When are we going to learn?
Over the last two years the accepted political consensus of ‘Right vs. Left’ and ‘centrism vs. extremism’ has completely broken down. We have entered into a crisis of democracy that’s been 30 years in the making. Those with the supposed inside knowledge – public relations spin-doctors, bloated ‘think-tanks’, traditional media and political pundits have had their myopic and delusional plans blow up in their faces. Syriza in Greece, Brexit and ‘Corbynism’ in the UK, the overwhelming support for a self-proclaimed Socialist and the unfortunate rise of a Neo-Fascist pig in the United States – every single one of these events have left this enlightened and ‘expert’ caste in a state of dumb shock.
It has been said by many others but i’ll repeat it – the mask of the Establishment has slipped and the people who have been oppressed and left behind have glimpsed the technocratic and uncaring visage underneath. This is an enormous step forward.
Chomsky has commented on the sense of hope that we should take from it. The supreme ideology of any system of control is that it is seen as permanent and ‘the way the world is.’ This has been completely invalidated. Give the people a real choice – talk with them honestly and openly – and the whole thing crumbles. Bernie Sanders’ choice to go against the most ingrained status quo of US politics – that cosying up to moneyed and special interests is the only way to the Presidency – caused an earthquake in the political landscape.
We should always remember – the Establishment and their institutional structures are actually very weak. They just expend billions of dollars on those terrible twins of deceit – advertising and public relations – to make us think they are not. The society we see on TV and in the media is not really the world as it actually is – it is simply the world as they wish us to see it. It is the softest and most effective method of control ever developed in the history of mankind. The Politburo could only dream of something so effective.
But I digress. So when will we learn? Sadly, despite all of the evidence, some of us haven’t. The election of Jacinda Ardern to the Labour leadership is most definitely a thing to be optimistic about and to celebrate, and not just because it is another healthy acknowledgement of women in power and politics, a place so historically dominated (to its severe detriment) by men. But we have to be honest – the reaction from those who consider themselves Progressives or Liberals to this new appointment is absurd. It is silly, it is naive and it is dangerous.
Why? Because it again demonstrates that for some reason we haven’t the intellectual capacity to recognise how superficial this change is. Why are we happy to be sucked into a cult of personality, and to ignore sub-standard policy while we do it?
I wrote a letter to Jacinda in 2015 which I entitled “A Labour of the Left” – I had met her briefly at an event in Grey Lynn and she seemed like a really nice person and open to new ideas. I began by saying that I was “writing because I feel there are ways the party has been sabotaging itself” and that I believed that she may “represent the best possibility of arresting this process.” I implored her not to follow the path towards the “new centre” and that it “eviscerates a party and damages its soul.” I asked her to look at how the “path to victory was not the reclamation of the right”, but “the galvanisation of those whose hearts…are with the common people.” I protested against the game of trying to appear “more competent” on the economy than the National Party, and instead advocated for the need to “change the discussion completely…to reinstate different priorities” other than dull “economic indices” by “laying down a grassroots campaign with social justice at its cornerstone.” I asked if Labour could possibly feel happy with itself, and by extension could its base, if it must “lose itself to gain the vote”. I explained my view that at the time the “smug reaction of the conservative media and calcified political class” actually “belies an uneasiness about the possibilities” of a radical, progressive stance. I asked how long must we lose elections before we realise that if we follow behind an electorate being led down the wrong path by the National Party carrot, “feebly interjecting our views and moderating our outrage to public opinion” then we are doomed. I ended by imploring her to think on this and wishing her the best.
Unfortunately I never got a reply. And also unfortunately, I have little faith that she will follow the path that I felt and still feel is correct. I understand we are seven weeks out from an election and drastic policy change appears like a daunting proposition. But there are other signs that this is a cosmetic change without substance. Jacinda was asked recently about her stance as a ‘democratic socialist’ – remember that term? It was brought screaming back into popularity by the Sanders campaign. It seems like Jacinda is not as wedded to it as before and considers herself now a ‘pragmatic idealist.’ Aside from this being a bit of an oxymoron, it represents a definite climb-down. It also very closely echoes the words of the doomed Clinton campaign when they were forced to recognise the danger of being outflanked on the left. Remember that too? Clinton very disingenuously referred to herself as a “progressive who likes to gets things done” – in an attempt to co-opt the language and image of Progressivism, while offering policies far from its principles. I’m no political expert – but I’m pretty sure it’s a bad sign if you’re plucking ideas from the worst-run campaign in living memory.
