Friday, 30 December 2011

Singing Away The War

From What? Are the Taliban laying siege to Buckingham Palace? Are Predator drones taking out shoppers in Slough? The carefully manufactured song Wherever You Are reaching No. 1 in the British pop charts represents not only a propaganda triumph for the UK's Department of Defence, but is also a sobering commentary on the British people's ability to look through the war crimes committed in their name.

WHEREVER YOU ARE, by Military Wives, is No. 1 on the UK pop-charts. And somewhere in the UK Department of Defence (DOD) the Champagne corks are popping. Why not? The song and its accompanying video, released on 19 December, represent the triumph of a truly masterful PR campaign in support of the United Kingdom’s participation in the Afghan War.

The most effective aspect of the campaign was to have it fronted by the wives of soldiers on active duty in Afghanistan. These women are not only a potent reservoir of patriotic emotion, but they also constitute an unchallengeable rhetorical vector for DOD propaganda. Who’s going to contradict the testimony of 100 military wives?

The story that ended this week with Wherever You Are at No. 1 began several months ago when the DOD convinced BBC-2 to take a hand-picked group of military wives as the raw material for the third season of the public network’s high-rating series Choir – hosted by Britain’s “inspirational” choirmaster, Gareth Malone.

As a propaganda force, this alliance between the DOD and the BBC proved formidable. Through its sponsors The Choir: Military Wives was able to secure the musical talents of celebrated Welsh composer, Paul Mealor, whose Ubi Caritas et Amor formed part of the ceremony at Prince William’s and Kate Middleton’s nuptials.

The lyrics to Mr Mealor’s appealing melody were stitched together out of hundreds of letters sent by the Military Wives’ choir to their husbands in Afghanistan. With such phrases as “my wondrous star” and “my prince of peace” prominently featured in Wherever You Are, it is pretty clear that the quest for the No. 1 Christmas slot was something more than fortuitous.

The finale of The Choir: Military Wives series was recorded at The Royal Albert Hall on 12 November as part of the Royal British Legion’s (the UK’s equivalent of the RSA) Remembrance Parade, with the Queen in Attendance. Wherever You Are was thus able to make its debut before a television audience estimated at 2.6 million viewers.

Like all hit recordings, Wherever You Are comes with its own “official” video. Images of the choir engaged in recording the song are interspersed with footage of the wives and their children preparing “Welcome Home” banners for their returning heroes, along with heart-wrenching scenes of family reunions. Throughout, the women are shown wearing black T-shirts bearing the words “My husband protects Queen and Country.”

From whom? One is moved to enquire. Have Afghan tanks rolled through the streets of London? Have Afghan attack helicopters strafed defenceless villages in the Home Counties? Do Afghan soldiers patrol the strategic passes of the Pennines? Is the Metropolitan Police Force being re-trained by advisors from Pakistan and Egypt?

Were all these things true, and if the Royal Army was engaged in a heroic defence of the United Kingdom against a foreign army of occupation, then those T-shirts might make some sense. But they are not true. The truth is that it is these women’s husbands who are driving the tanks, flying the attack helicopters, patrolling the mountain passes and training a Quisling government’s army and police.

And for every one of the “wondrous stars” and “princes of peace” who fall in battle, we must count ten, twenty, thirty Afghan resistance fighters and civilians. The “official” video does not show us these families. We do not hear the wailing of Afghan women, or the sobs of Afghan children, for Afghan husbands and fathers who never came home.

The brutal reality of the Afghan War is deliberately hidden in Wherever You Are. Indeed, the very name of the song, by denying the combatants’ theatre of action its true name, and its unique location on the globe, is itself an act of sanitation. It allows the “sexy, sexy supermen” of the Royal Army and Marines to “protect Queen and Country” in an anonymous country called “Wherever” without scrutiny or accountability.

Should the military wives be blamed for participating in this superbly executed propaganda exercise? After all, it wasn’t on their orders that their menfolk were unleashed upon the tragedy that is Afghanistan.

No, it wasn’t, and it’s not for that I condemn them.

What I condemn is their lack of empathy and imagination; their utter incapacity to acknowledge the all-too-real victims of their husbands’ “heroism”.

The men, women and children of Afghanistan.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 30 December 2011.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Turning A Page?

Labour Turns A Page: But which way? A parsing of David Shearer's Address-in-Reply speech suggests that the party is about to revert to the economic and social priorities of the Clark-Cullen Government of 1999-2008.

THE ADDRESS IN REPLY to the Speech from the Throne presents the Leader of the Opposition with a great opportunity. The newly elected government has placed its words in the mouth of the Governor General, and now it’s time for the alternative government to have its say. The Address-in-Reply debate is a time for grand themes and memorable lines; a time for inducing “buyer’s remorse” among the governing party’s supporters; a time – in short – for the man or woman who would be prime minister to really shine.

Did David Shearer shine? In delivering his first Address-in-Reply speech, did he rise to the occasion? And what (if any) grand and memorable lines did he deliver? Let’s find out.

Mr Shearer began with an acknowledgement that, on 26 November, the electorate rejected what Labour had to offer:

Just over three weeks ago the National Government and the Labour Opposition put our ideas in front of the people of New Zealand, and our side didn’t win.

And therefore Labour will be different in these coming three years.

We will turn a page.

To “turn the page”, in common English usage, means “to stop thinking about and dealing with something”. As in: “Your divorce came through over a year ago, it’s time to turn the page”.

So what is Mr Shearer so keen to stop thinking about? What’s he so tired of dealing with? Is it Helen Clark’s Labour Party? The Labour Party that Phil Goff inherited but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, change? Turning a page on that would make a huge difference.

It would also be extremely difficult. Helen Clark dominated Labour for 15 years – longer than any other Labour Leader. There are those in Camp Shearer who insist that, even now, from a distance of 15,000 kilometres, she is still trying to call the shots. That in the just-concluded leadership contest, Ms Clark actively lobbied for Mr Shearer’s opponent, David Cunliffe.

A party leader reveals a great deal about his character and intentions through the people he chooses to sit alongside him, and those he relegates to the back-benches. If Mr Shearer really is determined to stop thinking about and dealing with Helen Clark, his ‘Shadow Cabinet’ ought to show it.

