Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Chris Trotter: The Hollow Party

Over the last year, the Labour Party has been shown to be intellectually and morally hollow.

Labour's great good fortune, as New Zealand emerged from the worst of the neoliberal revolution, was to possess Helen Clark. It was Clark who engineered the installation of Mike Moore to “save the furniture” as Labour’s popularity plummeted in 1990. And, it was Clark who made sure that, when Moore failed (albeit narrowly) to win the 1993 general election, she would be the one to replace him. Labour thus acquired a highly intelligent, politically savvy leader, steeped in the Labour tradition, but also fully acclimatised to the new ideological climate. She would remain Labour’s leader for the next 15 years – beating Harry Holland’s daunting tenure by one year!

Clark’s worth to Labour is confirmed by the fact that for 9 of those 15 years she was New Zealand’s prime minister. But, it must also be acknowledged that Clark cost Labour dearly. Her political skills were more than equal to seeing-off anyone who harboured thoughts of replacing her, and she was not the sort of person to groom a popular replacement. As a consequence, when she and her government were defeated by John Key in 2008, the best successor she could bequeath to the Labour Party was the worthy, but uninspiring, Phil Goff.

What followed were nine years of bitter political in-fighting and ideological drift. Labour went through five leaders, the last of which, Jacinda Ardern, improved upon Clark’s losing Party Vote by a derisory 2.9 percentage points, and had to be elevated to the prime-ministership by the NZ First leader, Winston Peters.

Ardern, while no intellectual, was a superb communicator who seemed to pass through history without touching the sides. Her initial response to the global Covid-19 pandemic laid claim to the hearts and minds of so many New Zealanders that in 2020 Labour attracted sufficient support to govern alone. But, as the Coronavirus continued to evolve, and Labour’s efforts to control it proved insufficient, Ardern and her cabinet began to lose their lustre. The voters turned away.

Aware that the political magic had deserted her, Ardern passed the mantle of leadership to Chris Hipkins. Perhaps aware of just how much love Labour had already lost, Ardern’s most obvious successor, Grant Robertson, had declined to accept her crown. What happened over the next 10 months spoke eloquently of just how hollow, intellectually and morally, the Labour Party had become.

Part of Clark’s aptitude for electoral politics was her understanding of just how far the New Zealand electorate was prepared to tolerate a government stepping away from the politics of “Middle New Zealand”. In spite of the fact that her core personal beliefs were more closely aligned with the Labour Left than the Labour Right, she instinctively kept her distance. Only when there was overwhelming support for the Left’s position – as was the case with the Nuclear Free policy and the US-led invasion of Iraq – would she align herself with the more radical elements of her party.

Understandably, Clark’s reticence gave rise to considerable frustration within the Labour Left which, following her retirement from parliamentary politics, found release when Labour’s Policy Council adopted a large number of policies which Clark and her right-hand woman, Heather Simpson, had for many years sidelined. So it was that, in 2011, Goff, the former Rogernome, was asked to sell the most left-wing Labour manifesto in years.

Labour’s poor showing in 2011 (the worst since 1928) convinced the three young Labour politicians (all of them former Beehive staffers) who had entered Parliament in 2008 – Grant Robertson, Chris Hipkins and Jacinda Ardern – that the Labour MPs and activists responsible for promoting policies that threatened the neoliberal status-quo would have to be weeded-out of Labour’s ranks. Promoting women’s rights, Māori rights and gay rights was fine, advocating state ownership, higher taxes and stronger unions was not.

In Labour’s caucus, the Robertson-Hipkins-Ardern Troika fought its way to supremacy. In the Labour Party organisation, however, it was not always in control. The Left’s success in giving the party’s affiliated unions, and its ordinary rank-and-file members, a major role in electing Labour’s leader earned it the Troika’s unflagging enmity. It is of no small importance that when Grant Robertson offered himself as a candidate for the Labour leadership, which he did twice – first against David Cunliffe in 2013, and then again, against Andrew Little, in 2014 – he was defeated. Had the party rules required Ardern to be elected by the whole party in 2017, rather than by caucus alone (permitted due to the imminence of the general election) would she have won?

In the six years that the Troika dominated Labour (and New Zealand) the work that began with ensuring David Shearer – rather than David Cunliffe – became leader when Goff stepped down from the leadership in 2011, was completed. With Chris Hipkins doing much of the heavy lifting, Labour MPs associated with policies promoted by the Left found themselves politically outmanoeuvred and isolated – to the point where a number simply abandoned Parliament for more rewarding and less stressful careers elsewhere. The party organisation’s independence was similarly eroded, with MPs and their hangers-on exercising an increasingly unhealthy degree of influence over its key functions: policy-making, candidate selection and Party list ranking.

The long-planned and impressively seamless transition from Ardern to Hipkins in January 2023 showed just how comprehensive the Troika’s victory over the party had been. No one dared stand against “Chippie”, who now attempted to execute a series of policy U-turns in the name of returning to Labour’s “bread and butter”.

