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The lesson of Lange

Written By: - Date published: 10:59 pm, December 12th, 2011 - 64 comments
Categories: david cunliffe, david shearer, heritage, labour, leadership - Tags:

David Lange was a good man with a sharp mind, he was quick as a cat thinking on his feet – especially debating – he was an excellent communicator. With only six years’ parliamentary experience before becoming leader of the NZLP he was also the least experienced of all Labour’s twelve leaders to date. David Lange got eaten alive.

Lange oversaw the worst years of the Labour Party, where the parliamentary and party wings grew further and further apart and bitter factional rifts and back-stabbings prevailed. His inability to manage his caucus opened the door for an unprecedented hijacking of the Party’s ideological compass by neo-liberals, and Lange eventually became an unwilling puppet for the more experienced but less principled old-hands behind him.

As a sensitive man Lange didn’t handle the awful pressure and toxicity of the leadership and paid a heavy emotional and physical toll. He left Parliament a pretty broken man. It wasn’t a good experience for him, for the Labour Party, or the people Labour represent.

So will lucky number 13 be the newest ‘least experienced Labour leader’ or will we have learned the lesson?

64 comments on “The lesson of Lange”

  1. RedLogix 1

    As a sensitive man Lange didn’t handle the awful pressure and toxicity of the leadership and paid a heavy emotional and physical toll.

    By one of those sheer accidents of life I had the chance to see that close up and personal one day. I got to spend some hours with the man … in a rather non-political setting, and long before I became poltically aware or active myself… and came away with the very distinct unspoken impression that David Lange rather desperately no longer wanted to be PM.

    Within months he had resigned.

    • David Lange was my MP for 10 years and my family were senior office holders in the Mangere LEC.  DC is my current MP and, well you know.

      There are similarities between the two but some clear differences.

      Both are exceedingly intelligent.  Both are capable of towering rhetoric, Lange especially although Cunliffe is better on his feet in analyzing situations.  Both have that ability of being very funny.

      There are differences though.  Lange did not like confrontation, he preferred to get on with anyone.  He also let Douglas get out of control.  He had the dignity and decency to call for a cup of tea and a halt to Rogernomics but he was never in command of economic policy.

      Cunliffe has a keen sense of the levers of power and what has to be achieved to make sure the correct result occurs.  He would be in control of Caucus  the way that Lange never was.

    • Mr Magoo 1.2

      I think drawing parallels between Lange and Shearer based solely on that they were both the “new kids on the block” is a very weak (and possibly highly disingenuous) argument. Lange and Shearer are not the same people by a long margin.

      And what crushed Lange is not likely happen in today’s environment.

      Honestly? This was a pretty pathetic read. I would liken this to the sort of logic you would read on kiwiblog or whaleoil. (of course the logic, it lacked the frothing at the mouth)

      • Mr Magoo 1.2.1

        And thus they have rolled the dice.

        Shearer is in. The gamble is on – let’s hope it pays off.

        Good luck to you!

  2. logie97 2

    and when the MSM talk about old-past-their-use-by-date politicians, wasn’t Dunne in the Lange government? Wonder what sort of loyalty he displayed there. Or was he then what he is now – a change with the wind politician?

  3. Brent J 3

    Is that a young Mallard in the background?

    • dancerwaitakere 3.1

      I believe it is. Makes a mockery of the claim that Shearer is a fresh face. He is merely a fresh face on an old machine that is the Labour establishment bitterly afraid of change.

  4. fender 4

    Whoever wins tomorrow we all need to support fully.
    Lange would shred any of the current Nats in a debate.
    Dunne has become a laughing stock and is really mean not sharing his hair with Pete George the web-based media egghead guy we all love.

    • seeker 4.1

      Sorry Fender can’t do that.

      • Colonial Viper 4.1.1

        I’ve volunteered long and hard for Labour this year.

        Caucus better show insight and understanding into the way forward for all of us, Tuesday morning. And a clear willingness to support painful, fundamental reform of the party.

