Showing posts with label Labour Party. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Labour Party. Show all posts

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Something In The Air: Examining The Precursors Of Past Labour Victories

There's Something Happening Here: The Labour victories of 1972 and 1984 were preceded by massive upsurges in extra-parliamentary civil engagement. By 1999, however, the neoliberal counter-revolution had reduced politics to a contest between political parties - the two largest of which were steadily becoming ideologically indistinguishable. (Photo by JOHN MILLER)
 
A DECISIVE FACTOR in New Zealand’s left-wing electoral victories has been the upsurge in progressive civil engagement which preceded them. In its turn, this increased politicisation has lifted the level of electoral participation. In circumstances of heightened civil engagement the ordinary citizen experiences a growing feeling of politics being “in the air” and the act of casting a vote is more easily presented as “making a difference”. At length, even the politically disengaged begin to take an interest, and since political disengagement is disproportionately associated with the young, the poor and the socially marginalised, it is hardly surprising that an up-tick in participation from these groups can make a crucial difference to the electoral efficacy of the overall “Left Vote”.


 
Let’s flesh out this proposition by examining the three periods immediately preceding the decisive Labour victories of 1972, 1984 and 1999.

1972
 
Having only narrowly lost the 1969 General Election (National: 605,960 votes or 45.2 percent, Labour: 592,055 votes or 44.2 percent) Labour was confident that the very small swing required to change the government in 1972 could be achieved.
 
This confidence was boosted by the widespread public perception that “the times they were a-changing”. Young people – especially the tens-of-thousands who were yearly taking advantage of New Zealand’s “free” tertiary education system – were making their political presence felt on the nation’s streets in protest demonstrations of unprecedented size and impact.
 
The 1971 “mobilisations” against the Vietnam War featured simultaneous demonstrations in the university cities of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Hamilton and Palmerston North. The combined turnout of these protest marches represented roughly 1 in 4 of the country’s university students. They were joined by thousands more progressive New Zealanders from the churches and the trade unions. On Friday, 30 April 1971, more than 30,000 citizens participated in anti-war protests across New Zealand.
 
The trade unions themselves were increasingly by-passing the now discredited Arbitration Court and deploying the strike weapon against their employers. Acute labour shortages left employers with little option but to settle and wages rose accordingly. Working-class New Zealanders’ political confidence grew by leaps and bounds. The Federation of Labour’s conservative National Executive struggled to keep pace with the jaunty aspirations of the unions’ rank-and-file.
 
In 1970, 264,907 people (10 percent of the country’s population!) signed the “Save Manapouri” petition – imprinting the issue of environmentalism on to the nation’s political consciousness for the first time. This potent example of “post scarcity politics” was followed by the creation of the Values Party. In 1972 this plucky political arriviste, chock-full of visionary inspiration, so spooked the Labour Party that their full-page election advertisements featured a graphic of the New Zealand environment (including a forest-destroying deer) safely bottled up in, of all things, an Agee preserving jar!
 
By the time the election rolled around, politics wasn’t just “in the air” – it was filling the air. The 1969 turnout had been a very respectable 88.94 percent and crucially for Labour that number – three percentage points higher than the turnout in 1966 – held firm in 1972. This time, however, the Norman Kirk led Opposition won 677,669 votes or 48.4 percent, and National 581,422 votes or 41.5 percent. The massive upsurge in civil engagement described above had challenged the complacency of the old and politicised the young. Labour’s winning slogan: “It’s time for a change” was resoundingly endorsed.

1984
 
The three years separating 1981 from 1984 saw the huge outpouring of progressive energy occasioned by the Springbok Tour channelled into a series of long-term hegemonic projects that have yet to end.
 
Labour’s easy victory in 1984 provided belated confirmation of its plurality of the popular vote in 1981. Only the exigencies of the First-Past-the-Post electoral system allowed Rob Muldoon’s National Party to cling onto power in that tumultuous year. In 1981 the final count gave “Rob’s Mob” 698,508 or 38.77 percent of the popular vote compared to Labour’s 702,630 votes or 39.01 percent.  (Social Credit, which claimed an extraordinary 20.6 percent of the popular vote, was “rewarded” with just 2 seats!)
 
The turnout in 1981, at 91.4 percent, was even higher than 1969 and 1972. The near record number reflected the extraordinary politicisation of the country which the Tour had effected. That it failed to secure Muldoon’s defeat saw progressive politics bifurcate into the largely extra-parliamentary “New Social Movements” (Feminism, Anti-Racism, Gay Rights, Pacifism and Environmentalism) and the more traditional, class-based movements (trade unionism and the working-class political parties). There was, of course, a lively intercourse between the two which saw the Federation of Labour endorse the Working Women’s Charter and the Labour Party establish its enormously influential Women’s Council.
 
The 1981-84 period also marked the high point of the “New Cold War” and its answering response – the movement for a Nuclear-Free New Zealand. The extent to which this movement permeated the New Zealand population is extraordinary – as evidenced by the succession of county, borough and city councils (representing two-thirds of the population) which declared themselves nuclear-free between 1980 and 1984.
 
Finally, there was the creation of the unemployed workers’ rights movement. Astonishingly, at least to younger politicos, this movement was state-subsidised. Unemployed Rights Centres received grants not only from the trade unions but also from government agencies, and their full-time staff were paid courtesy of government work schemes. For the first time since the 1930s, the poorest and most marginalised citizens had a voice. (Interestingly, the Fourth Labour Government moved very quickly to eliminate this kind of state support for advocacy groups.)
 
The Left's mobilisation of New Zealand’s most marginalised citizens almost certainly explains the truly extraordinary turnout for the 1984 General Election. At 93.7 percent it holds the record for the greatest percentage of registered voters ever to have participated in a general election. Labour was swept to power in what should have been an undiluted triumph for the Left. The full explanation for why it very quickly turned into something else must wait for another occasion.

1999
 
The Neoliberal Counter-Revolution which remade New Zealand in the years that followed 1984 reached its zenith in 1991 with Bill Birch’s long-prepared Employment Contracts Act and Ruth Richardson’s savage “Mother of All Budgets”. Had both been answered as they should have been, with a General Strike from the unions and mass demonstrations by the unemployed and beneficiaries, the following decade could have been one of unprecedented and radical politicisation culminating in the eventual election of a government committed to rolling back neoliberalism in toto. Tragically, the 1990s turned out to be anything but.
 
On 18 April 1991, state-sector union bosses (actively encouraged by the officers of the Council of Trade Unions) voted down the General Strike motion advanced by the private sector unions – thereby condemning hundreds of thousands of wage workers to the steady erosion of their workplace rights and the relentless deunionisation of their industries.
 
And because the unions did not rise, the sympathetic effect of a general strike upon the other groups under attack from Jim Bolger’s National Government never eventuated. The natural alliance of wage workers and beneficiaries which had already begun to take shape as tens-of-thousands took to the streets in late-March and early-April 1991 was brutally aborted by the CTU’s failure to effectively resist the Employment Contracts Bill.
 
The inevitable and entirely predictable result of this strategic failure on the part of the New Zealand labour movement was a steady decline in the turnout of registered voters at general elections. Twenty-seven years after that record 93.7 percent turnout in 1984, the number of registered voters participating had slumped to just 74.2 percent – the lowest turnout recorded since the advent of universal suffrage in 1893.
 
There were, of course, a succession of bold and extremely sincere opponents of the neoliberal counter-revolution – the most effective being those heroic champions of the MMP cause who, by securing a narrow victory for proportional representation in the referendum of 1993, successfully resisted the corporate sector’s well-funded campaign to preserve the manifestly unfair FPP system.
 
