Wednesday 19 November 2014

Too Close For Comfort: Reflections On Andrew Little's Narrow Defeat Of Grant Robertson.

Bugger! Grant Robertson's and Jacinda Ardern's bitter disappointment was written all over their faces as the listened to Andrew Little fielding questions at his first media conference as Leader of the Labour Party. The extreme closeness of the result, however, makes it clear that if the Labour Left flubs this latest opportunity to recover the party's fortunes, then it is likely to be their last.
THE TRAGIC SCREENSHOT of “Gracinda” in defeat bears eloquent testimony to the bitter disappointment of the Grant Robertson-led faction of the Labour Party. And, yes, ‘Party’ is the right word. The Robertson machine has now extended its influence well beyond the confines of the Caucus Room to become a genuine party-wide movement. It’s all there in the numbers. From being the strong partisans of David Cunliffe, the allegiance of a clear majority of ordinary, rank-and-file members has shifted to Grant Robertson. It is a measure of just how hard Robertson’s people worked for their man’s victory that another 100 votes would have clinched it for him.
The campaign Robertson ran was impressive enough to earn the respect of even his opponents. Indeed, a number of these folk, casting aside all ideological and factional objections, freely admitted that the Robertson campaign was “by far the best” and “deserved to win”.
All the young men and women who staffed Robertson’s phone-banks, and who turned out day-after-day to press Robertson’s literature into the hands of startled party members, would undoubtedly agree. And if they’re anything at all like the young followers of Jim Anderton, forced to absorb their hero’s narrow defeat (by the votes of the Engineers Union!) at the 1988 party conference, then “unity” will be the thing furthest from their minds. Youth is a lot less forgiving than maturity. Already, Young Labour will be plotting its revenge on the trade union affiliates.
Gracing the office wall of one notorious trade union leader, back in the dear dead days of compulsory unionism, was a framed sign which read: “Old age and treachery will always defeat youth and idealism.” Andrew Little’s win may well be proof of that cynical sentiment. But if it is: if it was the opaque, behind-the-scenes manoeuvring of a handful of hard-bitten trade union barons that defeated the youthful energy and idealism of Robertson’s “New Generation”, then the Affiliates’ victory may be a Pyrrhic one.
The day when trade unions affiliated to Labour are required to supply the names and addresses of every union member declaring a willingness to be formally associated with the party cannot, now, be far away. It sits very ill with the sensibilities of the twenty-first century that, in an election to determine who shall be the Leader of the Opposition (or Prime Mnister) there can be two very different kinds of ballots cast. The first, in secret, on the basis of individual judgement. The second, in public, on the basis of collective deliberation.
Making a special effort to ascertain the views of working-class New Zealanders makes a lot of sense if your party calls itself ‘Labour’. But the views expressed and the ballots cast should reflect the active participation of real, flesh-and-blood workers – not the personal guesses of workplace delegates and/or the strategic calculations of paid union officials.
If there remains any remnant of the revolutionary fervour that once possessed the members of Labour Youth/Young Labour, it could hardly secure a more radical reform than the opening-up of avenues for direct participation by trade union members in the political deliberations of the Labour Party.
Never did the Rogernomes look more uncomfortable than when, in the late-1980s, hundreds of members of the Labourers’ Union filed into the Labour Conference in the Wellington Town Hall. They had been bussed in from the central North Island to register their protest at the mass redundancies then emptying-out the state-owned forestry and construction sectors. Their mass haka made the whole Town Hall shake – along with most of the Labour Cabinet Ministers present!
If Grant Robertson’s young followers genuinely want to roll back the influence of neoliberalism, both within the Labour Party, and in New Zealand generally, then radically democratising the affiliated unions’ processes of representation would be one of the best ways to do it.
But is that what they want? The Labour Left’s uncertainty about the Robertson Faction’s true ideological colours goes a long way to explaining Little’s narrow victory. Robertson’s slogan, “New Generation To Win”, could be read in two ways. It could mean, simply, that members should back a new generation (Robertson and Jacinda Ardern) to win the Labour leadership. Or, more obliquely, that there is a new generation of voters to be won for Labour.
But what did that mean? According to Robertson, it meant reaching out to small businesses and entrepreneurs. Such sentiments were bound to set alarm-bells ringing in the ears of Labour’s socialists. As any trade union official will tell you, it is the small businessmen, the entrepreneurs, who most commonly find themselves on the receiving end of the Employment Court’s negative judgements. No social class hates the trade unions with as much passion as the petit bourgeoisie.
Justified or not, there was a perception among the Old Left that the ambitious young things who pulled on Robertson’s red T-shirts were a whole lot more likely to identify with the aspirational dreams of small businessmen and entrepreneurs than they were with the nightmares of their over-worked, under-paid and un-unionised workers.
And this worry all-too-easily merged with the fear that a Labour Party led by Robertson and Ardern would be one which sooner or later (probably sooner) ceased to struggle against the currents of contemporary capitalism. That, desperate to escape the Opposition benches, it would, like the Labour Party of the early 1980s, reverse direction and go with the flow. So much easier that way. So much less flak from the news media. So much more money from the corporates – not to mention the small businessmen and entrepreneurs!
Little’s victory is, therefore, a win for those Labour members who still believe in the party’s emancipatory vision and in its antagonistic stance towards the demands of Capital. That it was so narrow is not simply a testimony to Robertson’s political skill and determination, but a worrying indication of just how strong the temptation has become among Labour members to stop struggling against the treacherous currents of capitalism – and turn the boat around.
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Wednesday, 19 November 2014.