        If they don’t choose a leader who can deliver on that while not only standing toe to toe against Key, English, Peters, Turei and Norman, but also outshining all of them in the media and in the House, a strategic blunder will have been made.

      • fender 4.1.2

        Love to hate then.

        • Colonial Viper 4.1.2.1

          Do you know how to motivate human beings to give their all?

          Or do you think that for most activists Tuesday should simply be a case of “The King is Dead! Long Live the King!”

          • fender 4.1.2.1.1

            Oh seeker can’t support fully whoever wins (?)
            And you can’t either CV?

            • the sprout 4.1.2.1.1.1

              some will, many won’t.
              depends on whose interests caucus serves i suppose

            • Colonial Viper 4.1.2.1.1.2

              I’ll suggest something to you. I figure that around 50% of the hardest core real world activists that Labour has are going to be examining the nuances of Tuesdays caucus decision very fracking closely.

              Now answer my question. Do you think that the leadership decision, no matter which way it goes, should simply be a matter of “The King is Dead! Long live the King!”

              • fender

                Well without unity may as well split the party into two then if thats whats necessary.

                • Colonial Viper

                  So answer me the question. Should party activists treat the outcome of the caucus vote as a case of “The King is Dead! Long live the King!”

                  Because I notice you haven’t bothered to respond to either my question, or the philosophy behind that statement. Clue: its not a liberal philosophy.

                  • fender

                    Party activists can treat the outcome however they wish, if some choose to jump ship or whatever thats their gig.
                    I would like to see David C and Nanaia win too, but if they don’t get the numbers then I won’t suddenly ditch supporting Labour.

                    • Colonial Viper

                      When I was studying World War I, I always wondered to myself what was going through the minds of the enlisted British soldiers waiting in the trenches. Waiting for their orders to come down from above. Orders to leap over the top of their protective trenches en masse, to charge their way over and under lines of barbed wire, in the face of unstoppable sweeping arcs of German machine gun fire.

                      And of course, I also wondered what was going through the minds of the commissioned officers and Generals who were giving the orders.

            • seeker 4.1.2.1.1.3

              Of course I support David C. and indeed Nanaia Mahuta for reasons I have been posting for days now. It is David S. that I really can’t support as leader mainly due to his inexperience. I think it was idiocy for him to have put his name forward and I can’t support idiocy. Therefore if he becomes leader I will sadly have to withdraw my support for Labour and will probably join the Greens. Can’t fight battles with the soft metal of an unforged sword.

  5. SHG 5

    Lange would eat any of the present members of the House alive in a debate. He is the strongest parliamentary orator and debater of recent memory.

    And – if one accepts the central premise of the original post – he was a failure as a Labour leader.

    Why, then, is everyone in Labour getting in a tizz about needing a new Leader who is a strong debater and speaker?

    • lprent 5.1

      …needing a new Leader who is a strong debater and speaker

      That is for the media side, house side and eventually the debates. But we have had PM’s with poor house (although not many nor for long) and even media skills.

      For me, I find the lack of caucus and ministerial experience the most bothersome. That was what caused Lange to be such a failure. He was incapable of controlling his ministers or even his caucus directly. He relied on others to do that for him. He then found out what it felt like to be a bird in a gilded cage – ineffectual and useful as a sock-puppet.

      The lack of party experience isn’t good either. That gets to be a real handicap when trying to put together a campaign.

      The problem is that political leaders need to be pretty well rounded in all of the areas that they impact on others. Being really good in one area doesn’t compensate for the lacks.

      Being aware of where the lacks are is really really important. The pace of politics is usually such that even a simple mistake at the wrong time often doesn’t leave you much recovery room. You have to take advice on those areas and to accept advice most people usually have to understand why they need it and trust those giving it.

      Some media seem to talk about Shearer having two years grace. He doesn’t. He’ll be lucky if he gets two months. Basically when the house is back, he’d have to be on form. I don’t think that it is feasible even with the good support.

