The People's Flag Is ... Mint Green? Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern (whom Twitter immediately dubbed Gracinda) pose in Mint Green for one of the glossy women's magazines. In a non-revolutionary era, superficial is about as deep as it gets.
BIKERS? SERIOUSLY! Had Grant Robertson’s campaign launch been organised by Phil Goff? Was this a pitch for the votes of what few Waitakere Men remain in the Labour Party? Was I even at the right place?
Well, yes, I was. And rather than doubling as crude political props, those bikers were simply middle-aged motorcycle enthusiasts enjoying a smoke in the King’s Arms car-park. So, no, the Robertson launch was not even remotely interested in winning the support of Labour’s Waitakere Men. Quite the reverse!
The young men and women bustling self-importantly about in their New Generation To Win T-shirts looked like they’d be more comfortable sitting in a Courtenay Place or Ponsonby Road café than on a tradie’s West Auckland deck. The King’s Arms, itself, (car-park bikers notwithstanding) was chosen by Robertson for its close associations with the New Zealand music scene – no doubt in hopes that the popular late-night venue’s cultural street-cred would rub off on the candidate.
Labour’s new process for electing the party leader cannot help being inward looking, but even allowing for the fact that it’s all about the membership talking to itself, there was something about the Robertson campaign launch that reminded me of the ultra-cool university student parties of my youth. The whole insider/outsider shtick was unmistakeable. It made me wonder if an old-fashioned bogun’s mullet would have been as well-received among these bustling Grantistas as their diminutive comrade’s close-cropped purple hair.
In spite of the fact that the King’s Arms serves some very fine beers, I have to say that the whole event struck me as being much more latté than lager. Certainly, the speeches delivered by both Robertson and his “running-mate”, Jacinda Ardern, appeared to be comprised almost entirely of froth. About the only mentally taxing portion of Robertson’s brief address was the bit in which he promised to make Labour the party of “the worker, the small businessman and the entrepreneur”. Presumably all three of those groups will be found in that section of the socialist paradise where the lions lie down with the lambs?
But perish all such unworthy thoughts! On One News at six o’clock it was impossible not to observe what a lovely couple Grant and Jacinda made. And not only on the telly. Who could possibly prefer Revolutionary Red after seeing Grant and Jacinda – or, as Twitter immediately dubbed them, Gracinda – smiling sweetly for the glossy women’s magazine’s photographer in matching outfits of Mint Green?
Fluff and froth may be my abiding memories of the Robertson launch, but upon sterner analysis it is easy to discern in its overall design the guiding influence of an astute political brain. Pitching for the votes of the generation with the longest futures in the Labour Party (as opposed to the longest pasts) is very far from being a silly idea. Equally shrewd is Robertson’s understanding that the political choices of young New Zealanders in 2014 are more akin to what sort of music they like, what sort of clothes they wear and what sort of places they go to have fun, than they are about which group of grim ideologues they would have aligned themselves with back in the 1980s.
The essential truth that Robertson and his key advisors (take a bow SIR Michael Cullen) have grasped is that the politics of 2014 are the politics not only of a post-revolutionary, but a non-revolutionary era. In such times superficial is about as deep as it gets.
A friend of mine recently compared Grant Robertson to Joseph Stalin. There is, he insisted, the same easy familiarity with the party apparatus; the same willingness to wield it ruthlessly in his pursuit of power. According to this same friend, David Cunliffe was Labour’s Leon Trotsky. Brilliant, but utterly blind to the importance of building (and keeping strong) the networks so essential to political success.
Too much? Probably. But the comparison got me thinking.
If Labour is to survive this latest, catastrophic, electoral defeat then it’s going to need a Stalin figure. Someone capable of restoring party unity – even at the cost of purging Labour of all dissent. Because, if you think about it, unity is exactly what Helen Clark was able to offer the party, and why she was able to remain its leader for an unprecedented 15 years. (And let’s not forget whose protégé Robertson once was and from whom he learned most of what he knows about Labour.)
Of course life was made a great deal easier for Clark by the decision of the Labour Left to split from the party in 1989 and form NewLabour, and by the departure of the Labour Right for Act and the United Party five years later. The so-called “centrists” who opted to remain with the mother-ship were thus spared the “wet work” of an involuntary and very large purge of party comrades.
Which is not to say that the “rectification” of Labour under Clark was entirely bloodless. In assigning candidates to the seats Labour needed to win back after Jim Bolger’s landslide victory in 1990, Clark’s supporters in the party apparatus were careful to ensure that as few as possible were supporters of Mike Moore – the man Clark had manoeuvred into the party leadership just weeks before the 1990 General Election, and who she very badly needed to lose in 1993. (Indeed, the unpleasantness currently on display within Labour’s parliamentary ranks bears a striking similarity to the viciousness which accompanied Clark’s deposition of Moore in the aftermath of the 1993 general election.)
With Moore’s fall, and the relegation of his faction to powerless purgatory, Clark and her supporters in both the caucus and the wider party organisation were free to re-orient the Labour Party towards the radically revisionist ideas of the British sociologist, Anthony Giddens. Steve Maharey (himself a sociologist and for a long time Clark’s assumed successor) was a strong supporter of Giddens’s new take on the Labour project – which boiled down to the conclusion that, thanks to the historical success of Labour’s original mission, we are all capitalists now.
Ideological gleichschaltung (co-ordination, making the same, bringing into line) will also be an urgent priority for whoever wins Labour’s latest leadership contest. Without a recognisable – and recognised – party line, the endless troubles which have bequeathed Labour five different leaders in the space of six years will only continue. And in this regard, at least, my friend’s comparison of Robertson to Stalin may not be so outrageous.
Speaking last Sunday (19/10/14) on TVNZ’s current affairs show Q+A, Robertson made it very clear that, as leader, his line would be the party’s line:
ROBERTSON: If people step outside of that, there have to be consequences.
Q+A: Does that mean they have to leave the Labour Party?
ROBERTSON: It may well do – for some.
Dissenters in the Labour Party – piss off. Grant has everything to lose – and a new generation to win.
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Wednesday, 22 October 2014.