Wednesday 22 October 2014

More Latté Than Lager: Reflections on Grant Robertson's Campaign Launch

The People's Flag Is ... Mint Green? Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern (whom Twitter immediately dubbed Gracinda) pose in Mint Green for one of the glossy women's magazines. In a non-revolutionary era, superficial is about as deep as it gets.
BIKERS? SERIOUSLY! Had Grant Robertson’s campaign launch been organised by Phil Goff? Was this a pitch for the votes of what few Waitakere Men remain in the Labour Party? Was I even at the right place?
Well, yes, I was. And rather than doubling as crude political props, those bikers were simply middle-aged motorcycle enthusiasts enjoying a smoke in the King’s Arms car-park. So, no, the Robertson launch was not even remotely interested in winning the support of Labour’s Waitakere Men. Quite the reverse!
The young men and women bustling self-importantly about in their New Generation To Win T-shirts looked like they’d be more comfortable sitting in a Courtenay Place or Ponsonby Road café than on a tradie’s West Auckland deck. The King’s Arms, itself, (car-park bikers notwithstanding) was chosen by Robertson for its close associations with the New Zealand music scene – no doubt in hopes that the popular late-night venue’s cultural street-cred would rub off on the candidate.
Labour’s new process for electing the party leader cannot help being inward looking, but even allowing for the fact that it’s all about the membership talking to itself, there was something about the Robertson campaign launch that reminded me of the ultra-cool university student parties of my youth. The whole insider/outsider shtick was unmistakeable. It made me wonder if an old-fashioned bogun’s mullet would have been as well-received among these bustling Grantistas as their diminutive comrade’s close-cropped purple hair.
In spite of the fact that the King’s Arms serves some very fine beers, I have to say that the whole event struck me as being much more latté than lager. Certainly, the speeches delivered by both Robertson and his “running-mate”, Jacinda Ardern, appeared to be comprised almost entirely of froth. About the only mentally taxing portion of Robertson’s brief address was the bit in which he promised to make Labour the party of “the worker, the small businessman and the entrepreneur”. Presumably all three of those groups will be found in that section of the socialist paradise where the lions lie down with the lambs?
But perish all such unworthy thoughts! On One News at six o’clock it was impossible not to observe what a lovely couple Grant and Jacinda made. And not only on the telly. Who could possibly prefer Revolutionary Red after seeing Grant and Jacinda – or, as Twitter immediately dubbed them, Gracinda – smiling sweetly for the glossy women’s magazine’s photographer in matching outfits of Mint Green?
Fluff and froth may be my abiding memories of the Robertson launch, but upon sterner analysis it is easy to discern in its overall design the guiding influence of an astute political brain. Pitching for the votes of the generation with the longest futures in the Labour Party (as opposed to the longest pasts) is very far from being a silly idea. Equally shrewd is Robertson’s understanding that the political choices of young New Zealanders in 2014 are more akin to what sort of music they like, what sort of clothes they wear and what sort of places they go to have fun, than they are about which group of grim ideologues they would have aligned themselves with back in the 1980s.
The essential truth that Robertson and his key advisors (take a bow SIR Michael Cullen) have grasped is that the politics of 2014 are the politics not only of a post-revolutionary, but a non-revolutionary era. In such times superficial is about as deep as it gets.
A friend of mine recently compared Grant Robertson to Joseph Stalin. There is, he insisted, the same easy familiarity with the party apparatus; the same willingness to wield it ruthlessly in his pursuit of power. According to this same friend, David Cunliffe was Labour’s Leon Trotsky. Brilliant, but utterly blind to the importance of building (and keeping strong) the networks so essential to political success.
Too much? Probably. But the comparison got me thinking.
If Labour is to survive this latest, catastrophic, electoral defeat then it’s going to need a Stalin figure. Someone capable of restoring party unity – even at the cost of purging Labour of all dissent. Because, if you think about it, unity is exactly what Helen Clark was able to offer the party, and why she was able to remain its leader for an unprecedented 15 years. (And let’s not forget whose protégé Robertson once was and from whom he learned most of what he knows about Labour.)
Of course life was made a great deal easier for Clark by the decision of the Labour Left to split from the party in 1989 and form NewLabour, and by the departure of the Labour Right for Act and the United Party five years later. The so-called “centrists” who opted to remain with the mother-ship were thus spared the “wet work” of an involuntary and very large purge of party comrades.
Which is not to say that the “rectification” of Labour under Clark was entirely bloodless. In assigning candidates to the seats Labour needed to win back after Jim Bolger’s landslide victory in 1990, Clark’s supporters in the party apparatus were careful to ensure that as few as possible were supporters of Mike Moore – the man Clark had manoeuvred into the party leadership just weeks before the 1990 General Election, and who she very badly needed to lose in 1993. (Indeed, the unpleasantness currently on display within Labour’s parliamentary ranks bears a striking similarity to the viciousness which accompanied Clark’s deposition of Moore in the aftermath of the 1993 general election.)
With Moore’s fall, and the relegation of his faction to powerless purgatory, Clark and her supporters in both the caucus and the wider party organisation were free to re-orient the Labour Party towards the radically revisionist ideas of the British sociologist, Anthony Giddens. Steve Maharey (himself a sociologist and for a long time Clark’s assumed successor) was a strong supporter of Giddens’s new take on the Labour project – which boiled down to the conclusion that, thanks to the historical success of Labour’s original mission, we are all capitalists now.
Ideological gleichschaltung (co-ordination, making the same, bringing into line) will also be an urgent priority for whoever wins Labour’s latest leadership contest. Without a recognisable – and recognised – party line, the endless troubles which have bequeathed Labour five different leaders in the space of six years will only continue. And in this regard, at least, my friend’s comparison of Robertson to Stalin may not be so outrageous.
Speaking last Sunday (19/10/14) on TVNZ’s current affairs show Q+A, Robertson made it very clear that, as leader, his line would be the party’s line:
ROBERTSON: If people step outside of that, there have to be consequences.
Q+A: Does that mean they have to leave the Labour Party?
ROBERTSON: It may well do – for some.
Dissenters in the Labour Party – piss off. Grant has everything to lose – and a new generation to win.
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Wednesday, 22 October 2014.


