|Cunliffe (right) with Shearer (left) holding Labour Balloon dead centre|
Worst defeat since 1932
In the aftermath of its worst defeat since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Labour Party rushed into the public spectacle of a leadership contest to replace Phil Goff and Annette King. The desperation of the old guard to retain the leadership against a challenge from the left by David Cunliffe and Nanaia Mahuta was obvious in the haste to replace Goff with another centrist leader. For leader it put up David Shearer who had been in parliament for only 2.5 years and for Deputy, Grant Robertson who had been in parliament for one term of 3 years. The lack of parliamentary experience was more than made up for by Robertson's time-serving as Labour Party admin hack, and Shearer's time dodging friendly fire in Iraq.
While on the face of it this was a move that took the contest out of the party back rooms into the public gaze, in effect it was a stage-managed succession of the Blairite centrist bloc to use the media to boost the 'popularity' of David Shearer as Labour's answer to National's hugely 'popular' PM, John Key. It signals a further shift of the Labour Party away from its working class roots towards an open capitalist party modelled on the US Democrat Party where the party Leaders are also Presidential candidates.
While the Labour Party members attended a series of debates between the candidates, it was always goingh to be the 34 MPs of the caucus elected the leadership in a secret ballot. Would they listen to their membership? In members meeting after meeting, Cunliffe won the crowd leaving Shearer looking like a non-starter. But the reality of Labour Party democracy is that party members probably had less influence on the decision than the right-wing political commentators and bloggers who mainly went for Shearer.
It turned out that the majority of the 34 MPs were more concerned to find a leader that could win the popularity contest against John Key, than listen to the membership who clearly favoured Cunliffe over Shearer. Although to be fair, the Party has only itself to blame for having evolved over many years from a Party where MPs were mainly unionists and accountable to the rank and file membership into a Parliamentary machine where lawyers, teachers and union officials treat the membership as election fodder.
So the Labour Party elected David Shearer as Leader and Grant Robertson as Deputy and a lot of the leftish membership took it as a defeat. Shearer and Robertson are both members of the centrist old guard that survives the Fourth Labour Government and joined the party during the 90s and 2000s when Labour was living in the shadow of the super Blairite Fourth Labour Government's deregulation of the economy. Blairism, after Tony Blair, who when elected in 1997 famously declared that there was no longer any socialist left or neo-liberal right in the British Labour Party, only the centre (and that centre was a kinder, gentler, neoliberalism). The NZ Labour Party has beat him to it by a decade in swallowing Rogernomics in the 1980s and shifting the goal posts so international capital could score every time. The NZ Labour Party abandoned any pretence to serving its traditional working class constituency and adopted the centrist politics of 'neither left nor right'.
Blairite centrist party
But despite its Blairite posturing, the Labour Party could only paper over the yawing crack between its historic working class base and its increasingly open capitalist economic program. The old guard around Clark and Goff pretended to undo the 'deficit' of Rogernomics, but never could undo the damage. The draconian ECA became the Blairite ERA with a few concessions made to the union leadership. They were being paid off for their willing complicity in this betrayal claiming that unions and bosses could do fair deals when all the while the workers share fell relative to profits. By pushing productivity as the holy grail of social harmony the union bosses were in reality screwing up the rate of exploitation.
As the global capitalist economy went into meltdown in 2007 international finance capital made sure that it escaped the crisis by passing on its costs to the working class. This has reactivated the class struggle internationally to a level not seen since the 1930s. In NZ Labour's rank and file began to stir and inside the Party there was pressure to move left to respond to restlessness of workers. This put the old Blairite guard on Red Alert but Labour couldnt convince enough workers to come out and vote. It lost to the National Party in 2008 with a pathetic lacklustre campaign and no major policies to win back worker support. In fact 200,000 former Labour voters stayed at home.
After the 2008 election defeat, Clark resigned to go to the UN leaving Goff as caretaker. Shearer flew in back from dodging bullets in Iraq! Nobody on the left apart from Te Atatu MP Chris Carter had the guts to challenge Goff for the leadership and his attempt led to his sacking from the Party. Goff tried to appeal to the middle ground by opposing asset sales, introducing a tiny Capital Gains Tax, and put up the age of retirement from 65 to 67. Labour stole the ACT parties policy of making workers work, longer and die earlier. Again Labour's Blairism was focussed on the centre and not the working class.
