Posts Tagged ‘John Pagani’

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.

Further thoughts on Team Shearer

datePosted on 01:08, December 3rd, 2011 by Lew

These things occurred to me while making my daughter’s birthday cake:*

Endorsement games continue, with a range of people from across the political spectrum still out for Shearer; including Goff’s erstwhile strategist John Pagani and that notorious Mooreite Phil Quin alongside the rest of us Tory plants. Meanwhile, David Cunliffe has the endorsement of the Young Nats, here and here. Cheap shots, but it is the Young Nats after all. When they’re not photoshopping your head onto a dictator they obviously have the hots for you.

This sudden and spontaneous outbreak of public-sphere democracy is sending Labourite dittoheads into a panic; they’re convinced it’s a trap — one so cunning they can’t see what the right has to gain from it, but it must be something. It’s like they’ve forgotten what they believe; they just read Farrar, Slater, Hooton and Odgers and believe the opposite. Tragic. Those guys are good and all, but they only have so much power because so much of the NZ left is stricken with paranoiac idiotosis.

Meanwhile Trevor Mallard has it all figured out: the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy decision to endorse Shearer is not a trick to ship Labour with an easybeat leader (or worse, a wolf in sheep’s clothing) — in fact it’s a double-bluff designed to give Labour second thoughts about choosing the obviously-best candidate. (Incidentally James Meager, formerly of the now-defunct Mydeology blog, called this on Thursday.) Someone should redo the poison scene from The Princess Bride with such rationalisations. It’s positively Kremlinesque; parallels to the well-documented phenomenon of impending-collapse paranoia within authoritarian regimes seem almost too obvious.

Nevertheless, amongst all the bogus objections, I think there are two legitimate concerns about Shearer’s potential leadership. The first I noted in the Close Up interview: his presentation is not strong. He ums, stutters and hesitates, speaks too softly and lacks cut-through. When he’s been put on the spot he has struggled. He is much better at the set-piece but that on its own is not enough. What he does have to say is often very good; he is a very perceptive listener and he has a pretty remarkable grasp on a wide range of issues. (There’s a comprehensive archive of his weekly in-depth interviews with interesting and important people on the radio here.) That having been said, our present PM is akshully not the world’s greatest public speaker, and the public may view a less-polished performance as a common touch. Whatever the case, this weakness can be overcome by training; presentation is one of the few things in politics that can really be taught. Key and Clark are both great examples.

(Incidentally, it amuses me greatly to see folk who’ve always been focused on wonkish detail and hard policy, to the stern exclusion of doing anything that might win elections, now complaining about a candidate on the grounds that he talks a bit funny.)

The second objection is a bit more substantive, and was raised separately by Anita and by Chris Trotter, and also by Audrey Young: Shearer is reputedly aligned with Damien “gaggle of gays” O’Connor, and perhaps other members of what I have previously termed the blue collars, red necks faction of Labour. Because of this, Young suggests, a Shearer-led Labour will be “a more pragmatic party, with less emphasis on gays and feminists”, or as others might say, he might mean the end of identity politics. Leaving aside the offensive dichotomy between pragmatism and support for equal rights, I don’t think this necessarily follows. O’Connor’s views as expressed in his infamous “gaggle of gays” comment were somewhat archaic, but it’s not clear they will greatly shape the party’s culture. In addition, O’Connor has a point: homophobia aside, his critique of the faction politics of the Labour party has some merit (he also criticised “self-serving unionists”, Trotter’s latest target). Absent any indication that Shearer himself shares O’Connor’s unreconstructed views I think it’s a long bow to draw. Even so, I think the priority for Labour now is sorting its institutions out, and that will mean deemphasising some other projects. I can see this being a touchstone issue for some people; vive la difference.

Lastly, what we have before us is a Labour leadership candidate that can be supported by the right-wingers and former strategists noted above, Sanctuary, AK, myself and presumably because of his potential appeal to Waitakere Man and supposed opposition to identity politics, Comrade Trotter. A person like that doesn’t come along very often.

L

* Huhu grub cake made of rolled lemon sponge filled with fresh cream and bush honey, lemon cream cheese icing. Yeah, colonial-bourgeois Kiwiana is how we postmodern Gen-X long-spoon suppers roll.

Winning matters

datePosted on 20:01, November 4th, 2011 by Lew

I’ve been absent for a while, and am still pretty busy but will endeavour to write more often through the election cycle.

