Like a fox?

Lynn at The Standard has a nothing to see here sort of post about how the Darren Hughes scandal isn’t important. True to form, he misses the fact that that the ‘Labour footsoldiers’ for whom he claims the scandal is an irrelevant distraction are the least-important players in this particular game. What matters is the public, and in that regard the views of the media and the ‘beltway creatures’ matter plenty. So while he might be right that it’s a beat-up and there’s nothing in it, that doesn’t really matter — if Labour treats this as a matter of ‘business as usual’ the results will be deservedly catastrophic.

But one thing which struck me while watching the news coverage of the Dunedin stand-ups before and after the front bench meeting today: he looks happy and confident and genuinely at ease; even effusive. As some wag on twitter said: “Phil, leave some kool-aid for the rest of the caucus!” Looks like he did, because the front bench response of solidarity also looks like it’s for real. If you watch it with the sound off, it’s the very model of a party holding a unified front.

The trouble is that what Goff is saying — that his leadership is stronger now than it was before the Hughes scandal broke — is totally barking mad. It simply doesn’t make any actual logical sense that it would be, that it could be. My instinct is that the fact the caucus and the advisers are letting him bark in this way indicates an utter dereliction of duty on the part of the advisers, and a complete lack of political nerve and sense on the part of the caucus. But, as I argued the other day, as bad as Labour is, I don’t think they’re that far gone. So maybe there’s an explanation other than mass political psychosis: maybe he’s banking on this strategy being just barking mad enough to work. This response, for all its other failings, does hint at the Machiavellian characteristic of virtù which I/S (I believe correctly) diagnosed as lacking in Phil Goff’s leadership. It is nothing if not audacious. It is certainly not a ‘business as usual’ response.

So maybe he’s hoping to catch the government on the hop by simply pretending his situation isn’t as dire as it is and hoping that the pretence is infectious. Perhaps it’s actually not pretence; perhaps he really does have that support. Perhaps he’s relying on people ignoring the waffly words and inept deeds and simply taking their cues from the appearance of functionality which Labour is trying to present.

This might not be as far-fetched as it sounds: Lynn does make a good point that people don’t pay close attention to the details; and it’s an old trick to watch political TV appearances with the sound off to get a feel for how a naïve viewer might perceive it and to look more closely at the underlying messages about the political actors and organisations which appear in them.* This sort of presentation of functionality is also a pretty good indicator of eventual success: Drew Westen documents cases where random voters could predict with reasonable accuracy the outcomes of political contests by watching brief segments of silent footage and simply observing the political actors’ nonverbal cues.**

So are they crazy like a fox? Yeah, nah, I don’t really believe it either. The hell I know. Good luck to Phil, and all of them, because they’re going to need it.

So, setting aside the conventional wisdom that Labour is just marching into an electoral abyss, what are your theories as to what they’re up to at present? Wackier the better.


* There’s a bit of this sort of analysis done on US political events, such as Sarah Palin’s blood libel speech — see here for example. Though not really the same thing, it’s also worth you googling “breath libel”. Scary.
** I’ve lent my copy of The Political Brain to someone, so I can’t substantiate this at the moment, sorry.

32 thoughts on “Like a fox?

  1. Goddamn impudent children saying the emperor has no clothes.

    Excellent analysis Lew, obviously they did not send you the memo. ;-)

  2. So, setting aside the conventional wisdom that Labour is just marching into an electoral abyss, what are your theories as to what they’re up to at present? Wackier the better.

    Well, you asked for wacky:

    * they’re all really blood-drinking shape-shifting giant lizards.
    * they’re actually playing host to the Shan
    * they believe their own bullshit.

    I regard all of these as equally improbable.

  3. Sorry Lew but there is the political reality in South and West Auckland where people are struggling to feed their kids and there is the political reality in Wellington and on the blogosphere where many are incensed at how Phil managed the timing of the announcement of Darren Hughes’s problems.