unclemuzza said...

Decaf soy latte at that

Michael Wynd said...

Chris, given the toxic legacy that Helen Clark left behind her I do not think that this is something that should be emulated by Robertson. This pair is still an answer to the question that the bulk of voters are not asking.

pat said...

that bad huh? as a non member of the Labour Party I don't see as yet that any of the candidates for leadership have the wide appeal needed to lead the left to a win in the next election....may I be proved wrong.

Anonymous said...

"If Labour is to survive this latest, catastrophic, electoral defeat then it’s going to need a Stalin figure. Someone capable of restoring party unity – even at the cost of purging Labour of all dissent."

Maybe - but is this really what the country needs.

Anonymous said...

Gleichschaltung (your spelling was wrong, Chris) meaning "coordination", "making the same", "bringing into line"), is a Nazi term for the process by which the Nazi regime successively established a system of totalitarian control and coordination over all aspects of society. Among the goals of this policy were to bring about adherence to a specific doctrine and way of thinking and to control as many aspects of life as possible. The apex of the Nazification of Germany was in the resolutions approved during the Nuremberg Rally of 1935, when the symbols of the Party and the State were fused and the German Jews were deprived of citizenship, paving the way for the Holocaust. (wGleichschaltung meaning "coordination", "making the same", "bringing into line"), is a Nazi term for the process by which the Nazi regime successively established a system of totalitarian control and coordination over all aspects of society. Among the goals of this policy were to bring about adherence to a specific doctrine and way of thinking and to control as many aspects of life as possible. The apex of the Nazification of Germany was in the resolutions approved during the Nuremberg Rally of 1935, when the symbols of the Party and the State were fused and the German Jews were deprived of citizenship, paving the way for the Holocaust.(Wikipedia)

Anonymous said...

