Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Good old days point way to Labour future

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Return of 'Mattiavelli' fulfils 'bit of mongrel' forecast and brings back the memories ...

David Cunliffe. Photo / APN
David Cunliffe. Photo / APN

When David Cunliffe seized the leadership of the Labour Party last September, commentators predicted he would bring "a bit of mongrel" to a lacklustre Opposition. With the surprise appointment of former Alliance president Matt McCarten as his chief of staff, he has done just that.

He also sends a clear reminder to the 800,000 registered voters - many in solid Labour areas - who did not bother to vote in 2011 of Labour's working class roots.

With McCarten as the new Rasputin of the Labour Party and Richard Prebble assuming a similar role in National's rightwing puppet party, Act, the upcoming election is making me nostalgic for the monumental battles that raged through the late 1980s for control of the prized Labour seat of Auckland Central.

In the incumbent's corner during that long tussle was Rogernome and senior Cabinet minister Prebble and his formidable henchmen, headed by the legendary Gene Leckie.

Leading the invaders was a young leftwing union upstart, Matt McCarten.

At that time, the battle for the hearts and minds and control of the Labour Party was being played out up and down the country, but nowhere more determinedly than in Auckland Central.

And that was largely because of the single-minded, self-belief of McCarten who refused to give up, even when his allies in the wider party organisation and union movement gave in.

Light fuses were pulled and halls thrown into darkness at crucial meetings, punches were thrown, people fell down stairs and were carted off to hospital.

In a later memoir, McCarten recalls telling Prebble, "We're here to support you, Richard". Prebble scowled and said, "Yeah, like a hangman with a rope".

After McCarten's appointment this week, Labour's president and campaign chief during the successful Helen Clark era, Mike Williams, quipped that Cunliffe's choice was either a stroke of brilliance or of lunacy.

Certainly keeping the reins on McCarten is going to be a task for Cunliffe. In the 1980s, his Hotel and Hospital Workers' Union boss Rick Barker - later an MP - dubbed his young sidekick "Mattiavelli". According to McCarten, it was a term of endearment; I guess it depends whose side you were on.

The role of chief of staff was instituted under Geoffrey Palmer's brief prime ministership. It was funded through new leaders' budgets, paid by the Parliamentary Service.

It has been left to each leader to decide what the role entails, but traditionally it involves running the leader's office, liaising with MPs, the party and other parties. Plenty of scope for a Mattiavelli.

The job has also traditionally been a backroom role, holders going out of their way to keep out of the public eye.

But having taken the risk of bringing the rebel back into the fold, it would surely be a waste to restrict McCarten to the role of parliamentary super-bureaucrat.

If there's one thing Labour needs it's his help in gaining better brand recognition in the upcoming election.

Over the past decade, with his Unite Union, McCarten has demonstrated his talent for attracting the young and the poor to become involved in political action for their own good.

It's something the Labour Party in 2011 failed to do. Not only did 800,000 or more people not vote, but nearly a quarter of those who voted for Labour candidates then cancelled out their vote by giving their party vote to the Greens or New Zealand First or whoever.

Labour got 35 per cent of the candidate vote, but only 27 per cent of the party vote.

Whether from behind the scenes, or on the front line, McCarten's ability to nudge the traditional "working class" out of their apathy shouldn't be wasted.

He said as much in his Herald on Sunday year-end wrap-up column on December 29. In retrospect, it reads like an application for his new job.

Cunliffe, he wrote, had "made the fight competitive and invigorated the party. The byelection win in Christchurch was huge".

"If he can manage his relationships with possible coalition partners and get his constituency to the polls, he will be prime minister next Christmas."

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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