Tuesday 8 July 2014

Kindred Lizards

Bleak Evangelism: Last weekend David Parker's Presbyterian hymn to egalitarianism brought Labour's election-year congress to its feet. But there is little in his Alternative Budget to justify the standing ovation he received. Philip Snowden's messianic Methodism, similarly, could make grown men weep, but his utter failure to deal with the Great Depression made his name a by-word for laissez-faire retrenchment and ideological betrayal.

THERE ARE NAMES in every culture which – for good or ill – summarise a person’s character. In our own, branding someone a “Judas” vilifies him as irretrievably as calling someone else “Mother Teresa” extols her.
In the dwindling sub-culture of the English-speaking labour movement, the mention of just one name, Philip Snowden, continues to conjure-up the spectres of all those Labour finance ministers whose limited imaginations, excessive caution and unreflective orthodoxy condemned their parties to electoral disaster and their working-class supporters to years of undeserved and unmitigated hardship.
Snowden, himself, was a peculiar mixture of fiery Methodist evangelism and deeply orthodox Gladstonian liberalism. His personal vision of “socialism” (if that is what it was) consisted almost entirely of a redeemed Utopia brought into being by unrelenting moral struggle:
“But the only way to regain the earthly paradise is by the old, hard road to Calvary – through persecution, through poverty, through temptation … And then the resurrection to the New Humanity – purified by suffering, triumphant through Sacrifice.”
Sounds lovely!
Snowden’s blackened reputation dates from his second stint as Chancellor of the Exchequer under the Labour Party Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald; the period encompassing those three fateful years between 1929 and 1931.
As the Capitalist world spiralled into the most profound economic crisis of its history, Snowden clung to the orthodoxies of the vanished Victorian era. In the words of Keith Laybourn, his biographer: “He was raised in an atmosphere which regarded borrowing as an evil and free trade as an essential ingredient of prosperity.” Along with his advisers at the Treasury, Snowden dismissed out of hand the stimulatory formulae of the rising economist, John Maynard Keynes. This prompted Winston Churchill’s withering judgement: “The Treasury mind and the Snowden mind embraced each other with the fervour of two long-separated kindred lizards.”
To balance his Budget, Snowden insisted that the benefit paid to the rapidly swelling ranks of the unemployed be cut. His Cabinet colleagues jibbed at condemning so many of their party’s supporters to abject poverty. The Government split. MacDonald and Snowden invited the Tories (and what remained of the Liberals) to form a “National” administration. A general election ensued which reduced Labour’s seats in the House of Commons from 228 to 46.
For decades afterwards, whenever British Labour Party members came to the line in The Red Flag about cowards flinching and traitors sneering – it was the betrayals of MacDonald and Snowden that they recalled.
In New Zealand Labour Party circles it is, of course, the name of Roger Douglas that produces the most visceral reaction. And, when it comes to betrayals, “Rogernomics” holds pride of place. What Kiwi Labourites are less willing to concede, however, is that the neoliberal ideology introduced by Roger Douglas in the late-1980s continues to constitute (the rank-and-file’s antipathy notwithstanding) the orthodox economic ideas of the Labour Party.
Philip Snowden: The coward who flinched, the traitor who sneered.
It is in this regard that the party’s current finance spokesperson, David Parker, most closely resembles Philip Snowden. Like Snowden, Parker has made himself the guardian of neoliberal economic orthodoxy.
“Under our alternative budget”, Parker told last weekend’s party congress, “everything is paid for, plus we are in surplus. Let me repeat that. Everything is paid for, plus we are in surplus.”
As the historian A.J.P. Taylor remarked of Snowden’s first Budget: “it would have delighted the heart of Gladstone.”
But, as the economic commentator, Rod Oram, pointed out last Sunday, Labour’s tight spending cap – $1.5 billion over three years – and its ‘ring-fencing’ of health and education expenditure “means it will have to cut funding in some other areas. It needs to say where in the election campaign to prevent a voter backlash later.”
The other thing Parker needs to explain is how his economic programme contributes to his cherished dream of a more equal New Zealand.
“My political heart lies in something that has become a quaint notion these days, the notion of an egalitarian society.”
But lifting the top tax rate by 3 cents will not restore a New Zealand that is “not just about equality of opportunity. It’s about decent outcomes as well.” To house the working poor will require more than Kiwibuild. Just as the elimination of child poverty will require massive increases in welfare spending. Are these included in Parker’s boast that “everything is paid for”? Or, when Parker talks about making “tough choices” and expresses his regret that “not all the policies we would like can be funded”, are these the sort of policies he’s talking about?
They say that, on the stump, Snowden’s messianic Methodist rhetoric could make grown men weep. And last weekend, Parker’s Presbyterian hymn to egalitarianism brought Labour’s congress to its feet. Even so, when you’ve absorbed the detail of Parker’s Alternative Budget, it is Churchill’s image that lingers: Of Parker’s mind and Douglas’s mind embracing like “kindred lizards”.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 8 July 2014.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

"not just about equality of opportunity"

It's not as if there's even any equality of opportunity lefties days.