What it actually discloses, however, is that the Shearer-led Labour Party is more about continuity than change. Mr Shearer’s two big winners, Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern, though certainly younger than Ms Clark’s generation of politicians, have yet to demonstrate the slightest ideological deviance from her “social-democratic” prescriptions.

Some of Mr Shearer’s other picks: David Parker, Clayton Cosgrove, Shane Jones, Nanaia Mahuta, Su’a William Sio, Trevor Mallard, Phil Goff, Annette King and Damien O’Connor; suggest a greater willingness to acknowledge the ideals and aspirations of his more conservative caucus colleagues. This could presage a turning away from the social-liberalism that cost Labour so dearly in Ms Clark’s final term. But, the inclusion of David Cunliffe, Phil Twyford, Charles Chauvel, Lianne Dalziel, Chris Hipkins, Darien Fenton and Clare Curran in the Shadow Cabinet points to the more mundane conclusion that, rather than any burning desire to turn over a new leaf, Mr Shearer’s choices reflect Labour's need for “rejuvenation” and a balancing of caucus factions.

But Mr Shearer was not about to let his page-turning metaphor go. A little later in his speech he declared:

The Labour Party is turning a page.

This Labour Party will put growing the pie for all New Zealanders at the front of our agenda.

We cannot be content dividing an ever shrinking pie.

But, “growing the pie” is simply a way of expressing the deeply conservative idea that how one’s country’s national income is distributed matters less than its constant expansion. Ms Clark was fond of quoting John F. Kennedy’s observation that: “A rising tide lifts all boats.” But, as JFK undoubtedly knew (because he used to sail them) and Ms Clark surely appreciates, there’s a world of difference between struggling along in a row-boat, and sailing in a luxury yacht.

In pledging to “grow the pie”, Mr Shearer is speaking in code to New Zealand’s wealthiest men and women. He is telling them that they need not fear a future Labour Government. Wages will continue to be subsidized by Working For Families, and the government will pour millions into scientific research and development. Mr Shearer will use the additional revenue flowing into the state’s coffers from innovative new business ventures to boost spending on education and health. The new jobs created by these business will reduce the government’s welfare obligations, allowing it to repay debt and rebuild surpluses.

If you’re asking yourself: “Weren’t these the economic and social policies of Ms Clark and Dr Michael Cullen?” The answer is: “Yes, they were.”

Mr Shearer and the Labour Party aren’t turning the page forward – they’re turning it back.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 27 December 2011.

Sunday, 25 December 2011


And they came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger - Luke 2:16

A Merry Christmas to all Bowalley Road Readers.

May the joy of this day be yours through all the year to come.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Kia Kaha, Christchurch. New Zealand Stands With You.

Our hearts and hands go out to all the citizens of Christchurch, as once again the shaking earth tests their resilience and steadfastness.

Know that in the days ahead the thoughts and the prayers of your fellow New Zealanders are with you, Cantabrians.

Stay strong.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday, 23 December 2011

The Forty-First Day (A Christmas Story)

Immanuel - God Is With Us: Tiny, yet huge. Helpless, yet more powerful that all of Caesar’s armies. Simeon and Anna greet the infant Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem. (Painting by Arent de Gelder)

IT IS FORTY-ONE DAYS since the star cast its light over Bethlehem, and still we wait. Anna and I, in the shade of the cloisters, as the people come and go, and the smoke of the sacrifices rises. As much a part of the temple as the great gilt doors and the smooth marble pillars. Sitting. Waiting.

Anna is old by any man’s reckoning. Fourscore years and four, they say. She remembers the Second Temple before King Herod arrayed it in cold marble and bright gold.

‘The Temple is Israel’s heart’, Anna says, ‘it’s Holy of Holies. But it does not hold its soul.’ Anna never wavers from this. ‘Not even marble and gold’, she says, ‘can house a person’s soul.’

And so we argued, back and forth. Blind Simeon and Ancient Anna. As the world swirled around us and the years piled up like broken sandals. Fixtures of the Temple Court: constant as the money-changers; harmless as the sacrificial doves.

Until the dreams.

A light, growing in the darkness of our slumbers. Every night it shone more brightly – resolving itself, at length, into the image of a great star, drawing ever nearer.

And then we heard the voice. At first, no more than a whisper. Moving through our minds as the wind moves through the Temple Veil, breathing out the sacred consonants. The words were hard to catch – but I recognised them. For had I not made myself blind reading the holy books? Pouring over them by lamplight until the characters swam away into mist and darkness?

But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you one will go forth for me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.”

The words of the prophet, Micah. But what could they mean?

Anna dreamt too. In hers a voice spoke clearly from the very heart of the star.

“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

Immanuel. God is with us.

And then the dream came true. Low in the western sky it shone, night after night, just after the going down of the sun. A star where no star had been before. And every evening it grew brighter, until the night – forty-one days ago it was – when it seemed to hover, lower than ever in the night sky, over Bethlehem.

And the next morning the shepherds came. With wide eyes and stammering tongues they told us of what they had seen: the heavenly host; the stable; the woman; the child. One of the shepherds, eyes wider than all the rest, took me by the arm.

“Death draws near, Blind Simeon. But not before your eyes behold the saviour: God’s true son, here, in the Temple, on the forty-first day.”

And so we wait, Anna and I. Here, in the shade of the cloisters. On the forty-first day.

Anna saw them first. The little family. Rustic and awestruck amid Herod’s splendour. She grabbed me by the sleeve and led me to them.

“Here, at last,” she said, “is one fit to hold men’s souls. Good Lady will you let Blind Simeon, the Rabbi, bless your son?”

I took the babe in my arms. And like a curtain drawn aside, light flooded into my waking mind, and I saw him. Tiny, yet huge. Helpless, yet more powerful that all of Caesar’s armies. I lifted him high above my head, so all could see, and cried out in a voice that echoed off the Temple walls:

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”

Above our heads, a dove flapped wildly, and was gone.

This short story was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 23 December 2011.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Tony Blair No Guide For Shearer's Labour

First and Second of the Third Way: Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson felt obliged to destroy the British Labour Party in order to save it. This is precisely NOT what David Shearer and his team should do.

TONY BLAIR transformed the British Labour Party by means of root-and-branch reform. His priorities were as clear as they were ruthless. Disable the party. Re-write its rule-book. And, most importantly, make sure Labour’s MPs were accountable to nobody but themselves.

