Thursday 24 July 2014

From Here To There: How Did Labour Become So Hopelessly Lost?

No Direction Home: Has Labour ever been so lost? Has the path to electoral victory ever been so obscured? Starting from where they are now, how can they possibly get to where they need to be on 20 September?

WRITING ABOUT the Labour Party these days puts me in mind of the joke about the American tourist and the Irish farmer.
Seems there was this American tourist driving down a narrow lane in the heart of Ireland. He needed to get back to Dublin in a hurry but even with the assistance of a detailed road-map was finally forced to admit that he was hopelessly lost. Just then, at the side of the lane, he saw an Irish farmer leaning over a wooden gate in the hedgerow. “Excuse me, Sir,” inquired the exasperated American, “but could you tell me how to get to Dublin?” “Is it lost you are, Sir,” inquired the farmer. “I’m afraid so”, the tourist replied. “And you’re wanting to get to Dublin?” The American nodded. “Ah, well,” said the farmer, taking off his cap and scratching his head, “if I was wanting to get to there, I’d never be starting from here.”
Has Labour ever been so hopelessly lost? Has the path to electoral victory ever been so obscured? Starting from where it is now, how can Labour possibly get to where it needs to be on 20 September?
What is it? What is making it so hard for David Cunliffe and his party to get any sort of political traction?
The answer lies in Labour’s caucus. Not only is a majority of the caucus profoundly unhappy with Cunliffe as their leader, it is also profoundly at odds with the Labour Party members who elected him. Labour’s MPs are torn between their desire to occupy the Treasury benches – and thus be free of the Party’s influence – and the realisation that even by becoming the government they would only be postponing the confrontation with the party that Cunliffe’s election made inevitable.
Expressing the problem with maximum brutality: most of Labour’s present crop of MPs are not fit for purpose. A handful are holdovers from the Rogernomics Era – and thus reminders of the very worst period in Labour’s history. More are the products of Helen Clark’s personal intervention in the candidate selection process; followers of a career-path that began in the student unions (or MFAT) and ended in the ministerial suites of the Beehive. The remainder are what emerges from the deeply compromised horse-trading that assembles Labour’s Party List – burnt out trade unionists, media stars and identity politicians.
Cunliffe himself is a product of Clark’s shoulder-tapping (albeit via her confidants Jonathan Hunt, Judith Tizard and Chris Carter). What made him Party Leader, however, was his understanding that Labour, both ideologically and organisationally, needed to be made fit for purpose as a credible twenty-first century contender for political power. What made him a bad Party Leader was his failure to grasp that to become a credible contender Labour not only needed to become much more representative of New Zealand at large, but that this would necessitate a wholesale clean-out of its caucus.
The sort of government Cunliffe wanted to lead simply could not be constructed from the human material in Labour’s caucus. Rather than confront this reality, however, Cunliffe defaulted to his deep personal and religious belief that all people and all points of view are ultimately reconcilable in the spirit of compromise and goodwill. Psychologically, he simply cannot accept that at least half of his caucus colleagues would happily dance on his grave. Moreover, this fruitless quest for caucus consensus has required Cunliffe to divest himself of the mandate for change entrusted to him by the party's rank-and-file members and trade union affiliates.
The public perception of Cunliffe’s willingness to compromise is one of profound weakness. This has not been helped by his habit of attempting to ingratiate himself with individuals and groups he perceives to be actually or potentially hostile.
There is, of course, a paradox here. The very qualities that make Cunliffe a poor Leader of the Opposition would also make him an excellent Prime Minister - especially of the complicated MMP coalition government he'd be required to lead. Had Cunliffe been surrounded by a caucus who believed in him and understood the paradoxical qualities of his leadership-style, they could have provided him with a measure of protection – in much the same way that Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Michael Basset and Mike Moore ran interference for David Lange. Instead, he has been surrounded by caucus colleagues willing him to fall at every hurdle (and happy to make sure he did).
To arrive at the electoral finish-line first from such a parlous position, Cunliffe is going to need more than a road-map. He’s going to need a miracle.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 23 July 2014.


Anonymous said...

To summarise. It's not bad luck, but a lack of talent and a lack of direction.

NZ is looking like the Weimar Republic. Mediocrity, discontent, and the odd barricade to leap up on and have the occasional pointless factional gunfight.

You may better claim that Roger Douglas had the worst personality of any period in Labour's history; but he defined an objective and a clear path to it. Every single mediocrity government since him has benefited from that vision.

Since then, such weighty deliberations as gays being permitted to legally bugger each other within the bounds of wedded bliss passes for progress.


Brendan McNeill said...


A moment of rare agreement amongst us. You have correctly identified Labour's problem. The raw material in caucus is unelectable, and voters know it.

It runs deeper however. These people, certainly the 'new blood' are the ideological children of those running the party. They represent the 'new Labour' identity politics culture to the core.

