Written By: - Date published: 12:06 pm, November 12th, 2012 - 89 comments
Categories: accountability, activism, blogs, david shearer, dpf, election 2014, labour, leadership, Left, Politics, The Standard - Tags: andrea vance
Since the leadership debacles of the late 80’s and early 90’s, I’ve always had a strong dislike of shifting leadership mid-term in coups. The sight of scavengers scrabbling over the corpse of their party is unedifying, distracts from real political work, and above all it is an absolute turn-off for voters. There is no point in volunteering for a parliamentary party that spends too much time focused on the social dominance games we inherited from our social band ancestry and not enough of doing what is needed to be done to gain the treasury benches to effect real change.
So my view (expressed here frequently) is that the only time in the electoral calendar that I see for leadership debates is immediately after an lost election or those rare times when someone retires or dies in office. The corollary of that is that leaders should step down gracefully without having to be dragged kicking and screaming from office in National party style coups*.
After all if you’re a professional politician you should have given the election your best shot. You damn well know if you have a reasonable chance of winning the next election. If you can’t or can’t convince your colleagues and party activists, then the best thing that you can give a party is a chance to select someone who can. Since the loss of leadership by Mike Moore 19 years ago this has been the pattern followed inside the NZLP caucus.
However while I value the stability of this style of leadership change. I also strongly value political competence. So I’m having to rethink my opposition to mid-term leadership changes in the light of the strange decision of the caucus to promote into leadership someone who now has just over three years of parliamentary experience, no cabinet experience, and who hasn’t mastered the ability to deal with the media.
When David Shearer came up for the leadership my first thought was that this was a joke. It hasn’t changed since. And my reaction isn’t uncommon amongst Labour party activists.
Sure he had a lot of support from some of the media, the right wing blogs, and the like. He was a “nice bloke” with a good story. So what? None of those places are noted hotbeds of work for the cause of the left. Charm is an occupational requirement for a politician and anyone with experience in politics automatically discounts it. And back stories are a dime a dozen which seldom survive more than a few years in politics.
What he didn’t have was much enthusiastic support from the party activists. At best it was lukewarm. It was also more from the less active activists than the most active. Why?
Because we’re the cynical and usually very experienced buggers who give up our time to ensure that the Labour party gets elected. This goes far beyond simply delivering leaflets, door knocking, phone banking, and finding a bit of money to get local MP’s elected. We’re the ones who talk to people about why we support the Labour party and implicitly why they should vote for them. We do it when the caucus is in post-loss depression and they can’t get a press release written about by the media. We do it when the party is on the rise. And we do it when the party is in power.
But we have to have something to work with. Now the problem is that for whatever reasons the caucus has elected into the leadership a person who is so politically inexperienced that he can’t recognise some obvious potholes like his house painter anecdote or the GCSB tape screwup. And even after he blunders into them he still can’t see what the damn problem was. And when he talks to the media about his decisions, his ability to push his reasons for his actions are so frigging confused that even we can’t figure it out, and I have the strong suspicion that he doesn’t know either. All of this was obviously going to happen when he put his name up for leadership.
There was always the possibility that he would have had some good solid competent political backup while he worked himself into the role. But clearly that either hasn’t been provided or that he hasn’t availed himself of it. Even in something so basic as leading a coherent caucus displays this. The obvious sign of this has been the continuing disaster of Shane Jones acting on his own, outside his non-existant portfolios, and no-one apparently trying to put a muzzle on him.
The lack of discipline in the caucus where a rogue MP can obscure the political messages from caucus colleagues without even a hint of censure speaks volumes about how dysfunctional David Shearer’s caucus has become.
With all due respect to the views of my fellow authors Mike Smith and r0b who are inclined to give David Shearer more time to develop, I tend to agree with Eddie and IrishBill. I don’t think that there appears to be enough sign of any attempted improvement. And the time for activists to decide how much commitment they are prepared to push into a victory in 2014 or earlier (a one seat majority in the house isn’t exactly stable) is around about now. Many of the activists will be heading to the conference now with exactly that question on their mind. Which is why the question arises now*
I know that I am. I was somewhat limited in how much effort I could have done last year because of a heart attack earlier in the year so I did a lot less than I have in any election for the last 20 years. I wound up doing very little apart from voter targeting for a number of electorates. But I have plenty of time over what should be a healthy next few years. I’ve even got the bulk of my current projects for work shipping.
Now I’m contemplating how much commitment I want to give to the party compared to the other things I do. The answer is coming up as being “not much”. In fact I’m finding that of all of the activities I might want to do in NZ politics, the most productive is probably spending more time working on this site. Which is why I’ll be attending the conference next week (if at all) as part of the media rather than my usual delegate role.
The reason is that I have lost confidence in the parliamentary caucus being capable of even trying to head towards a electoral victory. As a group they seem to spend more time posturing to each other and to the media in the beltway than doing the job they need to do across NZ.
Labour isn’t going to grow their actual vote without getting people to go to the polling booths – a lesson driven home over the last week with the techniques used in Obama victory. The ability of the party to do that is diminishing as activists across the country get frustrated with the obstruction of the parliamentary caucus. The caucus appears to be the main impediment to building the type of party organisational activity that would be required to build that victory and sustain it over several elections.
Labour needs someone who can control the ill-disciplined and incoherent rabble in the parliamentary caucus or at the very least get them moving in the same direction. David Shearer and his support team don’t appear to me to be those people. If they are even trying then they are failing miserably.
Somehow I don’t think that a single speech is going to fix that. It is a structural problem with the caucus and the elevation of David Shearer to the leadership is more of a incidental symptom than being the problem.
Update: Brian Edwards has a post up that has a slightly different take on it. I suspect that he is being optimistic that a simple leadership change can fix the underlying problem.
Update: Dimpost also posted on this earlier in the day with a certain degree of scepticism on the single defining speech idea.
Update: I see that Scott at Imperator Fish shares my disquiet at the antics of Shane Jones and questions why nothing is being done about him.
* David Farrars “experience” with Labour seems to be on the same order as Andrea Vance’s understanding of Labour‘s leadership changes – complete bullshit. Vance appears to be living in Australia and observing the ALP. David Farrar was very selective in not linking to r0b’s and Mike’s posts in his post about this site this morning. And he also clearly didn’t read any of the posts to the point that he engaged some actual thought about why this is topical for NZLP activists prior to conference. Instead he seems to have invented yet another nutbar conspiracy theory. Oh well I guess he is just practicing for writing trash for the Truth. He probably hasn’t considered the simple fact that this will be the first large meeting of Labour activists to meet since the caucus decision.