Tuesday 15 October 2019

Losing Labour's Mills-Tone.

Nothing Left To Say: Labour's pollster, Stephen Mills, remains swaddled-up in the comforting myths of the 1980s. As if the experience of Roger Douglas’s genuinely radical post-Muldoon policy agenda was literally a once-in-a-lifetime thing – as much as the party could possibly absorb for at least the next 50 years.

MEMO TO THE Prime Minister’s Office: Please tell Stephen Mills to stay off the radio. When the boss of Labour’s polling agency, UMR, comes across on RNZ’s Nine to Noon “Politics” slot (14/10/19) as considerably further to the right than both Kathryn Ryan and Matthew Hooton then, believe me, it’s time to tell your pollster, very politely, to stick to his stats.

Listening to Mills in the aftermath of Justin Lester’s shocking loss to Andy Forster in the Wellington mayoralty election provided depressing confirmation of Labour’s current malaise. The party has no use for new thinking – about anything. It remains swaddled-up in the comforting myths of the 1980s. As if the experience of Roger Douglas’s genuinely radical post-Muldoon policy agenda was literally a once-in-a-lifetime thing – as much as the party could possibly absorb for at least the next 50 years.

Mills confirmed this quite unconsciously, when Matthew Hooton noted the irony of Muldoon’s massive energy projects taking on a prescient quality in light of the massive infrastructure challenges currently facing New Zealand. All Mills could offer by way of reply was a reflexive jibe about Hooton coming out in favour of “Think Big”. The man showed no inclination to step outside the dusty orthodoxy of the past 30 years. It’s as if Mills’ watch stopped in 1984 and he’s never felt the slightest inclination to re-wind it.

These jibes are a not uncommon feature of Mills’ commentary repertoire. A little while ago he derided a critic of government policy as “one of the last seven Marxists living in New Zealand”. At least that little joke raised a smile, but only if one was willing to ignore its unpleasant, red-baiting subtext.

Because, as the sorry fate of David Cunliffe testifies, open hostility towards anything further to the left than Tony Blair’s bland Third Way has long been de rigueur in Labour’s senior ranks. It’s why you will never hear Jacinda Ardern (who worked for a time in Blair’s administration) or Grant Robertson (who remains Michael Cullen’s prize protégé) offer a word of support or praise for Jeremy Corbyn. This hostility to any hint of socialism (even the “democratic socialism” enshrined in the NZ Labour Party’s constitution) is even stronger among those of Jacinda’s political advisers who learned their trade from the Clinton/Obama Democratic Party in the United States.

The kind of politics such rigidly orthodox and pathologically risk-averse conduct produces leaves most voters cold. It’s grey practitioners accept as gospel the fundamental neoliberal proposition that the last people who should be allowed within a mile of important policy decisions are politicians. These latter, say the neolibs, are best left to senior bureaucrats – preferably those with a background in the private sector. It explains why, in ordinary people's eyes, today’s politicians appear more interested in addressing the priorities of business leaders and bureaucrats than those of the broader electorate. It also explains why the priorities of the voters are addressed so selectively.

The fate of Wellington’s Justin Lester illustrates the learned helplessness of modern political leaders to perfection. Faced with the utter failure of the Regional Council’s public transport re-vamp, Lester responded that, as Wellington’s Mayor, it was not, actually, his responsibility to fix the bus service. Ditto with the proposed, highly controversial, property development at Shelly Bay. That was a private sector initiative. All of these excuses were grounded in administrative fact. But, it is very poor politics to keep telling people that there is nothing you can do to help them – especially in an election year!

Which is why, with Lester’s fate firmly in their minds, Jacinda’s advisers in the PM’s Office should urge Mills to get off the air. As the supposed voice of the “Left” his only contribution to the progressive cause is to rubbish every idea that doesn’t come straight out of The Big Blairite Book of Conventional Wisdom. The notion that democratic politics was once, and could be again, about something more than securing the narrow interests of big business – as interpreted by its bureaucratic and media enablers – is conspicuous by its absence from Mill’s Monday morning political discourse. Astonishingly, RNZ’s listeners are more likely to hear that sort of talk from Hooton, speaking for the Right, than from the Left’s supposed spokesperson.