But not even MMP could undo the terrific damage inflicted upon New Zealand’s political system by the Fourth Labour Government’s abandonment of social democracy in favour of neoliberalism in the 1980s. This fundamental political derangement not only split the Labour Party but, by driving National sharply to the right, inspired its more moderate elements to form NZ First. Subsequent to Labour’s ideological apostasy, all politics in New Zealand has been about how best to navigate around the black hole where the centre-left used to be.
 
The NewLabour Party, which soon became the Alliance, was the best effort to rebuild an electorally viable alternative on the Left. By 1996, however, its relentless struggle against what remained of the Labour Party had severely shaken the electorate’s faith in the entire Left’s ability to govern. It is for this reason that the first MMP coalition government was the one formed between National and NZ First.
 
Turnout for that first MMP election, at 88.3 percent, was the highest since 1984, and between them National and NZ First secured 47.2 percent – more than enough with the votes of the avowedly neoliberal ACT Party to form a government.
 
Racked by internal strife and the insuperable contradictions inherent in any attempt to merge the neoliberal and conservative ideologies into a single project, the National-NZ First Coalition Government was soon reduced to an incoherent collection of rabid ideologues and disreputable turncoats. Seizing the moment Labour and the Alliance announced their intention to govern together in a loose coalition and the scene was set for a “left-wing” victory in 1999.
 
But the Labour-Alliance victory (augmented by the electoral success of the Green Party which had left the Alliance in 1997) bore almost no resemblance to the victories of 1972 and 1984. Yes, there had been some protest activity – mostly centred around tertiary student fees and, to a lesser extent, environmental issues – but it paled in comparison to the mass actions of 1971 and 1981. Overwhelmingly, politics had become a matter for organised parties. The extra-parliamentary impetus which an effective trade union movement, peace and environmental activism, and the struggle against Apartheid had given to Left politics as a whole in the 1970s and 80s was absent.
 
The 1999 turnout, at 84.1 percent, represented not a rise but a falling away in political enthusiasm. Bluntly, Helen Clark became Prime Minister because she was not Jenny Shipley. And when Big Business complained about the radicalism of her Alliance partner she was quick to reassure the bosses that socialist measures would pass only over her dead body.
 
2014
 
As the General Election of 2014 approaches, the signs of any sort of upsurge in civil engagement are few and far between. Certainly, the kinds of mass protest and the forcing on to the agenda of wholly new political issues and priorities which were the precursors of the great electoral transitions of the 70s and 80s are almost entirely absent. A dreadful inertia pervades the body politic: an unwillingness to be moved by any cause or even any outrage. It is hard to believe, looking back at the conscience-driven civil eruptions of our recent history, that we are the same people.
 
The National Prime Minister, John Key, recently told Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report that when Labour was last in power, National voted for two-thirds of its legislative programme, and that since he’s been Prime Minister, Labour has voted for two-thirds of his. It was an extremely shrewd statement, because the only New Zealanders who could possibly object to such a cosy arrangement are those who desperately need politics to be about difference. And the only way to secure the success of transformative politics is for the young, the poor and the socially marginalised to, once again, become engaged in the processes of change.
 
The very thing that, currently, they are either unable, or unwilling, to do.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 8 July 2014.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Cramped And Conventional: Labour's Alternative Budget Fails To Impress.

Labour Apologist? David Parker's Fiscal Plan is cautious in conception, orthodox in construction and singularly lacking in political inspiration. It's as if Parker felt the need to apologise for being a member of the Labour Party by constantly reassuring his readers that when it comes to controlling expenditure his plan is as fiscally responsible as the Finance Minister’s.

CONGRATULATIONS to the Labour Party for releasing an Alternative Budget well ahead of the General Election. Allowing the voters to quite literally get the measure of Labour’s economic ambitions is an entirely praiseworthy gesture which will, hopefully, be emulated by all the other parliamentary parties.
 
The document itself is less deserving of praise. What David Parker has produced is a Fiscal Plan that is cautious in conception, orthodox in construction and singularly lacking in political inspiration. If the document can be said to reveal any sort of vision at all it is of the most cramped and conventional kind – as if Parker felt the need to apologise for being a member of the Labour Party by constantly reassuring his readers that when it comes to controlling expenditure his plan is as fiscally responsible as the Finance Minister’s.
 
Responding to Labour’s Alternative Budget, BusinessNZ Chief Executive, Phil O’Reilly, noted that its costings and commitment to frugal spending would likely be welcomed by the business community. But Parker’s centrepiece – an increase in the top personal tax rate and trust rate to 36 percent – was unlikely to aid competitiveness and would penalise those who tended to invest most.
 
“Higher income and trust tax along with a new capital gains tax are not good signals for anyone wanting to invest in New Zealand’s growth.” Said O’Reilly.
 
But this rote rejection of higher taxes on the wealthy is of much less importance that the generally positive noises that preceded it. Clearly, Parker’s Budget is one that offers very little with which New Zealand capitalism could take serious issue. Indeed, the risible addition of 3 cents to the top tax-rate almost certainly occasioned a massive sigh of relief on the part of New Zealand’s top 2 percent of income earners.
 
On the afternoon he announced his candidacy for Labour’s leadership, David Cunliffe’s response to the inevitable question: ‘Do you believe in higher taxes?’ had been an unequivocal “You betcha!” Ever since, New Zealand’s wealthiest citizens have almost certainly been anticipating an aggressively redistributive fiscal strategy from the Cunliffe-led Labour Party. The announced top rate of 36 percent – 9 percentage points lower than Australia’s – must have them shaking their heads in disbelief. Their party was not so sparing of New Zealand’s poorest citizens.
 
Parker’s refusal to give effect to the confiscatory fiscal impulses of Labour’s membership is emblematic of everything that has gone awry with Cunliffe’s leadership. Elected on the promise of restoring the Labour Party to its core, democratic socialist, values (and being rewarded with a 37 percent poll rating by an electorate hungry for political substance) Cunliffe has failed utterly to build on the ideological momentum of his historic victory.
 
It is now clear than in the months following his win Cunliffe spent most of his time attempting to pacify his caucus colleagues. Rather than using the inevitability of constructing a left-wing coalition government to bring obstructive Cabinet aspirants to heel, the new leader attempted to construct some form of policy consensus. Parker’s Alternative Budget is proof of just how successful his caucus colleagues have been in forcing Cunliffe to abandon his democratic socialist promises.
 
The brutal fact of the matter is that Labour will go into the 2014 election with an economic policy package considerably to the right of its 2011 manifesto. In trying to unite his caucus “team”, Cunliffe has abandoned the very principles that had caused the Labour Left to embrace him as their champion. If Parker’s warmed-over “Third Way” social-democracy (with neoliberal characteristics) fails to inspire the voters, and Cunliffe leads Labour to defeat, it is likely the membership will punish their erstwhile champion’s apostasy with much more severity than the ABC faction’s admirable consistency.
 
Parker is at pains to paint his deeply conservative economic policies as a progressive “Economic Upgrade”. It is, he tells us in his introduction, “an ambitious set of goals” which, sadly, have required some “tough choices”. Among these, presumably, is the tough choice to compulsorily acquire a portion of a worker’s meagre wages and place it at the disposal of private investment companies until that worker turns 65. Or should that be 67? Tough, too, must have been the choice to build the 100,000 highly subsidised private dwellings the middle-class wants, rather than the 100,000 affordable state houses the working-class so desperately needs.
 
