Sunday, 30 August 2015

Poetry For Jeremy Corbyn!

PENDANT PUBLISHING in the UK has published a free e-book of 19 poems, edited by Russell Bennetts, entitled Poets For Corbyn which celebrates the political phenomenon of Jeremy Corbyn and all the hopes he carries for the birth – or rebirth – of an authentic British Labour Party. I have reproduced here the contribution of Michael Rosen, a fellow historian, because it so succinctly captures the vacuity of Corbyn’s opponent’s arguments. The rest of the poems are available at  Enjoy.
For Jeremy Corbyn

Michael Rosen

Fresh from:
proclaiming the virtues of the
1000 year dynasty, the British monarchy;
advising us of the special qualities of a
non-elected second chamber
with its origins in Norman rule;
celebrating an economic system
that was developed and finessed
with the use of child labour around 1810;
continuing to solve international disputes
with the 10,000 year old method of
killing those you disagree with;
they tell us that socialism is outdated.

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

With A Little Help From His Friends: Who Is Andrew Little Listening To?

Say What? How ironic it would be if, just as Jeremy Corbyn is showing us how Labour politics can be made to work, Andrew Little threw in his lot with those who have, to date, only shown us how to make them fail.
WHO politicians turn to for advice tells the world a great deal about what sort of people they are. Do they go straight for the professionals? Or, do they rely on friends and family? Most importantly, do they seek guidance from people who simply reinforce their prejudices, or are they guided by those who are willing to openly challenge their deepest assumptions?
The Labour Party leader, Andrew Little, is a cautious man, and, by and large, he has opted to surround himself with cautious people. Professionally trained, himself, he expects a high degree of professionalism from his staff. As a lawyer, he has a natural  inclination towards following the rules of whatever game he is playing.
Persuading Little to take a risk is hard work – but not impossible. His decision to keep on David Cunliffe’s Chief-of-Staff, Matt McCarten, is a case in point. McCarten’s radical reputation would likely have proven too much for Little’s rivals, but his own background in the trade union movement made Little much less prone to an attack of the vapours. McCarten may talk like a revolutionary, but, as the leader of the Unite Union, he always knew when it was time to tie up the attack dogs and seal the deal.
Little was also aware of just how much he owed McCarten for his wafer-thin victory over Grant Robertson. It was, after all, McCarten who, like the Praetorian Guards of Imperial Rome, understood the supreme importance of timing in the “transition” from one Caesar to the next. It’s never enough, simply to know when the moment has come to strike down the Emperor who has failed, one must also know around whose shoulders to drape the blood-stained purple toga, and upon whose head to place the golden diadem. McCarten chose Little’s head – and Little knows it.
Little also knows that the best service McCarten can offer his leadership is to embrace fully his role as the Emperor’s Praetorian enforcer. This was, after all, the role at which he excelled when he was with the Alliance. In Jim Anderton’s fractious coalition, McCarten was the man who kept the noisy ones quiet, and the quiet ones under surveillance. Little has put McCarten’s head-kicking skills to work in the Labour Party where, by all accounts, he has picked up from where Helen Clark’s fearsome enforcer, Heather Simpson, left off seven years ago. Given the extraordinary lack of discipline in Labour’s ranks since 2008, one is tempted to observe: and not a moment too soon!
McCarten, however, will always be an ally of Little’s – not a mate. That title belongs to the man he has appointed his Political Director, Neale Jones. The two men both hail from the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) where Jones served alongside Little, before haring off to the UK and contracting himself to a number of progressive and campaigning NGOs. If London can be said to have a “beltway”, Jones clearly knew his way around it.
And therein lies a potentially very large problem. Unlike McCarten, who brings with him the whiff of cordite and a kit-bag full of class-war stories, Jones is very much the political technocrat. In this respect, he is very like his boss: dogged, well-briefed, sensitive to the rules of the game, and thoroughly unimpressed by political passion. Hence Jones’ aversion to rushing Labour into anything. After the disasters of Goff, Shearer and Cunliffe, he believes Labour priorities should, for the moment, be strictly remedial. Not until the public’s lost love for Labour has been restored will Jones be happy to let the party, its leader, and its long-suffering rank-and-file, let fly with a little live ammunition.
How, then, to explain Labour’s curious foray into the treacherous territory of ethnicity and foreign investment? Who was it who thought singling-out Chinese investors in a city where Chinese residents make up nearly 10 percent of the population was a good idea?
The man responsible for manipulating the leaked Auckland housing statistics into something Labour’s housing spokesperson, Phil Twyford, could use was Rob Salmond. Anyone looking for proof of what can happen to a political party when it allows itself to be persuaded that politics is not an art – but a science – need look no further than the relationship between Labour and Salmond.
After a few years teaching at an American university, Salmond returned to New Zealand certain he could adapt the techniques he saw employed by the Obama Campaign to New Zealand conditions. This is the “science” of politics that sends out postcards detailing the voting habits of people’s neighbours, in an attempt to psychologically dispose them towards doing the same. Somehow, Salmond persuaded the Labour Party to unleash these sorts of highly manipulative tactics on the long-suffering New Zealand voter. Sadly, as we all know, his political “science” failed to fire, and Labour’s share of the popular vote declined to its lowest point since 1922.
Salmond has recently posted a couple of articles on the Public Address Blog in which he wields his ideological agnosticism like a club against anyone who dares to argue that political parties should “stand for something”. All that matters, according to Salmond, is winning over “the middle” – a political designation, apparently, determined not by geometry, but by opinion polling! How one accomplishes this feat, without sacrificing a political party’s ideological (and hence electoral) coherence, he does not elucidate.
Salmond’s overall influence within the Leader of the Opposition’s Office is difficult to judge, but Little should think hard before again taking him into Labour’s confidence. His insistence that there is a road to electoral victory that allows a political party to bypass the ideological commitments inseparable from political conviction; that elections can be won by some sort of tricky “scientific” fix; if accepted by Little and his team, can only place New Zealand Labour in the same sorry position as the British Labour Party under Ed Miliband.
How ironic it would be if, just as Jeremy Corbyn is showing us how Labour politics can be made to work, Little threw in his lot with those who have, to date, only shown us how to make them fail.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 29 August 2015.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Of Capitalist Catastrophes And Collectivist Triumphs

