Jane Clifton: who's the boss?

by Jane Clifton / 14 September, 2013
Labour’s new leader faces the tricky job of unifying his party.
Cartoon by Chris Slane

Cooking, singing, gardening, ballroom dancing, fixing up dilapidated houses … and now battling for leadership of down-at-heel political parties. Our appetite for reality TV, barely evolved from lions-versus-Christians, is truly insatiable. Until Labour staged its month-long audition for the top job, the new leadership selection process looked like a recipe for voter eradication. A sort of Spray-and-Walk-Away, on an endless loop. Traditional wisdom was that takeovers should be nasty, brutish and, above all, short. The idea of putting your three top talents out there for weeks on end to, however obliquely, gouge bits out of one another seemed perverse.

And for sure, it has been damaging. The contest’s length and intensity – for this election has been the biggest political news story for the whole of its run – has cemented party divisions rather than smoothing them over. And there is still public bemusement over unions having a special vote bloc, with MP union members getting up to three votes in all – including a certain Herne Bay millionaire getting a vote with the modestly paid Service and Food Workers Union.

But at the same time, it has been profoundly invigorating. It’s no small thing to lure hundreds of people to meetings in their spare time. This democratisation, however risky, is a model other parties should analyse. Worldwide, the trend for political party membership has been southward. In this country, the factors that used to weld people to red or blue have vanished. You just don’t get whole families proudly proclaiming, “We’ve always been Labour/National!”

The social function of party meetings has all but evaporated. They are not the community-bonding institutions they were for much of last century. For younger folk, junior membership is no longer much of a badge of cool – rather the opposite.

What creates activism around if not actually in political parties is the single-issue campaigns. Petitions in opposition to the asset sales and the testing of party pills on animals have been powerful rallying points on the left and centre-left, which, although doing little to increase membership, have entrenched voter loyalty – and yielded useful data into the bargain. Still, Labour has had to share this action with the Greens.


This leadership election, however, has lifted Labour’s paid-up membership, and that’s a big deal. People had to be members for a certain period in order to vote, but others joined just so as to be eligible to come to the meetings and see the reality TV heats.

The three showmen: but are they learning from the Tao of Kevin? Photo/David White

Quite how other parties might adapt this model to rev up their own ranks is unclear. A month-long run-off between John Key, Judith Collins and … and … um … let’s say, for devilment, Tau Henare, would certainly drag in the crowds. But National hardly needs that sort of attention. The Greens already have an all-membership vote, without making a public spectacle of themselves. And as for New Zealand First, there’s only one Winston, and how he selects himself is nobody’s business. So, on reflection, this is not a democratic model that is likely to catch on. But there are lessons, or as Hekia would say, learnings, to be had from this month of Labour biffo.

But first – well, this is awkward. Magazine deadlines sometimes mean having to write about something before the crucial fact – eg, the contents of a Budget or the winner of an election – is known. By the time most readers get this mag, they will know what the writer did not. Although readers taking advantage of our online version of this edition, available from Thursday, will be as clueless as I am until the September 15 vote.

And although we can all have a fair crack at guessing who has won/will win the Labour leadership vote, there are distinct risks, not to mention unpatriotic connotations, to styling oneself Oracle.

First lesson: unity is something you only achieve when you no longer need it. National has unity – because it’s in office, it’s polling well, its leader is popular with all factions and everyone’s happy. So happy the factions have forgotten about themselves. Were a faction to remember and get uppity, it’d just look ridiculous.


What this Labour contest has underlined is that unity is impossible to achieve under Opposition conditions – and the more you try to fake it, the less unified you appear. Party disunity is a sign of unhappiness, most of it rooted in not being in power, but a lot of it also coming from personal insecurity and chippiness: the feeling that other buggers are having a lot better time than you are, and to hell with them.

When there’s a long-running lack of traction and relevance, which is basically what Opposition is, everyone looks around for someone to blame, and they never settle on the same person. Oddly enough, the last culprit they settle on is the Government. They thrash around demanding sackings and/or promotions, never noticing that the public is not fussed either way; it just wants to hear a coherent and attractive plan of action.

So it’s catch-22. Until you appear unified, the public won’t trust you, but as long as the public are turned off you, it’s nigh on impossible to agree on your problems. What most effectively promotes a display of harmony is a failing Government. And that’s another learning for Labour: we don’t have one of those yet.

A second lesson, from the Tao of Kevin Rudd: be careful how you treat people on the way up, because you never know who you’ll meet on the way down. Much of the campaign sledging has been a mere dog-whistle of a dog-whistle, but political ears are bat-grade. Not that they always need to be. The campaign worker who sounded off to me and another journalist against a rival candidate outside the Wellington meeting should be thankful we were feeling kindly and didn’t quote the outburst. Or were we meant to?

The degree of plot-loss was considerable, much of it motivated by fear of not getting a desired job or promotion. MPs and supporters were hideously incontinent on social media sites. They sat through all those meetings where the need for sportsmanship during and unity following the vote was stressed and applauded, and then went out and wrote bile-filled bilge.

There’s also the Helen Clark Keep-Your-Enemies-Close Doctrine: resist the urge toward pogrom. (See also the Tao of Kevin.) A few heads on pikes are only fair, but it’s shrewder to be generous to your foes.

But perhaps the biggest lesson is the important difference between the party’s and the public’s views. The party is only a humblingly small subset of the electorate. Shane Jones did a kamikaze-esque job of pointing out to the membership that, in so far as Labour had an electability problem, the membership was part of that problem. In his idiosyncratic way, through which testicles again feature as an election-campaign motif, he delivered an unpalatable truth. Labour members’ determination to underestimate the comfort level with the current Government, and to overestimate the appetite for tax-punishing, wealth-bashing measures that invariably smite the middle-income battlers, would continue to consign Labour to the minority.

So to the three candidates, let all that be a learning to you. And who knows, this show has been so popular, there may yet be a sequel.
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