Saturday, 1 November 2014

The Final Fifth: The Last Great Task For Progressive New Zealand.

"For mercy has a human heart, pity a human face" - William Blake
 
MOST OF NEW ZEALAND’S social problems are concentrated among those living at the margins of what is otherwise a relatively wealthy society. Recently released international data on child poverty has exposed an acutely stressed social strata encompassing roughly 20 percent of the nation’s population. Most of these New Zealanders are young, brown, indifferently educated and lacking in readily marketable skills. A significant number are supported by the State, but many others support themselves through part-time jobs paying at or below the minimum-wage. Some will supplement their meagre “official” income through various kinds of socially stigmatised and/or criminal activity such as prostitution and drug-dealing. Maintaining traditional family structures under such stress is further hampered by a critical shortage of affordable housing, inadequate public transportation and declining levels of unskilled and semi-skilled employment. The heaviest burden falls upon single mothers. It is estimated that approximately 250,000 children are being raised in circumstances of serious material, emotional and cultural deprivation.
 
Eighty-three years ago an even larger percentage of the New Zealand population lived in poverty. In 1931 the Great Depression had cast tens-of-thousands of families into circumstances of acute hardship. Nearly a quarter of the workforce was unemployed. Everywhere small businesses were failing. The banks and mortgage companies were throwing farmers off their land. Even those lucky enough to have a job were subject to frequent and arbitrary wage reductions. The trade unions were powerless to help. One third of the country was desperate. One third was under stress. And the remaining third lived in fear of the rest.
 
In 1932 rioting broke out in all of New Zealand’s major cities. In Dunedin a hungry crowd ransacked Wardell’s – a high-end food emporium. In Auckland Special Constables were sworn in to maintain order after thousands of enraged unemployed workers smashed the plate-glass shop fronts of Queen Street and looted all they could carry away. At the Devonport naval base, ratings armed with 303 rifles and machine-guns waited for the order to suppress the rioting by deadly force.
 
The government of the day – a coalition of rural conservatives and urban liberals – reacted to this unprecedented expression of social despair by passing the Public Safety Conservation Act (which allowed for the indefinite suppression of democratic norms) and by deporting as many able-bodied unemployed male workers as possible to work-for-the-dole labour camps in the countryside. By 1933, a terrible, sullen, silence had descended upon New Zealand. But, underneath that silence, there was a grim determination – extending across all social classes – to bring these hateful conditions to an end.
 
These are just some of the vivid tales contributing to the Great New Zealand Myth. That enduring narrative concerning the collective struggle for social justice and social progress which culminated in the election and re-election of the First Labour Government. Like all great myths it is characterised by expiation, catharsis and the eventual emergence of a new consensus about what and who we are. A happy ending – of sorts.
 
Fast-forward 83 years and what has become of the Great New Zealand Myth? There is much about it that remains unchanged. As a nation we are still susceptible to appeals for social justice, still ready to make social progress. But there are differences also. The very success of the Welfare State that Labour brought into being has given rise to some very different expectations.
 
Poverty carries no stigma when everybody is poor. Quite the reverse. Deprivation visited upon a community through no fault of its own tends to develop tremendously strong bonds of solidarity and a willingness to share and co-operate. Indeed, it was precisely these virtues of solidarity and co-operation that made the changes of the First Labour Government possible and which allowed them to endure.
 
But a welfare state – especially one underpinned by a bi-partisan commitment to full employment – slowly but inexorably changes people’s perception of poverty. When the state has given everyone access to health care, affordable housing, and an education to the fullest extent of their powers, then poverty ceases to be regarded as a collective curse and becomes, instead, evidence of individual failure.
 
And if, to this general impatience with “welfare dependency” one adds the prejudices of a comfortable Pakeha majority all-too-easily provoked by people of different colours and cultures, then that marginalised 20 percent of New Zealanders still in the grip of poverty ends up being despised as useless mouths, parasites, persons as underserving of decent citizens’ pity as they are of the State’s succour and support. It’s why progressives no longer talk about poverty per se. “Child poverty” is what you’re forced to talk about when general compassion for the condition of those children’s parents is all tapped out.
 
