Friday, 22 July 2016

Death In The Arena.

Making America Grate Again: For the past week the world has watched with growing horror the fevered phantasmagoria of far-Right lunacy that the Republican Party is attempting to pass off as a political convention. Does the rise of Trump mark the fall of the American Republic?
WATCHING THE OPENING HOURS of the Republican National Convention was like encountering Bob Dylan’s prophetic visions made flesh. There were the ghosts of Belle Starr – resplendent in their blinding white Stetsons – all lustily cheering-on a procession of Trumped-up heroes, while the heads of chambers of commerce from across America looked on in ill-disguised embarrassment.
Even so, for sheer implausibility the opening day’s speakers would have taxed even Dylan’s surreal imagination.
Scott Baio – all grown up from his stint as “Chachi” on the television sit-com “Happy Days” – warmed-up the crowd. Speaking movingly to the teleprompter, he soaked up the startled audience’s applause like a parched field in the rain.
Bizarre enough for you? Well, you just wait, there’s more.
David A. Clarke is the Sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. Marching up to the podium, the gaudily decorated sheriff snapped out a brittle salute and almost immediately brought the Convention to its feet by declaring that “Blue Lives Matter!”
He was black.
The opening day’s theme was “Making America Safe Again” – making it just possible to discern the faintest outline of a rationale behind the Trump team’s extraordinary choices. If your slogan features a word as loaded as “again” where better to begin than with the Eisenhower-era certainties of “Happy Days”. And who better than a second-rate actor to sing their praises?
The same applies to the Convention’s response to the groundswell of anger and bigotry that has been whipped up by the recent attacks on police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Who better than a sheriff to make the pitch for law and order?
Not as good as Sheriff Andy Taylor from Mayberry, North Carolina, would have been, but Uncle Tom Clarke from Wisconsin was a more than adequate substitute. Better, perhaps, since having a white police officer poor scorn on the Black Lives Matter movement could very easily have been misinterpreted by the “liberal media”.
Not that was ever any fear of that.
The air of surrealism pervading the Convention’s agenda may have been disconcerting, but it was no more unsettling than the mainstream news media’s live coverage of the event. Veteran CNN broadcasters like Wolf Blitzer never batted an eyelid as the procession of freaks and fakes that had been billed as Republican movers-and-shakers made their way across the stage.
What’s been unfolding this presidential election year has been called “Post-Truth Politics”, and watching CNN’s coverage it’s easy to see why. The most mendacious misrepresentations of events; glaring sins of omission; outright lies: all are weighed carefully and analysed with the same ponderous gravitas of the seasoned news anchor. So determined are the big networks to escape the dreaded accusation of bias (in favour of what – the truth?) that all of them have steadfastly refused to acknowledge the blow-waved emperor’s nudity.
They justify this refusal to speak truth to power by citing their journalistic duty to remain “fair and balanced”. As if their failure to acknowledge the fevered phantasmagoria that the Republican Party is passing off as a political convention is somehow a noble gesture. That they will have to “balance” this week’s moral capitulation by presenting the Democratic Party’s Convention as a collection of equally freakish flakes and fakes only highlights the extraordinary damage “Post-Truth Politics” is inflicting upon the American electorate.
The Convention venue, Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, is billed as the home of the “Cavaliers, Monsters and Gladiators”. That these are all the names of Ohio sports teams in no way detracts from the thoroughly Dylanesque symbolism. Cavalier in his treatment of Republican Party tradition, and the fabricator of the most monstrous political expectations, Donald Trump has, predictably, turned his party’s convention into a four-day television mini-series for gladiatorial poseurs.
The noted American blogger, Richard Escrow, describes the man who would be crowned America’s king as “a bloated bleached-blond Narcissus transfixed by his own silhouette” – and it is hard to disagree. Who else would subject his party to night after night of saccharine tributes to his own greatness from his own family?
No stranger to Post-Truth Politics himself, Britain’s new foreign secretary will have little difficulty in making sense of the Cleveland spectacle. Boris Johnson has made a special study of Rome’s imperial dynasties. His classical historian’s eye will recognise the apotheosis of Donald Trump for what it is: the death of the American Republic.
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, 22 July 2016.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Neoliberalism: Coming And Going.

