Tuesday 15 May 2012

Cunliffe Muzzled: The Courtiers Fight Back

Team Effort: David Culiffe's enemies in the Labour caucus attacked his "Get Your Invisible Hand Off My Assets" speech of 29 April as "naive and stupid" and demanded he decline an invitation to appear on last weekend's edition of The Nation. David Shearer then attempted to impose Labour's finance spokesperson, David Parker, on the current affairs show which, predictably, refused. Result: Last weekend Labour's economic policy remained invisible.

DAVID SHEARER’S DECISION to muzzle his rival, David Cunliffe, is deeply worrying. Right now, there’s nothing Labour needs more than an open debate about its future. That its leader, and the coterie of courtiers with which he has surrounded himself, was willing to go to the extraordinary lengths of preventing Labour’s spokesperson on Economic Development from appearing on The Nation reveals how ruthlessly Shearer’s faction intends to stifle all dissent.

Mr Shearer’s petty, politically self-destructive decision can only be interpreted as Mr Cunliffe’s punishment for delivering a speech to his New Lynn electorate’s Women’s Branch highly critical of Labour’s fraught, 25-year association with neoliberal economics. Clearly, the disparity between the Labour Leader’s three uninspiring “positioning” speeches, and the compellingly radical content of Mr Cunliffe’s April 29 address, had rankled.

In spite of Mr Cunliffe seeking – and receiving – a written guarantee from The Nation’s producer, stipulating that TV3 political editor, Duncan Garner’s, line of questioning would be confined to economic issues only, Mr Shearer’s objections persisted. Mr Cunliffe had to make himself unavailable.

Astounded by this refusal, Mr Garner did some digging and discovered that Mr Cunliffe had been on the receiving-end of a sustained and bitter attack from Mr Shearer and his supporters at the caucus meeting of Tuesday, 8 May. According to Mr Garner, Mr Cunliffe’s critics described his speech as “naive and stupid”. Labour’s “Leadership Group”, advised of The Nation’s invitation, then weighed the issue and decided Mr Cunliffe should not appear. The Nation failed to change their minds.

This sort of overt factional squabbling has not been seen in the Labour Party for more than fifteen years. Throughout Helen Clark’s record-breaking reign as leader open dissent was almost always cast as treason. Such limited ideological debate as did occur was hidden deep down in the party’s organisational bowels, far from the public gaze. It was a political style more suited to breeding courtiers than comrades, and Ms Clark’s sudden departure, coupled with the effective coronation of her successor, gave the Labour Party no serious opportunity to decompress. Now it appears to have the bends.

Labour’s full recovery as a vibrant, creative and politically relevant organisation cannot be secured except by a radical opening-up of the party. Interestingly, recent reports about Labour’s organisational restructuring exercise suggest that this may be happening. The party’s constitutional review committee is rumoured to have recommended that rank-and-file members be given a deliberative voice in the choice of party leader, as well as an effective veto over sudden, caucus-inspired, leadership spills. Unsurprisingly, it is also rumoured that Labour’s caucus is doing all it can to prevent such changes coming into immediate effect. The party’s annual conference in November promises to be a bloody affair.

Courtiers make poor campaigners. As Game of Thrones addicts know only too well, power is not always to be found among the wielders of swords. As often as not it lies in the hands of eunuchs and whoremasters: the manipulators, tricksters and casters-of-shadows who keep their daggers hidden and seldom venture beyond the palace gates.

Which is why Mr Shearer’s muzzling of Mr Cunliffe is so very worrying. Seldom has Labour been blessed with two such impressive champions. Both men should welcome the open and principled debate needed to set a new course for the party: one suited to the powerful currents in which New Zealand (and the rest of the world) now find themselves. It’s also needed to ensure that Labour is not secretly corrupted – as it was in the early-1980s – by a “Leadership Group” who were only too willing to promise one thing and then deliver its opposite.

If Mr Shearer believes the country will be best served by turning the Ship of State’s tiller hard to starboard, then let him say so, and let him and his faction spell out clearly what the policy implications of such a rightward shift would be. Mr Cunliffe has made it clear that he believes a sharp leftward turn to be in order. How exhilarating and liberating it would be, not simply for the Labour Party, but for the whole country, to see this debate played out. How depressing, therefore, to learn that, instead of welcoming Mr Cunliffe’s offering, his jealous courtier colleagues described it as “naive and stupid”.

