proclaiming:

“The people had lost the government's confidence
and could only regain it with redoubled effort."

To which he replied:

"If that is the case, would it not be be simpler,
If the government simply dissolved the people
And elected another?”

Guerilla Surgeon said...

The problem is of course that Douglas & Co probably believed that they were acting for the good of the country. I say probably because I despise them SO much that I find it difficult to the tribute any positive qualities to them – if this be one :-). The sheer dogmatism of the whole thing was and is amazing, because Douglas still believes that the only thing wrong with it was we didn't go far enough, in spite of the fact that it's pretty much agreed now that he managed to ruin the economy. The extreme right, bankrupt philosophy has now been pretty conclusively shown to be irrevocably flawed. But even if his face is rubbed in it, Douglas will not admit it's shit.
And you've got to admire them for the fact that they managed a huge feet of social engineering, by ensuring that only one side of the story was heard, that the top echelons of government departments were stocked with like-minded people, and by being the Labour Party – so that made it all right then :-). It still goes on because New Zealand is run by a clique – as shown by Bruce Jesson - even the Labour Party as part of this. I confess I think we're all fucked. (Interesting letter in the latest Listener about access to MPs by business as opposed to ordinary people.)

Anonymous said...

Muldoon's early election in 84 prevented me from having my first vote that year where I would certainly have voted Labour. If I had that would have been the one vote in my life I would have regretted. With hindsight I would have voted for the appalling Muldoon as the lesser of the 2 evils (while wishing he'd never been born, if that's allowable).

I think a poll of 1984 voters to see whether they would have done the same would be interesting. Unlike many of todsy's voters they were often interested in politics at the time and these 30 years give them a real perspective making this meaningful research if their reasons for sticking or changing are collected. I expect it is a job for that great statistical analyst of NZ elections at Vic Uni.

Anonymous said...

So..... its the day after Labour wins the govt benches in 1984....please, someone must have an alternative plan worked out by now as to what policies Lange and co could have put in place to extract us from the Polish shipyard economy of the day called NZ Muldoon Inc.....hindsight is wonderful but as yet no credible workable plan ever put forward. Selling assets was an obvious mistake however floating the exchange and passing the reserve bank act to control inflation at that time was totally credible action even by a Labour govt.

Anonymous said...

Jonathan Boston, but he appears to have left Vic.

jh said...

Butcher’s response chilled me to my bones. The Government, he said, was implementing the policies the country needed. He would rather lose his seat than support policies detrimental to New Zealand’s interests.

I knew then that, as a genuine social-democratic party, Labour was finished.
---------------
Yes I see Jan Logie (for the Greens) is head down and ignoring all the evidence on immigration "Let me say clearly now: the housing crisis is not the fault of recent migrants; the unemployment rate is not the fault of recent migrants; and asylum seekers are not a threat to us."
"Migrants contribute a massive amount economically to this country."
...
Progressives of the internationalist tradition aren't swayed by evidence that migration isn't good for their constituents; they brush it aside with a higher purpose in mind. The end justifies the means. We know best.

jh said...

What would the author of The Half Gallon Quarter Acre Pavlova Paradise say about the decision to open the borders to mass migration and rub the racist New Zealander's noses in diversity?

Scouser said...

The age old quandry. Does a party represent the members or the people who vote for it (or prior to an election) who they want to vote for it or the people of New Zealand?

The members who put in all the effort to ensure there is a party have real issues when their MPs don't do what they put them there for. From their perspective it is their party.

But let's be blunt these tend to be the great believers who are more likely to hold views, which if fulfilled would lead such parties into minority oblivion. There is a reason that strongly right or left wing parties don't gain significant share of the vote.

There is a reason neither National or Labour MPs do all what their members want and, despite my less than favourable views on the honesty of politicians, most do try to think of all the people they represent not least out of self-interest. They may be wrong but .....

Anonymous said...

I think that Douglas, Lange and company thought that what they were doing was simply economically orthodox. And at the time it probably was, inasmuch as Keynesianism seemed to have foundered on the rocks of the inflation generated by the oil shocks. It was thought that if the economy was to generate sufficient income for the support of the social welfare state a return to more classical forms of economics was necessary.