The Beneficiary Of Chaos: Television New Zealand’s current affairs flagship, Q+A, interviewed Stephen Jennings, the former Treasury official and New Zealand investment banker who took advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Union to make himself a billionaire.
IT WAS A LONG TIME AGO, the late-1970s, possibly, or the very early 1980s. My father and I were watching one of the many current affairs shows then broadcast by the state-owned television network. The guest was a very young Alan Gibbs – at least that’s the way I remember it. If it wasn’t him, then it was someone who looked and sounded very much like him.
It was an odd interview. Not in terms of the production itself, but because in those days people espousing the views of businessmen like Alan Gibbs were very few and far between. In New Zealand, at least, the post-war Keynesian settlement still reigned supreme. Lassiez-faire capitalism was something students read about in economic history textbooks. In the 1970s, most responsible intellectuals dismissed unregulated capitalism as a ruthless and highly exploitative form of economic management, long since discarded by civilised nations.
That’s what made the interview so memorable. The young businessman (Gibbs?) withstood the interviewer’s rather condescending line of questioning without flinching. Every aspect of the post-war settlement: the welfare state; public ownership; compulsory unionism; import-licencing; guaranteed prices; came under his withering critique. My father and I looked at each other in alarm. We’d never heard anything like it. At the conclusion of the interview, my father turned to me and said: “Men like that are dangerous, son. If they ever gain a serious following in this country they will cause tremendous harm.”
It was New Zealand’s first encounter with what we today call “neoliberalism”. Within five years of that interview, however, Keynesianism was on the defensive. Businessmen like Gibbs and his fellow asset strippers were being lionised in the business press. Defenders of the status quo, like Rob Muldoon, were being pilloried. The new economic order, guarded by Margaret Thatcher in the UK, and Ronald Reagan in the USA, had made the world safe of dangerous men. Here in New Zealand – just as my father had predicted – they were all getting ready to inflict tremendous harm.
What made me think of this prophetic television encounter from 40 years ago? Unsurprisingly, it was another current-affairs interview.
On Sunday’s Q+A (17/7/16) Corin Dann interviewed Stephen Jennings, the former Treasury official and New Zealand investment banker who took advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Union to make himself a billionaire.
Jennings’ firm, Renaissance Capital, made five billion dollars buying and selling the property of the Russian people. The new, laissez-faire economy Jennings and his fellow oligarchs constructed on the ruins of the USSR proved to be more than usually dangerous. Perhaps the most dramatic measure of the tremendous harm it inflicted was that, as the Oligarchs and their kleptocrat political allies imposed capitalism on their nation from above, the life expectancy of the Russians actually fell.
Today, Jennings oversees a continent-wide property development enterprise constructing massive suburbs on the outskirts of African largest cities. As low-wage economies cascade out of Asia and into the last, great, untapped pool of cheap labour on the planet, Jennings will be there to ensure that their new, middle-class overseers have somewhere suitable to live.
Whether Africans prove to be as biddable as Russians remains to be seen. All the signs point to the great wave of globalisation, out of which Jennings extracted his super-profits, as having already broken. As it recedes, the neoliberal doctrine, which for forty years has been used to justify the globalisers’ moral and environmental excesses, is beginning to sound increasingly hollow.
Not, of course, to the members of the NZ Initiative (successor organisation to the NZ Business Roundtable) who were happy to provide an audience for Jennings’ unreconstructed neoliberalism. Nor, indeed, to Act’s David Seymour, in whose “Free Press” newsletter Jennings is lauded like a rock-star. But to those of us who have heard enough neoliberal rhetoric over the past 40 years to last several lifetimes, Jennings performance came across as just one more iteration of a policy prescription that has succeeded only in making the world a less equal, less habitable, and less free place in which to live.
As Dann concluded his interview with Jennings, it occurred to me that I had been witness to both the beginning and the end of an era. Gibbs and Jennings are neoliberal proselytisers of formidable energy and unwavering certainty. That much, at least, remains unchanged. The difference, of course, is that in that first interview the ideas expressed had yet to be tested in a modern context. In Jennings’s case that is obviously no longer true. The world now knows what happens when capitalism is unbound. Its harm is all around us.
My father knew, instinctively, that business leaders like Gibbs and Jennings were dangerous men. Would that he had lived long enough to see the self-serving character of their ideology made obvious to everyone.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 18 July 2016.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Erdogan Lives - And Secular Turkey Dies.