Greed Meets Fear: A New York stockbroker attempts to keep pace with the vertiginous slide in the Dow Jones Index following China's "Black Monday" (24/8/15). Capitalism likes to paint itself as a force of nature, before which human-beings are individually and collectively powerless. Only when this economic fatalism is challenged by people's renewed confidence in the efficacy of collective action can capitalism's catastrophes be overcome.
ROUND AND ROUND AND ROUND it goes, and where it stops nobody knows! You might think that ordinary human-beings would have tired of Capitalism’s cyclical catastrophes by now. But our capacity to absorb these entirely man-made calamities appears to be no less impressive than our ability to cope with the genuine disasters nature sends our way. Indeed, Capitalism’s longevity is, almost certainly, attributable to its success in convincing us that it, too, is a force of Nature – something far beyond our feeble strength to influence for good or ill.
It was not always so. Eighty years ago, with the world in the clutches of another capitalist catastrophe, human-beings somewhere found the collective strength to denounce this “force of nature” falsehood. They decided that what humankind could ruin just by “letting things go” (laissez-faire) it could rebuild by replacing the “invisible hand” of the all-powerful capitalist market with their own.
The American President, Franklin Roosevelt, demonstrated the power of those all-too-visible hands in the massive public works of his “New Deal”. And the British Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, likewise demonstrated what focused political will could achieve when, in the midst of post-war austerity, the British people created their National Health Service.
Nor was New Zealand lacking in these triumphs of the people’s will. The First Labour Government’s Social Security Act of 1938 was New Zealand’s answer to the poverty and desperation of the Great Depression. Likewise its state housing programme: a massive construction effort funded by “Reserve Bank Credit”. (A capital source unrecognised by contemporary capitalist economists!)
So spectacular were the achievements of collective endeavour in the years before, during and after the Second World War, that capitalists everywhere felt obliged to pay them a grudging lip-service. This apparent conversion was, however, illusory. Whenever the parties of “private enterprise” managed to supplant the parties of collectivism, the latter’s policies were either subtly, or not so subtly, perverted. Projects designed to serve the interests of the many, always seemed to end up by disproportionately benefitting the few.
Visionary Blueprints: Ministry of Works plans for "The Auckland That Never Was".
The visionary blueprints for the development of post-war Auckland, drawn up in the mid-1940s by Ministry of Works planners, anticipated the goals of Auckland’s contemporary urban planners by 70 years. Tragically, the election of the First National Government, in 1949, put paid to this “Auckland that never was”, leaving Aucklanders with the sprawling, automobile-dependent conurbations that, today, they cannot afford to fix.
An even more comprehensive development plan, this time embracing the whole country, was brought together by William B. Sutch in the 1950s. One of New Zealand’s most creative (and controversial) public servants, Sutch recognised, very early, the urgent need for New Zealand to diversify its agricultural commodity-based economy. He argued for the sort of value-added products that distinguished the export-base of small economies like Switzerland and Denmark. This would require a much stronger national emphasis on skills acquisition and tertiary education. Only with a highly educated workforce could New Zealand produce the innovation necessary to broaden its economy. Sutch also argued for an economy that was much less import dependent. New Zealand, he said, must develop a much stronger industrial base.
In the Second Labour Government (1957-1960) led by Walter Nash, Sutch found a pair of eager listeners. The Finance Minister, Arnold Nordmeyer, and the Industry and Commerce Minister, Philip Holloway, were both convinced that Sutch’s ideas offered the only coherent path to a more prosperous, and less vulnerable, economic future for New Zealand. It is one of the great tragedies of this country’s history that the Second Labour Government did not last long enough for the change it contemplated to be undertaken and become entrenched.
As Sutch would later write: “The National Party could not have made this change because of their dependence for financial and political support on the farmers, importers, merchants and finance houses.” Plus ça change!
It’s been seven years since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 provided yet another warning of New Zealand’s economic vulnerability. Was it heeded? There’s scant evidence of it. What cannot be missed, however, is seven years of enormous investment in dairying. The export of raw commodities remains this country’s stock-in-trade.
Today, as another capitalist catastrophe looms, is it not time to heed the collective spirit of ‘38 and ‘45 and ’57? Those years when “Yes we can!” was more than a presidential slogan.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 August 2015.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Whaddarya? David Slack talks Rugby at the Ika Seafood Bar and Grill.

