Friday, 17 July 2009

Our Common Heritage

Unity trumps Identity: Labour's twenty-five-year love affair with the politics of identity has seen its share of the popular vote dwindle: from commanding nearly 50 percent electorate support in the early 1970s, to barely a third of the voters in 2008. Successful left-wing politics has always been about promoting the sort of just and equal society citizens acting together can create. It should never be about fulfilling the discrete, and often contradictory, agendas of groups created out of nothing more than the accidents of their members' births.

THANKS to Winston Peters, Labour now has some serious thinking to do.

Mr Peters appearance on TVNZ’s Q&A programme came as a timely reminder that, on issues as controversial as who "owns" the foreshore and seabed, Parliament is not the be-all and end-all of the political process. More to the point, with an electoral base of approximately 100,000, and the rudiments (at least) of a nationwide party organisation, NZ First is more than capable of filling any political vacuum created by National, Labour, Act, the Greens and the Maori Party "uniting" to smother an incipient Pakeha backlash against the repeal of the Foreshore & Seabed Act.

Labour, in particular, should ponder the consequences of allowing Mr Peters to apply his considerable campaigning skills to this issue. The Leader of the Opposition, Phil Goff, needs to decide – and quickly – if he is happy to see Helen Clark’s and Michael Cullen’s handiwork repudiated by the Labour Left. And, if he isn’t, whether a resolute defence of the Foreshore & Seabed Act would help Labour reconnect with all those communities alienated by the social-liberalism of its disastrous third term.

Amidst all the Maori Party talk about the foreshore and seabed being "stolen" (a palpable lie) it is worth reminding ourselves of the Act’s purpose: "to preserve the public foreshore and seabed in perpetuity as the common heritage of all New Zealanders".

That phrase, "the common heritage of all New Zealanders", offers a clear path forward for the Labour Party. A path which, on the vexed question of Maori-Pakeha relations, would lead it in a new, and much more wholesome, direction than the path it has been following since the early 1980s.

Essentially, for the past quarter-century the Labour Party has been driven by the "politics of identity": the ideologies underpinning the "new social movements" of anti-racism, feminism, gay rights, the rights of the disabled, and environmentalism.

These were the causes of the largely middle-class, university educated professionals who poured into the Labour Party and (to a lesser extent) the trade union movement, in response to the authoritarian and confrontational political style of the Muldoon-led National Government of 1975-84.

And, just as these new middle-class professionals swiftly overwhelmed and supplanted the working-class membership of the "old" Labour Party, their new "identity politics" overwhelmed and supplanted the socially conservative, but economically radical, working-class politics which had guided the party since its birth in 1916.

The great problem with identity politics is that it takes as its focus a series of factors for which the individual is not responsible, and over which he or she has no control. Our race, gender, sexuality, etc are attributes we inherit – they have nothing to do with personal choice, and, for the most part, they are factors we can do nothing about.

This is less of a problem when, in terms of socio-economic, cultural and political status, you’re on the debit side of the historical ledger, because then the world can be forced to make good the discrepancy. If, however, you’re not black, female, or gay, life can get pretty rough. White, heterosexual, males, in particular, are expected to pay, and go on paying, until the scales are evened-up.

But, twenty-five years on, it has become painfully clear that the application of identity politics has benefited no one so much as the social strata which promoted it in the first place: middle-class, university educated professionals.

Working-class women still earn less than their brothers. Working-class Maori still fill our prisons. Working-class gays are still persecuted. Working-class disabled people are still shut out from a full and equal life. Working-class environments remain bleak.

That’s why emphasising our common heritage and, more importantly, promoting our common future, promises to pay such hefty political dividends. Apart from emphasising the things that unite us, our common humanity, it’s a political credo which reaffirms human-beings’ ability to change their world.

Our place in this country need not be dictated by an accident of birth: whether we are Maori or Pakeha; but by how much each of us is willing to contribute to the goals that we – as a nation – set ourselves.

If Phil Goff and Labour refuse to seize this opportunity to democratise and collectivise the politics of national aspiration, then you may be certain Winston Peters and NZ First will grab it with both hands.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 10 July 2009. 

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