Outmanoeuvred: The troops who rose against the authoritarian government of Turkish President, Tayyip Erdogan failed to follow the first rule of regime change by force: "When you strike at a king, you must kill him." Erdogan alive was not only able to call his followers into the streets, but to persuade those military units not involved in the coup d'état to rally to his defence. The Islamisation of Kemal Ataturk's secular republic can now proceed apace.
WHEN YOU STRIKE AT A KING, you must kill him. This, the first and most important rule of regime change by force, is the rule which the military units rebelling against Turkish President, Tayyip Erdogan, failed to follow. It was their biggest, but very far from their only, mistake. Observing the unfolding debacle through the all-seeing eyes of CNN, an old CIA hand informed viewers that it had all the appearance of a “colonels’ coup” – not one planned and executed by those at the summit of the military hierarchy. The relative ease with which civilian and military forces loyal to the President crushed the uprising proved him right.
The collapse of this attempted coup d’état has been met with many sighs of relief in Western capitals. Had it succeeded, President Barack Obama, in particular, would have faced an extremely difficult choice. To condemn the overthrow of the democratically-elected government of a Nato ally; or, to endorse the constitutionally sanctioned role of the Turkish military as the secular Turkish Republic’s ultimate protectors. Because it was precisely in this guise that the soldiers who rose against Erdogan presented themselves. As the last, desperate hope of all those Turks who still cling to the legacy of Mustapha Kemal – the father of the modern Turkish state.
That it was colonels, and not generals, who ordered their men on to the streets, says much about the state of Turkey. Those who might have struck a more telling blow in the name of the republic, the nation’s most senior military officers, had long ago been arrested under trumped-up charges by Erdogan’s followers, dismissed from their posts and thrown into prison. A similar fate befell the nation’s senior judges and police officers. In the slow-motion coup Erdogan and his Islamist political allies have been carrying out since coming to power 2003, they have been careful to ensure that the secular state they were striking down would never again rise to its feet.
Those who have been issuing congratulatory statements to the Erdogan regime, should ponder the meaning of its first acts upon reclaiming the levers of power. Yes, thousands of rebel troops and their officers have been detained. That is to be expected. But so, too, have upwards of twenty thousand judges, prosecutors and policemen. Is that the response of a democratic government? No. It is the response of a tyrant who described the failed coup attempt as “A gift from God.”
American and European diplomats have taken reassurance from the coup’s failure, citing the crucial role Turkey has been playing in combatting the terrorist Islamic State (IS). Shrewd observers of the Erdogan regime have, however, speculated that part of the motivation for the weekend coup attempt may have been senior army officers’ disgust at alleged behind-the-scenes cooperation between Erdogan and IS. After all, the terrorists’ arms had to come across, and their oil be carried over, somebody’s border.
Those same diplomats should also take another look at the “democratic” crowds who, at Erdogan’s bidding, poured on to the streets of Ankara and Istanbul to confront the rebel troops.
Did they shout: “Long live the Turkish Republic!” Or, “Long live Turkey’s secular democracy!” No. The moustachioed men (there were no women in evidence) shouted “Allahu ekber!” – “God is great!”, and declaimed the shahadah: “There is no god but God – and Muhammad is his prophet!”
Secular Turks disdain the facial hair of Erdogan’s followers – although, with the backbone of their judiciary broken, and the last of their military protectors in detention, it might be wise for secular Turkish men to put away their razors, and for secular Turkish women to cover their heads.
Is this the true import of Erdogan’s jubilant description of the failed coup as a gift from God? Does he now feel justified in speeding-up his party’s progress towards the creation of a Sunni Islamic Republic in Turkey? A fanatical religious regime to rival the Shia Islamic Republic of Iran? And how much in common would such a republic have with the theocratic extremism  of the Sunni Saudi Kingdom? Between these two powerhouses of radical Islam would stand only Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan – and Israel. Of those five states, only Israel possesses the military strength to defend its borders.
Article 2 of the Turkish constitution states: “The Republic of Turkey is a democratic, secular and social state governed by the rule of law”. This reiterates the principle contained in the document’s preamble that: “there shall be no interference whatsoever by sacred religious feelings in state affairs and politics”.
The actions of the Erdogan regime, both before and after the weekend’s abortive coup, make it clear that constitutional government in Turkey has become a fiction. The eternal vigilance Kemal Ataturk enjoined upon Turkey’s soldiers has failed. Europe will soon have an Islamic Republic at its southern gate.
This essay was originally posted on Stuff on Monday, 18 July 2016.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Theresa May – Disraeli’s “One Nation” Disciple?