pat said... it and weep. My apologies in advance Chris, I know it is not a comment on your piece but it has to be said.

pat said...

Are we witnessing the fruits(?) of a generation raised in a bed of neo-lib manure? Is it possible that those in the Robertson/Adern camp while believing they have a Socialist vision are more in tune with what us with grey hair would consider the National Party Heartland? Or is it simply a case of power at any price?
Either way , if this is the future of Labour, the lot of the working man is bleak indeed!

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Ah – well – we all know about elections and their promises. Just heard about Tony Abbott's :-). The proof of the pudding as they say...........

Jigsaw said...

I think that so much will depend on Little and his ability to include and to stamp his authority on the party. From what I have seen I doubt that he has the ability. However it will be interesting to watch what happens and I thought his opening comments on the Roger Sutton affair didn't bode well.

Chris Trotter said...

Yeah, but really, Jigsaw, how much do you actually KNOW about Little, the NZLP and the broader labour movement?

And, Little's comments on Sutton were foreboding - how?

Brendan McNeill said...

Did I read this correctly Chris, that you are lamenting the election of a Trade Union official to the leadership of the Labour party?

Tiger Mountain said...

Strange spectacles occurred in the 80s, Hotel and Workers unions among others essentially supporting rogernomics and the demise of the Joint Council of Labour. And Ken Douglas barracking for ANZAC frigates leading to the end of the NZ Socialist Unity Party.

Robertson and Adern seemingly ok with the tabloidesque “Gracinda” tag shows how times have changed. Younger could have been better for Labour but if younger and righter why bother.

Since the class of ’84, New Labour and Alliance the Labour left has been at a low ebb. Many outsiders can analyse this but few want to go there. Green and Mana being more to some tastes.

Andrew Little if he can even stick to his EPMU type performance will seem a raving leftie to the msm and importantly the PM. And whether he is willing to play nicer with others eg Green. Little is likely as good as it is possible to get at this stage.

Davo Stevens said...

Now that the leadership sideshow is over a lot will depend on what course that Labour takes from now on.

I don't know or care what Little said about Sutton except for the headline that Sutton should not get a golden handshake according to Little.

Victor said...

Give the guy a break....and introduce him to a good tailor, should one exist in Wellington.

aberfoyle said...

