Friday, 21 August 2009

Labour's nightmarish road trip: From "Broad Church" to "Shopping Mall"

Now that's what I call a road trip! Hip novelist and chemico-political entrepreneur, Ken Kesey, and his busload of "Merry Pranksters" took the Gospel of LSD on the road in the late 1960s. Their mission? To put a new generation of American pilgrims to the "acid test". The Beatles picked up the vibe with their "Magical Mystery Tour", as did Bruno Lawrence, right here in Godzone, when he borrowed the bus motif to launch BLERTA. All of them, in one way or another, were selling liberation from the "repressive tolerance" of consumer-driven capitalism. What were Labour's intrepid road-trippers selling? Greatest Hits of the Seventies?

WHAT’S the matter with Labour? Why is it making so little impression on even its hard-core supporters? And can anyone explain why Labour’s strategists still believe it’s intelligent politics to have their MPs recorded, singing songs, on a bus, in the Tory-blue heart of Taranaki?

Because, while the whole "Baby Boomers on a Bus" schtick definitely worked for Bill Clinton and Al Gore back in 1992 – when Baby-Boomers running for the planet’s top-job really was new and exciting – it’s now 2009, and, after 17 years in the saddle, the Boomers’ generation is rapidly running out of puff.

Even so, you would think that any political party planning a "Regional Road-Trip" might do just a little bit of "advance" work. Like sending someone to have a chat with Davey Hughes, the telegenic proprietor of the Swazi clothing factory in Levin. It’s really quite important to know how someone like Hughes is going to respond before your Leader, in front of a pack of amused reporters, asks him what he would like Labour to do for small business – and discovers it involves ripping the guts out of the Employment Relations Act.

After all, how hard would it have been for the Labour Whip, Darren Hughes, to quietly sound out his Uncle Davey on the subject?

Come to think of it, why would you put Old Wooden-Top up against the charismatic owner of the Swazi brand in the first place? Phil Goff was only ever going to look and sound lame by comparison. (Especially during the long moment of embarrassing silence that followed Davey’s musings on collective bargaining.)

And while the newly-elected MP for Mt Albert, David Shearer, plays a mean guitar, what on earth were his colleagues thinking of singing Take Me Home, Country Roads and Hotel California? I mean – John Denver and The Eagles! Could they have possibly screamed "Hey everybody - we come from the 1970s!" any louder?

It could have been worse, I suppose. They could have been recorded singing Kumbaya and If I had a Hammer.

LABOUR used to describe itself, proudly, as a "broad church" – a term which harks back to the days when most Labour MPs, if they weren’t practising Christians, nevertheless remained fiercely loyal to the Labour Party’s Christian Socialist heritage.

At a time when most New Zealanders still went to church on Sundays, and in a political movement embracing Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and a host of other denominations, a welcoming ecumenism was absolutely essential to the maintenance of party unity and harmony.

The expression "broad church" also encompassed the wide range of political philosophies adhered to by Labour’s diverse membership – extending all the way from 19th Century Liberalism on the Right, to Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism on the Left.

The dramatic influx of young, university-educated followers of the "new social movements" (pacifism, anti-racism, feminism, environmentalism, gay-rights) in the late-1960s, and throughout the 1970s, fundamentally altered the social, religious and ideological composition of the Labour Party.

Secular and essentially libertarian, rather than Christian and/or socialist, in outlook, these newcomers waged an unceasing, and ultimately successful, series of "culture wars" against the deeply-entrenched social and religious conservatism of Labour’s traditional (and increasingly elderly) membership.

Only the trade union affiliates and the Ratana-aligned Maori were able to withstand the ideological and organisational onslaught of these young firebrands. (Helen Clark and Phil Goff among them.) By the early-1980s, the formerly powerful Christian conservatives (especially the Catholics) were in full retreat. On the litmus-test issues of abortion and homosexual law reform they had been decisively defeated.

The coming of Rogernomics in 1983-84, did not unsettle these newcomers as much as might have been expected. As David Harvey writes in A Brief History of Neoliberalism: "Neoliberal rhetoric, with its foundational emphasis upon individual freedoms, has the power to split off libertarianism, identity politics, multiculturalism, and eventually narcissistic consumerism from the social forces ranged in pursuit of social justice through the conquest of state power."

