NZ Labour is by no means Stalinist
People tend to throw the word “Stalinist” around willy-nilly, myself included. In fact, I used the term just yesterday, at a barbecue, as I added my views to a wide-ranging discussion about the state of the NZ Labour Party. It is an imprecise metaphor, to put it mildly. While it is true that the NZLP displays a certain intolerance for dissent within its ranks, even the worst violators are not shipped to gulags or slaughtered in their beds while their soon-to-be-shipped-to-gulags children are forced to watch.
Of course, I would make such intemperate remarks about NZ Labour given my own run-ins with the very people about whom these totalitarian allegories tend to be drawn. I refer here, of course, to former PM, Helen Clark, and her fearsome sidekick, Heather Simpson.
People understandably assume I am bitter that these women punished me for my ill-advised factional allegiances, first by sacking me in the wake of a failed leadership coup in 1996 and then on two more occasions in the subsequent decade when they intervened to prevent me from securing jobs in Minister’s offices. After I published my posts about why Mana deserved a by-election candidate supported by local members, this piece of history was brought back to life in in graphic terms by numerous anonymous commenters who assumed my motivation was some form of very approximate revenge. It was clear from those messages that my legend had grown significantly in the retelling. According to this version, Helen Clark is said to have declared of me in the moments after she stared down the 1996 challenge, “lit ut be known that Phul Quun wull nevah darkin these corridors ivah agin!”
In the minds of some, in fact, it seems that I was the only person who took part in the failed coup attempt at all. In some respects, it was necessary for such a falsified version of history to take hold — and, to that extent, I am content to play my part as the receptacle of post-coup blame.
Unity within NZ Labour after 1996 was only made possible through an unspoken agreement among factions to act as if nothing was wrong. The party’s subsequent political successes — winning government in 1999, 2002 and 2005 under Clark’s leadership — were testament to the success of this very conscious effort to quell disunity at all costs.
I am not in the least bit bitter about Helen Clark or Heather Simpson. They are quite both likeable people, from memory, and achieved far more than any of their critics in 96 could have possibly imagined. They were also quite right to banish me. I gambled, they won; and this ain’t tuddly-wunks.
But Labour is paying a price today for the events post-96. Helen and Heather instilled an impressive level of discipline and enforced unity as a strategy to win and retain power in the wake of the factional wars, but it has morphed into an organisational culture that discourages dissent and abhors risk-taking. This was no more evident than in the shrill response to my criticisms of Kris Faafoi in the Mana nomination fight; supporting one candidate over another in an internal ballot was seen by party insiders — bizarrely enough — as disunity. It struck me also on the foreshore and seabed legislation, where Labour’s messaging is so carefully designed not to offend that it cannot possibly cut through — or win votes. Hard but necessary personnel decisions are similarly avoided in the interests of avoiding conflict. Peace above all, unity forever!
As we move into election year, the last thing Labour needs to fear is that it begins to display signs of life.
Labour supporters will welcome any signal that the Party has rediscovered its capacity for boldness and innovation, even if that means that a few trampled egos or raised voices along the way.