Commentators have also raised some concerns about Jacinda’s previous attendance at a Paul Henry book launch – legitimising this racist, sexist and generally idiotic bigot. Most disturbing for me, was her attendance at an event with Tony Blair. You may take umbrage with this one – and to confess, I do not know who else was in attendance, probably lots of politicians from the Labour party – but that doesn’t make it any better. In fact, let’s compare this with another current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. For many years he was the leader of the anti-war movement in the UK, and has been vocal in his belief that Tony Blair not only committed war crimes, but deserves to be locked up for a very long time. This is the current leader of the Labour Party calling for the imprisonment of a former one. That to me is as principled a stance as you can get. I can’t escape the feeling that acknowledging or legitimising him is a gross error in judgment.
This brings me to the most naive flight of fancy entertained by those who consider themselves progressive or on the ‘Left.’ This fantasy that perhaps the Labour party under Jacinda can have some enormous turnaround and upset like that seen in the recent UK election. This is profoundly dumb. Labour in the UK had such a dramatic success because it completely restructured how it makes decisions to include greater participation of its members and because it presented a manifesto that was probably the most progressive ever on offer. Free University tuition. Renationalisation of railways. Ending tax avoidance. Raising taxes on the very wealthy. Committing to a strong National Health Service. Bold environmental action. The list goes on.
We must realise that our Labour party in NZ is a shadow of this kind of commitment. Their plans for early childhood support are woeful and inadequate, they have refused to discuss raising taxes and they continue to support a broken welfare system and its ridiculous premises. Working for Families is nothing but a subsidy for industry and a reflection of our low-wage economy. They also refuse to address the obscenity of a superannuation system that we can’t afford, and that pays the same amount to all regardless of wealth, while inequality stubbornly persists.
They do all of these things not because they are bad, or don’t care, or have some secret agenda. They do it because they are an Establishment party, and they must at times put the need to win votes over the pursuit of bold, evidence-based policy. It’s really that simple. But this is terribly flawed for two huge reasons.
Firstly, it reveals they have a cynical view of the average voter – that we are propelled by self-interest alone. I couldn’t disagree with this more. I truly believe that if you speak openly and honestly with people, they make empathic and logical decisions. The argument over superannuation is helpful here – if they had the guts to tell pensioners that if they need the money they will get it, and if they don’t it will go to those who are vulnerable and at the bottom (perhaps their children or their grandchildren) they would be surprised at the level of understanding and empathy this idea receives. But it is seen too much as the sacred cow of NZ politics.
People only work against their self-interests when they are lied to and their emotions are manipulated, in contrast to the message being honestly addressed to their intellect and their better nature. Winston is the perfect example of this kind of dog-whistling perfidy. The man is a festering sore in the flesh of our national discourse. But he can be very easily lanced by a return to an honest style of politics. John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor and Jeremy Corbyn’s right-hand man, made this a cornerstone of the Labour UK campaign – a return to “honest politics”, after the slimy PR triangulation of Alistair Campbell, and that murdering politician, who Jacinda was happy to receive silver words from, Tony Blair.
Secondly, it is a gross misreading of the electorate, especially the youth. If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that people, in particular young people, have a pretty good nose for bull-shitting politicians – or as the late, great Carl Sagan called it, a well-developed “baloney-detection kit”. And this is why, even though I write this piece out of frustration towards those of my peers who seem to still put image over policy, I don’t think a new leader of the Labour party is going to be a success – certainly not of the magnitude of some of their naive hopes. Because the age of this kind of thing working is coming to an end, and good riddance to it.
Sanders and Corbyn didn’t have the success they did because they are particularly attractive, although I suppose they do have somewhat of a fussy-old-man charm. They succeeded because they spoke to the pain people are feeling, because they had backgrounds of advocating for the same things tirelessly for 30 years, because they communicated honestly and directly to our better natures, because they didn’t triangulate their positions to please certain groups and, most important of all, because they put forward clear, radical and progressive policy. Labour is simply not doing that – it’s policy is not for the 21st century and their potential radicalism is still cowed by the same ridiculous logic of the so-called political ‘experts’. These ‘experts’, to put it bluntly, are either nefarious, stupid or delusional.
Labour are the old-guard, and they are dying. They are still in the pursuit of a fictitious “centre”, Helen Clark’s “third way”, and they will continue to lose every election until they recognise the idiocy of this approach. I want a strong majority opposition and I want Jacinda to lead it with her obvious natural talent and amiable nature. But what I really want more than anything else are policies that are actually based in reality, and that will work most effectively, especially for those left behind.
If you consider yourself a Progressive, you cannot vote for this Labour Party. Not when we have on offer policies that are more humane, considered and can lead to better lives for us all. I speak firstly of The Opportunities Party, and secondly of the Greens. We simply cannot continue rewarding Labour for what is, sadly, a profound lack of courage.