A political grouping less like your 'average Kiwi' would be hard to find, with perhaps the exclusion of Mana who qualify for different reasons.

Labour today is not the Labour you supported and fell in love with in your University days.

The reason John Key is taking National to what may be a 'stand alone' victory is that your 'average kiwi' identifies with him and his family completely.

In short, he is someone 'like us'.

I expect others who read your post will object 'he is not like me!' and that may well be true. All that says however is something about yourselves, and less about most New Zealanders.

If, like me, you choose to back a minority party, you have to expect to loose. I say stick with your convictions to the end, but don't blame others for your parties poor performance when the product and the brand has passed its 'use by date' in the marketplace of public opinion.

When something dies, it's best to bury it with dignity.

jh said...

The answer lies in Labour’s caucus.
No it is much more fundamental than that Chris.
John keys supporters are the "we're doing alight. Keep up the good work crowd"
Labours crowd are lost sheep.
Last century we had two world wars "where Britain goes, we go!" This mattered to the lower classes. Imagine if mothers picked their children at random (a different child every day on a whim).
The lower classes need to feel confident who mother is in a globalised world.
The mike has been taken from the lower calsses by the liberal establishment: Wayne Brittendon Counterpoint did a long put down of UKIP. He said they were “mostly poorly educated”.
I recall a discussion about the possibility of foreign tour guides driving buses. The Kiwi drivers didn't think they should; the Japanese speaking guide (a young Kiwi accounting student) indignently thought they should. That's the power of education? The young Kiwi accounting student is Labour elite. Labour elite are selling some nebulous new world order and other bag of tricks.
Interesting that Mike Moore's advisor at WTO was Philip Legrain the open borders advocate; he who claims adding labour to labour doesn't affect labour because labour just gets another job at the same rate of pay? Maybe that is a fact the educated Wayne Brittenden knows (but UKIP supporters don't)?
How does Labour do in other multicultural countries?

jh said...

Only one in 5 white Briton's votes for Labour

Ennui said...

Well said Chris: the one hope we have from this is that the current motley remnant of the Clark and Douglas years get too old and retire before the next election.

Fossil said...

When it voted for Cunliffe, the party membership discounted the fact that he was widely disliked by his colleagues. It accepted his rhetoric at face value and imposed its choice on caucus.

The electors should have thought more about why the people who work with him dislike Cunliffe so much. It’s not just that he lacks an easy charm. Kirk and Clark were short on that. It’s not just that he isn’t an organiser. Lange wasn’t. The truth seems to be that Cunliffe’s colleagues can’t bring themselves to trust him.

The difficulty lies in character, not ideology. Most caucus members have as much ideology as a biscuit. They would sing The Red Flag and mean every word if it would bring Labour closer to seats in cabinet. They are ready to be led. Cunliffe isn’t a leader and changing his supporting cast will not make him into one.

Jigsaw said...

All of which means that when he loses he will not go quietly in fact he won't go at all and will likely cause a split in the party.
Part of the trouble with the caucus itself is that the new people have stopped being people and are representatives of various bits of the identity politics that 'New Labour' think is ideal. One person of this ethnicity or race or gender group and one of that and so on. Putting people in boxes is a very nasty and hopeless way of constructing a party. Look for even more infighting when they lose and lose huge(ly).

Kat said...

A miracle!?

What, like Truman?

Geoff said...

And the dork shot himself inthe foot again today complaining about Hoskings!! He looks like a sore loser before the game has even started! He is totally bereft of ANY nous......I'm convinced he is socially retarded and possesses no insight whatsoever!

Anonymous said...

>>>In short, he is someone 'like >>>us'.

Most New Zealanders aren't multi-millionaire currency speculators with mansions in Auckland and holidays in Hawaii.

But then "John Key" is really a faceless media construct, no more real than the image of Big Brother from Orwell's 1984. "John Key", he of "pragmatism" fame, is not John Key, he's a fictional character.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Brendan admittedly John Key has an easy charm, but he is nowhere near someone like us. Someone like what YOU might have aspired to be once maybe, but my parents actually sweated when they worked. People might still believe the impression he likes to give, but I think that may be wearing off slightly. It does tend to over time. Particularly as he's given up visiting the poorer areas and patronising the people there. :-)
As to the rest, I have no knowledge of the inner workings of the Labour Party so I can't comment except perhaps to say - fuck the Caucus, they've managed to avoid democracy within the party for a long time now.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

To be fair, Mike Hosking is extreme right – but as you say a shot to the foot. What ARE his minders doing?

Bearded Git said...

Chris-I just posted these 2 comments on The Standard.

1. I don’t get Trotter’s criticisms. There are always going to be the odd ructions within a caucus, but the Moa, the Davis position on the holiday highway and the Labour party person (Tamihere?) complaining about Cunliffe’s 3 days off doesn’t amount to a row of beans.

