"Lazarus, Come Forth!" In politics it is possible to be killed many times. Coming back from the dead is, therefore, somewhat more common than one might expect. Having entombed intra-party democracy along with his principal rival, the present leader of the Labour Party should not be surprised if some of his colleagues are pondering the Lazarus Option.
“POLITICS IS ALMOST as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times.” This pithy Churchillian aphorism should be framed and prominently displayed in every politician’s office. It wouldn’t hurt if one or two political journalists did the same. We might then, perhaps, read fewer political obituaries of Members of Parliament who, having suffered a temporary set-back, are declared officially, politically dead.
Churchill himself suffered this fate – many times. So, too, did Australia’s John Howard and our very own Winston Peters. In every case these politicians demonstrated a Lazarus-like talent for emerging very much alive from their political tombs.
This ability to be “killed” many times is probably the most important – yet underrated – aspect of democratic politics. The chances of the chief minister of an absolute monarch or the consigliere of a Mafia boss bouncing back after making a serious mistake were slim. Thomas Cromwell oversold Anne of Cleves to Henry VIII and lost his head. Those who gave Lucky Luciano “a bum steer” ended up sleeping with the fishes.
Journalistic metaphors about political executions and assassinations notwithstanding, political leaders operating in democratic societies do not really enjoy the luxury of “killing” their opponents once and for all. They can demote them, even exile them to the back-benches but, generally speaking, that’s about the worst they can do.
Taking the next step: expelling one’s opponent from the parliamentary caucus, or even from the party itself; is fraught with much more political danger. The expelled politician may no longer be a member of caucus, but he remains a Member of Parliament – a position from which he can inflict considerable political damage upon his persecutors. And if the expelled politician enjoys widespread support throughout the party organisation, expulsion carries the additional risk of being countermanded by the rank-and-file. Only a very brave, or very foolish, party leader would risk such humiliation.
In 2010 Phil Goff and his parliamentary colleagues felt sufficiently confident that the errant MP for Te Atatu, Chris Carter, having exhausted the patience of both the Labour Caucus and the wider party organisation, could be expelled from both with impunity. David Shearer, on the other hand, had to be much more circumspect when dealing with his rival, David Cunliffe. In the absence of even the slightest evidence of wrongdoing, any attempt to expel Mr Cunliffe from the Caucus would have been staunchly resisted. Demanding his further expulsion from the party would almost certainly have provoked a rank-and-file revolt – with potentially disastrous results.
The wounds inflicted upon Mr Cunliffe by Mr Shearer and his allies are, therefore, readily survivable. The Parliamentary Press Gallery – so easily stampeded by Mr Shearer’s backers at the Labour Party Conference in November – are slowly and shame-facedly backing away from their earlier, supremely confident, assertions of an imminent Cunliffe-led leadership coup. But, if there was no “plot” to unseat Mr Shearer, then for what “crime” – exactly – was Mr Cunliffe demoted? The answer appears to be: “For refusing to rule out the possibility of a leadership challenge at some point in the future.”
Mr Shearer confirmed this at the media conference announcing the reallocation of Mr Cunliffe’s shadow portfolios and his demotion to the back-benches. His colleague’s “repeated failure to quell speculation about the leadership,” said Mr Shearer, “means that I no longer have confidence in him. He has lost my trust.”
It is worth unpacking this statement because it betrays an attitude to the rights and responsibilities of political leadership which is quite at odds with New Zealand’s democratic traditions.
Mr Shearer seems to believe that having once been elected to the leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party he is entitled to hold that position until he decides to relinquish it. In other words, Labour’s new constitutional procedures for confirming or changing the parliamentary leadership must now be set aside. Mr Shearer has signalled that any caucus member who even thinks (let alone suggests) that someone else might do a better job of leading the Opposition will be publicly disparaged and demoted.
Such authoritarian notions should be anathema to all political parties – especially social-democratic ones. Labour parties should be proud republics in which, as Napoleon quipped: “Every French soldier carries a marshal’s baton in his knapsack”. Places where those who demonstrate political courage and resourcefulness have every right to expect rapid political promotion.
The attitudes evinced by Mr Shearer and his backers have no place in such a democratic political organisation. They belong in princes’ courts: spawning courtiers not comrades; factionalism not solidarity.
Can a majority of Labour’s caucus honestly attest that this is the sort of party they entered Parliament to serve? Shouldn’t they be asking themselves whether, under a leader who has effectively entombed intra-party democracy, it might be time to consider the Lazarus Option?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 1 January 2013.