This post is just to correct a misunderstanding that persists in some circles about the debate between John Key and Phil Goff, hosted by The Press in Christchurch (highlights here). The conventional wisdom, with which I agree, is that Goff performed very strongly through the first half (re Christchurch), and into the second half (on more general topics) up until the point at which Key challenged him on Labour’s costing, at which point he lost it because he simply couldn’t rebut the allegation that there was a $14 billion deficit hole in Labour’s policy platform. Labourites, however, have complained that this was unfair, that Key’s numbers were made up, that Goff couldn’t produce figures that hadn’t been properly worked out, or that nobody watches the debates anyhow so it doesn’t matter. These claims might be right; some of them certainly are. But it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference: the task was to win the debate, and Goff did not win the debate.

This is the point, though: it doesn’t matter if a leader’s debate is watched by only 100 people if as one of those people is the political editor of a major news outlet.

Winning a leader’s debate in itself doesn’t change people’s minds. Few people watch them, and most who do have already made up their minds and will interpret even the most epic fails as wins (go back and read the Daily Kos response to the ‘Dean Scream’; or for a more immediate example, see John Pagani). There’s a bunch of research been done on this, and the headline finding is that debates have a significant influence only on the politically naïve. For the most part, leader’s debates are about arousing the true believers and persuading the pundits, who will then report the outcome of the debate, which in turn provides signals to the voters about who has advantage, momentum, mad chops, political competence, and so on — including but not limited to who has the better policies. By failing to show John Key (and the rest of the nation) the money, Goff lost the debate, which puts him on the losing side in terms of all those factors — compounding an existing and well-documented leadership deficit. It doesn’t matter if he’s right — if he can’t demonstrate he’s right we’re entitled to believe he’s not. It’s not as if Key shut him down — he was afforded very generous opportunities to make his case, and he failed (or refused) to do so.

What has happened with the “$14 billion” over the past 48 hours is the system working as intended, filtering our presumptive leaders for basic political and institutional competence. Because we are entitled to demand basic political and institutional competence from our leaders. Not only that, we should demand it; and the fact that people — Labour activists in particular — have not demanded it this past 3 years is part of why we’re looking at another three years of John Key as PM.

John (and Jordan Carter, the MPs, Phil himself) and others who have picked apart Key’s back-of-the-envelope figures, insisted that it was more responsible to check and recheck the PREFU numbers before saying anything miss the point of a debate — it’s about winning under the hot lights of the public glare, not about being technically correct in the cool light of the following Friday. You have to be right enough that you don’t look as if you won on false pretences, but the task is to win, and to maintain the momentum of the campaign, the aura of leadership.

Goff failed. Barring some massive set of exigencies, that’s probably the election.

L

Pagani and polls

datePosted on 21:47, April 19th, 2011 by Lew

I’ve been very busy, and had no time to thrash over John Pagani’s rather remarkable outbursts in defence of his tenure as the Labour party’s chief strategist, which ended a few weeks ago. Lots of commentary, but the best is by Danyl once, and again; Scott, and Eddie. Read the comments too.

I’ll not go into great detail, except to reiterate that the problem with Labour’s narrative — which John was presumably involved in constructing — has been that it lacks cohesion and a distinct, authentic character of its own. The song of the Labour party has failed to ring out these past two and a half years, it turns out, because John Pagani has been counselling his choir to mumble along to the prevailing tune, on the assumption that that’s the song the electorate wants to hear.

But how would he know? When Scott Yorke suggested that dismissing Danyl and Eddie as ‘trolls’ was an attempt to silence his critics rather than engage with the substance of their critique, Pagani tweeted “If only I could silence them.” That, right there in less than half a tweet, is in my view the root cause of the Labour party’s malaise. The predominant attack narrative which saw Clark Labour ejected from office in 2008 was ‘out of touch’, and I wrote in September 2009 that the way forward was for the party to start listening to the electorate again. John disagrees. I’ll let his record, currently illustrated by the 3 News Reid poll which puts Labour on 27.1% of the party vote, with 78% of the electorate believing the party cannot win the forthcoming election, speak for itself.*

John appears not to believe that a successful political movement needs to lead public opinion, rather than simply following it, and needs to be willing to alienate some people to that end. But most crucially it must listen to them. This was exactly the course of action advocated by Labour insider Jordan Carter back in January 2010:

Our task this year, to be blunt, is to listen to what people have been saying, and to go beyond listening, and into reflecting back the things we are hearing and seeing what people think. Instead of listening and saying “that’s nice”, we have to say, “we’ve heard you and this is what we think.”

Jordan was recently named on the Labour list at #40, which on current polling is sadly outside the running for a seat. But the party could do a very great deal worse than Jordan as a strategist; though who would want that job right now I can’t quite imagine.

