Challenging The Conventional Wisdom: The Labour Right believes the party can only succeed by conforming to the prevailing political and socioeconomic orthodoxy; the Labour Left understands that the whole point of the party is to challenge and change it.
PHIL QUIN writes a mean political column. His long-standing connections to the right of the New Zealand Labour Party are extensive and strong. When he writes about politics, especially electoral politics, it is from personal experience and with considerable authority. His contribution to the Dialogue Page in this morning’s (30/7/14) NZ Herald is a case in point.
Under the heading “Inept Labour needs to aim higher” Quin argues strongly that “Labour’s strategists are misguided in their conviction that fewer than 30 percent of the vote is sufficient to form a viable government.” Ranging himself alongside fellow dissidents, Shane Jones and Josie Pagani, he urges Labour to “lift its sights to become a 40 percent party, capable of winning a broad spectrum of voters from all parts of the country.”
For a history graduate from Vic’ this is a pretty disappointing analysis. Between 1990 and 2011 Labour has managed to be a “40 percent party” only twice (2002 and 2005) and on both occasions Labour’s success owed more to the condition of the National Party than it did to its own.
In 2002 the National Opposition was in more-or-less total disarray and slumped to its lowest ever result of 20.9 percent of the Party Vote. Just three years later, however, National’s new leader, Don Brash, stood at the head of a no-holds-barred, far-right crusade to re-ignite the neoliberal bonfire of everything Labour voters hold dear. Unsurprisingly, its core supporters flocked to the polling-booths in pure self-defence.
Even with these “advantages” Labour only just made it over the 40 percent line, winning 41.2 percent in 2002 and 41.1 percent in 2005. The average level of support for Labour since 1990 is, however, much lower. In the eight general elections since that year it has won, on average, just 35 percent of the popular vote.
In other words, Rogernomics long ago put paid to the “40 percent party”. Labour ceased to be “a credible party capable of winning a broad spectrum of support from all parts of the country” the moment its parliamentary leadership succumbed to (in Phil’s own words) “corporate interests and right-wing politicians”. The very same people whose “fierce determination to defend the prevailing political and socioeconomic orthodoxy that shapes New Zealand’s capitalist system and delivers its beneficiaries ever-expanding wealth, power and privilege” split the party, put an end to FPP, and opened up the political space to Labour’s left for all manner of radical challengers.
An historian ought to know this sort of thing. Just as he ought to realise that Labour itself, by steadfastly advancing what were regarded, in the 1930s and 40s, as extremely radical policies, constructed a new social and economic order which the National Party, in order to be elected, was required to preserve intact. Labour’s social-democratic state had become “the prevailing political and socioeconomic orthodoxy”. To remain electorally competitive National had to accept the role of the “other” social-democratic party.
Roger Douglas’s singular achievement was to effect a transformation of the social and economic order every bit as radical as Mickey Savage’s and Peter Fraser’s – but in the opposite ideological direction. Neoliberalism was now the new orthodoxy which the leaders of both major parties, under threat of severe economic sanctions from the international financial markets, were obliged to preserve intact. So strong was the grip of the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” that even when Helen Clark was in command of a “40 percent party” she did not dare to challenge it.
And it is right about here in the discussion that Phil’s argument for Labour to become a “40 percent party” begins to fall apart. What he is actually saying is that, just as National in the 1950s, 60s and 70s was forced to become the “other” social-democratic party, Labour in the twenty-first century must accept the role of the “other” neoliberal party.
What’s more, a closer examination of the Labour Right’s constant exhortations to Labour to embrace “the centre” reveal them to be cruelly disingenuous. What Phil and his comrades are really urging Labour to do is pitch its primary appeal to those New Zealanders who are still holding their own (or even prospering) under the prevailing neoliberal regime. The people whose precarious position of privilege vis-a-vis the working poor and beneficiaries renders them unashamedly reluctant to redistribute even a little of the wealth they have “worked so hard for”. Beneath a superficial “concern” for the disadvantaged, these voters conceal a visceral contempt for the poor. They are terrified of being forced to share their resources with the “undeserving” and will have absolutely no truck with any political party which suggests that, as citizens, they have a moral obligation to put an end to inequality and poverty.
It was to placate these citizens that David Shearer waxed eloquent about “the beneficiary on the roof”, and why even David Cunliffe forbears from speaking out too forcefully about the lives of the poor and what Labour proposes to do to improve them.
Unfortunately for Phil and his ilk, Labour’s rank-and-file have no desire to become a “40 percent party” if, as part of the process, they are required to give up all hope of ever again becoming an organisation brave enough to challenge and transform the existing economic and social order.
The Labour Right regards this stubborn refusal to abandon principle in the name of power as evidence of utter fuckwittedness. So much so that he concludes his column with a frank call for heads to roll down at Party HQ.
“If Labour fails to break well into the 30s, the party president and general secretary should resign and party council members should convene urgently to consider their own positions.”
Back in the old Soviet Union this would have been called a purge.
And don’t for a moment think that Phil has forgotten the party leader.
“As for David Cunliffe, he should resign with grace and alacrity as soon as it becomes apparent he is unable to form a government, which might be far earlier on the evening of September 20 than any Labour voter would wish to contemplate.”
Clearly, the Labour Right, utterly inadequate to the task of slaying the party’s dominant left-wing faction itself, is resorting instead to demanding its collective suicide. What Phil refuses to contemplate, however, is that the Labour Left, having concluded that the long and difficult journey towards social justice might proceed more efficiently without the constant nay-saying of those unshakably committed to the “prevailing political and socioeconomic orthodoxy”, might decide to engage in a little blood-letting of their own.
The proposition that Labour would be much improved by losing the 40 percent of its membership who no longer believe that radical change is either possible or desirable may yet be tested.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 30 July 2014.