Little!s,first outing as Labour!s new leader,defending workers rights i,e,sexism within the work force Roger Sutton,was lack lustre,memories of a stuttering Shearer.

Little, is in anyone!s term who understands unionism a liberal unionist,as he led his union when in charge.Concessions for pay rises set against flexibility training and {job security}.

His strenth as a Labour, leader will be his ability to bend and compromise, as all leaders should do within a democratic society, and as his union history has shown he is well capable of doing,either or not to the betterment of his employers wishes, the union members.

For myself,he is not my cup of tea,shallow it may be, he has a slack jaw,a appearance of not one of strenth.

plague said...

You may be right about all this Chris, but I thought, roughly speaking, that Little was more centrist and pragmatic (more Helen Clarke-ish if you like) than Robertson & Ardern (notwithstanding polite nods to small business and entrepreneurs). And your claim that hard-leftists were suspicious of Robertson as potentially crypto-Rogernomes seems fanciful. More likely I'd say that Unionists guess that Little will be more pro-mining, pro-development, and less environmentally minded than Robertson and followers. And the other theme in your column - anticipating 'revenge' from Youn Labour, raising the specter of the Little choice as a function of age and treachery and cynicism, only to dismiss that - is just shadow-boxing and straw-man abuse as far as I can see.

Are you sure you aren't playing Nine-dimensional chess with yourself here?

Jigsaw said...

Chris-I don't KNOW very much about Andrew Little except what I have observed and what he has said. Perhaps you are in a better position but the rest of us just go by what we see and hear-just as the rest of the country does. I have heard him screaming(and I use the word carefully) from the back of parliament-well if its not him then I can't think of anyone else with a similar voice who sits in roughly the same place. As for the Roger Sutton interview as Brian Edwards said not long before 'there is only so much we can say because we simply don't know' and we don't but Little appeared to have fully developed ideas on what had gone wrong and who was in the wrong. Now either he knows more than we do - and did not detail it or he is jumping to conclusions which it seems doubtful is a good trait in a parliamentary leader.

quentinf said...

My perception of Young Labour is that they are a very different beast from Labour (Socialist) Youth, which I was a member of and briefly led in the late 1980s. To put it simply, my perception after meeting with and talking with some of them, is that I don't think that what motivated us at the time (ie socialistic/ or left social democratic ideals and programmes), are what motivates the majority of them.

It will be interesting to see what direction Labour takes in the next term. However, I have come to the sad conclusion that the modern Labour party is one that the original advocates of social liberalism, Asquith and Lloyd George would have found themselves ideologically happy to be in.

Chris Trotter said...

No Brendan, I was - and am - not. You have misread - as you so often do - the whole purpose of the posting.

Jamie said...

Andrew Little hasn't even done a day on the docks.
He ain't done a trade, he ain't even a labourers asshole.
Gee a bad day at work for that bloke would be a broken nail...

{Shakes his head, throws his hands up in the air}


Get rid of him NOW GODDAMMITT!!!!
We ain't got the time for this bloody nonsense!!!

Stuart Nash is Labours man!!!

Wayne Mapp said...

I must say I found it hard to follow your logic.
You seem to be saying the the traditional unionists suspect the Robertson faction and the young activists will readily become absorbed in the modern style of the economy as they get into the workforce, and thus sell out. But then you seem to be saying that Andrew Little will not mount much of a challenge against conventional orthodoxy but will pragmatically modify it.

Which seems to mean both groups ultimately end up in much the same place. Pragmatists in the Helen Clark mould because that is how you win elections.

Now I know you hate that because it will not "end
the neoliberal experiment", which is 30 years old so it must be past the experimental stage by now. It is in fact the way the world economy is run, unless you live in Argentina, Venezuela or Iran. And they don't hold much attraction for most New Zealanders.

Brendan McNeill said...

Fair enough.

