The Revolution Concluded: At the end of every revolutionary period a figure arises who promises to restore order and stability. The most famous example of this historical type is Napoleon Bonaparte. One hesitates to describe Andrew Little as Labour’s Napoleon, but what cannot be disputed is the eagerness with which both the membership and the caucus responded to his calls for unity, focus and discipline, and to his passionate reaffirmation of Labour’s radical political mission.
LABOUR’S annual conference in Palmerston North concluded with a rip-roaring speech from Andrew Little – and no controversy. How much responsibility for the absence of negative headlines should be attributed to the party’s decision to exclude the news media from most of the conference proceedings is unclear. Behind those closed doors there may have been a party seething with discontent. But, the authorised version, of a rather chastened party, eager to swing-in behind its new leader and his red-letter promises, is almost certainly genuine.
If so, then it would seem that the “revolution on the conference floor” that first came to the public’s attention back in 2012 has run its course. Three years ago there was no mistaking the belligerent mood of conference delegates. They were still furious that, in 2011, the parliamentary caucus had passed over their preferred candidate for party leader, David Cunliffe, in favour of David Shearer. That fury fuelled their dramatic decision to subject future leadership contenders to a party-wide ballot. How the delegates cheered when union organiser, Len Richards, declared: “Today’s the day we take our party back!”
Richards’ boast was proved correct less than a year later when Shearer threw in the towel and the party membership elected David Cunliffe as leader, on the first ballot, and in the teeth of bitter caucus opposition.
But, Cunliffe’s dismal performance as party leader throughout 2014, culminating in Labour’s catastrophic election defeat, left thousands of demoralised and uncertain party members in its wake. The narrowness of Andrew Little’s victory over his rival, Grant Robertson (50.52 percent – 49.48 percent, on the third ballot) spoke eloquently of just how uncertain the membership felt about the party’s future direction.
One year on, in Palmerston North, that uncertainty had vanished. Twelve months of steady leadership from Andrew Little has settled down both the caucus and the members, to the point where, if the tweets emerging from the conference are anything to go by, both sides can now give a passable impression of actually liking one another. Pep talks from Hawkes Bay MP, Stuart Nash, and the party president, Professor Nigel Haworth, on the need for increased unity and discipline have clearly had their effect.
So, too, have the party’s years of internal strife.
As any student of the history of revolutions will attest, the revolutionary process unfolds in three, clearly discernible, phases. First there is the moment of revolt, when the people rise as one against the ancien regime. Dickens, in his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, called this “the Spring of Hope”. Once the old order has fallen, however, the revolutionaries rapidly fall out over the vexed question of what should take its place. It is during this phase that the Revolution “devours its own children”. Finally, with most of the revolutionaries dead, and the people exhausted by years of terror and upheaval, a figure arises who promises to restore order and stability. The most famous example of this historical type is Napoleon Bonaparte: someone with both the ability and the ruthlessness to bring the Revolution to an end.
Napoleon Bonaparte: Someone with both the ability and the ruthlessness to bring the Revolution to an end.
One hesitates to describe Andrew Little as Labour’s Napoleon, but what cannot be disputed is the eagerness with which both the membership and the caucus responded to his calls for unity, focus and discipline, and to his passionate reaffirmation of Labour’s radical political mission.
Sheer exhaustion may also explain the New Zealand Labour Party’s curiously subdued reaction to the rank-and-file revolution that installed Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party. It wasn’t that the Kiwis were all secret Blairites, more a matter of New Zealand Labour having “been there, done that, sold the T-shirts – lost the election!”
In restoring order and stability, Little has been quietly, but very ably, assisted by Labour’s President, Professor Nigel Haworth. As delegate Stephanie Rodgers tweeted from the conference on Saturday afternoon: “Cries of mock outrage as it’s announced we’ve wrapped up a policy discussion with time to spare.” Anyone with the slightest experience of Labour conferences will grasp the enormity of that achievement – testimony to the quiet authority and gentle humour of Haworth in the Chair.
And just as Napoleon’s coup d’état consolidated and entrenched the French Revolution’s achievements, Little’s keynote speech to conference delegates confirmed, in the most dramatic fashion, that Labour’s democratic-socialist aims and objectives, so unequivocally restated by the 2012 “revolution on the conference floor”, are now inscribed in the programmatic bedrock of the party’s platform.
The policies mandating a capital gains tax and raising the retirement age to 67, both of which aggrieved a large number of ordinary members, have been quietly discarded. Policies attacking poverty, homelessness and unemployment have taken their place.
Without this gesture of solidarity from the caucus to the rank-and-file, this weekend’s ‘Peace of Palmerston North’ could never have been more than a temporary ceasefire.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 November 2015.