In the dreary tone of a latter-day version of the British Labour Party’s infamous Depression-era  Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Snowden, Parker informs us that “not all the policies we would like to do can be funded”. The priority, as always, must be “getting the government’s books in order” and “getting the economy growing” after six years of National Party rule. Hardly the sort of message to get the masses flocking to the polling booths!
 
Cramped and Conventional: Philip Snowden (1864-1937) was Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer at the onset of the Great Depression. Unable to think outside the box of laissez-faire capitalist orthodoxy, this Labour politician oversaw a programme of retrenchment and austerity which succeeded only in making the economic crisis worse.
 
What’s missing from this Alternative Budget is any hint of a political movement determined to change the overall direction of national policy. There is no plan to bring the ideas and aspirations of working-class people back to the centre of the political stage. No pledge to repair the damage inflicted upon the poorest and most marginalised New Zealanders by successive governments (including the last Labour Government).
 
There is not even an attempt to make good on the promise at the heart of Labour’s 2011 election campaign: the pledge to “Save Our Assets”. For Labour’s parsimonious finance spokesperson, the notion of “buying back the farm” clearly comes a poor second to “getting the government’s books in order”.
 
And yet there exist vast capital reserves that a bold and radical Labour-led Government could devote to housing the people and putting the unemployed to work. ACC does not need to be a fully-funded scheme. Were it to return to the pay-as-you-go scheme it was originally intended to be, then the $20 billion taken from levy-payers to transform ACC into an insurance company fit for privatisation would steadily become available for the improvement of New Zealand society.
 
It is the manifest lack of imagination, the stunted ambition, the absence of excitement and inspiration that makes Labour’s Alternative Budget so disappointing. The wealthy and the powerful will praise it – remarking on Labour’s surprisingly responsible approach to economic management. But for those who look to Labour for the opportunities that helped their parents and grandparents enjoy a more abundant life, Mr Parker’s Fiscal Plan risks being seen as just another reason to stay at home on 20 September.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 26 June 2014.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Progressive Politics Is Not A Game: Chris Trotter Responds To Rob Salmond

The Prize: The Labour Party of Savage, Fraser and Nash, Nordmeyer, Kirk and Rowling did not need to master the dark arts of smearing their opponents. They did battle with the National Party on the sunlit field of policy.

“ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE” says Shakespeare in As You Like It, “and all the men and women merely players”. Life as a play: as the mischievous scribblings of some amoral dramaturgical deity; is a metaphor as old as the theatre itself.
 
Closely related, and just as old, is the metaphor of life as a game. Taken as a whole, or broken up into its most vivid elements, the human experience is reduced to something as artificial and essentially meaningless as the turn of a card, the muscular efficiency of a horse or the physics of a rolling pair of dice.
 
What lies behind both of these metaphors is the desperate need of those who make use of them to empty their personal conduct of all moral agency. Actors do not write the lines they are obliged to read, nor do they control the way their scenes unfold. The shape of the plot is somebody else’s responsibility – not theirs. It’s much the same for game players. They didn’t make the rules, but having opted to play the game they’re obliged to follow them. “Love ‘em or hate ‘em,” say the players, “the rules are the rules.” Or, in the words of a recent blog posting: “The game is the game.”
 
The “game” referred to in that posting is the “game” of politics and its author, Rob Salmond, is commenting on the skill (or lack of it) displayed by the National Party in its attempted smearing of David Cunliffe.
 
“National certainly knew about it well before anyone else, and were gloating about it on online forums over the past weekend. I’m betting National also had a hand in cajoling reporters to ask very particular questions of Cunliffe just hours before the incriminating OIA would be released.
 
“And, to be blunt, there’s nothing really wrong with that.”
 
And right there – in Salmond’s bland sentence – lies the source of all Labour’s woe.
 
Implicit in Salmond’s exoneration of National is the notion that politics is a game in which deception, entrapment and public humiliation are all well within the rules. A game for players without scruple or regret. Players to be judged not according to any moral code, but simply according to how adroitly they wield the officially sanctioned weapons of the game.
 
Salmond admits as much when he upbraids National for bungling the job:
 
“If you are going to orchestrate a smear against your opponent, but hope to fade into the background while the smear unfolds, it really pays to have your cover-up stories straight.”
 
He then goes on to gloat about how much better Labour is at smearing its opponents:
 
“Did you ever hear about Labour’s role in forcing [redacted] of the [redacted] party to resign back in [redacted]? No, I bet you didn’t.”
 
Presumably Salmond expects his readers to offer up a professional chuckle at this little gem. In much the same way that a Mafia hit-man would acknowledge a fellow assassin’s description of how he dispatched his latest victim. After all, when “the game is the game” there’s simply no room for the squeamish. Indeed, Salmond and his fellow professionals have a name for those who feel nauseated by such behaviour. They call them ‘losers’.
 
The real loser, of course, is the noble calling of progressive politics. The sort of politics that Labour’s Mickey Savage, eighty years ago, was quite unembarrassed to describe as “applied Christianity”. Unembarrassed, because Savage wasn’t a “professional” politician in any sense that Salmond might recognise. Born into poverty, largely self-educated, quietly spoken and diminutive of stature, Savage did not conceive of politics as a “game”. For him it was the only means by which ordinary, decent working people could secure the prerequisites of an abundant life for themselves and their children.
 
The Labour Party of Savage, Fraser and Nash, Nordmeyer, Kirk and Rowling did not need to master the dark arts of smearing their opponents. They did battle with the National Party on the sunlit field of policy. The only thing their conservative opponents were “forced” to do was to tell the voters why Labour’s policies of social uplift and collective progress could not possibly be implemented. The basements and back alleys of deception and entrapment remained the natural environment of blackmailers and pimps: the immoral milieu into which such criminal elements have always faded.
 
But that all changed in the 1980s when Labour’s caucus embraced the politics of “professional” neoliberal governance and abandoned the New Zealand working-class to its fate. It was then that the practice of progressive democratic politics ceased to be the open-ended process of collective emancipation that it had been from the 30s to the 70s. With both Labour and National now irreversibly committed to upholding the rules of neoliberalism, politics ceased to be about turning progressive and emancipatory ideas into reality, and became instead a contest designed to identify which team of politicians was most adept at playing the neoliberal game.
 
And what else but the skills of deception, entrapment and public humiliation would such politicians seek to master? When “the game is the game” what can politics be apart from an unceasing effort to beset and belittle the men and women of the opposing teams? An endless conspiracy to make your opponents look like losers.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 20 June 2014.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Gut Reactions

Horizontal Revolution: Labour's (and Labor's) inspirational leaders of the 1960s and 70s, Norman Kirk and Gough Whitlam, both grasped the decisive electoral potential of suburban voters who longed to escape the relentless sameness of their days. The votes of the women who lived in the "Hill's Hoist suburbs" around Sydney were crucial to Whitlam's 1972 victory.
 
GETTING ELECTED has always been the Number One priority of parliamentary democracy. It follows, therefore, that the role of a parliamentary leader is to identify and remove every obstacle to his or her party becoming the government. Partly, that’s a matter of opinion polls, focus groups and communication strategies but, mostly, it’s about a leader’s instinctive feel for the hopes and aspirations, the gripes and disappointments, of the people who have the power to make him or her Prime Minister.
 
It’s John Key’s indisputable ability to divine what’s eating the average New Zealand voter that makes him such a formidable political figure. Yes, he may slip up from time-to-time, say foolish (or downright offensive) things, but always the needle of his political compass recovers the location of electoral North and he’s back on track.
 
Much as I hate to admit it, David Cunliffe simply does not have Key’s knack for staying on course. The Labour leader has many intelligent advisers, a good polling agency, pages and pages of Focus Group reports and (allegedly) a speechwriter. What he doesn’t have, however, is Key’s feel for where the voters’ heads are at; that unerring ability to find true electoral North.
 