Buried deep in the former white working-class’s antipathy to “bludgers” and “welfare cheats” is an unspoken but politically crucial question: ‘Why don’t you people do something about your situation?’ Their class memory informs them that there was a time when their parents and grandparents faced exactly the same problems as today’s poor. The big difference, they tell themselves, is that their forebears did something about it. They joined unions. They went on strike. They rioted in the streets. They formed their own political party. They won state power. They changed the rules. They got out. ‘So, what’s stopping these buggers?’
 
Nothing. And that’s the point. The First Labour Government created a society in which anyone in possession of a good enough brain, a strong enough will and a big enough dream was free to escape from their family’s cash-strapped condition. In the years prior to 1935, the powers-that-be had built a brick ceiling over the working-class. Those who were smart and ambitious had to be smart and ambitious not just for themselves but also for their class. Eventually, these working-class leaders assembled the necessary tools and muscle to smash through the bosses’ brick ceiling and erect the ladders up which their “aspirational” offspring could climb into a new and very different world.
 
To a considerable extent it is this that explains the bottom 20 percent’s political inertness. In a proportional electoral system there is little doubt that a roused “underclass” would very quickly force the rest of society to address its problems. So, where are the Harry Hollands, the Mickey Savages, the Peter Fraser’s of today? Where is the Maori, the Pacifica, John A Lee speaking for today's “Children of the Poor”? Well, most of them, being free and clear of their origins, don’t need to. They did not have to make a revolution to get their children up and out. That’s why they’re lawyers and doctors and business-people. For this lucky few, those who would once have served as the yeast in the social bread, the underclass is in the past. It's no longer their problem.
 
The stubborn fifth of social dysfunction at the base of New Zealand society thus imposes a huge responsibility on the lucky four-fifths of New Zealanders smart and skilled and lucky enough to be at least a few pay-checks away from the lethargy and despair which so quickly disempowers the victims of poverty.  So, if there is one last, important political mission for progressive New Zealanders, then it is surely this: to fulfil the role once played by the best and the brightest of a working-class offered no means of escape. To read Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals; to assemble a veritable army of “community workers”; to preach the gospel of getting up-and-in to all those who are presently down-and-out. To stay among the poor and marginalised for as long as it takes. Until the wonderful day dawns when the people they have come to break out of poverty’s prison tell them to: “Fuck off! We can do this ourselves.”
 
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Saturday, 1 November 2014.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Ghost Dancing?

Ghost Dancing circa 1890: With the buffalo effectively exterminated, the material basis for the Native American cultures of the Great Plains was destroyed. The Ghost Dance, it was believed, would reconstitute the basis for an independent indigenous existence. Has the removal of the material basis for a self-conscious industrial working-class similarly undermined the social base and cultural integrity of the New Zealand labour movement? Are the four contenders for the Labour Party leadership simply Ghost Dancing?

OF THE FOUR CONTENDERS for the leadership of the Labour Party, it is David Parker who pursues most consistently the “traditional” Labour member’s support. “Labour was formed by working people, for working people”, is one of Mr Parker’s favourite riffs. And lest any member of the party should doubt his commitment to Labour’s “core values”, he chose Labour Day as the time and the Savage Memorial as the place to launch his Auckland campaign.
 
But how much sense does it make to pursue the votes of Labour’s traditionalists when so little of the world that made them (and the Labour Party for that matter) still remains? Is it even possible to be a party of the New Zealand proletariat when the New Zealand proletariat (or, at least, the New Zealand proletariat as it was configured from 1935-1985) no longer exists?
 
Which is not to say that, globally-speaking, the industrial working-class, with all its vast potential for upsetting the applecart of industrial civilisation, has ceased to exist. Far from it. What should be said, however, is that if you’re looking for a mass of exploited toilers recognisable to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, then you’ve a much better chance of finding them in China than you have in the post-industrial societies of the West.
 
