Sludge Report #121 – Jim Vs Matt
In This Edition: Jim Vs Matt - If Jim Wins – If Matt Wins - TINA
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Sludge Report #121
Jim Vs Matt
By the looks of things today - the morning after - Jim Anderton is just as intent on getting rid of his longtime pal and resident Alliance party head kicker (President) Matt McCarten today as he was yesterday.
It is sad, as on the face of it the compromise worked out at the caucus yesterday contained the elements of a resolution to this disastrous dispute between the Alliance’s two leaders.
The sad truth is that while officially the Alliance Party has only one leader, Jim-who-must-be-obeyed - Jim “Lenin”, has always had his “Trotsky” and that is Matt McCarten.
McCarten is a political savant. Over the past decade, C.D. Sludge reckons, the most spectacular displays of political campaigning have been the Alliance Party mobilisations for the Selwyn (Ruth Richardson) and King Country (Jim Bolger) byelections.
In these byelections, The Alliance (and McCarten deserves much of the credit) proved that there is a substantial protest vote in the regions. People who feel the “progress” NZ has made over the past decade has passed them by.
This is a constituency for whom the economic “experiment” has failed, and who in the past, under First Past the Post have been powerless to do anything about things as they are surrounded and outnumbered by prosperous farmers.
As this vote remains the key to Jim Anderton’s plans for the coming election- I.E. “Regional Development”, as championed by Saint Jim vs National’s “level playing field – hand’s off” philosophy, the byelections are worth further examination in the context of the Anderton-McCarten contretemps.
But first there is the question of whether the Anderton strategy is realistic or not given the regional economic boom.
Unquestionably it remains the Anderton grand plan, and is probably impossible to change now. But has the sunshine of prosperity in the provinces dried up this puddle of Alliance opportunity? Who knows? Pollsters could do some research but polling on the margins is always hard and until you put in the hard hards it is hard to know how people will vote.
One thing is certain however. To tap into this vote is a hard ask on a party organising front.
It requires passionate party workers, lots of them, working like trojans. And when it comes to organising and rallying the troops, this is McCarten’s job, and his genius.
In the King Country The Alliance actually won the battle of Stratford.
Sludge vividly remembers walking into the Stratford party HQ on election night. Jim was practically jumping out of his skin in delight as the Alliance team started phoning in booth results. Jim’s media supremo John Pagani was similarly delighted. McCarten had a cheshire grin on his face as if to ask “well what did you expect?”.
Both byelections, Selwyn and King Country, were held in dependable blue-rinse country. National victory was by considered pretty much a dead cert. Yet in both cases the Alliance severely disrupted the status quo and made the final toll a close run thing.
This strategy makes some sense and Jim has certainly been putting in the work at the Regional Development end of the equation. Kiwibank has a green light and the Alliance is ready to roll, but only if it can hold itself together.
If Jim Wins
Jim always wins. That is perhaps the principle unwritten rule in the Alliance Party constitution. Jim won at the Party Conference with a vote calling for a “review” of the policy on the war. Jim won yesterday in Caucus. Matt won a bit too, but only some crumbs. At the Press Conference Jim was back “in charge”.
“Only I have authorisation to talk to the media,” he said. But then Matt did too.
Matt McCarten on TV3 last night looked a bit like a startled rabbit. “I’ve been a good boy, and I’ll be a good boy for another couple of weeks”, he said. He appeared to think he was off the hook with Jim. That the “compromise” resolution of the caucus was just that. And that now it was back to business.
However if words can have the consistency of sulphuric acid, then that is what Jim Anderton’s felt like on Morning Report this morning. Jim made it very clear, without actually saying so, that he thought McCarten’s comments were in breach of the caucus decision.
So when Jim wins. What happens then.
As Rod Donald said this morning, this is very much a case of mutually assured destruction (MAD). If McCarten goes, then so does the activist wing of the alliance.
The army of tireless and committed party workers - not to mention the campaign strategist and major general - who Jim needs to mount “operation disgruntled voter” in the provinces, disappears. Jim wins Sydenham of course, but as he biffs the bathwater he loses the baby, and the house falls down.
Jim however does not see things this way. His hardness has always been his strength, at least in his eyes anyway.
It Matt Wins
Matt can’t win. Jim always wins. That’s the rule.
But while Matt can’t win the party, Jim can still lose it.
And while Sludge does not think it likely, given McCarten’s chess master like approach to politics, there remains an outside possibility that this has always been his strategy. Namely, that Jim should be put in a position where he threatens the party’s future so much that it becomes not a question of Matt vs Jim, but Jim vs life-as-we-know-it.
If so, then this point is fast approaching.
The scenario above is not rocket science. If McCarten goes he becomes a left-wing martyr to the cause of the Afghanistan War. And in the process he will split the left of the party irrevocably, and destroy the lion’s share of the party machinery. And for what? For the sake of Jim not having to backdown?
And then comes the question of timing.
Just as Bill English’s supporters chose now to replace Shipley, now would be the right time to get rid of Jim, that is if you have to get rid of Jim and there is to be any hope at all come next November of being in shape for an election.
And in truth, notwithstanding the Sydenham trump card, conceivably the Alliance could now survive without Jim.
Laila Harre, Matt Robson and Sandra Lee in particular have large political profiles now. It would be interesting to see how much they could grow once the shadow of Jim was removed from the stage. Large enough perhaps to build a future for the party?
One thing is certain, McCarten will have a view on exactly this question, and will be willing to offer odds on some numbers.
Sludge must confess to having absolutely no inside line on this question.
But, nevertheless Sludge is fairly confident that McCarten is not trying to get rid of Anderton.
Yes he is risking that possibility, that Jim will walk away with the rattle, and possibly he has underestimated Jim’s anger, but Sludge would still say Matt is doing his best to guide Jim into the realisation that now is the time to start differentiating The Alliance from Labour. And that in doing so things have got out of hand. McCarten likes life in the back room. He doesn’t want Jim’s job.
And McCarten would be probably right to conclude that he is going to find it very hard to mobilise a party full of moral angst over Afghanistan for a campaign next year. The party faithful need more than lip service to be paid to their deeply felt convictions.
For his part Jim needs to recognise that this is the case, and get over any fear he has that any challenge to his authority at all is a bid for the leadership of the Alliance. And even if it is, sooner or later it will come time for him to retire.
That said, at the moment nobody wants to replace him. They just want to be listened to a bit more, and for him to stop being quite so cosy with Helen.
And looking at it from Jim’s perspective, in the end, would it not be better to have a legacy than to end up as another Winston Peters, the political equivalent of a grumpy alligator occupying a decaying castle. Lord of the manor sure, but nobody is coming to the balls any more.
Rod Donald is right to describe this as a MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) scenario, a term derived from the doctrine which prevented the US and Russia from blowing each other up during the cold war. And when you are in a MAD position the answer is always TINA (There Is No Alternative).
To avoid destruction the US and Russia did not start a fight. And it is now the same for Matt and Jim.
For the sake of their supporters, not to mention MMP, the Alliance leaders need to kiss and make up.
They have their compromise on paper now. They need each other. And they both have a huge contribution yet to make to the future of the country and politics.
If they don’t then they both will be sorely missed, at least by this commentator anyway, and MMP coalition politics will have just claimed its second political party victim.