Quite why RNZ continues to offer-up the likes of Mills (and his stand-in, the former Labour Party boss, Mike Williams) as representatives of the Left is a mystery. There was a time when genuine left-wingers like Laila Harré were given the job. Back then, listeners could be assured of hearing ideas that most assuredly did not fit the description of “conventional wisdom”. Nor was it the practice of the Left’s champion to tell her audience what they couldn’t have, because what they were asking of their elected representatives were things they couldn’t do.

It is difficult to imagine an approach to political debate more likely to foster voter disengagement than the one currently in evidence on RNZ. Kathryn Ryan and her producer are certainly not doing the Left in general, nor Labour and the Greens in particular, any favours by allowing them to be represented by a person so strongly wedded to the notion that his clients will always be better served following public opinion than leading it. Or, that the art of politics consists in persuading the voters that their political leaders are making new mistakes – rather than repeating old ones. Indeed, the real question that is left hanging in the air after half-an-hour listening to Stephen Mills is not why anyone wanting real change would vote for the parties of the Left, but why they would bother voting at all.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 15 October 2019.


Jim Rose said...

Corbyn's oddest claim to fame is never ever reading books.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Well the guy who had the guts to put "Labour" on his ticket was elected handily in Lower Hutt. Still don't know anything about his policies other than platitudes though. So perhaps they could get him on national radio given that he is good at platitudes.
I just finished a Massey assignment that started something like this "Given the general acceptance by purportedly centre-left political parties in much of the developed world of the neoliberal idea of free and unregulated markets (Krek, 2018, p.183)" – well exactly like this to be honest because I've just cut and pasted it and I said much the same thing some years ago when I did another one on government using the Blair government as an example.
We have to face facts that there is no political left anymore, and that the neoliberal left and right have managed to brainwash – or socially engineer if you prefer – the New Zealand peopleinto believing that the unregulated market is the only way to go. In spite of increasing evidence that their policies don't work.
I will reiterate – the World Bank has finally come out against austerity, something which it has imposed on developing countries as the new colonialism for years. Something that probably had some small effect on the brexit vote in Britain. And other economists are beginning to show that its more akin to a religion than anything else. And because it is more akin to a religion nobody seems to want to take in any evidence against it.
I don't know where the left is in New Zealand anymore. I've pretty much stopped mixing in political circles not that I mixed very far. I suspect that as usual there are a number of tiny splinter parties that spend more of their time attacking each other on minute points of doctrine than getting out into the real world of politics. And there are a few bloggers. But very few people are putting out an alternative – Keynesian if you like – view of economics. It's as if they're scared. All right, politicians do get scared very easily, look how long it took for the Democrats in the US to start moving against Trump. But if you don't get a coherent alternative out there you abandon the media to the right. I think one of the things they do is underestimate the capacity of the general public to understand economic arguments. Or maybe they just can't figure out how to put it into soundbites – which is another underestimation of the capabilities of the general public. God help us they need some young blood, you have only got to look at their website which is not only boring but mostly consists of pictures of old people. I suppose we should be grateful there on Facebook where most of the young people get their news these days. National's isn't much better to be honest, but at least it has a space for "Have Your Say" farmers get a space old people get a space workers not mentioned.:) I'm out of ideas myself, but then I'm ancient, get some bloody young people in there.

Kat said...

Katheryn Ryan is a good ol home grown country girl, her political leanings are fairly obvious. The radio station is RNZ-National, by the way.

peteswriteplace said...

You might be on the boil with this one.

Simon Cohen said...

Dear Guerilla Surgeon,
Once again you have managed to put egg on your face.
Justin Lester was the Labour candidate for Mayor of Wellington [just check the voting papers and see his advert on stuff today] but Jacinda has chosen to disassociate herself from him.
It shows she has no truck with losers.
Perhaps the reason for losing was to espouse the policies of the current government rather than thinking of his own electorate ..the voters of Wellington.

greywarbler said...

He looks a proud upright male, he is wearing a check shirt - he reminds me of the Lumberjack song in Monty Python. Perhaps he has been trading on this image which is as incorrect, as that of Michael Palin's guy.

There is a case for a regular clean out of pollies, only so many terms, and same with their advisors. Far too many long-term, career pollies around here, with self-serving approaches.

New blood needs to be added, and great philosophical debates had. I wonder if a Tedtalk approach would work at Labour conferences - a number of 5 minute speeches with slides as to an idea, how it would work, how it would have limited horizons so not become cost-excessive and what outcomes could be expected. Some actual joined-up thinking from the pollies themselves.

