David Shearer is a dead man walking. That is, his failure to reconnect a cynical electorate with Labour means that his continuation as party leader is untenable. So, is David Cunliffe once again vying for the big job? And with his recent ‘anti-Shearer’ speech calling for the party to more strongly differentiate itself from National, do we have a full-blown conspiracy in our midst? Are a group of Labour insiders planning to take hold of the organisation and push it to the left? In this guest blogpost, John Moore speculates on plotting against the Labour leader, and asks what this all really means for the trajectory of the party?
The plot so far
A combination of recent events does point to there being a leftwing conspiracy to shaft the current Labour leader. First, we have leaks from within the party that Shearer's elevation is now viewed as 'an unfortunate experiment’. Then, by pure coincidence of course, David Cunliffe gives a speech where he declares that Labour has failed to challenge the National government because it is effectively presenting itself as National-lite. So, where could all this lead? If Shearer is dumped and replaced by Cunliffe, could this bring on a left turn by the Labour Party, a move to the left quite possibly more significant than that attempted by Phil Goff?
But why would Cunliffe attempt another left-turn, when Phil Goff failed in his own attempts to reposition the party? And why did Labour’s previous shift to the left fail to connect with voters? Well, part of the problem was with Goff himself, who has always been a chameleon like politician, swinging between the left and the right throughout his career. So his attempts to position Labour in a more 'socialist' direction was read as insincere. Added to this, with Goff’s embrace of the New Right in the 1980s, he had effectively severed all connections to the wider political left in New Zealand and so his left posturing seemed to have little substance to it.
New leftie pin-up-boy David Cunliffe, in contrast, is quite possibly building up a solid support base of leftwing advisors and union supporters to lead a 'red' charge against the centrists and opportunists that currently dominate the party. His new supporters would have told Cunliffe that he must grab the zeitgeist, save Labour from its slow death in the crowded centre, and put his stake in the ground and declare his party needs to be a genuine working class, social democratic movement if it is to survive.
Cunliffe’s speech will be seen by many as being far more than just an attempt to manoeuvre against his current leader, but as also a ‘call to arms’ to reposition Labour away from middle-of-the-road, Third Way politics that have dominated this party since Helen Clark took up the reins as leader. We can certainly expect a number of leftwing commentators to soon hail Cunliffe's speech as 'revolutionary' and to declare that progressives, unionists, ex-Alliance members and Mana supporters should rally to the Cunliffe cause. We will be told that what we are soon to witness a battle of historical proportions, a battle for the soul of the Labour Party itself. But is this a genuine battle between a true Labour left against an opportunist and lacklustre right? And would a victory for Labour’s ‘left’ lead to a resurgence of working class politics in the party, that is a resurgence of more traditional social democratic politics?
Understanding Cunliffe's ‘rally cry’
Cunliffe's recent speech needs to be understood as being a biting critique of the failure of both Phil Goff and now David Shearer to reposition the party after the exiting of Helen Clark as leader. Equally, Cunliffe's left posturing needs to be seen within the context of a resurgence of progressive politics in New Zealand since the rise of the Occupy movement in 2011. The crisis we are witnessing with Labour comes from the fact that the political framework that dominates the party, that of middle class identity politics, is now widely unpopular and has led to the party’s support base plummeting. The party's hierarchy had realised, since Labour's defeat in 2008, that a new leadership needed to not only distance the party away from its more unpopular policies, but to actually reposition the party in such away as to draw on concerns that would resonate with voters.
So firstly we had Phil Goff's attempt to rebrand Labour as a more traditional leftwing party, one that centred on the materialist issues of economic inequality and redistribution as opposed to social-liberal post-materialist concerns that dominated the Clark-led government. Goff, the ultimate chameleon, had chosen to draw on Labour’s past, and weakened links with the union movement, to reposition Labour to the left. He had sensed a growing disquiet and resentment towards the favouritism shown by National and its coalition partners towards elites, and has decided to exploit these concerns. However Goff clearly failed to sell his new 'vision' of Labour and his mixed policy bag of some leftish policies here and more neoliberal policies elsewhere would have acted to confuse an already skeptical electorate. Goff's failure to revitalise the Labour brand led to the rise of David Shearer. With the Labour caucus electing Shearer as leader, a further rethink of where Labour should be heading was kicked off.
Shearer is a firm centrist, and he quickly indicated he was happy to ditch some of Labour's more leftwing policies. Many political commentators therefore speculated that Labour was now shuffling to the right, after its brief flirtation with more 'traditional social democracy'. However Shearer’s rebranding of Labour as National-lite has had as much success as Goff’s attempts to revitalise the party. So where to next for the party?
A return to left social democracy?
If Shearer’s coming demise leads to the promotion of David Cunliffe as Labour’s leader, then we could see a more intelligent and strategically planned attempt to reposition labour as a leftwing party. Cunliffe, unlike Goff, could well reach out to the wider left including militant unions, such as Unite and the currently embattled Maritime Union, as well as leftwing intellectuals who could aide in a rebranding of his party. His aim will be to create a public perception that Labour has embraced the Zeitgeist, and for the party to represent a poll of attraction to growing numbers of the electorate deeply dissatisfied with the right turn of the current National government. So will Labour therefore ‘return’ to being a true party of the left?
The hard reality is that Labour will not return to the position of being a traditional social democratic party, one organisationally based on a large union movement and which promotes a reformist materialist programme aimed at a working class electorate. None of Labour’s current crop of leaders are in any way interested in carrying out such a drastic reform of the party. Therefore, Cunliffe’s call to reposition Labour to the left needs to be seen as a strategic move on his part – an attempt to capitalise on the growing resentment towards the current government. And just as quickly as Cunliffe can move to the left, he can move back to the centre.
Cunliffe is no radical socialist and the genuineness of his born-again leftism should be questioned. For example it was only a few years ago that Cunliffe was seen as pushing Labour to the right when he strongly argued for private-public partnerships for infrastructure works and was even labelled as the ‘first health minister to favour private health insurance’ by political commentator David Fisher. At this time Cunliffe was seen as very much a centrist who, behind the scenes, was a ‘prime driver in Labour's economic policy', pushing a pro-business line. At the time he argued that, 'only in partnership with the business and community sectors can Government truly be effective'. Words that could of easily come from the mouths of John Key or David Shearer. In the Listener he was summed up very nicely with this one sentence: 'Cunliffe is the new wave of "Third Way" Labour politicians: well-educated, wealthy and perhaps more comfortable among big business than in a working men's club'.
At the moment, Cunliffe’s left tilt is both tenuous and opportunistic. His previous incarnation as a centrist Labour minister, pushing his party to the right, shows up his current left posturing as merely an attempt to present himself as an alternative to the lacklustre David Shearer. In reality there is a wide chasm between genuine socialist and egalitarian politics and the politics of David Cunliffe and the Labour Party. For the left, he and his party are not the answer.