    There has been a right wing beat up of the issue. They are good at this sort of thing. Many of the left have responded in a similar fashion, myself included in that I think that Goff should have announced pretty well immediately rather than delaying the issue although with the benefit of hindsight I can see how he could be in two minds.

    And then the left and the right join in this intellectual consensus that Phil is not up to the job and will lose. And here I part company with the consensus.

    I class myself as a grassroots activist and on the ground things are fine for the left. The Botany by election showed that South Auckland is coming back strong. They are not worried at all about beltway issues although anything that suggests a lack of morality is a problem.

    The situation does show a weakness for Labour however. It is ruled by intelligentsia and relies on decent ordinary people, often poor, for support. Leadership could actually be more diffuse.

    Lew I am interested in your experience of grassroots activity. I enjoy your sophisticated analysis but when I think of my grassroot activity your comments jar with what I believe ordinary decent people are thinking.

  4. It’s the classic ‘rope a dope’ strategy – let everyone beat you up while you protect your vitals and then, near the end of the fight, unleash your reserves of strength in a flurry of unanswerable blows to your opponent – and win.

    Unfortunately it doesn’t work if you get carried out on a stretcher early or you really are just a bunch of dopes – which is what the evidence is pointing to.

  5. Wacky theory:
    Labour have some salacious information on several members of the National front bench and are waiting to do unto National as others have done to Labour. At a more opportune time.
    Similar to the Heather Roy/David Garrett thing that ACT did to themselves last year. Didn’t that turn out well.
    Or, maybe it’s not that wacky.
    Labour aren’t marching, either, it’s been more like a stumbling shuffle. No quibbles about the likely destination, though.

  6. Interestingly in the 1980 Labour administrations the defence of the political reforms brought in was largely the TINA theory a fairly daft justification in any political context but one pushed by Goff at the time. It is with some irony I note it will probably be Goff’s political epitaph following this years election.

  7. Goff is a terrible actor. There is ample evidence of this. If he had any acting talent at all, he would be better able to sell Labour’s alleged “left wing” change. Sadly, in fact, his performance makes Key look fluid and convincing by comparison.

    I think the frightening reality is that Goff, his advisors and the front bench, really are that out of touch, and that this has been an enormous part of the problem all along.

    The only plausible alternative is that Goff has been drugged to the eyeballs, and frankly if that’s the case, as long as his chaffeur is in the driving seat, it can only be an improvement, and long may it continue.

    What annoys me about Labour’s apologists in this matter is that they pretend that this is an isolated incident, and not the latest fiasco is a series that stretches right back to the beginning of Goff’s leadership.

    Mickey, I’m from South Auckland and talk with folks from there all the time. South Auckland may not have as many members of the so called ‘intelligensia’ as the more privileged suburbs, but the people there are no less intelligent than residents of any other part of Auckland. For the most part, those that have the time and energy to pay attention are not impressed (or fooled) by Goff and Labour. Quite the reverse.

    It’s worth remembering that Brown’s victory in the supercity elections did not occur under the Labour banner. He ran as an independent for good reason imo.

  8. Thanks all.

    Micky, I have no grassroots political experience, and have never represented myself as having any. If that means I’m not a ‘proper lefty’ then by all means ignore my analyses; I present them strictly on a ‘for what it’s worth’ basis. I get it a fair bit. Though I would also note that political insiders’ perspectives are routinely clouded by various sorts of delusion; notably the need to feel like they’re on the winning team when, objectively speaking, they’re not.

    I’d also note that you’ve so far failed to deliver the promised rebuttal of my recent “hard rain” post. Don’t feel too bad about it; you’re not the only one.


  9. Lew, I guess you missed the point of what I wrote. It appears I have a rather different view of what is a Labour activist than you do?

    What I said was that journo’s should not look at left wing commentators and opinion writers and say that they are all Labour activists. At this time, most Labour activists are working on setting up for the election campaign. Regardless of how excited journo’s and people not actually setting up campaigns think, all of this stuff takes time and effort. You don’t stop just because your political opponents (even those broadly on your side) get excited about something.