Whaddarya? David Slack epitomises the thinking, egalitarian, inclusive and creative half of New Zealand society that has always been so feared and despised by the hyper-masculine, woman-hating, anti-intellectual, Rugby-worshipping half. How we Kiwis have made one nation out of two such mutually hostile traditions was the subject of David's "Salon" spot at Ika Seafood Bar & Grill on Tuesday night.
ALL NEW ZEALANDERS must live with Rugby. There is no possibility of escaping, and absolutely no chance of ignoring it. Rugby, love it or hate it, has exerted, and continues to exert, a tremendous influence on the way New Zealand presents itself to the world. It has certainly left its mark on David Slack. In the “Salon” spotlight at the Ika Seafood Bar & Grill on Tuesday night (25/8/15) the professional speech-writer, author and broadcaster proved how impossible it is to discuss New Zealand’s brutal national game without, at the same time, discussing the nature of the society which supports it – and oneself.
Slack was born in Feilding, a small town in the Manawatu, that could easily have been the setting for Greg McGee’s extraordinary play about Rugby, Foreskin’s Lament. The sort of town about which these lines from the play could have been written:
“This is a team game, son, and the town is the team. It’s the town’s honour at stake when the team plays, god knows there’s not much else around here.”
The frankly fascist implications of the statement “the town is the team” need little elucidation. It was Mussolini, after all, who came up with the slogan: “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”
Slack’s description of his Fielding contemporaries as “knuckle-dragging sons of the soil” speaks eloquently of a young boy made to feel like an “exile” from his own country. Growing up in Fielding, Slack’s subversively divergent personal priorities (he read books!) would elicit from his peers, over and over again, the single, brute interrogatory: “Whaddarya!”
“Whaddarya!” is, literally, the last word of Foreskin’s Lament. Its electrifying effect produced by McGee’s inspired inversion of the word’s usual purpose. Instead of drawing attention to the “other’s” difference – and so confirming his or her exclusion from the team/town/nation – the word was hurled back in the audience’s face. “Whaddarya!” was McGee’s defiant challenge to a country that was already, in 1980, gearing up to welcome the Springbok ambassadors of apartheid.
1981 – and all that. The Springbok Tour cannot be avoided in any honest discussion of New Zealand Rugby (unless, of course, you are the Prime Minister). It was as if both sides, Pro- and Anti-Tour, had contrived to line up and scream “Whaddarya!” at each other for 56 days of utterly uncharacteristic political passion. For Slack, and the tens-of-thousands of others who opposed the Tour, the issue was whether or not the more open and diverse country that New Zealand was becoming would prevail, or, be smothered to death in the fascistic headlock of all those “knuckle-dragging sons of the soil” who wouldn’t have hesitated to affirm the slogan: “All within Rugby, nothing outside Rugby, nothing against Rugby.”
After 1981, it seemed that the two halves of New Zealand could never be brought back together. Rugby became a litmus test. If you were a fan, then you were morally reprehensible: a “Rugby thug” who was also, no doubt, a racist, sexist, homophobe. In the new New Zealand that was rapidly taking shape there could be no place for such people.
But, of course, there was a place for them. As the hero of Foreskin’s Lament reproves the liberal feminist character, Moira, following one of her diatribes against the piggishness of New Zealand’s Rugby culture:
“This is the heart and bowels of this country, too strong and foul and vital for reduction to bouquets, or oils, or words. If you think they’re pigs, then you’d better look closer, and get used to the smell, because their smell is your smell.”
Remove Rugby from the New Zealand equation and we no longer add up.
Slack has written a delightful history of the childhood game of “Bullrush”. In it he celebrates the “teamlessness” of the game, and the way people remember it with smiles and laughter. This, he seems to be saying, is the true essence of the Kiwi character; the way we really are before the “town” turns us into emotionally-stunted sacrifices to the mud-splattered god, whose only gospel is “kick the shit out of everything that gets in the way of winning the game”.
But that just won’t do. And, in his gloriously meandering address, Slack more-or-less conceded as much. Yes, New Zealand is about the anarchic individualism of Bullrush, but it also about the fascism of the First Fifteen. We are, if I may borrow that most overused of Rugby phrases, a game of two halves. And at some point over the past 34 years, almost unnoticed, those two halves have become one again – at least when the All Blacks are playing.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 26 August 2015.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The Great Fear: Why Farmers Won’t Let The Health And Safety Reform Bill Pass.

