Democratic Distempers: How Labour’s Leadership Election is Unsettling the Neoliberal Establishment.


image001 Photo by John Miller AMIDST ALL THE FUN of flexing their new democratic muscles, Labour Party members should still watch their backs. They should also remember that when democracy was so graciously bestowed upon the lower orders, it came with an important proviso: that they never use it.

But they are using it. Halls filled with hundreds of ordinary working people have become the settings for the sort of political debate that presages real change. To the astonishment of just about everyone, the democratisation of the Labour Party is fast eroding the political status quo and posing a direct threat to the prevailing economic orthodoxy. The Powers That Be have been very slow to recognise the danger, but they are wide awake now and hurriedly pulling together a counter-strategy. It won’t be pretty.

The front-line grunts of the counter-strategy will be the mainstream media’s political journalists. Most of these have no real experience of grass-roots democracy and even less understanding of the ideas and aspirations of Labour’s rank-and-file.

Just how helpless they are in the face of genuine democracy was demonstrated at last year’s Labour Party Conference where all the processes currently on display in the leadership contest were endorsed. Rather than tease out the likely consequences of Labour’s rule changes for New Zealand politics as a whole, the news media chose instead to cast the entire democratic exercise as a power grab orchestrated by David Cunliffe.

The Old Guard of Labour’s caucus (Phil Goff, Annette King, Trevor Mallard) realising how much the new Electoral College was likely to undermine their ability to control the direction of the party, did nothing to discourage the media’s misperception of Cunliffe’s intentions. They were desperate to keep David Shearer in place until the reins of government were securely in his (their?) hands.

They were right to be worried. The new system is revolutionary. To grasp just how revolutionary, consider how effectively it would have prevented the takeover of the Labour Party by Roger Douglas and his cronies.

For a start, the infamous “Fish and Chips Brigade” (Roger Douglas, Michael Bassett, Mike Moore and Richard Prebble) would have had no prospect of toppling Bill Rowling and replacing him with David Lange. What’s more, whoever Rowling’s eventual replacement turned out to be – Russell Marshall? Anne Hercus? Jim Anderton? – they would have been the choice not of the right-wing of caucus, but of the left-wing rank-and-file, and the still unbroken (and very radical) trade union movement. Rather than “Rogernomics”, New Zealand would have gone through a period of economic reform much more in line with Labour’s social-democratic principles.

Sadly, most of New Zealand’s political journalists are incapable of running this sort of counterfactual historical scenario. Having grown up under the crushing ideological hegemony of neoliberalism they have difficulty imagining any kind of political or economic alternative – let alone one from the Left. Accordingly, their initial reaction to Labour’s leadership contest has been one of utter consternation. To their eyes, the process appears to be generating a dangerous variety of democratic distemper. Labour’s rank-and-file come across as barking mad and David Cunliffe and Grant Robertson appear to have taken leave of their senses. Only Shane Jones gives them the impression of retaining a vestige of economic “common sense”.

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A strong media consensus will, therefore, very likely congeal around Jones as Labour’s “only hope” of being taken seriously. Any other candidate emerging victorious from the Electoral College will be savaged by the mainstream media all the way to the General Election.

In this they will, naturally, be equipped and encouraged by the National Government, the Treasury, Business New Zealand, the Australian-owned banks, right-wing economic analysts, the NZ Initiative and every other manufacturer of neoliberal munitions in the country. The Prime Minister will depict a Cunliffe- or Robertson-led Labour Party as some sort of doomed left-wing suicide-bomber, locked in a final, fatal embrace with the Greens and Mana, and waiting only for polling day to blow himself and the rest of the far-left “Devil Beasts” into bloody little chunks.

But what if Labour’s radical new message, combined with the unrelenting hostility of the mainstream news media and the vicious antagonism of all the usual right-wing suspects, turns out to be just what was needed to enthuse and mobilise the 800,000 New Zealanders who saw no good reason for voting in 2011? National simply could not survive the sudden return of hundreds of thousands of left-voting citizens to the polling booths.

A Labour-Green landslide would leave Shane Jones in an uncomfortable position. Overnight, he (and however many of the Labour Right brotherhood had survived the process of gender equalisation) would become the focus of media attention. It is to “the Jones boy” that the whole neoliberal establishment would turn for protection against the “North Korean-style, lunatic Communist, Flat Earth-dwelling maniacs” who now occupied the Treasury benches.

With any luck, the new minister responsible for regulating New Zealand’s supermarket duopoly will tell them, with great dignity and politeness, to go fuck themselves.


    • Perhaps just a little overheated, Chris. I wouldn’t hold my breath in expectation that Labour will, in fact, ever turn left again. I would settle for it rediscovering its founding principles and pledging to apply them in the messy business of governing.

    • Why should he be overly upset with the media doing it’s job and even if he had a right to be upset what are you suggesting he does about it?

    • Shane Jones is not a man I want to follow. And it’s not just the fact that he watched porn on my dime, (though that is a cringe factor that will never go away, and should Jones find himself in the top spot that cringe factor will always precede him and the Party) – mostly it’s the fact that he speaks without substance.

