Few So Beloved By The Many: Jeremy Corbyn addresses the Glastonbury crowd. The British Labour Party looms so much larger now than it did just two months ago when the British commentariat was predicting electoral catastrophe on a scale not seen since the 1930s. Were an election to be held in Britain tomorrow a sweeping Labour victory is the most likely result.
"OH, JEREMY CORBYN! Oh Jeremy Corbyn!" The half-chant, half-song rose out of the Glastonbury crowd like the roaring of the sea borne on a rising wind. The slightly built 68-year-old received it all with the aplomb of a veteran rock-star. Microphone in one hand, a sheaf of speech notes in the other, he delivered an address that mixed soap-box oratory with the poetry of Shelly: "Rise like Lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number/Shake your chains to earth like dew/Which in sleep had fallen on you/Ye are many - they are few." How the young lions roared!
Now, delivering a speech is not the same as delivering a government, and Glastonbury is not Britain, but there there's no disputing that Jeremy Corbyn has redrawn his country's political map. Labour looms so much larger now than it did just two months ago when the British commentariat was predicting electoral catastrophe on a scale not seen since the 1930s. Were an election to be held in Britain tomorrow a sweeping Labour victory is the most likely result.
In New Zealand, however, it's a very different story. Here, with a general election less than three months away, Labour is languishing in the political doldrums. When Kiwis mutter "Oh, Andrew Little!", it is with a mixture of exasperation and despair. If we had a Glastonbury, it's hard to imagine our own Labour leader receiving the same rapturous reception as the Brits'. Hard because the voters' ability to imagine a better tomorrow is critically dependent on their political leaders' ability to describe a future worth living in.
That was Corbyn's most important achievement: to infuse the future with a sense of hope and promise; to re-cast the lives of ordinary Britons as something more than a grim struggle to pay the rent; to envision a world in which poetry had as valid a claim to their attention as the company's spreadsheets. As one young festival attendee at Glastonbury remarked when asked for an explanation for Corbyn's extraordinary popularity: "He's brought Labour back to its old self again."
And that, of course, is precisely what Labour in New Zealand hasn't done. Whether it be the party's pledge to uphold a self-imposed set of Budget Responsibility Guidelines, or, it's latest promise to excuse the farming community from its responsibility to protect the natural environment, the NZ Labour Party's key political strategy appears to involve anticipating how high the bosses will expect them to jump - and then training hard for the event. Corbyn's immensely popular election manifesto was entitled (with a nod to Shelly!) "For the Many - Not the Few". In fine antipodean style, Little has turned Corbyn's winning formula on its head!
The question that arises whenever three or more Kiwi leftists gather together in the name of social-democracy is: Why? What is it that holds Little back from making the same sort of unequivocal, old-fashioned Labour promises as Corbyn? What does he think he has to lose - apart from an election which nearly all the polls say he cannot possibly win? The American political writer, Thomas Frank, asked the same question of the US Democratic Party, and the answer he came up with was brutally simple. Today's social-democratic politicians are middle-class professionals who are, by-and-large, as disdainful of the electorate as they are uninterested in its inner emotional life. Not only have they forgotten how to dream dreams and see visions - they don't see the point.
Labour’s campaign to turn out the chimerical “missing million” courtesy of the unpaid efforts of several dozen young American interns is an embarrassing case in point. No one involved in this exercise seemed to understand that to replicate the outpouring of youthful energy that characterised the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Corbyn one first has to lay one’s hands on candidates capable of inspiring such unstinting effort.
Corbyn’s magic cannot be summoned-up out of a phone-bank staffed by well-meaning foreigners. Young volunteers will pour in to staff a Corbyn or Sanders-style political crusade – but only after they have themselves been mobilised by the fiery rhetoric of such political crusaders. There is no algorithm for passion, no playbook for inspiration.
Labour in New Zealand - like the Democrats in America and the New Labour Party of Tony Blair - are locked into the politics of subtraction. All their energy is devoted to shifting voters from the Government's column to the Opposition's. They have forgotten that the parties of the Left have always and only been about the politics of addition: of bringing new social classes and forces into the electoral equation; of adding new and exciting possibilities to the lives of ordinary citizens.
Politics isn't a profession - it's a calling. And when a political leader answers that call with sincerity and love - oh how the people respond!
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 4 July 2017.