Interestingly, many commentators at the time opined that they went about things the wrong way, and that they should have reformed the labour market first, before they set about reforming anything else. And, if one were to take a Macchiavellian view, one might conclude that they may have been right. Muldoon had wrestled unsuccessfully with inflation, Douglas had failed to control it, and it wasn't defeated until National introduced unpalatable labour market reforms in the early nineties. Who knows where the country might have been if Labour had made such reforms at the outset.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anonymous@18:21

Actually, there was an alternative economic package to Rogernomics.

The so-called "Hercus-Harris Papers" represented the road not travelled by Labour in the 1980s.

For further details check out Chapter 10 of my book "No Left Turn".

manfred said...

Great article Chris. Just a question: don't you think it would be easier to deselect the ABC's if Labour loses the election?

I think Cunliffe will stay on after the election in the event of such a scenario. He's the best leadership talent the party has for the moment.

It's just hard for him to shine, as he did during the leadership struggle, while he is being knifed in the back.

Anonymous said...

We are strung out half way between Sweden and America, as taut as can be, and all the impetus of 30 years towards America. The 51st state, somewhere below Arkansas. Come on now pedanticists, detailists, which do you prefer of the two? Without pedantry.

Anonymous said...

Oh Douglas certainly thought he was doing the right thing; he even thought he was helping people (unlike Ruth Richardson, who was a bona fide sadist). He was (and is) quite mad.

Unfortunately, what you end up with in dealing with the likes of David Butcher is a sort of political Jonestown: threats of deselection (i.e. death) no longer matter once you've drunk the Kool Aid. It's downright terrifying to ordinary party members.

Anchovy said...

Oh, this is just such nonsense.

The fantasy that Cunliffe was the left's candidate won't die.

-"That [narrow] majority, after changing the party rules" - the democratisation reforms had overwhelming support, and were strongly supported by Shearer. There was no "narrow" majority involved.
- "elected David Cunliffe as its leader" - no, many on the Left of the Party voted for Grant, especially in Wellington where they know him better. Many on the Right voted for DC because they thought DC was really pretty Third-Way and was just tacking left to get votes. DC's team constructed a pretty good myth about the election being Right vs Left, but it was nonsense.
- "and is in the process of constructing a binding policy platform for the next Labour Government" - this is happening by many people, and certainly not just those that support DC.

It's simply not the case that DC was supported by the Left in caucus either. It's more true to say he was supported by those that were disaffected.

Chris Trotter said...

Is it really, Anchovy?

And you would know this - how?

If you have inside knowledge then I think you owe it to Bowalley Road's readers to come out from behind your pseudonym and let them test your credibility against those whose version of events you dismiss as nonsensical.

Grant is not a left-winger. Never has been and never will be. He is a social-liberal with entirely orthodox economic views.

And to read that the "democratisation reforms had overwhelming support" is simply astounding. Anyone who was at the Ellerslie Conference and witnessed the hysterical opposition of the ABCs and their hangers-on can only reject outright such bland misrepresentations of reality.

I am also intrigued to know how you know the voting patterns of NZLP members. Did you keep a list for future referencing?

Very few in Labour's caucus voted for Cunliffe - around a third on the first preferences.

So, really, Anchovy, your comment reeks of the lofty arrogance of the Wellington Beltway. Those who believe they represent the "best and the brightest" of the NZLP, but who, at the level of practical politics, constitute the greatest obstacle to both its ideological progress and electoral success.

Anchovy said...

Grant is left-wing. He is a social-liberal with left wing economic views, and the nous to express them in a way that is attractive. He's been consistent and has credibility because of that. He represents the "true" left of the party - rather than a transparently contrived and most likely transient form.

I was at the Ellerslie Conference Chris. The reforms as recommended by NZ Council, including the democratic election of the leader, went through *unanimously*. The debate you are referring to was about the threshold at which the caucus can kick out the leader (who has been elected by the Party) after an Election. That one might come back to bite you lot :). In any event, it was a dramatic debate because it was seen as an attempt to destabilize the Party and DS (which it transparently was) - not because of the fundamental issues involved. The democratisation project was strongly supported.

I talked to many hundreds of NZLP members about their votes. Some I know voted for DC because they thought he was the third-way candidate. Many voted for him because they thought he sounded "economically literate" and that was an important thing to them. Many people also voted for Grant and DC because they thought their candidate was the most left-wing. A lot of votes came down to regional politics,and who people knew.