Hard Going: All attempts to intrude regulations pertinent to the general welfare of all New Zealanders beyond the farm gate has invariably been met with ferocious political opposition. Whether it be the public’s “right to roam”, the doomed “Fart Tax”, the Emissions Trading Scheme, or, in just the last few weeks, the Health and Safety Reform Bill, the cry of New Zealand’s cockies has been – "They shall not pass!"
IT WAS GENOCIDE of a special kind. Relentless mass killing inspired not by ethnicity, or religion, but by the victims’ social and economic position. “The liquidation of the Kulaks as a class” was one of Joseph Stalin’s greatest crimes. Farmers around the world looked on in horror, and their instinctive hostility towards the collectivising tendencies of city-based socialists congealed into an implacable hatred.
As a political designation, “Kulak” is derived from the Polish word for “fist” – as in “tight fisted” – making it, from the very beginning, a term of abuse for those farmers who had worked harder and smarter than their neighbours, produced a surplus, sold it on the open market, purchased some basic agricultural machinery with the proceeds, hired a little help – and made a profit.
Even in Tsarist times (when Poland was a part of the Russian Empire) the Kulaks were objects of envy and suspicion. After the Bolshevik Revolution, however, to be classed (and the word is used here advisedly) as a Kulak all-too-often meant persecution, confiscation, and, with the advent of “the collectivisation of agriculture” in late 1920s and early 30s, arrest, deportation, enslavement in the gulags [Soviet forced labour camps] and death.
With the Revolution’s ruthless elimination of the old Russian aristocracy, the Kulaks – though only marginally better off than their neighbours – had found themselves elevated to the status of the new capitalist class in the countryside. The smarter Bolsheviks had wanted to harness the drive and entrepreneurial flair of the Kulaks to secure the volume of exportable agricultural surpluses required to make socialism affordable for the rest of the USSR’s population.
Stalin was having none of it. The great Soviet experiment could not be held hostage to the capitalistic proclivities of its peasant farmers – no matter how economically productive. Agriculture must be collectivised and industrialised. Peasants must become workers. “Now”, Stalin boasted in 1929, “we have the opportunity to carry out a resolute offensive against the kulaks, break their resistance, eliminate them as a class and replace their production with the production of kolkhozes [collective farms] and sovkhozes [state-owned farms].”

"Do Not Trust Him! This Czech poster, from the 1940s, depicts the Kulak as the most hardened enemy of Socialism.
Ancient history? Not a bit of it! The fate of farmers under conditions of “actually existing socialism” has stood as a cautionary tale to generation after generation of Kiwi cockies. The very idea of the state and its minions attempting to impose their will beyond the farm gate fills New Zealand farmers with a combination of fury and dread. Resistance, loud and implacable, has always been their first response.

