Labour needs open debate

David Shearer's decision to muzzle his rival, David Cunliffe, is deeply worrying.

Right now, there's nothing Labour needs more than an open debate about its future.

That its leader and the coterie of courtiers with which he has surrounded himself were willing to go to the extraordinary lengths of preventing Labour's spokesperson on economic development from appearing on TV3's The Nation reveals how ruthlessly Shearer's faction intends to stifle all dissent.

Shearer's petty, politically self-destructive decision can only be interpreted as Cunliffe's punishment for delivering a speech to his New Lynn electorate's women's branch highly critical of Labour's fraught, 25-year association with neo- liberal economics.

Clearly, the disparity between the Labour leader's three uninspiring "positioning" speeches, and the compellingly radical content of Cunliffe's April 29 address, had rankled.

In spite of Cunliffe seeking - and receiving - a written guarantee from The Nation's producer, stipulating that TV3 political editor Duncan Garner's line of questioning would be confined to economic issues, Shearer's objections persisted. Cunliffe had to make himself unavailable.

Astounded by this refusal, Garner did some digging and discovered Cunliffe had been on the receiving end of a sustained and bitter attack from Shearer and his supporters at the caucus meeting of Tuesday, May 8.

According to Garner, Cunliffe's critics described his speech as "stupid and foolish". Labour's "Leadership Group", advised of The Nation's invitation, then weighed the issue and decided Cunliffe should not appear. The Nation failed to change their minds.

This sort of overt factional squabbling has not been seen in the Labour Party for more than 15 years. Throughout Helen Clark's record-breaking reign as leader, open dissent was almost always cast as treason.

Such limited ideological debate as did occur was hidden deep down in the party's organisational bowels, far from the public gaze.

It was a political style more suited to breeding courtiers than comrades, and Clark's sudden departure, coupled with the effective coronation of her successor, gave the Labour Party no serious opportunity to decompress. Now it appears to have the bends.

Labour's full recovery as a vibrant, creative and politically relevant organisation cannot be secured except by a radical opening-up of the party. Interestingly, recent reports about Labour's organisational restructuring exercise suggest this may be happening.

The party's constitutional review committee is rumoured to have recommended that rank-and-file members be given a deliberative voice in the choice of party leader, as well as an effective veto over sudden, caucus-inspired, leadership spills.

Unsurprisingly, it is also rumoured that Labour's caucus is doing all it can to prevent such changes coming into immediate effect. The party's annual conference in November promises to be a bloody affair.

Courtiers make poor campaigners. As Game of Thrones addicts know, power is not always to be found among the wielders of swords.

As often as not it lies in the hands of eunuchs and whoremasters: the manipulators, tricksters and casters-of-shadows who keep their daggers hidden and seldom venture beyond the palace gates.

Which is why Shearer's muzzling of Cunliffe is so very worrying. Seldom has Labour been blessed with two such impressive champions.

Both men should welcome the open and principled debate needed to set a new course for the party: one suited to the powerful currents in which New Zealand (and the rest of the world) now find themselves.

It's also needed to ensure Labour is not secretly corrupted - as it was in the early-1980s - by a "Leadership Group" only too willing to promise one thing and deliver its opposite.

If Shearer believes the country will be best served by turning the Ship of State's tiller hard to starboard, then let him say so, and let him and his faction spell out clearly what the policy implications of such a rightward shift would be.

Cunliffe has made it clear that he believes a sharp leftward turn to be in order. How exhilarating and liberating it would be, not simply for the Labour Party, but for the whole country, to see this debate played out.

How depressing, therefore, to learn that, instead of welcoming Cunliffe's offering, his jealous courtier colleagues described it as "stupid and foolish".

In those words we hear not only the echoes of Clarkian caution, but also, perhaps, the treacherous whispers of a new breed of neo- liberal hijackers. Rogernomes Redux, who, like their predecessors, won't show their policy hands until it's too late for the party - and the country - to stop them.

One would like to believe that, once bitten, New Zealanders would be twice shy, and yet the editorials and commentaries hailing Shearer's leadership abilities multiply.

And surely it's instructive that nearly all of Shearer's recent applause is coming from the Right.

The Press