Political Arsonists: Only a mass influx of people determined to make policy – not tea – can rescue the Labour Party from the self-perpetuating parliamentary oligarchy which is continually burning it down in order to save it from itself. Only a rank-and-file membership that is conscious of, and willing to assert, its rights – as the Corbynistas are doing in the United Kingdom – has the slightest hope of selecting a caucus dedicated to meaningful economic and social reform.
SO, PHIL GOFF now feels confident enough to answer questions about Labour’s TPPA stance on Paul Henry’s breakfast show. That pretty much says it all. The victory of Labour’s right-wing rear-guard (and the parallel humiliation of Andrew Little) could hardly have been expressed more forcefully. With this latest usurpation, Labour Party members need to ask themselves two questions: 1) “Why does the Labour Caucus keep destroying the Labour Party in order to save it?” And: 2) “Why is the rest of the Labour Party unable and/or unwilling to stop them?”
To answer the first question, one must try to view the Labour Party from the perspective of Phil Goff and Annette King. In their eyes Labour is still the party that rescued New Zealand from Muldoonism, and dragged its sclerotic economy kicking and screaming into the era of free markets and free trade. Though they have learned not to say so too loudly, they remain immensely proud of the achievements of the fourth Labour government. And they absolutely will not repudiate its legacy. (When a trenchant repudiation of Rogernomics was included in the 2012 draft of Labour’s “Platform” document, it was “amended” out of all recognition!)
Goff and King are also acutely aware that there are fewer and fewer Labour MPs with Cabinet experience. Not surprisingly, they feel an obligation to make their own experience available to the younger occupants of Labour’s Front Bench. And, when they see an inexperienced Labour leader marching into what they perceive to be “trouble”, they understandably feel duty bound to intervene, and steer him out of it.
Many of those younger Labour leaders (Grant Robertson, Jacinda Ardern, Chris Hipkins) won their political spurs working for Helen Clark’s Government. Like Goff and King, these younger MPs take enormous pride in “their” administration’s achievements. In their eyes, Clark’s 9 years in office constitute an example of outstanding political management. Where other party members took issue with Clark’s authoritarian style, these young and highly ambitious members of the PM’s ‘apparatus’ became convinced that only a highly centralised and tightly disciplined party could guarantee social-democracy’s electoral success in the twenty-first century.
David Shearer is a curious Labour politician. The older members of Caucus regarded him not only as someone in whose hands Roger Douglas’ reforms would be perfectly safe, but also as a politician whose “back-story” was sufficiently varied and exciting – not to say “heroic” – to offer some much needed competition to John Key’s rags-to-riches, state-house-to-White-House narrative. That he failed to fire as Labour’s leader left the Caucus’s right-wing faction without a viable candidate of its own. It can intervene, but it cannot lead.
Taken together, the attitudes of these Labour MPs reveal an overwhelming preference for government by elites: a process which admits very little in the way of popular participation. Elitist politicians believe the will of the people is best ascertained by scientific opinion polling, and that the content of party policy is best left to appropriately qualified experts – not the votes of poorly educated delegates at out-of-control party conferences. So called “democratic” government is not about giving power to the people – God forbid! The true purpose of elections is to resolve high-level disputes about the optimum management of the state and economy. An outcome best achieved, according to the Italian social scientist, Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) by means of an “orderly circulation of elites”.
Eruptions from below (like the election of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK) pose a deadly threat to elite politics – especially if you’re one of the elite that’s about to be circulated into office! The last thing you need then is a bunch of unruly party members determined to lay their untutored hands on the delicate machinery of government. Better by far to lose an election or three, than to install the animal spirits of popular democracy on the ninth floor of the Beehive. After all, life among the elites can, in many ways, be its own reward. Eventually, your turn will come.
Why doesn’t the Labour Party organisation sweep this elitist arrangement into the dustbin of history where it belongs?
The easy answer is: “Because it’s just too bloody hard!” Members of Parliament are well-paid professionals, while most rank-and-file members are well-meaning amateurs, with jobs to go to and families to look after. In any contest between these two, the odds generally favour the professionals. Moreover, when played seriously, politics is a far from congenial pastime. From those who succeed in mastering its dark arts, it almost always exacts a very high psychological toll. There are even some who say that by the time an aspiring MP has a reasonable chance of entering Parliament, none of the qualities that initially recommended him, or her, for the job, will have survived!
The other great impediment to the NZ Labour Party turning itself back into the vibrant, highly creative and enthusiastically democratic organisation it was in the early 1980s, is its own history. By 1989, Rogernomics had driven the Left out of the party, and, by 1994, the arrival of MMP had persuaded the Right to follow suit. What remained was a political party emptied of all conviction and passion, and absolutely terrified at the prospect of a return to the bitter factional disputes of the late-1980s.
By the turn of the century, many members had learned to positively relish the level of control Helen Clark and her caucus exercised over the party organisation. The latter’s expert “guidance” from above had impressed upon them the logic of Pareto’s version of democracy. From 1993 onwards, the party was happy to let Helen and Michael and Phil and Annette and Steve and Trevor handle the important stuff. They were happy to hand out the pamphlets, erect the billboards, make the tea.
Only a mass influx of people determined to make policy – not tea – can rescue the Labour Party from the self-perpetuating parliamentary oligarchy that currently controls it. Only a rank-and-file membership that is conscious of, and willing to assert, its rights – as the Corbynistas are doing in the United Kingdom – has the slightest hope of selecting a caucus dedicated to circulating the whole oxymoronic notion of democratic elitism out of New Zealand’s political system altogether.
A version of this essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 16 October 2015.