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.