In those words we hear not only the echoes of Clarkian caution, but also, perhaps, the treacherous whispers of a new breed of neoliberal hijackers. Rogernomes Redux, who, like their predecessors, won’t show their policy hands until it’s too late for the party – and the country – to stop them. One would like to believe that, once-bitten, New Zealanders would be twice shy, and yet the editorials and commentaries hailing Mr Shearer’s leadership abilities multiply.

And surely it’s instructive that nearly all of Mr Shearer’s recent applause is coming from the Right.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 15 May 2012.


Olwyn said...

On the one hand, Cunliffe's speech was to his electorate, and under ordinary circumstances would have been a 'what I bring to the table' speech. After all, he did preface it by saying that it was not an expression of LP policy. On the other hand, and to my relief, it puts pressure on Labour to declare its hand. Failure to do so now would tend to confirm your suspicions.

There would be something deeply craven about a largely unknown man, who in six months has not made himself known, thinking largely unknown thoughts, marking time with anecdotes in lieu of policy while waiting for Key to make a telling error. So as to eventually get his chance to administer BAU or perhaps even worse. Who knows? Especially under the present circumstances, when what we take to be Labour's constituency is already permanently under attack.

Look at it this way Labour: ACT barely registered at the last election, despite having more funding than you did, while Winnie managed to get to 8% on the smell of an oily rag. It is not just about having the means to get your message out there, it is also about having a real message to get out there.

A great post, by the way.

Anonymous said...

You seem to be taken in hook-line-and-sinker from one of the leading proponents of third-way triangulation in the Labour Party.

Cunliffe is simply telling the activist base what they want to hear, but anyone who knows much at all about what he actually thinks knows it is entirely based on his leadership ambitions rather than on some Damascus road conversion to democratic socialism.

Anonymous said...

I've heard whisperings that Cunliffe is not popular with much of the Labour party caucus, and wonder why this is. I see Cunliffe very much as a facimilie of Bill English, (who maybe is not a popular caucus member either?).
Seems upfront and sensible enough.
What is wrong with that?
ON the other hand, Shearer is slippery and has not done the years or dues of Cunliffe.
This must stick in Cunliffe's throat, the gall of it all.

The women of Labour's caucus don't seem to like Mr Cunliffe (ironically), but a lot of the pomp has gone out from him, I find him much easier to watch and listen to these days.

What Labour is doing right now isn't resonating with the wider electorate much, so why not blow off all the cobwebs and admit past mistakes? How refreshing, for once, to hear some honesty from a top-ranking politiican.

Mooloomagic said...

Excellant Post, I do fear for the future of the Labour Party as they have become so far removed from its core base support that those traditional Labour voters are likely to vote Greens or Mana. Like you it does concerns me that people like Farrar, Hootten and O'Sullivan rate Shearar so highly.If the 6th labour Govt contuines with Neo-Lib polcies which I now fear seems possible I for one well never vote Lobour again.
Right now Labour should be leading the Polls, National are proving to me an inept, callous, corrupt government yet Labour make no traction in the polls unlike Labour in UK. The British Labour party seems to have recovered from a huge electorial defeat whereas the NZLP seems incapbale of re-connecting with the voters

Anonymous said...

Chris, the Nat’s are having a free ride at the moment, as Labour is self imploding making Syria a side show. I hear the Machiavelli’s The Black Prince is selling well at the moment.

Victor said...


"Seldom has Labour been blessed with two such impressive champions."

I'm aware of Cunliffe but who's the other one?


I don't think any sensible person sees Cunliffe as proffering "democratic socialism".

His stated views are those of a Keynesian Social Democrat, who believes in a mixed economy, effective demand management, progressive taxation and export led growth.

Anyone who supports him thinking he's a "socialist" will, I agree, end up disappointed. But their support will have been based on false and unwarranted assumptions.

I'm a non-partisan and rather passive centre-left voter and don't know all that many Labour Party activists personally. But I'd be surprised if any of them thought of Cunliffe as Keir Hardie resurrected.

