Hard News by Russell Brown


The Next Labour Leader

At a certain freelance journalists' annual Christmas lunch, the food, drink and conversation are robust and plentiful. And it was there, right next to Helen Clark's old office, on Friday that one of my jobbing brethren told me how his mate had come in the day before with the news that he'd seen Labour leadership candidates David Parker and David Shearer in "very intense discussion" at Mt Albert's Trinity of Silver cafe. Something, he reckoned, was up.

They turned on the radio to hear the news that Parker had withdrawn from the leadership contest in favour of Shearer. So that was how swiftly that went down. (Location nerds will doubtless know that Trinity of Silver is spitting distance from Shearer's electorate office. Clearly it would have been way too weird to stage the meeting in a cafe in Epsom.)

Earlier in the week, when I questioned on Twitter Patrick Gower's blog post Lack of Camp Shearer shows Labour's problems, Paddy assured me that Shearer had been "locked out" of any bid for succession. I replied that it was all very well to propose the guy as a change agent, but if he hadn't enlisted any caucus support, he was just a fantasy candidate.

Turned out we were both wrong. Later that day Shearer did declare his candidacy, and appeared to have lined up enough support to be getting on with. The following evening he was annointed leader by text-voting Close Up viewers after a decent performance on the programme. And then Parker was gone and his support flowed over to Shearer  -- because, it seemed, Shearer was not David Cunliffe.

Cunliffe, meanwhile, seemed determined to mark himself down with every passive-aggressive snipe at his brother enemies. This wasn't only a poor look for Cunliffe, but a look the party cannot afford.

Shearer is my local MP and I think he has been outstanding in that role. I've met him several times and he interviewed me about broadcasting policy for his community radio show. He seemed decent, humble and keen to learn. Early in the campaign, I tweeted about seeing him meeting and greeting, on his own, outside the the Point Chev Countdown. He was clearly at ease engaging with people. Someone else tweeted back that they'd seen him three days prior, planting trees down at Oakley Creek -- on his own. What sort of politician plants trees without making it into a media opportunity?

The sort of non-politician the public is supposed to want these days? Perhaps. But my feeling that he is underdone yet was borne out in yesterday's Q+A interview, where he flailed and fluffed, and didn't know enough about his own party and its policies as he should have.

Cunliffe, on the other hand, knew everything and wasn't shy about letting you know. My mother thinks he is smug and she is not alone in the wider electorate.

If Cunliffe is wanting for caucus support -- and he is certainly giving that impression -- it's vital for Labour that he remains in the tent when this is done. I believe that telecommunications reform is the great unheralded achievement of the Clark years, and it was Cunliffe who saw that through. There are perhaps only two or three MPs with the intellect to have handled that job.

If Cunliffe is not to be made leader (and I doubt he'd accept a deputy role) I'd be happy with him being accorded a policy fiefdom; something broad and complex enough to soak up all his ambition. Finance, economic development, regulation.

Especially regulation. If anything, the perception of Clark's Labour as interfering, over-reaching and over-governing has only grown in the past three years. The Greens' friendly libertarian streak was a vote-winning point of difference for liberal voters last month. I heard this from some first-time Green voters afterwards -- and yet the policies they griped about (light bulbs and shower heads, electoral finance reform) were not only unexceptional in a global sense (we are not, despite what anyone might tell you, a heavily regulated nation), they were strongly supported by the Greens.

Labour promised more regulation this time, in poorly-thought-through policies on broadcasting, media and IT. Over and again, Clare Curran blathered about appointing a "powerful regulator" without ever making a case. And yet there is a case: if the current government's feckless policy towards broadcasting endures, we're back to Telecom in the 1990s, with Sky taking up the role of market-crushing bully. There are reasonable solutions here (and they don't include dumb ideas about the BSA taking over the Press Council, thank you) and Labour needs someone smart enough to define them.

The two candidates now go forward to present a vision to party members who cannot vote for ether of them -- merely express acclaim for the information of the caucus MPs who do get the vote. Shearer will tell them that the party's process and institutions are in need of reform and modernisation, and by god he's right.

That awful party list, which left in the cold some of the very MPs campaign strategists had decided were its best public face, can't be allowed to happen again. The comparison with the Greens, who may yet deliver Mojo Mathers, New Zealand's first Deaf MP, to Parliament, is fairly stark. Labour finds it hard to promote individuals in the way the Greens do.

And yet: the two MPs universally regarded as the faces of Labour's future -- Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern -- are both career politicians of the kind the Greens don't tend to deliver. They're tremendous political talents and sharp thinkers -- and they have been nurtured to their present positions by the processes of the party. There is a risk in tearing all that down.

At the moment, Labour's big question is in part just an opportunity for observers to project their existing theories. Waitakere Man is back over at Bowalley Road. And yet, the party needs the kind of call to action expressed by Jordan Carter in his Refounding Labour post:

The scale of what we need to do justifies the same name the UK Labour Party has chosen for its post-election work: Refounding Labour.

We don't need to just review or reform our party: we need to refound the party and the movement.

The only thing not up for debate as far as I am concerned are our social democratic values: our commitment to fairness and equality for all. That is what Labour does and always will stand for. 

But as revisionists have always said, it is our constant job to apply our values to the world as it is, not as it was -- or as we wish it was.

We have to start with acknowledging what happened to us on 26 November.

We got hammered. 

There are no two ways about it. 

The result is worse than in 1996, which should have been impossible given that that result followed the three-way split of the 1980s Labour Party.

It is a comprehensive rejection of Labour as a party fit to lead the government. 

I know it as a candidate.  There was none of the anger of 2008 directed at us. Instead there was simply indifference. People were sure we weren't ready for the job.  Second time in a row.

It might be useful to recall what happened in 2002. National, led by a decent man in Bill English, crashed to 20.9% of the popular vote, its support pillaged on one side by Act and on the other by New Zealand First. On the numbers, it was a much more humiliating defeat than the one Labour has just suffered.

In the next three years, National helicoptered in a candidate and very nearly retook the Treasury benches in 2005. We should doubtless be glad that candidate -- Dr Don Brash -- did not become Prime Minister, given what he did to the next party he led, but the fact remains that political fortune is cyclical.

For now, just as Act harboured fantasies of dominating its centre-right sibling after 2002, there are Green supporters convinced that theirs must surely become the major party of the Left. Without ever seriously contesting an electorate? I don't think so. Nonetheless, Labour must learn to co-operate with the Greens in Opposition if anyone is to believe the two parties can co-operate in government. The Greens are not vote-stealers, they are a genuine political movement presently doing a very good job for itself.

So Labour's processes and institutions are both a curse and a blessing. It needs to reinvent those to reinvent itself. It needs to pay attention to the public's evolving political tastes. What it doesn't need to do is panic.

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