Labour’s Leadership Battle

We wished good riddance to David Shearer. It’s a good thing he has resigned – he was useless and bumbling against Key when issue after issue offered opportunities to attack the government for its anti-worker record. The common wisdom seems to be that Shearer was a ‘nice guy,’ but in truth he was happy to scapegoat beneficiaries, pander to anti-Chinese racism, and suppress dissent in his Party. He was, in other words, a thoroughly nasty part of the right-wing Labour machine.

Now his Deputy Grant Robertson is standing to replace him. There’s a lot of talk about what a nice guy he is too. What about politics?

We do not think the Labour Party is a vehicle for workers’ interests. Rather, we argue for building our forces outside parliament – in the unions, in social movements, in protest campaigns – and, ultimately, constructing a revolutionary socialist alternative to the pro-capitalist politics of Labour. It might be a cliche, but it’s still true: the real struggle is in the streets and in the workplaces. That’s where we have our power, not parliament. That’s why we are building a socialist organisation now. That’s also why we have supported the Mana Movement, and why we continue to be a part of the Mana Movement.

And there’s a campaign going on, as the mass rally in Auckland showed. CTU President Helen Kelly made a good comment on her Facebook page, urging all those following the Labour contest to match that activity with contributions to the union campaign against the changes to the Employment Relations Act. That campaign needs to keep building momentum.

Nevertheless, what happens inside Labour matters. Tens of thousands of workers still look to Labour for some sort of alternative – no matter how much their expectations may have lowered down the years – and important unions are still affiliated to Labour. It remains a reformist party, and the most important political force in the workers’ movement. And tens of thousands desperately want to see an Opposition Leader who can do the basic job of opposition, whatever their stance on Labour. We want to see Key and his neoliberal agenda defeated. So the question of who leads the Labour party is not one that can be put to one side or answered with abstract slogans.

It’s easy to see why many have become energised by David Cunliffe’s campaign. He’s appealing to the left-wing desires of Labour’s membership – a membership well to the left of the careerists and neoliberal relics who dominate the caucus – and is talking a language almost unheard of from Labour politicians in a generation. He made sure to mention taxing the rich and a capital gains tax in his candidacy speech; concrete, pro-worker policies. He’s appealing to the base of the working class in the south of Auckland. He was even prepared to use the word “socialism” in front of TV cameras, as the Herald’s John Armstrong was quick to point out. And he’s broached the impassable barrier of modern Labour politics, the 1980s and Rogernomics, calling it the Party’s “eternal shame” that it “was the party that introduced many of the so-called economic reforms that have proved so disastrous.”

Now, of course this is all just rhetoric, and Cunliffe’s record in the Fifth Labour government as a proponent of Public Private Partnership reminds us we’re dealing with a canny politician and not a principled campaigner.

Whoever wins, the only principled MP in Parliament is Hone Harawira, and the only party to vote for in the next election is Mana.

Mana and Labour have their strengths – Labour’s support from the working class and Mana’s principled combination of Maori liberation and working-class demands – but neither are enough. Labour may be supported by workers, but its policies are pro-capitalist. Mana’s policies are much better, but it has no mass support outside Te Tai Tokerau.

Of course socialists are going to need to argue, whoever wins, that we can’t put our faith in Labour and need to build an independent workers’ movement. But rhetoric matters, and rhetoric and narrative are part of the stuff of political reality. By creating expectations – and by opening the space for a political debate – politicians can generate a ferment in society they are not able fully to control.

Cunfliffe’s campaign pushes the discussion to the left, raises questions about what an effective opposition to Key might look like, and seeks to raise workers’ expectations. It opens a space for left-wing ideas and phrases to get a hearing. Political questions and the question of strategy are getting discussed in offices, factories and campuses across the country. This can only be a good thing.

Robertson, meanwhile, with his vague talk of “a new generation of leadership” and “nation building” is positioning himself as a candidate representing continuity with Labour’s current, and pathetic, right-wing emptiness. He was an insider through Shearer’s tenure, and is surely responsible for its meandering, directionless sense of ‘business as usual.’ He is the candidate for more of the same stale Third Way. Cunliffe recognises that the economic situation, and the level of disengagement from mainstream politics by the poor and workers, is such that, no matter how opportunistically, his tack to the left pushes Labour in a new direction.

(This argument, to be clear, has nothing to do with the slur that Robertson is not ‘electable’ because he is gay. Helen Clark endured years of misogynist and homophobic attacks about her childlessness and sexuality, and won three elections with strong support in Maori and Pacific Island working-class communities. The suggestion is not only homophobic but anti-worker: there is no evidence Pacific Island voters, as a whole, vote in ways more anti-gay than others, no matter how many white ‘experts’ assume and assert this loudly. Pacific Island workers, like everyone else, hold a range of views and can be won to progressive politics).

This is why, if you are in an affiliated union and able to vote in this contest, you should support David Cunliffe. A Cunliffe victory would push Labour, to some extent, to the Left, and has the chance to raise expectations beyond the party.

The real contest, of course, comes afterwards. How will we rebuild the union movement? How can we continue the fight against the ERA amendments? How can we oppose Key’s anti-beneficiary agenda? No Labour leader will answer those questions. It’s up to the rest of us.