Look at what’s going on in the National cabinet and party-see my post above.

Trotter still fails make the obvious point that if Labour’s policies are not to the left’s liking then they can vote for the Greens or IMP who will push Labour further left.

2. Someone like Chris Trotter should write an article about the shambles that is the National cabinet, instead of criticising the minor misdemeanors/ructions in the shadow cabinet.

I just can’t believe that Trotter is buying into the MSM’s framing of the 2 major parties.

CarbonGuilty said...

The last three posts are ridiculous and show you have no sense for a person's character.
I bet if JK invited you round for dinner he would have you eating out of his hand in 10 minutes and by the time you got home you would have decided to vote for him!

He is exactly the person you see, and just a nice bright Kiwi joker. The only thing is he seems to be able to read people like an A-Z kids book and tune in and adapt to their outlook while still just being himself. Other Kiwis do this too, it is not rare and it is remarked on by foreigners. We are a country that is relaxed in its own skin.

However we are not all like that and unfortunately those who picked DC were not paying attention to what most of the caucus, who are the people who work with him, were trying to tell the rest of the party. DC may be brainy and passionate etc etc but he is not grounded and himself when in public, he is performing. Instinctively we can tell and what is worse is he clearly can be derailed far too easily and lose his political judgement. Almost every day now we have proof: Ski holiday? Not affordable by the 40% he should be trying to mobilise BUT he is entitled to a holiday so should have laughed off the question and said ask me a real question about policy please because who cares about me and my hols! Instead he apologises!! Jesus!
And Hosking: Clearly in love with Key as are half of us but so what? Go with it Cunliff not against it! Key faced with a lefty which 75% of the media are would lap it up and make a joke about it. It's not rocket science it's common sense and the common touch. One has it and one .....

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi GS and Anon

When I suggest that John Key is 'someone like us' it is on the basis of his 'every man next door' appeal, not on his material wealth.

He appears to be affable, a straight shooter, a hard worker, genial, and a good listener. Furthermore he appears to be more at ease with himself than his opponents. He doesn't come across as striving, angry, overly defensive, or easily offended, as others do.

based upon my children's experience, he has time for people he meets.

Most people warm to him on that basis. Even I do, and for the most part I think that based upon his politics, he is a reincarnation of former Labour leaders!

It is a combination that's hard to beat, and I suspect most people who read this blog would, in their more reflective moments, prefer him as PM to any of the other contenders.

Long term this is Labour's problem. Where is their John Key in waiting? Perhaps some former trade unionist that represents the aspirations of a handful of New Zealanders?

Somehow I don't think so.

Of course it's a problem for National as well, but perhaps not so much.

Jigsaw said...

John Key isn't really 'just like us' but he is easy to relate to and that's the point. His background makes that possible and it shows clearly when he meets people.It also comes through on TV.
The only time I saw Helen Clarke in person she appeared ill at easy and the public around me watched her with considerable disinterest and in silence.
My parents sweated when they worked as well-not that I can see what that has to do with anything. They, like most working class parents in the 1940's and 1950's hoped that through education their children would be able to have jobs that were easier and better paid then they had.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Bearded Git

Shambles in National's Cabinet? You must have unusual eyesight, BG, because nobody else has spotted that.

And if you think the sort of outright destabilisation of the leadership that is going on in the Labour caucus spells anything other than electoral disaster, then you're not only a bearded git - you're a stupid one.

Kat said...

I have a lingering unease about the man, John Key. His story of having risen above his State Housing background to become a multi-millionaire trader on the floors of the stock exchange and his rapid rise through the National Party ranks to the position of Prime Minister is on the face of it inspirational.

But dig a little deeper and wonder why he leads a Government intent on the punitive restructuring of welfare, bashing beneficiaries, failing to create employment and sucking up to USA political and business interests at the expense of New Zealanders rights. At what point did he turn his back on his heritage.

I am suspicious about the pragmatism of a man used to making swift decisions around buying and selling currency and juxtapose that against a desire to sell this countries assets to the highest bidders and at the same time incurring billions of dollars of national debt.

John Key gives every impression of a man who is ticking off his bucket list and after the economic and social dust settles will leave the rest of us to clean up the mess.

It is hard to argue against some comments here that John Key is exactly who he appears to be - a nice mannered, professional front-man for a Party generally bereft of personality, and if that is all it takes to be PM of New Zealand then David Cunliffe hasn't got a chance.

pat said...

If Brendan is correct in stating that the great unwashed have determined that Labours caucus is unelectable how then does he explain Bill English, Gerry Brownlee, Judith Collins, Hekia Parata et al?

