Chris Trotter: Labour 'a seething cauldron of thwarted ambitions, petty jealousies and unresolved grievances'

Labour leader Andrew Little speaks during the 2017 budget presentation at Parliament on May 25.
Hagen Hopkins

Labour leader Andrew Little speaks during the 2017 budget presentation at Parliament on May 25.

OPINION: "Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in." Michael Corleone's oft-quoted protest from The Godfather Part III could just as easily have escaped the lips of Andrew Little.

The New Zealand Labour Party, like the New York Mafia, is a seething cauldron of thwarted ambitions, petty jealousies and unresolved grievances. It takes a Godfather (or Godmother) of exceptional strength and ruthlessness to keep all that bad feeling under control and out of sight. Peter Fraser and Norman Kirk could do it. So could Helen Clark. For a while, Little appeared to be getting the hang of it. Such optimism now seems misplaced.

Why is the Labour Party so fractious? So willing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? The answer lies in the huge discrepancy between what the Labour Party was supposed to be, and what it has actually become.

The first Labour prime minister, Michael Savage, looks over Helen Clark's shoulder in 2004. Chris Trotter says a Labour ...

The first Labour prime minister, Michael Savage, looks over Helen Clark's shoulder in 2004. Chris Trotter says a Labour leader needs to be a Godfather (or Godmother) of exceptional strength and ruthlessness.

Just consider the following words – spoken by Labour's first parliamentary leader, Harry Holland, during his maiden speech to the House of Representatives in 1919:

"We of the Labour Party come to endeavour to effect a change of classes at the fountain of power. We come proclaiming boldly and fearlessly the Socialist objective of the Labour movement throughout New Zealand; and we make no secret of the fact that we seek to rebuild society on a basis in which work and not wealth will be the measure of a man's worth."


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These were revolutionary sentiments, which, if repeated outside the House, would very likely have seen Holland charged with sedition. As such, they clearly identified Labour as the party of disruption; the party of discontinuity; the party that everyone yearning to change the status quo could get behind.

And get behind it they did. Just 16 years after Holland's maiden speech Labour became the government.

Except that the government Labour formed was very far from being revolutionary (even if an awful lot of New Zealanders believed it really was committed to ushering-in the Red Dawn). By election night 1935, the avuncular Mickey Savage had already spent the three years since Holland's death methodically smoothing-off the sharper edges of Labour's "Socialist objective".

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Now that the ballots had been counted there was a Cabinet to form, portfolios to allocate, angry rivals to subdue and disappointed friends to placate. There was a civil service to be reconciled with the political party it disdained. Now, Savage's newly-elected Labour government had to work out how to rebuild capitalist society – without first knocking it down.

As the late Bruce Jesson (a political analyst of no mean ability) shrewdly remarked: "The National Party knows how to govern for capitalists; but only Labour knows how to govern for Capitalism."

It's the paradox that explains Labour's perpetual state of internal distress. Like the Mafia, all social-democratic governments are obliged to present themselves to their communities as faithful friends and protectors (Godfathers!) even as they organise and grow fat off the very activities that are tearing those communities apart.

The trick, of course, is to accentuate the former while drawing a hefty veil over the latter. The corrupt union leader brags to his members about extorting higher wages from their cowering bosses. He does not boast about emptying the Union Pension Fund in return for Mafia muscle.

Loyal Labour voters will balk at this Mafia analogy. The very idea that social-democracy involves giving with one hand, while taking with the other, will strike them as outrageous. But this kind of brute transactional politics has always come naturally to the trade unions out of which Labour grew – and working-class voters expect no less. If Capitalism cannot be taken down, then, at the very least, it should be shaken down.

Take this too far, of course, and the bosses begin enlisting muscle of their own. When that happens Labour makes a point of being "neither for, nor against" the targets of employer violence. Voters need to understand that this sort of treachery isn't personal – it's just politics.

Labour's problem in the 1980s was exactly the same as the Mafia's. The boss-class finally decided to stop paying. Like the big crime families, the trade unions were taken down. Deprived of their working-class muscle, Labour in New Zealand, and social-democrats all around the world, had little option but to go straight and turn legit. Now it is Capitalism they are pledged to building up.

The problem, of course, is that the capitalists already have their own political party. Accordingly, Labour's current electoral strategy seems to involve: waiting until the National Party runs out of puff, and then presenting itself to New Zealand Capitalism as a temporary alternative government while the exhausted Nats get their breath back.

Andrew Little may dream of getting out of this Fake Labour Party, but his dysfunctional political family will always pull him back in.

 - Stuff


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