Blair’s reforms were driven by the strategic thinking of his chief henchman, Peter Mandelson. In essence, Mandelson’s strategy boiled down to just three, fundamental, political insights:

One. Since the British working-class has no serious political alternative to Labour, the party can safely ignore its interests.

Two. Since no party can be elected without the support of the British middle-classes, and since these have multiple electoral options, Labour must not, under any circumstances, advance policies that might upset middle-class voters.

Three. To retain the support of middle-class voters, Labour must never allow its political rivals to out-bid it on matters relating to “sound” economic and social policy.

Blair’s and Mandelson’s strategy made a brutal kind of sense in the light of the British Labour Party’s recent history, and within the wider context of British electoral politics.

The party had endured years of bitter factional strife, with those who regarded Labour as the last bastion of working-class resistance to Thatcherism fighting a desperate rear-guard action against the bleak electoral logic of the “modernisers” analysis.

That logic was, of course, underpinned by the First-Past-the-Post electoral system, which allowed the Conservative Party to win large parliamentary majorities in spite of attracting considerably less than half of the popular vote.

Labour’s “modernisers” also had to factor-in the impact of globalisation on the size of Britain’s industrial working-class (the core of both the traditional Labour vote and the more militant trade unions) and the more recent ideological triumph of capitalism over its Soviet rival.

IN 2011, the strategic choices confronting the New Zealand Labour Party’s new leader, David Shearer, are very different to those which taxed Tony Blair in the mid-1990s.

Rather than a fractious, activist and openly antagonistic party organisation, Mr Shearer inherits a party in which rank-and-file members have sunk to the level of what one wit describes as “MP fan clubs”. At its upper levels, the party is caught in the grip of a sclerotic, self-selecting oligarchy based in Labour’s insular and largely unaccountable sector-groups. In effect, Mr Shearer’s Labour Party is rapidly disabling itself. His first and most urgent priority is to kick it back into life.

To do this he must, like Blair, re-write Labour’s rule-book. Not to marginalise the party and insulate the caucus from its influence, but to do exactly the opposite. Mr Shearer needs to grow his party. At 6,000 members, Labour is only slightly bigger than the Greens. If it is to re-claim the Treasury Benches it must once again become a mass party, with a membership measured in the tens-of-thousands. And that cannot happen unless those members are equipped with real powers. These include the power to determine (and not merely “contribute” to the making of) party policy. The power to choose and rank the people on Labour’s Party List – as the Green Party members do. And, lastly, the power to choose their party’s leader. (Either directly, by a postal ballot of the whole membership, or, as the British do, through an electoral college composed of the rank-and-file, affiliated organisations, and the Parliamentary Caucus.)

Unless Mr Shearer moves swiftly to force rule-changes along these lines, all of his rhetoric about wanting to “listen” to New Zealanders will ring hollow. The most effective way to “hear” what ordinary Kiwis have to say about their country’s future, is to encourage them to join your political party by promising to translate their ideas into policy. Mr Shearer needs to convince the tens-of-thousands of Labour members who have walked away from the party that he’s committed to a future in which rank-and-file votes not only shape what Labour stands for, but who stands for Labour.

The fate of Damien O’Connor points the way. Rejecting the influence of Labour’s oligarchs over the content and ranking of the Party List, Mr O’Connor staked his future on an all-or-nothing bid for the West Coast-Tasman seat. The Coasters were only too happy to reward his courage. On 26 November, alone of all Labour’s candidates, it was Mr O’Connor who took a seat off the National Party – and by a handsome majority.

Mr Shearer has another great advantage over Tony Blair. He’s assumed Labour’s leadership in a world embittered and angry at neoliberalism’s botched ideological recipes. In 1998 Peter Mandelson infamously remarked that Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. In 2011, far too many people are drowning in the rich’s filth for any sensible Labour leader to utter such dangerous apostasy.

To win in 2014, David Shearer need only steer Labour in precisely the opposite direction to that of Tony Blair.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 20 December 2011.

Friday, 16 December 2011

A Fresh Face - For A Fresh Start

Authenticity: David Shearer feels real. And it's that quality, more than any other, that Labour needs if it is to recover from its worst defeat in 80 years and win the 2014 election.

THE BLUE SEDAN had been following their car for some time. The driver kept glancing in the rear-view mirror, saying nothing, but watching, with growing apprehension, as the distance between the two vehicles narrowed. He was pretty sure he’d seen the occupants’ faces before. They’d been part of the angry crowd of Israeli settlers who’d gathered to hurl stones and abuse at the West-Bank border checkpoint.

The Palestinian villagers who were the focus of the settlers’ rage just shrugged. This was their life now. What could they say? For a couple of hours the little delegation had stayed and listened, and then driven away with the details of yet another incursion; yet another seizure of Arab land. But, as their driver now plainly saw, they had not left alone.

The narrow streets of Old Jerusalem prevented any sort of fast getaway, and corner by corner, intersection by intersection, the blue sedan edged closer. The driver was certain now: these were the men he’d seen at the check-point, the ones who had eye-balled him directly and drawn their fingers across their throats in the universal gesture of murderous intent. Still the driver said nothing to his companions, but around the steering-wheel his knuckles visibly whitened.

And then, thanks-be-to-God, another checkpoint loomed ahead. Israeli soldiers moved towards the two now motionless vehicles seeking identification. The driver presented his United Nations ID and his three Kiwi companions offered up their New Zealand passports. While a weary-looking officer checked them out, the driver clearly overheard one of the occupants of the blue sedan tell the young conscript holding his papers: “Hurry-up and let us through little brother, we’ve come to kill that sonofabitch from the UN!”

As the soldiers patiently instructed the settler assassins to turn their car around, David Shearer and his friends drove on to safety.

"Let us through little brother, we've come to kill that sonofabitch from the UN!"

IT’S STORIES LIKE THAT that made David Shearer Labour’s leader, and may, in three years’ time, make him New Zealand’s next prime minister. Not because he is New Zealand’s most eloquent politician. Not because his grasp of detail is second-to-none. Not because he has a face and a manner perfectly suited to the small screen. If those were the qualities the Labour Caucus had been seeking they would have chosen David Cunliffe – who has them in abundance.

