It’s – more or less – thirty years since Roger Douglas’ faction gained control of the Treasury benches. It’s even longer since it latched its fangs onto the Labour Party jugular.
The bloody leadership struggle within the Labour Party since the election is pretty much an anniversary reminder that Douglas’ legacy lives on.
That’s because the poison that the Douglas faction injected into the Labour Party has never fully worked its way out of the Party’s system – for a simple reason: It has festered in the huge, dry crack the Douglas faction opened between the Labour Party caucus and the Labour Party itself.
That’s still the fracture that won’t heal, the wound in Labour’s flesh in which the bitter poison pools.
What we’re seeing is proof that the infection that was held at bay for a few elections (in the 2000s) by heavy-duty medication and tight bandaging has relapsed, spread and now is working its dark effects to the point of fatally sickening the party’s internal organs and, at some point, no doubt draining its lifeblood (members).
Perhaps it’s finally time for the poison to be drawn and for full-spectrum antibiotics to be administered.
Who knows? The patient may not even die.
Of course, the Labour Party attempting, at least, to wretch and vomit its way free of that toxin will not be pretty and certainly isn’t so far. The convulsions that, ultimately, are part of an attempt to eradicate the radical right infection will, of necessity, be violent and messy – which doesn’t mean they will be successful.
A right-wing reinfection will perhaps look a little less messy in the short-term (at least from the outside and in the media – ‘keeping up appearances’, as it were). In the medium to long term, though, the convulsions are bound to begin again.
The reason for that is simple. The problem is a direct consequence of the structural damage Douglas and his backers inflicted on the Labour Party.
Most people find it next to impossible to think structurally about the human world. Ordinary New Zealanders are not alone in thinking, for example, that poverty can be solved by changes in individual behaviours or that Parliament would be a nicer place if nicer people ended up there.
But that’s not how it works. Human beings adapt their actions to the world – the ‘structures’ – they find themselves in. Change the structure, change the likely adaptive responses people will show.
If you want to change behaviour at the population level don’t waste your time changing each individual’s behaviour one at a time. Change the structures people live in.
That’s of course what Douglas did to the entire New Zealand population – he re-engineered (socially engineered) the structures within which they lived.
Lo and behold people, at the population level, then predictably adopted new behaviours. Those like Key who were young, appropriately educated and stirring with ambition exploited the new structures to make a mint.
Others, less fortunately placed when the structural changes began, headed, slightly bewildered, for the dole queue, for other towns in search of work, for the consolations of alcohol and drugs, for other relationships as theirs broke under the stress and strain.
At a much smaller scale – in the Labour Party – the Douglas faction’s capture of the caucus (without going the more honest but much harder route of winning over the broad party) created an internal structural change and, hence, a structural disconnect.
That structural change manifest in an alignment of much of the caucus with figures in Treasury and the business world, to whom they looked for support (readily given), funding and ‘guidance’. They, in effect, arranged new masters and alliances for themselves in order to outmanoeuvre their own party.
That was the structural change.
That is also why Wayne Hope was right in stating that:
In New Zealand politics National and Labour are not separated by a left right dividing line. Instead, this line runs down the middle of the Labour party.
It is that fundamental fissure which has left much of the Labour Party caucus on the actual right of New Zealand politics (despite not formally being members of National) that continues to cause havoc within the Labour Party.
Those who see the Labour Party – and saw it – purely as a career vehicle were conveniently personified, until recently, by Shane Jones. As I’ve written in a previous post, Jones appeared to think that the ‘real’ Labour Party was the one run by the Douglas faction in the 1980s:
“I’ve never said this on the record, but I was deeply influenced in a positive way by the figures of the Lange Government. I didn’t do my due diligence to discover how much the Labour Party had changed [i.e., from the days of Lange and Douglas!]. And Opposition is a waste of my talent and skill.”
If you want to understand the current problems in the Labour Party it seems to me that this confession from Jones pretty much nails it.
Jones was not attracted to the Labour Party itself – with its long history, clear left wing economic and industrial stance – but, instead, to a hijacked caucus in the 1980s. He conflated and confused the two – as so many people are doing today including, I’d hazard a guess, quite a number of MPs.
For Jones, the party was the caucus. And, more specifically, it was the Douglas-Lange caucus.
The structural problem could not be expressed in a more sublimely simple way than it was, unwittingly, in Jones’ wistful reflections.
In many ways, Roger Douglas’ greatest triumph over the left of New Zealand politics was to leave the Labour Party with this massive fracture between, on the one hand, a coterie of right wing MPs in caucus who could maintain their local electorate power bases and, on the other, the broader party membership.
That initial ‘class of ’84’ MPs attracted – perhaps recruited – people just like Jones. Wittingly or not, this is how they replicated themselves through the decades and ensured that the split never healed. Holed up in safe seats, largely impervious to the membership and the party at large and ‘mentoring’ their ideological clones into similarly safe seats, they have ensured a seemingly irreversible rightward shift – away from their own party – within the Parliamentary caucus.
