Chris Trotter has missed my point. It's not a factional coup d'etat Labour needs but a coup d'élan to jolt the party onto success

A recent column I wrote in the NZ Herald earned a rebuke from noted left-wing commentator Chris Trotter on the Daily Blog website. Trotter went to great lengths to point out my deep and long-held ties to the so-called Right faction of the Labour Party.

Perhaps because of a temporary Google malfunction, Trotter missed the chance to bolster his case by adding that I spent several years in Melbourne and Canberra as an active and paid-up member of the Labor Unity or Victorian Right of the ALP, including as a staffer to the faction’s legendary godfather, Senator Robert Ray, as well as a parade of other Right-aligned luminaries such as Simon Crean, Steve Bracks and Gareth Evans. It is not clear if Trotter’s disparagement of me as a "right-winger” in the Labour context is intended as a revelation of something I have attempted to conceal, but my CV makes a mockery of any such claim.

The choice for any political party with a membership of more than one has never been between having factions or not having factions; rather it's been how dissent and diversity are managed, and how decisions about policy and personnel is divvied up accordingly.

In Australia, proportional representation in internal elections at all levels means that explicitly acknowledged factions need to exist as a practical matter. The ALP model is far from perfect, but at least it ensures that minority elements within the party — take, for example, the Pledge, a hard-left group to which someone of Mr Trotter’s politics might comfortably align — receives positions of influence roughly commensurate to its albeit meagre numerical strength within the Party.

I am all in favour of minority groups within political parties receiving a fair share of influence because, when they do not, they invariably give up and walk away, either joining or forming other political parties or opting out of the whole exercise.

Excluding, and ultimately excommunicating, dissident elements in this way has been the preferred modus operandi of many far-left (and far-right) political movements over the centuries, but it rarely ends well. What you end up with is an entity comprising solely consensus-breathing careerist clones so narrowly based that it becomes incapable of producing policy innovation or organisational rejuvenation, both essential features of successful political parties.

Of course, Trotter hasn’t the first clue about my political views, but nor would I expect him to. Most of my published writing about New Zealand politics has focussed on my fears (partly outlined above) about how the party has become too narrowly based to win elections.  

As it happens, I suspect my political views would place me comfortably to the left of Trotter on most issues. Like him, I think the neoliberal economic experiments of the 80s and 90s were mostly a disaster, particularly in Africa where I have worked for several years. I believe GST is regressive and set too high, and that it is outrageous that we don’t tax capital gains at least as much as income. I would double school spending (while admittedly sacking bad teachers); legalise and tax cannabis and decriminalise the rest; and advocate prison reforms so progressive they would make Sue Bradford blush.

As a gay man, I support same sex marriage as a matter of basic human rights, but share the concern of the radical wing of the LGBT community that the monomaniacal focus on the issue suggests a troubling fixation with heteronormativity. I am, in other words, a fairly doctrinaire leftie, but I am also respectful of the fact that many in the party will disagree with me on matters of policy and principle and that we have have democratic means at our disposal to resolve those differences.  

I am acutely aware of how the arrogance, Nihilism and electoral tone-deafness of many on the left fringe imperil the prospects of any sort of progressive change at all. If this makes me an incrementalist and a right-winger, then tell me where to buy the t-shirt.

Back to Trotter’s column, the guts of it being this passage:

The Labour Right regards this stubborn refusal [of the party “rank and file”] to abandon principle in the name of power as evidence of utter fuckwittedness. So much so that he concludes his column with a frank call for heads to roll down at Party HQ.

“If Labour fails to break well into the 30s, the party president and general secretary should resign and party council members should convene urgently to consider their own positions.” Back in the old Soviet Union this would have been called a purge.

Trotter is right to say I regard the Labour party organisation hopelessly incompetent – a point he leaves notably uncontested – and right again that I hope these officials have the decency to resign post-election if they are unable lift the party vote into the thirties (hardly a high bar). But Trotter's subsequent wrongness is such that it exposes his argument for the fallacious nonsense it is: I am not suggesting for one minute that the “purge” involves replacing this bunch failed party officials with replacements from my “right-wing” faction.

Such a capricious and antidemocratic manoeuvre would be precisely as Stalinist as Trotter claims – and if I were guilty of suggesting it, I would happily frog-march myself into political exile. Of course, as much as Trotter hoped I had, I said no such thing.

My ‘faction’, even if it existed in any meaningful sense, is in no position to storm Fraser House even if we were of a mind to do so. The notion is laughable.

