Friday, 12 February 2010

Who's Scared of Labour?

Something scary at your back: Labour needs to be able to frighten its enemies as well as encourage its friends - but first it has to make some!

ONCE AGAIN, the polls look bad for Labour and its leader, Phil Goff. And, once again, the punditocracy waxes eloquent on the Opposition’s seemingly insuperable electoral hurdles: the steady erosion of the Maori vote; a Green Party in decline; the enduring popularity of Mr Key and his National Party.

All true. But none of these so-called "hurdles" are insuperable. The real barriers confronting the Left aren’t to be found in the external world, but in the interior world of the left-wing mindset. Labour has become electorally implausible because it no longer projects itself as either psychologically, or morally, convincing.

Phil Goff in last week’s "State of the Nation" speech spoke of a Labour Party dedicated to serving the needs of "the many – not the few". He lambasted those who avoided paying their fair share of tax, and he vowed to cap the salaries of State Sector CEOs at the level of the Prime Minister’s annual income. A traditional Labour message, and by all accounts powerfully delivered.

But was it real?

No, not really. It took the redoubtable right-wing blogger, Cactus Kate, less than a day to uncover the fact that a significant number of Labour MPs belonged to one or more Family Trusts – the very same tax avoidance device that Mr Goff was railing against.

And what about all those State Sector CEOs on excessive salaries? Well, Mr Goff is to be congratulated for wanting to share the "pain" of economic recession more equitably. But, in order to restore a measure of equity to the pay-scales of the public service, surely Mr Goff would have to renounce his own, and Labour’s, continuing support for the State Sector Act?

After all, Mr Goff was a Cabinet Minister in the Fourth Labour Government which introduced the State Sector Act. It’s purpose? To bring the private sector’s market-driven discipline into the public service: to give the heads of government agencies the same powers and responsibilities as corporate CEOs – and pay them accordingly.

If Mr Goff is now acknowledging that the ideology underpinning the State Sector Act is flawed, then I, for one, will cheer him to the echo. But if he still adheres to the neoliberal ethos which gave it birth, then he should let the market in CEO salaries find its own level, and like the original author of the State Sector Act, Stan Rodger, remain steadfastly on the sidelines – and keep his mouth firmly shut.

To become the genuine champion of "the many – not the few", Mr Goff is going to have to do more than toss his core voters an occasional chunk of raw populist meat. To win back the love Labour’s lost, the Leader of the Opposition must learn how to channel not only the hopes and aspirations of Labour’s educated middle-class minority, but also the fear and antagonism of its sullen working-class majority.

A genuine political leader will gladly and gloriously reflect the idealistic light of his best followers, but, when pressed, he must also be capable of tapping into the darkest impulses of his worst. True leaders are feared as much as they are loved. Think of Helen Clark in the midst of the "Corngate" scandal: chilling. Think of Rob Muldoon ordering Tom Scott out of the Beehive Theatrette: terrifying.

Watching TVNZ’s Guyon Espiner interviewing Mr Goff on the Q+A programme, I was struck by how keen the Leader of the Opposition was to please. Where was the menace? Where was the sense that, like Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, Mr Goff has at his back a phantom host – all those forgotten New Zealanders – just waiting to strike down his enemies?

Democracy, it is said, substitutes ballots for bullets. And that’s fine – so long as, like the metal projectiles they replace, ballots also have the capacity to inflict real damage.

Labour needs policies that not only help – but hurt. Out there in the electorate some groups need to understand that they will be paying for Mr Goff’s promises. Sweet reason and bi-partisanship, as President Obama has discovered, makes for poor politics. There’s nothing the voter enjoys more than the whiff of fear and panic – especially in high places.

No politician gets elected purely on the strength of being everyone’s friend. At least symbolically – and preferably in reality – a party leader must also be somebody’s enemy.

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, 5 February 2010.


Anonymous said...

Hi Chris

Back in the Jurassic period when Muldoon was trying to turn this country into a Stalineque command driven state, I cut my ideological teeth in the cafeteria at Westfield arguing with Trots.

I disagreed with them. I thought anyone who disavowed Alexandr -- I was reading Gulag at the time -- and thought Albania was what we should aspire to was nuts.
I've been moving to the right ever since.

I agree that Labour (the party) had a role then. It was to protect the working people: those who paid rent to a landlord or a bank and were ruined if the boss gave them a pink slip. The Muldoon style Labour was very socailly conservative, and still had a memory of when the unions and friendly societies ran welfare funds. There was a mistrust of the unusual: bludging was as great a sin as strikebreaking or being a scab.

And this ethos was socially cohesive. I guess you have to be of a certain age, and not living in a leafy suburb to know this, for what I'm describing died in 1985 when Labour went neoliberal.

The left became a nauseatingly politically correct and humourless set of killjoys that required that you genuflect to the shibboleths of the rainbow coalition. The fear of hard neoliberalism (along with a dislike of privilege) got the 4th labour government up and running. And... to be fair... Helen ran a textbook neoliberal government.

The problem is that neoliberalism is a luxury when the economic situation is dire. We are seriously in debt -- and the rest of the Anglosphere are catastrophically in debt. We need to think fairly carefully, because otherwise we are heading for a IMF style retrenchment akin to what Greece is tryng to avoid now.

Cactus Kate and the right are thinking hard on what this would be like -- including the redevelopment of a working lumpenproleteriat (ours is perpetually on the dole).

The Left does not like this, but the left has to consider what will happen if and when the state goes bankrupt. I'd suggest the left encourage devolution and again let the union office be a place where one goes for help.

It might be old fashioned and akin to a guild, but it is more sustainable

Anonymous said...

Much as I disagree with your ideology, Mr. Trotter, this article is succinct and beautifully written. It is a joy (these days) to read such words so beautifully expressed.

Anonymous said...

You correctly identify a major hurdle for Phil Goff to cross with this extract from your post:

"To win back the love Labour’s lost, the Leader of the Opposition must learn how to channel not only the hopes and aspirations of Labour’s educated middle-class minority, but also the fear and antagonism of its sullen working-class majority."

In your Bowalley Road youth, I was growing up amongst Labour's core supporters, but in a National household of farming stock. These Labour supporters were decent hardworking single income families. The husbands worked in a small sawmill (30 employees) which manufactured wooden crates for dairy factory product. The wives had family meals on the table at 5.30pm. These families, and my family were friends. These people had decent standards, were generous-hearted, and played a role in community and sporting affairs in the town.
Not far down the road was a very large pulp and paper mill. Union officials took the large workforce out on strike to protect members who were stealing from the company. Our friends from the small mill did not like this betrayal of honesty.
Our friends do not like the Labour emphasis on social policy. They are not sullen, just decent ordinary folk who earn a living wage, and are happy doing so.
They did not like Helen Clark publicly snubbing Owen Glenn at the opening of the Auckland University building in his name, following his generous donation to the University, and also to the Labour Party.
They did not like Helen Clark's deliberate rudeness to the Queen at the Royal banquet in her honour.
They did not like Helen Clark defending the Winston Peters blatant disregard for openess and honesty, nor Taito Phillip Field, nor David Benson Pope.
They do not like the huge growth in Government departmental "jobs", in "sickness" benefits, or in "unemployment" benefits.
They do not care for the overseas jaunts of Chris Carter and partner.
They particularly dislike becoming dependent on the State through Working for Families subsidy.
These folk are loyal to the Labour Party of old, of Michael Joseph Savage. They are not sullen, but deeply saddened, that ethics have been brushed aside in the pursuit of power. And with it, their unquestioning support has been brushed aside also.