Friday 22 February 2013

Charging The Train

Collision Course: Following Charles Chauvel's resignation from Parliament - allegedly after being told that, as an ally of David Cunliffe, he would have no role in a David Shearer-led Labour government - what will the Member for New Lynn do? The Labour Caucus's refusal to promote Cunliffe, its most electable member, to the party leadership offers grim evidence of its political and moral decline. (Photograph by John Chapman/Alamy)

AS LABOUR’S TRAIN rolls on towards 2014, I feel a bit like the bull in the Georgia politician’s story. Describing yet another doomed campaign waged by his liberal opponents in the Senate, the all-powerful leader of the segregationist Southern Caucus, Senator Richard B. Russell Jnr, observed that their position “reminded him of a bull who had charged a locomotive train. That was the bravest bull I ever saw, but I can’t say a lot for its judgement.”
I should have known that in championing the leadership credentials of David Cunliffe I was backing a bull over a locomotive.
After all, Mr Cunliffe could only boast a Harvard MPA, ministerial experience, a telegenic personality and the ability to string together a coherent English sentence. He was, moreover, the only member of the Labour caucus to have fully grasped the meaning of the Global Financial Crisis. The only Labour MP who understood how few of neoliberalism’s shibboleths remained politically serviceable to the Twenty-first Century Left.
There is always one who stands out in any party caucus: a man or woman who, in spite of their faults, is recognised by their colleagues as the only person who can beat the incumbent. Norman Kirk, Rob Muldoon, David Lange, Jim Bolger, Helen Clark, John Key: they may not have been liked by their colleagues; they may even have unseated a leader beloved and respected by the party’s rank-and-file; but they were the ones who could win; and they were the ones chosen.
I don’t think it is drawing too long a bow to say that the moral health (not to mention the historical success) of any political party depends upon its caucus’s ability to both recognise and engineer the promotion of the one/s most likely to succeed.
The elevation of the woefully inexperienced and chronically inarticulate David Shearer to the Labour leadership revealed a caucus no longer capable of identifying “The One”. Indeed, the very notion of a candidate possessing outstanding leadership qualities is now condemned as both disruptive and demoralising. Anyone promoted on the grounds that they possess superior talent or, God forbid! – charisma – is immediately blackballed by their less talented and charisma-bypassed colleagues.
The personality structure best suited to a Labour caucus overpopulated with MPs who owe their parliamentary seats to a high ranking on the Party List is that of the passive-aggressive courtier; the intriguer; the secretive collector of his or her colleagues’ political IOUs.
Robust egos and forthright personalities are proving easy meat for such folk.
Charles Chauvel, “Champagne Charlie”, that wilful roisterer whose liberal disposition and utterly brilliant legal mind promised a Labour Attorney General and Justice Minister of rare ability and enduring achievement, is merely the latest victim of a Labour caucus which, increasingly, is distinguished by nothing other than its dreary mediocrity.
I ask myself: “With Champagne Charlie gone, can the talented Mr Cunliffe be far behind?”
New Zealand now faces the dismal prospect of a change of government by default. It is entirely possible that, in twenty months’ time, Mr Key and his National Party, in spite of enjoying a ten percentage point advantage over their nearest political rival – will, nevertheless, lose the 2014 General Election.
Replacing him will be a man of whom it can only be said: “He was loathed less than his opponents.” Mr Shearer will enter office not like David Lange – on the updrafts of his own soaring rhetoric. Nor will he possess the menacing mandate of a Rob’s Mob, or even John Key’s “Labour-lite”. Mr Shearer will sit at the head of the Cabinet Table by virtue of simple arithmetic. Because Labour’s Party Vote, plus the Greens’ Party Vote, plus NZ First’s Party Vote, together, add-up to a Prime Minister.
The mandate of these three, ideologically distinct, political parties will be impossible for the electorate to discern. Inevitably, New Zealand’s policy direction will default to the usual bureaucratic suspects: Treasury, MFAT and the Ministry for Primary Industries. Their attached ministers are unlikely to cause any trouble. The ambition of courtiers is to climb things – not change things.
It is in the nature of bulls to defend their own. Mr Cunliffe’s supporters should, therefore, console themselves with the knowledge that while they lacked the judgement to avoid a head-on collision with Labour’s locomotive, they retained just enough courage for one final, redeeming, charge.
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, 22 February 2013.


