Saturday 29 August 2015

With A Little Help From His Friends: Who Is Andrew Little Listening To?

Say What? How ironic it would be if, just as Jeremy Corbyn is showing us how Labour politics can be made to work, Andrew Little threw in his lot with those who have, to date, only shown us how to make them fail.
WHO politicians turn to for advice tells the world a great deal about what sort of people they are. Do they go straight for the professionals? Or, do they rely on friends and family? Most importantly, do they seek guidance from people who simply reinforce their prejudices, or are they guided by those who are willing to openly challenge their deepest assumptions?
The Labour Party leader, Andrew Little, is a cautious man, and, by and large, he has opted to surround himself with cautious people. Professionally trained, himself, he expects a high degree of professionalism from his staff. As a lawyer, he has a natural  inclination towards following the rules of whatever game he is playing.
Persuading Little to take a risk is hard work – but not impossible. His decision to keep on David Cunliffe’s Chief-of-Staff, Matt McCarten, is a case in point. McCarten’s radical reputation would likely have proven too much for Little’s rivals, but his own background in the trade union movement made Little much less prone to an attack of the vapours. McCarten may talk like a revolutionary, but, as the leader of the Unite Union, he always knew when it was time to tie up the attack dogs and seal the deal.
Little was also aware of just how much he owed McCarten for his wafer-thin victory over Grant Robertson. It was, after all, McCarten who, like the Praetorian Guards of Imperial Rome, understood the supreme importance of timing in the “transition” from one Caesar to the next. It’s never enough, simply to know when the moment has come to strike down the Emperor who has failed, one must also know around whose shoulders to drape the blood-stained purple toga, and upon whose head to place the golden diadem. McCarten chose Little’s head – and Little knows it.
Little also knows that the best service McCarten can offer his leadership is to embrace fully his role as the Emperor’s Praetorian enforcer. This was, after all, the role at which he excelled when he was with the Alliance. In Jim Anderton’s fractious coalition, McCarten was the man who kept the noisy ones quiet, and the quiet ones under surveillance. Little has put McCarten’s head-kicking skills to work in the Labour Party where, by all accounts, he has picked up from where Helen Clark’s fearsome enforcer, Heather Simpson, left off seven years ago. Given the extraordinary lack of discipline in Labour’s ranks since 2008, one is tempted to observe: and not a moment too soon!
McCarten, however, will always be an ally of Little’s – not a mate. That title belongs to the man he has appointed his Political Director, Neale Jones. The two men both hail from the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) where Jones served alongside Little, before haring off to the UK and contracting himself to a number of progressive and campaigning NGOs. If London can be said to have a “beltway”, Jones clearly knew his way around it.
And therein lies a potentially very large problem. Unlike McCarten, who brings with him the whiff of cordite and a kit-bag full of class-war stories, Jones is very much the political technocrat. In this respect, he is very like his boss: dogged, well-briefed, sensitive to the rules of the game, and thoroughly unimpressed by political passion. Hence Jones’ aversion to rushing Labour into anything. After the disasters of Goff, Shearer and Cunliffe, he believes Labour priorities should, for the moment, be strictly remedial. Not until the public’s lost love for Labour has been restored will Jones be happy to let the party, its leader, and its long-suffering rank-and-file, let fly with a little live ammunition.
How, then, to explain Labour’s curious foray into the treacherous territory of ethnicity and foreign investment? Who was it who thought singling-out Chinese investors in a city where Chinese residents make up nearly 10 percent of the population was a good idea?
The man responsible for manipulating the leaked Auckland housing statistics into something Labour’s housing spokesperson, Phil Twyford, could use was Rob Salmond. Anyone looking for proof of what can happen to a political party when it allows itself to be persuaded that politics is not an art – but a science – need look no further than the relationship between Labour and Salmond.
After a few years teaching at an American university, Salmond returned to New Zealand certain he could adapt the techniques he saw employed by the Obama Campaign to New Zealand conditions. This is the “science” of politics that sends out postcards detailing the voting habits of people’s neighbours, in an attempt to psychologically dispose them towards doing the same. Somehow, Salmond persuaded the Labour Party to unleash these sorts of highly manipulative tactics on the long-suffering New Zealand voter. Sadly, as we all know, his political “science” failed to fire, and Labour’s share of the popular vote declined to its lowest point since 1922.
Salmond has recently posted a couple of articles on the Public Address Blog in which he wields his ideological agnosticism like a club against anyone who dares to argue that political parties should “stand for something”. All that matters, according to Salmond, is winning over “the middle” – a political designation, apparently, determined not by geometry, but by opinion polling! How one accomplishes this feat, without sacrificing a political party’s ideological (and hence electoral) coherence, he does not elucidate.
Salmond’s overall influence within the Leader of the Opposition’s Office is difficult to judge, but Little should think hard before again taking him into Labour’s confidence. His insistence that there is a road to electoral victory that allows a political party to bypass the ideological commitments inseparable from political conviction; that elections can be won by some sort of tricky “scientific” fix; if accepted by Little and his team, can only place New Zealand Labour in the same sorry position as the British Labour Party under Ed Miliband.
How ironic it would be if, just as Jeremy Corbyn is showing us how Labour politics can be made to work, Little threw in his lot with those who have, to date, only shown us how to make them fail.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 29 August 2015.