Disrael's Disciple? Just hours before she discovered that she had become the next tenant of No. 10 Downing Street, this stern daughter of the vicarage, the woman who warned Conservatives against becoming “the nasty party”, was addressing the Conservatives of Birmingham. So radically “One Nation” was May’s speech, both in tone and content, that the veteran Guardian columnist, Jonathan Freedland, accused her of placing “several tanks on to what should be Labour’s lawn”.
IS IT A GOOD THING, or a bad thing, that politicians no longer write novels? Given Steven Joyce’s recent problems with Twitter, the politicians themselves would probably say it’s a very good thing indeed. If Mr Joyce could cause his party so much trouble with 140 characters, then just imagine how much damage he could do with 140 pages!
There was, however, one novelist who turned out to be a simply splendid politician. Long before the days of the Internet, television, radio, or even the rotary press, one Benjamin Disraeli used the novel form to talk about politics in a novel way.
It has long been said that if you want to tell the truth – write fiction. In his 1845 novel, Sybil, Disraeli constructed a conversation in which his truth-telling fictional characters inspired a whole new movement in conservative politics.
A young aristocrat by the name of Charles Egremont declares confidently that Great Britain is “the greatest nation that ever existed”, only to be set straight by a young working-class firebrand, Walter Gerard.
In reality, says Gerard, there are:
“‘Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.
‘You speak of –‘ said Egremont hesitatingly
‘The RICH and the POOR.’”
Benjamin Disraeli - The Founder of "One Nation" Conservatism.

It was Disraeli who first perceived the political impossibility of a Conservative Party dedicated to the maintenance of such glaring social divisions. By 1845 it was clear that the widening of the franchise, begun 13 years earlier with the passage of the Great Reform Act, was an irreversible process. Eventually all adult males (and, who knew, females too!) would have the vote. A party dedicated to the interests of the Egremonts exclusively could not hope to hold office. Disraeli understood that the future of conservatism in Great Britain could only be guaranteed if the Tory party first learned how to fashion – and then govern – a single nation.
Thus was born “One Nation Conservatism”.
One-hundred-and-seventy-one years after the publication of Sybil, Britain’s new Prime Minister, Theresa May, shows every sign of uplifting Disraeli’s fallen mantle and draping it fetchingly around her shoulders.
Just hours before she discovered that she had become the next tenant of No. 10 Downing Street, this stern daughter of the vicarage, the woman who warned Conservatives against becoming “the nasty party”, was addressing the Conservatives of Birmingham.
So radically “One Nation” was May’s speech, both in tone and content, that the veteran Guardian columnist, Jonathan Freedland, accused her of placing “several tanks on to what should be Labour’s lawn”. Indeed, had the beleaguered Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, delivered such a speech it would have been received as further proof of his unelectability.
Here’s a sample: one Disraeli, himself, could have written:
“This is a different kind of Conservatism … It marks a break with the past. But it is in fact completely consistent with Conservative principles. Because we don’t just believe in markets, but in communities. We don’t just believe in individualism, but in society. We don’t hate the state, we value the role that only the state can play. We believe everybody – not just the privileged few – has a right to take ownership of what matters in their lives.”
In that single paragraph, Britain’s second female Prime Minister has turned on its head the “there’s no such thing as society” credo of its first. May’s Birmingham speech signals a new departure for the Conservative Party; and her direction of travel, in part an acknowledgement of the intense feelings that drove Brexit, threatens to outflank her Labour opponents – from the Left.
The fratricidally distracted Left may not have noticed it yet, but the Financial Times’ Janan Ganesh certainly has:
“She is not a reactionary. Nobody who sensed the perceived nastiness of her party as early as 2002, as she did, and challenged the police as often as she has, could be. But if Tory history pits the spirit of freedom against the claims of social order, the one periodically dominating the other before giving way, she might herald the latter’s resurgence … Free-marketeers, gird yourselves.”
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, 15 July 2016.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Four More Political Rhymes



Grandpa was a strict sergeant-major,
And daddy a man of the cloth.
As for me, Tessa May,
Well, I stand here today,
As the shrewd combination of both!



Black lives matter – at least if you’re black.
But let white policemen come under attack,
And the riot squad’s gear:
Batons, gas, guns and fear;
Will push all of America back.



Steven Joyce simply had to push “Send”
If his party he was to defend.
“Labour’s challenge defeated!”
He recklessly tweeted,
“We’ve waived Housing’s damned dividend!”


