Nigel Haworth: Labour's President's whole career has been one of unwavering commitment to the cause of organised labour – up to an including being appointed to the International Labour Organisation’s Century Project. He has, however, maintained a studious silence on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.
NIGEL HAWORTH emigrated to New Zealand from Scotland’s Strathclyde University in 1988. Teaching now at the University of Auckland’s Business School, his whole career has been one of unwavering commitment to the cause of organised labour – up to an including being appointed to the International Labour Organisation’s Century Project. When he was elected President of the New Zealand Labour Party (NZLP) in February 2015, there were many of us on the Left who offered up an elated “Yesss!” The party organisation, which has spent the last seven years defrosting itself from the long winter of Helen Clark’s absolute rule, seemed to have chosen an indisputably safe pair of hands.
So why has the NZLP President had so little to say about the extraordinary victory of his compatriot and fellow trade union champion, Jeremy Corbyn? Haworth is a smart fellow – a professor no less – so he needs no instruction concerning the enormous political significance of Corbyn’s extraordinary win. Does his silence indicate that he shares the same haughty disdain for Corbyn’s peasants revolt that has been such a disappointing feature of The Guardian’s, The New Statesman’s and The Observer’s coverage? Or, is he deliberately suppressing his elation at the demise of Blairism, in the name of maintaining the fragile peace between the NZLP organisation and its parliamentary wing?
No matter which explanation turns out to be correct, the situation is far from encouraging. If Haworth, in spite of his impeccable CV, turns out to be one of those left-wing mandarins who consider the common folk far too dim to be entrusted with the complexity of twenty-first century electoral politics, well – that’s bad. But if he’s a secret Corbynista, who, for some unknown reason, is unwilling to blow his cover, well – that’s worse!
A Labour President’s job is not an easy one. Under no circumstances must he or she become a rubber-stamp for whatever unmandated policy the parliamentary caucus deposits on his desk. It is not the President’s job to meekly translate the wishes of the Leader and his colleagues into orders binding on the party’s rank-and-file. But neither is it wise for a President to set himself up in opposition to the parliamentary wing – not unless the latter is secretly planning to subvert everything the party stands for, as the infamous “Fish ’n’ Chip Brigade” (Lange, Bassett, Douglas, Moore) was doing throughout 1983 and the early months of 1984.
Neoliberalism's Founding Fathers in New Zealand: The notorious "Fish'n'Chip Brigade" (David Lange, Michael Bassett, Roger Douglas, Mike Moore)
I wonder what Haworth was doing in 1983? Did he back Michael Foot and Tony Benn and their socialist crusade? Or did he secretly cheer on the right-wing splitters who’d broken away to form the Social Democratic Party? Did he agree with the critics who called the British Labour Party’s 1983 manifesto “the longest suicide note in history”?
That’s the thing about Corbyn (who entered the House of Commons as a strong supporter of Foot and Benn in 1983). His victory has disinterred all those questions that the Blairites thought safely buried under the tarmac of the “Third Way”. Even here, 18,000 kilometres from Westminster, those same questions have shaken off their shrouds and are walking abroad in the daylight, arms raised, fingers pointing. Wasn’t it in the mid-80s that Billy Bragg penned his brilliant version of “Which Side Are You On”? The Miners’ Strike was raging. The Police were manning road blocks, barring the way to unionists heading north to join the strikers. Did they stop you, Nigel? Which side were you on?
Jim Anderton was President of the NZLP in 1983. He’d held the position for six years, and in that time the membership of the party had swelled to an astonishing 85,000 New Zealanders. Anderton’s “Victory For Labour” fund boasted an additional 12,000 regular donors. There were regional organisers on the payroll and the NZLP owned (and occupied three floors of) the multi-storied Fraser House on Wellington’s Upper Willis Street. Labour was the only truly effective political game in town and it was attracting left-wing activists from across the labour movement.
I well recall sitting in the University of Otago’s student union cafeteria with a couple of activist friends. Naturally we were talking politics and, as the conversation progressed, it turned out that all of us were working on the campaign committees of Labour candidates. That wasn’t so odd in my case, I’ve never been anything other than a democratic socialist. But one of my comrades used to be an anarchist and the other a Trotskyist. It inspired me to pen a little good-natured satire (set to the tune of Cliff Richards “Summer Holiday”).
We’re all working for a Labour victory,
No more Trotsky, no more Lenin or Mao.
We’re all working for a Labour victory
I’m glad the comrades cannot see us now!
Labour was a mighty broad church in those days, welcoming everyone from former Trots to members of the World Anti-Communist League. And, by God, was it alive! Full of energy, unafraid of debate, and absolutely determined to not only be rid of Rob Muldoon, but also to construct a happier, more prosperous, and more inclusive New Zealand. It was big and boisterous and confident and – from the point of view of Roger Douglas and his neoliberal backers – extremely dangerous. That’s why they destroyed it.
But, it’s the sort of party that Labour can become again. Big and boisterous and unafraid of debate. And, yes, Professor Haworth, that means making yourself something more than the invisible Chair of the party’s NZ Council. No, I agree, it would not be helpful to have the rank-and-file and the caucus at daggers drawn again. But that doesn’t mean you have to keep silent about something as vital to the health of the international democratic socialist movement as Jeremy Corbyn’s historic reinvigoration of the British Labour Party.
The ice-flows of Neoliberalism are breaking-up, Professor Haworth. Have you nothing to say? No advice to give? No inspiration to offer? If ever there ever was a time to shout out, as Jim Anderton did to the 1983 Labour Party Conference: “Theirs has been the Winter – but ours shall be the Spring!” Then, surely, it is now.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 17 September 2015.