Labour’s Caucus, which the New Zealand electorate, just three weeks ago, saw fit to pare down from forty-three to thirty-four Members of Parliament, knows better than anyone that their party’s been judged and found wanting. Its deficiency was not one of intellect, or feeling, or capability. What Labour was deemed to lack was authenticity. More bluntly: it didn’t seem real. And unless and until it becomes real, Labour will remain in opposition.

And that is David Shearer’s great advantage. In spite of (or is it because of) his “lived-in” face and his hesitant speech Labour’s new leader feels genuine; feels true.

At the media conference that followed his election, David Shearer talked about bringing a “fresh face” to a “fresh start”, and of wanting to build a “clean, green and clever” economy “open to all New Zealanders”. Most importantly, Labour’s new leader wants to “reconnect” his party with the people whose support it has lost.

These are not the factory workers of yesteryear, they’re the independent contractors and self-employed workers of today. Workers who, for better or for worse, have only themselves and their families to rely on. Workers who, though unprotected by unions, and unsupported by the State, are nevertheless proud of what they have made out of the skills they have acquired and the opportunities they have seized.

Like the farmers of Palestine and the herdsmen of Somalia, all these New Zealanders want is a chance to get on with their lives in peace and without undue interference. An olive grove, a herd of cattle, or a little franchise business mowing lawns, altering clothes or splicing cables: the difference in the end is pretty negligible. These are “little guys” in a large and too-often-uncaring world. And all they’re looking for is someone and something to stand in their corner; a person and a party to watch their back.

And that, for his whole adult life, is precisely what David Shearer has been doing.

And the men in the blue sedan haven’t been able to stop him yet.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 December 2011.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Looking Back - A Sketch

"To the Revolution!"

IT’S THE DAY AFTER the 2014 General Election. We’re at Matthew Hooton’s splendid residence in Parnell and the champagne is flowing. Out in the garden Chris Trotter is holding forth to John Pagani and Matt McCarten when Bryce Edwards steps onto the deck clutching a copy of the Herald on Sunday.

CHRIS: Bryce, you Useful Idiot! Get your arse over here and have some Champagne!

BRYCE: (Waving the paper in front of him) Brilliant column Matt. Just the right combination of triumphalism and spite.

MATT: I try to please.

BRYCE: I especially liked the reference to Shearer’s “Un-lefting of the Left”.

CHRIS: Hardly surprising, Bryce – it’s your concept.

BRYCE: (Blushing) Well, that’s true, I suppose.

MATT: No supposing about it! But how far would the idea have got if Trotter and Pagani hadn’t been around to popularise it?

CHRIS: Or if Shearer hadn’t been smart enough to pick it up.

JOHN: (Winking) No fear of that! It’s amazing what a politician will do with a little encouragement from his friends.

MATT: (Raising his glass) To malleable Manchurians!

ALL: (Clinking their glasses) To malleable Manchurians!

Cathy Odgers approaches the group bearing a tray of Russian caviar.

CATHY: I presume the sort of socialist who’s willing to drink Veuve Clicquot won’t turn his nose up at caviar?

CHRIS: Beluga?

CATHY: Of course.

CHRIS: Lovely!

MATT: So how was the Act bash, Cathy? You must have taken some grim satisfaction at seeing Banksie wiped out in Epsom?

CATHY: Yes and no. It was great to see him defeated – but not by Labour!

MATT: Didn’t I tell you that Shearer had cross-over appeal?

MATTHEW: (Depositing a couple of eye-wateringly expensive Pinot Noirs on the table.) Yes, but that’s only because you bastards were so bloody successful at transforming him into a racist, sexist, homophobic, fascist cunt who made Key sound ideological - while he was somehow allowed to present hard-line communism as economic common-sense.

JOHN: (Perusing the wine label, before pouring himself a generous glassful.) Spoken like a true 1-percenter Matthew.

MATTHEW: Hah! But it won't stop you drinking my wine, will it? Still, what the hell is the Right supposed to do when the likes of Time Magazine makes “The Protester” 2011’s Person of the Year? There were just too many people – like those class traitors Gareth Morgan and Bernard Hickey – who were willing to give all that smelly hippie ‘we are the 99-percent’ crap credibility.

CHRIS: That’s no way to talk about our David. Just because he plays the guitar. (Takes another sip of wine.) This is fabulous Pinot, by the way.

BRYCE: (Excitedly) But Matthew’s right! It was the Occupy movement and the collapse of the Eurozone which finally broke the neoliberal spell. That, and the landslide re-election of Obama on a platform of economic populism. It all conspired to open up the path towards a traditionally left-wing Labour programme.

CHRIS: Which opened the doors of the Labour Party to that most extraordinary of creatures – the ordinary New Zealander.

CATHY: Yes, that was the really clever move. Once the party was pumped full of Trotter’s Waitakere Men it was sayonara for the gaggle.

CHRIS: Ah, yes, the “defenestration” conference. How did Shearer put it: “I’ve worked in places where racial, religious and ideological fanaticism have armed themselves with political power, and I can tell you, the results are not pretty – and offer no models for the New Zealand Labour Party.”

JOHN: Definitely one Trotter’s better lines.

CATHY: You think so? I reckon it was Shearer’s “We must move beyond what George Bush called ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’; it’s time to stop allowing brown skins to excuse black deeds.”

MATTHEW: Bloody disgraceful racist bullshit!

BRYCE: It worked though. The Identity Politicians all marched out in protest.

MATT: With Robertson at their head!

CHRIS: A definite twofer! And not before time. The Clark Years infantilised Labour’s membership. After the upheavals of the 1980s and early 90s they were so terrified of debate and dissent that they forgot how to think for themselves. And when you do that, there are always plenty of people only too willing to do your thinking for you. (Leaning toward the table.) Is there any of that Beluga still going begging?

BRYCE: And after the big walk-out it was pretty much all plain sailing. Because, in most people’s minds, feminism, gay rights, tino rangatiratanga and bossing people around is the Left. When all those people threw themselves out of the window, “Middle New Zealand” breathed a huge sigh of relief. Chris and John hailed Shearer for “de-Lefting the Left”, John Armstrong picked up the quote in The Herald, and ….

MATTHEW: …. I know, I know, iPredict went mad ….

MATT: … and the polls followed suit.

CHRIS: (Spreading caviar on a sliver of rye bread) Eighteen points in a single bound – Don Brash eat your heart out!