What makes me even more depressed is I don’t believe that ability can be instilled. You either have it, or you don’t.
 
Consider the case of Norman Kirk and what he understood about the lives of the people who could make him Prime Minister. Read these lines from the first chapter of the autobiography he began but never finished. The place described is the street in working-class Linwood, in Christchurch, where he grew up.
 
It did not brood. It had no character. Instead it conformed. The people were drab. The street was drab. The people were poor. The street was poor. It was there because it had to be. It had nowhere else to go. Neither did the people. It did not inspire. It was a sponge. It soaked up hope. And at night it counted its people like a warder counts his prisoners.
 
Kirk understood that there were hundreds of thousands of Kiwis who’d been raised on identical streets and, like him, yearned to escape the confinement of such hope-consuming suburbs. In these lines you’ll find no romantic celebration of working-class existence, only a visceral longing for something better; for somewhere else to go.
 
Kirk’s contemporary, Gough Whitlam, understood a very different kind of suburb. The bare, amenity-starved, post-war subdivisions that had sprung up on the outskirts of Sydney in the 1950s and 60s. They were a step-up from the inner-city tenements of the 1930s but the people who lived in them felt almost as constrained as they had in Sydney’s slums. Even in the years of Menzies and the Great Boom there was still so much that was denied to them.
 
Whitlam, alone of all his colleagues in the near-moribund Australian Labor Party, grasped the progressive political potential of the “Hill’s Hoist” suburbs.
 
But first he had to clear all the obstacles to getting elected, and in the Australia of the late-1960s that included the proudly proletarian and staunchly left-wing Victorian Labor Party. On the 9 June 1967, as the ALP’s new leader, Whitlam bearded these socialist lions in their den. In what many Aussie historians consider the best speech of his career, Whitlam addressed directly the defeatist political mindset that had produced eight consecutive Labor defeats.
 
We construct a philosophy of failure, which finds in defeat a form of justification and a proof of the purity of our principles. Certainly, the impotent are pure. This party was not conceived in failure, brought forth by failure or consecrated to failure. Let us have none of this nonsense that defeat is in some way more moral than victory.
 
That killer line: “Certainly, the impotent are pure”, provoked an uproar – but it was a necessary uproar. Because, as Whitlam reminded them: “We are in the business to serve and preserve democracy. Parliamentary democracy.”
 
Kirk and Whitlam understood instinctively the intense dissatisfaction building up beneath the National/Liberal status quo. Both men’s political intestines told them that the Hill’s Hoist generation – and their increasingly restive children – would not remain prisoners of their own streets forever.
 
So, Mr Cunliffe, which obstacles to “getting elected” will you remove? What is your gut telling you to do?
 
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 June 2014.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Labour's Caucus Still In Charge

Caucus Takes Charge: Newly elected Prime Minister, David Lange, surrounded by his Cabinet, 1984. Paradoxically, electoral victory often signals defeat for a political party. When Caucus becomes Government the ability of the party organisation to hold its parliamentary representatives to account is fatally weakened.

DOES THE CASTLE STREET BRANCH of the Labour Party still exist? Back in the 80s it boasted over 400 paid-up members – many of them academic staff from the University of Otago. The British political scientist, author and broadcaster, Austin Mitchell, had founded the branch in the early 1960s. Like its counterpart at the University of Auckland, the much more famous Princes Street branch, Castle Street saw its role as trailblazing progressive (sometimes radical) policy suggestions well ahead of public opinion: Labour’s future manifestoes.
 
Back then progressive/radical reform was synonymous with social reform: liberalising the laws forbidding abortion and homosexuality; cutting off contact with Apartheid South Africa, declaring New Zealand nuclear-free and even decriminalising cannabis. Given the makeup of the branch’s activist base, discussion of these issues tended to focus not on whether such changes should be made, but how far they should go.
 
Then came Rogernomics – and consensus went out the window. A narrow majority of the active branch members opposed Roger Douglas’s neoliberal reforms, while a determined and well-connected minority supported them staunchly. The discussions ceased and the debates that replaced them were bitter and hard fought affairs. And while the left may have had the numbers in Castle Street and the wider party, in the only institution that truly mattered, Labour’s parliamentary caucus, Roger Douglas and his allies continued to hold sway.
 
Just how absolutely Labour’s future lay in the hands of its MPs was driven home to me the night David Butcher put in a guest appearance at the Castle Street Branch. Naturally, the left-wing members of the branch were giving the MP for Hastings a very hard time. Most of all they wanted to know whether he and his colleagues would abide by the party’s firm stance against the privatisation of state assets.
 
Butcher’s response chilled me to my bones. The Government, he said, was implementing the policies the country needed. He would rather lose his seat than support policies detrimental to New Zealand’s interests.
 
I knew then that, as a genuine social-democratic party, Labour was finished.
 
The only political leverage that the ordinary members of any party have over their MPs is the threat of deselection. But here, in front of us, David Butcher was affirming proudly his readiness to lose his parliamentary seat rather than reverse Roger Douglas’s reforms. We all knew then that Rogernomics was set to roll on – no matter what the party said or did.
 
We also knew that division within Labour’s ranks meant certain defeat. Defeat, in turn, meant National. And by the late 1980s National was as committed to pushing ahead with neoliberalism as Roger Douglas and David Butcher. For the Labour Left it was a Lose/Lose scenario. For the Rogernomes, however, it was Lose/Win. While they might fall as loyal soldiers in the battle, Neoliberalism itself would triumph.
 
What has all this, the minutiae of branch life in the Labour Party of 25 years ago, got to do with the political dynamics of 2014?
 
As it turns out, quite a lot.
 
Like the Castle Street Branch of the 1980s, the Labour Party of 2014 boasts a narrow left-wing majority. That majority, after changing the party rules, elected David Cunliffe as its leader and is in the process of constructing a binding policy platform for the next Labour Government. At first glance, then, the lessons of the 1980s appear to have been learned.
 
All but one – and that the most important of them all. Majorities mean nothing outside the only Labour Party institution that truly matters: the parliamentary caucus. If you cannot control the caucus, then you simply cannot reassure the party that its best efforts will not be rendered worthless through the calculated insubordination of a clique of rebellious caucus members.
 
This is especially problematic when these insubordinate rebels (most of whom are securely ensconced in safe Labour seats) believe it will be easier for like-minded politicians to protect “the policies this country needs” if David Cunliffe and all that he represents loses the forthcoming general election.
 
Butcher’s gambit is as powerful today as it was 25 years ago.
 
What are Cunliffe’s options? Obviously the option of splitting the Labour Party and forming “NewLabour” – the Labour Left’s choice in 1989 – is not available to the party leader. Which leaves the other option put forward by Matt McCarten back in 1988.
 
“It seems obvious to me now that the right-wing MPs have put their hands up and threatened the party”, Matt told Labour’s president, Rex Jones. “So we should call a special conference of the party and expel them … The Labour Party made a mistake selecting these people so sack them. Throw them out and let them stand against us. They’ll lose and the Labour Party can rebuild itself.”
 
 “You mad little fucker!” Rex replied.
 
Maybe. Maybe not.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 June 2014.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

The Right Divide

A Left Wing Party? You Must Be Joking! With the election of the Fourth Labour Government in July 1984 it became increasingly evident that the ideological dividing line in New Zealand ran not between National and Labour but between the Right of the Labour Party and an increasingly diverse and variegated Left.
 