However, like me, they may be relieved at the thought that there's at least one New Zealand politician of note and experience who isn't too scared to challenge the noxious but all too pervasive stupidity of neo-liberalism.

And they might also be relieved to learn that we still possess the occasional politician (of any persuasion) who can combine lucidity and vigour with intellectual grunt.

Anonymous said...

When i worked in parliament before the 2005 election, Cunliffe was already well known for his naked ambition and unlikeably arrogant attitude. The guy is extremely competent, especially in economic matters, and as an speaker, but is so driven that he is constantly shooting himself in the foot. As we saw in the last leadership election, he has managed to get offside with most of the caucus already. Had he been less aggressive in that campaign, he would be back as finance spokesperson where he should be.

If only he could learn to become a team player, and realise that he is not a guy kiwis will ever elect as PM. Surely every PR man in the country can tell him this. He could be another Michael Cullen. He could be the Labour Party's attack dog in opposition and galvanise the whole party. He could add the charisma and aggressiveness needed to succeed on the opposition front benches. But the leadership is not going to let a dog off the leash when his first instinct will be to go for their jugulars regardless of the cost to the Party.

Swear allegiance to the party and give up on becoming PM, Mr. Cunliffe, and watch your fortunes rise again.

Anonymous said...

Shearer is the fall guy for a leadership ticket of Robertson and Jacinda. I am a longtime party member who found Cunliffe's New Lynn speech exhilarating. My God, a true Labour speech ... No string pulling by King, Mallard, Goff, Dyson, and the rest who have had their day and must go. I didn't used to trust David, I believed the bad press about him being self interested and overly ambitious. Then, at a party function, I observed him speaking to an old man, patiently listening to what he had to say. His colleagues would clearly have preferred to be somewhere else ... Anywhere else. And I thus became a fan, and I hope when there is blood on the floor when the inevitable happens it's that of the arrogant plotting right wing past their use by date posers who appear to believe the Labour Party is theirs and not ours. I like Grant but David should be the leader. Anyone who has read his speech and who believes in the Labour Party and cares about its future would be inspired by it, and how nice in these times to feel inspired by someone in our party.

Victor said...

The trouble with all these rumours from the ABC club (e.g. from Anonymous@5.39pm)is that they're totally unsubstatiated and probably unsubstantiable.

May I suggest to ABC's cyber warriors that they put up or shut up!

Anonymous said...

There really has to be enough grunt in Labour to stop the slide to the right or they're not worth the ink it would take to write their obituary.

With National having abandoned the voter friendly first term policy for naked smash and grab, the next election is Labour's if they can muster a shred of credibility.

I don't see it myself.

Anonymous said...

I disagree, I have seen these two battle it out at Auckland University when they were both completing for the leadership late last year. Cunliffe demonstrated a great articulateness and had a well spoken manner. Shearer did not. Cunliffe is a highly intelligent man and I have seen him in his constituency, a nd wow he is popular. I for one would vote for him if the party members wee allowed to vote. ANd I think they should to save the party from the caucus, who seem to want Helen-lite clones. That is not the future of the Labour party, Cunliffe has a vision, he has told us, and I want to be part of it. If not, I will leave the party, and so will a lot of its core members. I honestly don't see the two incumbents (leader and deputy) winning a personality contest, yet alone the 2014.

Anonymous said...

The anti Cunliffe sentiment rumours from the Labour caucus are worrying. If this is the case there really does seem to be a petulant and immature streak within the caucus. This lack of maturity is continuing according to Chris's post. Ive watched Cunliffe over the years, debating against National Refer (Mood of the Nation debate, cunliffe v english 2011) and you will CLEARLY see why the right wingers are supporting David Shearer. The biggest treat to National getting another term in 2014 is David Cunliffe becoming leader of Labour.

Anonymous said...

So it's business as usual in the Labour Party then.

Michael Herman said...

To Anonymous @ May 15, 2012 5:39 PM: It appears the allegiance you seek from Cunliffe, and presumably from all party members and supporters, is simply shorthand for blind allegiance.

The entity that is Labour 2012 has few authentic claims to the original party's legacy. Successive leadership covens supported through elections by the party's rank and file have themselves disloyally abandoned core Labour values: simply put, if you discard your head and heart, don't expect the rest of your body to follow you to work.