    Quite simply in my view there is is not enough public information about Darren Hughes to take much of a stand apart from thinking that he is a bloody fool. There probably won’t be until the police release their findings. Getting excited about political issues when there isn’t enough information available is something that is better left to journo’s and other political dilettantes.

    Oh I am sure that there are important political issues there somewhere and a police lock on verifiable information, I am not inclined to speculate in the manner of a Farrar. I will get back to this issue when more solid information becomes available.

    But I did not appreciate Vernon Small describing those outside the party as being Labour activists and attributing their attitudes to us. I spent all weekend around actual Labour activists, and neither Darren Hughes nor the leadership were the main topic of conversation. Mostly we were talking about something of more immediate interest – candidates.

    Vernon’s comments about Labour activists, based in large part I suspect on comments in our site were evident bullshit. Most of the comments he was referring to were either from non-Labour activists or my new plague of turfers.

    That was what I said in my post. What you said that I said appears to me to be quite divorced from the reality of Auckland Labour activists like myself.

  10. If the right spent all that effort to disseminating the idea of a coup and expending their credibility with the media (and the MSM get nothing to show for it but a negative consequence for their own credibility with the public – now that its clear that Goff is secure in the leadership till the election).

    Why … must be a difficult budget – like the one of 1984 that was never read? But given that Key has smiled and waved an election in November, it will have to be read. And that budget will reap its whirlwind – and this is why they are so afraid (desperate times, desperate tactics).

  11. You asked for theories:
    It was all a giant conspiracy to reveal your lack of grassroots activism experience and shame Lew into becoming part of the Labour 2011 election campaign which will culminate in the greatest electoral comeback ever.

    Chris Trotter will be revealed as a schizophrenic who astroturfs on behalf of the NACToid’s one day and communes with the comrades the next.

    1. Tim Watkin says that Goff’s line about not intereing with a Police investigation is “spin” and that Goff had no plan for how to respond is an astroturfer
    2. Russell Brown flays Goff and says they are a “shambles” is an astroturfer
    3. Bomber at Tumeke says that if Labour are not questioning the leadership of Phil Goff, then they “are officially the most stoned Caucus in the history of the Westminster system” is an astroturfer
    4. Chris Trotter blogged that it is the moral duty of the Labour caucus to remove Goff if they don’t think he can lead them to victory is an astroturfer
    5. Matt McCarten says Goff’s performancee has been appalling is an astroturfer
    6. Lew at Kiwipolitico says that anyone who failed to understand the politics (like Goff did) of what happened “has no business running strategy for a Sunday book club, much less a political party which aspires to government” is an astroturfer
    7. Danyl at the Dim Post also rubbishes Goff’s claims of natural justice coming first, citing numerous examples to the contrary, and in another post says “in the UK they have a competent opposition party, while [Labour] are Really. Fucking. Terrible.” is an astroturfer
    8. Idiot/Savant at No Right Turns blogs that Goff has “established a consistent pattern of poor decision-making” is an astroturfer
    9. Robert Winter says “The onus is on our parliamentary caucus to provide us with that national leadership that we deserve.” is an astroturfer
    10. Psycho Milt (who is left) at No Minister says “ there should be wholesale ritual suicide in the Labour ranks” is an astroturfer

  12. I think Phil Sage has also missed Lynn’s point. I’m not aware that any of the above lefties and nominal lefties are even Labour members, let alone activists.

  13. Newsflash Juan – most voters aren’t members of any party. But parties would be wise to pay close attention to the views of those who indicate in polls/focus groups/conversation that they are of that party’s ilk.

    Curiously, the Greens suffer from this as badly as Labour – they cannot distinguish between what their MPs, staffers and party members think, and their wider voter base.

    FWIW, I reckon Goff is no worse than the rest of his caucus and staffers, so its pointless ditching him. Labour need to ditch capitalism and social engineering, not Goff. Voters want affordable housing, not Goff & Cunliffe racing Key and Groser for a free trade deal with the US.

