Gordon Campbell on why Chris Hipkins is living on borrowed time

posterthumbCurrently, Chris Hipkins is serving as a place-holder leader until other colleagues do the numbers and figure out their capacity for taking on what can be a highly stressful and thankless role in opposition. On his career record to date, Hipkins’ skills and instincts are far better suited to the role of opposition leader than Prime Minister. For much of 2024 at least, Hipkins could make life a misery for Christopher Luxon in Parliament.

That’s small comfort though. Relatively few people (other than the political tragics) tune in regularly to Question Time. Also, given the scale of Labour’s defeat, the Hipkins brand has taken a serious hammering. To the point where – arguably – the one thing likely to save Christoper Luxon from self-embarrassment would be the sight of Hipkins entering stage right, bearing a re-heated plate of sausage rolls. There he goes again, as Ronald Reagan said, when brushing aside Jimmy Carter’s attacks on his credentials for high office. Hipkins won’t be debated by National, he’ll just be swatted aside.

It is a weird time. After the special votes are finally counted on November 3, no one knows how long it will then take to form the next government. In the meantime, the compliments being paid to Hipkins’ for his years of faithful service make talking about his limited shelf life seem rude, and lacking in feeling. Labour loves its valiant losers. At such times, National is not quite as sentimental.

The Not Great Replacements

Reportedly, Labour Party heavyweights like Willie Jackson and Megan Woods want Hipkins to stay on and – ominously – so does Richard Prebble. Also, the staffing levels at the former PM’s office are about to be drastically downsized, so discreetly talking up the talents and survival chances of one’s defeated boss to a media hungry for news angles is one way of hoping to win a spot in the lifeboat.

Talking of survivors, the Labour list also comes into play here. There are people placed high on the Labour list (Jan Tinetti at number six is the obvious example) whose prominence can be explained only by their fidelity to Hipkins. Willow Jean Prime’s sharp elevation into the top ten has also looked like an investment in future loyalty. Continuity at the top would also help to insulate some people (e.g. campaign manager Megan Woods) from criticism until Labour’s defeat has lost much of its sting. In that respect, Labour’s kitchen cabinet is a bit like Murder on the Orient Express. Who killed Labour’s chances of a third term? They all did. So none of them did.

When captains call

After a brief flirtation with democracy around the Cunliffe era, the choice of leader has been taken back from party members and affiliated unions. Three months after an election loss, the party members merely get to rubber stamp the choice made by the parliamentary caucus.

In other words, power has been delegated upwards. Yet with great power, great responsibility is still noticeably lacking. Hipkins, for instance, had no direct public mandate to be party leader and PM. Yet he chose to make a unilateral “captain’s call” on the wealth tax, even though – presumably with Jacinda Arern’s blessing – Revenue Minister David Parker had got Inland Revenue to do the research laying the groundwork for a wealth tax. Was the wealth tax meant to be the policy trade-off for Ardern binning the corporate gains tax? We’ll never know for sure.

There are other reasons for not persisting with Hipkins any longer than courtesy demands. Forget 90 day trials. The country had a nine month trial with Hipkins, and voters still left Labour in droves, to the left and to the right. Every single National seat that Labour flipped in 2020 went home to National. Yet under Hipkins, Labour still shaped its messaging and policy priorities so as not to further alienate its long departed fairweather friends on the centre-right.

They were never coming back, but seemingly Labour never lost hope that like the godwits, they might return. Until he had his back to the wall during the last week of the campaign, Hipkins often seemed to be acting as his own helicopter parent, paralysed with anxiety at what harm Labour might bring on itself if it ever acted on its 2020 mandate and actually moved to the left. Truly, the party heavyweights have a lot to answer for.

Exit left

Over on the centre left, many of Labour’s most loyal supporters finally threw up their hands and defected to the Greens or to Te Pāti Maori – both of whom looked more like genuine left wing parties than the “neo-liberalism with a human face” that Labour had adopted in lieu of an identity. Labour gave its base only incremental gains and token gestures as reasons to stay. Beyond that, there was only the scare messaging about how much worse a National-led government would be.

That’s why handing the leader’s conch around among those in the inner sanctum – Carmel Sepuloni, Megan Woods – on the basis that it is their turn would be another step down the road to irrelevance. Labour needs to accept why it failed, and embrace the need to abandon its fidelity to market economics.

No doubt, Hipkins has valuable skills. If you wanted a loyal lieutenant willing to take on thankless tasks and work on them night and day, then look no further. During the pandemic, Hipkins performed above and beyond the call of duty. But the vision thing? He always had a problem with it, as many people do whose primary skills lie in faithfully executing the orders of others.

Damaging limitations

Essentially, Hipkins was elected leader as a damage limitation exercise, to save as many of his colleagues as he could. He did so by scrapping the controversial policies put on the rails by his predecessor. In effect, Labour shut up shop on policy and went into full appeasement mode once Hipkins took over. By nature, he seems more of a conservative than an agent of change.

Of course, Labour can pretend none of this identity stuff will matter during the first 18 months of life in opposition. Yet if Labour postpones the task of articulating what it stands for as a party – beyond kindness, apple pie and not being National – it will decline further into insignificance. The Greens and TPM will take over the main tasks of opposition. They’re really good at it, perhaps because they sound like they believe in something.

At this point, the aversion to risk-taking among Labour’s top leadership tier threatens to stand in the way of Labour commencing the tasks of renewal. While worrying about who should be driving the vehicle, maybe Labour first needs to figure out where it thinks it should be going.

Footnote One: Was there a “surge” in the final days? Yes and no. As Neale Jones pointed out on RNZ, the bundle of early polling dropped shortly after the polls closed had National at 41.5%, a figure that shrank as the votes of people who cast their ballots on Election Day were counted. What seems to have happened is that some voters shifted focus from how much they disliked the Labour government and (belatedly) took fright during the last week at what an extreme centre-right government would deliver.

Meaning: It was less of a positive surge to Labour, than a horrified shrink away from the alternative. Significantly, the Wellington public servants (whose jobs National is promising to axe) flocked to the Greens in Wellington Central and in Rongotai, rather than to Labour.

Footnote Two: Hands up anyone who thinks Labour ran a good campaign for re-election. At least when Gerry Brownlee was campaign manager for National in 2017, his team won the most votes even if it lost office. This time around Megan Woods’ guiding hand saw Labour’s party vote plummet, and she even received a brief election night scare in her Wigram electorate.

At no point during 2023 did Labour look capable of winning this year’s election. At some point, the party heavyweights – and the party leader – have to look in the mirror and own this failure. And then resign.

Music (and media) mashups

Nation of Language are a New York band raised on old Kraftwerk records and – in the case of leader Ian Devaney – on 1980s synth bands like Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark, whose track “ Electricity” made an enduring childhood impression on Delaney. The brilliant video for “Too Much, Enough” is a media parody directed by the film-maker Robert Kolodny:

And for a completely different kind of mash-up… When Hako Yamasaki recorded “Sasurai” as a teenager in the mid 1970s, she was trying to make a career as a folk singer, by grafting that Western style onto older Japanese pop traditions, such as enka. She ended up making one of the all-time great torch songs. On this track, her longing and calm acceptance of her solitude sound almost like a form of spirit possession.

The lyric (“sasurai” means “wandering”) depicts her drifting from town to town seeking love, but unwilling to accept anything less than total mutual understanding. In the end, she professes herself happy to settle for the isolation that her high standards about love relationships bring in their wake.