With Friends Like These: Andrew Little's decision to exclude the Greens from Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee is proof of Labour's determination to shake the monkey of alleged Green "extremism" off its back. One is moved to inquire of the unfortunate Greens: "How's that Labour's left-wing conscience thing working out for you?"
DEAN PARKER, New Zealand’s leading left-wing playwright, tells a great story about two old Bolsheviks.
It’s 1917, half way between the February and October Revolutions, and these two old comrades are complaining about what’s happened to their local branch of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. They cannot believe the numbers turning up to branch meetings. Hundreds of people have been regularly packing out the little hall where, formerly, twenty was regarded as a good turnout. What’s more, most of the newcomers are people the regulars have never seen before. And so young! With no respect for older comrades who have been with the party for years and years – even when it was illegal – back before the Tsar granted Russia a parliament! Truth to tell, these poor old codgers actually preferred political life before the revolution. The meetings were quieter, and the comrades so much more polite.
According to Soviet historians, the membership of the “bolshevik” [majority] faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, in the year before the outbreak of World War I, 1913, stood at roughly 25,000. By the end of 1917, however, the ranks of the Bolsheviks had swollen to a figure in excess of quarter-of-a-million.
Dean’s story offers us a tiny glimpse of what that sort of explosive growth might have felt like on the ground. It is also a useful historical reminder of how ordinary people respond when politics suddenly stops being an elite sport and they find themselves invited to join the game. That’s when everything changes – including the rules.
The story should also remind us that the aspirations of most political parties – even those on the Left – are considerably less heroic when revolution is not in the air. In a capitalist society, under “normal” circumstances, the preoccupations of parliamentary parties are all about maximising their vote at the next election; securing more seats that their rivals; amassing sufficient funds; seeking out friendly journalists; and making themselves more electable by keeping the party’s radical elements under strict control.
It is absolutely pointless for non-parliamentary “revolutionaries” to wail about this state of affairs. Because behaving in any other way, under “normal” capitalist conditions, has been proved, over and over again, to be utterly self-defeating.
Which is why Andrew Little, as Leader of the Opposition, used the opportunity provided by Prime Minister John Key to humiliate and alienate the Greens. Rather than invite Metiria Turei to take Russel Norman’s place on the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Little nominated his colleague, David Shearer, to join him in over-seeing the work of the Security Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Security Bureau.
In the current political climate, Little is acutely aware that Labour’s close association with the Greens is a big political loser. Too many people who would like to vote Labour are declining to do so because they fear the influence of the Greens within what all the polls tell them would be a coalition government of the centre-left. It is one of the reasons why so many Labour supporters split their votes. They are happy to give their electorate vote to the Labour candidate, so long as, by party-voting National, they can keep the Greens out of government.
Clearly, by so publicly mistreating the Greens, Little hopes to convince potential Labour voters that his party is no longer willing to be lumped-in with Green “extremism”. His message is clear: in any future coalition government the Greens will serve on Labour’s terms – or not at all.
The Greens, having digested this latest helping of dead rat from their Labour “friends”, should ask themselves (one more time, and with feeling!) how the job of being Labour’s left-wing conscience is working out. Has the strategy of locating the Green Party to the left of the empty ideological husk that Labour has become been a good thing or a bad thing in terms of advancing the Green agenda? If it’s been a bad thing (and Lord knows, after 15 years in the wilderness, it’s hard to characterise it any other way!) might it not be time to consider a new strategy? One in which the slogan “Neither left, nor right, but in front!” is fleshed out programmatically in a way that leaves the Green’s parliamentary caucus open to offers from both sides of the political spectrum?
It took a world war and almost complete internal collapse to propel the Bolsheviks into the job of effecting the revolutionary changes demanded by the Russian people. As climate change begins to bite, and the planet’s carrying capacity is exceeded once, twice, three times over; what sort of party will find its membership exploding? Will it be the mean-spirited party of an attenuated social democracy? The party of discredited neoliberal extremism? Or, will it be the party which, like Lenin’s Bolsheviks, has never ceased telling anyone who would listen that this day would come?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 18 February 2015.