Over the past 40 years, western capitalists have solved the problem of having large and self-assertive working-classes in their own backyard by ruthlessly shipping their employees’ jobs overseas to places where unions, civil rights and most other democratic practices are conspicuous by their absence. If you want to see the equivalent of Henry Ford’s vast River Rouge car assembly plant nowadays, you’ll have to visit Shenzhen.
 
Think of the political economy of globalisation in terms of the fate of the American buffalo.
 
Before the great waves of European settlers washed over the American prairie, it was the preserve of Native American tribes and unimaginably large herds of buffalo. So long as the buffalo endured, settlers would not only have to contend with the indigenous peoples the great beasts supported, but they’d also find it impossible to transform the prairie into profitable farmland.
 
Obviously, both had to go. In the space of just 45 years the buffalo herds (the largest of which sometimes stretched from horizon to horizon) were reduced from more than 30 million to just a few hundred. And with the destruction of the buffalo the indigenous cultures of the prairies found themselves robbed of the very substance of their being. After a brief but doomed burst of resistance they were reduced to objects of anthropological curiosity and Hollywood fantasy.
 
The social-democratic welfare-states that grew up in the West in the 1930s and which reached their peak effectiveness in the early 1970s had the same relationship with factory-based production as the indigenous tribes of the prairie had with the buffalo. It was the factory-based process of mass production that underpinned the full-employment upon which the welfare state depended. Also dependent on the jobs of secondary industry were the trade unions – out of whose economic and political influence the social-democratic and labour parties of the West had emerged. Take away those jobs and in remarkably quick succession the unions, their parties and the welfare state itself would crumble and die.
 

Rust Belt Ruin: The continuing export of Western factory jobs has undermined the unions, their parties and the welfare state itself.
 
The mass slaughter of the buffalo came to an end in the mid-1880s submerging the tribes in existential despair. Five years later, however, the Bureau of Indian Affairs began to receive reports of a strange religious phenomenon sweeping the reservations – the “Ghost Dance”.
 
A Paiute shaman, Wovoka, prophesised that if the tribes danced the Ghost Dance, then the living and the dead would be reunited, the world re-made anew, and all its peoples could live in peace. Among the Lakota nation, however, the new religion took on a more millennial character. The dance would bring back the buffalo, said the Lakota chief, Kicking Bear, and by wearing “Ghost Shirts” warrior-dancers would be rendered impervious to bullets. On 29 December 1890, at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, this belief was put to the test – with tragic results.
 
Could David Parker be Labour’s Wovoka? Is his invocation of a political movement created “by working people, for working people” as tragic, in its way, as the Native Americans’ longing for the buffalos’ return? Could we be witnessing Labour’s Ghost Dance?
 
This essay was originally published by The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 31 October 2014.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

A Very Weird Story: Deconstructing Darren Aronofsky's "Noah".

An Heretical Work: Darren Aronofsky's Noah is an attempt to reconstruct from the ill-fitting fragments of the much older and more finely textured myth of the Great Flood, a religious homily about human power, human guilt, and human redemption. That he failed matters much less than that he tried at all.
 
NOAH is a curious movie. Conceived as a biblical epic, it’s target audience was originally the millions of Americans who regard the Bible as "the inerrant word of God". With the sin-filled works of Hollywood forbidden to these true-believers, Christian movie-makers have developed a lucrative niche market for church-backed big-screen offerings that faithfully reproduce the scriptural plot-lines.
 
But if fidelity to the Genesis story was central to Director, Darren Aronofsky’s, original pitch for Noah, the final cut presents the viewer with something altogether different. Essentially, Aronofsky and his co-writer, Ari Handel, have taken the biblical tale and re-worked it into a homily on the human urge to dominate and the damage it inflicts upon both the social and the natural world. Not surprisingly, when Paramount Pictures attempted to secure the support of the Christian distribution networks for Aronofsky’s final offering, the response was less than enthusiastic.
 