I shall look forward then to your endorsement of Andrew Little's leadership in a future post?

Anonymous said...

Treating the compromises called for by majoritarian politics as a kind of suspect departure from principle maintains doctrinal purity but risks the Labour Party's relevance.

I wish Little all the best and hope that the various parts of the left unite behind him.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Wayne, the neoliberal experiment is just that. And if you think that's the way the world economy works then you know nothing about the world economy. If it's working so well and if it's so neoliberal how come the U.S. and the EU heavily subsidise their agricultural sectors for instance? That's just one example.
Even so, it seems to be promoting vast differences between the rich and the poor. This is the sort of thing that tends to lead to revolution one way or another. So as Chou en Lai once said "too early to say." :-)

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Oh, and if you really are Wayne Mapp – where is my high wage, added value, knowledge economy? That's what we were promised with the "neoliberal experiment". Instead, we have a race to the bottom wage economy that still exports primary produce, with little added value. That's the main reason it's all bullshit.

Victor said...

Wayne Mapp

Neo-liberalism is always an experiment because, like Maoism, it's always imagining new evils to expose and eliminate.

For Neo-liberals this seems to consist primarily of things that governments do.

But, because neo-liberals aren't total anarchists, they don't want to abolish government, but merely to stymie and diminish it at every turn.

So their work (and their capacity for faux outrage) is never done.

Moreover, the markets give them brownie points for their work of constant destruction.

Charles said...

So Chris, who did you vote for?

Charles said...

So Victor, what is a neo-liberal?
Is it the same as a neo-conservative? In general usage it appears to be but neither term says anything.

I don't think either actually exists, except in some left minds as a general term of random abuse for the current rulers in most Western countries. You guys used to use 'fascist' in the same way.

These neo this & that are just as daft as 'commie bastards' don't you realise?

Andrew Little for example is, I could suggest, a 'neo-unionist'. That means he is a union man in a prominent position, which is new and so means ......
Absolutely nothing.
But if we get a similar guy in Aussie Labor in a couple of years, 'neo-unionist' may take off! But still be meaningless.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

As a whole history of neoliberalism Charles if you care to look. Google is your friend.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Obviously AutoCorrect is not MY friend. That should be "there's a", not "as a".

Victor said...


As I understand the term, “neo-liberalism” refers to the eighteenth and nineteenth century “liberal” doctrines that have received a prolonged and unexpected kiss of life from ideological necrophiliacs over the last 30-40 years.

The epithet “neo” is used to distinguish current expressions of this creed from eighteenth and nineteenth century formulations, as well as from the very different “social liberalism” of the mid twentieth century and from the loose American usage of the term “liberal” to refer to what other westerners might call "social democratic”.

In terms of economics, neo-liberalism means regarding the voice of the market as the voice of God. It also means low taxation and reliance on "trickle down" for social amelioration. Some more extreme neo-liberals purport to regard taxation as "theft".

In political practice, neo-liberalism means the pursuit of the “minimal state”. In political theory, it means regarding the sovereign individual as logically (if not historically) prior to society. In international relations, it means freeing market forces from the constraints of national sovereignty.

“Neo-conservatism” is somewhat distinct from this, as it posits a far from minimal American state, powerful enough to impose an otherwise neo-liberal consensus on less powerful nations. The term “neo” is used to distinguish this clearly hubristic ideology from traditional conservatism, an essentially non-hubristic creed with which it has virtually nothing in common. Personally, I find the term Neo-Girondin to be more descriptive.

Also, as far as I’m concerned, the term “Fascist” refers to a set of ideas and tendencies that gained power and influence across much of Europe between the two world wars and which has subsequently also had currency across the developing world. Characteristics include leader worship, nationalism, militarism, persecution of political opponents and (normally but not inevitably)autarchy. In many cases, racial persecution and genocide has also been part of the mix. Unfortunately, the term is far from meaningless.

And now, in return, could you please explain to me who “you guys” are?