Doomed Exercise: The proverbial rearrangement of the Titanic's deckchairs has come to symbolise the sort of activity that serves no useful purpose. Andrew Little's Shadow Cabinet reshuffle comes perilously close to fitting this description. If Jacinda Ardern and Kelvin Davis are the best politicians he has to offer New Zealand, then it is definitely bold new ideas, rather than people, that he needs to start bringing forward.
SOMETIME THIS WEEK (the date keeps changing) Andrew Little will announce his Shadow Cabinet reshuffle. The refreshed line-up of senior Opposition spokespeople will be the electorate’s best guide as to who will be doing what in the next Labour-led government. Barring unforeseen circumstances, and unforgiveable cock-ups, Little’s promotions, reappointments and demotions will be the last such exercise before the 2017 General Election.
Very few New Zealanders will pay much attention to Little’s final choices. Labour’s ranks, thinned by successive and increasingly severe defeats, contains nobody upon whose shoulders the burden of the electorate’s hopes has yet descended.
This is not 1977, when the occasion of the Mangere by-election threw up the gargantuan figure of David Lange. This lawyer-turned-politician was not only larger-than-life but also (and this was the crucial point) larger than the incumbent Labour Leader, Bill Rowling.
For the next five years, the big question, both in and out of the Labour Party, wasn’t if Lange would replace Rowling as leader, but when. Observing the deep impression the new Mangere MP’s ebullient personality, vicious wit, and soaring rhetoric was making on the public imagination, those Labour MPs determined to steer their party in a new direction lost no time in recruiting him to their caucus faction.
The "B-Team" - aka "The Fish and Chip Brigade". David Lange, Michael Bassett, Roger Douglas, Mike Moore.
The Party President of the time, Jim Anderton, referred to this faction, derisively, as the “B-Team”. The truth of the matter, however, was that Roger Douglas, Mike Moore, Michael Bassett, Richard Prebble and, of course, Lange himself, constituted the most creative and dynamic group of politicians to be found within Labour’s parliamentary ranks. Regardless of whether one supported or opposed the ideas they were espousing, there was no disputing that theirs was the team to beat. Everybody understood that when Rowling fell (as he did, eventually, in 1982) things were going to change.
That is the way it is supposed to work in parliamentary democracies: Change is supposed to find her champion, and then, through the ballot box, acquire the power to make things happen. For good or ill, Lange guided the country out of the cul-de-sac into which Sir Robert Muldoon had led it, and the policies of Sir Roger Douglas (and his Treasury advisers) went on to change New Zealand fundamentally.
Nothing and no one of such prodigious capability lurks in Little’s caucus. Not only has Change failed to encounter a champion among its ranks, but she also struggles to find anyone interested in making much happen at all. Such reforms as Labour promised at the elections of 2011 and 2014 have been ostentatiously wiped from the agenda. And such rhetorical skill as Little is able to summon to Labour’s cause is of the sort that serves only to polish the achievements of the past. Lange’s extraordinary oratorical power; his ability to paint a future in which New Zealanders were eager to take up residence, is nowhere in evidence.
Certainly, there is nothing about his finance spokesperson which calls to mind the incandescent passion of Roger Douglas. Grant Robertson is not the sort of person who quotes Neitzsche, writes alternative budgets, or publishes a book entitled There’s Got To Be A Better Way. Although entrusted with heading-up a special party commission dedicated to The Future of Work, there is scant indication that Robertson’s investigation is likely to produce anything that The Listener wouldn’t be proud to publish.
The Wellington Central MP could, of course, be hiding his light under a bushel, and the final report of The Future of Work Commission could end up calling for a dramatic reduction in the length of the working week; a radical reformation of the law regulating workplace relations; state-subsidised retraining; and the introduction of a Universal Basic Income. But a Labour caucus willing to embrace economic and social policies of such radicalism is unlikely to look and feel as somnambulant as the one Little leads.
The latest public opinion polls in the UK are registering a sharp upward spike in support for the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party among the 18-25 and 26-35 year-old cohorts of voters. Though well behind David Cameron’s Conservatives in overall terms, this surge of support from the young is of enormous importance to British Labour’s future as a viable political party.
As Little prepares to lead his re-shuffled shadows into Labour’s centenary year, he needs to consider whether his party’s future is likely to be rescued by people, or policies. If Jacinda Ardern and Kelvin Davis are the best politicians he has to offer New Zealand, then it is definitely bold new ideas that he needs to start bringing forward.
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Monday, 23 November 2015.