Without focus group approval, no policy – not even one promoted by the Finance and Revenue ministers working together – could count on the Leader’s support. Progressive initiatives in justice and corrections were jettisoned overnight for no better reason than the polls had pronounced them unpopular. About the only policies that remained sacrosanct were those related to the aims and objectives of identity politics. These had to remain in place – if only to reassure Labour MPs that they were still on the side of the angels. Unfortunately for Labour’s re-election chances, these were precisely the policies that a majority of the voters hated most.

When Cunliffe secured just 25.13 per cent of the Party Vote in 2014, Hipkins – some say with tears in his eyes – begged his leader to recognise the uncompromising judgement of the electorate and step down. Nine years later, having led his party to a crushing defeat, and after securing just 26.91 per cent of the Party Vote, Hipkins thought it best, all round, that he remain in place. Not one member of Labour’s caucus objected. After all, it was nobody’s fault, the changing fortunes of politics, as the theme song of “Only Fools & Horses” puts it, “is like the changing of the seasons and the tides of the sea”.

If ever Labour needed a leader with an instinctive feel for how much Middle New Zealand will bear; someone steeped in her party’s values and traditions; with the intellect and courage to argue for them positively and persuasively; a politician who understands that the essence of her craft is to be active, not passive; and who grasps that the duty of a leader is to heal, not harm; then, surely, Labour – and New Zealand – needs that person now.

Maybe Helen could have another go?

Chris Trotter is a well known political commentator. This article was first published HERE


Anonymous said...

Good lord, Trotter, it’s bad enough that the USA are left with the choice of voting for a president who is only a matter of degrees from being a corpse. Suggesting Aunty Helen takes the reins of the Labour Party again is a real sign of desperation, is it not? How about we let that party of sycophants collapse upon itself while still worshiping the ground that Ja-swindler Ardern walked upon, and then let an authentic political party rise up that represents the working class, not the laptop class, and puts their interests first for a change. Maybe call it something like The Red Feds.

Robert Arthur said...

Helen's great attribute is that she (eventually) had maori sussed. She is fully aware that "Hoatu he koromatua tango te waewae" is the guiding principle of maoridom, a fact which Key certainly did not grasp and which stll eludes Luxon.

Anonymous said...

I hope forlornly that Chris Hipkins would read and consider this analysis of Chris Trotter with great care. But as a now-former Labour voter, I fear that Labour is wedded to addressing New Zealanders according to their identities not according to their needs and talents.

All I can hope for now I guess, as an ordinary citizen, is a counterrevolution within Labour that can equip the party again with the moral compass it used to have. I certainly won’t be voting for them again unless they do. I fear for New Zealand if Labour succeeds in regaining power while still promoting such cancerous identity politics.

'Simon Cohen said...

It is interesting to note that when the whole Labour Party has voted for a leader they have selected three of Labour's most uninspiring and unpopular leaders. Goff and Cunliffe and have presided over two of Labours worst ever election results since World War II and only Little resigning saved him from a similar result.
Perhaps it might be presumed that the system for selecting a leader is flawed.

Anonymous said...

News flash:…….. James Shaw is now free from the Greens.
Potential new Labour leader suddenly becomes available.
Marama D lost at sea, she really doesn’t have a clue!
Chippy is in Love, his heart isn’t in politics anymore.

Andrew Osborn said...

"But, as the Coronavirus continued to evolve, and Labour’s efforts to control it proved insufficient, Ardern and her cabinet began to lose their lustre. The voters turned away."

Not quite!

By the time the virus had evolved it had lost its potency and wasn't really much of a threat. What Ardern lost control of was the narrative.

Instead of opening the country up and getting the economy moving again she doubled down and turned into a petty tyrant: Excessive lockdowns, punishment for the unvaccinated, paying the media to print propaganda, censoring critical commentary and running roughshod over our human rights such the rights to associate, travel and return to NZ.

No wonder the voters turned away!

Anonymous said...

Can someone answer this question.

When Jacinda A "decided to leave the Captain's Chair" how is it that she is "suddenly anointed by the King with a Royal Honour - Dame"??

The timing of the announcement is also questionable - AND NO "IT HAD NOT BEEN IN THE PIPELINE FOR SOMETIME"- an Honour that is carefully considered, placed before the King, for approval - most of them announced on Christmas Day.

For me, a buy off from Chippy, Jacinda go and we will ......!

Simon Cohen said...

I would be intrigued to know Helen's true thoughts on Jacinda. Her [too rapid] acceptance of a damehood when Helen had sensibly abolished those honors.

And what about the wedding. Two days at an exclusive venue with a guest list straight from Hello magazine. No traditional Labour Party people invited apart from Chippy the solitary man in a dark suit.

Jacinda has moved into circles populated by the rich and famous.