    P.S. Noone critical of Goff’s handling if the Hughes saga seems to have considered that Hughes may not have been fully up-front with Goff initially. Goff may have kept quiet because he had been misled into thinking it was really minor – Goff could hardly come out blaming Hughes when the true extent of the allegations were made known to him. Or Goff and his advisors may just be inept.

  14. Phil, I’ve deleted a couple, but I’m going to let that one stand as testament to your poor humour, your lack of originality, or your tendency to comment while drunk (readers can choose the explanation which makes most sense to them).

    Lynn, I see your point — I just assume Vernon Small, being as he is the chair of the parliamentary press gallery, actually knows what he’s on about and uses the words he means to use. The list DPF made and which Phil repeated above is certainly a very thin showing indeed for ‘Labour activists’, particularly since I’m on it. I should note that all the die-hard Labour people I’ve discussed the matter with ahve been in full-scale denial mode, clinging fervently to the line that this really ain’t no thang.


  15. Lew – Thanks for that deletion. Just a note, your request to delete does not work in chrome.

    You have backed down to the standard bullshit boys. They take a very narrow legalistic definition of “activist”. Must be party member and list selector and must be calling openly in a list selection meeting for the ouster of the current leader. I feel a tui ad coming up.

    There is no way on gods green earth that people would articulate concerns like that at what is arguably the most important contribution party members make. Lynn was revealing in how sycophantic the Labour party process of ranking MP’s is.

    The people above, including yourself, are actively promoting Labour ideals. Party membership is completely meaningless.

    Your analysis is still substantially better than Lynn’s apologia or indeed Vernon Small’s get it together appeal.

  16. Phil, yeah, several of the plugins are a bit broken at present. I’ll try and have a look at ’em tonight but I suck at wordpress. (Give me a config file and documentation — fine, but a web-based control panel and I’m next to useless).

    I have’t backed down, and I stand by my argument. But the fact is that most of those listed above really aren’t Labour ‘activists’. I’m certainly not one.

    I agree with your point about groupthink Labour, and I consider it to be among the party’s biggest flaws. That’s just one of the reasons I’m not a member.


  17. @Lynne – it’s true that this scandal isn’t significant in big picture terms, but it’s significant in what it reveals about Labour and its leadership.

    Being leader of the opposition is basically an extended job interview for being Prime Minister, and when there’s a crisis in Goff’s party we get to see how he’d react if there were a national crisis and he was Prime Minister. And the answer is: really badly.

  18. Whackiest theory I can come up with is that Labour has at last realised that the media will crucify them whatever they do, accurately read the mindset of the crucial swinging voter and finally realised that he and she value loyalty and “innocent till…” and don’t think Goffy should be shot simply because he didn’t “fire at will” a most likeable and hardworking cobber for an unknown “crime” he claims he didn’t commit, and that the so-called “experts” of the blogosphere can actually, occasionally, in the most very rare and extenuating circumstances, get it wrong.

    Nah, too far-fetched. As you were.

  19. Pingback: 5 steps to election success: National | mydeology

  20. As you say, I don’t think that ANY of the list the Phil Sage or Farrar put up were Labour activists. But I’d be surprised if Vernon just worked off something like that when he was attributing disquiet to Labours activists. I think that he went and read comments in blogs.

    But only a smallish fraction of the commentators on The Standard are actual bona-fide Labour activists, ie at least members of the party and who turn up for occasional events. Most of them are obvious because they state it. And it is the same on Kiwiblog with National activists as far as I can see. I can see lots of Act activists there and other assorted nutbars, but very few National activists apart from Farrar.

    Main reason why? If you have a party to vent in, then why would you vent in a blog? Besides in my experience party members in major parties if they are active are very very active. Who has the time to comment?

    But there is also a Wellington/lower North Island difference as well. From the viewpoint of everywhere else that I have lived – Wellingtonians are total gossip nuts.