      In my opinion….a resurgent Labour Party needs a man of substance at the helm.

      • Lily, Jones gives me the creeps, big time, even before the porn episode, but after that he went way off the Ugh! radar.
        It’s the body language and those shifty eyes, the kind that check out women’s bums. Yuk.

        I thought maybe I’m being too hard on him and a few years ago I made myself watch him during a debate on Maori TV. He was good. I was surprised. However his abrasive attitude and his ideas which make him sound like a Nat M.P rather than a Labour M.P are just too much. Last night on 3news he was just embarrassing. When asked about his appeal to the voting woman he said “its only the feminists who don’t like me. I want to appeal to the ordinary women, the ones that read the Woman’s Weekly”. Ah, yeah, so he doesn’t have a very high regard of women’s intelligence if he thinks we all read trashy mags. That statement blew me away.

          • You understand that the whole ‘porn on the taxpayer dollar’ is a lie told about him by the msm, right? Completely unsupported by the facts? He watched some porn (for which you are welcome to despise him if you choose) in a hotel then paid his bill with his work card. He then reimbursed his employer for the personal expenses included in his hotel bill (eg porn). Some time later, it all went public and people, encouraged by the msm and his opponents, focussed on the porn and not the repayment.

            I’m no fan of Jones, but attacking him on the basis of gossip and the feeling that he seems ‘creepy’ or ‘icky’ is a pretty Woman’s Weekly reader sort of approach.

            • Sam I guess you’ve just never had the feeling of being objectified and degraded by an industry that portrays women as toys.

              I guess you’ve never had to console your friend whose husband forced her to watch porn against her own will to try and “turn her on and be a real women” when all she felt like doing was vomiting.

              I guess you’ve never had a person look you over and shame you with the look in their eyes. I can tell you Jones has got that look, on top of generally being a less than ideal representative of the people. When you’ve been exposed to creepy men you can spot one at ten paces. I have a right not to trust or like him, as do all other women who are offended by him.

              Sure, people will watch porn, and Jones won’t be the only MP who does. Nothings going to stop them. But when you’re so dumb that you pay for it using your work issued credit card, you’re going to have to expect some response.

              • Le sigh

                Like I said I have no problem with disliking Jones for his liking porn. All I’m doing is correcting the misrepresentation that tax payers paid for it – well, except in the sense that we pay his salary and therefore pay for everything every public servant spends money on.
                I’m sorry to hear about your friend, sounds like she agreed to marry a total arsehole…

                • Sam, It may have helped if you had read my original comment. Jone’s personal tastes form just part of my disrespect for him. To repeat my message, he is politically unlikable to me as well.

                  It is insensitive and thoughtless of you to say that my friend agreed to marry an arsehole. You have no idea of the circumstances and have no right to judge.

                  I hope you are never in the company of a woman coping with the effects of sexual abuse.

  1. The Old Guard of Labour’s caucus (Phil Goff, Annette King, Trevor Mallard)

    You should include Michael Cullen and Ann Collins in The Old Guard. They were doing the rounds at the Labour Party Region 3 conference on Saturday, buttering up undecided MPs and lobbying people.

    • Yes, right you are “Watching the Old Guard Rally”. These 2 (MC & AC) despise Cunliffe, I know that for a fact.

      So while the 3 candidates to a great job of selling themselves at the same time as displaying Labour as a unified force, the ABC’ers are still working hard to ensure Cunliffe doesn’t succeed. Disappointing but consistent with Chris’s article.

    • as a labour party member it was never going to be shane jones but you will just need to wait to the 15th the mps have lost control and members have got there own ideas and since we hate mainstream media so much we not listening to them eithier

  2. Very insightful. I can see the dynamics working just as you state them, not telling which way it will work out though.

  3. If this grassroots revitalization has done nothing else, it’s certainly dragged Chris Trotter back to the radical left. Welcome back Chris, we missed you. 😉

    Perhaps your next column could be a condemnation of the way Clark and the neo-liberal vanguard rubber-stamped the suppression of Tūhoe grassroots democracy, and an apology for defending it?

  4. One thing is for certain, Key needs to shut up about Labour’s leadership selection process. After all, it won’t be long before public attention shifts to how National selects it’s leadership.

    So how many National Party members get to choose their leader?

    National may find itself in the glare of a very bright, uncomfortable spotlight…

    • Most people wouldn’t care in my view. Only political wonks really give a damn about the nitty gritty of internal party procedures.

    • Yes….Key really does need to ‘watch’ his mouth……this is the politician who told English he had his vote then voted for Brash during that leadership stoush – one vote majority for Brash – then going on to win the leadership vote himself when Brash was forced to resign courtesy of the “hollow men” whistle blowing. All rater seedy and nasty if I recall…….someone needs to remind Key.

  5. The media do not get it. To them democracy means “free speech” (so they can say what they like regardless of any relevant facts)

    Even Ryan on Natrad talked about “labour caucus giving up their authority”.

    What a load of BS. Any authority that the labour caucus had to elect a leader was given to them by the party membership.

    The party membership withdrew that authority.

    The labour party caucus exists to serve the interests of the labour party membership, not the cosy careers of cabinet cabals.

