Fortune-cookie strategy and the Labour leadership

datePosted on 23:34, April 27th, 2012 by Lew

Since at least the mid-20th Century it has been fashionable in our culture to adopt postures derived from Asian martial manuals — most notably Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings — in diverse civilian contexts including business, and politics.* There is much to recommend in these texts, but too often they are poorly understood and are reduced to fortune-cookie wisdom, lazy magical thinking of the sort that’s only good enough to bamboozle those who are susceptible to such things. Sun Tzu in particular is a rich mine of sage-sounding aphorisms, and I have indulged in quoting him at times. But it is no get-wise-quick scheme; it’s like a cargo-cult.**

While I have no direct knowledge of the extent to which these ideas hold sway within the New Zealand Labour party, their present strategy bears considerable resemblance to this sort of magical thinking. I’ll cover two specific points brought to light by Claire Trevett’s recent article on the goings-on in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition.

Attitude of No Attitude

Attitude is the spirit of awaiting an attack. … I dislike the defensive spirit known as “attitude”. Therefore, in my Way, there is something called “Attitude-No Attitude”. (Musashi, The Wind Book)

This is the most obvious manifestation of magical thinking: that an official posture of David Shearer “staying above the fray” will necessarily confer a non-politician or statesmanlike aura upon him. Of course, such an attitude can have this effect, but whether or not it does in a given situation is not such a simple matter. Such a strategy could have worked for Shearer, given the right people and the right circumstances, but the right people and circumstances were not present. So the result has been a Labour-party-sized hole in the NZ opposition narrative for most of the past four months.

This hole is not entirely of Labour’s own creation — Shearer took the leadership just before the holidays, and the Ports of Auckland lockout took place within the blessed month between Christmas and Wellington Anniversary where most reasonable New Zealanders will hear nothing of politics. Engaging too strongly with the lockout issue risked alienating the very people Shearer was asking to give him a chance. But the period of inaction has lasted well beyond the silly season, and although some of the Labour caucus have been beavering away, people have not noticed. They have been waiting for the leader, and the leader has not been leading.

I can see the logic: “when we zig, people complain we should have zagged; when we zag, it turns out we should have zigged. Let’s hold steady, bide our time, and become at one with the Universe. At least that way we can guarantee there will be no blunders, and the wheels are bound to fall off this Tory bus sooner or later.” But attitude-no attitude is not merely a damage-mitigation strategy. It is effortlessness, not lassitude. It is creating opportunities to strike, not awaiting them. The opportunities have presented themselves — industrial relations, charter schools, Treasury figures, paid parental leave and the veto, others — and the only time Labour has gotten any traction is with regard to ACC (not of their making), and only then by getting sued by a Cabinet minister!

The past four months have been what another lot of military jargon would refer to as “target-rich”, and Labour largely refused to take advantage of it. Either a zig or a zag would have been preferable to an OM.

The Sovereign and the General

Sun Tzu said: In war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign, collects his army and concentrates his forces … There are roads which must not be followed, armies which must be not attacked, towns which must not be besieged, positions which must not be contested, commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed. (Sun Tzu, Variation in Tactics)

The “above the fray” strategy noted in Trevett’s article suggests an attempt by Nash and Pagani to position David Shearer as a “Sovereign” — someone who issues orders that are interpreted and then executed by his “generals”, in cabinet and the staff (led by Nash and Pagani.***) Conversely, the strategy said to have been argued by Fran Mold seems to be to position Shearer more as a general, leading from the front.

Both can work, and both do work in the present NZ parliamentary context. But again, the problem with this framing is that it is simplistic — the leader of a Labour movement, as Shearer referred to the party upon attaining the leadership, cannot be above and aloof from the movement, he must be down in it; but he must not lose sight of the bigger picture. It is a near-impossible job and he must own it. He must determine the balance between the various roles that best suits his own strengths, and those of his cabinet and advisors. He cannot do all of it, but how it is distributed must be congruent.