So this post is not about who would make the best leader, who has the most telegenic manner, who will ‘resonate with middle New Zealand’, who is causing all the trouble or anything else like that.
Instead, it’s about how the Labour Party might – or might not – alter its internal structure to overcome the structural damage inflicted by the Douglas faction all those years ago.
If such a structural realignment effort is made it will be incredibly damaging – but it is not at all clear that such an effort should therefore not be made.
Middle class, liberal supporters of Labour may find that prognosis discomforting. It is a much more amiable idea to believe that all will be well if only the right leadership choice is made and everyone then decides, individually, to ‘unify’ around that choice.
They therefore may baulk at the radical treatment option needed to address the source of the disease. They may just feel a deep urge to apply a tourniquet, administer some smelling salts and push the patient back out on the street.
After all, it’s not the kind of process you follow in polite society where putting on a face of normality even in the direst circumstances is a principle virtue and is seen as the prime modus operandum for social success. Where believing that if you keep opting for the short-term easy solution and the associated and inherently necessary ‘impression management’ of one’s surface appearances that goes along with it, then things will, fingers crossed, turn out for the best in the end.
If the more radical treatment option – structural change to reconnect the caucus to the party – is not followed now, at this opportune time, it will condemn the centre-left to life without any useful ‘body’ for the foreseeable future.
And this is the central point that makes such a messy process necessary: A Labour caucus that sets itself against its own party membership and affiliates – by gambling that it doesn’t really need their consent or that it can indefinitely defer that necessity until the glories of government arrive (when all will supposedly be forgiven) – is simply sucking the poison from Douglas’ bite right back into Labour’s veins.
Once sucked back in it will continue to eat away at the remaining vitality in the Labour Party.
In public it will produce the inevitable: Constant signs of partly submerged disunity and deep conflict and the continuing perception that, as a political entity, ‘it doesn’t really know what it stands for’.
The end-game, then, of this shoot-out at the Labour Party corral is simple – or should be.
It is to achieve unity.
But, not a ‘unity’ that revolves around the selection of a leader. Not a unity based on telling everyone to unify.
It is, instead, achieve structural unity. A unity that comes from a commonality of purpose to which all the internal structures of the party are aligned.
All the structures.
From the leadership to the caucus, to the party organisation, to the membership, to the affiliate relationships.
Of course, that complete and perfect alignment is just an ‘horizon concept’ – something to aim for. All political parties and organisations of any kind lack such complete alignment. But, in the Labour Party, this lack of alignment is massive.
It requires corrective surgery – like re-breaking a broken bone that has already set in a misaligned way.
This state that the Labour Party still finds itself in, that is, has absolutely nothing to do with particular personalities (Cunliffe, Shearer, Robertson, Nash, Parker, et al.) and how they do or don’t ‘get on’. And its real solution has nothing to do with who comes out on top in a leadership contest.
It is fundamentally a structural problem. One way or another that problem will exert itself irrespective of the particular characters involved.
Taking the ‘easy’ non-structural route would be a recipe for lingering conflict and debilitation. If that particular path is followed, New Zealand will be stuck with a Labour Party rolling along in the political equivalent of a wheelchair for another decade or more.
The media in their fascination with the quick and easy analysis, have been portraying the problem as one of the Leader (Cunliffe) not doing the honourable and ‘decent thing’ and allowing a quick transition to a new leader. But that’s not the problem.
Why, after all, was Cunliffe elected leader? It wasn’t because of his personality, his ‘winning smile’ or even his rhetoric. Ultimately – at the bedrock level of motivation – it was because the membership and affiliates saw him as a crowbar to leverage power back off the caucus; to re-break the bone.
That is, they saw Cunliffe as a means to a very particular end – producing the structural change that would align the caucus back with the rest of the party.
This, presumably, is what many in the caucus feared that Cunliffe would do.
But, he didn’t.
So, now, it has to be done by the party itself.
The alternative – favoured by media pundits – is to request thousands of members to align with a right wing dominated caucus and, presumably, leader who will supposedly appeal to the famed “middle New Zealand”.
That alternative is actually just as messy an option but, crucially, it is containable out of sight of the public’s gaze.
Largely for this ‘visibility’ reason, the soft option is apparently to be by far preferred to demanding that, at most, 20 Labour Party MPs commit themselves to the party’s values and membership that has, after all, provided the political vehicle, historical ‘brand’, funding and reach to assist their political careers.
The only flaw in the soft option strategy is that it just won’t solve – cannot solve – the structural problem.
It can only kick the can down the road.
Structurally, it makes far more sense for the caucus to be aligned with the party rather than the other way around.
No – it’s long past time that the poison is drawn.
If Cunliffe’s obstinacy – irrespective of his own leadership fortunes – ends up being the means to that end, then so be it.
If it doesn’t, then what was all that about?