Jeremy Corbyn Makes His Case: Some will argue that the events of the past 30 years, in both the UK and New Zealand, have so eroded the electoral support for democratic socialist principles and policies that any Labour manifesto based upon them is bound to fail. And yet, opinion polling in both countries shows solid majorities in favour of the public ownership and/or provision of those utilities and services considered essential to a wholesome and inclusive society.
ON 12 SEPTEMBER, the world will learn if the British Labour Party has opted to move sharply to the left. If that is the result, and, as the polls suggest, Jeremy Corbyn is decisively elected Leader of the Opposition, then the impact of the Labour membership’s decision will reverberate around the English-speaking world.
The reverberations of a Corbyn win will be especially loud here, in New Zealand. Not only because of the very strong personal links between the British and New Zealand labour parties, but also because of their very similar experiences vis-à-vis the policy aggression of their parliamentary wings, and its consequences for internal party democracy.
The year 1983 figures very prominently in the stories of both parties – and not only because that was the year Jeremy Corbyn entered the British Parliament. The British Labour Party ran for office in 1983 on a frankly socialist manifesto and were soundly defeated – receiving just 28 percent of the popular vote. This defeat prompted Labour’s critics to describe the party’s pitch to the voters as “the longest suicide note in history” – implying that an open appeal to vote for socialism was pure electoral poison.
This was certainly the lesson that the right-wing of the New Zealand Labour Party was to draw from the British Labour Party’s electoral drubbing. Labour MPs Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble argued strongly that their own party must, at all costs, avoid its British counterpart’s disastrous example. Very few New Zealanders, however, were aware that even as Douglas and Prebble were denouncing the policies of the Labour Left, they were eagerly imbibing far-right economic and social theories from selected Treasury officials.
The other factors leading to Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 victory were, naturally enough, downplayed (or not mentioned at all) by Labour’s right-wing faction. The effect of her stunning victory over Argentina in the Falklands War was conveniently ignored – as was the defection of British Labour’s leading right-wing MPs. These turncoats set up the Social Democratic Party to prevent a Labour victory, and, by forming an electoral alliance with the Liberal Party, that’s exactly what they did. Though the Conservative Party’s support fell by 700,000 votes in 1983, it was able, thanks to the vagaries of Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, to celebrate a landslide victory.
The full-scale assault on Labour’s core values, unleashed by Douglas and his faction, following the party’s 1984 general election victory, both demoralised and divided its supporters. Membership of the party shrank dramatically (from 85,000 to less than 10,000) and its outraged left-wing, frustrated at every turn in its efforts to wrest back control of the party, eventually split away to form the NewLabour Party (later the Alliance) in 1989.
Accordingly, it is possible to argue that, in the charismatic figure of the principled left-wing maverick, Jim Anderton, New Zealand has already had its Jeremy Corbyn. Certainly, Anderton played a crucial role in hauling Labour back from its “free-market” apostasy under David Lange, Geoffrey Palmer and Mike Moore. By the time Helen Clark (in coalition with Anderton) led Labour back to power in 1999, most of its far-right deformities had long since been lopped-off.
In Britain, however, Labour first had to endure the rise and rise of the man who, with the benefit of hindsight, might be called its “Anti-Corbyn” – Tony Blair. Rather than lead his party back to its ideological roots, Blair and his “modernisers” persuaded it to embrace what might best be called “Thatcherism-Lite”. In doing so, however, Labour effectively capitulated to an unforgiving coalition of the Left’s most effective opponents: the right-wing tabloids; the right-wing electoral spoilers in what was now calling itself the Liberal-Democrat Party; and that implacable enemy of all forces hostile to the claims of untrammelled greed – the City of London.
It is, however, a common feature of both the British and the New Zealand labour parties that, for the duration of their Babylonian captivity, by the waters of Neoliberalism, neither of their respective memberships ever forgot, or gave up hope of returning to, the Zion of democratic socialism, from which they’d been so ruthlessly uprooted.
Some will argue that the events of the past 30 years, in both the UK and New Zealand, have so eroded the electoral support for democratic socialist principles and policies that any Labour manifesto based upon them is bound to fail. And yet, opinion polling in both countries shows solid majorities in favour of the public ownership and/or provision of those utilities and services considered essential to a wholesome and inclusive society.
If Corbyn wins on 12 September, many political commentators are convinced that the reaction of left-wing voters, across the English-speaking world, will mirror the reaction of the French to their liberation by the Allies in 1944. Flags will be waved, and kisses freely exchanged, as the people welcome themselves back home.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 1 September 2015.