The Millennials’ tales are of woe.
Student loans, housing bubbles, no snow.
They’d have life by the throat
If they bothered to vote
But they’d rather play Pokémon-Go.

These rhymes were originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 15 July 2016.

Labour And Housing: The Winning Combination?

"Aww ... He's Good!" The public may have warmed only slowly to Andrew Little, but eighteen months into the job, familiarity is breeding not contempt but an almost reluctant admiration. Like the punters in the old television ad’, the voters have taken a tentative sip of Little, made a face, blinked several times, and then, with obvious surprise, pronounced him “good”.
IT’S A LONG TIME since Labour’s prospects have looked so rosy. The stumbles and falls since 2008 have been so numerous and so serious that Labour’s very survival as a party has been called into question. Such profound pessimism has, however, proved premature. The public may have warmed only slowly to Andrew Little, but eighteen months into the job, familiarity is breeding not contempt but an almost reluctant admiration. Like the punters in the old television ad’, the voters have taken a tentative sip of Little, made a face, blinked several times, and then, with obvious surprise, pronounced him “good”.
But, a thumbs-up for Little’s leadership, while necessary, is not a sufficient precondition for victory in 2017.
To win, a political party must have at least two things going for it. First, and most importantly, its opponents must be failing. Second, it must be able to offer a positive and believable alternative to the status quo. Labour’s already got the first, and its making steady and encouraging progress towards the second.
The Housing Crisis – especially in Auckland – is dragging National deeper and deeper into the electoral mire. Partly, this is the result of Phil Twyford (easily Labour’s best performing MP) keeping his boot firmly planted on National’s head. Mostly, however, the Housing Crisis is the obverse side of what, until recently, was the Government’s most valuable coin: Auckland’s crazily escalating property prices.
As the so-called “wealth effect” of rising Auckland house prices rippled out from their usual location-location-location in the city’s wealthiest suburbs and into the hitherto “modestly priced” suburbs of Auckland’s electorally crucial West, National’s fortunes rose with them.
“Waitakere Man”: that financially flush, but ideologically conflicted, member of a working-class grown increasingly accustomed to the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle; had learned how to appease his conscience by voting for Labour’s electorate candidate, while locking-in his outrageous property valuation by Party Voting National.
Auckland’s rising value has also been enough to keep those who, in earlier periods of New Zealand history veered towards racism and xenophobia, politically quiescent. The dramatic influx of immigrants from China and India was accepted by Waitakere Man because he understood that immigration pressures were crucial to realising, or leveraging, the capital gain of his increasingly valuable real estate.
Having set this voter recruitment and retention scheme in motion, however, National discovered that it could not be switched-off. The slightest downward trend in Auckland’s house prices would set off a panic that could only end in electoral disaster for the Right. By ensuring that Auckland’s property prices continued to surge upwards, the Government had excluded an entire generation of Aucklanders from the security of home ownership. Waitakere Man might be sitting pretty, but his children, “Generation Rent”, were not.
Even worse, the intensifying competition for scarce rental properties was driving the poorest Aucklanders out of the accommodation market altogether. The news that their fellow citizens, whole families, had been reduced to sleeping in their cars, pricked the conscience of even Waitakere Man. Homelessness, rack-renting, the diseases of poverty and overcrowding: these were the evils from which his parent’s generation had been rescued by the First Labour Government. Eventually, the grim realisation struck home. He could vote to increase his capital gains; or, he could vote for the restoration of social equity; but he couldn’t do both.
Cue, Andrew Little and the New Zealand Labour Party.
By a long overdue stroke of good luck, the Housing Crisis reached political boiling-point in Labour’s centenary year. Even the most cursory backward glance, by even the most historically-challenged voter, could not help but register the signal achievements of Labour’s 100-year-old history.
Somewhere, from deep in their knowledge store, New Zealanders recovered at least the salient details of Labour’s story. How a nation battered and bruised by the Great Depression had been put back to work; and how ordinary working families had been securely housed in sturdy dwellings, by the state.
Little’s challenge, now, is to devise a housing policy that meets the urgent needs of the homeless; offers Generation Rent their own homes at affordable prices; and ensures that property values across Auckland (and New Zealand) are not permitted to “crash”. Instead, Labour is hoping to gradually flatten out house prices, while incomes are lifted and price-to-income ratios reduced to more rational, and equitable, levels.
An explicit strategy of re-uniting the interests of the working and middle classes should lie at the heart of Labour’s re-election campaign. This cannot be achieved by restoring the fortunes of the former at the expense of the latter. Only a massive class alliance can generate the political heft required to secure massive economic and social progress.
When Labour deserted its working-class base in the 1980s it entered a moral wilderness. If it abandons the middle class in 2017 – it will stay there.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 12 July 2016.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Centenary Essay: "Labour's First Fight Was For Freedom."