Anonymous said...

Those cheering the soaring rhetoric of David Cunliffe need to look carefully at what Parker is saying before they get too carried away.

The only people who are convinced by the Labour programme are those who really badly want to be to fooled again.

Guerilla Surgeon said...


Now there's a visionary.

Victor said...

AJP Taylor also remarked somewhere or other (damn my disappearing memory cells!) that the second UK Labour government's right and left wings were united in their belief that little could be done to lessen the economic impact of the Great Depression.

The Right were, as you point out, effectively Gladstonians, whereas the Left thought that slump and misery were inherent to capitalism and nothing much could be achieved until some distant point in the future, when Socialism was instituted.

Initially, Keynesianism thrived more conspicuously amongst maverick Tory and Liberal MPs than in Labour's ranks.

Harold Macmillan was an early convert, as was the by then aged Lloyd George.

And so, allowing for his inherent opportunism, was Oswald Mosley, who had been Snowden's number two at the Treasury but resigned to begin his descent into Fascism.

Michael Herman said...

Dropping GST back down to 12.5% and increasing the top tax rate by at least 6c in the dollar might not have won friends for Labour among those who are unlikely to vote for it anyway, but it would have won it votes. And it would have carried their economic policy a bit further towards the egalitarian society Parker claims to want, rather than just closer to the idea of it.

Victor said...

Michael Herman

I agree entirely. But I'd actually have favoured dropping GST down to 10%

Not only would this directly help the less affluent.

It might also help keep the domestic economy trotting along once, as seems increasingly likely, our milk powder boom starts spluttering to a halt.

Richard Christie said...

Alternative budget, 2014 conference, both have come and gone.
Total silence on any talk of recovering our swindled assets.

Anonymous said...

To be fair, the longest continuously serving Minister of Finance in New Zealand history, a certain Walter Nash, wasn't exactly part of the radical wing of the Labour Party either.

Anonymous said...

Steady on Chris. Labour can't promise the world because then they'll be accused of being reckless with taxpayers' money and giving out election bribes to all and sundry. A softly, softly approach doesn't mean they are neo-liberals in drag, just that they want to be fiscally responsible and not frighten the hroses. We desperately need to boot out National, and we can't do that without Labour, so how about giving them a bit of support instead of feeding the right-wing media with all this negativity?

Nic the NZer said...

Much better Chris. The root of our countries present economic malaise is the lack of a government budget deficit. The government should expect to remain in deficit (by spending more or taxing less) until unemployment hits 2 percent. If they want to drop gst down then good but we should point out that raising income taxes back up to compensate that will largely negate the effects of lowering GST to begin with. Better just to keep going until you fixed the unemployment problem and not get distracted by trying to tax the wealthy.

Anonymous said...

I'd get rid of GST altogether.

greywarbler said...

Yikes. “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?
It seems that fervent bible-thumpers would (the stone being a slogan or moral concept that is philosophically interesting but practically inedible.

George Orwell said that the Salvation Army preached a little before feeding people but might have been superior to Methodism if their religious followers didn't follow their sermons with loaves and fish.

Personally I think that the need for work with reasonably pay and conditions, food and affordable housing is a holy task in itself. Achieving it for the country should be the Holy Grail to be achieved by decent, honourable means but not handicapped by blinkered obedience to perfect economic holy writ which is allowed to trump real human needs.

Incidentally if shrinking violets cannot operate with a pseudoname, they need to distinguish themselves by a number or alpha letter. One anonymous is very like another!

Loz said...

It’s a great post Chris. The billionaire Clive Palmer spoke at the Australian Press Club two days ago and told the story of four female pensioners who pooled their money to go to the movies. "I couldn't care if we had the biggest debt in the world," he said. "Those ladies are going to have their chocolate and go to the cinema.

The comment was brilliant for stating there are at least some absolutes that Australians have a right to expect… even if it’s just for pensioners to be able to eat chocolate and go to the cinema! Labour once was committed to a constitutional right of all citizens to education, healthcare and meaningful employment. That commitment seems a long time ago now.

Roosevelt, when questioned over his proposed Depression era policies, famously declared "It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." Exactly how commitments are achieved is secondary to affirming the rights and principles in the first place and continually trying different approaches to make those assertions realities.

There are many avenues for raising revenue while lessening the tax burden on struggling kiwis. How can it be fair for GST to be levied on the food, electricity and medicine of pensioners yet the tax is not applied to the sale of stocks and shares, futures or currency trading? Why should share owners receive a "franked" income on dividends so their personal earnings are taxed at a lower rate than salary and wage earners?

Any real change in the economic status quo has to recognise that those who have benefited from 30 years of tax cuts aren't salary and wage earners but are those who draw income directly from capital investment.

Michael Herman said...

Well said, Loz.

Kat said...


"Why should share owners receive a "franked" income on dividends so their personal earnings are taxed at a lower rate than salary and wage earners?"

Good question for the author of this blog to 'actually' ask David Parker. He may even get a surprise.