I am simply suggesting that we can't keep rewarding failure; dominant party elites should find an alternative group of officials who can at least engage in the job of politics and electioneering with a modicum of competence. We seek not a coup d’état, as Trotter menacingly suggests, but a coup d'élan. Among the "rank and file" whose minds Trotter seems so apt at reading, he might be surprised at the depth of enthusiasm for the idea of such a root and branch rejuvenation.  

Comments (27)

by Kat on July 31, 2014

Mr Quin, do us all a favour and just quietly leave the room.


We are nearly there......


by MJ on July 31, 2014

I'm not a Labour Party member, thus don't have a faction. 

But it seems likely that Dr Damien Rogers or Josie Pagani may have a claim against you for stealing their award for "^best &&&&& democrat" in a major NZ daily newspaper or periodical, in that you are claiming that Labour has failed well before the election has happened. Sorry, that's a loaded term- best person appearing in a major NZ news source under the tag line former Labour something or other since Roger Douglas or Richard Prebble on RNZ or TV.

And if your company that you quote in your Herald piece (I've no idea who you are as there is no bio on this piece and the Herald was a little vague) is Shane Jones and Josie Pagani, well. For all the publicity he has received Mr Jones came third in the recent leadership contest and party re-organistaion which primarily polled the members which you claim to feel sorry for. They haven't given up. They cast their vote for the person they thought would do the best job of representing them in this election and are working to maximise the vote and push the Labour message.

The Labour leader announces three initiatives which will benefit workers and gets this 'support' from who knows (but at least an ex-Labour advisor, though your current work and clients are undisclosed) you would have to wonder who is more of a threat to "millions of hard-working New Zealanders who rely on Labour governments to get the fair deal they deserve."

If you are a genuine Labour person volunteer or if that's beneath you put your name forward for office and attempt change through the processes available. If you keep 'supporting' the left  and Labour in this derisory public manner shortly before an election, don't be so upset if you get called on it. It plays directly into someone's political message, and that's not anyone wearing red or green.


by Chris de Lisle on August 01, 2014
Chris de Lisle

MJ: If the narrative did not have truth to it, it wouldn't stick. If it does have truth to it, then the Labour party leadership shouldn't rule the country.

by Brad Gibbons on August 01, 2014
Brad Gibbons

Shorter MJ: Join us and sip the Koolaid, just a little one

by WellyShrink on August 01, 2014

Kat, you want Quin to leave the room? Speak for yourself.  His is the wittiest, most original voice I have heard or read about NZ politics in many years.  Your attempts to shut him down because you diasgree with him EXACTLY makes his point for him. Do you not see the irony? Undecided voters aren't going to make their voting decsion based on what people like Trotter or Quin writes on blogs.   And you think "we" are close to winning the election?  We all just need to stay quiet, "we're nearly there".   Unless the "we" means the National Party, you are living in a different unvierse from I.  Labour is getting thumped for the reasons Quins points out: out of touch, bad at politics, tone deaf.  Let's not troll this fresh and amusing perspective by trolling him out of business.  

by Kat on August 01, 2014

Crikey WellyShrink, out of nowhere it now appears Labour is in touch, making good politics, singing in tune and going up in the polls!

And Mr Quin is still in the room.


by Nick Gibbs on August 01, 2014
Nick Gibbs

This is an intelligent and well argued piece of writing, with not the slightest chance of being implemented by the Labour hierarchy. Long may the distrust and internecine warfare continue.

by MJ on August 01, 2014

Mr de Lisle: I'm pretty sure that's how political messaging works. If it's true it sticks, if it's a lie it vanishes as the light of the lord hits it.  After all John Kerry was a coward and a traitor in Vietnam right?

by Chris de Lisle on August 01, 2014
Chris de Lisle

If you are absolutely incapable of overriding the dominant message in opposition, you will remain absolutely incapable of overriding it in government.

You don't do that by telling people to stop telling the dominant message, you do that by giving them an alternative message (Is George Bush a moron? No! He's a man you could have a beer with! Is Obama an illegal alien? No! He's American Hope personified!). Labour has had six years, two elections, and three leaders with which to spin an alternative message and it is still not clear what their "No!..." is.

by MJ on August 02, 2014

You are right Chris. 

I've had a gutsful of 6 years of the guest column in the paper from a 'left-wing' source which has more in common with Mike Hosking than with Dame Anne Salmond. Clearly aping National's message (Labour are a divided bunch of cuckoos!) isn't a way to promote any line of good policy work Labour has been doing or of continuing the proud Labour and progressive history in NZ from the Liberals on or of winning an election, which there are plenty of people for whom this would make an immediate material difference in their lives. The gap isn't that large. It was one seat at the last election and Labour has had legislation pass the house this term.

