Thursday 29 April 2010

Cynical Politics

Don't ask - don't tell: As Bobby Kennedy is said to have quipped after the 1960 Presidential Election: "Democracy is like a good sausage. Tastes great - but you really don't want to know what went into it."

CYNICISM is one of the great occupational hazards of politics. Born out of the inevitable collisions between idealism and reality, its corrosive effects are displayed to best advantage in representative democracies – where the consequences of political failure are only occasionally fatal.

All politicians are at risk from cynicism, and the few who escape its clutches generally prefer to keep the electorate ignorant of the moral damage it inflicts. As Bobby Kennedy put it: "Democracy is like a good sausage. It tastes great – but you really don’t want to know what went into it."

All of which suggests that the person (or party) approaching political life with a swag of weighty ideals is likely to come to grief. Conversely, those who enter politics unburdened by excessive sentiment can almost certainly look forward to a much easier ride.

This is good news for the Right – which prides itself on its "unsentimental" and "realistic" approach to political affairs. Historically averse to "airy-fairy" ideas, right-wingers also have the better chance of escaping the ravages of cynicism. It’s hard to become disillusioned and cynical if you have no illusions to discard: no ideals for a head-on collision with reality to damage.

The Right enjoys another advantage: knowing what it’s in politics to achieve. Unlike the Left, whose mission, at least historically, has been to improve the world; the traditional task of the Right is to make sure it stays the same. While the Left is riven with sectarian arguments about the nature and extent of the changes it should (or shouldn’t) attempt, the Right’s mandate is essentially conservative: to ensure that the proper people remain in the proper places and deliver the proper results.

Above all else, this mandate requires the Right to remain in office for as long as possible. The only changes a right-wing government should ever be prepared to countenance are the changes required to win the next election. In or out of power, for the Right, "winning" is everything.

John Key’s government embodies these conservative principles to a truly remarkable degree. It’s major achievement to date has been the restoration of the "proper people" to their "proper places". Labour’s appointees have been ruthlessly purged from the State apparatus and their replacements are hard at work delivering the "proper results". The pace and scope of that delivery is set to increase dramatically if/when Key wins a second term.

Even more remarkable, however, has been Key’s extraordinary political flexibility.

Unburdened by the ideological shibboleths that weigh down politicians like Act’s Sir Roger Douglas, Key manoeuvres with astonishing adroitness to keep a clear majority of the electorate in National’s corner. For the benefit of the urban liberals he reaffirms his support for the anti-smacking legislation. To Act’s law-and-order brigade he delivers the "Three Strikes" bill.

And to the Maori Party, which he and his colleagues correctly identify as the pivot upon which all future New Zealand governments will turn, he delivers a series of policy concessions which, for their political audacity, can only be described as "breathtaking". The repeal of the Foreshore & Seabed legislation; the launch of whanau ora; and, most recently, supporting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

These three concessions to Maori nationalism illustrate with particular clarity just how seriously the Prime Minister takes the Right’s "winning is everything" mantra – and just how determined he is to do everything to win.

The contrast with Labour could hardly be more dramatic. Nowhere are the corrosive effects of cynicism more clearly evident than on the Left.

Labour’s collision with reality back in the 1980s drove cynicism deep into the heart of the Parliamentary Party. What remained of Labour’s left-wing idealists migrated to the Alliance, where they thrived briefly before crashing head-on into the reality of Jim Anderton. In the first decade of the new century it was the Greens who kept the idealistic flame fluttering – until untimely death and resignation led them to their own damaging rendezvous with realpolitik.

The ironic conclusion to all of this electoral self-destruction isn’t that the Left has become too cynical, but that it hasn’t become cynical enough.

When National crashed to 21 percent in 2002 it had the wit to heed the advice of professional cynics like Peter Keenan, Bryan Sinclair and Matthew Hooton.

If National had to embrace its inner redneck to recapture the scattered tribes of the Right, then so-be-it. If it had to offer up a leader embodying the Right’s most radical neoliberal beliefs, then "Amen" to that as well. And if, after reconstituting National’s electoral base, the focus-groups told them it was time to switch from negative to positive messages, then "that nice Mr Key" would have Dear Old Don gone by lunchtime.

But Labour’s cynicism is neither as deep nor as ruthless as National’s. Rather than appeal to their party’s inner Bolshevik, and then, having run National close, genially postpone the revolution until Labour’s second term, the Opposition’s strategists have embarked on a public relations-inspired quest to rejuvenate the party’s "brand". Its risible goal? To make Labour "edgy", "out-there", "funky", "fresh" and "cool".

This is cynicism writ small: the paltry contribution of politicians who are no longer able to calculate the price, or recognise the value, of political nerve on an Orewa scale.

Labour’s cynicism prevents it from trusting either its own instincts or the better angels of the electorate. Public opinion is to be followed – not led. Innovative and inspiring policies (assuming, by some miracle, Labour acquired some) are always to be kept under wraps in case a political opponent steals them. What little faith remains to it is all in the power of negativity. The one question that must never be answered is: "What would Labour do?" The one question that must never be asked: "What should Labour do?"

In 1966, and again in 1981, Labour was defeated at the polls because it took a stand on principle. That its positions on Vietnam and Apartheid were later vindicated by history - and emphatic electoral victories – should be all the proof today’s Labour Party needs that in the inevitable collisions between idealism and reality both are changed – and not necessarily for the worse.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 29 April 2010.