The ease with which Noah’s screenwriters’ were diverted from their original intentions is understandable because, read closely, the Book of Genesis is a very weird story. What, for example, are we supposed to make of this?
 
“And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.”
 
Or this?
 
“There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.”
 
These verses are just there in the sixth chapter of Genesis – apropos of God knows what! One thing, however, is clear: that in the years following Adam’s and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden some very peculiar things were going on. Odd enough for Aronofsky and Handel to incorporate these fallen sons of God, these angels, into their movie’s plot-line. They called them “The Watchers”
 
Exactly what America’s stern guardians of evangelical Christian orthodoxy made of this plot device when asked to view the final cut of Noah one can only guess. In all probability they did not want the younger members of their congregations speculating about why angels might want to “come in unto the daughters of men”. Aronofsky’s and Handel’s use of the expression “The Watchers” posed even bigger problems.
 
Any good dictionary of religion (not to mention Google!) will lead any person curious to learn more about the Watchers to another very strange collection of stories about what happened in the years between the expulsion from Eden and the Great Flood. The Book of Enoch is, if possible, even weirder than Genesis. So weird that for more than 2,000 years both the Judaic and the Christian religious authorities have thought it best to keep Enoch out of both the Torah and the Bible.
 
Because, according to Enoch, the Watchers didn’t just content themselves with seducing the daughters of men, they had a much bigger agenda:
 
“It happened that when in those days the sons of men increased, pretty and attractive daughters were born to them. The Watchers, sons of the sky, saw them and lusted for them and said to each other: Let’s go and pick out women from among the daughters of men and sire for ourselves sons”.
 
To these, the offspring of the “sons of the sky”, the Watchers passed on all manner of useful knowledge. Enoch helpfully vouchsafes to us the names of some of these Watchers and what they taught:
 
“And Azâzêl taught men to make swords, and knives, and shields, and breastplates, and made known to them the metals of the earth and the art of working them, and bracelets, and ornaments, and the use of antimony, and the beautifying of the eyelids, and all kinds of costly stones, and all colouring tinctures. And there arose much godlessness, and they committed fornication, and they were led astray, and became corrupt in all their ways. Semjâzâ taught enchantments, and root-cuttings, Armârôs the resolving of enchantments, Barâqîjâl, taught astrology, Kôkabêl the constellations, Ezêqêêl the knowledge of the clouds, Araqiêl the signs of the earth, Shamsiêl the signs of the sun, and Sariêl the course of the moon.”
 
If you’re beginning to think that all this is beginning to sound like the script of one of those Ancient Aliens “documentaries” that infest the History Channel, then you’d be entirely justified. That Aronofsky and Handel declined to take their screenplay in that direction was, perhaps, a mistake. It would have made a lot more sense to re-tell the story of Noah as a terrifying example of what happens when ordinary human-beings get caught up in the quarrels of horny “Sons of the Sky” bearing gifts.
 
As it is, the screenplay of Noah is neither fish nor fowl. It’s certainly not a biblical epic in the tradition of The Ten Commandments or The Greatest Story Ever Told, but neither is it a work of science fiction like Stargate. Instead, Noah is that rarest of things in this irreligious age, an heretical work.
 
Sensing that the biblical version of the Great Flood is but a fragment of a much older and more finely textured myth, Aronofsky and Handel have attempted to construct from its ill-fitting remnants a story about human power, human guilt, and human redemption. That they failed, producing a film so filled with gross failures of logic, motivation, and theology that not even the participation of Russell Crowe, Emma Watson and Sir Anthony Hopkins could save it, is not to be wondered at. Myths are generally the work of many literary hands, refined over centuries. It’s takes a scholar of J.R.R. Tolkien’s stature to make a believable myth from the contents of a single mind.
 
What can be said, however, is that Aronofsky’s and Handel’s Noah possesses the power to set those whose temperament leans towards the mystical on a fascinating path of inquiry. It also reminds us that the world depicted in the Bible is a very strange one. A world choc-full of all manner of supernatural beings – only some of whom are benign (or even decent!)
 