Try these then: Is Labour a bunch of tax and spend unreliables? No! It's lead by two sincere, thoughtful well-regarded men with business experience and policy that interests the business community and is the party of family.

Are the Greens loopy and out of this world? No! They are sensible and keen for a fresh injection of R and D and environmentalism into our economy and economic priorities, while off-setting that to make sure tax-payers are no worse off in the pocket.

Is David Cunliffe 'tricky'? No! He's a family man, with a bit of a zealous, goofy determination to do the best for all New Zealanders. 

Not sure where Mr Quin fits into all of this, but I'm also not sure that arguing with Chris Trotter is a good use of his time! Trotter's a member of ...???


by MJ on August 02, 2014

* pass through two readings #not pass the house

by Rich on August 02, 2014

The Green party has a membership of several thousand and doesn't have factions in any organised sense - the MPs and members make their minds up on who to promote and what policies to adopt on their merits.


by stuart munro on August 03, 2014
stuart munro

I wonder if the energetic Mr Quin could be persuaded to take a holiday and let his dirty laundry pile up until after September 20? His recipe for rejuvenating Labour - removing the leadership without any obvious replacement - could hardly be implemented pre-election in any case. Which calls his motives or his judgment into question.

by Phil Quin on August 03, 2014
Phil Quin

Stuart, you flatter me by suggesting my thoughts here or elsewhere will have even the faintest impact of anyone's voting intention.  Of course, you are welcome not to read another word I write; my byline is quite visible as a warning.  Calling motives into question, in my experience, is what a person does when one does not want to engage in the substance of the argument.  As for my judgment, it is entirely up to you whether or not you agree with me.  In any event, I can't see what sin is committed by expressing my point of view as energetically as I choose.  That you would have me silenced, I suspect, says more about your political agenda than mine.  

by Phil Quin on August 03, 2014
Phil Quin

I meant to say impact ON anyone's voting intnetion, rather than OF, lest you consider this typo indicative of some sinister purpose.  

by Jane Beezle on August 03, 2014
Jane Beezle

Phil, Chris Trotter -

Let's just be clear.

I can't imagine voting for any party that is the subject of endless columns about which "faction" does or doesn't exist.

Or about which French term should or should not be employed to describe how to rejuvenate it.

This is absolutely dire.  The two of you do affect the way people vote.   It's an overwhelmingly negative response in both cases.

by stuart munro on August 03, 2014
stuart munro

Jane +100

by MJ on August 03, 2014

Your message: Labour needs to do things differently.

Your way of achieving that message: ...

This is why you get your motives questioned. It is hard to imagine a column calling a party "Inept" is designed to increase its vote. So it is possible you to imagine you would be happy with the outcome mentioned by Jane above. 

Shane Jones put his message to the party and found some agreement, but not enough to get the leadership. Then he put in some hard work, but then did a deal with Murray McCully. FFS. When you look at his latest actions and your column it is hard to conclude that you are trying to encourage a change of government. 

I don't think anyone is trying to silence you- in fact this point of view has had a lot of coverage, mostly from people who don't claim to have any affection for or association with Labour or people with household incomes median or lower. You don't get fringe All Blacks coming out and printing op-eds about how crap the ABs coach is or quiting the team in disgust that the coach is kicking the ball too much (yes the compulsory NZ sports metaphor).

If your motive is to achieve positive change within Labour, get involved, talk to a broader range of folk and sell your vision, as Mr Jones was doing. The party may be at a low point, but is hardly English's National. If your motive is related to some kind of political class maneuvering that's cold comfort for those on the minimum wage.


by Phil Quin on August 03, 2014
Phil Quin

MJ -- My reference to being silenced specifically related to the comments of Stuart Munro directly above, and was not a general observation. You knew that, and yet you knowingly misrepresent my point in order to debunk the one I never made. Well done. These debates about strategy and tactics take place within political parties the world over; why is it that it is treated as such grand treachery to disagree with the elites in NZ Labour? Am I not entitled to an opinion?  The analogy with a fringe All Black is risible. I don't even equate to a fringe Manawatu second-string utility back.  I do not claim to be anything other than who I am, which isn't much.  If blogs and newspapers choose to run my stuff, that's their call.  Is my lobbing it up to them a problem in and of itself? I don't understand what everyone's problem is.  Why can't we just agree to a robust debate full of opinions we disagree with?  I much prefer to that to the Pyongyang approach that some appear to favour.   

by MJ on August 03, 2014

Sure. The question is why now,  and I can't believe you misunderstand the issues with the timing. This is not a debate taking place inside a political party, that happened publicly earlier and privately now, it's joining the joyful public kicking of a dog that has slipped up a little in the run in to a general election. And second stringers from Manawatu don't get told, in normal situations, about what's happening in the captain/coach discussions.