Someone else who has been making sense on this topic is Matthew Hooton, who endorsed Eddie’s take in comments on The Standard post linked above. There’s a discussion about opinion polling in the comments to that thread as well, in which ak raises the fact that widespread reporting of poll results can influence turnout and voter choices. People like to back a winner, the reasoning goes.

Well, yes — but a couple of things: first, the ‘poll effect’ favours leaders, not one side in particular. The left has benefited from this in the past, it’s a bit churlish to complain about it now. Secondly, regarding the argument that landline-only polls favour conservative parties. There’s a good point here. Yesterday in the NatRad politics slot Hooton was pooh-poohing the landline bias, arguing various sorts of anecdata to say he didn’t think it made a difference. I’m aware of no rigorous research on this topic in NZ, and since (I believe) all the major polls are landline-only, it’s largely moot (polls are mostly useful as sources of continuous, compatible data — a known set of methodological distortions — and screwing with polling methodology breaks that). But Pew Research did study this in the US context late last year, and found a 6-point bias in favour of the Republican party in landline-only polls, compared to those which included cellphones. So it rather seems to me that the onus is on those who reckon there’s no bias to explain why and how the NZ context differs from the US context. I’m sure it could be done, but it’d take a good deal more than Matthew Hooton’s anecdotal waffling about how if pollsters want to reach him, they’ll have to call him on his cellphone.

L

* There’s every likelihood this is a rogue; but let’s not pretend that the trend is much more rosy.

It’s official*

datePosted on 21:26, February 1st, 2010 by Lew

* (As official as a 1,000-person phone poll can be, anyhow.)

Māori support for Phil Goff after “blue collars, red necks” is very low — 18% among all respondents, and 36% among Labour voters. That’s dire. (Full Digipoll results here.)

So, if these numbers are to be believed, (also with the proviso that this rot probably began before the Nationhood speech) the first part of my critique is borne out: Labour under Phil Goff will struggle for support among Māori, without serious and long-term remedial work. The two other points of my critique remain open: that it is philosophically unjustifiable for a progressive left party to betray a loyal support base and its quest for tino rangatiratanga in this manner; and that the corresponding long-term increase in support among the “social conservatives” in the working class, who were the targets of the strategy, will probably not make up for this loss (and the negative-sum effects of depressing Māori turnout). I’ll watch with interest.

What’s interesting is that Goff’s rhetoric has moderated substantially since December. Goff and Pagani seem to have lost their nerve. This is potentially the worst of all possible worlds for Labour’s electoral fortunes: they have rightly been tarred with the redneck brush, probably alienating Māori and social liberals in important numbers, but not sustained their narrative for long enough to turn the targets of their appeal away from National. Double loss in electoral terms; but I think something of a gain in strategic terms for the party.

Long may their nerve to continue this ugly business remain weak.

L

‘Blue collars, red necks’: triply flawed

datePosted on 14:27, December 4th, 2009 by Lew
To those who stick up for their identity, socialism sticks up two fingers!

To those who stick up for their identity, socialism sticks up two fingers!

In the coming years, core tenets of socialist and indigenist faith will be tested. Labour, with its recently-adopted ‘blue collars, red necks’ strategy, has struck out along a path which requires a large slice of its core constituency — Māori — to search their political souls and choose between the renewed Marxist orthodoxy which privileges class above all else; and the progressive social movements developed over the past three or four decades which have produced a society tolerant enough to permit their unprecedented cultural renaissance.

The strategy indicated by Phil Goff’s speech appears to be substantially based on the simple calculus, most forthrightly argued by Chris Trotter, that ‘social liberals’ are fewer in number than ‘social conservatives’ among the proletariat, and therefore an appeal to ‘social conservatism’ will deliver more votes than the equivalent appeal to ‘social liberalism’. This is couched as a return to the old values of the democratic socialist movement — class struggle, and anything else is a distraction. But because the new political strategy is founded upon an attack on Māori, it requires that working class solidarity wins out over indigenous solidarity and the desire for tino rangatiratanga in a head-to-head battle. Māori must choose to identify as proletarians first and tangata whenua second. Similarly, the māori party’s alignment with National and subsequent intransigence on issues such as the Emissions Trading Scheme asks Māori to privilege their indigeneity over material concerns.

An article of faith of both socialist and indigenist movements is that their referent of political identity trumps others: that all proletarians are proletarians first, and that all indigenous people are indigenous people above all else. In the coming years, unless Labour loses its bottle and recants, we will see a rare comparison as to which is genuinely the stronger. Much of the debate which has raged over this issue, and I concede some of my own contributions in this, has been people stating what they hope will occur as if it surely will. For this reason the test itself is a valuable thing, because it provides an actual observable data point upon which the argument can turn.

