"Whether you like Labour or not, changing leadership to David Cunliffe and the left-leaning policies will at least ensure that there is a true leading opposition party in NZ."Featured comment
Pictured right: David Cunliffe at the time of the November party conference.
The wreckers of Labour’s November conference are again destabilising David Shearer’s leadership. They are likely to keep doing so all the way to the election.
Ahead of the conference, Mr Shearer was subject to an either controlled or spontaneous avalanche of criticism from across the left establishment, including Labour-connected press galley journalists, the Herald’s Tapu Misa, Helen Clark’s hagiographer Brian Edwards, the left’s poet laureate Chris Trotter and the anonymous and semi-anonymous writers and commentators at The Standard.
As might be expected from New Zealand’s most-read and most influential left-wing blog, The Standard is a more collective effort than its right-wing rivals.
Its writers and commentators also tend to be overwhelmingly to the left of both the current opposition and Ms Clark’s government.
The so-called neoliberal consensus of the last 30 years is attacked and there is passionate debate on topics such as nationalisation of essential services, reorientating housing toward collective ownership, regulating or even abolishing interest and profit, establishing Labour as a true worker’s party and massively redistributing wealth from the 1% to everyone else.
Despite the radicalism of such ideas, which are closer to the Greens or Mana, most writers claim to be only slightly left-of-centre Labour party members. Some of the commentators have indeed been confirmed as Labour office holders.
One, for example, is Greg Presland, spokesman for the New Lynn electorate committee of Mr Shearer’s rival, David Cunliffe, and there is near unanimity that Mr Cunliffe is not only more politically talented than Mr Shearer but that he broadly supports the left-wing policy prescriptions that are usually advocated.
Herein lies Labour’s problem.
For some time, blogs have ceased to merely report grass-roots political activity: they are now where much grass-roots political activity actually occurs, with hundreds of different perspectives being put forward on various topics.
A generation ago, political reporters hung around dire regional conferences to get a sense of what the grassroots were feeling.
With little happening at today’s stage-managed conferences, it makes sense that they now observe the postings and comments on blogs such as Whaleoil, Kiwiblog and The Standard to get a sense of grass-roots opinion (noting, as always, that conference delegates and blog writers tend to be further to the extremes of the parties to which they purport allegiance).
Even with that proviso, the extreme language at The Standard about Mr Shearer is unprecedented, and it is again being ramped up.
A nickname for Mr Shearer has emerged: Captain Mumblefuck. His intelligence and admittedly poor diction are derided.
We are told he is a bully and coward for demoting Mr Cunliffe, and a puppet of Trevor Mallard and Annette King. He is accused of appeasing the middle class, his 100,000-house KiwiBuild policy is criticised as a veneer for public private partnerships and he is widely suspected of having a secret neoliberal agenda.
Elsewhere, based on research by Mr Trotter, some even hint he may be some sort of agent for foreign intelligence services.
Since the November conference, writers at The Standard have demanded that despite Mr Shearer having the overwhelming support of caucus – and well above the 60% threshold required for him to automatically keep his job – he should put his leadership to a vote of party members and union affiliates this February.
To pressure him, a false rumour was spread in recent days that Mr Shearer planned to announce this weekend a membership and union vote. The motivation is because most Standardistas are confident he would lose.
In anticipation, people are being encouraged to join the party for the very purpose of voting against its leader and for the candidate, Mr Cunliffe, bizarrely seen as far left.
This sort of internal fanaticism has been seen before, including when Don Brash’s supporters were undermining Bill English and when Paul Keating took out Bob Hawke. The strategy can work because, as Mr Hawke observed, it has a terrifying logic.
If a challenger’s faction, even a minority, is utterly determined to make life impossible for the incumbent, then eventually the leadership or even prime ministership ceases to be worth holding.
Labour’s new rules make the strategy even more likely to succeed and have created a risk of chronic instability. With members and unions now having the power to choose the leader, whichever faction happens to be in the minority will spend its time not taking the fight to the dreaded Tories, but signing up new members and manipulating union personnel.
The new rules put Labour at constant risk of old-fashioned Leninist entrism. Already, party bosses report infiltration by former members of the Alliance who have no interest in being part of a modern social democratic party but want to recreate Labour as a replica of their old far-left ideal.
Mr Shearer has a big speech this weekend. He would be well advised to throw some red meat to his far left to settle them down a bit. But the subversion by Mr Cunliffe’s supporters will continue all year. There is another meltdown ahead.