Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Is Matt McCarten a 'game changer' for Labour?

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Matt McCarten could be a 'game changer' for Labour.
Matt McCarten could be a 'game changer' for Labour.

Labour's electoral fortunes suddenly appear to hang on the appointment of an unelected backroom parliamentary official largely unknown by the public. The major political story of the week has been Matt McCarten suddenly becoming David Cunliffe's right-hand man. Well known within the Wellington beltway and in the wider political sphere, McCarten may well be the leading leftwing activist in the country, but few people know a great deal about him.

For an in-depth introduction to McCarten, it's well worth going to two sources in particular. The must-watch item is a recently released 22-minute TVNZ documentary on The Life and Politics of Matt McCarten. And the must-read item is Steve Braunias' Matt McCarten: Better red than dead. This online Metro feature is an insightful profile published in 2011 when McCarten was dying of cancer. Both items show why McCarten is both loved and loathed amongst the political community, but taken incredibly seriously by all. For a visual representation of both the past and contemporary politics of McCarten, see my blogpost of cartoons and photographs, Images of Matt McCarten.



What sort of Game Changer?

The big question being asked by all political commentators is whether the appointment of McCarten is a 'game changer' for Cunliffe and the Labour Party. Few seem to think that the appointment will have no impact on Labour's fortunes. In fact, there's almost a consensus that his appointment is indeed a 'game changer', but opinions differ over exactly how it will change - whether we will see a revival of Labour's fortunes or major disaster for the party. Those are the two broad scenarios being painted at the moment.

Scenario 1: Left mobilisation strategy

Many commentators and analysts - typically, but not uniformly, of the left - see McCarten's re-entry into Labour as a huge shot in the arm for the party. Chris Trotter has written two blog posts on the topic: Now Is The Time ... For A Game-Changer, and Lunacy or Brilliance? Cunliffe appoints Matt McCarten as his Chief-of-Staff. In the latter, Trotter says: 'Matt McCarten's appointment has come not a moment too soon. Since the departure of Helen Clark and her Chief-of-Staff, Heather Simpson, the Labour Leader's Office has lacked what American political journalists call a "junkyard dog". Someone steeped in the values of the movement and who knows where all the important bodies are buried (often because he or she put them there!). A bruiser and a brawler who will frighten the Bejesus out of anyone who so much as looks sideways at the party leader'.

It is also clearly the view of Brian Rudman that the surprise McCarten appointment is Labour's best chance in a longtime of reconnecting and mobilising Labour's lost working class support - see: Good old days point way to Labour future. Rudman also explains why some give McCarten the Machiavelli-inspired nickname, 'Mattiavelli'.

For more on McCarten's background as an effective political organiser, see Vernon Small's Appointment 'a stroke of lunacy or brilliance'. He says that 'McCarten is one of the most astute strategists around - and is a dab hand at some tactical strokes too'

The Herald today has a very good editorial examining what McCarten might achieve for Labour, and what it could mean politically - see: Double-edged sword in Labour arsenal. The key part is describing McCarten as 'a symbol of Mr Cunliffe's determination to break Labour out of its centre-ground fight with National and to find instead votes from working people who did not turn out at the last election. Labour believes there are up to 800,000 people who fall into that category and if it can inspire a good number back to the ballot box to give it the tick, it puts itself in position to form a government with the Greens'. The editorial paints the appointment as a 'stark gamble' in which Cunliffe has raised the stakes: 'Cunliffe has doubled-down on his hunch that check-mating Mr Key will involve new moves from the left'.

McCarten himself has been confirming his appointment as reiteration of Labour's attempt to be bold and mobilise the alienated voter base that Labour believes is currently dormant, saying 'There's a million New Zealanders who didn't vote last [election] or didn't bother to enrol, they're disengaged in the political process at the moment, and they've got to do it' - see Stacey Kirk's Cunliffe dissenters 'changed their view'.

