Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Labour and the F word

Last weekend's Labour conference was a tempestuous affair. Rank and file party members ignored the pleas of their leaders and voted for democratic reforms, while allies of David Shearer denounced his rival David Cunliffe to every journalist they could find.

If there is one thing that Labour members can agree upon, even in this time of division, it is the evils of factions. Cunliffe's well-connected critics accuse him of building a faction in the party; Cunliffe's supporters in the blogosphere and elsewhere consider this charge a calumny. Both sides in the current dispute hark back to the 1980s, when the fourth Labour government's right-wing economic programme caused turmoil inside the party, when they warn about the dangers of factionalism. They agree that, without what Shearer ally and party whip Chris Hipkins called 'total unity', Labour cannot win the 2014 election.

But do factions really deserve all this opprobrium? Traditionally, the left has understood a faction to be a group formed inside a political party to advocate openly for a set of policies. Factions hold private and public meetings, publish propaganda, and recruit new members, as they try to convince the wider party of the rightness of their views. To belong to a faction is not be disloyal to a party - it is simply to work in the open with other members of that party in pursuit of a common goal.

Labour's sister parties abroad have been friendlier to factions. The British Labour Party, for instance, has long contained a variety of factions which hold their own public meetings and publish their own propaganda. The left-wing Socialist Campaign Group has existed since 1982 and commands the loyalty of fourteen MPs, including John McDonnell, who challenged Gordon Brown for the party leadership and post of Prime Minister in 2007, and Diane Abbott, who fought with the Milibands for the party leadership last year. At the other end of the party's ideological spectrum stands Progress, a faction established by MPs and activists nostalgiac for the neo-liberal economics and neo-conservative foreign policy of the Tony Blair era. The influential grouping called Compass, which advocates a moderate form of social democracy, has taken up positions between the Campaign and Progress factions.

In the 1980s the British Labour leader Neil Kinnock famously purged a left-wing faction of the party called Militant. Perhaps not coincidentally, Kinnock lost the next two elections. Tony Blair was no fan of party democracy, but he was obliged to tolerate the Campaign Group because most of its MPs enjoyed strong support in their constituencies.
Many members of New Zealand's Labour Party appear to confuse a faction with a clique, but the two are very different things. Where a faction organises in the open, and tries to win a majority of a party to its views, a clique operates secretly and undemocratically.

Labour's painful experiences in the 1980s do not, as many of its present-day members imagine, count as proof of the dangers of factionalism. As Bruce Jesson showed in his book Fragments of Labour, the party was hijacked, in the months leading up to its 1984 election victory, by a clique of converts to radical right-wing politics. This clique, which was led by Roger Douglas, was clever and ruthless enough to set the policy programme of the government David Lange set up after the election.

Jesson argued that the job of Douglas was made easier because of the lack of a large, intellectually powerful left-wing faction inside Labour in the early '80s. Lange and other leading MPs were seduced by Douglas partly because they could see no alternative to his ideas. When Douglas went to work after the election, selling state assets and deregulating financial markets, the party's grassroots was confused, and slow to respond.

Today another right-wing clique has captured the commanding heights of the Labour Party. As Chris Trotter has noted, David Shearer's most enthusiastic supporters are not rank and file Labour members but right-wing  media commentators like Fran O'Sullivan and David Farrar. Shearer advisors like Josie and John Pagani have made their admiration for Blair and Thatcher clear, and Shearer's money man David Parker tried to fight last year's election by positioning himself to the right of the National Party. Shearer's own speeches and interviews have included ominous exercises in beneficiary and teacher-bashing.
While Shearer and his colleagues have been trying to shift Labour to the right, David Cunliffe has won wide popularity with grassroots members by making a series of speeches which have argued that Labour should return to social democratic policies. Cunliffe has become the unofficial leader of Labour's internal opposition.

At last weekend's conference Labour's rank and file won democratic reforms which threaten the power of the clique around Shearer. After being defeated on the conference floor, Shearer threw some left-wing rhetoric and a major housing programme into his speech to delegates, winning their applause. Now that the conference is over, though, the Shearer clique is trying to push back at the grassroots, by reprimanding and demoting David Cunliffe for disloyalty.

Both the Shearer clique and the mainstream media have been keen to present the dissent at Labour's conference as a product of Cunliffe's machinations. Cunliffe has been condemned as an egoist who is creating conflict in his party simply to satisfy his own ambitions. The disciplining of Cunliffe will, we are told, help restore calm to Labour. But the real source of Labour's troubles is the split between the Shearer clique and the opinions of the party's rank and file, who are in no mood to see a repeat of the right-wing policies of the '80s.