No wonder the Christian Right refused to endorse it.
 
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Thursday, 30 October 2014.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

If Ebola Goes Global

Reassuring Image: Among the peoples of the West, the latest Ebola outbreak is generally being categorised as just another of those terrible things that happen “over there” in the hot, poor and indifferently-governed places of the world. The Ancient Greeks would have called this hubris.
 
IT BEGAN with a two-year-old child: a little Guinean boy whose father and brothers regularly supplemented the family diet with “bush-meat”. That’s what killed him. Something deadly in the carcase of a hammer-headed fruit bat (Hypsignathus monstrosus) carried home for the cooking-pot somehow found its way into his bloodstream.
 
A “megabat”, boasting a wingspan of nearly a metre, the hammer-head offers bush-meat hunters in the West African highlands a substantial meal. Unfortunately for the two-year-old, and then for his mother, sister and grandmother, Hypsignathus monstrosus is also one of the recognised asymptomatic carriers of the Ebolavirus.
 
Officially, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that upwards of 10,000 West Africans have contracted the deadly Ebola virus, and that this latest outbreak of the highly contagious haemorrhagic disease has a terrifying case fatality rate of 70.8 percent. Unofficially, WHO is saying that the number of cases could be three or four times greater than the official estimate. They are also deeply fearful that in spite of positive stories about the disease’s containment, it may already be moving inexorably across the African continent. If (or perhaps that should be ‘when’) it reaches the densely populated cities of the East African coast, the number infected will soar into the hundreds-of-thousands. And if it continues to move along Africa’s traditional trade routes north, into Sudan, Somalia and Egypt, and further east, into India, then the world will be faced with a global pandemic of truly catastrophic proportions.
 
Among the peoples of the West, however, the latest Ebola outbreak is generally being categorised as just another of those terrible things that happen “over there” in the hot, poor and indifferently-governed places of the world. With our highly sophisticated public health systems geared-up and ready to respond, any infected person somehow making it across our borders faces instant containment and state-of-the-art medicine. For the fortunate minority of the planet’s population blessed with a white skin, all remains well.
 
For the moment.
 
Because, as American historian, Mike Davis, writes in his deeply depressing book, Planet of Slums: “[T]oday’s megaslums are unprecedented incubators of new and reemergent diseases that can now travel across the world at the speed of a passenger jet.”
 
Not that Ebola needs to be airborne. Every single day frail and criminally overloaded boats set sail from North Africa for Southern Italy. How long will it be before a lethal percentage of these thousands of illegal economic migrants arrives bearing the deadly virus? In the crowded slums of Naples, Rome and Milan, Ebola will spread with the same awful alacrity that brought it to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
 
Perhaps this is simply the price we have to pay for twenty-first century capitalism’s “world without borders”? To discover that, in Davis’s words, “economic globalisation without concomitant investment in a global public health infrastructure is a certain formula for catastrophe.”
 
And even if the navies of the European Union were prepared to repel all boarders, the economic consequences of half-a-world afire with a deadly pandemic cannot be so easily sent to the bottom of the Mediterranean. One can only imagine how the already fragile global economy would respond to Ebola’s spread across the world. Fear and panic would grip Wall Street. Global transportation links would be severely, perhaps fatally, disrupted. Xenophobia would run rampant across the Western world. The long-discarded doctrine of economic self-sufficiency would instantly return to fashion. And, if the pandemic was to sweep up from South Asia and engulf China, the entire edifice of global industrial civilisation would shudder on its foundations.
 
It’s happened before. In the middle decades of the Fourteenth Century the whole of Eurasia was ravaged by a pandemic caused by the flea-borne microbial pathogen Yersinia pestis. The Black Death, as it came to be known, left entire regions depopulated. Villages and even cities were emptied of all but the dead. In Southern France and Spain the death rate may have climbed as high as 70-80 percent. The best estimates put the overall death toll at 100 million victims – more than a fifth of the total human population! It may have taken medieval civilisation another 150 years to finally expire, but there is no disputing the identity of its killer. Yersinia pestis.
 