      • Jim Nald 5.1.1

        My friend from the UK, a Lib-Dem candidate for the European Parliament, reminded me of the saying that “elections are won in years”.
        That’s years, not months or weeks. And also not in the few days in the lead up to polling day.

        The Labour Caucus this morning must keep that in mind and select a candidate who can take the fight to the National Government here and now, and to build up the pressure and sustain that until 2014. Let’s hope the choice will be made wisely and in the overall and best interest of the Labour Party both for now and the long term future.

    • fender 5.2

      If you want to be Leader I think the very first thing you need is strong debating and communication skills. How can you get your message across otherwise, let alone instill any public confidence.
      I’d not like to have a leader who bumbles along like I saw Paul Quinn do on Backbenches recently.

      • lprent 5.2.1

        Helps a lot. But in opposition getting your caucus spending effort on bringing down the government rather than expending it on gossiping about each other is usually the primary key. The best use of debating and communication skills initially is inside the caucus and shadow cabinet.

        • Pete George 5.2.1.1

          spending effort on bringing down the government

          That’s a very sad statement.

          The primary aim of any party, leader or MP should be working for the good of the country. Sure, if there are real issues in government that need examined or exposed then that should happen, but best possible governance should surely be the overriding aim.

          Trying to undermine the government with the aim of bringing it down if possible is not good for the country – and if you see Labour results over the last three years it’s not good for the party either.

          Destructor obsession can become self destruction. And it turns off voters.

          • Colonial Viper 5.2.1.1.1

            And did your party’s collective wisdom ‘turn on voters’? Fuck you’re politically naive.

            • Pete George 5.2.1.1.1.1

              Yep, I think I do naive quite well.

              I’m also prepared to try and think outside the square, have a fresh look at how we could do things better – and I’ve listened to a lot of people who want things done better.

              Maybe Labour could benefit from a bit of ‘naive’ and less of the ‘same old’.

              • lprent

                See my reply below. Mostly you are just rediscovering ideas that are quite old and quite dead. They died for a reason. It is rather tedious pointing you to history that you could easily look up. But suffice it to say I looked at almost every idea I have ever seen you articulate when I was in my 20’s, along with the critiques and where they were attempted to be implemented and why people thought that they failed.

                History is a wonderful thing. You should read it sometime to learn to avoid very old mistakes.

              • kriswgtn

                hhaha and ur UF leader has been around as long as Goff

                Banks has been round since when the forming of the atom?

              • Colonial Viper

                Maybe you deliver some damn proven results in the electorate before you start your political consulting business, yeah? And I mean results other than successfully suppressing research on behalf of corporate industry.

          • lprent 5.2.1.1.2

            You appear to have missed a few centuries of actual experience with democratic systems. What you are describing was the strange philosophy that caused some of the framers of the US constitution to want the vice presidential position to always be the main opponent of the president. Where apon they can (as gentlemen) work for the good of the country. Needless to say that never happened, and with good reason. It will inevitably lead to a system where by the winner and losers merely meet after the election to divide up the loot.

            What happened in practice across the democracies was the development of the loyal opposition whose role was question the government ritually, rigously, and to try to bring about their downfall. That was the required feedback mechanism to prevent stultification of the political system. There was always an incentive for the opposition to remain hungry for a change and to highlight the deficiencies of the status quo.

            United Futures main political philosophy right from the formation of the United party was only to piously divide up the loot (and that tradition is assiduously followed by Dunne today) – in fact to my eye that was the only reason that they did form. They will of course try to cover themselves with a fig leaf of respectability, like the one you just articulated. But it really is just the same as self justification of a bandit arguing that preying on the weak is merely a form of evolutionary social Darwinism

            I suspect that you are merely a political innocent who could do to read some political history to catch up on the reasons why some structures work and persist in politics. I realize that it is the role of professional innocents to not gain knowledge. But I do think that you really try to carry the John the baptist metaphor somewhat too far.

            • Pete George 5.2.1.1.2.1

              You appear to have missed a few centuries of actual experience with democratic systems.

              You appear to have missed the fact we are now in the 21st century. Like Labour. How successful are they with the seek and destroy approach?

