Don't Say It, Andrew! If the Labour Leader, Andrew Little, cannot refrain from shoving his philosophical foot down his political throat every time he opens his mouth, then maybe he should sit out the next twelve months in silence!
WHY, OH WHY didn’t Andrew Little keep his mouth shut? Or, when asked by a journalist to respond to the political observations of his party’s former leader, just stick to the time-honoured current leader’s script?
“I’ve enormous respect for the wisdom of Helen Clark. Her record of winning three elections on the trot speaks for itself. Her political observations are informed by the experience and achievement of many years. Only a fool wouldn’t listen very carefully to her advice.”
If that wasn’t sufficient, then Clark’s remark about Labour needing to “command the centre” should simply have been endorsed. Something along the lines of:
“She’s quite right about that. When questioned, the overwhelming majority of people position themselves between the extremes of left and right. And if you don’t secure the votes of a very big chunk of these centrist voters, then your party’s chances of being elected to govern are next to zero.”
A statement of the bleeding-bloody-obvious, of course, but sometimes the bleeding-bloody obvious is what people need to hear. It reassures them that you, and the party you lead, are in tune with their own general view of the world. Nobody gets to become Prime Minister by making voters feel that the Leader of the Opposition is out-of-tune with their general view of the world.
And yet, that’s exactly what Little did. He described Clark’s bog-standard pol-sci observation – that, to win, his party must “command the centre ground” – as “pretty hollow”.
Let’s give Little a smidgen of credit and accept that he was not describing Labour’s longest-serving leader, and her nine-year record in government, as “hollow”. Let’s assume that he was channelling the spirit of the inimitable Roger Scruton, who described the political centre as:
“The supposed political position somewhere between the left and the right, where political views are either sufficiently indeterminate, or sufficiently imbued with the spirit of compromise, to be thought acceptable to as large a body of citizens as would be capable of accepting anything.”
The only problem with endorsing this sort of definition is that it is almost without exception to be found in the writings of political philosophers for whom epistemological vagueness is the most unforgiveable of all academic sins. Scruton, himself, is an old-fashioned conservative, but his lofty disdain for the notion that politics is constituted “not by consistent doctrine, but by successful practice” is shared by many left-wing political activists.
Perhaps Little is one of these latter types. A radical left-wing firebrand hiding his light under the bushel of a dour trade-union boss.
Definitely not. When challenged by RNZ’s Susie Ferguson on Tuesday’s Morning Report to come clean on his “hollow” remark and confirm that Labour was set firmly on a left-wing course, Little’s prevarication was nothing short of heroic. Left and right, he insisted didn’t matter anymore, he was much more interested in responding to the issues brought to him by the people he met every week as he travelled around New Zealand.
Ferguson struggled on womanfully for several more minutes in a futile attempt to get Little to acknowledge that the sort of political engagement he was describing was precisely the sort of engagement that Clark was advocating when she offered up the bleeding-bloody-obvious comment that Labour must “command the centre ground”.
Despairing of getting a coherent response from the leader of the party which still lists “democratic socialism and economic and social co-operation” among its objectives, Ferguson changed tack and asked Little to name the left-wing politician from whom he drew the most inspiration.
His answer to this question was even more depressing than his earlier responses. In a year when Bernie Sanders proved that calling oneself a “democratic socialist” is no longer a declaration of political irrelevance. In a week when that “radical left-winger”, Jeremy Corbyn, was re-elected with an increased majority by Labour’s 600,000 members. Who was the left-wing politician Little identified as his inspirational role-model?
That’s right, Bill Shorten. The charismatically challenged and ideologically inert leader of the Australian Labor Party, for whom the need for Labor to “command the centre ground” enjoys the status of unchallengeable holy writ.
If Little cannot refrain from shoving his philosophical foot this far down his political throat every time he opens his mouth, then maybe he should sit out the next twelve months in silence!
A version of 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, 30 September 2016.