Gordon Campbell on the Labour leadership change

For weeks now, Labour has been stalled on the train tracks with the election freight train bearing down on it. The recent run of polls didn’t create this looming disaster, but they confirmed that it was coming right on time. Well… Andrew Little has fled the scene, leaving Jacinda Ardern to try and jump start the engine before the election smashes right into the Labour vehicle. At the very least, she should attract some sympathy votes. Being Labour leader right now would have to be the very definition of a poisoned chalice.

It isn’t entirely beyond the realm of possibility that this episode could mark the end of the Labour Party as a major political force. The same trend is evident elsewhere. Around the world, many of the traditional parties of the centre-left are suffering an identity crisis from the social corrosion caused by decades of a failed market fundamentalism that they’ve either directly or tacitly endorsed.

Many of these parties (from PSOE in Spain to the Socialists in France) have accepted the economic policies of market liberalism while basing their messaging on how the bad outcomes should be socially re-engineered. Yet in Britain, France, Spain, Greece, Canada, and now New Zealand, this so called “Third Way” approach has ended up by gutting the major parties of the centre-left, and turning them into pale copies of their counterparts on the centre-right. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn succeeded by running against his own party’s received wisdom, just as strongly as he ran against the Conservative government.

In New Zealand, Labour has always had a bigger credibility problem in that it introduced market liberalism to this country, rather than inheriting it – and a majority of Labour’s parliamentary caucus has never lost faith entirely in that old time market religion. In three consecutive elections since 2008, Labour has burned through a dismal succession of “Third Way” leaders. It has pursued economic policies endorsed by the centre-right faction of its parliamentary caucus – Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe (under pressure) and now (also under pressure) Andrew Little. All of them tried and all failed to sell the public on a political brand that consisted of loudly bewailing the social outcomes of the market, while quietly embracing its core precepts about how a modern economy should be run.

Since Labour appears to lack any appetite for fundamental change (much less any idea of what that might entail) Labour’s political messaging has been almost entirely negative. On the doorstep, Labour candidates have been left promoting a culture of complaint. In this void, Gareth Morgan – so help us –is now seen as the visionary alternative. Even the social spending on health and education that Labour is offering at election 2017 is almost entirely dependent on the surpluses that National’s economic policies have generated.

Point being, a lot more than a change of leader is required, longer term. That will have to wait until next year, and beyond. No one will be blaming Jacinda Ardern if she fails to win this election; her immediate job is to lessen the scale of the defeat. Eight weeks may be enough for her to achieve that, given that a new leader can expect an initial bounce in public support – and maybe especially so in this case, given the circumstances.

As for Ardern’s deputy… Kelvin Davis comes once more from the right wing of the caucus. Yet since his arrival in Parliament on the Labour list in 2008, Kelvin Davis has (a) gone on to win the Te Tai Tokerau seat (b) exposed the gross ineptitude of the private prison provider Serco, and (c) put the government to shame for its couldn’t-be-weaker response to the maltreatment being meted out by the Australian authorities to New Zealanders held in detention. Presumably, Davis’ elevation should also help Labour to win a clean sweep of the Maori seats.

No doubt, the centre-right will carry out the usual misogynist attacks on Ardern as a “light weight” – mainly because she’s been judged and deemed guilty of being relatively young, attractive and a woman. In fact, Ardern, 37, is almost the same age as Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau. Plus, it would not be the first time in history that a woman has been called in to clear up the mess that the blokes have left behind. (See Helen Clark, early 1990s).

Songs and leaders

Talking about the 1990s… this track by Beck from his nouveau-folk, Mississippi John Hurt loving days, comes to mind:

Out in the community, everyone has to step up to the plate and take care of the kids, yeah. That’s the message of this conscious track… which says we’ve all got to front up to the responsibility of changing the dynamic, and doing the right thing…