This last — congruence — is crucial. Its absence is what makes a strategy cargo-cultish. To be strategically successful, whatever David Shearer does must be authentic to David Shearer and to the political narrative that he has cultivated; it must not be some get-popular-quick scheme thought up by clever bastards in expensive suits, it has to be his. That it has required such effort to maintain Shearer’s studied aloofness is a strong indication that it is not an authentic strategy, but a pose struck for dramatic effect, and therefore worthless. Bouncing from cloud to cloud, as good as the strategy of aping Key might have seemed on paper, has not rung true because David Shearer is not Teflon John.

One of the most important tasks of leadership — and Sun Tzu goes on and on about this as well, but I’ll spare you — is to surround oneself with good people, and people suited to their tasks. It is also crucial that a leader has the strength of will to maintain his own strategic direction, and this is doubly true of Shearer, who was elected leader on the claim that he was beholden to no-one. His performance at these tasks has been very poor. It may be that he was drawing from a shallow pool of talent, it may be that he was continuing the network of patronage, it may simply be that he thought John Pagani was the best guy for the job — but his team failed to match Shearer’s strategy of action to the narrative he has built around his leadership, and ultimately that’s his responsibility.

So what now? It’s beyond me. And so as not to provide further opportunities to take an inauthentic path, I’ll refrain from giving any sort of detailed advice, beyond “find your own damned way, choose good people, and avoid magical thinking”. I continue to note the irony that folks who, for years, have pooh-poohed the need for polish and presentation in politics now insist that Shearer’s inability to talk good is what’s holding him back, and even greater irony that staunch supporters of Phil Goff are now abandoning Shearer for having failed to accomplish in four months what Goff failed to accomplish in three years. I also can’t get too cut up about his alienating the old leftist revolutionary guard.

David Shearer now has an opportunity to refresh some of his underperforming staff, and that at least shows an awareness that Goff’s office did not show until much later in his term. It may yet be that he has to go; it may be that he really has no authentic vision, style or strategy, and even if he has them, if he can’t articulate them then it’s all moot. Things are not good, but there’s still plenty of time to roll him if that’s what’s needed. Patience, though not lassitude, remains a virtue.

L

* Machiavelli’s The Prince and Clausewitz’s On War are also popular, and justifiably so, though they lack that easy Orientalism of the former two.
** I have seen it persuasively argued that this sort of thing had a central part to play in both the boom and the bust of Wall Street in the 1980s.
*** While it is tempting to suggest that this was part of a Tuckeresque scheme to concentrate power with the senior staff, I think the truth is more depressingly mundane.

2 Responses to “Fortune-cookie strategy and the Labour leadership”

  1. Luc Hansen on April 28th, 2012 at 10:44

    It used to be recognized as a universal truth that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them.

    The only exception to this paradigm that I remember was the ferocious attack on Bill Rowling and Labour by Rob Muldoon – an opposition leader drawing thousands to hear him speak in a Wiri warehouse is an opposition leader winning the electoral battle. I’m not sure if the electorate would endorse that kind of politics today, although if Steven Joyce ascends the throne one day, I would watch this space!

    As regards the current leaders, neither Key nor Shearer are eloquent public speakers. Key has learned on the job, but still stumbles and mangles the English language. Like Key, Shearer will improve, but neither will ever be worthy of comparison to David Lange in this regard, so best not to try.

    And Shearer is a different political animal to Key and his predecessor: it’s clear that Shearer would be an able manager; and it may well be that the best thing the Labour MPs could do right now is hold their collective nerve and time their run.

    In the meantime, they should concentrate on developing a cohesive alternative to National’s Tina narrative and pick their battles carefully. Opportunities will arise in the next two years or so.

    Their main problem may be that the Greens have arrived at that point before them.

  2. [...] and his inability to speak clearly and unequivocally from his own position, that I touched on in my last post on this topic, was depressingly evident in this episode, and it may be that he’s still being [...]

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