Helen Clark's toxic legacy?

FFS, that woman saved New Zealand from becoming a third world country.

Third world status is what happens when you see the only road to prosperity as allowing the ruling class to exploit the hell out the rest of us.

That's what happens when the lions share of economic growth happens in the pockets of the already rich.

That was the post-1990 strategy of the National Party up until Key (who diluted it a bit, keeping the same essential strategy, but doing it much slower and by stealth.)

Victor said...


An interesting post ....but not as interesting as the photo.

For the last several years we've had two social democratic parties in this country (Labour and Green), distinguished more by their ideological and sociological roots than their policy positions, although the latter certainly aren't wholly identical.

The resulting lack of identifiable focus might be one of the many reasons for the Left's current electoral malaise.

It's also clear that neither of these parties is currently in a position to take the middle ground. And yet that ground should soon be there for the taking, as National succumbs to Third Term Syndrome, the economy sours and Winston Peters nears retirement age (assuming he's not immortal).

A few months back, I recall you posting an item arguing that environmentalism now poses the most far-ranging and consistent critique of neo-liberalism.

The logic of your position might be that the Greens are sensible to seek to position themselves as the leading party of the Left, leaving Labour to become the pale teal party of the Center.

In tacking to the Center, Labour might also seek to sop up some of the "Blue Green" votes, which according to assorted right-wing polemicists, are being alienated by the Green Party's alleged left-wing extremism.

Whether you can appeal to Blue Greens and also to Waitakere Man might, however, be a moot point.

Meanwhile, I note that the excellent Mrs Turei has taken up Hone Harawira's proposals for ensuring hungry kids get fed.

Could it be that Gracinda's teal-clad retreat from what little remains of Labour's attempts at ideological clarity, might actually give the Left as a whole more of that elusive ingredient, as well as a broader combined electoral appeal?

Barry said...

..'Robertson and Ardern'.....

Yes - I can see some logic in what Chris says, but I dont see it that way - and maybe thats our various biases - but even people with a bias get a vote!

Robertson - apparently intelligent, can dress him self properly (or is dressed well by someone), homosexual, etc. Appeals to the gays (a Labour special interest group), Dogmatists, liberals.

Ardern: said to be smart (not sure if thats possible if one is also leader of world young communists), from Auckland, has good looks and presents herself well. Not really a very good debater as has trouble addressing very negative questions/accusations. Said to appeal to Waitakere man and males in general, but in reality is the token female and appeals to feminists and other special interest groups - ie: dogmatists.

As well - the idea that the caucus will vote for the deputy is a bit arrogant and sets the basis for caucus disunity.

pat said...

I too am curious as what what Michael means by Helen Clarks toxic legacy?????

Charles said...

From an ignorant (of how Labour 'works') outsider's point of view, I imagine whoever wins now will cause such a bloody fight for the next three years he will not win the next election and then the leader who will take over a 'levelled' party will be in a good position to win the treasury benches in six years.
I'm really interested in this guy you mention who thought Labour had achieved what it was created to achieve. I agree with that as has been said, and if that is true it is fundamental stuff.. The world has fundamentally changed I think, in the right's view for the better, and part of that has been achieved by the left. Well done. Look at the glass half full at least and then perhaps the new young left can achieve something new in due course?
So perhaps the new really successful Labour leader will be about 30 right now?
I know I'm a bore on this one but his or her first task will be to take about 7% off the Greens. After 18 years without power they surely have peaked and will decline, unless Labour let's them supplant it? At the next election Labour must instead eclipse the Greens, as the prospect of them having a big share of power was a significant reason Labour lost so badly this time. If they achieve that then people will see them as electable again.

Davo Stevens said...

I too would like to know what that toxic legacy was as well.

@Barry, apparently you wouldn't know what a Communist was even if it kissed you on the cheek. Jacinda was in the Youth SOCIALIST Union. They are not communist and I suggest that you go and learn the difference.

jh said...