And then how to tell the officials. Well Sir Humphrey we have decided to...What! Where did you get that outlandish idea from! A well-thought out idea told enthusiastically could carry the day for a polly. More iconoclasts are needed I think. And perhaps read the trio of Leslie Titmuss by John Mortimer. Cunning raised him to take over as MP, but in the end he had no real warmth for the people. But he has some interesting ploys that could be useful. Also there is a thoughtful piece from Bowalley Road itself: https://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com/2017/05/our-path-to-future-is-blocked-by-past.html

Nick J said...

Yes GS get some young people in indeed. I agree that the political Left is somewhat absent. I was surprised to hear no less a luminary as Jordan Peterson lament this absence as a bad thing, basically saying that the Left deserting the field allowed the Right too much leaway, not good. His prognosis was that the Left needs to get back to things that really matter, income, jobs, health, education. He is right dammit!

sumsuch said...

Thank you for this. He's been vilely dull for ever. Or -- strange? -- since National had it's way, via Richard Griffin -- zat includes Kathryn Ryan.

I over-glide over the situance where you didn't get the job? Though I think you should have gone to group funding, much like Hager should've. The powerful crowded out, very subtly , given this is NZ, the democratic point of view, which, is to say, the NZ point of view. Which is also to say, given Douglas, to the left of Labour.

The Left makes your heart vibrate (back in the 80s, you, W.P. Reeves, Easton, the other heroes), this guy makes me dust it for dust. No one loves a right winger except for their degree of care for the powerless, and their mortgage-holding family.

I think in the same broadcast you heard he presented the orthodoxy about not presenting any targets to your opponent. I can see the advisability given the last Oz election and the history of Labour since '99. And your 'art of the possible' view of politics often limited -- mostly the people. But a 7.5 billion surplus and a 'Labour' govt not restoring the universally criticised ( among non-idiots) benefit cuts of Shipley is utterly disgusting.

wittgensteinscousin said...

As a Labour party member for about 15 years, I applied for a job in Jacinda's office when she came to power.

And with previous experience working on Labour campaigns in Aussie & UK.

Never got an interview.

Put the scissors thru my membership card.

These are not true Labour people.

Leonard George said...

As one of the seven I must protest that the Left lives; just not in the higher levels of the Labour Party at the present time.
I believe a campaign for a Red & Green New Deal for Aotearoa New Zealand aiming at an anti-capitalist, eco-socialist transformation of our country, can see us leading the world once again in making the necessary radical changes to ensure the flourishing of human beings and our environment.
The alternative of the sticking with the status quo (albeit with some reforming tweeks) is too tragic and horrific to contemplate.
A coalition of the Red & Green ACES (Anti-Capitalist Eco-Socialists) within and outside the political parties can gain mass support around such a Red & Green New Deal.
The Labour/Green/NZ First parties in the current Government will need to heed, or die defending the capitalist path to planetary destruction.
The NGOs (Greenpeace,Forest & Bird ...) and the movement (Greta fans, student Climate Change strikers, Extinction Rebellion ...)are already rallying to the common cause. A unified approach to what is truly the last fight can win. It must!

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Dear Simon Cohen. I don't think I once mentioned Justin Lester in my long post, partly at least because I don't vote in Wellington. I honestly can't be bothered reading it through again, so perhaps you could point it out to me?

Sam said...

Len Richards:

This is just my opinion of The Greens Defence policy. I just don't like it. I think axing the frigates and limiting the rest of the Defence Force to nothing larger than a 50 caliber round would be a huge mistake. The solution the Greens defence policy claims would be to create some sort of citizens militia and arm everyone which leaves New Zealand extremely vulnerable.

What makes New Zealand difficult to invade is that New Zealand lays 2000 kilometres from the nearest land mass - Australia - So because of New Zealand's geography any invader would find it difficult to supply an invasion force even with New Zealand's meagre defences as they are. The only countries that are More difficult to invade are countries like America so New Zealands natural defences are relativistic to Nuclear superpowers. So if the Greens had there way with New Zealand's defences they'd be giving up our only truly strategic advantage for some bloody minded ideology.