Be fair those posting here are elites. You've all achieved some public and intellectual stature. This, the Herald and the NBR are all authoritative platforms. The modern history of Labour does make people nervy about being badly let down by people who've initially identified as Labour. It seems a bit unfair to start a post-mortem before the election,  and a bit mean-spirited to do public grousing otherwise in an election campaign, unless part of your aims are to further the party divided meme.


by Phil Quin on August 04, 2014
Phil Quin

The answer to "why now" is obvious: it is "why not now"?  I think the party I joined in 1985 is heading down a disastrous course. If you felt that way, wouldn't you want to shout it from the rooftops?  You obviously don't agree, which is fine, and I am not going to take to websites attacking you for standing idly by while the Party, often on the advice of fly by nighters who have been members of the party for a fraction of the time I have, make one avoidable error after another -- so, please, if nothing else spare me the criticism that I "initially appeared as Labour".  I worked my guts out for the Labour Party on both sides of the Tasman over two decades and countless elections and shouldn't need to defend my commitment to the movement to anyone.  Check out Senator John Faulkner's speech at the NSW ALP Conference if you want to hear what a true public airing of disagreement with party pooh-bahs sounds like. It's good and healthy to front up to our failures as well as rally around our strengths, and doing so will have zero impact on voting behaviour since undecided voters are not known to be swayed by columnists discussing campaign strategy.  The intolerance of dissent is by far the most troubling development in the NZ Labour Party during the sixteen years I was away.  That's it from me, unless you want to engage on the substance of my critique.  I am not going to apologise for expressing my views, and it is not for me to apologise on behalf of those who choose to publish them. Over and out. 

by MJ on August 04, 2014

Good for you that you did. 

Please don't apologise for anything- then I'd have a really legitimate reason to criticise you! I think it is an odd time to regard the work as a failure, as it is not complete, and it is odd to say that Labour has a strategy of being a particular poll number. 

Should they be actively selecting particularly Green candidates to try and take the Greens party vote? Promoting some cadidates 'Green' credentials? Not sure that's Matua Shane's strategy or Josie Pagani's for that matter. The Greens have consistently polled around ten per cent for a long time now and there is no equivalent on the right. That would be aiming to be a 40% party. It could also be reducing the chance of getting in to government. 

I guess what you are saying is that there is 20% out there that used to vote for the Clark government at its peak, which now votes National. (If the poll percentages can be analysed this way, and not include a number of non-voters) Key's party will never be as disorganised as Shipley's. NZ First and Kopu? What a mess. So it will be tough to simply be competent in comparison, though by no means impossible. I think part of this is the appearance of the front bench pulling together and really wanting it as a team. But still more difficult to do. Clarks government was also a move away from the direction of governments since 1984.

Another side is to try to move the centre, as the National Party has done- to fight for what is considered a political norm- which is much tougher. A Capital Gains Tax is an example. Look at how asset sales were considered politically toxic and now have been cunningly slipped back in to the 'centre' of our political discourse. But the Nats have accepted some of the Fifth Labour governments policies and given themselves a 'caring' edge or appearance, which again makes voters think they are getting the best of both worlds. Which I don't think they are at all.

My comment on "initially appeared as Labour" is genuinely a general comment, not directed specifically at you. Helen Clark's Labour was clearly to the left of the Fourth Labour government, forced to cover the Alliance and the Greens to their left, even if they didn't out of pragmatism and political instinct make any revolutionary changes to its legacy, but that it is still a trauma amongst many life-long and intergenerational Labour people that that unsignalled and swift switch in direction brought.

Which party did you join in 1985? That's I guess a very real question And again generational in the difference of perspective.

And yes, I should feel guilty for not being involved, but it usually helps me sleep better at night.

by Kiwi in Aussie on August 04, 2014
Kiwi in Aussie

Comments drive me nuts, so much so in this case that I signed up as a member just so I could express my exasperation with the response to this article.  Did any of you guys even read what Quin wrote?  I did, and it seemed like a well argued, well written column.  So was the Herald piece that Trotter set about attacking.  Quin's straightforward description of factions in politics was the clearest I have read anywhere.  Trotter, who can also write pretty well, or someone else might be able to persuade me it's full of holes, but I haven't seen anything but one attack after another on the author's motives.  We need more fresh, lively political commentary -- not less.  Lay off the motive questioning, and argue the substance.  I happen to agree with Quin that the Labour Party is badly off course, and I don't think there should be a ban on people saying the Emperor is naked or that they're heading off the cliff like a bunch of lemmings.  What's the logic?  Don't confront your alcoholism until after he dies of liver poisioning?  If you don't agree, write something compelling enough to get published, don't just snipe from the comments section.  And, MJ, as for suggesting you get to sleep well at night -- and presumbably Quin shouldn't have the right to -- because you didn't join the Labour Party in the eighties is the second strangest argument I have read all week.  