Helen Clark's toxic legacy?

FFS, that woman saved New Zealand from becoming a third world country.
... she changed the national identity (without a mandate).
In fact she told Sir John McClennan: "New Zealand was really a very racist country, and she was determined to do everything she could as prime minister to change that."
and while she touted the need for a larger population the Savings Working Group say:
“The big adverse gap in productivity between New Zealand and other countries opened up from the 1970s to the early 1990s. The policy choice that increased immigration – given the number of employers increasingly unable to pay First-World wages to the existing population and all the capital requirements that increasing populations involve – looks likely to have worked almost directly against the adjustment New Zealand needed to make and it might have been better off with a lower rate of net immigration. This adjustment would have involved a lower real interest rate (and cost of capital) and a lower real exchange rate, meaning a more favourable environment for raising the low level of productive capital per worker and labour productivity. The low level of capital per worker is a striking symptom of New Zealand’s economic challenge.

Gross arrogance if you ask me (and bone ignorant)

jh said...

Helen Clark got the population ponzi up and running and John key has grabbed the batten (for Connell Townsend of the Property Council)
We don't manufacture cars here do we? Airplanes? Shoes? Oh No: we're in Realestate

Victor said...

It seems to me that Labour has been in inevitable decline for many decades. The same is true of most other center-left, industrial worker-based parties across the developed world.

There are many reasons for this but the most obvious is that the workers most clearly resembling the traditional left's perception of them now live, primarily,in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and other similarly choice locations.

This doesn't mean that the policies of centre-left parties are no longer relevant. But it does mean that their traditional voting base has fractured, often under the very economic stresses that the centre-left has traditionally identified and sought to combat.

One result of this has been that high achievers are now only rarely drawn to Social Democratic politics or, indeed, to politics in any shape. In consequence, it's getting harder and harder to put a decent front bench together.

In New Zealand's case, this decline was speeded along by Labour's perverse embrace of extreme market liberalism in the 1980s. But the decline would have happened anyhow. Moreover, a certain amount of economic restructuring was probably required in the light of New Zealand's loss of its cornucopian protected market in the UK.

In contrast to her former colleagues amongst the Rogergnomes, Helen Clark managed to provide us with nine years of above average government(by the Anglosphere's current lamentable standards).

She was, of course, helped by a benign phase in the global economic cycle, by her innate caution, by Michael Cullen's skilled if highly conservative exercise of his role and, initially at least, by the inclusion of Alliance members on her front bench, thus mitigating the talent deficit already obvious in Labour's ranks.

None of these considerations, however, can take away Ms Clark's personal achievement in restraining though not reversing the neo-liberal tide. King Cnut could surely have taken some lessons from her.

But then she was gone and only the epigones remained. To the extent that she restrained the rightward momentum of politics for nearly a decade, you can understand why the right regards her legacy as toxic.

So, for the moment, the only show in town is watching the epigones destroy each other. I don't see another Auntie Helen amongst them, impressive though Mr Roberson's political skills might be.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

We still have what should be traditional labour voters Victor – it's just that they are now in service industry jobs earning a minimum wage. And pretty much completely de-unionised. I think that's the crux of the matter here. In places that still have relatively strong unions, workers conditions are much better than equivalent places without. Mind you, you are right about leadership. There's not that self educated backbone of working class politicians that there used to be. Someone with a bit of experience with their hands, but with a brain – not so much more intelligent than the rest, but with a bit more gumption. I think gumption is been beaten out of the working class these days. There's a few bright sparks in what's left of the union movement, but they seem to be more activist than politician. Just an IMO, might be wrong – have lost touch with the union movement in the last 10 years or so.

pat said...