Shane Jones also focuses on this: 'That's his talent. Organisation on the street. Organisation through unions. Organisation through the community of people that know they should vote but for reasons they don't even know themselves half the time they don't get around to voting. If you can mobilise that kind of power, 800,000 of them last election, and if Matt is capable of utilising his networks to work with the MPs to stimulate more activity in that 800,000, it's game on' - see Waatea News' Organisation skills key to McCarten pick.

Similarly, McCarten's friend Willie Jackson wholeheartedly endorses the appointment and sees it as a repositioning of the party: 'Labour have been reluctant to be seen as a left wing party, in fact they have comfortably straddled the centre of the political spectrum which is seen by most experts as the position where you must be if you want to be the government' - see: Courage from David Cunliffe. Jackson also says that 'Cunliffe has run out of options on how to unite his caucus and make a dent in the polls'.

The party's problem with its indistinct political identity is being cited in many of the commentaries on Labour at the moment. Gordon Campbell says that 'Labour seemed to be having a leadership and identity crisis' - see: Jones fights Labour's battle alone. Campbell also draws attention to Labour's recent policy offering being moderate: 'Labour has scrapped its plans to take GST off fruit and vegetables, and to exempt the first $5000 of income from tax. In place of these $1.5 billion pledges aimed at alleviating poverty, Labour will be offering a $525 million package of "targeted" measures'.

Scenario 2: Leap towards 'left lunacy'

John Key and many other opponents of Labour have been quick to paint McCarten's appointment as a leap to the left for Labour. John Armstrong has written about this in his very good column, McCarten - a fox in Labour's henhouse. He says that 'The biggest risk is that hiring McCarten is viewed by voters - especially those in the centre - as confirmation that Labour is shifting markedly and permanently to the left under Cunliffe's leadership. McCarten has enough of a longstanding and dazzling public profile as a trade union official, left-leaning political strategist and all-round activist to create such a perception'. Armstrong says that - at least, initially - the appointment might therefore backfire'.

Today's Herald editorial also points to the risk of shifting leftwards: 'that presumes Labour's existing voter base also favours a move to policies aimed at attracting the lost tribes of the left. There is a risk surely that some working, non-unionised, moderate social democrats will see a Labour Party raising taxes, advancing union interests, expanding the state and redirecting wealth to support beneficiaries and the poor as altogether less appealing' - see: Double-edged sword in Labour arsenal.

Certainly, the political right are having fun with the leftwing nature of Labour's selection. On Twitter, for example, David Farrar (@dpfdpf) has joked, 'So will the next appointment for David Cunliffe be John Minto as Chief Policy Advisor?', and, 'In a response to Matt McCarten's appt as Labour chief of staff, @johnkeypm announced he has appointed Cameron Slater as National's COS'. For more interesting and varied views on the appointment from social media, see my blog post Top tweets about Matt McCarten and Labour.

Chris Trotter also believes there is a risk that McCarten's appointment could lead to disaster for Labour. He worries that 'the Right's political narrative - that Labour under Cunliffe has executed a lunatic lurch to the extreme Left - will be the story that sticks'. In his blog post, Now Is The Time ... For A Game-Changer, Trotter says that this perceived shift to the left could produce a crushing defeat for Labour, with severe ramifications for the ability of the Labour to shift to the left in the future.

McCarten as figure of division or unity?

There is also a strong argument - mostly from the right - that McCarten will be extremely divisive for Labour, and that he is ill-suited to the position of Chief of Staff. David Farrar has outlined this best in his post The McCarten appointment, saying 'There's an old quote about Rasputin along the lines of "You can be a famous poisoner or a successful poisoner, but not both". I tend to think the same applies to being a Chief of Staff. 99% of New Zealanders do not know who John Key's Chief of Staff is, and that is a good thing. Matt has great campaign skills, but his relationship skills are not so strong. And the Chief of Staff role is 90% about relationships. You have to manage relationships with the caucus, the relationship with the party, manage a staff of 20, and also manage relationships with other political parties'.