Except, of course, when collective solutions were manifestly in the farmers’ interest – as was the case with the guaranteed prices and massive state subsidies that underpinned New Zealand agriculture from the 1930s to the 1980s. Like so many other Kiwi capitalists, farmers have never had a problem with socialising the costs and privatising the profits of their endeavours.
Well, hardly ever. When, in 1972, the National Government suggested the compulsory acquisition of the entire New Zealand wool clip, the parliamentary candidate for the Southland seat of Awarua, a farmer named Aubrey Begg, thundered that: “If this measure is allowed to proceed, we might as well paint a hammer and sickle on every barn door in New Zealand!” (And he was the Labour candidate!)
The farmers’ great fear of socialism is nowhere better displayed than in their unwavering refusal to recognise workers’ rights. Such recognition would only open the door to the trade unions – long resisted (think "Massey’s Cossacks") as both the harbingers and hand-maidens of every socialist burden ever imposed upon the long-suffering cockie.
One imagines the fate of the doomed kulaks looming large in the farmers’ fevered imaginations when, in 1936, the First Labour Government passed the Agricultural Workers Act. No doubt its provision of a minimum wage, four weeks paid holiday, and radically improved housing, for all farm workers, was regarded as proof positive that the Kiwi Kulaks’ one-way trip to the gulags was imminent!
Though the word “Kulak” may have faded from twenty-first century cockies’ vocabulary, their visceral fear of trade unionists and the socialist aspirations they embody, has not. Which is why any and every attempt to intrude regulations pertinent to the general welfare of all New Zealanders beyond the farm gate is invariably met with ferocious political opposition. Whether it be the public’s “right to roam”, the doomed “Fart Tax”, the Emissions Trading Scheme, or, in just the last few weeks, the Health and Safety Reform Bill, the cry of New Zealand’s cockies has been the same as the cry of the communist defenders of the Spanish Republic: ¡No pasarán! – They Shall Not Pass!
The rest of New Zealand must understand that allowing farm workers to manage their own health and safety would open the door for trade unionism – and socialism!
And what could possibly be more dangerous than that?!
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 25 August 2015.

Carefully Constructed Lies: Moving In The Direction Of Neoliberalism

George Orwell Had Their Measure: In his dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, he presented characters who are actually very thankful for the ability to behave as though the lies their political leaders tell them are true. After all, people convinced they’re being lied to might start demanding the truth – and that could lead to all kinds of trouble.
HOW ANGRY “CENTRISTS” GET when they’re referred to in anything less than the most congratulatory terms. As if their appalling ignorance of, and disdain for, politics is something to be proud of. And yet, proud they are – very proud – of their refusal to shoulder even the most basic responsibilities of citizenship. Day after day, these people are fed statements by their political leaders which cannot, in any way, be reconciled with the facts – but which, their obvious falsity notwithstanding, they accept as true.
George Orwell had their measure. In his dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, he presented characters who are actually very thankful for the ability to behave as though the lies their political leaders tell them are true. After all, people convinced they’re being lied to might start demanding the truth – and that could lead to all kinds of trouble. Orwell even invented a name for this condition: doublethink.
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself – that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.
In short: “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
The all-pervasive ideological system which required the citizens of “Airstrip One” [Great Britain] to practice doublethink was “Ingsoc” [English Socialism]. Though no centrist would accept for a moment that New Zealand society is in any way comparable to Orwell’s dystopia, it is not at all difficult to see in the all-pervasive influence of neoliberalism a polity more than a little analogous to Big Brother’s totalitarian regime.
It is one of the most frightening features of totalitarian systems that their effectiveness relies less upon naked force than it does upon the ordinary person’s realisation that, in practical terms, going with the flow of the new system makes much more sense than attempting to stand against it. In Nazi Germany, this was called “moving in the direction of the Fuhrer”. Adolf Hitler’s beliefs being well known and understood, it was unnecessary for his ministers to issue precise instructions concerning the implementation of his new government’s policies. Bureaucrats and other authority figures simply acted as they believed the Fuhrer would wish them to act.
Is it not possible to see in the appalling treatment meted out to beneficiaries of all kinds by MSD and WINZ bureaucrats more than a little of this “moving in the direction of the Fuhrer” phenomenon? No detailed memos will have been sent out to MSD employees – indeed, it would’ve been most unwise to put such sentiments down in writing – but everyone in that bureaucracy knows exactly what is expected of them. Government ministers, editorial writers and talkback hosts have made it very clear what the appropriate demeanour towards their beneficiary “clients” should be. They all know how their bosses would wish them to act.
If any centrists are still reading this, their blood pressure will no doubt be rising rapidly. “I’m not like that! This isn’t Nazi Germany! You’re out of you mind!” The great problem, of course, for these outraged folk, is that between 1933 and 1938 Nazi Germany wasn’t like Nazi Germany. For most German citizens, and in the eyes of the rest of the world, Hitler was a hero, and his regime’s achievements – full-employment especially – the envy of all those nations still mired in economic depression.
No, we don’t have concentration camps filled with John Key’s opponents. But that is not, of itself, proof that our democracy survives unscathed. It might just as easily point to the extraordinary success of what is, indisputably, the most successful totalitarian ideology in human history. Neoliberalism is a brilliantly conceived edifice of lies which, in order to have a successful career, it is in the intelligent citizen’s interest to affirm as an unanswerable collection of self-evident truths.
If you can do this without demonstrating the slightest traces of amusement, stress or guilt, then there’s a better than even chance that you call yourself a centrist.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 24 August 2015.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Swamp Things: The Political “Centre” Contains Only What The Left And The Right Put Into It.