Located where we are, at the bottom of the world, it is easy to dismiss all these grim speculations as unhelpful scare-mongering. Certainly, we must hope that they are nothing more than that. Our economic survival depends upon the unhindered flow of seaborne imports and exports and airborne tourists. New Zealand could not long endure in a world frozen solid by the ravages of Ebolavirus. The bitter truth being that if the death toll of any global pandemic ever exceeds one billion souls, then the world will have little pity to spare for a faraway nation of 4.5 million.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 October 2014.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Songs of Yesteryear - Or, What I Was Listening To 40 Years Ago

 
Sonnet to the Fall: Penned by the group, Dulcimer's, founder, Peter Hodge, the song also features the English actor, Richard Todd, reading Hodge's poetry. Dulcimer's first album, And I Turned As I Had Turned As A Boy was released on the Nepentha label in 1970.

THIS LITTLE GEM from the almost completely forgotten English folk group, Dulcimer, captures something of the sweet innocence of the early-1970s - that wonderful bygone era of full-employment and free tertiary education. In all of New Zealand's major cities (and some of its smaller ones) there were folk clubs where traditional and contemporary compositions were played by musicians of often astonishing skill and originality. Meanwhile, the audience of mostly long-haired youngsters of both sexes drank cheap red wine out of casks, flirted, laughed and, most importantly, sang away the chill winter nights.

Mais où sont les neiges d'antan? Asked the French Renaissance poet, Francois Villon.

Where are the snows of yesteryear?

Video courtesy of YouTube

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Labour Needs To Stop Saying What People DON"T want to hear.

A Freight Train Called Key: On election night 1975 Bill Rowling said Muldoon's landslide victory felt like being run over by a bus. Oh what David Cunliffe would have given for that bus on 20 September 2014!

THE ANGUISH of Labour supporters on election night was expressed mostly in Anglo-Saxon. Polite English just doesn’t have the emotional range for disaster on such a lavish scale.
 
Unquestionably, as political disasters go, this one was a biggie.
 
Bill Rowling told the nation on election night 1975 (when Rob Muldoon sent Labour plummeting to the abysmal depths of 39.6 percent) that he “felt like he’d been run over by a bus”. Oh, what David Cunliffe would have given for that bus! On the night of 20 September 2014, Labour’s hapless leader must have felt like he’d been run over by a fully-laden freight train, which had then stopped and reversed back over him, just to make sure.
 
No wonder the poor fellow behaved bizarrely. When the political historians have to go all the way back to 1922 to find a comparable result, bizarre behaviour is probably the very least that should be expected. Because, sadly, no political leader can come back from a hiding of such career-killing severity. Sooner or later that bitter truth just had to sink home. In David Cunliffe’s case, sooner would have been better, but he got there in the end.
 
And now, of course, we are witnessing the contest to find his successor. Andrew Little, Nanaia Mahuta, David Parker and Grant Robertson are all vying for Labour’s top job while the rest of New Zealand looks on with a mixture of fascination and disbelief. Most cannot fathom why Labour’s caucus and the wider party organisation have opted to set about finding a new leader before determining what needs to be done to get Labour match-fit by 2017.
 
See above re: bizarre behaviour. By resigning the leadership when he did, Mr Cunliffe set in motion a relentless constitutional process that neither Labour’s MPs nor its New Zealand Councillors can countermand. A more rational order of events might have been assured if, on election night, Mr Cunliffe had announced his intention to stand down as leader in six months’ time – thereby permitting a thorough post-mortem of the debacle. But, he didn’t. So, they ain’t.
 
In the absence of any conspicuous rationality, a host of political journalists, columnists, PR specialists, bloggers and academics have hastened to proffer their well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) advice as to how the party might be resurrected. Most of this may be boiled down to: Labour lurched too far to the left. Recovery lies in the centre-ground.
 
Poppycock!
 