MATT: It was amazing really. When Shearer announced he was going to re-nationalise the privatised assets and re-introduce universal union membership, nobody – apart from Business NZ and Federated Farmers – batted an eyelid. Although, I suppose it helped that Obama was doing much the same thing in the States.

CATHY: And that’s it, isn’t it. Parasites in charge from London to Vladivostok. And after the Chinese Communists’ latest anti-capitalist crackdown, I can’t even go back to Hong Kong!

CHRIS: The trick was to make John Key the voice of ideology, and David Shearer the voice of common-sense.

JOHN: Which we did.

MATTHEW: (Rising from the table.) And so bloody well, you Commie bastards! Why do I keep inviting you to these things?

MATT: Because we're good for business?

CATHY:  What do you mean?

MATT: Exceltium’s been offered the job of softening up - I mean preparing - the country for the restoration of universal union membership. A big PR contract, with a big price-tag to match.

CATHY: (Rising to follow Matthew) Hmmm? Does he need a lawyer?

CHRIS:  What was it Lenin said about capitalists competing to supply the rope that will hang them?

MATT: Comrades. (Rising to his feet and raising his glass.) To the Revolution!

ALL: The Revolution!

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

National's High Tide

This Far - But No Further: In spite of his best efforts, John Key could not lift National's vote above 48 percent. Like Rob Muldoon and Jim Bolger before him, it was a matter of "close, but no cigar". Clearly, Stephen Joyce's dream of winning more than 50 percent of the Party Vote must remain just that - a dream. National's tide is at the full: it can only recede.

THE RULE BOOK is safe. The experts told us that, under a system of proportional representation, it is next-to-impossible for a single party to win more that 50 percent of the popular vote in a multi-party election. And so it has proved. Indeed, John Key’s election-night boast that National had achieved its best result since 1951 proved to be somewhat premature. In terms of the popular vote, both Rob Muldoon and Jim Bolger did better than Mr Key, taking 47.6 percent And 47.8 percent respectively.

Nevertheless, 47.3 percent of the Party Vote is an impressive feat – and fully two percentage points higher than the MMP record established by Mr Key’s party only three years ago. In failing to breach that historical limit of 48 percent, however, Mr Key has laid to rest the cherished hope of many in the National Party that a genuine majority lies within their grasp. And, with the emphatic victory of MMP in the referendum, it must now be generally accepted that the tide of National support can rise no higher.

This leaves National’s strategists facing a rather large conundrum. Having swallowed-up all of their right-wing electoral rivals – and still fallen short of their 50 percent + 1 target – in which direction should they now turn? Further to the Right? Or double-back and turn towards the Left?

Prior to the election there were many in National’s ranks quietly praying that most of the four percent of the Party Vote claimed by NZ First in 2008 would end up flowing National’s way. Their shock and anger on election-night is easily imagined.

Unlike the Alliance, Winston Peters’ party did not fracture, and then fracture again into electoral irrelevance. Far from it. NZ First not only held, it grew. The notorious “tea-pot tape” observations of Messrs Key and Banks notwithstanding, Mr Peters support extends far beyond the elderly. As anyone who witnessed the launch of his campaign at Alexandra Park will testify, his base now spans the entire New Zealand population – including, perhaps surprisingly, immigrants from East and South Asia.

That just leaves Colin Craig’s Conservative Party. Absorbing the latter’s two percent of the Party Vote would, however, come at a cost. National would have to step back into the fetid ideological swamp of the Religious Right: that place where Don Brash came to such grief in the 2005 General Election; that place from which Mr Key extracted National’s electability by throwing his party’s support behind the anti-smacking bill in 2007.

Any embrace of the Religious Right would provoke a mass exodus of National’s more liberal supporters. The party might inherit the nearly 60,000 electors who voted Conservative, but it would likely lose twice that number to Labour and the Greens.

If moving further to the Right offers National few, if any, advantages; what about a move to the Left? Much of Mr Key’s first term success is attributable to his decision to bring the Maori Party into his government. Like his very public repudiation of the Religious Right, the National Leaders embrace of the Maori Party silenced the howling dogs of Orewa who, like their evangelical brethren, posed a deadly threat to National’s carefully constructed image of moderation.

But while the embrace of the Maori Party has brought only good to National, to the Maori Party itself it has brought only division and decline. Though the loyalty of its three remaining MPs may be shored up with the perquisites of ministerial office, the party will almost certainly expire as a viable electoral force before the 2014 election.

Which leaves only the Greens as a potential National Party running mate in elections to come. But is this, the ultimate fantasy of the Right’s urban liberals, a practical proposition? Or, would it lead to the fracturing of both parties’ electoral bases?

Reaching out to the Greens would induce both rage and panic among National’s rural and provincial supporters. The offer of anything more substantial than an anodyne “Memorandum of Understanding” would immediately set off wild drumming in the heartland for the establishment of a “Country Party”. In the deep blue suburbs of metropolitan New Zealand such an unthinkable misalliance would pump lungfuls of desperately needed oxygen into the barely breathing body of the Act Party. And with Winston Peters hastening to set up refugee camps in NZ First, National would be faced with imminent disintegration.

And always, over National’s shoulder looms the spectre of New Zealand’s second largest party. No, not Labour, but the party of the one million Kiwis who chose not to vote at all in 2011. It is among these voters that the missionaries of the opposition parties will be moving ceaselessly for the next three years: cajoling them; flattering them; and wooing them back to the ballot-box.

How many of them, I wonder, are National voters?

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 13 December 2011.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Sky Is Not The Limit: Restoring Public Media

Searching For A New Signal: The restoration of genuine public broadcasting - and the reinvigoration of New Zealand democracy - could begin with the nationalisation of the Sky Television Network.

WHILE THE LAW COMMISSION’s latest Issues Paper has raised a number of important questions about how best to regulate the content of the news media, there is much less interest in discussing news media ownership. The political class, in particular, tends to run a mile from such discussions. The extraordinary domination of the New Zealand media market by just a handful of overseas-owned media conglomerates is one of those things that polite politicians simply do not discuss.

The implications of foreign media ownership for the quality of New Zealand democracy are, however, substantial. The maximisation of profit, unconstrained by even a residual sense of national responsibility, can only lead to the relentless downgrading of journalistic standards and the elevation of entertainment over news values. Intellectually taxing and culturally challenging media products are increasingly relegated to niche markets and the steady dumbing-down of the mass media’s bill-of-fare continues apace.