THERE’S A REASON Labour finds the presence of political parties to its left so uncomfortable. It’s the same reason an ageing actor feels so uncomfortable sharing the stage with a more dynamic and younger rising star. The ability to compare and contrast is deeply subversive of undeserved reputations.
 
Labour’s uneasiness with political diversity also largely explains its apparent inability to abandon First-Past-The-Post thinking. From Labour’s point of view, FPP is the ideal electoral system. It virtually guarantees that a nation’s politics will be dominated and defined by two parties: one representing “The Left” and the other “The Right”.
 
The choices for electors are thus radically simplified. In much the same way that Radio NZ still grossly oversimplifies the discussion of New Zealand politics by subsuming the myriad subtleties and complexities of Right and Left in the orthodox political commentary of Matthew Hooton and Mike Williams.
 
From the perspective of Labour’s parliamentary caucus, the great advantage of reducing New Zealand’s politics to this essentially binary formation is that it allows them to pretend that the ideological dividing-line separating right-wing from left-wing New Zealanders runs between the National and Labour parties.
 
The maintenance of this plausible, but mistaken, perception has become critical to the preservation of New Zealand’s enviable reputation for political stability. The two major parties have devoted tremendous effort to promulgating the pernicious fiction that the extraordinary upheavals of the 1980s left the fundamental structure of New Zealand politics essentially unchanged.
 
The validity of the historically indisputable Left/Labour–Right/National dichotomy had been subject to academic challenge since the late 1950s, but with the election of the Fourth Labour Government in July 1984 it became increasingly evident that the ideological dividing line in New Zealand ran not between National and Labour but between the Right of the Labour Party and an increasingly diverse and variegated Left.
 
The proof of this lay in the fact that switching National for Labour, or Labour for National, made no significant difference to the way the country was run. The dominant right-wing faction of Labour’s caucus ensured that the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s would undergo no significant alteration by any government over which they held sway.
 
It was this effective neutralising of democracy which more-or-less guaranteed the introduction of MMP. The latter’s arrival should also have exposed the fiction that Labour MPs, simply by virtue of their Labour Party membership status, could be excluded from the ranks of those who opposed a radical revision of New Zealand politics. Unfortunately, the binary thinking so deeply-ingrained in our political system encouraged left-of-Labour parties like the Alliance and the Greens to persist with the pretence that National and its allies constitute the primary political target.
 
Ironically, David Cunliffe’s election as Labour leader, by the left-wing majority of his party, has made the perpetuation of this pretence easier, not harder. The right of Labour’s caucus which viciously opposed Cunliffe’s candidacy were, nevertheless, permitted to survive his victory, remaining well-positioned to thwart any attempt to match their new leader’s left-wing rhetoric with an equally left-wing strategy of outreach and accommodation with parties to Labour’s left.
 
Accordingly, these past two months have witnessed the Labour Right plotting in plain sight to exclude the Greens from any meaningful role in a Cunliffe-led Labour Government. Their “the more things change, the more they’ll stay the same” strategy has, however, been thrown into disarray by the intervention of Kim Dotcom’s money and Hone Harawira’s strategic dexterity. The lavishly funded and potentially decisive force now assembling to the left of the Greens under Hone Harawira and Laila Harré has forced the Labour Right onto the offensive.
 
Keep it up, guys! Long may the radio interviews, tweets and Facebook postings of Kelvin Davis, Phil Goff, Chris Hipkins, Trevor Mallard and Stuart Nash reverberate through cyberspace. New Zealanders have suffered for far too long from the Labour Right’s masterful misdirection. It’s time we realised that the paths they urge us to avoid are the paths to follow.
 
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 6 June 2014.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Keep Calm And Carry On: Why The Left Should Ignore The Next Round Of Poll Results.

Good Advice: The Left should think of the next round of polls as the Right’s all-or-nothing artillery barrage – something to panic them into a headlong retreat. But, as the shells loaded with appalling results burst over the heads, they should simply tighten their helmet-straps and hold tight. The Internet-Mana Party has not yet begun to fight.

BRACE YOURSELVES, COMRADES, for some horrendous poll results. The next round of surveys from Colmar Brunton, Reid Research, DigiPoll, Ipsos and Roy Morgan will almost certainly register a major slump in the Centre Left’s support and a concomitant rise in National’s numbers – quite possibly to 55 percent-plus. Labour and the Greens will both take nasty hits and the Internet-Mana Party (IMP) will be very lucky to make it above 1 percent. Apart from John Key, the only other person likely to be smiling is Winston Peters.
 
The polls will be bad because the framing of Kim Dotcom’s latest intervention in New Zealand politics has been so near-universally and overwhelmingly negative. From the Right (and Sue Bradford) has come the steady drumbeat that Hone Harawira and the Mana Party have done a “dirty deal” with Kim Dotcom and, in the process, “sold out their principles” for cash.
 
Amplifying this message, TV3’s political editor, Patrick Gower, has characterised the IMP strategy as “a rort” (a term which normally denotes morally questionable if not downright illegal manipulation) even though what the Mana and Internet parties are proposing is well within the rules and has been a feature of every election campaign since MMP came into force in 1996. Gower’s destructive message has, however, been repeated, ad nauseum, by an endless succession of editorial writers, talkback hosts, columnists and bloggers.
 
The presence of former Alliance Party politicians and staffers in the IMP – most notably the Internet Party’s choice for leader, Laila Harré – has only reinforced the public’s perception that Dotcom has unleashed upon New Zealand a fiercely left-wing coalition that may yet play a decisive role in determining whether or not John Key continues to be New Zealand’s prime minister.
 
Labour and the Greens, simply by sharing the left of the ideological spectrum with the IMP, will be judged guilty by association with the controversial German entrepreneur. Accordingly, a broad swathe of moderate and centrist voters, when contacted by the pollsters, will register their knee-jerk objections to Dotcom, Harawira, Harré and the IMP by rededicating themselves unhesitatingly to John Key and the National Party. Or, if that is too big a leap, by making positive noises about Winston Peters and NZ First.
 
The ill-considered outbursts from a number of right-wing Labour MPs over Queen’s Birthday weekend reflected conservative Labour’s instinctive reaction to this sudden and controversial eruption of a new, well-resourced political force to its left. Precisely because they are conservatives, their gut reaction told them that the voting public’s first response to the circumstances of the IMP’s birth would be to punish the entire Left indiscriminately. Their broadcast statements, tweets, and Facebook postings were crude (and ultimately self-defeating) attempts to persuade centrist voters that they should spare Labour from their righteous wrath.
 
It’s a pity these Labour MPs were so unwilling to hold their nerve and work their way through the emerging situation calmly and logically. Had they done so, their fears would have subsided as swiftly as they had flared.
 
The Right has been taking free shots against the IMP and its putative allies on the Left because they know this is the last chance they will get to land unanswered blows before Dotcom’s millions begin to take effect. (And rest assured, they will take effect.)
 
The Right’s principal movers and shakers know – even if their media minions do not – just how much difference a huge campaign war-chest can make to an election’s outcome. They caught a glimpse of what IMP is capable of in the razzmatazz of Harré’s introduction. They have also heard the rumours about whole floors of brilliant IT-geeks all beavering away; unheard of political applications; unprecedented polling capability. It’s why they’re hoping against hope that the beating currently being administered to the IMP during this period of “Phoney War” will be sufficiently savage to obviate any chance of its recovery. And a big part of that hope is that the more conservative elements of the Left will help them out by getting in a few kicks of their own.
 
Hopefully, the more courageous elements within the Labour and Green camps will prevent this from happening. The best thing they can do as the Right strikes out blindly at the IMP is to strongly and confidently articulate their own party’s core messages to the electorate.
 
