Posts Tagged ‘leadership’

Identity is politics

datePosted on 22:04, August 29th, 2013 by Lew

(Or: How the activist left learned to stop worrying and love identity politics.)

Here and elsewhere I spend much time railing against the notion that “identity” is somehow distinct from “politics”, or that “identity politics” is anathema to the idealised “real politics” of class and ideology. I don’t accept that those with politicised identities — in our context most often women, Māori and LGBTI people — ought to fall in behind the straight white able-bodied men of The Cause on the understanding that The Cause will lend its support to their subordinate issues when the time is right. Moreover, I don’t accept that a person’s politics can meaningfully be divorced from their identity. Identity is politics. I am far from alone in these views.

Recently it has come to my attention that many of those who claim to oppose “identity politics” are pretty happy with it too, given the right circumstances. The contest between Grant Robertson, Shane Jones and David Cunliffe provides a good example.

Right out of the gate the contest was framed in terms of identity — Grant Robertson’s sexual identity. “Is New Zealand Ready For A Gay Prime Minister?”, the headlines asked, proceeding then to draw dubious links between unscientific vox-pops and the reckons of sundry pundits, all of whom were terribly keen to assure us that they, personally, were ready, even if the country isn’t yet. But while Robertson’s identity is what it is, his campaign is not an identity politics campaign in any meaningful way. In this it differs sharply from the campaigns of the other two contenders.

Shane Jones
Shane Jones is expressly running an identity politics campaign: he’s Māori, and his goal to win all five seven of the Māori electorates for Labour is one of many explicit appeals to his Māoritanga, and well he might appeal: it is an attribute sorely lacking among our political leaders, and a particularly stark omission in Labour, with its long claim to being the, um, native party of Māori.

But Jones’ Māoritanga isn’t the only identity pitch: he has made overt masculinity a part of his brand. When he came clean about charging pornographic movies to Parliamentary Services, his explanation was “I’m a red-blooded male”. He recently doubled down on this in relation to Labour’s proposed gender-equality measures, saying New Zealanders didn’t want “geldings” running the country, and that “it was blue-collar, tradie, blokey voters we were missing”. His value proposition for the Labour leadership is that he can expand the party’s electoral base into the archetypally-masculine realm of the “smoko room” where such voters are said to dwell. It seems likely that this strategy will alienate a good number of female voters into the bargain.

David Cunliffe
David Cunliffe’s identity pitch is doesn’t look like an identity pitch, because we’re not used to seeing identity pitches from straight white men. But identity politics isn’t the sole domain of women and minorities — the US Republican Party has been running a long identity politics campaign for most of a decade against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Cunliffe’s claim is his identity as a guy who greets his supporters in a dozen different languages and whose announcement of a candidacy is greeted with a waiata, wearing a lei like it ain’t no thing. He is a mutual-second-best candidate for a bunch of different identity groupings — he’s male, but he has strong caucus support from Labour women, including his previous running-mate Nanaia Mahuta and marriage equality champion Louisa Wall. He’s straight, but he’s not homophobic or chauvinistic about it. He’s Pākehā, but his multicultural bona fides are clear, and he has strong support from Māori and Pasifika caucus members. He studied at Harvard, but he’s the working-class son of an Anglican minister. He’s comparatively young — Generation X — but not so young as to be seen as a whipper-snapper by the Baby Boomers. Homo Sapiens Aotearoan is David Cunliffe’s identity; a modern native of the biggest Pacific city in the world.

Grant Robertson
Grant Robertson’s campaign is quite unlike the others, which are pitched at the electorate, or parts of it. Robertson’s campaign is focused on unifying the Labour Party, on the basis that a unified party will be a more effective machine for building electoral support. His isn’t a pitch based around his individual brilliance or personal character, but his ability to organise, strategise, and forge an effective team out of his diverse and complicated group of colleagues. Robertson’s identity is a part of this — his advocacy and work in passing the marriage equality bill earlier in the year indicates where his politics lie, and make clear he’s no shirker — but this is by no means the focus.