Labour’s 2014 manifesto was considerably less left-wing than the manifesto it took to the country in 2011. David Cunliffe may have campaigned for the Labour leadership in fiery left-wing poetry, but he campaigned to become New Zealand’s prime-minister in the dullest, the most uninspiring and, ultimately, the most unconvincing prose.
 
The party’s election strategy, under both David Cunliffe and his predecessors, David Shearer and Phil Goff, had been to woo “soft” National Party voters back into Labour’s orbit. There was nothing remotely left-wing about raising the age of eligibility for superannuation. In fact, it turned Labour supporters off – in droves. The same applies to Labour’s Capital Gains Tax:  a measure which even the OECD has advised New Zealand to introduce!
 
Labour didn’t lose the election because it was too left-wing; it lost because in an election dominated by extra-parliamentary sideshows (Dirty Politics and The Moment of Truth) it failed to get cut-through.
 
How does one get cut-through? Well, for a start, you hire the very best pollsters and focus-group analysts you can afford; you tell them exactly what you’re trying to do; and then you listen to them when they tell you how to do it. That’s what National and its leader, John Key, does – and it works.
 
There is absolutely no point in acquiring accurate intelligence about the electorate’s mood; its likes and dislikes; its hopes and fears; if you then do nothing constructive with it. A political party should never allow its policies to be dictated by polls and focus groups, but when it comes to telling a party how to present or, more importantly, how not to present its policies, they become tools of extraordinary utility. If talking about a specific policy turns voters off, then don’t talk about it!
 
Whoever becomes Labour’s leader needs to understand, precisely, what New Zealanders do NOT want to hear, and stop saying it to them – loudly.
 
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, 24 October 2014.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

More Latté Than Lager: Reflections on Grant Robertson's Campaign Launch

The People's Flag Is ... Mint Green? Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern (whom Twitter immediately dubbed Gracinda) pose in Mint Green for one of the glossy women's magazines. In a non-revolutionary era, superficial is about as deep as it gets.
 
BIKERS? SERIOUSLY! Had Grant Robertson’s campaign launch been organised by Phil Goff? Was this a pitch for the votes of what few Waitakere Men remain in the Labour Party? Was I even at the right place?
 
Well, yes, I was. And rather than doubling as crude political props, those bikers were simply middle-aged motorcycle enthusiasts enjoying a smoke in the King’s Arms car-park. So, no, the Robertson launch was not even remotely interested in winning the support of Labour’s Waitakere Men. Quite the reverse!
 
The young men and women bustling self-importantly about in their New Generation To Win T-shirts looked like they’d be more comfortable sitting in a Courtenay Place or Ponsonby Road café than on a tradie’s West Auckland deck. The King’s Arms, itself, (car-park bikers notwithstanding) was chosen by Robertson for its close associations with the New Zealand music scene – no doubt in hopes that the popular late-night venue’s cultural street-cred would rub off on the candidate.
 
Labour’s new process for electing the party leader cannot help being inward looking, but even allowing for the fact that it’s all about the membership talking to itself, there was something about the Robertson campaign launch that reminded me of the ultra-cool university student parties of my youth. The whole insider/outsider shtick was unmistakeable. It made me wonder if an old-fashioned bogun’s mullet would have been as well-received among these bustling Grantistas as their diminutive comrade’s close-cropped purple hair.
 
In spite of the fact that the King’s Arms serves some very fine beers, I have to say that the whole event struck me as being much more latté than lager. Certainly, the speeches delivered by both Robertson and his “running-mate”, Jacinda Ardern, appeared to be comprised almost entirely of froth. About the only mentally taxing portion of Robertson’s brief address was the bit in which he promised to make Labour the party of “the worker, the small businessman and the entrepreneur”. Presumably all three of those groups will be found in that section of the socialist paradise where the lions lie down with the lambs?
 
But perish all such unworthy thoughts! On One News at six o’clock it was impossible not to observe what a lovely couple Grant and Jacinda made. And not only on the telly. Who could possibly prefer Revolutionary Red after seeing Grant and Jacinda – or, as Twitter immediately dubbed them, Gracinda – smiling sweetly for the glossy women’s magazine’s photographer in matching outfits of Mint Green?
 