They should think of the next round of polls as the Right’s all-or-nothing artillery barrage – something to panic them into a headlong retreat. But, as the shells loaded with appalling results burst over the heads, they should simply tighten their helmet-straps and hold tight.
 
Behind them the IMP is marshalling its troops, stockpiling ammunition and gasoline, and unloading its tanks from their transporters. The Left has only to keep calm, carry on, and remember that blitzkrieg is a German word.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 4 June 2014.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Labour's Flight From Reality.

Borne Aloft: It wasn't Love that lifted Labour up where it belonged in 1984, but a branch membership of 85,000. If Labour's boosters are right, and Labour's membership has soared miraculously to the levels of 30 years ago, then why is the party registering barely 30 percent in the opinion polls? The David Lange-led Labour Party won 43 percent of the popular vote in 1984 on a record turn-out of 93.7 percent of registered voters. David Cunliffe should be so lucky!
 
STALLED AT 30 PERCENT in the polls, Labour is still pretending it can win the General Election without help. Bluntly speaking, the party is in a state of serious, collective denial. The most frightening aspect of which, from the perspective of those New Zealanders seeking a change of government in September, is that while the condition persists National cannot possibly be defeated. Heedless, the Labour Party continues to fly from the reality of its own poor performance. Even worse, it’s begun flying from the reality of its own history.
 
Over the past few weeks Labour’s boosters have begun to brag that the party’s membership is the highest it has been in 30 years.
 
Let’s just pause for a moment and unpick that statement.
 
Thirty years ago, in June 1984, the “ordinary” or “branch” membership of the NZ Labour Party stood at 85,000. In addition to these card-carrying members, an additional 12,500 individuals were contributing regularly to the party’s “Victory For Labour” fund. The trade union affiliate membership of the Labour Party, in that era of mass union membership, stood somewhere in the vicinity of 200,000.
 
With this vast membership, organised into hundreds of branches across the country, it is not difficult to understand why the registered voter turnout in the snap election of 1984 was a record 93.7 percent. Nor is it surprising to learn that even in a First-Past-the-Post election featuring four serious contenders (Labour, National, Social Credit and Bob Jones’s New Zealand Party) the David Lange-led Labour Party secured 43 percent of the votes cast.
 
Knowing this, and hearing Labour’s present leadership boast about the party having more members than it had in 1984 is, understandably, a little jarring. Yes, the party benefited hugely from the influx of members that accompanied last September’s  Leadership Election. Membership may well have doubled, as many boosters insist. But even if that’s true, the current membership total is still relatively modest. The best estimates place it somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 – well short of that mid-80s peak.
 
(There is, of course, a chance that my informants’ estimates are wrong. Something Labour could verify in an instant by releasing its full membership details to the news media.)
 
I am concentrating on Labour’s putative numbers because they form the basis for David Cunliffe’s increasingly wacky optimism.
 
He is being told that with this vastly expanded army of volunteers at his back, and with a software package capable of identifying the voters Labour needs to win, the party’s parlous position in the polls, and its crippling lack of funds, will, on Election Day, be gloriously transcended and, in the rich glow of victory, the pundits will be required to eat a heapin’ helpin’ of Crow.
 
But Mr Cunliffe should do the math.
 
Only 10 percent of any membership base should ever be counted on to make a consistent contribution to the cause. Back in 1984 that rule-of-thumb gave the party organisation around 10,000 reliable activists on the ground. An average of 105 activists per electorate. That same rule, applied to the best estimates of the party’s membership base, yields Labour just 28 activists per electorate in 2014.
 
Mr Cunliffe is being spun a fantasy. Twenty-eight activists per electorate simply cannot lift Labour’s level of support from 30 percent to 43 percent of the popular vote. Believing Labour can replicate the extraordinary effort and turnout of 1984 is an exercise in collective delirium.
 
It ain’t gonna happen.
 
When Mr Cunliffe openly acknowledges that he will only become Prime Minister with the backing of the Greens and the Internet-Mana Party, Labour will have taken the first important step towards political recovery.
 
When he takes the public into his confidence about the range of policies he would be prepared to live with in the interests of building a strong coalition government, then the voters will begin to extend their trust.
 
When Labour casts aside Winston Peters’ absurd notion that voters are somehow advantaged by being required to buy a pig in a poke – only getting to see exactly what sort of pig, and what sort of poke, when it’s too late for them to do anything about either – will the electorate recover the power to determine the content of their preferred coalition government’s mandate before the election.
 
At the heart of Labour’s political malady lies the crooked notion that the right to govern is theirs and theirs alone. That, having been withheld from them by the ignorance of the electorate, they have only to wait for the voters, pricked by their consciences, to hand power back to them, unexamined and untouched, so that they may resume their governance of the country from precisely the point where they were so rudely and ungratefully required to give it up.
 
Not surprisingly, the Government’s opponents are taking precautions against such political insanity.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 3 June 2014.

Truth Or Dare: Why David Cunliffe Needs To Come Clean With The Labour Left.

The Member For Cheshire: But is David Cunliffe grinning from ear-to-ear at the 2012 Ellerslie conference because Labour’s membership has just seized control of their party, or is it because he knows that his pathway to Labour's leadership had just been cleared?
 
WERE YOU TELLING THE TRUTH, DAVID? When you told your party that the age of neoliberalism was over? That you, alone among all your colleagues, had grasped the meaning of the global financial crisis, and only you could lead Labour to an election victory that would restore New Zealand to itself?
 
Because they believed you, David. They believed you and they fought for you.
 
I remember the collective thrill that reverberated through the party conference at Ellerslie when Len Richards told the delegates that it was time to “take our party back!” That’s when the cameras homed in on you, David, seated there in the midst of your New Lynn delegation (not lined up at the microphone to oppose the democratisation of the party like so many of your caucus “colleagues”). And you were smiling, David. You looked elated.
 
But, were you smiling because Labour’s membership had finally seized control of their party, or was it because you knew that the pathway to the leadership was now clear?
 
That’s what your enemies said, David. They said you looked like a cat who’s got the cream. And, my, how they rounded on you: accusing you of fomenting a coup against David Shearer. Do you recall the poisonous outbursts of Chris Hipkins? Your demotion to the back benches? The vicious harassment of your allies Charles Chauvel and Leanne Dalziel?
 
The ‘Anyone But Cunliffe’ faction tried to break you.
 
But they failed, didn’t they, David? Because, throughout it all, the rank-and-file of the party and the affiliated trade unions remained loyal. And, when Shearer finally threw in the towel, they knew what to do. Over the strenuous efforts of a majority of the caucus, they elected you Leader of the Labour Party. The moral and political lethargy of their MPs had driven the membership close to despair – and you were their Great Red Hope.
 
So what happened, David?
 
One of the polls taken at the conclusion of the leadership contest put Labour on 37 percent – placing it within striking distance of 41.2 percent, Labour’s best ever election result under MMP, and just a couple of percentage points away from Labour’s winning Party Vote of 38.7 percent in 1999. You had momentum, David. New Zealanders liked your message. Labour’s social-democratic values were threatening to come back into fashion.
 
And then everything went quiet. The 2013 conference, which should have been a rapturous coronation, was a curiously strangled affair. Your more radical supporters were “persuaded” to pull their punches on important left-wing issues like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the age of eligibility for NZ Superannuation. The uncompromising language of 2012’s Draft Party Platform was watered-down to the point of blandness. Doubters were reassured that Cunliffe was still Cunliffe. That it was a matter of priorities. That, for the moment, “party unity” was paramount.
 
