THE STORY of David Cunliffe’s leadership of the Labour Party has been one of missed opportunities and unforced errors. That he was the only choice available to those who wanted to rid the Labour Party of its neoliberal cuckoos is indisputable. Equally indisputable, however, is that he has proved unequal to the task.
It is worth recalling the observations I made back in February following the announcement that Matt McCarten had been appointed as Cunliffe’s Chief-of-Staff:
[T]he Left has been given an extraordinary opportunity to prove that it still has something to offer New Zealand ….. If Cunliffe and McCarten are allowed to fail, the Right of the Labour Party and their fellow travellers in the broader labour movement (all the people who worked so hard to prevent Cunliffe rising to the leadership) will say:
“Well, you got your wish. You elected a leader pledged to take Labour to the Left. And just look what happened. Middle New Zealand ran screaming into the arms of John Key and Labour ended up with a [pitiful] Party Vote … So don’t you dare try peddling that ‘If we build a left-wing Labour Party they will come’ line ever again! You did – and they didn’t.”
Be in no doubt that this will happen – just as it did in the years after the British Labour Party’s crushing defeat in the general election of 1983. The Labour Right called Labour’s socialist manifesto “the longest suicide note in history” and the long-march towards Blairism … began.
The cuckoos (a.k.a the “ABCs”) are now poised to reclaim control of the Labour Party caucus and organisation to a degree not seen since the departure of Helen Clark. Not only will they purge the Leader of the Opposition’s Office of Cunliffe and his immediate entourage, but they will also ensure that the current party President, Moira Coatsworth, and the General Secretary, Tim Barnett, are eased out of their positions. A concerted effort will also be made to rid the party’s NZ Council of all those known to be sympathetic to Cunliffe and his vision. Within the trade union movement there will be a strong push for “left unity” and the choice and management of affiliate delegates to and at regional and annual conferences will be given much closer attention.
By the time the 2015 annual conference of the Labour Party convenes in Palmerston North, delegates will be welcoming a new leader, electing a new president and general secretary, and contemplating a NZ Council already shorn of most of its left-wing radicals. The delegates, too, will likely be a very different bunch. At the level of the Labour Electorate Committees there will be a concerted effort to provide delegate credentials only to those “approved” by the dominant caucus faction. The names of people not wanted at the conference will be discreetly circulated to the new leader’s most reliable supporters. Challenges to dissidents should be expected.
Right down to the lowest levels of the Labour Party, politics is about to get very ugly.
Is there no way back for Cunliffe and the Left? No way at all?
No, there is not.
To understand why one needs to understand the average Labour activist. While a minority of active members are driven by ideology, the vast majority are driven by a mixture of sentiment and loyalty. These emotions have either been programmed into them by their upbringing – as in “I remember Norman Kirk” – or through a longstanding personal relationship with their local Labour MP. The strength of these emotions means that when push comes to shove the Labour Party’s activist base will almost always defer to the wishes of the parliamentary caucus, or, if that fails, to appeals by the party hierarchy to rally in Labour’s defence.
That these traditional appeals to sentiment and loyalty failed to keep the membership quiescent for the six years after 2008 bears testimony to the iron grip in which Helen Clark held the party organisation for an unprecedented 15 years. Pressures for a more democratic Labour Party had been building for some time under Clark (especially during her final term as PM) and they burst forth in the form of constitutional and policy innovations following her departure. The effective coronation of Phil Goff as party leader in 2008, followed by the caucus’s refusal to acknowledge Cunliffe as the membership’s choice in 2011, gave the rank-and-file’s reforms an even sharper edge.
The high tide of the democratisation process coincided with the election of Cunliffe over the objections of the parliamentary caucus in September 2013. Cunliffe himself was only too aware of the momentous potential for change which his election signified. A left-wing party strong enough to dictate the composition and policy direction of its parliamentary representatives constituted a clear and present danger to New Zealand’s 30 year-old bipartisan consensus in favour of neoliberalism. Cunliffe’s efforts to reassure his colleagues that he had no intention of availing himself of that potential proved unsuccessful. There were simply too many Labour MPs with personal and political fortunes that could not survive the subordination of the Labour Caucus to the Labour Party.
The wider political and business establishment had even more to fear from a Cunliffe-led Labour Party forming a government in 2014. Cunliffe made plenty of mistakes on his own, but these do not in any way detract from the mistakes that were made for him.
And now the Labour Party membership and affiliates find themselves between a rock and a hard place. They must decide between engaging in a long and bitter internal struggle for ideological and organisational supremacy with their own MPs; or, by rediscovering their former, uncomplicated loyalties to party hierarchy and parliamentary caucus, avert the bloody consequences of a civil war that neither side would be likely to emerge from as a viable political force.
All my experience of the Labour Party tells me that it will capitulate to its parliamentary wing. Rank-and-file and affiliate union members know that their MPs are full-time political professionals who, in this sort of battle, can count on the support of virtually the entire New Zealand establishment. The news media, in particular, can be relied upon to portray the caucus as reasonable and responsible, while painting Cunliffe and the party as a bunch of loony lefties dangerously out-of-touch with “Middle New Zealand”. That being so, and with such wise old Labour Party heads as its former General Secretary, Mike Smith, and its current Policy Council sage, Professor Nigel Haworth, counselling moderation and caution, the membership will, once again, like Orwell’s “Boxer” in Animal Farm, allow the pigs to harness them to the plough.