Aux Armes Citoyens! Exacerbating Labour's current difficulties is the unfinished character of the rank-and-file's 2012 revolution. It was as if the revolutionary crowds of Paris, having torn down the Bastille, then decided to build it back up again!
“APRÈS MOI, LE DÉLUGE.” These famous words are attributed to King Louis XV of France. He saw the waters of discontent rising behind the straining dykes of royal absolutism and sensed that when he had gone the barriers to change would finally burst. “After me, the flood.” is what he said. What he meant was: “After me, revolution becomes inevitable.” Swept away by the French Revolution, the luckless Louis XVI could hardly disagree.
Observing the hapless Labour Party: watching it struggle in the coils of its own contradictions; I cannot help but be reminded of Louis XV’s ominous quip.
The last successful Labour leader, Helen Clark, with what can only be described as a royal absolutist grip, contrived to keep her party’s factional mongrels in their kennels. Indeed, with her Chief-of-Staff, Heather Simpson, playing Cardinal Fleury to Clark’s Louis XV, scarcely a mouse dared move in Labour’s Versailles without the permission of at least one of these all-powerful duumvirs.
With Clark’s departure, however, the party’s absolutist era came to an abrupt end. Labour’s grandees did everything they could to protect the monarchical style of leadership that Clark had perfected, even though, as is now painfully apparent, none of them possessed the requisite political stature to occupy her vacant throne for very long.
Besides, at the base of the Labour Party, in the branches and affiliates from whence the aristocrats of Labour’s caucus drew the deliverers-of-pamphlets and erectors-of-hoardings needed to win elections, revolution was afoot. Clark and Simpson may have ruled Labour’s members with an iron fist, but at least they had given them victories. The pretenders to Labour’s Iron Throne – Phil Goff and David Shearer – brought the rank-and-file nothing but defeat and humiliation. A caucus aristocracy incapable of supplying Labour with a credible king or queen wasn’t worth keeping. Henceforth the peasants would elect their own leader.
Unfortunately, Labour’s rank-and-file neglected to first elect themselves a Robespierre: someone to oversee the ruthless beheading of the ancien regime. Poor dears! Far from introducing Labour’s electorate-based aristocracy to Madame Guillotine, the members generously acquiesced in their re-selection! It was as if the revolutionary crowds of Paris, having torn down the Bastille, then decided to build it back up again.
Two months out from the General Election we are thus presented with the absurd spectacle of the Labour peasantry’s elected king, David Cunliffe, holed-up in the Opposition leader’s office and surrounded by a caucus aristocracy seething with thwarted ambition and regicidal intent. Many of King David’s courtiers would happily drive a rapier through his guts. And rather than carry the fight to the National Party foe, his sworn enemies vie with one another to make the first thrust.
There are only two ways out of this impasse. Either Labour’s peasantry make good on their revolutionary promise and utterly destroy those caucus aristocrats who would restore Helen Clark’s royal absolutism. Or, one of those aristocrats finds the courage to crush the peasants’ revolt, seize the throne, and restore the ancien regime.
Then again, if we’re following the grand arc of French history, perhaps, somewhere in Labour’s ranks, there exists a young commander of artillery with vaunting ambitions and inordinate strategic skills. Someone ready to deploy the rhetoric of the revolution to secure the absolute power of the throne. Not for the peasantry, who lack the will to lead. Nor yet for the corrupt aristocracy, who don’t deserve it. But for him – or herself – alone.
Just where this Napoleonic figure lies in waiting is difficult to say. Not in the unions, whose opportunity to grasp the brass ring of power came and went 23 years ago when they refused to fight Bill Birch’s Employment Contracts Bill. Not in the careerist warrens funded by the tax-payer through Parliamentary Services and the DPMC. Not among the horse-traders on Labour’s Party List. Not even among the rank-and-file who still refuse to accept the consequences of their revolution.
No, if there is a Napoleon out there in the Labour Party my best guess is that you will find him or her toiling away in the corridors of local government. It will be someone who understands what it takes to get elected by your fellow citizens – without the benefit of party colours.
If Helen Clark’s departure unleashed the flood, perhaps this new, Napoleonic, Labour leader can drain the swamp.
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, 25 July 2014.