And yet last night’s story by Brooke Sabin basically wrote Grant Robertson’s candidacy off on the basis of a series of ad-hoc buttonholes with workers at a union rally who apparently didn’t like that he was gay. Sabin reported that only two of the 40 people spoken to would support Robertson, and in the studio introduction to the piece anchor Hilary Barry inflated this to:

Labour leader hopeful Grant Robertson was dealt a blow today. Many in the religious and socially-conservative faction of the party, out in force at a rally this afternoon, don’t like that he’s gay, and won’t vote for him.

There are a swag of problems here: most obviously that repeatedly and urgently raising the issue (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”) sets the agenda. Further, the footage suggests that the only thing these vox pops were given to go on when assessing Grant Robertson’s fitness to be Prime Minister was that he was gay — so it was the only thing on the agenda. Worse yet; one respondent, when prompted to choose between Jones and Cunliffe, asked “Shane Jones … is he a gay too?” suggesting that not only was she not very well placed to make an informed assessment of the comparative merits of each candidate, but that asking her to do so anyway, taking her word as an indication of general union sentiment and then playing her naïve answer on national TV bordered on exploitation. (At least part of my assessment is shared by Neale Jones from the EPMU, who was there, and said on Twitter, “Sabin went around repeatedly badgering workers about whether they had a problem with Grant’s sexuality. Got story he wanted.”)

The Identity Agenda
Jones’ identity pitch is clear, and Cunliffe’s is less so, but not much less so. Robertson’s identity pitch is inferred from his sexuality and inflated. The only aspect of the archetypal “identity politics” candidate’s campaign which is focused on “identity politics” is the “ready for a gay PM” agenda, which is set by commentators and the media, outside Robertson’s control (but which he must tolerate, lest he be reframed as a “bitchy gay” rather than as the solidly masculine, rugby-playing sort we are possibly prepared to tolerate.)

So that’s ironic. But the deeper irony of this is that David Cunliffe is the darling of many of the people on the activist left who have railed most fiercely against “identity politics” all these years. (Check the list of endorsements here). There’s no policy to speak of in this contest — Cunliffe’s campaign is identity politics through and through, and yet the activist left loves him for it. I don’t think it’s unfair to observe that they love him, and they love it, because now it feels like their identity being prioritised in politics, as if it hasn’t ever been before. All that evil old “identity politics” they railed against before — the problem wasn’t that it was identity politics, but that it wasn’t their identity politics.

But I’m glad they love it. It works, after all. We have a strong sense of who David Cunliffe is, where he comes from and what motivates him, and that helps us understand, and more importantly to believe, his strategic vision and the policy platform he articulates. I think he genuinely does speak to a wider audience of potential Labour supporters than any recent leader, and that can only be a good thing for the party and the polity as a whole. If he wins, and I think he will, I hope it will go some distance to demonstrating that identity and ideology aren’t zero-sum; they’re complementary. Maybe once that realisation sinks in we’ll be really ready for a gay Prime Minister, or a Māori one.

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.

Team Shearer

datePosted on 22:19, November 30th, 2011 by Lew

I have little useful to add to the voluminous discussion about who the Labour party will choose to succeed Phil Goff. I’m on the outside. This is Labour’s decision to make, and I don’t have a dog in the fight, except inasmuch as a good opposition and a strong Labour party is going to be crucial to Aotearoa. So I don’t know which way the caucus votes are headed, but like any other punter I have views, and I thought I’d sketch them out anyhow.

First of all it is positive that Goff and King have not stepped down immediately, forcing a bloodletting session 72 hours from the election. Two weeks is, I think, long enough to come to terms with the “new normal” and for a period of sober reflection (and not a little lobbying), but not long enough for reflection to turn to wallowing, or lobbying to degenerate into trench warfare. Leaving it to brew over summer, as some have suggested by arguing Goff should remain until next year, would be the worst of all possible options and I am most pleased they have not chosen this path.

As for the options: after some preliminary research the other day I declared for Team Shearer. I am still somewhat open to persuasion, and he lacked polish on Close Up this evening. But he seems to have unusual intellectual substance and personal gravitas. His relative newness to parliamentary politics is offset by extensive experience in other fields, particularly with the UN where tales of his exploits are fast becoming the stuff of urban legend. Most crucially, I understand he is the least institutionalised or factionalised of the potential leaders, the one with the greatest capacity to wrangle the “political wildebeest” that is the Labour Party, to use Patrick Gower’s excellent phrase. This last is, I believe, the most crucial ability. I said before the election that the next long-term Labour leader will be a Great Uniter, as Clark was (although possibly not in the same way Clark was; awe and fear aren’t the only ways to unite a party), and while there are not broad ideological schisms within the Labour party*, it is deeply dysfunctional in other ways and needs to be deeply reformed. This is a hard task, and it may be that no one leader can manage it, and it may take many years in any case, but it looks to me like Shearer’s external experience and outsider status make him the stronger candidate on this metric.

