Michael Cullen taught me History at the University of Otago in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His lectures on the English Revolution were riveting. On the wall of his office he had tacked a huge Walter Crane poster showing a man digging and a woman spinning. Around the image trailed the words of John Ball, the defrocked priest whose impertinent theological and political question helped spark the Peasants Revolt of 1381: “When Adam delved, and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”
That was the Michael Cullen whose entry into Parliament I celebrated.
But then came Rogernomics, and Cullen trimmed his sails to the prevailing winds. He played a key role, as Whip, in getting GST through a succession of Labour regional conferences. Yes, he was formidably intelligent, and yes, his wit could lacerate the National Party like no other, but the reforms he will be remembered for: the Super Fund, KiwiSaver, Working For Families, were all inadequate workarounds that never seriously challenged the neoliberal orthodoxy which Cullen, in the end, accepted and consolidated. He fought KiwiBank to the bitter end, and refused to save public broadcasting.
The final betrayal, from the point of view of the student who had thrilled to his lectures on the Levellers, the Diggers and the Fifth Monarchy Men, was when the onetime radical history lecturer accepted a knighthood.
There have been many, many Labour MPs who were worse than Michael Cullen – much worse. But, equally, there were a number who were better. The tragedy, for me, is that Michael could have been one of them – but wasn’t.