Anonymous said...

Chris, you are so right. Who should I, an ordinary punter, write to, to endorse your views?

Anonymous said...

Is it a given that David Shearer would be the Prime Minister if a coalition of Labour, Greens and NZ First are in a position to form the next Government? Could the Prime Minister be the leader of one of the other parties? Or does the leader of the party with the largest percentage of the vote automatically become prime Minister.
Would it be possible for instance for Winston Peters to be Prime Minister on the proviso that no NZ First MPs be in caucus? He would make a good 'figurehead'- he's handsome, charming, articulate and with no NZ First MPs in key roles he would also be less influential. (I'm not a NZ First voter and don't particularly even like Winston Peters although he does make me laugh sometimes with his prickliness and audacity). I'm just giving an example and wondering if Shearer has to be PM.

alwyn said...

It's a trivial point but Cunliffe has a one-year Master of Public Administration (MPA) from Harvard, not the two-year Master of Business Administration (MBA).
It's still very impressive.
If we did get a Government formed by Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First how long do you think it could survive? Having heard the questioning of Bill English at a select committee by Parker, Norman and Peters I think it would collapse in bickering as they all tried to demand that they should be the Minister of Finance.
I suspect that Peters would prefer to be a second string with National, and pick up a knighthood if he behaved himself, than a third string in a leftish Government.

Chris Trotter said...

Thanks, Alwyn, duly corrected.

To: Anonymous@9:57AM

I would recommend writing a letter or sending an e-mail to Moira Coatsworth, President of the NZ Labour Party.

To: Anonymous@10:07AM

I'm afraid the PM more-or-less HAS to come from the largest party, in order to have a chance of commanding the confidence of the House of Representatives.

Anonymous said...

Everyone I know seems to have resigned themselves to a National government for the foreseeable future.

I have a feeling that the Labour vote will collapse in this election just as National's collapsed in 2002. Why would any Labour voter cast a ballot for this bunch of useless careerists? They'll stay home on polling day, and they will be right to do so.

I think people make too much of Cunliffe. He looks good because he's a merely competent man in a sea of losers.

John said...

Thanks, Chris - spot on again! When will Labour wake up? I have just been back to Hansard of earlier this week to read David Cunliffe's contribution to the Committee stages of the International Finance Agreements Amendment Bill which I had listened to live on TV - to me it speaks for itself! Why is Labour wasting this talent? John

Anonymous said...

I am not a Labour Party voter, but i cannot contemplate another 3 yrs with this arrogant lot who have no respect for convention or morality. Its all about the 'deal' It is therefor important to me that there is a real left wing alternative. It is not there at present. I went to a meeting to hear Sheared speak and at the end of it I had no idea what he stood for. I suspect he doesnt actually stand for anything remotely connected to original Labour principals.

Oliver said...

I think you're spot on Chris. I see two possible outcomes for the next election (both mentioned by previous contributors). Either the Labour vote will collapse under the weight of disillusioned supporters staying at home or a Labour/Green/NZ First coalition will totter along making the 1996-99 Ministry look a model of stability. If the latter comes to pass I wouldn't be at all surprised to see it fall over after 18 months.

Sparkie said...

Unless Labour gets back to its grassroots support it will disappear in the not to distant future. People are tired of tweedledum and Tweedledee with the main parties.

I realize that you could well be a Cunliffe supporter Chris but he's a neoliberal through and through and that is not what Labour needs. He may be clever and articulate but he has that stain on him and so many Labour supporters can see it.

Currently the Greens are slowly taking over that part of the political spectrum that Labour has traditionally held; supporting the low paid working class.
Douglas buried our souls for the almighty dollar and Bill Birch nailed the coffin firmly shut with his Fascist Employment Contracts Act.