One other thing about Shearer: he seems to have strong support among non-Labourites, including Labour’s ideological opponents. In the Close Up spot he was reluctant to declare Labour a “left-wing party” which will make him unpopular (though I consider this just a statement of fact). I’ve seen some tinfoil-hattery around this — “if people like Farrar and Boag like him, it must be a trap” and so forth. This notion that “the right” has nothing better to do than wreck the Labour party, that every endorsement or kind word is an attempt to undermine, or the suspicion that the muckrakers must surely have some dirt on a favoured candidate borders on a pathology. Such reasoning leads to perverse outcomes, and adherents to this kind of fortress mentality make excuses for poor performance, and congratulate themselves for narrow wins and near losses, rather than challenge themselves to build a strong, disciplined unit capable of winning more robust contests in the future. An example of this in the recent election, where a small but crucial group of Labour supporters abandoned their party, campaigning and voting for New Zealand First in a last-ditch effort to produce an electoral result in their favour, without concern for the strategic effects this might have on the party’s brand and future fortunes. In spite of the lesson of 2008, they swapped sitting MPs Kelvin Davis, Carmel Sepuloni, Carol Beaumont, Rick Barker and Stuart Nash for Winston Peters and his merry band of lightweight cronies. Plenty of dirt there; it would have been a miserable term in government for Phil Goff if the numbers had broken slightly to the left, and (depending on the intransigence of Peters and the other minor parties) one from which the Labour Party may never have properly recovered.

Ironically, Labour has those defectors — about 3% of the electorate if the polls are to be believed — to thank for the opportunity now presented to it by the resounding defeat. If the result had held at around 30% (and NZ First been kept out by the threshold), temptation would have been to revert to the mindset post-2008 election that it had been close enough, that the left had been robbed by the electoral system and the evil media cabal, and that little change was really needed. With support at its worst since the Great Depression, no such delusions can persist, and there is, it would seem, a strong will for reform within the party.

I don’t think the other two likely Davids would make bad leaders either (concerns about Cunliffe that I expressed during the campaign notwithstanding). Cunliffe’s platform with Mahuta is strong, in particular because it will enable the party to reach out to Māori, which they desperately need to do to remain relevant. Parker reputedly has greater caucus support than Cunliffe, and he is also apparently standing with Robertson, who is also said to be standing for the leadership himself. All three Davids are talking about reform, and it will be harder for any of them to paper over the cracks or pretend that nothing is wrong, as Goff and King did. But whatever their will, it is not clear that Davids Cunliffe or Parker have the same conflict-resolution, negotiation and strategic development experience that Shearer does. And they are themselves a part of the problem, having been ministers (however excellent) under Clark, and supporting and sharing responsibility for the abysmal strategy and see-no-evil mentality evident within Labour since 2008.

But the party must do what is right for the party. It is important that the final decision remains with the caucus because as the past year has shown, no matter what the public and commentariat thinks no leader can be effective who is at odds with his team. Ideological congruence also matters; Shearer may be have the best skillset for the reform job, but he may legitimately be considered too centrist by the caucus.

I’ve always been clear that I want the NZ left to win, but I want them to have to work hard for it. I don’t want easy outs, excuses or complacency; I want Labour to be able to beat the toughest, because that’s what produces the smartest strategy and the strongest leaders, and the best contest of ideas. I am sure principled right-wingers hold similar views; they are just as sick as I am of a dysfunctional opposition obsessed with its own faction-wars and delusions of past glory, stuck in the intellectual ruts and lacking in strategic and institutional competence, even though it might make their electoral challenge easier. Good political parties don’t fear the contest of ideas; they embrace it. So my hope is that Labour does not concern itself overmuch with second-guessing the views of their ideological foes, or those on the periphery, but puts the candidates through a thorough triage process and then lets him get on with the job of putting their party back together. It’s not a trap, it’s a challenge.