It's complicated - but it is certainly not true to say DC was elected by a "narrow left-wing majority".

"Very few in Labour's caucus voted for DC" - well that's true. And the one's that did are not the "left", they are the "disaffected".

Anyway, we need to be pretty focused on winning the election I think. Which is what I am going to turn my attention to.

Will remain pseudonymous for now I think, which will spare me some grief.

Michael Herman said...

Mmm... those opinions from Anchovy, just one word for them: fishy. (PS: If it's true that on the internet nobody knows you're a dog then Anchovy most certainly is a dogfish.)

Chris Trotter said...

Very "fishy" indeed, Michael!

Sounds like we've "caught" one of the scrutineers!

So, yes, "Anchovy", I think it would be wise to depart about now.

"Vee haff vays off identifying ze likes off you!"

But, hey, thanks for the wonderful insight into the thinking of the Robertson camp. (Not to mention the confirmation that post-election the ABCs will be hard at work again!)

Anchovy said...

Actually, I am not ABC or in Robertson's camp. I just don't like nonsense, and wanted to call you out on it. I am sorry if I misled you into thinking I knew something about what the ABCs will be doing after the election.

Will move on now.


manfred said...

Chris, can you please answer my question?

I would imagine the LP membership would stand a better chance at removing the ABC's if Labour LOSES the election.

Why do you not agree with this (if it doesn't include confidential information)?

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anchovy

Nice try, Anchovy. Toodle-pip.

Hint: If you want to "call out" those you accuse of spouting nonsense it's best to do so in your own name.

To: Manfred

Superficially, you're right. The problem, of course, is that most of them are entrenched in safe Labour seats (if that term still has meaning).

So long as they keep their membership at the right level, not even the dreaded "Head Office" can winkle them out.

That's why I raised Matt's solution. By effectively putting any MPs who actively worked against a Labour victory "on trial" before a full conference(as Peter Fraser did in the case of John A. Lee in 1940) the chances of removing them from the party would be greatly improved.

It would not, however, be a pretty spectacle.

manfred said...

Thanks Chris. I actually think it's better for National to spend itself as a force before Labour takes the reigns.

That will give Labour a chance to end the factional infighting one way or another.

It will also increase the likelihood of Labour getting 2 or 3 terms.

markus said...

Anchovy: "Many on the Right voted for DC because they thought DC was really pretty Third-Way and was just tacking left to get votes. DC's team constructed a pretty good myth about the election being Right vs Left, but it was nonsense."

Well, here's what The Herald's John Armstrong has to say: "One of the reasons he has won the hard-earned respect of those on Labour's Left is that Cunliffe has been consistent throughout his nearly 15 years in Parliament in his favouring a far more interventionist approach. It is also an approach which would go much further than Labour's "soft" intervention of the Clark-Cullen years...In that respect, Cunliffe's approach to running the economy would be the most radical departure yet from the Roger Douglas-inspired economic orthodoxy - something that Cunliffe scathingly dismisses as "trickle-up economics."

In which case, this putative DC-supporting Right would have to be pretty bloody stupid, wouldn't they ?

Victor said...

I certainly agree that Labour's residual neo-liberals have long outlived their use-by date.

But, as an ordinary voter with no links to the corridors of power, I'm struck by the fact that one of the Alliance rump's former pacesetters is now Labour's organisational supremo, whilst another, his erstwhile leader and close collaborator, is now the head of a new party, ostensibly to the left of Labour.

Am I being wildly paranoid in suspecting that this is more than just coincidence?

And would I be right in suspecting that David Cunliffe is in danger of being outmanoeuvered from both ends of his party's spectrum?

And might the end game actually be the engineering of a split within Labour's ranks and the creation of a new party considerably further to the left?

If so, no wonder that it's proved so disappointingly hard for Cunliffe to play to his hitherto obvious strengths.

Sanctuary said...

"...That's why I raised Matt's solution..."

it could be done a lot less dramatically than that. An innocuous insertion of a term limit (to ensure ongoing renewal, how motherhood and apple pie is that?) of 30 years would see the Rogernomes all gone before the next election.