Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The leader vanishes

All of a sudden, it’s as if he had never been there.

This was the homepage of the New Zealand Labour Party’s website the week before David Shearer announced his resignation.

This was the same page last Thursday afternoon, a matter of hours after the announcement.

On the same day, Shearer’s own website demoted him to the status of ‘Member of Parliament for Mt Albert, and Labour Spokesperson for Science and Innovation’, even though technically – as he stated in his press conference – he is to remain in charge until a new leader is elected.

When the announcement was made, anticipating a move of this nature, it occurred to me briefly that I should go and download as many ‘Shearer pages’, as many speeches as I could. You never know when such documents might become useful, and I remembered how difficult it was for me to track down some of the things that John Key said when he was deputy leader of National, simply because as soon as he became leader his comms people decided that his record had to be reset, and all previous statements in service of another master deleted.

So: I knew about this, I fully expected this, and yet I was surprised at how quickly it happened, almost as if a measure of glee was being taken in scrubbing off the old leader’s likeness. Were I in the appropriate mood, I might reach for such historical precedents as the chiselling off of the symbols of a hated dictatorship or, more pointedly, the removal from the photographic record of the people who could no longer be seen to have been close to comrade Stalin. After all, with no hyperbole whatsoever, it’s the exact same logic at work: one that negates history, or rather that asserts the prerogative of power to continually write and re-write the past according to the needs of the present.

Let’s look at it again. This:

Became this:

It wasn’t a big change, but someone had to be instructed to carry it out, on a day that no doubt was tumultuous enough, and for the benefit of whom? A leader as yet unknown, who might come in and restructure not just the party but your very job, oh unknown web grunt. It takes a special dedication to a revisionist view of politics to have bothered to do this at such a moment.

Not that it was a completely thorough job, mind. For instance, if you direct your attention to this element of the old page,

one that was actually embarrassing in light of recent events, it led to a page that is still there as of right now. This one:

Evidently, having removed the linking picture, the staffers in charge of the deletions didn’t bother to actually take the page off the server, so there it now lurks, orphaned, until the next clean-out.


In September of 2011, the Labour Party launched its election campaign with a 20-minute party broadcast that can still be found on YouTube. The first five minutes in particular are an object lesson into how to articulate the history of a political organization, and include, most remarkably, a strong disavowal of Rogernomics and everything but the nuclear-free policy of the Fourth Labour Government. Just as remarkably, this section of the broadcast survived a change of leader, and was excerpted and copied onto the party’s website after the defeat at the election, in what seems to me an indication that, if absolutely nothing else, somebody in Labour gets this: that the party’s back story, no matter to what degree it is mythologised, remains its principal asset, that it alone can serve as guarantee – in spite of all evidence to the contrary – of steadfast commitment to a social-democratic project that nobody knows how to spell out any longer, and that might as well itself exist as a black-and-white montage. We are who we are because we were who we were. You need to look no further.

Impressive as that document was, it’s almost reassuring, in the current circumstances, to find cracks in this carefully erected façade. And so in the text that accompanies that video on the party’s About Us page there is no mention of Roger Douglas, and we learn instead that
[t]he Fourth Labour Government (1984-1990), led successively by David Lange, Geoffrey Palmer and Mike Moore took difficult and long overdue decisions necessary for the modernisation of the New Zealand Economy.

Two histories on the same page, one contradicting the other: that’s what the habit of obsessively manipulating the record will get you. If the recent past is any indication – those reluctant to take Scott Hamilton’s word for it may peruse for themselves the statements by John Jackson and Jack Johnson – the search for the leader that replaces the ghost of David Shearer will be empty of any political content, and the winner will be issued with a blank slate on which to sketch their own version of history. As if there were no power bases, nor constituencies, nor material foundations for the power that is vested into this particular organization. As if its capacity to reinvent itself were limitless.

In the meantime, if you hurry, for a few days only you can watch the old leader disappear, bit by bit, statement by statement. He won’t be missed simply because he was never there.