The Labour leadership battle

From the outset of last year’s leadership contest Shearer was the choice of the capitalist class to take over from Phil Goff. There was a reason for that; Shearer was distinctly the right-wing candidate who signalled his willingness to jettison left-wing policies that Labour had adopted for the General Election. Shearer was the puppet of the mass-media. Shearer supporters wax indignant at the claim there is a left-right split in the leadership struggle, but what else are we to make of Shearer’s speeches attacking sickness beneficiaries and the support he’s received – and is receiving – from the right of the parliamentary party?

Matt McCarten has written a couple of awful gushing articles in favour of David Shearer’s leadership of the Labour Party. In this he is at one with the entire bourgeois mass-media that has lined up against David Cunliffe’s bid to become Labour’s Leader. (For examples of that, just consider the smears on Cunliffe put out by Andrea Vance and Duncan Garner at crucial moments in the last year).

Cunliffe, although by no means a left-winger, portrayed himself as loyal to Labour policies. He was the choice of the party membership, but the Labour’s caucus ignored the people who worked to get them into parliament and voted for Shearer.

Predictably, Shearer’s leadership has been right-wing and his performance against National bumbling and ineffective. Labour has signally failed to put National under pressure despite ample opportunities in a year of cock-ups, scandals and general bad news for the Key government. Labour’s parliamentary performance is regularly out-flanked on the left by the Greens, and even the ever-opportunistic New Zealand First.

It is hardly surprising that discontent within Labour’s branches crystallised at Labour’s annual conference last month over the method of election of the Leader. The rule changes were originally conceived to protect Shearer from a leadership challenge. The party members and affiliated unions turned this plan on its head. Under the new rules it will take a vote of only 40% of the Caucus to trigger a leadership election within three months after a General Election (and in February 2013 as a one-off). At any other time it will take a simple Caucus majority to cause a contest.

The new electoralcollege method of electing the leader allocates 40% of the vote to members, 40% to Caucus and 20% to unions. This is not one-member-one-vote democracy but the reform gives power to members and the unions and is a lot better than leaving the leadership vote to the MPs.

With the Labour conference opening the way for a leadership vote in February the media went into a frenzy of Cunliffe-bashing and Shearer adulation. Although the media portrays the leadership question shallowly as purely about personalities, the real issue at stake is whether Labour’s policies will reflect the hopes of the party membership and unions, or whether the capitalist media will drive them. Cunliffe, although a right-winger and thoroughly unreliable in this role, has cast himself as representative of the party faithful.

In the face of the media onslaught Cunliffe seems to have back-tracked. The capitalist media are trumpeting Shearer’s seeing off a leadership challenge, but it is far too early to rule out an attempt by Cunliffe’s supporters to move for a leadership election in February.

Does it matter who leads the Labour Party? Yes it does. Just as a Labour government is preferable to National, socialists must take sides in political battles within the Labour Party. The two are linked. Labour’s stance will determine how effectively the party can turnout the working class vote in 2014. Shearer’s inability to attack National does not inspire hope.
Labour’s active membership maybe smaller and more middle-class than years ago, but nevertheless it is still the party supported by the core of the working class. The party can still be characterised a workers’ party, albeit a party of the capitalist system. To an extent Labour can be put under working class pressure from below. We saw that at work at the Labour conference with delegates voting to upset the Shearer applecart and Shearer himself having to shimmy to the left to deliver a more traditional Labour speech for once. For these reasons socialists must welcome the challenge to Shearer. In this struggle we are on the side of the Labour Party membership for Cunliffe and against the Caucus majority and the capitalist media for Shearer. Without placing any trust in Cunliffe, socialists should recognise that at present his leadership designs have become a focus for a left reaction to the direction Shearer has been taking the party.

Here’s hoping that Cunliffe will conduct an open fight to oust Shearer this summer.