Monday, October 17, 2005

Pale Pink Peas and (the) Ham….Michael Bassett and the Rewriting of History

I used to admire Michael Bassett. His historical writing and research was excellent and I still refer to his previous works on the Third Labour Government and Third Party politics in New Zealand. However, this admiration has increasingly waned in recent years, not just because of his right wings views, courtesy of him having been a Minister in the Fourth Labour Government (1984 – 1990), but also because those views now tend to cloud his writing so that so, that much else is excluded.

The most obvious is his recent column in the Press, in which he laments the lack of front bench talent of the Government.

“Clark is soldiering on with the remnants of 20 years’ worth of indifferent
candidate selections, and no rejuvenation process in sight…”


Bassett asks why the calibre of Labour’s candidates dropped in the late 1980s? He concludes that it is the fault of those who lifted Clark into the leadership role. It is the fault of the Margaret Wilson/ Ruth Dyson /Maryann Street party presidencies which promoted weak people into positions in the Labour Party caucus to bolster up support for Clark.

He does note and I agree that it is also inevitable that after an administration has been in power for several terms that it starts to become stale. This happened to Labour during the 1940s and to National in the 1960s and 1970s. What often happens is that when the Government is removed from office, resurgence takes place as former Ministers resign from the front bench or retire from parliament and new talent, which has often been languishing on the back bench or outside parliament come forward.

But, let us take up Bassett’s synopsis for further investigation. When we subtract 20 years from today (2005) where do we end up? We end up at 1985, when the Fourth Labour Government, of which Bassett was a Minister, was in power and it is that Government which has set the direction for Labour ever since. Here lays the answer to the questions that Bassett poses.

The real reason for the ‘supposed’ decline of the calibre of Labour MPs was the demise of the Labour Party as a coherent social democratic alternative during the 1980s and the early 1990s due to the factional infighting and desertion of members that occurred during that period. The Labour Party became the scene of an intense and protracted civil war, caused by Mr Bassett and his fellow right wing cronies who decided that social democratic policy and principle was expedient compared to the ideological correctness of the free market.

As the war wore on, each side attempted to get their own supporters elected into positions of power so as to ensure that their principles and policies would remain entrenched. It has also meant that Labour can not return to anything approaching its pre 1984 social democratic ideals, as for every Tim Barnett there is a Darren Hughes. So horribly, the ‘Third Way’ approach adopted by the Party since 1996 is probably as left wing as it is going to get. (Every time, I think of the ‘Third Way’, I think of former British Labour Deputy Leader, Roy Hattersley’s comment that the 'Third Way' was a series of cliques looking for a coherent thought).

Of course, the so-called left of the Labour Party (and now, supposedly in control) were those in the Party’s political centre during the 1980s. They had no strong ideological conviction and were prepared to play 'footise' with both the Left and the Right over issues and governance; this was before the Left departed with Jim Anderton to form the NLP and the Right left with Douglas and Prebble to form ACT.

Further, Labour has, sadly, never really recovered from the dramatic drop in Party membership that occurred in the 1980s.

I note that the people that Bassett admires, Jim Sutton, Trevor Mallard, Annette King et al are right wing leftovers from that Government. Bassett’s real lament appears to be that Clark and Co have placed their own ‘left-wing’ supporters into positions of power. However, given the recent history of the Labour Party that is hardly surprising.

If Michael Basset wants the real reason why there is a decline in the calibre of Labour front bench prospects, all he needs to do is look in the mirror.

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