“Party Unity” – is that what this is all about? Party Unity. Of the sort we saw demonstrated last week by the likes of Kelvin Davis, Phil Goff, Chris Hipkins and Trevor Mallard? Forgive me, David, but that didn’t strike me as evidence of a unified party. That looked to me like the ABC Faction flexing its muscles. And you, David. How did you respond to their rank insubordination and strategic stupidity? Did you slap them down? Did you bring them into line?  Like hell you did! You caved. Cravenly and very publicly, David – you caved.
 
It’s time for you to wise up, David. The voters who thrilled to your election as Labour’s leader won’t take much more of this. Nor will Labour’s left-wing membership. If they had wanted a continuation of the political lethargy and ideological flabbiness that’s characterised their party’s parliamentary leadership since Helen Clark’s departure, then the rank-and-file and the unions would have given their votes to somebody else.
 
That the Labour Left spurned your opponents was due in no small part to their interpretation of your “The Dolphin and the Dole Queue” speech. They simply assumed that you were readying the country for a Labour-Green coalition, and that this combination would generate a mix of policies well to the left of the caucus’s conservative positions. You can imagine the alarm-bells that started ringing when Labour firmly rejected Russel Norman’s suggestion of a joint Labour-Green campaign effort. Even more alarming was your own use of Winston Peters’ spurious justification for giving nothing away until after the votes have been counted.
 
In God’s name, man! What do you think Labour is? A minor party! Peters’ uses his “wait until the voters have had their say” line to give himself maximum flexibility when it comes to choosing coalition partners, and to prevent the desertion of his supporters (who are drawn from both the Left and the Right) by stating a clear preference for one over the other before polling day. Are you really telling the world that Labour is now so bereft of ideological confidence and coherence that it must resort to Winston’s opportunistic tactics? Is that how bad things have got? That you need to trick people into voting Labour?
 
Because if that is the situation, then let me tell you where Labour is headed. It is headed in the direction of entering a Grand Coalition with National. No, don’t shake your head in derision, in many ways the MMP system lends itself to this solution (and in MMP’s birthplace, Germany, there have been a least two Grand Coalition governments since 1947).
 
Just work your way through it logically.
 
If the Labour caucus is unwilling to concede ground on policy matters to the Greens; if this is the reason so many of them would prefer to work with the ideologically undemanding Mr Peters; and, if caucus’s antipathy to the prospect of having to deal with Hone Harawira, Laila Harré, Annette Sykes and John Minto is (at least) ten times greater than its hostility towards the Greens; then what will happen if the only government (other than a Grand Coalition) that can be formed when the votes have been counted is a Labour/Green/Internet-Mana Party coalition?
 
Can you guarantee both your party and your electoral base that the Labour caucus won’t split apart rather than accept the policy consequences of such a radical coalition? Can you tell us that the ABCs wouldn’t do what Labour’s Peter Tapsell did in the cliff-hanger election of 1993 – provide National the margin it needed to govern? If National was shrewd enough to offer Labour the premiership in return for their joining a “Government of National Unity” against “corruption and extremism”, can you promise us you’d turn it down, David. That you’d tell National, Act, Peter Dunne and the ABC’s to go to Hell?
 
Because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person wondering why David Cunliffe is suddenly so coy when it comes to the parties and the policies he and his colleagues are willing to embrace. Why they cannot seem to see the obvious electoral advantages of running a strategy of co-operation and accommodation with the Greens and the IMP. Why it is that everybody – apart from the Labour caucus – can see that, from a derisory 30 percent in the polls, Labour cannot get to the Beehive on its own: that it must have allies.
 
You are where you are, David, because your party believed that you would seek for those allies on the Left – not the Right. And now they’re looking for some much needed reassurance.
 
So, David, tell them again: why do you want to be Labour’s leader?
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 2 June 2014.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Authoritarian Labour: Why Kelvin Davis Needs To STFU - Right Now!

One Angry Man: For a person who attaches so much importance to the concept of "respect", it's a pity Kelvin Davis seems utterly incapable of respecting other politicians and parties on the Left. If Labour continues to behave as if it has no need of allies, it's chances of winning the election are nil.
 
DAVID, MATT, SOMEBODY – PLEASE! Tell Kelvin Davis to pull his head in. His outburst on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report this morning was way beyond embarrassing. The ill-considered slagging of Hone Harawira and the Internet-Mana Party (IMP) not only reflected poorly on his own political skills, but it also raised doubts about Labour’s overall ability to read what is happening in the run-up to 20 September.
 
It wasn’t just the absence of any semblance of strategic – or even tactical – understanding that was so worrying about Davis’s performance this morning, it was his barely concealed aggression. There is an anger in Davis that calls into question his suitability for any kind of public office. Anger, and what appears to be a classic authoritarian character structure (the two often go together).
 
Just listen to how he describes his family in the potted biography Labour has displayed on its website. Davis tells us that he is “married with three beautiful, intelligent and respectful children”. It’s the use of the word “respectful” that gives him away. Such a public declaration of the importance Davis attaches to the concept of respect is a very telling character marker. It tell tells us a lot about his personality and where he most likely fits on the Left-Right/Authoritarian-Libertarian grid.
 
My guess is that he occupies a position that places him towards the Authoritarian end of the Authoritarian-Libertarian gradient and on the right of the Left-Right spectrum. He is very far from being the first Labour MP to be so located. Indeed, it would have been impossible for the Clark-led Government to have introduced so many pieces of reactionary Corrections and Justice legislation without the presence of a solid rump of such individuals in Labour’s caucus.
 
The authoritarian character structure does not, however, confine its political influence to law and order issues. Authoritarians tend to be threatened by just about any form of behaviour which deviates from what they define as “normal”. If required to do so they will tolerate “deviant” behaviour and life-styles, but their toleration should never be mistaken for acceptance. In the company of trusted “normal” colleagues, their true feelings will be aired – and seldom in a tolerant or accepting way!
 
The other give-away contained in Davis’s biography is his almost total reliance on education as a means of lifting families out of poverty. “Kelvin is passionate about improving outcomes for Maori and believes education is the vehicle that will enable Maori to fulfil their aspirations.” While no one can sensibly dispute the role education plays in enabling social mobility, when it is held up by politicians as a universal panacea, then their advocacy usually merits closer scrutiny.
 
Does Davis believe education is the Maori people’s best hope because, liberally interpreted, education draws forth from every individual both the self-knowledge and the self-confidence needed to live a full and self-determined life? Or, does he measure the value of education in terms of its ability to inculcate the social, political and economic values of those who control capitalist societies like our own? And because this latter type of education turns out individuals who are “fit for use” by those whose business it is to use them?
 
My concern is that Davis belongs in the second camp. How else should we interpret the statement that: “He believes that Treaty settlements are but the cream on the cake, and not the cake itself - he believes that education is that path that Maori need to take to enable us all to achieve greater health, wealth and happiness.”?
 
Surely this is an assimilationist view of Maori development? And isn’t the word “education” being used here by Davis as a sort of code for “equipping Maori for a place in the world that global capital is daily reconfiguring”? Is he not lining up alongside those who insist that Maori cultural identity is best relegated to a subsidiary, “off duty”, status? That Maori are best advised to let the sugared cream of monetary compensation, via the Treaty settlement process, obliterate the bitter taste of their people’s defeat and dispossession?
 
If this is, indeed, Davis’s view, then his barely concealed aggression towards Hone Harawira is readily explained. Not only is Harawira’s warrior persona an affront to the former intermediate school principal’s sense of order, but Harawira’s vision of a decolonised – an emancipated – Maoridom, is diametrically opposed to Davis’s vision of a New Zealand in which the well-paid servants of global capital might just as well be Maori as Pakeha.
 