    In Auckland or Christchurch or Dunedin the political landscape in major parties is mostly about how to campaign or problems in society somewhere. But whenever I have been in Wellington (hell – even when I talk to people from Wellington) I learn far more about the what politicians has been screwing what (both actually and metaphorically) than I could really be bothered knowing.

    To be perfectly frank, many of us outside the gossip capital have long since started ignoring the irrelevant speculation that is so ably obsessed over by Mr Farrar. We tend to wait until some actual facts come into public view. Now I suspect that there is more gossip about Darren Hughes from the reactions of the gossipers and journo’s (including our wellington writers). But since it isn’t out in public most of the party activists can’t be bothered speculating about it. We have better things to do – like getting ready for an election.

  21. aha – so posting and multiple comments over the fact Small used “Labour activists” rather than “Leftist activists” is not obsessing.

    Good to know Lynn, I can feel a Tui coming on

  22. The point was whether the comments by “leftist activists” about the Labour Party leadership was relevant if they were not members.

  23. I think the point was that Vernon was technically wrong in referring to the people commenting as ‘Labour activists’.

    They are important in shaping activist opinion, many of them will vote Labour etc, but they’re not, strictly speaking, Labour activists.

  24. It is a fine distinction, but it’s also an important one. After all, the topic was the party leader being relieved of his duties; not just the party’s popular support.


  25. Wacky Theory – Phil realised that historical Labour voters can’t relate to the political kindergarten currently called the New Zealand Labour Party.

    He wanted the party to sack him at the conference, so he could leave and form a new party with opportunists such as Peter Dunne and Jim Anderton.

    When they didn’t sack him, he tried to rile them by saying their support for him was even stronger. Unfortunately for him, they didn’t have enough wit to discern between reality and fantasy.

  26. Thanks Lew – exactly the distinction I am making.

    Popular support is pretty damn important for getting elected. But you don’t have a party to get elected without activists in the party. They are the people who go out and do the multitude of things that are required to get you elected. Everything from raising money to canvassing. Not to mention that they are the best source of information for the politicians of their party.

    BTW: The Standard is having a routing problem in the US this morning. It is rather a pain in the arse as I’d allocated time this weekend to set up a new server in NZ. The old backup server is offline in prep for that (and wouldn’t handle the load anyway) so I can’t flip the server.

  27. Not to mention that they are the best source of information for the politicians of their party.

    Doesn’t that lead to an echo chamber effect? There are many policies that party activists will approve of which would be absolute poison to the wider voting public.

  28. The echo-chamber effect is my objection also, and one which is, in my view, already a severe problem within the Labour party. Particularly since many of those insiders are the same idiots who lost Labour the 2008 election. I wrote about this dynamic 18 months ago, and as far as I can see, nothing has changed since.


  29. I don’t know if you can really blame the Labour Party’s loss on its activist base. But they certainly produced a campaign that seemed utterly ignorant of the context they were operating in.

    You might argue that the party “owes” its activists concessions to their policy preferences, but to claim that these policies are also the ones that will be popular is largely untrue. Sometimes there’s a policy that’s both wildly popular among the activist base and the public at large – the no-nuclear ships policy would be the standout example in a NZ context – but it’s almost the exception that proves the rule.

  30. Sometimes there’s a policy that’s both wildly popular among the activist base and the public at large – the no-nuclear ships policy would be the standout example in a NZ context – but it’s almost the exception that proves the rule.

    I don’t know. I would think that reinstating overtime and penalty rates, for example, or taking GST off all food (rather than fresh, giving the appearance of weakness and a limp attempt at social engineering) would capture the majority of both. The nuclear ships issue was by no means supported by the entirety of the NZ population. It took a few years to reach that level of acceptance.

  31. George, Labour’s pre-election polling in 1987 showed them that the nuclear ships policy was extremely popular which is one of the reasons they emphasised it so strongly in their campaigning.

    You could well be right about either policy but I could see National fashioning a narrative that portrayed them as anti-growth, which could in turn sour the public on them.

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