Anonymous said...

to CT 17.15

Well Labour had nearly contained their internal ructions until some "insider" spilt the beans to Stuff. I guess political parties are made up of very clever, talented but egotistical and competitive extraverts who back themselves. I have been involved on the edges of Labour selections and have no doubt, the Labour candidates are a truly talented bunch, Ive been impressed and I have been fortunate to have worked in some of NZ's largest organisations. But I would imagine that BG above is correct, there will be ructions in National also. The problem with labour is that there seems to be a small bunch of entitled arseholes who are prepared to sabotage the bigger party for their own personal ambition. I still think that the "insider" that talked to Stuff needs to be weeded out and made an example of. I don't know whether it is Stuart Nash or who ever but that person does not deserve to come close to the labour Party again, he has lost this election for us. If this person is weeded out it will set a precedent for the future...tow the party line or f%$& off. David Cunliffe thinks he knows who it is.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

The very thought of me eating out of John Key's hand is laughable :-). Of course he is charming, he's probably been trained to be charming. And it might be slightly deeper than a veneer, but not much. He is an affable millionaire that's all. I've met people like him – hell, I've worked for people like him – push them and they soon show their true nature. And I notice as I said before, that he has stopped trying to charm the poor people by visiting them and patronising them. He used that young girl for instance, and now he's had his pound of flesh, he wouldn't touch her with a barge pole. I suspect he has this image of himself as a good, middle-class Kiwi Joker, and thinks that the rest of the country is like that. Well some of them are and some of them ain't.
And as for Hosking, he's made his political views well known, both on his television show, and in his promotional activities. He is just a nouveau riche poser.

Bearded Git said...

Chris-with respect this is the shambles I was talking about (from an earlier Standard post).

On tv3 news Gower said Brownlee “barged through”.

Hauiti, Brownlee and Borrows all in the same day showing a sense of entitlement where the rules don’t apply to them.

Add this to McCully, Williamson, Coleman (see Karol below) and Collins resignation matters, plus Key’s failure to apologise on the rape and refusal to hold Hauiti to account, and you have a cabinet that has lost its way.

Something of a shambles. Cunliffe should say this.

Adding to this: I do think you see the election through FPP eyes rather than look at the left as a whole. And you seem over-enamoured with John Key's superficial charm; a man who sits well to the right in the Nats caucus.

greywarbler said...

There are plenty of good points made Chris. I think Helen did a good job of holding Labour together and giving it direction after its implosion. I think David is the next step, but believing in dedication to being good pollies and for all in the country, he expects the same from others. We now have career pollies and the moral hazard of having no alternative job experience except in log rolling in the political maelstrom. They can't get a better deal elsewhere and that keeps them glued to their Parliament seats, without interest in serving the citizens' best interests, or the Labour Party that has been infiltrated by the self-interested comfortable.

Carbon Guilty says
We are a country that is relaxed in its own skin. Like sausages? That recalls the National female pollie calling others silly sausages. My feeling is that only silly NZs would be relaxed at present.

Brendan McNeill thinking
about Key seems to be all into personality. Wake up mate we are talking about a political leader not choosing who you would like to live next to in a gated community housing complex. 'Most people warm to him on that basis. Even I do, and for the most part I think that based upon his politics, he is a reincarnation of former Labour leaders!
It is a combination that's hard to beat, and I suspect most people who read this blog would, in their more reflective moments, prefer him as PM to any of the other contenders.'

Remembering a quote that the rich are usually charming when it doesn't cost them anything, I looked up Oscar Wilde who as usual is pithy and pungent, and appropriate to the dichotomy of Cunliffe and Key. I want Cunliffe the real man as good, committed NZ leader and not the shadow financial spinner.

“Unless one is wealthy there is no use in being a charming fellow. Romance is the privilege of the rich, not the profession of the unemployed. The poor should be practical and prosaic. It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating.”
Oscar Wilde from

SDT said...

Signs of Hope here: finally Labour supporting commentators stop underestimating National by banging on about rich pricks, "Don-Key" and his rich mates, and other mindless name calling which is effectively burying heads in the sand. Know thy enemy. Now we do? Will it spread to other Labour fora?

Anonymous said...

I was shocked to read in this blog Jh's assertion that , in his counterpoint programme , Wayne Brittenden said that UKIP supporters were " mostly poorly educated" . As an avid admirer of Brittenden's unflinching attachment to truth and fair play, I took the trouble to listen again to his programme. It's a pity that jh didn't .There was no mention about poor education . Here's verbatim what Brittenden said: " a Yougov poll shows that the average UKIP voter is over 50 ... They are lower achieves and less well off than your average Tory...and more socially conservative though not as economically righting as the Conservative Party, nor , indeed , as UKIPs own policy makers." Brittenden was simply quoting the social profile findings of one of the UK's most respected and widely used pollsters.
Jh's irresponsible claim displays a shallow and cavalier indifference to accuracy .