28 September 2014
Open Letter to David Cunliffe,
House of Representatives
You did an excellent job in the electoral debates with John Key. You matched him dollar for dollar on economic questions and there were some significant differences between you on things like mass surveillance and dirty politics.
Unfortunately, the debates did not translate into votes on the night and Labour went down to its worst defeat since 1929. That is serious stuff for those of us who feel that Labour has made a significant contribution to the life and well being of New Zealanders over the last century and still has something to give to the next.
If Labour is going to discover a new mission for itself in the 21st century, its a time for reflection (not only on the defeat) but on what made it an important party in the past.
The party and the Left can’t just muddle through hoping that everything will be all right. This is a time for radical thinking, i.e getting back to roots, values and principles.
When the other side is hell bent on delivering whatever its constituents want, irrespective of their short or long term consequences , then this is the time for you and your supporters to focus on basic human needs and how best to satisfy them.
There is a big difference between satisfying wants and needs. The first challenge is how to do this in a way that the electorate will find appealing . The second is to do it in a way that is truly principled and elicitive. One thing is clear , however, there are definite limits to pragmatic politics in this shrinking , warming unsustainable world.
Anyway, a week has passed and its reckoning time. I thought you were going to be magnanimous in defeat and give way to the next generation of leaders in the party but it looks as though you have given us a Clayton’s resignation-a resignation without resignation! . I can’t see much good coming out of this. Instead of focusing on principled commonalities it looks as though your strategy will generate deeper division and polarisation.
I’m not sure if this is good for you, the party or the people. I know its tough for you but this is the moment for generational change and a transfer of power to those in their forties. The average age of Cabinets in Scandinavia is 48 . The average age of Labour’s front bench should be about the same. You and your peers can share your wisdom and experience with the next generation of labour leaders. But this is the moment for them to discover their way forward. This is a time for you and Helen Clark’s team to have trust in the process of generational change. It is one of the ways in which political parties and other organisations renew and regenerate themselves. In any event in the reflection process this is the chance for you to remind your successors of what gave Labour its shape and reforming zeal in the past. This is the chance for you to remind them of how Labour lost its heart in the 1980s by lurching to the right and succumbing to the global neo-liberal agenda. This is the chance for you to help fan the new embers of progressive as opposed to reactionary conviction politics. This is also the chance for you and your successors to practice a different kind of leadership.
It was Lao Tzu who said
“The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware. Next comes one whom they love and praise. Next comes one whom they fear. Next comes one whom they despise and defy. When you are lacking in faith, Others will be unfaithful to you. The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, All the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!”
This sort of sage, servant leadership is sadly lacking in New Zealand at the moment. This is a chance for you , your succesor and the Labour Party to think about what sorts of leadership is best suited to the modern world. Leaders who are loved and praised make their followers feel good and do their bidding but often lack the conviction to make the decisions which will guarantee a sustainable future for the next generation. Leaders who are feared create sycophantic politics and are incapable of generating harmonious participative politics. Repressive leaders have to be opposed. So I think the best thing that you can do now is focus on working with the next generation in your Caucus to rediscover principles people believe in and a leadership that works for the 21st century.
You and the Caucus might not have heard of Robert Greenleaf but he has developed what is now known as Servant Leadership. This is a form of leadership that will have enormous appeal and might just transform the party and position it well for the next election. In this perspective a sage and servant leader has the following characteristics.
- Listening: A servant leader puts the emphasis upon listening effectively to others. This is not just token listening but figuring out ways in which you and the party can pay close attention to their needs, interests, and deepest concerns.
- Empathy: A servant leader needs to understand the others’ feelings and perspectives. This is not public opinion polling empathy this is so that the leader understands something of the diverse narratives, hopes and fears of those they are leading.
- Healing: True servant leaders help foster each person’s emotional and spiritual health and wholeness. This is an important and neglected part of politics. The old Labour Party worked hard to ensure that religious organisations shared their vision for the welfare state and the importance of providing womb to tomb security for all.
- Awareness: A truly servant leader understands his or her own values and feelings, strengths and weaknesses. When I was urging everyone to vote for you I think I mentioned something about the challenge of pride which can become arrogance. Nobody wants an arrogant leader. They do want leaders who are not afraid to admit mistakes, and acknowledge their weaknesses as well as their strengths.
- Persuasion: A servant leader influences others through their persuasiveness. You can be persuasive but sometimes your persuasiveness seemed to diminish the wisdom of those you were talking to.
- Conceptualisation: A servant leader needs to integrate present realities and future possibilities. I think you have a capacity to do this but sometimes I wasn’t sure what your desired future really was and where I, or others, fitted into your vision.
- Foresight: A servant leader needs to have a well developed sense of intuition about how the past, present, and future are connected. One of my mentors Elise Boulding , said that we need to start thinking of a 200 year present. This is because there is someone alive today who was born a hundred years ago and we need to be able to capture their experience and wisdom. And there will be a baby born today who stands a good chance of living a hundred years from now. If we hold these two people together then we should be able to learn from the past but make sure that we do not make irreversible, unethical or unsustainable decisions about the future. There aren’t many politicians ,let alone political leaders in Aotearoa-New Zealand, who think in terms of a 200 year present. I hope your successor will start doing so.
- Stewardship: A servant leader is a steward who holds an organization’s resources in trust for the greater good. This is an imprtant principle for you to consider right now. I know that you are feeling a bit bruised from the criticisms coming at you from different directions .But in terms of ensuring an effective Opposition its important that you acknowledge that the Party’s resources are there for the common good of the party and not for the interests of the leader.
- Commitment to the growth of people: As the current leader of the Labour Party your interests should not be with yourself but with ensuring that your caucus and the wider party can meet current challenges and realise their own capacities and potential. Its not about David its about your team.
- Finally, servant leaders are committed to Building Community. This is the most urgent task facing the Labour Party right now. How can you as the ex leader support the next generation to build a strong , capable and legitimate party , in touch and in tune with the people? How can your party work with the Greens and others to generate a coalition capable of speaking truth to the powers that be while giving us some sense of what sort of power you wish to realise in 2017?
So this is your chance David to demonstrate that you have the qualities of great leadership. We do not want to see Labour stags fighting with each other , over the next 3 months, to see who should lead the rump of the party. We want to see a smooth transition to the next generation of Labour leaders with you and others committed to ensuring that the party, the caucus and the Council are focused on serving the people and realising their needs rather than indulging in an unseemly competition for personal power.
With warmest best wishes for the next phase of your career. I’m sure that you have many contributions to make to Labour and its future but at this particular moment I don’t think it is as leader of the Party. Take care
In love, peace and solidarity,