What Have I Done? Perhaps the saddest aspect of the entire 2014 Leadership Contest is not the deposition of the members’ choice for leader, but of David Cunliffe’s signal failure to meet the expectations he himself had done so much to raise.
THE CHAIRS in the final meeting venue have been stacked away. All that expensive signage, commissioned for the benefit of the television cameras, no longer has a purpose. For the second time in just 14 months, Labour’s Leadership Contest is all over bar the voting.
The contrast between the road-show just concluded and what was, effectively, the David Cunliffe Coronation Tour of 2013 could hardly be starker. Then, it was the rank-and-files’ and the affiliates’ moment to deliver a very emphatic one-fingered message to a caucus it had grown to despise – and they delivered it with both hands. This time, it’s been the Labour Caucus’s Victory Tour.
In both 2012 and 2013, Labour’s MPs had warned the party’s members and affiliates that Cunliffe was unacceptable – but they refused to listen. Now they know what happens when a leader lacks the fulsome support of his caucus colleagues. No one’s saying it out loud, but the most important single feature of this year’s leadership contest is David Cunliffe’s absence. No matter which of the four grey eminences emerges from the complicated processes of preferential voting as Labour’s new leader – Caucus has won.
Had Cunliffe’s name been on the ballot paper, he would, almost certainly, have triumphed again. I don’t think it’s stretching the truth to say that among Labour’s staunchest supporters – Maori and Pasifika – the Member for New Lynn is loved. When informed that their champion had withdrawn from the race, a hall packed with Maori and Pasifika trade union delegates audibly groaned and tears flowed. Only when told that Nanaia Mahuta had entered the fray did their spirits noisily recover.
But, no matter how strong the loyalty shown to Cunliffe by the true believers who give Labour two ticks, it was made abundantly clear to the party membership just how ugly things would get if he insisted, once again, on soliciting their support.
The embittered David Shearer may have led the charge, but every political journalist in the country knew that his acidic tongue was just the poisoned point of a much larger spear. Shearer’s mission was to demonstrate to the rank-and-file and affiliates that the longer Cunliffe persisted in his fantasy of continuing to lead the party the worse things would get. They had to know that Caucus was perfectly willing to destroy the Labour Party in order to save it.
Rather than unleash a no-holds-barred civil war at every level of his Party; one from which it would likely not recover; Cunliffe bowed to the inevitable and withdrew from the contest.
From that point on, the outcome of the 2014 Leadership Contest ceased to matter very much.
The four candidates are all committed to a slow, bureaucratically-driven process of ideologically insipid rebuilding and repair. The party membership should certainly not put any stock in the candidates’ rhetorical commitment to respect the achievements of the 2011-2013 democratisation process. Given the exemplary fate of the man the members chose to be their leader, it is already abundantly clear just how far Democracy’s writ now runs in the Labour Party. The candidates’ solemn promises to respect members’ decisions lack any purchase in political reality.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of the entire 2014 Leadership Contest is not the deposition of the members’ choice for leader, but of David Cunliffe’s signal failure to meet the expectations he himself had done so much to raise. When the moment came to take control of New Zealand’s oldest political party and make it fit for purpose in the Twenty-First century, the man who’d painted himself in the brightest colours of rejuvenation and renewal, proved to be as clueless as the proverbial dog who caught the car.
Cunliffe, alone among his colleagues, had possessed the necessary combination of wit and ambition to understand that Neoliberalism has, in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis become a zombie ideology. What he did not possess, however, was the temperament (or, as Herald columnist, Fran O’Sullivan, might put it, the cojones) to usher either his party – or the wider electorate – to the logical conclusions of his own analysis. Truth to tell, when it came right down to it, Cunliffe just wasn’t up to describing, even to himself, exactly what a post-Neoliberal New Zealand would look like.
In this respect, the Herald’s series of photographs showing Cunliffe, abandoned and alone, sketching aimlessly in the sand on the beach below his Herne Bay home, provided a sad but fitting symbol for the whole historical dilemma currently immobilising contemporary social-democracy.
In the early-1930s, the Italian socialist, Antonio Gramsci, observed, in his Prison Notebooks, that: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
In November 2014, these “morbid symptoms” even have names.
· Grant Robertson: the consummate insider, who seems, at times, to have forgotten what the outside looks like.
· David Parker: the frustrated entrepreneur, who shows every sign of wanting to substitute New Zealand’s whole fragile economy for the little businesses he very nearly went broke setting-up in Dunedin.
· Nanaia Mahuta: the Maori princess, who has made a much better than expected fist of proving to her Pakeha colleagues that it’s whakapapa that counts.
· Andrew Little: (Cunliffe’s choice) who rescued the Engineers Union from civil war and might, just, be able to repeat the miracle for Labour.
Which of these “symptoms” is more likely to contribute to the demise, or recovery, of the Labour Party is now the historic duty of its membership to determine. For the country’s sake, as well as their own, we must hope they make the right choice.
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Thursday, 13 November 2014.