Interesting analysis Victor. Would take issue with a couple of points however...the lack of talent is not solely a concern for the left of the political spectrum, I think an honest appraisal of the entire house would reveal a general dearth across the board...and the problem would appear to not be limited to NZ .
Personally I suspect the cause of the lefts current struggles in the western democracies can be traced to the snake oil Neo Lib economics promoted by the real power in the world , the international corporates.
They have essentially bought up the MSM, they are endeavoring to gain complete control of the universities, and have the banks in their pocket. What hope for any party of the left that shows any sign of deviation from "the plan" if those influences are lined up against them?
The time will come when the wheels fall completely off this very flawed model but I fear while they can maintain the illusion of control the Left is in for a very lean period....unfortunately it will be the Left that has to try and put the whole thing back together when (not if) it does shit itself.

Davo Stevens said...

Victor, Surgeon and Pat; you have put forward some very good ideas and thoughts.

What I fear is a revolution which some say is already starting. Occupy, Ukraine, Hong Kong etc. In the past when these kind of economic policies were put into place eventually the wealthy and aristocracy lost their heads and it's likely to happen again. I'm not advocating a revolution but I can see it happening if something is not done to alleviate the suffering at the bottom.

Victor said...


You are certainly correct that we still have very large numbers of working poor. Indeed, their numbers are poised to swell significantly, not because of more jobs becoming available but as a result of the impoverishment of many a hitherto aspirational household, as (surprise, surprise) "trickle down" fails to manifest itself.

But it's much harder these days to find the circumstances that once produced consciously working class, mass political movements.

Nor is it clear that, were greater numbers of the non-voting working poor to cast their ballots, they would do so for Social Democratic parties and not (for example) for the likes of Nigel Farrage or Marine le Pen.


I certainly agree that the shortage of political talent affects the Right as well as the Left.

One possible reason for this is that we've had thirty plus years of the right-wing deriding government and hence, by implication, politics as a whole.

Why spend your life engaged in something that most of your contemporaries regards as boring and inconsequential, if not wholly undesirable?

Another possible reason is that the 24 hour news cycle, an ever more prurient, partisan and sensationalist media, the rise of social media etc. render political life ever less attractive to most people with a grain of sense.

But I think that Social Democratic parties have had problems that extend beyond such factors.

Following World War Two, such parties were in the ideological ascendent, with ideas that seemed cogent, clear and proven by experience. Even their opponents felt the need to adopt many of their policies. And so,if you were an intelligent, able and ambitious young person, a career in a party of the Left seemed like an enticing option.

But the Right grabbed that ascendency in the 1970s and '80s and it's taken the worst recession since the '30s to even start reversing the process.

Moreover, I agree with GS that we no longer seem to produce left-wing leaders who have both direct experience of being an "ordinary" worker and the skills required to articulate effectively in government at a national level. A 21st century Nye Bevan would be hard to imagine.

One way of looking at this is that we've had just enough Meritocracy to syphon off the natural leaders of what was once thought of as the working class but not enough Meritocracy to disturb the processes of wealth accumulation and concentration.

Another way of looking at it is that Meritocracy is a form of social organisation that exists between the demise of one hereditary ruling class and the rise of another. Normally, it lasts for just one generation.

pat said...

Agree, Victor that anyone with half the sense they were born with would avoid politics as they are now like the plague.
I also wonder if subsequent to that, the lack of inspirational leaders isnt also a consequence of a couple of generations of the WIIFM mentality where altruism is belittled as naivety .
Nationals leadership issues were only solved when John Key was shipped in from without...perhaps the lefts leadership problems may be solved that way also.It appears to me that this failing is a direct consequence of career politcians, which appears to me to be increasingly encouraged, particularly when you note the ages of many participants in recent times (waits for the shouts of indignation)
Meritocracy may have played a hand (with the powers that be identifying and counter proposing fields of interest to potential adversaries) but one does not have to been a blue collar worker to know the tribulations of the working man...there will have been many sons and daughters from working class backgrounds who have bettered themselves as their parents hoped...surely those formative years play a significant role in their outlook?
And the electorate? once again I submit that the issues are significantly more complex , deliberately so in many cases and the vast majority have neither the time nor inclination to attempt to untangle the rhetoric dished up to was simpler in the pre Neolib days.