Helen Clark

The gentle art of believing nothing

I remember, quite a few years ago now, Jenny Shipley addressing a room and asking the question, “What is the purpose of the National Party?” The answer was: To defeat the Labour Party. National was there to be the party of Government. Ideology came a distant second to the simple joy of Being In Government.

Shipley’s Q&A came to mind during the election campaign, when Matthew Hooton locked horns in spectacular fashion with Michelle Boag on RadioLive (a copy of the audio has been helpfully archived here by Peter Aranyi at The Paepae). Hooton described Boag as “a hack” with “no political views”, given that Boag had steadfastly supported National throughout all of its ideological manifestations from Muldoon onwards.

Labour was established for a reason – the party name says it all. National was established as a vehicle to beat Labour.

That’s not to say that there aren’t many in National who do subscribe to a political ideology. National, like Labour, has its competing ideological factions: liberal v conservative, free market v Muldoonist intervention, pro-environment v farming lobby etc. Nonetheless, the party has a knack of re-inventing itself when political necessity demands it. For example, just six years after Muldoonism was comprehensively routed at the ballot box, National was a completely different beast, championing the free-market reforms begun under Roger Douglas. Likewise, just three years after Don Brash’s divisive Iwi/Kiwi campaign, National was in partnership with the Maori Party. The factions whose ideologies are out of favour may not be impressed at times, but they toe the line because Being In Power matters.

Labour, in contrast, is still working its way through the angst created by the party’s lurch to the right in the 1980s. During the Helen Clark years, it seemed that Labour had learned the lesson of not letting any one ideology have too free a rein, with Helen Clark doing her level best not to stray too far from the political centre. She was aided, of course, by the fact that at that time the hard-left ideologues stayed safely tucked away in the Alliance Party.  These days, many of the factions within Labour seem more interested in a splendid defeat than a victory based on a policy platform that isn’t entirely in line with their thinking.

Now the title of this post doesn’t intend to imply that National doesn’t have a political agenda, or that Labour shouldn’t have one. Rather, that each party, as an overarching  entity, shouldn’t be too wedded to a specific ideology. Political winds change, and any party that wants to succeed must tack with the wind. National’s internal factions know how to bide their time; Labour’s have been in open warfare since the demise of the Clark Government.

Can Labour’s activist base accept that some dead rats must be swallowed in order to win back power? Or will the factional infighting hand John Key and National a fourth or even fifth term?

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The Labour numbers game

With a caucus of 32 MPs, David Cunliffe needs the support of at least thirteen MPs in order survive a confidence vote. His opponents need twenty votes to force a full leadership ballot. Yesterday, I listed nine MPs who have either publicly refused to express support for him or have – like David Shearer, Stuart Nash and Damien O’Connor – been overtly hostile.

This morning in the NZ Herald, Claire Trevett lists the pro- and anti-Cunliffe factions:

• Camp Cunliffe: David Cunliffe, Iain Lees-Galloway, Nanaia Mahuta, Sue Moroney, Carmel Sepuloni, Su’a William Sio, Louisa Wall.
• Another candidate: Jacinda Ardern, David Clark, Clayton Cosgrove, Clare Curran, Kelvin Davis, Ruth Dyson, Kris Faafoi, Phil Goff, Chris Hipkins, Annette King, Andrew Little, Trevor Mallard, Stuart Nash, Damien O’Connor, David Parker, Grant Robertson, David Shearer, Rino Tirikatene, Phil Twyford, Megan Woods.
• Unknown: Peeni Henare, Adrian Rurawhe, Jenny Salesa, Meka Whaitiri, Poto Williams.

That’s twenty anti-Cunliffe names right there already, without even the need to put pressure on any of the five ‘unknowns’. Cunliffe has just six supporters (not counting himself), five of whom flanked him at his pre-caucus meeting press conference.

Cunliffe’s opponents presumably therefore have the numbers to force a party-wide leadership ballot any time they like. And as predicted, before they make their move, they’re waiting for the full horror of a campaign review to erode Cunliffe’s support among the members and unions.

The only hope that Cunliffe has of hanging on to his leadership is to resign immediately and force a quick leadership contest. He’d have to hope that the party membership will be sufficiently hacked off about the caucus declaration of war against him that they’ll keep the faith with him. In my view, that’s a slim hope…

Cunliffe supporters are desperately trying to compare the situation to 1996, where Helen Clark lost in New Zealand’s first MMP election, before going on to win power in 1999. There’s no comparison there. Labour may have dropped 6.5% in that election to just 28.2%, but National was just 5.7% ahead, on 33.9% (having dropped 1.2% since 1993). Helen Clark could have formed a government, had Winston Peters jumped in that direction (the direction many had assumed he would go). Labour was well set up to oust National in three years time.

In 2014, however, National is able to govern alone, having received almost 50% of the vote. Labour finds itself 23.4% adrift, and in almost complete internal turmoil.

David Cunliffe is no Helen Clark.

EDIT:

Hmm, I appear to have been led astray by both the One News and 3News political editors, both of whom have been reporting that the anti-Cunliffe campaign requires 60% plus one MP.

However, David Farrar in his post entitled ‘Caucus in Charge‘ says Dann and Gower are wrong, and the ABCs need just 40% to spark a contested ballot. Peter Green confirms this to me on Twitter. That means that Cunliffe needs 21 MPs to survive a confidence vote, which means the ABCs already have the numbers by a huge margin.