Seaweed said...

Yeap ! Politics without passion is plastic pretence.

Anonymous said...

Your article points to Salmond as the author of loss to labour in the Chinese surname debacle, we in labour will not forget Twyfords role or his supportive blatant racist oratory to all that would listen. I do not think that the Little/ McCarten partnership will survive because Little knows that to present himself to a NZ electorate as a Prime Minister without baggage he needs to rid himself and his party of chief of staff McCarten, who left his union with an hefty unpaid tax bill when Cunliffe recruited him. There are also other problems about McCarten such as his book writing ambitions and notes on people. Andrew Little can still win the next election but internally in the party his leadership is lacking strong support and strength. I also disagree that McCarten played as huge a role in Andrews leadership win as you believe, it was the CTU who have scant regard for McCarten.

Anonymous said...


Have a look at this.

Anonymous said...

Yes - our equivalent of Corbyn on left will lead us to glorious victory...hone and mana news to the rescue.

Anonymous said...

It would seem from the report that Kelvin Davis is supporting and helping out a local charter school is further evidence that all is not well in Labours camp. Kelvin Davis was very angry with Andrew Little for throwing Willow Jean Prime under the bus in the Northland by-election. Davis expressed his concerns to Little who ran rough-shod over him. K Davis is also still very angry with how he was treated badly by the Labour caucus in the last election when Labour denied him funds to fight Hone Harirawa. Davis sought and got private funds, Winston Peters also gave him a great deal of moral and political support. Davis won despite many in the present Labour camp wanted Hone to win. Kelvin Davis and his supporters in Labour are now using Utu against McCarten and his coterie.

Anonymous said...

Chris, just reminding you that you waxed lyrical with your enthusiasm for Labour/Salmonds failed Chinese bash strategy - from memory you said for every supporter who leaves through the back door there will be five coming in the front door, Im guessing the reality of the recent 3 polls has brought you back into contact with cruel hard reality.

Now your waxing lyrical over a bearded, vegetarian teetotaler who you somehow believe will shift the overton window hard left - perhaps by drawing the missing 10 million out of they're slumber, I mean you don't really expect Tory's or Kippers to go for the guy do you - its the missing million redux, pax Britannica.

I'm thinking Salmonds rascist gambit, while despicable was at least credible, expecting Jeeza to work miracles for anyone other than the conservatives is well - Alice in wonderland fantasy stuff, to quote a politician who knew how to win elections.

Unknown said...

I hope that the Labour MP's put aside their own ambitions for the good of the Labour Party sooner rather than later. Andrew has the ability to lead the party into the next election but if the party continues to appear fragmented it will be hard to present themselves as an alternative government. McCarten seems a great politico but lacking in getting solid messages and policy out in front of the public. His skills seem more about digging dirt and pulling other policies apart. I understand a lot of work is going on behind the scenes amongst the labour party membership looking at policy strategies which will be more representative of the Labour roots. Watching the National Party unravelling is great but we need some good policies from Labour to show there is a real alternative

jh said...

All that matters, according to Salmond, is winning over “the middle” – a political designation, apparently, determined not by geometry, but by opinion polling! How one accomplishes this feat, without sacrificing a political party’s ideological (and hence electoral) coherence, he does not elucidate.
According to 3 News Reid Research 62% of Labour,58% of Green and 85% of NZ First voters want greater restrictions on immigration. On the other hand party ideology (these days) possibly favours open borders. It will take a lot to convince the public that the leopard has changed it's spots. Stuff the ideology it is niche elitist ideology.