Until that Employment Contracts Act is repealed and unions re-instated again, Labour is destined to become another historical party similar the the Country Party of the early thirties!

Anonymous said...

I think you are right about National losing by default. here is how I see it, Labour/Greens/NZF will in, Shearer will be a weak PM as he tries to please Winston and Russel (an impossible task), there will be two co deputy prime ministers, both strong willed and articulate, the coalition will self destruct, by the very nature of the so very different personalities of it 3 leaders, and the left will be out of office for 3 or 4 electoral cycles as it tries to regroup.

Paul said...

"I don’t think it is drawing too long a bow to say that the moral health (not to mention the historical success) of any political party depends upon its caucus’s ability to both recognise and engineer the promotion of the one/s most likely to succeed."
Spot on Chris, I listened to Shearer's interview earlier this week where he acknowledged that he would be happy to accept homophobes into the caucus of Labour. Does that mean he would be happy to accept racists, sexists, etc. There is absolutely no place in Labour for a homophobic MP.

Cactus Kate said...

I am in Boston and have been up to Harvard. It is winter. If Cunliffe survived two winters up there then it is little wonder he is immune to the freezing conditions of the Labour caucus.
Chauvel on the other hand couldn't cope with a little gale down the Lower East side of NYC so it makes sense he ran like a coward.

Paulus said...

Under MMP National cannot win the 2014 election. They will have no/insufficint partners to bail them out.
There are more left wing parties who collectively can only but win, irrespective of the current labour leader.
That's MMP

Anonymous said...

Cunliffe's charge was hardly that of a bull. It was one of the most politically inept maneuvers I've ever seen. When Paddy sticks a mic in your face and asks if you support your leader, the ONLY answer is ABSOLUTELY!, right up to the moment you stick the knife in. He didn't shoot his aspirations in the foot, he blew his own head off before he ever got going.

Anonymous said...

Cactus Kate: again substance is subordinated to points scoring and cute metaphor :-).

Chris Trotter said...

But, Kate, it was the very lack of substance on the part of Shearer and his clique that made Cunliffe's supporters desperate enough to charge the Caucus' locomotive train!

I know, I know: 'Evian' spelt backwards.

Dave Kennedy said...

There will always be problems within Labour until they sort out their internal processes and leadership system. They have been sucked into the Presidential campaigning of National that focusses purely on the leadership rather than policy.

I think it is unhelpful to keep referring to Cunliffe as if he is the only other individual with any talent within the party, there are many others with considerable talents and skills.

Labour needs to sort out its core principles and goals and get some strong policy together so that all MPs can be out spreading the message (at the moment, apparently, it is largely left to Shearer and his advisors). Labour need to show that they have a team of capable people and start exposing the lack of depth in National's caucus.

Anonymous said...

New Zealand desperately needs a Beppe Grillo.

Anonymous said...

This morning's TV3 poll says it all...

"It puts National on 51.4 per cent, with Labour on 32.6 per cent, down two points. The Greens have slumped from 13 to 10.8 per cent. The result would allow National to govern alone, with 64 seats."

Stay buckled for another three years.

Victor said...

A brilliant article, Chris.

You have nailed the issues perfectly.

And don't worry about being 'Evian'. The alternative on the drinks list is 'Vichy'.

Peter Wilson said...

Spot on. As another "Camp Cunliffe" member, I'm disappointed in the outcome, but proud that I contributed in a small way to that last charge as you describe it.

Now we all watch in despair as the train wreck unfolds.

Anonymous said...

Shearer is just weak, and Key knows it. That's all I want to say.
Weak!! Labour will not win in 2014, the public are still grumpy with them, it seems.

Anonymous said...

