Gordon Campbell on Labour’s alleged divisions and newfound sense of unity

When you’re languishing in Opposition, the divisions in caucus are evident, the ideological nerve ends all too nakedly exposed. Everyone in the lifeboat has different ideas about the personalities and policies required to win their way back to power. Go back ten years or so, and National was in such tragic, internally bickering strife that its leader – one Bill English – was desperate enough to hop into a boxing ring to try and win a few credibility points among the rural/provincial voters and low income battlers who seemed to have deserted National for good, and left it will only 27 seats in the House and barely 20% levels of support. At ringside, the National Party president was left hoping and praying that the leader wouldn’t get himself knocked down and leave her with the prospect of “English On The Canvas/English Down And Out” headlines in the morning.

Life gets better. Conversely, there is nothing like being in government to paper over the petty divisions and promote a sense of bonhomie among one’s colleagues. Power is not only an aphrodisiac: it is also a wonderful analgesic. One should keep that in mind in the next few weeks as Labour goes through its leadership contest between David Cunliffe, Grant Robertson, and Shane Jones. Already the National attack lines on this process have been signalled by Prime Minister John Key who has stressed that (a) Labour is deeply divided and (b) the outcome, whoever wins, will make Labour into more of a left wing party. Labour’s new leader, Key says, “will be leading a really divided caucus. And they are really divided.” Got that? Wait, there’s more from Key, along similar lines:

“They’re a pretty deeply divided caucus. At the end, someone will emerge, they’ll then tell the public `we’re all unified’ – that’ll be nonsense, they’ll be no more unified than they were, and there’ll be another year of fighting and undermining.”

You wish. The notion that Labour in Opposition is somehow inherently more divided than National really is nonsense. National, at the best of times, has always been split between its traditional rural conservatives and its radical urban neo-liberals – and give National five minutes in Opposition and those divisions become screamingly apparent. In the not too distant future, the jostling and the undermining between the Joyce faction and the Collins faction will match and mirror any current divisions in the Labour ranks. That will be so, regardless of whether the current declarations of unity between the Labour contestants are genuine, or not.

The claims by National to a steady state of natural unity – unlike that other lot – are worth examining in detail. History would certainly suggest otherwise. National began life in 1936 as a fractious coalition – a triple deal between the Reform Party of farming and small business, the urban right wing remnants of the old Liberal Party, and the Democrats, who were a small Act-like libertarian faction founded by a wealthy business man called William Goodfellow, a forerunner of other wealthy right wing political participant/donors down the years, such as Bob Jones and Craig Heatley.

These three forces that have shaped the modern National Party – the rural vs. the urban interventionists, both of them uneasy with a strand of extreme individualism – have never liked each other very much, and they have played out their rivalries consistently down the years. For example : Hamilton vs. Holland, Holland vs. Holyoake, Holyoake vs. Marshall, Marshall vs. Muldoon, Quigley vs. Muldoon, Muldoon vs. McLay, McLay vs. Bolger, Bolger vs. Richardson, Shipley vs. Bolger, English vs. Shipley, Brash vs. English, Key vs. Brash… All the same, and as National party historian Barry Gustafson has pointed out, none of these ideological rifts have stopped National from seeming like the natural party of government for long stretches of its history, regardless. Even when such claims totally lacked credibility – as in the late 1990s, when the great party of principle reduced itself to doing deals with the motley likes of Alamein Kopu and the Tau Henare troupe in order to cling to power. National have been no more unified – or divided – than Labour down the years. It is only the electoral cycle that brings out the dogs.

Keep that in mind over the next few weeks as you hear National MPs parrotting the lines of their leader about the divisions in Labour’s ranks. Not true. Eleven years ago, Bill English was the National Party’s equivalent of David Shearer. Then National changed its leader, got on the comeback trail, and lo, the divisions closed over and were heard from no more. Until next time.

As for the more “left wing” criticism….this is pretty comical coming from a Prime Minister whose government has pursued a ideologically-driven right wing agenda on asset sales that makes no economic sense. The “left wing” criticism can be dealt with in a later column once we know which sleeper agent of the Kremlin (Grant Robertson? David Cunliffe?) has been elected, and will be girding himself to snuff out the lamp of freedom.

Syria & Chemical Weapons
No denying the mounting evidence that a terrible chemical weapons attack has been carried out in Syria. But instead of focusing on the means – i.e., the evidence that a nerve agent was used – could we have a bit more analysis of the motive? Both sides, it would seem, had the means. Both sides have been accusing the other for months of using such weapons.

But who had the motive? Months ago, the Assad regime was virtually put on warning by the Obama administration that chemical weapons would be the one thing that could not be tolerated by the international community and would result in intervention. Why would Assad, at a time when his back is up against the wall militarily, use the very means known to make his situation far, far worse? The rebels on the other hand, have been calling for US intervention for months and months, especially since they lost the battle for Qusayr. I have no more idea than anyone else who carried out this horrible attack in a rebel-held neighbourhood. Yet it seems obvious that when it comes to motive, the Assad regime had a very, very strong motive not to use such weapons – and the rebels had a equally strong motive to have a chemical weapons atrocity in order to earn a US intervention that Barack Obama and his military chiefs have been trying hard to avoid, given the Pentagon’s expressed belief that the rebels (a) are not to be trusted (b) are dominated militarily by homegrown Islamic fundamentalists and foreign jihadis aligned with al Qaeda and (c) are deeply anti-American as a consequence.

On the ground, the reality is that Syria already barely exists as a sovereign nation. As Joshua Landis has pointed out, the country has now effectively split into three cantons with the Assad government controlling the West and South, the rebels controlling much of the north and east around Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, with a Kurdish controlled segment in the far east. Both the Assad regime and the rebels are committing terrible human rights abuses. Yet given the reports of atrocities and summary “justice” emerging from the rebel strongholds, it is hard to see what the Syrian people stand to gain from a US intervention that would primarily aid the rebel cause.

It may have been a stuff-up by an Assad commander that caused the gas attack – or it may have been an attack carried out by the forces that stand to gain from the airborne US strikes that the gas attack has now made inevitable. One thing seems sure. The Western media that has rushed to judgement on the unsavoury Assad regime today, will be rushing to surprised judgement on its unsavoury successors tomorrow.