The question which politicians of the Left should be asking themselves is a simple one: ‘Do dumbed-down consumers make better, or worse, democratic decisions than well-informed citizens?’ And if they concede that an ignorant population is incompatible with an effective democracy, then what do they propose to do about foreign control of the New Zealand news media? In particular, what do they propose to do about the growing domination of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky Television Network?

Shortly before the General Election a senior media entrepreneur told me that within two years Sky would find itself in exactly the same position as the old, state-owned NZBC: exerting something perilously close to monopoly control over New Zealand broadcasting. With a friendly government willing to look the other way, Sky may soon be in a position to either drive out or absorb what remains of its on-screen competition. This country’s extensive cross-media ownership could also see Sky acquiring most of New Zealand’s radio audiences as a sort of broadcasting by-catch. Complaints about anti-competitive behaviour would be answered by pointing to the existence of the isolated, under-staffed and politically beleaguered state-owned broadcasting system.

A foreign-owned, privately controlled broadcasting network occupying a near-monopoly position within the New Zealand media market should be anathema to Labour, Green, NZ First and Mana politicians. Together, these parties of the Centre Left should take serious thought as to how the growing power of the Sky Television Network might be constrained, and public broadcasting restored to its former status as the prime guarantor of a well-informed and actively engaged democratic citizenry.

In my view, the most successful re-nationalisation strategy would involve a two-pronged regulatory thrust at the core of Sky’s profitability. The first thrust would involve passing a law limiting the amount of foreign share-holding in any New Zealand television network to ten percent. This would require a massive sell-off of foreign-owned shares – sharply depressing their value. Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand could then be furnished with sufficient funds to acquire these shares on the public’s behalf. At the same time legislation would be introduced to Parliament requiring all existing networks to re-apply for a broadcasting licence. These would only be issued if the owners undertook to offer their viewers and listeners a comprehensive news and current-affairs service, and were ready to commission a generous quantity of local drama, documentary, children’s and ethnically-oriented programmes. The high cost of these licencing requirements would further depress the value of Sky’s shares, greatly facilitating their purchase by the state-owned broadcasters.

It would, of course, still be in the interests of the main content providers to sell their product to the new state-owned Pay-TV network. It’s monopsonistic (look it up!) position in the New Zealand market would, however, allow it to purchase that content at a significantly lower price. The subscription-price would be reduced accordingly (but not set so low that the public-service requirements of the State Broadcasters’ free-to-air programming could not be assured of a generous subsidy).

The Right will, naturally, protest loudly at such a policy. Dire warnings will be issued about the “sovietisation” of the New Zealand media, and the grave threats this policy would pose to our democratic way of life. They are, of course, the same people who cheered when the National Government of Jim Bolger legislated away the rights of hundreds of thousands of New Zealand workers with the Employment Contracts Act. And they will no doubt cheer again when, over the objections of nearly three-quarters of the population, our state-owned energy companies are “partially” privatised. They are also the people who have remained suspiciously silent as the democracy they so loudly claim to prize has been consistently undermined and weakened by the dumbed-down programming of the market-driven news media.

In his book The Economics of Feasible Socialism, Alexander Nove wrote of nationalisation:

The original notion was that nationalization would achieve three objectives. One was to dispossess the big capitalists. The second was to divert the profits from private appropriation to the public purse. Thirdly, the nationalized sector would serve the public good rather than try to make private profits ...To these objectives some (but not all) would add some sort of workers’ control, the accountability of management to employees.

Having seen what the “big capitalists” have done, and are continuing to do, to our world, policies directed towards refilling the “public purse”, upholding the “public good”, and increasing the “accountability of management”, recommend themselves as not only well worth a second look – but a second go.

And rest assured, Sky is not the limit. 

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Waitakere Woman Beats "Waitakere Man"

Waitakere's Choice: Congratulations Carmel! You and Labour were right - and I was wrong.

CONGRATULATIONS CARMEL SEPULONI! There can be no greater riposte to the pronouncements of a political commentator than to actually do what he says cannot be done.

In a Bowalley Road posting on 10 March 2010 entitled “Outrageous Choices” I stated that:

The clear goal facing Labour in Waitakere was to choose a candidate who can beat Paula Bennett. That candidate needed to be: female, have a solid working-class background (to which, at some point, she had added a tertiary qualification) be either Pakeha or Maori (or, ideally, a mixture of both) and, most importantly, be capable of “talking shit” with the same cheeky facility as the incumbent. Think Outrageous Fortune meets Erin Brocovitch.

A healthy Labour Party would have women like that lining up for the Waitakere seat. That it has ended up selecting a candidate who would, quite frankly, have been much more usefully matched against National’s Sam Lotu-liga in Maungakiekie (where I also happen to think Labour has made a wrong choice) speaks volumes.

Well, by winning Waitakere (albeit with just 11 votes to spare) Ms Sepuloni has vindicated Labour’s choice and proven that Paula Bennett isn’t the only one with a facility for “talking shit”.

Well done, Carmel. The Crow is in preparation. (Dammit – but I hate those feathers!)

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Staying Ahead Of The Power Curve

Joint Take-Off: Only by joining forces can David Shearer and David Cunliffe free themselves from the tutelage of Labour's "Spent Forces". Shearer alone will be beholden to them. And Cunliffe alone will be undermined by them. Only together can Shearer and Cunliffe isolate and disarm Labour's Old Guard. Only by working together can the forces of reform stay ahead of the power curve.

THERE’S A SCENE in the movie Missing where Captain Ray Tower, the US Naval Intelligence officer, gives Beth, the leftist hero’s girlfriend, a piece of advice.

“You gotta learn to stay ahead of the power curve, kid. You know what I mean? It's an old aircraft carrier term. If a pilot gets ahead of the power curve and something happens, then he can pull up and away. But if he falls behind the power curve and something happens, then it's adios. You gotta stay ahead of the power curve, kid.”

By now David Cunliffe will have a pretty good idea of whether he’s ahead of, or behind, the power curve that’s about to determine the Labour leadership. My guess is, he’s behind. My guess is David Shearer will, by the time you read this, have enough support to win the caucus vote on Tuesday.