The Machinery For Change: Startlingly captured in this image are the many components of political consciousness formation in the Twenty-First Century. The sensibilities of so-called "Centrist" voters are constructed out of a multitude of similarly mediated experiences. What should never be forgotten, however, are the very real events out of which popular perceptions are fashioned.

YOU KNOW THE LEFT’s on a roll, when Labour’s number-cruncher, Rob Salmond, comes out “In Defence of the Centre”. It’s all Jeremy Corbyn’s fault, of course. Even here, in the far antipodes, the excitement generated by his campaign for the leadership of the British Labour Party is palpable. It leaps out at us from the videos of packed halls and chanting crowds. And we know it’s real because, from his enemies, we get only scorn and hatred – and the unmistakeable stench of fear.

Along with all the same old arguments about elections being won in the centre. Which is, of course, true – but trivial. In a society where enthusiasms of any kind are regarded with deep suspicion, it is hardly surprising that people overwhelmingly characterise themselves as inhabitants of the centre ground – “Middle New Zealanders”.

That most self-identified “centrists” are no such thing never appears to bother the political scientists of this world. To the number-crunchers of electoral politics the only thing that matters is that there are a lot of them. So many, in fact, that it is more-or-less impossible to win elections without them. But let us be very clear about the priorities and preoccupations of this group. It is “centrist” only insofar as it occupies the swampland between the shores of rock-solid belief that loom to left and right.

Centrists’ “ideas” are a weird amalgam of television images, talkback arguments and newspaper headlines. Their morals are drawn from half-remembered parental reproofs; lines from songs, movies, TV dramas, novels and magazines – not forgetting pub-talk and the angry abuse of social media. Centrists communicate in the common parlance of popular culture: the inconsistent, self-contradictory and ever-changing patois of office, street, tavern and suburban lounge. Politically-speaking, the Centre is a rubbish skip: if there’s a message in there, then, for the most part, it’s a very confused one.

And if that sounds like the manifesto of your average political party, then you’re right on the money. The endless pursuit of the Centrist voter has reduced our politicians to the equivalent of those journalistic low-lifes who go scavenging through the garbage of the rich and famous. In much the same way, the carelessly discarded detritus of the men and women “in the middle” gets picked over by political rubbish men, cleaned up, and re-cycled into party policy.

The enormous appeal of men like Jeremy Corbyn is that their messages do not carry the oily patina of the centrist swamp. People respond to the message’s clarity, its simplicity, and the way each piece of its fits together to form a coherent picture of an alternative future. At first, not everybody sees the picture, but before too long word of its power and beauty spreads. There are images of it on television; arguments in its favour are heard on talkback; and it gets condensed into newspaper headlines. Parents recall catching a glimpse of the picture when they were young. There are songs about it – movies and TV dramas follow. It’s talked about in offices, streets, pubs and suburban lounges.

And the political rubbish men who go poking about in the skips of the Centre are suddenly confronted with evidence of some very different patterns of consumption. And the message it conveys is very clear.

The Centre has changed.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 22 August 2015.