A guest post on Kiwiblog makes similar arguments: 'Matt is talented at divide and rule. The last thing Labour needs is another 'divide and rule' player. Labour should be looking at a Heather Simpson or Wayne Eagleson type. Both stayed in the background, worked with everyone, had great political instincts and insights, knew when to tell some to pull their head in and knew when to make deals within the caucus. They also always had their Leader's back. Always. The whole idea of McCarten in a room with Tim Barnett, Moira Coatsworth, Cunliffe, Talbot and 'senior MPs' fills every right winger with delight. Matt won't be a team player. He'll want it his way and he'll get very upset if someone wants to take the pragmatic path. I predict now that he may well walk out of a meeting before the election and never return' - see: McCarten's influence swings Labour Left. See also, Cameron Slater's A 'Game changer'? Really?.

And Danyl Mclauchlan also argues that McCarten is no unifier, but will be a useful hit-man for Cunliffe: 'Can Matt McCarten turn things around? If you're seeking to unify the party then the answer there would be a massive 'No.' The last thing Labour leads is a Chief of Staff with a big personality, big profile, big ego, talent for skullduggery and a strong left-wing political agenda that's totally at odds with those of his leader's enemies within the party. But if you're Cunliffe and you're looking at Goff, Mallard, Cosgrove, King et al and coming to the conclusion that unity with them is impossible, war is inevitable and the best thing to do is try and win it then McCarten would be a pretty great choice' - see: Wartime Consigliere.

Evidence of McCarten's potential for disunity can already be seen in the various statements from Jim Anderton that he now won't be working with Labour on it's election campaign - see Glenn Conway's Anderton gives election advice.

Is Matt McCarten really so extreme and divisive?

But is McCarten really so divisive? An argument can actually be made that he's incredibly talented at uniting people of varying politics. After all, McCarten was successful at keeping the disparate Alliance Party together for a decade. As Jim Anderton's loyal right-hand man he played a key role in papering over the cracks and keeping various parties and factions together. As I've argued elsewhere, McCarten is the sort of political manager you can liken to an iron fist in a velvet glove. Or as McCarten might put it, he lives by Theodore Roosevelt's adage 'Speak softly and carry a big stick'.

In her latest Listener column, Jane Clifton refers to McCarten's skills in this regard: 'For many years, through a blend of charm and guile, McCarten managed to be both head kneecapper and sole peacemaker in the Alliance, uniting the Greens, NewLabour and the Democrats (née Social Credit) and nearly bringing New Zealand First into the mix. He knows how to build and maintain a party, and is a master humourer of difficult types (although he once laid out a querulous Democrat candidate. We all have our limits). He's a respected unionist and utterly fearless. When you've beaten a terminal cancer diagnosis as he has, a bewildered Opposition caucus can hold few terrors' - see: Snap, crackle and flop (paywalled).

Similarly, Labour insider Greg Presland, who is very close to Cunliffe, blogged this week to say that 'I have always been impressed by Matt's ability to deal with people from a diversity of backgrounds. He is affable and pleasant but has a backbone of steel, ideal characteristics for the role. And his organisational abilities are very strong' - see: Labour's new Parliamentary chief of staff. He adds, 'Overall this decision is one that will cause considerable debate. And use of the words "game changer" seem very appropriate'.

One of the MPs from that Alliance period, Willie Jackson also reflects on McCarten's ability to compromise: 'I probably know Matt's skill as well as anyone he has been a very close friend and political colleague of mine for more than 30 years I was an MP in the Alliance with him when he was the party boss and strategist. While he has a tough guy image I have always found him to be a brilliant strategist and a person who will fight for the underdog. While there are no doubts about his respect among workers the right wingers in his party should not worry about his relationship with the business sector many who support Labour. Matt has a record of working with big business and achieving deals he knows how and when to compromise. He has shown that with some of his big union contracts and when the Alliance went into coalition with Labour. He is not a left wing fundamentalist but a realist and pragmatist and maybe the person who can turn the tide for a Labour Party who have been on the back foot for far too long' - see: Courage from David Cunliffe.