The Battle Cry Of Freedom: Three years after its founding conference, in the general election of 1919, voters were invited to join “Labour’s Liberty Campaign”. Guided by the ghost of Richard John Seddon, the sturdy young Labour Party is depicted rolling up its sleeves to do battle with Massey and his cohorts on behalf of the “Democratic Public”. Labour’s first fight was a fight for freedom.
IN EARLY JULY, 1916, leftists and liberals of every stripe gathered in Wellington to form a new political party.
New Zealand was at war. In the 23 months since August 1914, thousands of the Dominion’s young men had been killed, and thousands more wounded and maimed. The government of William (Bill) Massey appealed for more recruits.
The Prime Minister’s appeal was powerfully seconded by the Dominion’s leading newspaper proprietors, who urged the youth that remained to do their duty by King and Country. Many responded, but nowhere near enough to refill the depleted ranks of the NZ Expeditionary Force.
In 1915, legislation requiring all single men to register for possible military service alerted the war’s opponents to the near-certainty that Massey’s coalition government was preparing to introduce conscription.
In January of 1916, socialists and trade unionists met in Wellington to debate the ethics of conscripting men – but not wealth. At the conclusion of their conference a Manifesto Against Conscription was issued. Arguing that true equality of sacrifice was impossible to guarantee, the Manifesto insisted that war service remain voluntary:
“Thousands of our comrades strenuously opposed to compulsion in any form have gone as volunteers, and while their backs are turned we must use every effort to preserve intact the civil rights our people have won. There must be no surrender of principles which have raised British citizenship above serfdom.”
It wasn’t enough. As predicted, Massey opted for conscription. His Military Service Bill would become law on 1 August 1916. Equally predictably, in the first week of July, those responsible for the Manifesto Against Conscription: Peter Fraser, Bob Semple and Harry Holland; along with just about every other left-wing leader in New Zealand; began arriving in Wellington. Words had not been enough: now it was time for deeds.
The creation of the New Zealand Labour Party was largely the work of trade unionists. Yes – but not exclusively so. What’s more, those early labour leaders were a far cry from the dour union bosses remembered by Kiwis who came of age in the 1950s and 60s.
Seventeen months before the New Zealand Left began gathering in Wellington, the American union song-writer, Ralph Chaplin, had penned the words to that greatest of union anthems, Solidarity Forever. Here’s the final verse:
In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies magnified a thousand fold.
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old,
For the union makes us strong.
It was precisely this “new world” of socialism and freedom that Massey and his mounted constabulary (Massey’s Cossacks!) had fought so hard to forestall just two years before Chaplin wrote his song. In the “Great Strike” of 1913, the “Red” Federation of Labour had been crushed. It is easy to imagine Massey’s fury, three years later, as he watched those indomitable “Red Feds”, Fraser, Semple and Holland, abandon the path of industrial militancy for the parliamentary road.
One hundred years on, the reader may wince at a phrase like “socialism and freedom”. It is, however, used advisedly. The men and women who formed the New Zealand Labour Party in July 1916 were driven by the conviction that, without economic justice and social equality, political freedom was forever being stillborn. We would be much mistaken, however, were we to believe that they considered freedom to be, somehow, less important than justice and equality.
Remember the words of the Manifesto Against Conscription: “we must use every effort to preserve intact the civil rights our people have won”. Labour’s founders knew that without political freedom, neither economic justice nor social equality could ever be attained.
Three years after its founding conference, in the general election of 1919, voters were invited to join “Labour’s Liberty Campaign”. Guided by the ghost of Richard John Seddon, the sturdy young Labour Party is depicted rolling up its sleeves to do battle with Massey and his cohorts on behalf of the “Democratic Public”. Labour’s first fight was a fight for freedom. Entirely fitting for a party whose leaders had been jailed for sedition and court-martialled for standing against conscription.
One hundred years later, the attainment of economic justice and social equality still depends on exercising fearlessly “the civil rights our people have won.”
Labour and Freedom must march together.
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, 8 July 2016.