by MJ on August 04, 2014

Ahh Kwassie relax yourself cobber. All I was saying is that I haven't put my money or time down on  and backed any particular political concern the way the author has (and it's also his career?), and that makes me feel a bit guilty. 

Well, off to watch my favourite erudite political philosopher and escapism until after the election is done and dusted.


by stuart munro on August 06, 2014
stuart munro

"I can't see what sin is committed by expressing my point of view as energetically as I choose." And you're an experienced political insider - hard to believe.

Lending credence to National agitprop in the critical pre-election period is unhelpful to the left. This is what you and Josie have been doing - neither of you are MPs and thus you are immune to the sanctions such ill-discipline properly attracts from party leadership.

by Frank Macskasy on August 07, 2014
Frank Macskasy

"Proof points abound: the disastrous "manpology" to the Women's Refuge gathering, the poorly managed Donghua Liu debacle, an ill-conceived skiing trip (which was less about its effect on public opinion than the message it sent candidates and volunteers), as well as any number of bungled policy introductions and unforced errors - from dead trees to slow trucks to resurrecting moa." - NZ Herald piece,

Phil, in that one paragraph you have inadvertantly highlighted how the mainstream media has distorted (or made worse) various recent issues;

* "The disastrous "manpology" to the Women's Refuge gathering" - was a distortion of Cunliffe's full statement which, when taken in context, dives a somewhat different picture than over-excitable commentators and headline-seeking journos made out. The actual statement was,

"I don't often say it. I'm sorry for being a man right now, because family and sexual violence is perpetrated overwhelmingly by men against women and children."

Most media either did not publish the entire statement, or worse, mangled it and left out certain words. (See:   "Cunliffe apologises 'for being a man'." -

* The Donghua Liu Affair was a cunningly crafted smear campaign and blaming it on the victim simply buys into the dirty trick. To date, the Herald has not been able to substantiate any of Liu's claims except for a $2000 donation made to a rowing club.

Done to "curry favour" with a Labour minister, we are told.

The $100,000 bottles of wine and $15,000 books appear to be inventions from Mr Liu's mind.

Even right-wing commentator, Fran O'Sullivan, was moved to write a piece questioning the Herald's campaign against Cunliffe. (See:  "Fran O'Sullivan: Unfounded resignation calls should be far from Cunliffe's mind" -

* Why was a brief two day holiday "an ill-conceived skiing trip"? You've bought into National's narrative - especially when Key himself took a ten day vacation on a Hawaiian beach.

So why was it ok to Key to bugger off to Hawaii for 10 days - but a hanging offence for Cunliffe? The explanation, given to us by various right wing media commentators and bloggers is that Cunliffe and Labour are "low in the polls" so he shouldn't be "skyving off" to Queenstown

The subtext of this notion is that if you are a successful politician and/or rich person, you are deserving of a holiday. If you are unsucessful, you are not deserving. Rich = successful = deserving. Unsuccessful = get-back-to-work-peasant.

How else should one interpret this narrative?!

* "bungled policy introductions"?

So far Cunliffe stuffed up one policy announcement; the so-called "baby bonus". Big deal.

Big. F*****g. Deal. He left out one detail.

The rest of Labour's announcements have either been ignored by the media (preferring instead sensationalistic headlines; gaffe journalism;  and superficial side-shows - such as Cunliffe's red scarf!!), or mis-represented. Hardly Labour's fault if that's the game the media is playing.

You've not challenged the existing narratives of the media bullyingt-tactics on a party that is seemingly vulnertavle to attack. You've not questioned the smears.

You've simply joined in, and put the boot in, yourself. In effect, you're aiding and abetting the National Party re-election campaign strategists and under-mining Cunliffe's leadership by joining with the ABC Faction with their deliberate de-stabilisation tactics.

So yeah, Chris Trotter was more than justified in condemning your piece and nailing your butt to the wall.

by Kat on August 07, 2014

Frank, wait for the next utterance from Quin to be along the lines..."Labour left me, I didn't leave Labour"....... and Jim was as about 'right leaning' as a keep left sign!!


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