Labour left the people years ago,
Clark took on the neo-lib path
with vengence,money counted,people
didn't matter,roll on to now and
the same damn thing is still happening,the current labour caucus are hell bent in taking
their ignorance to a new level,by ignoring how Cunliffe was voted in as the leader, then caucus installed their own sham of a leader, that caucus cannot claim that they are democratic,if they didn't like the result
they should have walked and let
cunliffe get on with the job and select his own team,we would be 40+ in the polls now,a vibrant and alive party,respected,admired,and able to win an election without support parties.
Shearer is not the right leader for
labour,if he has any respect for labour or its voters, he should step down,after all what happens in 2014 affects the people,Shearer will be well looked after financially.
Ah well, we sleep walk to 2014,the same as we sleep walked our way to 2011 :-(

Anonymous said...

How dare this caucus ignore what the members voted for and then turn around a put in their compliant 'wanabe' who has turned out to be a total loss.
If the caucus didn't like the members vote or Cunliffe, they should have walked and left Cunliffe to put his own team in,we
would now be 40+ in the polls,a vibrant,alive labour,now we are just trying to hang on.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, not so anonymous HC:

I advise and invide David Cunliffe to consider the unthinkeable for many still in Labour, to opt out and start a NEW, truly LEFT of centre party, with social democracy or even democratic socialism at its heart.

NZ Labour is redundant, I am sorry to say, it has discredited itself, not so much the paty folk, but the caucus (carcass) members that resemble remnants of a party with great tradition and spirity.

Shearer is the worst enemy of Labour at its heart, he is mediocre at best, and sadly there are too many hangers on in the MP brigade, that fear their future is in danger, if their "leader" of second or worse rating goes.

So this is a dismal situation. Cunliffe will have NO future under Shearer, to wait for Shearer's defeat in 2014 is prohibitive, a smart Cunliffe will opt out and start the TRUE LABOUR party a.s.a.p.. 20 plus per cent of votes will be guaranteed right away, and then "old" Labour will have to negotiate for seats at the table. Go Cunliffe!

Anonymous said...

A real leader does not need formal position to lead, they just lead.

I disagree that David Cunliffe should leave Labour. That would be a big mistake. All he needs to do is not shut up.

In particular David Cunliffe needs to keep speaking up on the dangers posed by climate change as he sees it. This is a subject that the Shearer camp live in fear of. It is the one subject on which they are silent. It is the one subject which they gutlessly and continually fail to address.

A real leader does not need formal position to lead, they just lead.

After the collapse of the Liberal Party Winston Churchill entered parliament as an independent in 1925. Not making any headway as an independent he joined the Conservatives and was immediately ushered to the back benches where he continually and tirelessly railed against his new party for it's policy of appeasement to Hitler. He never shut up about it.

A real leader does not need formal position to lead, they just lead.

Cunliffe needs to keep calling for society and especially Parliament to do something about climate change. He needs to speak up at every venue and occasion and platform available to him.

If he never lets up, he will gain attention and headlines and public support. His opponents inside the Labour Party will be powerless to censor him, or expel him from the party, not without destroying themselves.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anonymous@10:03PM

No, no, you're wrong. If David Cunliffe were to behave in the way you suggest, his enemies would simply expel him from the Caucus - just as they expelled Chris Carter.

The MP for New Lynn must do nothing that the NZ Council of the Party can be persuaded by Caucus to rule requires his expulsion from Labour altogether.

There is much he can do that breaches neither the rules of Caucus nor those of the wider party. Actions that could never reasonably be said "to bring the Party into disrepute".

He must pursue only those initiatives that promise to excite, inspire and unite the members of the NZLP.

That's his mission.

A further mad charge into the locomotive train of his Caucus enemies will achieve nothing.

Robert M said...

Equally much would suggest Cunliffe-Parker-Little are a more conservative choice that the left centre nat party of English, Smith, Joyce and Grosser. The current National Government basically has returned to a policy of government controlled education and health built on surrender to establishment education and doctor and teacher power. A National Government that favours allignment with Shanghai' Moscow and Mumbi has nothing to do with the Sid Holland party.
I find Cunliffe role in the ferocious 1994 EMK fight against Romney for the Senate seat quite interesting. Apparently ted still had enough bull like strut and hard Irish and virtual criminal support in the hard Boston suburbs for in be too terrifying for any Republican to go to the meetings.