              We can learn from the past but can do better in the future – if we want to. I suspect you’ll agree that the Internet has changed things a wee bit, and opened up mass communication to the masses.

              • Colonial Viper

                Get off the frackin teleprompter.

              • lprent

                You are over egging the effect of the social change such technology brings. It doesn’t change basic human behaviors, it merely provides a new outlet for them and allows changes and discussion to propagate more rapidly.

                It doesn’t obviate the need to read history because the first thing that I and others do is to reach into history to find out what was the flaw the last time that theory arose. We act as the opposition to point out the flaws. Merely trying to dismiss it with things are different now doesn’t cut it. Why are they different? What is the effect that you expect to see? How is it going to change human social behaviors formed by our evolutionary history (or our nature if you prefer 18th century thought) which have proved to be remarkably persistent.

                Now remember that I have been doing this social network stuff since about 1980 – it isn’t like I haven’t been around and around all of the arguments about the social effects of networks on the way. Why do you think that this site operates so well socially? Why do you think that there were so many experiments on massive social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, etc all happening at the same time? This stuff got discussed massively over the decades, and quite literally the ideas were sitting ready when the tech and economics made it feasible. The ideas of the critics decades ago also turn out to be valid.

    • and despite Lange’s exceptional gifts he was still slaughtered and the party left in ruins, because he was so politically inexperienced

  6. Brent J 6

    2nd least experienced was Geoffrey Palmer with 10 yrs. Also not a great ending.

    • Colonial Viper 6.1

      Let’s go with 2.5 years instead now, that would be a good move.

    • bbfloyd 6.2

      not a great beginning for palmer…. he was always just a pawn in lange’s game plan to stymie moore….. i’m not entirely sure why, but i didn’t forgive him for that for years….

  7. Blue 7

    There seems to be a bizarre trend emerging in NZ politics now where a candidate needs to have next to no experience to be taken seriously.

    Stoked by the examples of Obama and John Key, the demand is for ‘fresh’ and ‘new’ and anyone who’s been around longer than five minutes is ‘stale’ and ‘uninspiring’.

    Odd thought really, that in any other job experience is king, and people without a track record in the industry don’t get considered, while in the top job of running the entire country, we prefer someone untried and unknown.

    • bbfloyd 7.1

      havn’t you kept up with the fashions? it’s not cool to have an attention span longer than a goldfish…..if everyone thought with any depth on political and economic issues, then we would have a rush of jounalists and advertising executives stampeding to therapy in epidemic numbers….

      and that wouldn’t be fair to them, or their employers…..

    • seeker 7.2

      +1 comment Blue.

    • newsense 7.3

      Obama was very experienced comparatively I thought? Had experience in his state government and as his state senator?

      • felix 7.3.1

        Yes he was, but he was marketed as a fresh face without “insider baggage”.

        The fact that this wasn’t actually true – and that he could have campaigned on his experience but instead chose to emphasise his supposed “freshness” – beautifully illustrates Blue’s point.

  8. Colonial Viper 8

    XXX was from the outset the supposed puppet of a small group who put him up knowing his inexperience would leave him vulnerable to their manipulation, but thinking he might be popular and a good enough public and parliamentary performer to defeat YYY

    :shock:

    [sprout: that was a good comment you quoted but i’m not sure where it went, it seems to have been withdrawn. seemed pretty apposite]

  9. McFlock 9

    My impression – it being a bit before my time – is that it was also a shortcoming in the wider party. Nobody knew economics enough to be able to recognise and refute neoliberal BS. It’s not just down to the leader, the depth of the field also counts.

  10. Kairos 10

    A huge blunder is in the making if caucus believes it is the sovereign power in the Labour Party and ignores the clear will of the wider membership for a Cunliffe/Mahuta leadership.
    The Greens will benefit from disaffected Labour activists jumping ship but more important the Labour heartland supporters (the poor, the workers, the disengaged) will lose hope.
    To rebuild Labour from the ground up will require the re-involvement of these supporters. A failing leader, as Shearer will inevitably be, will make that task nigh on impossible.
    The Party anger at such a wilful snub of the Party wishes will have consequences come candidate and list-selection time. An organisation like the Labour Party has a long and strong memory.