Surviving Climate Change will require a massive investment into NZDF. There is no other organisation the government has that can put an emergency life raft anywhere in the Southern Ocean during a hurricane. No other can evacuate personal/NGO/citizens from conflict zones and disaster zones. No other organisation can put 20-400 tons of supplies anywhere in the pacific with in 12hds to 3 days, casually under simulated combat conditions. As the feedback loops intensify as reported in the IPCC report becomes more and more severe, the greater the investment into NZDF will be required.

The Greens are so wedded to there bloody minded ideological defence policy so much so that I think NZFirst Defence policy creates a good balance between them and Labours no spending defence policy. Y'know when you see the futility in each of their strategies, forcing them to work together makes medicine so much more better.

Ideally, and this is just a bit of speculation from me because no where does it say that New Zealand could or should operate any more than 4 frigates. So it's just my opinion that NZDF should have 8 frigates, 3 Landing Helicopter Docks (Sea Lift) 2 Air Combat Wings, some sort of heavy long haul logistics aircraft, Medium-Tanks and a mix 6 Infantry Battalions as mobile-recon and light infantry. I would argue that this mix would be essential to maintaining a permanent presence in and around the Panama Canal, Suez Canal, Singapore (so that's 3 frigates on patrol around these trade hubs, 3 frigates ready to deploy, 1 frigate in training and 1 frigate in maintenance for a total of 8 frigates), a permanent presence in Antartica, as well as being able to provide well over a thousand military personal year in year out for UN missions including a mission to supervise a referendum for Independence in West Papua.

With precise investment into defence, trade and foreign affairs the whole region including APEC will take notice every time a New Zealand Prime Minister struts the world stage with there head held high and everyone will have no choice but to listen us. And that's why I simultaneously dislike the Green Party but hold my noise and Vote for Green climate policy, because God knows Winston will buy enough votes anyway.

sumsuch said...

To listen to Mills is to die a little.

I expect Richard Griffin, the most left of the right-wing monopoly on the original Ralston Group, protected RNZ during National's govt. Tho' I prefer Kim Hill laughing into Prebble's face when he lost Auckland Central -- no matter the manners, one of the best moments during those dark years. Such suppression.

Let's never doubt we are all equals. And shout about it.

greywarbler said...

Your eyes are bigger than what we can stomach talking about naval increment being involved around the Panama, Suez Canals, Singapore etc. Have you tried those great radio controlled model boats? Or sailing model yachts - they are quite tricky and for a boat lover who likes getting outside, a great way to fill in a day.

sumsuch said...

Just been to a threadbare, lean-to crannery in a poor suburb of my town, dropping off something from a customer to her cleaner. A major thing, the most sceptical of the young guys 'helping' mentioned 'white c--t' as I left.

Walk back and forth in your town's worst street. And let's talk no more of First World problems. Attend to the neediest, or as the NZers used to know it, our heart.

Doesn't matter politically of course, the motto of the last 35 years is 'ignore the poor', trying to make us true Americans.

I don't think we will address ourselves without Yertle 'shivering'.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Still waiting to see where the egg is Simon. Considering I didn't mention the Wellington man but mentioned the new mayor of Lower Hutt, I think you must have missed read my post. Still – I'm sure you can find someone to wipe the egg off your face.

Sam said...


As I say Climate Change requires permanent military operations instead of war. In particularly the navy is heavily into boarder / resource protection, anti piracy and counter-terrorism operations abroad. And as I say these operations require a total package of maritime transport solutions and provision of weapons and logistic with the ability to land from the air and sea with large ships and airplanes of our own. The features of NZDF in 2050 will be consistent with military doctrine and future trends that streamlines even for a country with New Zealand's meagre defence budget offerings. The Greens can put there whole weight behind interrupting the flow of funds towards NZDF but they can not change the circumstances in what's driving future trends towards resource depletion and all out war.

sumsuch said...

Hearing the recent joint Sue Bradford/ Bernard Hickey visit to the RNZ chat prog at 4 pm, boy, did the blood flow through my veins. The crisis of housing and benefits and the utterly silly 'economic' reasons why Labour won't address it. Versus the Monday morning political discussion where Mills defended not presenting a target politically. Why Goff enforced harsh imprisonment etc. The Left is always about speaking pulpits briefly allowed out of the oppression of the powerful. Which requires speakers of course. Look forward to Mills next mummification of the heart lesson on Monday.

sumsuch said...

If it amounted to an MP I'd really like to vote for the least. The middle class Greens say the right words but their hearts aren't in it. NZ can't put aside the weakest as easily as America. And we can see where they've ended up.