Waitangi Weekend featured, as predicted, a controversial candidate announcement as part of a political resurrection. Fortunately for my hopes, it was Willie Jackson’s spot in the limelight rather than a … certain other figure. Although it did strike me as somewhat surprising that there was so much opprobium and opposition to the gentleman in question returning to politics with the Labour Party.
Surprising, I suppose, because it makes for such a logical fit. Jackson is not perfect – either as a person or as a candidate – and he’s already experienced first-hand just how fractitiously internecine the Labour Party’s internal politics can be after a mere few hours ‘officially’ in the Team. But he does add value to what Labour’s selling this Campaign season. And that’s a pretty important consideration for those of us who’re interested in Changing The Government later this year.
So how does he help this mission.
Well, for starters he’ll help to counter Labour’s “profile problem”. Few people could probably name anyone outside of Labour’s front bench. Fewer still would have actually seen or heard them through popular media in recent weeks. Leaving aside the level of media attention which Jackson’s announcement has attracted this weekend, for most of hte last decade and a half he’s been a familiar voice for hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders via his broadcasting ventures. And while this also evidently provides a potential supply of ammunition for his detractors (both within and outside his own party), one could argue that in the desperate situation Labour now finds itself – such a strong public profile for a candidate is not something to be sneezed at.
But the area where he will most prominently have featured in Labour’s electoral machinations is Maori politics. It’s no secret that Labour is presently on-edge and cold-sweating about its prospects in the Maori seats and with Maori voters. On paper, it looks to be in a strong position – holding six out of seven Maori seats, some of them by comparatively wide margins. But in reality, the looming tidal wave of a MANA-Maori electoral compact to ‘take back the Maori Seats’ has them seriously worried. In Te Tai Tokerau especially, there will be no Kim Dot Com to weigh down Harawira this time. And in a number of other seats, the combined total of MANA and Maori Party votes well exceed Labour’s majorities – certainly, well enough that the chance cannot be taken that some MANA voters might instead choose to back Labour if their own party’s candidates are pulled. (The Greens, incidentally, are probably not going to be helping on this score; seeing as they’re already announcing candidates for a number of the Maori Seats, which will only serve to split the Labour vote further)
Before the weekend’s announcement, it was widely rumoured that he’d put his name forward for Tamaki Makaurau with the Maori Party. No disrespect to Labour’s Peeni Henare, but most projections had Jackson doing seriously well and quite probably taking the seat. By bringing Jackson onboard with its own waka, Labour have effectively neutralized a pretty big threat to one of their precious electorate seats. What was that Sun Tzu quote about the best way to defeat an enemy being to make him a friend instead?
He may also help Labour to bolster its support amongst Maori via attracting party votes, as well.
But there are also other considerations to be made.
One element to Jackson’s political persona which I don’t think I’ve seen anybody comment on just yet, is how close he is with Winston Peters. I mean seriously close.
This is vitally important. If Labour and the Greens want to form a non-National government after this year’s Election, they are going to have to work out some way to reach an accommodation with New Zealand First. Linkages with Winston which he’ll hopefully listen to are absolutely imperative if this is to happen.
In addition to this, Jackson’s background as an Alliance MP may indicate that he could play a role in helping to keep the modern Labour Party ‘to the left’. In an age of public embarrassment due to its representatives doing bone-headedly “principled” things like choosing to vote for the TPPA .. that could be no small thing.
So with all this in mind, why are such a number of ‘lefty’ people across social media and elsewhere so blatantly unexcited about his candidacy?
Well, a good number of them will have seen and taken their lead from fellow Labourite Poto Williams’ bringing back up of Jackson’s comments during the Roastbusters travesty. While it’s generally agreed upon that John Tamihere was by far the worse offender in that sad incident, critics can also point to words of Willie’s which have also caused offence. And, in any case, due to both a perception that “where Willie goes, J.T. goes too” and the fact that it was a joint show … it’s not hard to see why even Jackson’s apologies over the matter for what he personally said have failed to sway some opponents.
We demand high standards of both sensitivity and empathy from our elected representatives. I can well see why hard questions have been asked from various quarters of Jackson over this.
But as it happens, I also think there are other drivers for ‘lefty’ opposition to Jackson.
Foremost among these, from what I’ve seen, are concerns from Greens supporters that some of Jackson’s previous rhetoric in their direction might cause problems for a harmonious Labour-Greens relationship. Personally, I think that a Red-Green Prospective Coalition has far bigger issues facing it this year than what one of the Red party’s newly-minted candidates might have said about the Green partner in his past life as a broadcaster … but the perception is nonetheless there that Jackson’s candidacy is a bit of a flick in the ear for the Green Party.
Alongside this are the customary jibes about being a “party-hopper” or an “opportunist” which emit from other quarters of the electorate. And yes, it’s certainly true that a decade and a half ago Jackson was part of another party. One which is truly dead and buried, and which has seen a not insignificant number of its former glittering diamonds saddle up for Labour – whether motivated by shining idealism or a less lustrous personal ambition.
But I suspect that objections based around Jackson’s previous pedigree may have less to do with any idea that his political principles are ‘fungible’ enough to see him fit into a number of parties (the Maori Party which he was snatched from, as an obvious example).
Instead, some folks out there have looked at what’s been going on in Labour for the last wee while. Things like Matt McCarten running strategy for Labour as Andrew Little’s Chief of Staff (a function which he appears to have at least partially kept even if he no longer holds the official role). Or Laila Harre rejoining Labour and potentially considering contesting a seat. Or, as we’ve seen this weekend, Willie Jackson turning up on the Labour Party’s List.
The common denominator for these three figures, of course, is that they’re all Ex-Alliance.
And there are a number of people amidst Labour who have never really forgiven The Alliance for existing. Let alone breaking away from Labour, pointing out Labour’s troublesome neoliberal legacy for much of the 1990s, attempting to replace them as the leading ‘left-wing’ party, reducing Helen Clark to tears during the Taranaki-King Country by-election, and all the rest of it.
If I were a slightly paranoid and seriously pretentious Labourite member, I’d presently be jabbering about an impending “Alliance-party” takeover of my beloved quasi-neoliberal vehicle, with a purported view to setting up a sequel to their now-mummified party. And I’d be throwing up mad shade in an attempt to act as a circuit-breaker.
But that’s just a theory – albeit one based upon previous conversations.
In any case, while there are good and solid reasons for Labour to put Jackson forward as a candidate, many of these seem to have been lost recently amidst the rush-to-recondemn from some on the left.
Regardless of the rightness or otherwise of such an impulse, there are other factors to be taken into consideration as applies Jackson’s candidacies. Factors which the Labour Party, sorely hard-pressed as it is, may be in dire need of being the beneficiary.
Foxholes under artillery bombardment are perhaps not the right place for overwrought moral purists.