Rather than a "broad church", Labour now resembled a shopping mall, and by the time the 1987 General Election rolled ‘round, a new kind of party member was being welcomed through its gleaming, neoliberal portals, and invited to sample the merchandise on offer in its many boutique establishments.

If you were female there was "Women’s Council", where Margaret Shields sold equal employment opportunities and reproductive freedom. Gays and lesbians crowded into Fran Wilde’s hugely successful "Change the Law" café. "Labour Youth" sold Nuclear-Free NZ T-shirts by the score. Environmentalists shopped at "Sustainability", Maori at "Treaty Rights".

Among all this 80s glitz and glamour, and with Dave Dobbyn and Dire Straits blasting through the Mall’s sound-system, Labour’s traditional working-class supporters continued to wheel their shopping-trolleys through the "Compulsory Union" supermarket. They couldn’t help noticing, however, just how little of the original Labour Party building had been left standing.

Even so, in 1987 Labour won 48 percent of the popular vote – it’s best performance since Norman Kirk’s landslide victory in 1972. It would be the last time, however, that the Party, by itself, came anywhere near attracting 50 percent support.

AND that’s the problem, really. As the years have passed, Labour’s Mall, once so new and exciting, has become old and tatty. Its Eighties’ architecture, all mirror-glass and chrome, has dated horribly, and the shops inside just haven’t kept pace with the new trends in political retailing.

What was politically fashionable in 1987 is now more than 20 years out-of-date. The bright young things who stood behind the counters when Roger Douglas was turning New Zealand upside-down, have become middle-aged and frumpy. Nobody wants Nuclear-Free NZ T-shirts anymore. The vibrant rainbow banner above Fran’s "Change the Law" café has frayed and faded. "Women’s Council" spent a small fortune on a product called "Section 59" – and nobody bought it.

It’s 2009, and Labour’s share of the political foot-traffic has fallen to historically low levels. The only shop that’s still attracting customers is "Sustainability".

So why on earth did the Labour Caucus agree to install one of the Mall’s original managers as Leader of the Opposition? It’s a mystery as baffling as their "new" MPs belting out John Denver and The Eagles on the bus to Taranaki.

Perhaps the Neoliberal Mall, like the nightmarish Hotel California, has become an ideological location from which its MPs can check-out any time they like – but Labour can never leave.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 20 August 2009.


David Baigent said...

Scary ain't it. heh..

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Strong stuff, Mr Trotter but pretty accurate from where I sit as a bemused Gnat watching these guys floundering on the mudflats after the tide has gone out.

The question is, though - how long will it take them to wake up and regroup? Two years, five years? Will John Key turn out to be the Robert Gordon Menzies of NZ politics?

Unknown said...

So Chris

What has National done during this time? And what does it stand for?

You wrote an extraordinarily good column in the late 1990s when you said that "community" was the new left, where community people were the new trade unionists, where the class struggle had been replaced by the networkers opposing those who sought to maximise their individual wealth at the expense of all others.

The trade unions are regrettibly possibly dying out. But the people who would otherwise have been staunch trade unionists are appearing in other roles.

If you care to interview the new wave of Labour activists they will not be singing kumbayah, they will have a sophisticated view of climate change, of globalisation, and of why corporate control is so bad for ordinary people.

The Labour leadership is perhaps struggling to understand this. But ignore the activists at your peril.

Anonymous said...

Or mayhap,Trottear,
those wacky mall wares
are now National staples:
enjoyed ad ennui
by the fruits of said frumps,
gen X, Y and Z
-jaded dining-room tables

And perchance, mon frere
that same gauche anomie
and lack of mall-anchor
spawned such dilettante rancour
as the Helenhate insanity
that ordained the Keyprofanity?

And maybe, old pal,
Iceland's opened the door
a crak today
and that army of bennies
scratching for pennies
which is not far away
will round off Karl's day
by upsetting those tables
and clearing the temple
(with the ghost of Bob Semple!)

So go easy on Goffy
yes he's yesterday's chum
but so are we all
and tomorrow will come.

Anonymous said...

Actually John Denver and the Eagles 'screams' Upper Hutt Workingmen's club as much as anything else.
Kumbaya and If I had a hammer have fairly strong associations with the Vietnam anti war movement. Remember that?
One of the many significant anti establishment struggles in which Labour was particularly undistinguished.