Saturday, 26 July 2014

French Lessons

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.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

Alternatively, Helen Clark's style of leadership was a direct reaction to the shenanigans that were going on during the first stage of her time as leader (1993 to 1996). Clark going into the 1996 election would have killed for the level of support Cunliffe enjoys now.

Brendan McNeill said...

“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.”

That means they are presently unknown, and therefore not on the party list this election.

That makes them three years away from visibility and election to Parliament, then a minimum of three years to ‘earn their stripes’ before selection as leader, then a further three years to the following election…

That’s nine years away from now.

Based upon present trends, what will the Labour party be polling in nine years time?

Anonymous said...

A 'night of the long knives' would, I imagine, be inappropriate this close to the election.

Victor said...

And what then?

Waterloo?

Rain333 said...

I have heard a lot of commentary comparing Cunliffe to Clark, in that Helen Clark too was polling poorly for a very long time. I have heard this repeated many times and only recently by Mike Williams. There is a difference, a vast difference. At the risk of being confusing, people didn't 'get' Helen Clark, not for a long time, but Helen Clark got that. People do 'get' Cunliffe, it's Cunliffe who appears not to 'get' Cunliffe. And if he's confused...what hope for the rest of us!

markus said...

Your description of this young Napoleonic figure puts me in mind of my local (Porirua) Mayor, 35 year-old Nick Leggett. Long-time member of the Labour Party but stood for both Council and Mayor as an independent, garnering electoral support from across the (unusually deep) social divide - suburbs both as Blue as a New Tatoo (eg Whitby) and as red as a Railway Shed (eg Cannons Creek).

Only problem is: he's very much part and parcel of the ABC former-Rogernome wing of the Party. Like his friend and political advisor/media commentator, Phil Quin, Leggett was inspired to join the Party (as a teenager) by Mike Moore. Both Leggett and Quin were, I think it's fair to say, highly supportive of Rogernomics (although both are probably a little conflicted about that period in retrospect). In other words, while he certainly has the vaunting ambition (and possibly the strategic skills), I'm not sure Leggett would be able to pull off the feat of convincingly cloaking himself in the Blood Red mantle of the Revolution.

And certainly he would never be my pick for Porirua MP, let alone Labour PM. (Incidently, Leggett's been endorsed as a future Labour leader by his close political chum and confidante, the now-ACT-leaning Wellington Regional Council Chairwoman, Fran Wilde, and by the noted "pro"- Israeli/neo-conservative apologist/propagandist and would-be 'Internationally-Respected Man of Letters', David Cohen - the latter in the Listener a year or two back). He'd certainly be the sort favoured by the ABC ancien regime aristocracy dandys with their powdered faces, elaborate wigs and discrete little black love-hearts painted on left cheek.

Chris Trotter said...

Well spotted, Markus!

It would be great to be able to offer the reward system of the student newspapers of the 70s and 80s, which was the gifting of a chocolate fish to the most enterprising and/or particularly perspicacious readers.

Please consider yourself the recipient of a virtual chocolate fish. Nic Leggett was, indeed, the person I had in mind. And, after the crashing and burning of the Left and all their hopes on 20/9/14 - which now seems likely - it will almost certainly be a person of Nic's ideological heritage who clears away the wreckage and begins again.

And, yes, Victor - a Waterloo will follow. It always does. Because, as Enoch Powell sadly observed: "All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs."

J Bloggs said...

Perhaps your French history metaphor is a bit too early - instead of being Louis XV, Helen Clarke was actually the Napolean to Roger Douglas' Robespierre. The revolution and bloodletting happened in the eighties, from which Helen ascended to political dominance over the continental landscape of NZ politics. For 9 years, she had absolute control over the left, with the right banished to their bastions trying desperately to maintain what position they could. With Helen having met her Waterloo at the hands of the National party's General Key, and departed overseas, the Labour party is now in the throes of the equivilent of France's 19th century political turmoil, while beside them, another rising power, relatively new to the political scene (The Greens) challenges for control over the continental left...

Guerilla Surgeon said...

So we are going to end up with another Rogergnome? Oh joy!

Anonymous said...

re Nic Leggett, don't panic. Cunliffe will come through in September. If he doesn't, it wont be Cunliffe leaving, the R&F will ensure it is some of the old rogernomes and DC will come through in 2017. Stay calm.

Kat said...

So a little Napoleonic dalliance we play.

It could be argued David Cunliffe exhibits similar complex personality traits attributed to the great Horatio Nelson. I suspect there is no 'Emma' but the sudden appearance of a 'bullet' is plausible.