Olwyn said...

The "image" questionnaire went out to Labour Party Members, not to the public at large. Surely it is OK for the party to consult its own about such matters. What is telling is that the media decided that it was interesting enough to talk about on the news. As was a Labour member complaining to his partner about a noisy kid on a plane. Furthermore, Goff's damning Key with faint praise was presented as naive praise of the opposition.

Labour is faced with an opposing media/corporate/national alliance, and has been in that position since sometime in 2008. While this holds, and National continues to dominate the polls, one can infer that potentially large donors are unlikely to take and each way bet on them. Hence I see wisdom in having an experienced politician at this time, who is unlikely to wilt under such conditions, and think that the left's best bet at making inroads is working hard on a grassroots level, and maintaining communication through the internet. Conversation may actually trump pronouncements at the moment, especially where they are likely to be distorted, though Goff did come out strongly against Hide's version of the Supercity, offering precise alternatives.

How I long for the day when the MSM & its PR buddies wake up to find that they have been controlling a narrative that is no longer of interest to anyone but themselves. Britain is now being subject to the self-same aspirational drivel that won National the election here.

peterquixote said...

In Canterbury some are well aware of NZ Government John Key smiling cynicism.
To alleviate the damage of the dissolution of Ecan, we are going to vote Jim Anderton for Mayor of Canterbury.
Suck that PM NZ Govt.

Anonymous said...

You're so deep in the pockets of David Farrar and the right-wing spinmasters that you can't even tell what is democratic politcal consultation by a political party from transparent spin.

Weren't you the one calling for Labour to return to 'more democracy' in the party?

Make up your mind or come out of hiding as a paid stooge of the Notional Party.

Chris Trotter said...

Sailing pretty close to the wind there, Anonymous.

I'm very far from being in Mr Farrar's pocket, and would, indeed, like to see more Democracy in the Labour Party.

Unfortunately, a corny branding exercise, and a rather curious attempt to formulate party policy through commentaries sent to an unofficial blogsite, does not equate to democracy IMHO.

And just so you know, the above posting was written before Phil's announcement on the top rate of income tax, and before his speech on the Auckland supercity - both of which have greatly encouraged me. Like Idiot Savant over at No Right Turn, I look forward to many more such unequivocally left-wing committments.

Perhaps Labour has found its Inner Bolshevik after all.

Anonymous said...

As those of us around at the time can verify, Labour's positions on Vietnam and Apartheid don't bear very close examination. A few Labour mps made on side sounding noises here and there- RusselL Marshall comes to mind- but they were consistently unsupported by the official party line.

Chris Trotter said...

It's not wise to resort to historical falsehoods on a blogsite frequented by historians, Anonymous.

Labour's opposition to both NZ's involvement in the Vietnam Conflict and to NZ's sporting contacts with South Africa are readily verifiable historical facts.

For goodness sake, one of the first things Norm Kirk did was to withdraw NZ tropps from Vietnam. He then went on to force the Rugby Union to abandon the scheduled tour of NZ by the Springboks.

You may be able to bamboozle people on other sites with the tactic of the "Big Lie" - but not on this one.

solatnz said...

Are you trying to insinuate that Labour was "quietly pro-Tour" Anon?

Anonymous said...

Labour was not defeated in the polls in 1981 because it took a stand on principles.
The incumbent National Party lost several seats to Labour in 1981, and there would have been a hung Parliament if Labour had retained a seat they already held - Taupo.
But Labour rolled over to National in Taupo for several reasons.
The Springbok Rugby Tour played a part because many spectators from the Taupo electorate were in the crowd at the disrupted Waikato match and were incensed at the "rabble" that they saw invade the field. Many of those spectators were Labour supporters who witnessed a deliberate challenge to law and order. Some crossed over and voted National, but more simply stayed home on Election Day.
The incumbent Labour MP was an older, non-typical, Labour person (a Rhodes Scholar) in an Electorate dominated by a union town. He had become irascible, unable to defend some ill-conceived, publicly made statements, and his wife had shown a dislike for unionists leaders on the local Trades Council.
The National Party ran a younger presentable candidate, an outsider with no enemies in the Electorate, who was uncontraversial and likeable.
He ran a very smart campaign.
Labour lost Taupo by something like 22 votes, only the second time in history that an Opposition Party had turned over a seat to the incumbent Government Party.
The general trend to Labour, temporarily thwarted, turned to a landslide in 1984.


Tauhei Notts said...

Kurt's comments about the impact of the 25th July 1981 debacle in Hamilton and its affect on the Taupo election are spot on. I recall that Bob Jones was one of the few political commentators to suggest that National could win Taupo.
But I seriously dispute Chris' comments about the Vietnam position costing an overweight Labour leader victory in 1966. Remember, this was just after Dean Eyre's comments about dumping a basinful of bombs on Vietnam. And the outing of an SIS stooge in political science studies at Auckland University - I'm damned if I can remember that bastard's name.

Nestor Notabilis said...

Not sure what you mean here by 'cynical' or 'cynicism'. Is it something like 'they'd do anything to win' or 'they'd do anything for money'?

In unrelated news, what age would you suggest young folks stop reading political philosophy and start furrowing into readings that are reassuring to ones own doctrine rather than undermining it? 25? 30? 35?