Bluntly stated, Hone stands for everything Kelvin despises. Moreover, in the eyes of this angry representative of authoritarian Labour, the IMP can only be seen as a deeply subversive assault upon neoliberal capitalism’s core ideological values.
 
And what can Davis possibly make of Kim Dotcom? A highly successful capitalist who refuses to take the power of money seriously? A capitalist who plays with his money, makes merry-hell with it, and, now that the Powers-That-Be have come after him with armed policemen and extradition orders, is using it to carve a path to power – using Hone Harawira, Laila Harre, Annette Sykes and John Minto as his hammers and chisels.
 
Labour needs to decide – and quickly – if the authoritarian Davis really is the very model of a modern Labour MP that he (along with many others in the party and the news media) sees himself as representing. If he is, then it will be war in Te Tai Tokerau and throughout the country, and John Key will win the election. If he is not: if Labour wants to be seen as something more than an aggressive hard-man bereft of all strategic and tactical understanding; then someone has got to make Kelvin Davis STFU – right now!
 
A version of this essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 30 May 2014.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Ocean's Fourteen: How David Cunliffe Plans To Pull Off The Political Heist Of The Century.

He Came, He Grabbed, They Conquered: Labour plans to win power for itself by combining its own votes with the votes of as many of National's enemies as it can help over the line into Parliament. For the first time in the MMP era, Cunliffe plans to make the party with the second-largest number of votes the core of a governing coalition.

THE LATEST POLL RESULTS are cause for celebration on the Right and commiseration on the Left. There will be many in the National Party who are now convinced that, providing John Key’s government avoids making any serious mistakes in the remaining 117 days to Election Day, victory is assured. By the same tokens, there will be many in the Labour Party who now regard victory in September as a fading mirage. Barring some sort of miracle, they’ve already conceded the battle to National.
 
For the wider New Zealand community the 2014 General Election is also looking like a done deal. Those of settled conviction and strong partisan loyalties will participate once again in the democratic ritual of voting, but many citizens will question the efficacy of participating in a contest whose outcome is constantly being presented as a statistical certainty. Combine these sceptics with the perennially inert 15 percent of eligible voters who never exercise their democratic rights and it is possible – even likely – that the turnout for the 2014 election will be as low, if not lower, than the record abstention of 2011.
 
Analysis of the 2011 data suggests that these poll-guided abstainers are as likely to be found among the ranks of National’s voters as they are among Labour’s. That would certainly explain John Key’s playing-down of the Colmar Brunton/Reid Research figures; his anxious reiteration of the likely closeness of this year’s electoral contest; and his repeated appeals to all Centre-Right voters to get up off the couch, make their way to the nearest polling-booth – and vote.
 

SINCE LOSING POWER IN 2008, the Labour Opposition has had no shortage of self-appointed critics and advisers. Those who have come at this task from the Left have never wavered from the view that if Labour abandoned neoliberalism and reoriented itself towards the democratic socialist principles of its constitution, then a majority of voters would get in behind the resulting left-wing manifesto.
 
Moreover, so disruptive of “politics-as-usual” would such a manifesto be that even the perennially inert 15 percent of voters would be jolted out of their political apathy and the Centre-Left Vote would surge beyond the Right’s capacity to restrain it. Combined with the left-leaning abstainers of 2011, the numbers available to Labour and its allies would, potentially, be huge. With only slight exaggeration, the left-wing advocates of this “jump to the left” strategy talked about mobilising the “Missing Million” New Zealanders who did not vote.
 
When sceptics demanded to know what sort of policies it would take to rouse this sleeping psephological giant, the Left-jumpers pointed to the public’s, the business community’s and the news media’s reaction to the joint release of the Labour-Green energy policy in 2013. So strident was the Right’s reaction that even those who usually took no interest in politics pricked up their ears.
 
By releasing a series of bold and unashamedly left-wing policies, argued the Left-jumpers, Labour would goad the right-wing parties and their media allies into fostering so much jarring and polarising controversy that it would have the effect of stampeding the Non-Vote into active participation.
 
This is what lay behind the Left’s relentless promotion of David Cunliffe as Labour’s next leader. Unlike David Shearer, Cunliffe was willing to move beyond the orthodoxies of neoliberalism. In a series of speeches he signalled to Labour’s left-wing that the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) had moved on his thinking about Global Capitalism. As far as he was concerned the Age of Small Government was over.
 
It was an offer the Left could not refuse.
 
The Labour Left’s big mistake, however, was to assume that, along with their votes, Cunliffe would also happily accept their electoral strategy. They soon discovered that their man had his own sources of advice, and that these had their own ideas about how to win the 2014 election.
 
Cunliffe’s inner core of advisers were less interested in the “Missing Million” of non-voters per se, than they were in the roughly 200,000 voters who’d voted for the Labour Party in 2008 but who, for whatever reason, had opted to stay home in 2011. They were confident that these people could be identified, contacted and re-engaged as electors in 2014.
 
Safely back in Labour’s fold, these voters would lift the party’s level of support into the mid-30s. If the Greens could hold the 11 percent of the Party Vote they’d won in 2011 and NZ First remained above the 5 percent MMP threshold, then the National Party would be squeezed out of contention. John Key’s party could be 10 percentage points ahead of its nearest rival – and still lose.
 
It was a high-risk strategy with very little margin for error. And, in terms of popularly understood notions of political legitimacy, it was also likely to lead New Zealand into unchartered waters. Since the first MMP election in 1996 the party winning the largest number of votes has always constituted the core of the governing coalition eventually cobbled together after the votes are counted. Cunliffe’s strategy would end that convention by making the party with the second-highest tally of votes the core of a governing coalition. While constitutionally kosher, it nevertheless exposed the resulting government to accusations that “silver and bronze had beaten gold”, and that, as a “coalition of losers”, it lacked a “moral mandate” to govern.
 
Not to worry. If possession really is nine-tenths of the law, then how the requisite number of seats on the floor of the House of Representatives have been cobbled together will matter much less than the fact that Cunliffe and Labour can rely upon their occupants for Votes of Confidence and Supply. Which leaves us facing the only really important question: “Is the strategy working: do the polls show Labour sitting pat on 34-36 percent of the Party Vote?”
 
And the answer, of course, is: “No, not at the moment.”
 
The National Party’s polling agency, Curia’s, time and size-weighted public polls average dated 11 May 2014 has Labour on just 30.5 percent. (A figure unlikely to improve when its proprietor, David Farrar, updates Curia’s averages by including the latest Colmar Brunton and Reid Research results.)
 
For Labour to be in a position to form a government from just 30 percent support the Greens would have to win an unprecedented 14-16 percent of the vote – and Winston Peters would have to come through with 6 percent-plus. Unfortunately, both Colmar Brunton and Reid Research show the Greens with considerably less than that – just 10-11 percent.
 
Not enough.
 
All Labour’s strategists – that is, the ones Cunliffe listens to, not the ones he ignores – can advise the party’s supporters to do now is wait and hope. The process of identifying, contacting and re-engaging the Labour abstainers of 2011 is by no means complete. And, for the strategy to work, all the other components of Labour’s 2014 campaign need to begin functioning as planned and on schedule.
 
It’s an enormous gamble. A sort of “Ocean’s Fourteen” political heist that has to unfold perfectly at every stage – or end in disaster. But Cunliffe, from what I hear, remains as cool as George Clooney in the Hollywood remake of Ocean’s Eleven. He still believes in his star – and, more importantly, in his staff.
 
All we can do now is sit back, relax, and watch the movie.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 26 May 2014.