Such was Goff's failure to challenge National that many Labour voters switched to NZ First or the Greens in desperation to provide a few more MPs to back up a Labour led government. In a defeat even worse than 2008, a million voters stayed home, a fifth of young voters failed to register, and National won the party vote even in the historic Labour bastion of South Dunedin. Yet not until the centrists staged a coup to replace Goff immediately after the election did the left take even a minimal stand in the form of the Cunliffe/Mahuta to challenge for the leadership.
Cunliffe and Mahuta drew that conclusion that Labour had to reconnect with its working class roots and made it clear how they wanted to go about it. They began talking of policies to make this happen. Cunliffe's selection of Mahuta, a Maori woman, as his deputy was itself proof that they were serious about reaching out to the Maori, Pacifika and Pakeha working class. More than that, they said that the Labour Party constitution should be changed so that the members elected the leaders of the party. The defeat of the left then is also defeat for those disenfranchised workers because the victory of the right has junked even those tentative left moves to reconnect with the working class and to give that class a democratic voice in the party.
Labour for Sale
In effect the Labour Party has been prepared for sale. It lurched to the right in the 80s but came back to the middle in the 90s and 2000s. But now Shearer's task is to make it presentable for sale to the mythical "neither left nor right" middle-earth NZ. This is identity politics of the Hobbit kind. Shearer will dumb down any serious attempt to re-connect with Labour working class roots and pull Labour further to the centre.
When Shearer talks about renewing Labour its like Tony Blair's ‘renewal’ of British Labour away from the unions towards the middle class. Under his leadership, unless challenged by the Left, the Labour Party will sleepwalk into a scenario like the United States where it doesnt matter which party has a majority in Congress, they all sell out to Wall Street and global capitalism. Labour’s rightward trajectory going down the same road. Competing for the middle ground in parliament is 'broken'. The middle class is being squeezed downwards. The ‘self employed’ and small business people will be squeezed out of existence as the depression deepens. The working masses are looking for a social movement to reclaim their lives.
This is creating a dangerous layer of combustible people who will find themselves downwardly mobile and see the working class either as their allies or their enemies. The Labour Party cannot reach out to them with a centrist program because it cannot counter the forces that are destroying the middle classes. It can win them over however with a radical program that promises jobs, living wages and economic security for all workers including the self-employed. Failing that, these layers will become fascist fodder as the NACT regime moves further to the right.
Social Democracy is Stuffed
There is no middle ground in NZ politics where Shearer can rush in like the UN with the peacekeeping forces and refugee camps. Shearer’s expertise as a top UN aid worker is irrelevant when you have to fight a class war. As Warren Buffet famously stated, there is a class war and the bosses are winning. Either Labour goes back to its working class roots or it will find itself cannibalised by the petty bourgeois NZFirst, Greens, and National lite at the centre and Mana and other forces on the left.
This is probably inevitable looking at the fate of Social Democracy in Southern Europe as it is replaced in Greece and Italy by the direct rule by Goldman Sachs veterans. But unless those in the Labour tribe want to go down with a moan and a whimper they should put up a fight. Instead of this mantra of a ‘caucus’ united behind a Blairite centrism those on the left need to take a stand and fight for their ideas and the people behind them to regain the leadership of the Labour Party. The centrist Blairites need to be kicked out of the Party as the neo-liberal Rogergnomes were kicked out in the 80s.
The first contest will be the review of Labour's Constitution to put the democratic control of the Party into the hands of the members, so that it is the working class that is being made to pay for the crisis that will control the Party and not the self-serving parliamentarians and union bureaucrats whose privileges of office separate them from the working class. Failing that, Labour will finish its rightward shift in the post-war period and complete the transition into an open capitalist party. At that point, there will be no course for workers but to form an independent working class party based on workers democracy within which revolutionaries will fight for a program for socialist revolution.