Fluff and froth may be my abiding memories of the Robertson launch, but upon sterner analysis it is easy to discern in its overall design the guiding influence of an astute political brain. Pitching for the votes of the generation with the longest futures in the Labour Party (as opposed to the longest pasts) is very far from being a silly idea. Equally shrewd is Robertson’s understanding that the political choices of young New Zealanders in 2014 are more akin to what sort of music they like, what sort of clothes they wear and what sort of places they go to have fun, than they are about which group of grim ideologues they would have aligned themselves with back in the 1980s.
 
The essential truth that Robertson and his key advisors (take a bow SIR Michael Cullen) have grasped is that the politics of 2014 are the politics not only of a post-revolutionary, but a non-revolutionary era. In such times superficial is about as deep as it gets.
 
A friend of mine recently compared Grant Robertson to Joseph Stalin. There is, he insisted, the same easy familiarity with the party apparatus; the same willingness to wield it ruthlessly in his pursuit of power. According to this same friend, David Cunliffe was Labour’s Leon Trotsky. Brilliant, but utterly blind to the importance of building (and keeping strong) the networks so essential to political success.
 
Too much? Probably. But the comparison got me thinking.
 
If Labour is to survive this latest, catastrophic, electoral defeat then it’s going to need a Stalin figure. Someone capable of restoring party unity – even at the cost of purging Labour of all dissent. Because, if you think about it, unity is exactly what Helen Clark was able to offer the party, and why she was able to remain its leader for an unprecedented 15 years. (And let’s not forget whose protégé Robertson once was and from whom he learned most of what he knows about Labour.)
 
Of course life was made a great deal easier for Clark by the decision of the Labour Left to split from the party in 1989 and form NewLabour, and by the departure of the Labour Right for Act and the United Party five years later. The so-called “centrists” who opted to remain with the mother-ship were thus spared the “wet work” of an involuntary and very large purge of party comrades.
 
Which is not to say that the “rectification” of Labour under Clark was entirely bloodless. In assigning candidates to the seats Labour needed to win back after Jim Bolger’s landslide victory in 1990, Clark’s supporters in the party apparatus were careful to ensure that as few as possible were supporters of Mike Moore – the man Clark had manoeuvred into the party leadership just weeks before the 1990 General Election, and who she very badly needed to lose in 1993. (Indeed, the unpleasantness currently on display within Labour’s parliamentary ranks bears a striking similarity to the viciousness which accompanied Clark’s deposition of Moore in the aftermath of the 1993 general election.)
 
With Moore’s fall, and the relegation of his faction to powerless purgatory, Clark and her supporters in both the caucus and the wider party organisation were free to re-orient the Labour Party towards the radically revisionist ideas of the British sociologist, Anthony Giddens. Steve Maharey (himself a sociologist and for a long time Clark’s assumed successor) was a strong supporter of Giddens’s new take on the Labour project – which boiled down to the conclusion that, thanks to the historical success of Labour’s original mission, we are all capitalists now.
 
Ideological gleichschaltung (co-ordination, making the same, bringing into line) will also be an urgent priority for whoever wins Labour’s latest leadership contest. Without a recognisable – and recognised – party line, the endless troubles which have bequeathed Labour five different leaders in the space of six years will only continue. And in this regard, at least, my friend’s comparison of Robertson to Stalin may not be so outrageous.
 
Speaking last Sunday (19/10/14) on TVNZ’s current affairs show Q+A, Robertson made it very clear that, as leader, his line would be the party’s line:
 
ROBERTSON: If people step outside of that, there have to be consequences.
 
Q+A: Does that mean they have to leave the Labour Party?
 
ROBERTSON: It may well do – for some.
 
Dissenters in the Labour Party – piss off. Grant has everything to lose – and a new generation to win.
 
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Wednesday, 22 October 2014.