To Rove Free, Or Bark In Another's Interest? Aesop's ancient fable concerning the House Dog and the Wolf offers a moral every bit as relevant to today's political realities as it was to those in Classical Greece. Once inside the "Wellington Bubble" is it only a matter of time before our progressive wolves become "great favourites" of the House?
EVEN IF WINSTON VEERS LEFT, the progressive New Zealand community still has a problem. Their new political representatives: the people upon whom so many progressive voters have pinned their hopes for meaningful change; will soon discover that the speed at which they, themselves, are being transformed is far outstripping any changes in the wider world. Indeed, it will not be long before their elevated status leads them to begin questioning the wisdom of the many economic and social changes they are expected to make.
Even the lowliest Labour or Green backbench MP, on a salary of at least $160,000, now finds themselves among the top 5 percent of income-earners. It will require considerable willpower on their part to resist the lifestyle choices made possible by such a generous income. An even greater effort will be needed to prevent the blandishments of their fellow movers-and-shakers (who will be drawn to them like bees to honey) from turning their heads. As fully-paid-up members of the New Zealand political class, they will be expected to play by its rules. The most important of these: “Insiders do not talk to Outsiders!”, is intended to render meaningful economic and social change all-but-impossible.
It will only take a few weeks for these MPs to pass over from the world inhabited by their friends and constituents, into the “Wellington Bubble”. Once inside, they will find it very difficult to leave. Only when they are inside the bubble will the true character of events be revealed to them – nothing of which may be communicated to those living outside. They will soon come to accept that the power to solve problems is only ever made available to those who understand the importance of working inside the bubble. Trying to effect change from the outside will only bring home to them how powerless outsiders truly are.
These lessons will force our newly-minted progressive MPs to make some hard choices among their friends and comrades. They will have to decide who has what it takes to become an Insider, and who will forever be counted among the outsiders.
Once inducted into the rules of “Insiderdom’, these people will become the MP’s most trusted advisers and helpers. Regardless of what office they hold (if any) within the wider party, these will be the ones who, working alongside the MP, are permitted to wield the real power. Perhaps their most important role is to supply outsiders with explanations and excuses for why so many of the party’s promises for real and meaningful change cannot – at this time – be fulfilled.
As a means of protecting the world of the Insiders, this current arrangement is vastly more sophisticated than those of the past. Summer warmth is always more likely to encourage a relaxation of vigilance than the icy blasts of winter.
When the Labour Party was in its infancy, back in the 1920s and 30s, the salary paid to ordinary MPs was derisory – less than the wage of a skilled tradesman. Traditionally, the role of legislator was deemed one for which only “gentlemen” were socially, professionally and financially equipped. The rough-hewn working-men and women who entered the hallowed halls of Parliament were, therefore, met by a veritable force-field of class prejudice and scorn. Labour was the party of Outsiders – and the Insiders weren’t the least bit shy about letting Labour’s MPs know it.
While this state of affairs undoubtedly gave the enemies of progressivism considerable satisfaction, it was, politically-speaking, dangerously counter-productive. In terms of their lifestyle, working-class Labour MPs remained largely indistinguishable from their constituents. The complex apparatus erected around present-day electorate MPs by Parliamentary Services, was non-existent. When people came to a Labour MP seeking assistance, they were met more often than not by their spouse, who acted as the MP’s unpaid electorate secretary. There are countless stories about Labour MPs – especially during the Great Depression – reaching into their own, near-empty, pockets to prevent their constituents from going hungry. These were gestures that bred a party loyalty strong enough to bridge generations of voters. As Outsiders living among outsiders, the fires of progressive fervour that distinguished Labour’s team of parliamentarians were never in any danger of going out. No bubbles of wealth and privilege surrounded them to shut out the cries of the angry poor who were Labour’s nation.
In the words of Aesop’s fable – The House Dog And The Wolf
THE MOON WAS SHINING very bright one night when a lean, half-starved wolf, whose ribs were almost sticking through his skin, chanced to meet a plump, well-fed house dog. After the first compliments had been passed between them, the wolf inquired:
“How is it cousin dog, that you look so sleek and contented? Try as I may I can barely find enough food to keep me from starvation.”
“Alas, cousin wolf,” said the house dog, “you lead too irregular a life. Why do you not work steadily as I do?”
“I would gladly work steadily if I could only get a place,” said the wolf.
“That’s easy,” replied the dog. “Come with me to my master’s house and help me keep the thieves away at night.”
“Gladly,” said the wolf, “for as I am living in the woods I am having a sorry time of it. There is nothing like having a roof over one’s head and a bellyful of victuals always at hand.”
“Follow me,” said the dog.
While they were trotting along together the wolf spied a mark on the dog’s neck. Out of curiosity he could not forbear asking what had caused it.
“Oh, that’s nothing much,” replied the dog. “perhaps my collar was a little tight, the collar to which my chain is fastened – ”
“Chain!” cried the wolf in surprise. “You don’t mean to tell me that you are not free to rove where you please?”
“Why, not exactly,” said the dog, somewhat shamefacedly. “You see, my master thinks I am a bit fierce, and ties me up in the daytime. But he lets me run free at night. It really is very convenient for everybody. I get plenty of sleep during the day so that I can watch better at night. I really am a great favourite at the house. The master feeds me off his own plate, and the servants are continually offering me handouts from the kitchen. But wait, where are you going?”
As the wolf started back towards the forest he said:
“Good night to you, my poor friend, you are welcome to your dainties – and your chains. As for me, I prefer lean freedom to fat slavery.”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 14 October 2017.