    It is depressing that the nats are so besotted by wall street, california and hawaii that they have forgotten that live in nz.. Sigh!

    • Very well put. I agree wholeheartedly. This leader election has been an excellent democratic process for Labour. I even renewed my two year lapsed membership. I am happy! P.S : A nice article there, Chris. I used to be annoyed at some of your anti Labourish articles before as if you were a traitor yourself! Good to see you enthused now.

      • Shame that the Labour caucus itself is working against its own voters, apparently the majority of caucus is behind Robertson as a leader. That’s disappointing but not surprising, they are that sort of people who should have been kicked out ages ago.
        They really don’t want to win the 2014 election.

  6. What National elect a leader…never, they buy leadership just like the Act Party and Peter Dunne…good grief you can’t have elected leaders…thats just too democratic…

  7. Well , you’re in fire in my opinion Chris Trotter ( Only metaphorically one would hope ) . And in my opinion you’re absolutely dead on the money . Totally simpatico with my observations .

    I saw Shane Jones all over TV like a rash this morning . He was meandering about like a stoned window shopper . He seemed to enjoy the hollow pleasure of being in the Media spotlight , however devious and Game-Of-Thrones-ish the MSM’s intentions clearly are .
    I see the neoliberal reaction to this new thing , you know , when citizens realize they can stand up for themselves ( referendum on asset sales . Brilliant stuff ! ) and see that very good people do exist in politics as that of a huge room comprised of nothing but corners and packed to the rafters with fat , rich and very worried rats .

    It’s my view that Blogs will become ever more important in piloting our dysfunctional political juggernaut with it’s skeleton crew down into a safe albeit fiery landing .

    We’re witnessing history in the making and it’s a very exciting time to be involved in this process .

  8. “…In this they will, naturally, be equipped and encouraged by the National Government, the Treasury, Business New Zealand, the Australian-owned banks, right-wing economic analysts, the NZ Initiative and every other manufacturer of neoliberal munitions in the country…”

    The answer to this is to build your own arsenal to manufacture the social-democratic munitions to fire back with. Cut the Treasury budget and gut it of it’s policy advice component and set up a new Government Financial Advisory Unit. For every Business New Zealand press release ensure a re-invigorated union movement fires back with another. Switch all government banking to Kiwibank and tell the Aussie banks that if they moan to much, you will consider stripping non-NZ owned banks of the right to offer mortgages. If the media is full of right wing economic analysts, use a well funded state media (RNZ and TVNZ) to get your story across. Always remember there are never any final battles, final defeats or final victories. The war of ideology and ideas goes on forever and to prevail over neo-liberalism the left needs to build a constitueny and give it a voice. It is perpetual war fought with the tools of democracy.

  9. Whether Labour should allow Shane Jones to go for top job is another story. Having only been elected on the list, not having once his electorate, how are they to be sure that the whole country can get behind him, when his electorate vote otherwise?
    One can assume therefore that he is there under some sort of meritocratic basis, but with the media portraying politics as some sort of popularity contest, with debate about policy not even coming second, is New Zealand realistically going to get behind a meritocraticly elected Prime Minister? especially given that tall poppy syndrome is an epidemic here!

      • Winning an electorate seat means that you have impressed a sufficient number of people in the electorate that you are worth voting for. Winning a list seat means that you have impressed the much smaller number of people who do the rankings that you deserve a certain position on the list. When it comes to choosing a leader, I see a huge difference.

  10. Thank you, Mr Trotter! To paraphrase Heinz Guderian’s remark in respect of the failure of Barbarossa at the gates of Moscow in 1941: ‘I can scarcely belief how such a fine political (military) situation could be so ballsed up in two years (months).’ Recall two years ago when someone was saying John Key knew his Administration would not survive the 2014 election? The Labour Party, having failed turn learn any goddam thing in the last 30 years, are sleep walking to defeat.

    These days, you know, I can hardly bring myself to vote Labour even just to keep National from office. If they are still following the Neo-liberal, Neo-Classical Economic line (as National is), the best that can be said of them is that they are out of touch with any kind of reality as experienced by real people, that even their hindsight (ability to learn from simple observation) is afflicted by total blindness, that the Party has no right, by reason of criminal incompetence, to occupy the Treasury benches. The bad part: nor has National.

    Were it not for John Key’s engaging manner and the Common Touch, which comes across strongly in the friendly MSM, the election would be much closer, with abstentions rivalling the Parties’ votes. Mind you, when Key’s mask drops, what you see ain’t what you’d call pretty.

    I would welcome a change in outlook by the Labour Party away from Neo-liberalism (so-called: it looks a whole lot like Palaeo-feudalism to me). For one thing, though, they would have to eschew any kind of Neo-Classical approach to national economy, and start looking to what happens in the real world. That might well mean clearing a lot of dead wood out of Treasury and the Reserve Bank.

    We need a political movement – a Party, if we must – with the brains, guts, backbone, heart, and plain brass bollocks to run the really hard yards and turn New Zealand around, socially, economically and politically.

    That’s really likely, eh? I’ll probably be voting Mana.

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