A spontaneous interlude: I write this on the train into Wellington, in a carriage full of squirming, shouting, eight and nine year-olds on a school trip to the city. In a (rare) moment of relative calm, a few bars of song carried from the next carriage, and the tune was taken up enthusiastically by the — mostly Pākehā — kids in my carriage.

Tūtira mai ngā iwi (aue!)
Tātou, tātou e.
(In English:
Line up together, people
All of us, all of us.)

Read into this what you wish; one of life’s little rorschach tests.**

Clearly, I don’t believe Māori will abandon the hard-won fruits of their renaissance for a socialist pragma which lumps them and their needs in with everyone else of a certain social class, which in the long term would erase the distinction between tangata whenua and tangata Tiriti. This distinction will fade with time, but that time is not yet come. For this reason I believe the strategy is folly at a practical level. Add to which, the appeal to more conservative social values was always going to be strong among Māori and Pasifika voters, so the left and right hands (as it were) of the socialist conservative resurgence seem unaware of what the other is doing: with the left hand, it beckons them closer, and with the right it pushes them away.

My main objection to the ‘blue collars, red necks’ strategy is not practical — although that would be a sufficient cause for opposing it. The main reason is because of principle, and this question turns on an assessment of the left in politics. Trotter and other old-school socialists (and presumably Pagani and Goff and the current leadership of the Labour party) believe that the left has been hijacked over the past generation by non-materialist concerns and has lost its way as a consequence. I believe that the wider social concern with non-material matters has saved socialism from its own dogma.

Largely discredited as an economic system and its legacy irretrievably tarnished by the catastrophic failure of practically every implementation, socialist-aligned parties on the left have been forced to diversify from a strict focus on what’s in the pockets of the proletariat to what’s in their heads — what they care about and who they are, their identity beyond being ‘the proletariat’. In doing so these movements have embraced liberalism, social equality movements, and environmentalism, and the resulting blend, termed ‘progressivism’ has become part of the political orthodoxy, such that the political right must now pay at least some mind to these considerations if it is to remain viable. This broadening, and the progressive movement’s redefinition of what is right by its general and gradual rejection of racism, sexism, sexual and religious discrimination, among others, has been hugely beneficial to society. For reasons of principle, it should not be discarded out of cynical political expedience.

Furthermore, maintenance of the social liberal programme has strategic, pragmatic value. It has enabled left political movements to broaden their support base and engage with groups often marginalised from politics, breaking the previously zero-sum rules. The modern Labour party has built its political church upon this rock of progressive inclusion, broadening its support base by forming strategic alliances with Rātana from the time of the First Labour Government and less formally with the Kīngitanga and other Māori groups, to which the party owes a great deal of its political success. The progressive programme has broadened to include other groups historically marginalised by the conservative establishment. For Labour to shun its progressive history and return to some idealised socialist pragma of old by burning a century of goodwill in order to make cheap electoral gains by emulating their political opponents is the same transgression many on the economic left have repeatedly levelled against the māori party, and with some justification: selling out one’s principles for the sake of political expedience is a betrayal, and betrayals do not go unpunished. In this case, the betrayal is against the young, who will rapidly overtake the old socialist guard as the party’s future; and Māori, who will rapidly overtake the old Pākehā majority in this country’s future. The socialists might applaud, but Labour represents more than just the socialists, and it must continue to do so if it is to remain relevant.

So, for my analysis, the ‘blue collars, red necks’ strategy fails at the tactical level, because it asks Māori to choose their economic identity over their cultural identity; it fails at the level of principle, because it represents a resort to regressive politics, a movement away from what is ‘right’ to what is expedient; and it fails at the level of strategy, because by turning its back on progressivism the party publicly abandons its constituents, and particularly those who represent the future of NZ’s politics, who have grown up with the Labour party as a progressive movement. It is triply flawed, and the only silver lining from the whole sorry affair is that (again, if Goff and Pagani hold their nerve) we will see the dogmatic adherence to class tested and, hopefully once and for all, bested.

L

* Of course, Goff claims it is no such thing. But Trotter sees that it is and is thrilled, and John Pagani’s endorsement of Trotter’s analysis reveals rather more about the strategic direction than a politician’s public assurance.

** I see this as an expression of how normalised Māori-ness is among young people, and as much as can be said from the actions of nine-year-olds, an indicator of NZ’s political future.