If Mr Cunliffe remains on his present course, then, in the words of Captain Tower, “it’s adios” to his leadership hopes. He will have fallen behind the power curve.

But, there’s still a way Mr Cunliffe’s fighter plane can clear the aircraft carrier’s deck. Because, from the moment David Parker abandoned the race and released his supporters, Mr Shearer has also been behind the power curve. If Mr Shearer wants to get ahead of the power curve, then he’s going to need Mr Cunliffe.

How can this be? How can Mr Shearer be poised to become Labour’s leader and yet lack the power to get his plane off the flight deck? The answer lies in the composition of Mr Shearer’s support.

When he, almost casually, added his name to the list of leadership candidates on 29 November, I really don’t think Mr Shearer had much of a game plan beyond signalling to his colleagues that, at some point, but probably not this point, he might be considered for the top job. What he failed to grasp was that by adding his own candidacy to the leadership contest he’d unwittingly strengthened the hand of Mr Cunliffe’s enemies.

Prior to Mr Shearer’s announcement, the “Anyone But Cunliffe” (ABC) clique had been forced to place all their hopes in Mr Parker. But, as the three-Davids encounter on TVNZ’s Close-Up cruelly exposed, Mr Parker was never going to beat Mr Cunliffe. Mr Shearer, on the other hand, looked like a winner.

Almost overnight, Mr Parker found himself abandoned by his erstwhile backers. Even Grant Robertson, the man Mr Parker had nominated as his preferred Deputy, snuck off to “Camp Shearer”. Stricken, Mr Parker withdrew from the race and threw his support behind Mr Shearer.

Now Mr Shearer was a serious contender, but his new front-runner status came at a price. Like David Lange before him, he was no longer his own man. Labour’s spent forces, the MPs epitomised by the politically exhausted figure of Trevor Mallard, were now wrapped around Mr Shearer like Supplejack around a Totara. And they were clinging to him for only one reason: survival. Their arch-enemy, Mr Cunliffe, had long ago read their use-by dates. That’s why the ABC’s couldn’t allow him to win.

But, if Mr Cunliffe cannot defeat Mr Shearer, he can, at least, defeat Mr Shearer’s backers. A rejuvenated, restructured, or, to borrow Labour stalwart, Jordan Carter’s, term, “refounded” Labour Party cannot be created by a glove-puppet.

If Mr Cunliffe cannot beat Mr Shearer, then he should, over the next 72 hours, think very seriously about joining him. It’s not too late for the best qualified candidate to contact the most popular candidate; set up a meeting; and make a deal. Mr Key and Mr English did it – why not Mr Shearer and Mr Cunliffe?

Together, they’ve more than enough strength to tear off and make a bonfire of all that parasitic caucus Supplejack. Together, they could bend the arc of history towards a Labour victory. Together, a new power curve could hurl their fighters skyward – heading straight for the National fleet.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 December 2011.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Ripping-Up The Consensus

Re-focusing On The Right: The Confidence and Supply Agreement signed between Act and National signals the Right's intention to rip-up the "Labour-lite" consensus that guaranteed John Key's re-election. Neoliberalism With a Human Face is about to be replaced by Neoliberalism Without a Human Heart. The resulting political crisis could easily become the Left's opportunity.

WELL, NOW WE KNOW. For more than three years political commentators have speculated and quarrelled about National’s identity. Was John Key’s rise evidence of a return to the conservative pragmatism of the 1960s? Or, was this government’s relatively unadventurous first term merely the necessary hiatus between Helen Clark’s and Michael Cullen’s Neoliberalism With a Human Face and the renewed onset of Neoliberalism Without a Human Heart?

The confidence-and-supply agreement negotiated between National and Act provides us with an emphatic answer to that question. Confronted with a “coalition partner” incapable of garnering more than 20,000 votes nationwide, or winning a seat without assistance, Key’s National Party arrived at the negotiating table without obligation. Indeed, it was John Banks who was entirely obligated to John Key – without whose intervention the Act Party would’ve ceased to exist as a parliamentary player. Had they been of a mind to do so, National’s negotiators could have simply shoved a C&S agreement in front of Banks and told him to: “Say ‘Thank-you’ and sign here.”

That National’s negotiators walked out of the room with a C&S agreement mandating a Tax-Payers’ Bill of Rights (TABOR) and the establishment of Charter Schools owed nothing to Banks' skill as a wheeler-dealer, and everything to a sophisticated strategic understanding between Catherine Issacs, John Key and Stephen Joyce. The latter’s pragmatism dictates that Key should hold on to his moderate persona for as long as he can by attempting to blame Act for the National-led Government’s sharp turn to the Right. Issacs, meanwhile, will take advantage of the inevitable disintegration of the “Brash Bloc” to carve out a new niche for the Act Party.

The “Brash Bloc” was Joyce’s shrewd adaptation of Labour’s long-established “No Enemies to the Left” strategy. Between 2002 and 2008 National’s key objective was to re-absorb the voters of the Right into a single, massive bloc of conservative support, eliminating or hopelessly marginalising every other party bidding for right-wing votes. The ultimate goal was a genuine majority of the Party Votes cast and the re-birth of National as “the natural party of government”.

Well, it was a case of “close, but no cigar” – hence the decision to tear up the “Labour-lite” consensus of 2008-2011, break up the Brash Bloc, and allow Act to reconstruct itself as the ideologically-driven, vanguard party it should always have been (and which Catherine Issacs has been trying to build for the past seven years). The Brash Bloc was worth preserving while there was still some hope of expanding it with the remnants of New Zealand First. But Winston Peters' dogged refusal to accept his 2008 defeat, coupled with the remarkable tenacity of the NZ First Party itself, saw National’s high-tide crest where, in the sixty years since 1951, it has always crested – at just under 48 percent.

Some commentators have suggested that, faced with this situation, National should break to the Left and position itself as a potential coalition partner for the Green’s. To follow this strategy, however, National would have to concede a far larger share of the conservative vote to Act and NZ First, leaving it dangerously vulnerable to a strong leftward push from the Green’s. More worryingly, the notion that National was at the mercy of a radical, farmer-unfriendly, social-ecologist party could easily lead to the formation of a “heartland” country party based in rural and provincial New Zealand. The risk, then, would be the coming together of a conservative bloc large enough to contemplate governing without a by-now-limbless National rump.