L

* The lack of ideological diversity is a problem; a healthy political movement should always be in ferment. But it is not the most pressing problem facing the party at present.

Carter’s Par Avion Putsch — politics interruptus

datePosted on 09:35, July 30th, 2010 by Lew

Leaving out the utter incompetence of how Chris Carter’s abortive coup — and I hope I’m the first to coin it the “Par Avion Putsch” — was conducted, his egregious damfoolishness for following such a course of action in the first place guarantees that Phil Goff’s leadership of the Labour party is now safe, though it is critically wounded. The caucus has had to close ranks around a lame duck leader, and all the ambitions of the younger and more vibrant contenders previously mentioned here and by many others must now be shelved for the sake of party integrity. By seeking to artificially accelerate the ordinary and necessary process of leadership selection, challenge and renewal, Carter’s actions have in fact retarded it.

I agree with him that those systems were working too slowly in this case, and on the substantive point that Phil Goff can’t win the election without a fantastic political deus ex machina such as that which benefited George W Bush. But the system is what it is, and you either work with it or you cut yourself loose from it in a fashion which places the system — rather than your own conduct and the competence of the sitting leader — front and centre as the object of critique. By doing neither Carter has snookered any nascent leadership challenge and undermined Goff’s leadership into the bargain, and that practically ensures the outcome he claims to oppose.

Two possibilities present themselves. Either Carter was and remains oblivious to this, in which case he’s a fool whose long experience of party politics has taught him nothing. Or, like everyone else with a functional knowledge of NZ politics, he’s perfectly aware of this fact and has cynically exploited it in an effort to establish a lasting legacy for himself: the final ability to say, post-2011, that he was right, and Phil Goff was a dead man walking, and to be remembered for that, rather than for his taxpayer-funded jetsetting and general uselessness. Ordinarily I would assume the former — incompetence is usually a more apt explanation than malice — but I’m sorely tempted in this case to believe that, as Chris Trotter says, Carter has seen his own political end, and determined to take the rest of the party down with him (update: I think this is a more accurate assessment than Tim Watkin’s suicide by cop).

This course of action could not be more different to that taken by Helen Clark who, with her swift acceptance of the political reality in which she found herself, ensured that the party retained its dignity after the 2008 election defeat. I don’t know anything about the personal relationship between Clark and Carter, but from what I know of her political mind I suspect this will cause it considerable strain, with the episode perhaps costing Carter not only his credibility, his job, and his party membership, but the only political friend and ally he had not already alienated.

L

Rudd’s problems in a nutshell

datePosted on 19:18, June 29th, 2010 by Lew

Just a quick hit: this article in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph from last Valentine’s Day details the less-than-lovey response Rudd received from students invited to the annual Parliamentary Q&A.

It’s not that they were set against him — young Australians overwhelmingly supported Kevin ’07, and continue to support Labor. It’s that he treated them with disdain. He didn’t prepare for what should have been a PR gift; made things up to suit the narrative he wanted to project; and then pulled rank and got angry when his prevarications were exposed.

Clearly rattled, Mr Rudd answered the perfectly legitimate questions like an annoyed schoolteacher, pointing his finger and disputing her claims. “Well, you’re shaking your head. Can I just say that is a fact, and if you ring up principals around the country it’s happening,” he said on air. The Australian National University student [Angela Samuels, 18] has since been backed by principals around the nation, saying they had not been given the laptops that were promised. “I was just shaking my head because I wasn’t happy with what was happening,” she said. “I’m in contact with schools. I know what he’s saying isn’t the truth. It’s annoying that he stands in front of cameras and says things that aren’t true.”
[…]
“He came in with the message that the Government was taking action,” Kate Campbell, 21, said. “He’s a very good political operator, he knows how to manage the media and manipulate people and their perceptions.” Andrew McDonnell, 22, said young people were now questioning their loyalties to the Government as a result of their experiences. “I respect him for his intelligence but if he tried to be more genuine and honest he’d be more popular,” he said.

Lesson: even when your gameplan is to emphasise style over substance (which is fair enough), it is imperative that you’re able to fall back on substance when style fails — as, under sustained and competent critique, it inevitably will.

L