  11. vto 11

    I got no idea about party politics and all that kerfuffle but it seems clear to me that the newbie nature of Shearer is pretty much the defining factor for him. Why rest all of your re-election chances on an unknown? Talk about risky. That is known as an unwise decision. It might be clever, if it works, but not wise – and cleverness is always risky. Not a time for risk methinks. 2c.

    • Colonial Viper 11.1

      People tend to be optimists, and they always think that they can beat the house odds.

  12. Matthew Hooton 12

    I think you are quite unfair to David Lange. He won Labour two elections, inspired the nation sick of Muldoonist politics of hate and fear, reformed the economy, introduced the anti-nuclear policy and withdrew from the alliance with the US, helped launch the Maori renaissance, stopped sporting contact with South Africa, and stopped the economic reforms from moving into social policy and the flat tax. If David Shearer can achieve as much for Labour, and I am sure he can, then he will be seen as one of your greatest leaders.

    • Colonial Viper 12.1

      Well this comment is quite remarkable and should be noted.

    • lprent 12.2

      He also caused Labour to shed a significiant part of its core support base while chasing a different fickle one. Allowed both the party and the country to be run by a very small clique in dictatorial manner that made Muldoon look like a sensitive democrat, and caused a complete reformation of the political system as a consequence. Caused the party structure to fracture and largely disintegrate.

      Are you sure that wasn’t the analogy you were stretching for?

    • Good to see Matthew wholeheartedly supporting Shearer.  He obviously has the interests of the Labour Party at heart and only wants the party to succeed against National. 

    • RedLogix 12.4

      All true Matthew, but there are many who still call that period the first ACT government.

      It was a government full of tension and contradiction. Never before or since have we seen a Prime Minister and his Minster of Finance bitterly and openly campaigning against each other. We forget that in the 80’s we pretty much had only what the media was willing to report; imagine if that level of dysfunction and divisiveness went down today!!!

      It is a measure of David Lange’s greatness that he achieved so much in the face of such odds. But equally it came at an enormous cost. Personally he was shattered; remember he was one of the few NZ PM’s to ever resign.

      And the cost to his Party was immense; it took Helen Clark a decade to undo some of that damage. There are still many who haven’t forgiven Labour for allowing itself to be hijacked to the madness of the neo-liberals economics.

      None of that would have happened if Lange had been in control of his caucas in the way Helen Clark was. Indeed as a Minister of Health a very young Helen witnessing that disaster must have been deeply formative for her. No wonder H1 and H2 overcompensated towards over-control.. they had lived through what happens when you lose it.

      • just saying 12.4.1

        I notice you absolve Lange from any moral responsibility for what happened. I certainly do not.

        He was a “great” wit and raconteur. I had faith in him, gave him my first ever vote and he betrayed that trust. Because of his assurances that those who had been harmed would finally gain from all the pain, he sold NZ a second term of moral bankrupcy, like a dodgy second-hand car dealer. And until near the end, he was having a whale of a time, glorying in the plaudits and the limelight, and enjoying the delights of a postponed adolescence.

        After he left the party he indulged in a prolonged ‘poor me’ and never took one jot of responsibility, as if he was rogernomics’ number one, most wounded victim.

        I was horrified that Robertson named him as his personal hero. It’s obvious that the Labour caucus have nothing to do with the current generations of the people that bore the brunt of that time, socially, economically, physically and spiritually.

        • RedLogix 12.4.1.1

          I notice you absolve Lange from any moral responsibility for what happened. I certainly do not.

          And I wouldn't quibble with you either. Lange left a thoroughly mixed legacy and I guess everyone has their selected highlights and lowlights.

  13. Ballistico 13

    I hope the best David wins, and whichever does win I hope they can rally the caucus around them and take it to the Gnats.

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