While it is understandable that critics of Shearer support Cunliffe, they should not allow the conflict of ideas inside the party to be turned into a conflict of personalities. Critics of the Labour Party's current leadership are already communicating with each other at places like the group blog The Standard. They should organise themselves into a faction which champions the left-wing alternative to the policies of the Shearer clique. If Labour's grassroots opposition showed its size and made its case, then the Shearer clique's attempts to  personalise and trivialise the divisions in the party would fall flat.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Galeandra said...

For many Standardistas it is a campaign of personalities, inasmuch as Shearer has for long been regarded as a manifestly incompentent speaker, from rostrum or floor, and an incapable leader who has failed to deal adequately with the old guard in caucus.
Concern about his neo-liberal taint climaxed more recently with the now notorious roof-painter anecdote. How he handles today's caucus meeting and the 'problem' of Cunliffe will determine his survivability imho.
I for one am out of tune with the faux authoritarianism and lack of judgement he has revealed since the conference.

3:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


3:49 pm  
Blogger Rich said...

I think much of it is that there are a bunch of people who believe to some degree in social authoritarianism, neo-liberal economics, or both.

Politically, they would be best suited in the National Party, ACT or maybe NZ First.

But because their peer group and family have always been Labour (they're working class, or university lecturers) they can't make the leap to join a right-wing party. So they join Labour, and undermine it.

This group attract lots of support from the media and the wealthy (who are very keen to promote a right-wing Labour party as a pseudo-alternative to National) and hence achieve traction beyond their actual levels of grassroots support.

Combine that with the Muldoon legacy (which drove neo-Liberals from National to Labour) and you've got a rightist movement that's hard to quash.

5:08 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cunliffe is the new Mugabe.

5:14 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


5:58 pm  
Anonymous Hardie said...

The policy content of the speech was set at least a month in advance of conference.

The idea that Cunliffe was backed by the left of the party is utterly hilarious. As Dyson said, would have been nice if the left had been told.

(Tip: if Dalziel's for you, and Woods against, you're probably not `the leader of the internal opposition to neo-liberalism' or whatever it was.)

7:53 pm  
Anonymous Shearer and Parker make Key and English look left-wing said...

Brian Edwards on Shearer's bullying:

A little bird (not David Cunliffe) has told me that in the run-up to today’s emergency caucus meeting a number of Labour MPs, probably a majority, were rung by David Shearer or one of his apparatchiks seeking a cast-iron guarantee that they would be supporting Shearer today and in the constitutionally mandatory confidence vote in February.

This is both unethical and against Labour’s constitution. It makes nonsense of today’s ‘unanimous’ vote. And it makes nonsense of the February vote. If a majority of Labour MPs have yielded to this monstrous piece of bullying, that vote has in effect already been taken. Should Shearer prove a disaster over the next three months those MPs who assured him of their support in February will have no choice but to stand by him, regardless of the damage this might do to the Party.

And finally it makes nonsense of the most essential feature of any caucus vote on the leadership, that it is a secret ballot. Shearer now knows with reasonable certainty how each of his MPs intends to vote in the ‘secret’ February ballot. And there can be little doubt that there will be a witch-hunt if the vote is not heavily in his favour.

Meanwhile, Cunliffe has been banned from talking to the media about what actually happened at today’s emergency meeting. No-one in fact other than Shearer himself can say anything about what went on. Cunliffe has been charged, found guilty and silenced. So much for fairness. So much for openness and transparency.

So much for Labour.


10:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

bryce edwards

Shearer clearly moved leftwards in his conference speech, obviously playing to his audience, but also responding to the need to see off Cunliffe as a challenger from the left. The main policy announcement - a housing construction programme - was evidence of this. It is, of course, typical of Shearer and modern Labour and a classic 'third way' policy. It's not about increasing social housing - not about state house building, which is desperately needed - instead it's about underwriting the private sector to produce a mass of low-cost housing to sell to the public. In line with the concept of SOEs, such a measure wouldn't be any sort of socialism - or even social democracy - but instead a pro-market intervention on market terms. Shearer kept emphasising that a Labour government wouldn't actually spend more on social housing, but just provide the money to underwrite the production of housing aimed at a gap in the market rather than a replacement of the market.

The housing policy will be popular and will resonate with many but will still be criticised from both the right and the left.

6:30 pm  
Anonymous Henry Mitchel said...

Nice to hear! Haha
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4:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

speaking as a david shearer supporter let me just say

34 TO NIL EAT THAT YOU FUCKA!!!!!!!!!!!!!

7:32 pm  
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11:06 pm  

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