THERE’S nothing quite as dangerous as a mislabeled bottle of medicine. Swallowing a couple of tablets of cyanide mislabeled as aspirin would, quite literally, be the last thing any of us would do.
In matters ideological and political it is also very important to call things by their proper names.
Imagine the confusion that would ensue if a political party, wedded to the far-right ideology of neo-liberalism, successfully marketed itself to the electorate as "pragmatic", "centrist", or even "Labour-lite".
Depending on how clever it was at maintaining such an illusion, the discombobulation of the voting public might take several months to wear off.
Well, the National Party, and its leader, John Key, have proved to be exceptionally talented at discombobulating the voting public. The Prime Minister, in particular, has demonstrated a capacity for rhetorical promiscuity that is truly remarkable. One minute he is preaching 1970s-style tri-partitism to the Council of Trade Unions, and the next he’s reaffirming National’s neo-liberal credentials to the Wall Street Journal. With the insouciant optimism that only a man with $50 million dollars in the bank can project, Key has spent the last four months leaping and pirouetting all over the political stage. The New Zealand public has been entranced, and, if the opinion polls are to be believed, enthralled. Very few voters have been sharp-eyed enough to notice that while Key has been demonstrating his talent for misdirection, the more conventionally conservative of his colleagues have been getting on with the job of trashing Labour’s legacy.
They’re not the only ones.
In a peculiar posting on his Against the Current website, Steve Cowan has also been indulging in a little Labour Party-trashing.
"I’ve got an idea for a comedy drama with a political twist", writes Steve. "It’s all about this group of Labour MPs, most of them former university lecturers, teachers, lawyers and the like, who head off to the working-class communities of the West Coast – the region that gave birth to the labour movement many decades ago."
Steve invites us to "imagine the comedic tension as the Labour MPs try to explain themselves" to empty halls and unwelcoming shoppers. "Imagine the political poignancy", says Steve, of Labour returning "home", only to discover "they’re about as welcome as a dose of diarrhoea".
Steve frames his satirical polemic with the claim that the Coasters’ disdain for Labour’s MPs is readily explicable in terms of the Labour Party’s anti-West Coast policies. The local working-class with which Labour is attempting to re-connect, insists Steve, is made up of "the very same people they bashed with their economic policies while they were in government."
Well, no, actually. Labour’s problems on the West Coast stem not from the Coasters having been "bashed" by Labour’s economic policies – which boosted employment, lifted wage levels, improved living standards, reduced the flow of outward migration, and increased the overall rate of economic growth throughout the West Coast region – but from their reaction to its environmental and social policies.
Steve’s anti-Labour Coasters never saw a native forest they didn’t think would look better being fed through a sawmill, and never found a coal seam they didn’t want to hack out of the ground and ship-off to China. Legislation intended to protect the rights and/or bodies of prostitutes, gay couples and children was received by these horny-handed sons (and daughters) of toil as ‘political correctness gone mad’, or as yet more evidence of the unwarranted intrusion of Labour’s "Nanny State" into the lives of "ordinary Kiwis".
These West Coast-Tasman electors didn’t reject Labour because it had abandoned its progressive roots, it rejected Labour because it had lived up to them. If the West Coast working-class really was the gallant band of red-blooded progressive socialists Steve seems to think they are, then surely they would have elected the Greens’ Kevin Hague as their MP – not the National Party’s Chris Auchinvole.
Alternatively, one could argue that, since Labour’s Damien O’Connor and Kevin Hague between them polled 16,975 votes to Auchinvole’s 15,844, then Steve’s framing contention: that the ideas and actions of the Labour Party and its Green allies fuelled the rejection of the Centre-Left across West Coast-Tasman in 2008; has no factual basis whatsoever.
Either the West Coast working-class are a bunch of feral (to use Helen Clark’s unfortunate expression) political troglodytes – in which case Labour should wear their rejection as a badge of honour: or, their support for Labour and its allies remains as staunch as ever. Whichever option one chooses, it would seem that, in the case of Steve’s putative comedy – the joke’s on him!
Not content with merely putting his misguided boot into Phil Goff and his caucus, however, Steve proceeds to pour scorn over what he describes as the "intellectually and politically dishonest" bloggers at The Standard and Tumeke. Their crime? Remaining silent in the face of "the sterility of Labour’s politics".
Steve then draws a bead on some of my recent political commentary: "Chris so desperately wants there to be a real difference between National and Labour he’s making things up now. When did Labour turn into a ‘social democratic party’. I don’t recall Phil Goff rejecting free market economics. Chris seems to be suggesting that social democracy can be anything he wants it to be, so there!"
Let me first reassure Steve that my reasons for calling Labour a social-democratic party are not based upon either my desperation to distinguish it from the National Party, nor on mere personal whimsy. On the contrary, my principal reason for referring to Labour as a social-democratic party is, very simply, because that is what it calls itself. Helen Clark, Labour’s longest serving leader, along with Dr Michael Cullen and Steve Maharey – two of its most impressive intellectuals – have consistently referred to themselves as social-democrats, and, on the basis of my own understanding of left-wing thought, I believe they are perfectly entitled to do so.
What distinguishes the social-democrat from the socialist revolutionary is the belief that the social, economic and political changes required to emancipate humanity from its "capitalist integument" (to use Marx’s phraseology) are all achievable peacefully, without recourse to insurrectionary coups d’etat and/or murderous civil wars, through the institutions of representative parliamentary democracy.
As a consequence, social-democratic parties are strategically precluded from indulging in the sort of uncompromising political praxis of bona fide revolutionary movements. In order to attract and hold mass electoral support, parties like the NZ Labour Party must be very careful to, in the memorable phrase of Jim Anderton, "build their footpaths where the people walk". While capitalist ideology retains its hegemonic grip on the hearts and minds of the vast majority of the population, the only thing that crude anti-capitalist sloganeering will bring about is the instant loss of social-democracy’s mass support.
When capitalist hegemony falters, however, and the population’s faith in its institutions is undermined – as is occurring at present, thanks to the global financial crisis – social-democratic parties are able to present their respective electorates with much more radical policy manifestos and, upon attaining office, drive through programmes of change which, cumulatively, can lead to a revolutionary transformation of their societies.
Such was the achievement of New Zealand’s first Labour government (1935-1949). The Governor-General and his family may not have been murdered in the basement of Government House, nor the cream of the New Zealand working-class wiped out in a vicious civil war, but Mickey Savage’s humane social-democracy certainly did succeed in transforming this country fundamentally – and for the better.
So, if anyone is indulging in personal whimsy (or is it blatant dishonesty?) when it comes to accurately labelling New Zealand’s political actors and movements it would appear to be Steve himself. To pass muster as a social-democrat, Steve insists that Phil Goff "reject free market economics" – not just in his heart (which, in itself, I would regard as a fairly big ask) but publicly. Of course, were Phil to commit such a strategic blunder, he would be signalling his intention to vacate the arena of serious electoral politics altogether. Within a fortnight, the right-wing news media and his National and Act opponents would have forced him to resign as Leader of the Opposition, and driven him into the political wilderness – where he would, no doubt, be welcomed by Steve.
Only then would Phil know that he had swallowed the wrong ideological medicine.
Only then would he realise that his new mate, Steve, had secretly peeled-off the original label identifying the contents of the bottle correctly as "Revolutionary Socialism", and replaced it with a new label, falsely describing the medicine inside (along with all its fatal side-effects) as "Social Democracy".
Only then would Phil begin to understand why he was feeling so discombobulated.