McCarten might well be tough, but his long-term survival in politics and activism is based on his highly attuned perception of 'when to pick fights' and when to compromise. The danger for the political right is probably in underestimating McCarten's abilities and the fact that he is not the 'hothead' that they seem to think he is.

For more on McCarten's history and future, as well as a leftwing critique of the appointment, see Mike Treen's very reflective and interesting blog post The McCarten Appointment.

McCarten's strengths in left liaison and networking

McCarten's strengths also lie in his organisational abilities and ties to the rest of the political left. In his latest blog post about McCarten (Now Is The Time ... For A Game-Changer), Trotter not only attempts to 'rally the troops' to support the Cunliffe/McCarten team, but also to propose a reawakening of the wider political left: 'McCarten needs to get busy reconnecting all the wires to all the levers on Labour's bridge. The wires that lead to Labour's Caucus, to its NZ Councillors, LEC's and branches. To the Council of Trade Unions Executive, the affiliated unions, the churches and the voluntary sector. For far too long far too many of these wires have floated free. When McCarten reaches for a lever; to make things happen; he needs to know that the wire of influence he's pulling is attached to something real. And, once again, that means that every progressive person within these organisations needs to place themselves at the new chief-of-staff's disposal'.

The ability of Labour to work with other opposition parties will certainly be improved by the appointment. Martyn Bradbury says: 'What Matt can do is reach across to other progressive parties and seriously discuss using MMP tactically so that the entire Left are united in fighting the Government come election day. MANA and Labour can reach a tactical arrangement, Matt can reach out to the Greens to also reach a tactical arrangement and the blogs can carry the voter guide as they did with the Auckland Mayoralty Election' - see: McCarten & Cunliffe - political survivors and how they'll use MMP to win. Or as Trotter says, 'McCarten's history with the Greens (once part of his old party, the Alliance), the Maori Party and Mana will be of enormous value to Labour should they find themselves in a position to forge a governing coalition'.

McCarten's alignment with forces in Maoridom might also prove important. Maori politics blogger Morgan Godfery (@MorganGodfery) has insightfully tweeted to say 'What's gone unnoticed in the McCarten appointment? Maori. Matt knows Maori, especially urban Maori, and he knows how to organise us'; and 'There are very few "names" in Maori politics. Matt is one. And probably the best. Well, as an operative. A blow for the Maori Party'.

There is also a significant degree of symbolism inherent in this new political alignment. It's coming up to the 25-year anniversary of the leftwing split from the Labour Party, when Jim Anderton, Matt McCarten, Laila Harre and others left to set up the New Labour Party, and then the Alliance. John Armstrong deals well with the ironies and tensions of McCarten's shift back to Labour in his column, McCarten - a fox in Labour's henhouse.

It's fascinating to note how many from the old Alliance left are now in positions of power within opposition parties: as well as McCarten being Chief of Staff for Labour, most notably Gerard Hehir holds the same position in Mana, Andrew Campbell has a similar role in the Greens, and there's every possibility that Laila Harre may end up working within the Greens as well.

The debate will continue on Matt McCarten appointment. Some of this will occur tomorrow on TV3's The Nation. This is the first episode of the year, and the first being produced in house by TV3. It screens on Saturday at 9:30am, with a focus on David Cunliffe and Labour. Reporter Torben Akel investigates Labour's strategy heading into election year and asks what Cunliffe has to do to defeat Key. How can David beat the political Goliath? Then Patrick Gower has Cunliffe's first in-depth TV interview of this election year.

Finally, for some humour on this week's issue, see Scott Yorke's What McCarten's appointment really means.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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