Strategically-speaking, National has run out of “soft” options. Saddled with the proportional MMP electoral system, and having reached the outer limits of its voter support, it will be obliged to abandon its moderate persona and strike out boldly to the Right. With Act’s capacity to mask this rightward shift extremely limited, the public’s perception of National will likely undergo a sea-change, causing the polls to register a steadily rising level of support for the opposition parties.

The Government’s only real hope of re-election at this point will be to manufacture the sort of crisis that causes people to seek refuge under conservatism's umbrella. Some sort of cultural and/or environmental provocation seems the most likely: something to provoke Maori, the social-liberals and/or the environmentalists to actions which exceed the bounds of “mainstream” tolerance. If they were really clever, the Right’s strategists would be looking for something that could not only incite extra-parliamentary protest, but a sharpening of the ideological tensions within the opposition parties. Chaos on the streets and conflict in the ranks of the Government’s opponents might just be enough to snatch a tactical triumph from the jaws of strategic defeat.

The onus is thus placed upon the parties of the Centre and Left to anticipate National’s tactics and use the next few months to formulate a decisive break with the current economic and political orthodoxy. The emergence of a de facto progressive programme, based on the opposition parties’ firm and final rejection of the neoliberal project and their embrace of emerging policy options like the Universal Basic Income and the Financial Transactions Tax awaits only the political will to write it down. This emerging progressive coalition should also evince a willingness to think the unthinkable by openly discussing such taboo subjects as the restoration of universal union membership and the renationalisation of privatised industries.

If National’s only viable strategic option is the ripping-up of the economic and political consensus that won John Key his second term, then the Left would be foolish indeed not to take full advantage of the ideological space his radical change of direction is bound to open up. In the finest dialectical fashion, the Government’s dwindling strategic and tactical options are multiplying the Opposition’s opportunities for bold and original thinking.

The same circumstances which now constrain the Right can offer hope and freedom to the Left; providing only that it possesses both the wit and the courage to use them.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Let Shearer Build It - And They will Come

A Light In The Darkness Of Defeat: The conventionally wise would say that David Cunliffe, as the Labour politician best qualified to guide his party to victory in 2011, should become its leader. Except that it was the very same conventional wisdom that persuaded Helen Clark to annoint Phil Goff in 2008. After its most crushing defeat in more than 80 years, perhaps it's time for Labour to ignore the conventionally wise and take a risk - on David Shearer.

IT HAS TO BE DAVID SHEARER. A week from today, the 34 members of Labour’s caucus must reject the known quantity that is David Cunliffe and take a risk on the new and untested Mr Shearer. Why? Because “known quantities” are not what New Zealand needs.

Labour is a “known quantity”: a known quantity which three out of every four New Zealand voters decisively rejected on 26 November. Choosing the smooth-talking Fulbright scholar over the rough-hewn UN trouble-shooter would be spitting in the face of that electoral judgement. It would be an admission that Labour is only interested in returning, as quickly as possible, to the politics of business-as-usual.

But, business-as-usual is National’s game. Labour cannot beat John Key by playing on his field and according to his rules. The party needs a new set of rules and a new field.

But, before laying-out that field, a great many entrenched interests must be cleared away. In five years’ time, Labour, New Zealand’s oldest political party, will celebrate its centenary. In 95 years, a vessel’s hull acquires many barnacles. It’s long past the time that the good ship Labour was hauled up on to the hard and had its bottom scraped.

“[T]he Labour Party has just become too focused on process”, Mr Shearer told The Nation’s Sean Plunket on 3 December. “We end up going to meetings where we talk about process, and it hasn’t become a contest of ideas, of really open ideas, and therefore it’s become boring, and people join political parties because they want to have this contest, they want to argue stuff together and they want to see good stuff moving forward, and I think we’ve lost that, and I think we’ve lost some of our good thinkers.”

Re-constructing the Labour Party, so that it may once again become a forum in which ideas can be openly argued and contested, would be a genuinely radical political act. It would mean stripping-out the numerous “Sector Groups” from Labour’s Constitution, and moving the central policy debates out of the MP-dominated Policy Committees and returning them to the floor of the party’s annual conference. Allowing the votes of Labour’s rank-and-file delegates to once again set the party’s course.

That would be risky. The speeches of ordinary rank-and-file delegates have the potential to severely embarrass the party hierarchy. “Unenlightened” delegates might advocate policies that offend the socially liberal sensibilities of the infamous “Bowen Triangle”. The news media would undoubtedly zero-in on dissenters and single-issue zealots, and the whole edifice of “professional” media management (or should that be manipulation) might come crashing down. But, at least the policy that emerged from the “really open contest of ideas” that David Shearer is seeking would be recognisably “popular” – in the sense of arising from the people – and would attract many more votes than the endlessly refined products of the policy elites.

Liberating Labour from the tutelage of its interest groups would also mean doing away with the present system of trade union affiliation. A new form of affiliation: providing for like-minded organisations to send observers to party gatherings, and allowing them to contribute to – but not vote – in its debates and elections, should be introduced.

Trade unions wishing to move beyond advocacy to full-scale deliberation should encourage their members to take out ordinary party membership. The image of union affiliation which I still retain from my years in the Labour Party is of a single union secretary collecting all of the ballot papers allocated to his affiliated union, filling them in himself, and stuffing every single one into the ballot-box on behalf of a candidate his members had never been given the opportunity to either endorse or reject.

It’s that sort of behaviour which has persuaded so many rank-and-filers to give up in disgust. And, as ordinary membership of the party has dwindled, the power of the affiliated unions has grown, until the point was reached where the abomination that was the 2011 Labour Party List became inevitable.

If the 2011 election result hasn’t convinced Labour’s caucus that these sort of root-and-branch reforms of the party are urgent and essential, then I strongly suspect David Cunliffe will be the next leader; and that, in eighteen months’ time, we’ll end up going through the same exercise all over again – with a new set of contenders.

“I’ve got a bit of freedom to talk to you frankly,” David Shearer told the Tertiary Education Conference on 28 November, “because [the election result] was a message for me and for my colleagues in Labour that we need to change. We didn’t emerge as the party voicing the dreams and aspirations of New Zealanders.”

In David Shearer Labour has already found its Kevin Costner. If the caucus will only let him build Kiwi voters a new “field of dreams” – they will come.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 6 December 2011.