That bullet won't be from the sinking tin ship of National though. Somewhere in the corridors a voice will be heard lamenting, "We have lost more than we have gained."



Chris Trotter said...

I doff my three-cornered hat to Mr Bloggs' spiked helmet.

That is a bloody brilliant analogy!

Take a chocolate fish.

Ben Thomas said...

I often wonder whether that Napoleonic should be Chris Trotter.

You have respect on all sides of the political spectrum. I firmly believe you could lead the Labour Party out of the wilderness.

Debbie Sullivan said...

This article brings to mind the saying "history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce"

CarbonGuilty said...

Yes indeed, two well deserved fish, or three for a good column to start with gov.
But instead of the Greens being presumably Russian communism on the rise I see them as more Germanic, alarmingly similar to those earth worshiping rosy cheeked lederhosen clad volks who eventually built the catastrophe of the death camps.
So I really do hope Labour gets reborn whole & sound then swallows those pretenders on its left.

Anonymous said...

Good piece, yet again, Chris.

Napoleon, that is ME, but Labour have NOT discovered me yet, nor have I volunteered to oil the guillotines yet. Things may change soon, that is after 20 September. A change is needed, and a radical one that is, and a resolute and firm, focused mind is needed to lead the rabble.

Actually the last word is an insult, is it not, but they need some "cleansing" and "sorting", and they first need to face the blood on the floor, that is on 20 September.

After that all is possible, and hope and help may be in sight, finally.

Revolutions of sorts come difficult in this "humble" country, but they can happen, nonetheless.

I am waiting, I am ready, greetings and keep up the spirits, despite all, dear folks.

Your future leader.

Davo Stevens said...

It's the problem with MMP. The two main parties move to the centre and the extreme parties hang around the edges like an un-invited guest at a wedding!

The net result is we get tweedledee/tweedledum politics.

If you are waiting for Labour to move to the left again Chris, don't hold your breath mate. Ain't gonna happen! Right now they are fighting the Cult of Johnny-be-Good.

greywarbler said...

Carbon guilty
What an unpleasant mind you have shown in your connection of the Greens to death camps.
It seems you have adapted Godwin's law in a vicious and slanderous
reincarnation.

David said...

Not many people realise, Bonaparte actually saved the French Revolution from being crushed and monarchy restored. Without Napoleon, we may very well not have seen widespead democracy around the world. A million French citizens crowded the dock when his body was returned home.

Kat said...

Chris, your doing a wonderful job of keeping the barking dogs at bay, keep it up, you are a true Leftie hero an we appreciate your efforts.

Two ticks Labour, or the Nat-dogs ticks will itch you to death!

Chris Trotter said...

Has no one ever told you, Kat, that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit?

Kat said...

Well, Chris, in the context of my comments I would describe my remarks as more irony than sarcasm.

Charles Etherington said...

Yes greywarbler I can have dark images flit in front of my face. I think our host does sometimes too. Some of his best writing .....

I see myself as a green & expect I unconsciously want to be a Green but cannot as I am a blue rather than a red green. Perhaps that makes me anti-Green and as my late mother said, I have an 'acid tongue' (she could talk!). So sorry I shall try to be nicer under my new exposed self. I recommend it greywarbler.(my favourite song bird btw, the sound of a sunny day)

I want to see the Greens move to the centre and have the balance of power rather than Winnie or the M Party or the Dotty-Commie Party etc. They are potentially a force for good I'm sure but why are they left of Labour? The environment needs them central. There is an element in them that is pseudo-religious I think and people like that worry me. They are the sort who would die for their cause, which rarely has merit, as it means they are the sort who eventually would kill for their cause. WE don't need those people in power here, as if anyone does. There are enough of them in the ME.
Kind Regards Charles Etherington, formerly the nasty CarbonGuilty

Anonymous said...

Maybe the toiler/battler is Matt McCarten.

Or, maybe the right wing itsel, as if they get back in, many people will have only grudgingly voted for it. The time will come, probably no later than 2017, when even an infighting Labour Party will find itself running the country. i want Cunliffe, but Robertson in 2017's not bad, either.

As I drive around Auckland this year, it is the right wing billboards that are trashed or defaced. No, I wouldn't do that myself, but surely it's ok to chuckle at some of the work of others:

"Vote National: Working for NZ [And China]"
"Vote National: Working for [Big Business]"
"[Ab]use your party vote: Vote Conservative"... et al