Who'd Have Thought? There's no disputing that David Cunliffe's decision to appoint Matt McCarten as his Chief-of-Staff caught nearly everybody in New Zealand politics by surprise. The question now is whether the Left is capable of seizing the extraordinary opportunity it has been given.
“MATT McCARTEN? CHIEF OF STAFF! SERIOUSLY?” How many times have those words been spoken in the past 48 hours? Sometimes with barely suppressed excitement; other times in barely suppressed fury; but most of the time in a tone of utter disbelief that the speaker made no attempt to suppress at all.
The New Zealand Left suddenly finds itself in the position of the dog who caught the car. For years, slagging off the Labour Party as a bunch of neoliberal sell-outs has been one of the Left’s favourite pub and parlour games. But now, with one of this country’s most effective left-wing campaigners just one door down from the Leader of the Labour Opposition, the Left, like the bewildered pooch for whom the fun was always in the chase, has finally got what it wanted and must decide what to do with it.
That bewilderment had better not last too long. Because unless David Cunliffe and Matt McCarten start talking with unprecedented clarity about what’s wrong with New Zealand, what changes need to be made, and how Labour proposes to make them, then the Right’s political narrative – that Labour under Cunliffe has executed a lunatic lurch to the extreme Left – will be the story that sticks.
I would estimate that Cunliffe has a week – possibly a fortnight – to draft and deliver a speech which explains to “Middle New Zealand” that Labour has absolutely no intention of nationalising everything and shooting the buggers who complain. That there are no plans to replace the Southern Cross with the hammer and sickle on the New Zealand flag. That Labour wants nothing like that at all.
He needs to tell middle-class voters that the one objective he is absolutely determined to achieve, with the support of his caucus, his party, his chief-of-staff and every other progressive New Zealander, is the long-delayed re-balancing of this country’s economic and social settings. Labour wants New Zealanders to once again look upon the State as their friend: a powerful and trusted ally against the depredations of unregulated, free-market capitalism.
That speech has to be the best he has ever given. It needs to be filled with real and telling examples of what is happening out there to the two-thirds of Kiwis who earn less than the average wage. It needs to be chock full of great lines like “The only thing we have to fear – is fear itself”, but it also needs to be leavened with wit and humour.
Cunliffe can’t write a speech like that by himself – which is why he needs all the ideas, evidence, insights and jokes that progressive New Zealanders can send him. They need to help him paint a picture of a country in which the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders would like to live, and then to supply him with a convincing description of the steps needed to take them there.
And while the Left is helping Cunliffe find the words to convince Middle New Zealand that he means them no harm, McCarten needs to get busy reconnecting all the wires to all the levers on Labour’s bridge. The wires that lead to Labour’s Caucus, to its NZ Councillors, LEC’s and branches. To the Council of Trade Unions Executive, the affiliated unions, the churches and the voluntary sector. For far too long far too many of these wires have floated free. When McCarten reaches for a lever; to make things happen; he needs to know that the wire of influence he’s pulling is attached to something real.
And, once again, that means that every progressive person within these organisations needs to place themselves at the new chief-of-staff’s disposal. McCarten has trodden on a lot of toes and burned a lot of bridges over the course of his career (most tragically with the Lear-like Jim Anderton) but all of those insults must now be forgiven and forgotten.
Why? Because the Left has been given an extraordinary opportunity to prove that it still has something to offer New Zealand, but a desperately short period of time in which to do it. If old wounds, old grudges, old defeats (are you listening Jim?) are allowed to get in the way of making this unprecedented situation work to the advantage of ordinary New Zealanders, then it will end in failure.
And that failure won’t just be Cunliffe’s and McCarten’s, it will be the failure of the entire progressive movement. And it won’t just be for a triennium (or three) it will be for an entire generation.
If Cunliffe and McCarten are allowed to fail, the Right of the Labour Party and their fellow travellers in the broader labour movement (all the people who worked so hard to prevent Cunliffe rising to the leadership) will say:
“Well, you got your wish. You elected a leader pledged to take Labour to the Left. And just look what happened. Middle New Zealand ran screaming into the arms of John Key and Labour ended up with a Party Vote even more pitiful than National’s in 2002! So don’t you dare try peddling that ‘If we build a left-wing Labour Party they will come’ line ever again! You did – and they didn’t.”
Be in no doubt that this will happen – just as it did in the years after the British Labour Party’s crushing defeat in the general election of 1983. The Labour Right called Labour’s socialist manifesto “the longest suicide note in history” and the long-march towards Blairism and the re-writing of Clause Four began. (Never mind the impact of Maggie Thatcher’s unlikely victory in the South Atlantic, it was Michael Foot’s socialism wot won it for the Tories!)
These are the stakes the Left is playing for – and they could not be higher. If progressive New Zealand rallies to Cunliffe’s and McCarten’s bright-red banner and helps them convince Middle New Zealand that Labourism, far from being an alien and dangerous creed, actually stands for all that is best in this nation, then it will have won an historic and lasting victory. But if it fails to seize the opportunity it has been given, then all that is worth fighting for on the Left will go down to defeat and New Zealand will be National’s for the foreseeable future.
Now IS the time for all good comrades to come to the aid of the party. Because, whichever way it turns out, the appointment of Matt McCarten is bound to be a game-changer.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.