While Cunliffe appeals less to me than a stubbed toe on a bitterly cold morning, his open dissent from present Labour conventional policy wisdom is both welcome and refreshing, and all the better if it influences the Shearer galère and the party faithful to rediscover their allegiance to true Labour positions, but it won't.

I am not a Labour Party member and owe it no undeserved and imaginary allegiance but hitherto have faithfully voted for my preferred electorate candidate, who is a Labour MP and both a decent person and tireless champion of local interests. Yet as the days of ongoing disappointment in the party spread into weeks of indignation and as the weeks of ongoing indignation become months of despair, sadly so diminishes the likelihood of my electorate vote bolstering the local tally.

In a meritocracy, allegiance is not an automatic right, it is hard earned and more easily lost or else you end up arguing that loyalty to the fatherland prescribes support of Hitler.

[PS: Chris, I also register my disagreement with your characterization of Shearer and Cunliffe as impressive champions, unless there was intended irony in your assertion. It's entirely possible that I missed the memo but I'm yet to be impressed by party leader Shearer in any meaningful way and most recently was affronted by his callow pronouncements on same sex marriage and his failure in the face of Nationals' assault on worker rights to declare, preferably with conviction, that there is power in a union. Cunliffe is no doubt skilled in some of the areas that matter but his ego is palpable and discomforting, and in my opinion he more closely fits a Queen of Hearts figure than a King Arthur.]

Sanctuary said...

Labour won't survive as a nation wide, mass appeal party if it makes another lurch to the right. At best, it will become in the medium term an urban socially progressive party for the hip inhabitants of leafy inner city suburbs plus whatever is left of the union movement followed by a final demise.

The warnings are there already. Already Labour has more or less vanished from many provincial seats, where the consequences of the neo-liberal policies it initiated have eviscerated heartland industry and well paying working class jobs (remember when they made hats in Levin? When PYE/Philips built radios in Waihi? When Toyotas were assembled in Thames? When TVs were made in Naenae? When PDL was a New Zealand company with a factory in Hastings? When freezing workers in Patea and wharfies in Napier could afford to send their kids to private schools?) and with it Labour's blue collar base. Many of the provinces now resemble semi-feudal fiefdoms, abandoned by the government and with a pyramid like wealth structure to match their economic devolvement towards the third world. They are dominated by reactionary tiny elites who control the local political agendas. Is it any surprise that hard core reactionaries like Simon Lusk come from depressed places like Hawkes Bay? That that same province is a favourite haunt of the likes of Paul Henry and Paul Holmes, people who clearly find the local "society" to their taste? Like the collapse of the Grand Banks Cod industry, it remains to be seen if this new power dynamic of a semi-third world economic order with a latifundia elite presiding over a closing of the provincial mind and a lowering of the local intellectual curtains represents a permanent change in the provincial political ecosystem. If it is permanent, then it is only a matter of time before the casualisation of the workforce and constant downward pressure of the neo-liberal low wage model creartes the same socio-political landscape in the cities. For Labour to survive, there HAS to be a reversion to more conventional Keynesian economics.

The urban political careerists and parliamentary courtiers at the top of the parliamentary party might not care about this - after all, a residual vote of 12-15% will still see a rump Labour party returning 14-18 on the list comfortably secure more or less until they choose to pull the plug on their careers and consign the future of the party to a slow, lingering final decline. One could cynically discern Labour's troubles as part of a wider trend - just yet another bunch of self-centred baby boomers devastating their parents and grandparents legacy and destroying their children’s and grandchildren’s future in order to look after themselves for a comfy now.

Anonymous said...

why can't Helen return as leader and get rid of that horrible Key?
That's what needed, a return of Helen Clark. Neither Cunliffe or Shearer have or gravitas or guts, and Key is having a free run.

Tim G. said...

Chris T:

1) is it fair to say you back yourself as a strategist to left-leaning parties about their leadership?

2) if so, do you stand by your comments in your 2008 pre-election SST space that Clark should have stood down and promoted Phil Goff to leader in order to win the 2008 election?

I think you need to be a bit more careful picking your horses/blog topics/VLPCs...