Labour's Broad Church In Action: The social-radical, Dr Martyn Finlay, campaigns alongside the social-conservative, Norman Kirk. A political party must be able to reassure young voters that the ideas, hopes and aspirations of their generation are well represented within the parliamentary system. Without that reassurance, a party risks turning itself into a generational redoubt where the achievements of the past are celebrated constantly, but where the anticipated achievements of the future are either dismissed or deferred indefinitely.
THE STORY may be apocryphal, but it has stayed with me for more than 40 years. The liberal Labour lawyer and MP, Dr Martyn Finlay, responding to the fearsome reputation of the recently opened maximum security prison at Paremoremo, is said to have observed that no prison should be escape-proof – lest it crush men’s souls.
Even by today’s standards, Finlay’s views come across as radically progressive. Back in the early 1970s, a time when the Labour Party was still beholden to its many conservative supporters, statements of such uncompromising radicalism were astonishing. Unsurprisingly, Finlay’s equally radical views on abortion, homosexuality and euthanasia made him a controversial and polarising Member of Parliament. His boss, Norman Kirk, was not a fan.
For a great many members of the “Vietnam Generation” (as political journalist Colin James dubbed the youthful rebels of the 1960s and 70s) Finlay’s social radicalism was inspirational. His ability to infuse the political process with urgent ethical purpose acted as an ideological and generational bridge between the children of the Great Depression and the Second World War, and the obstreperous beneficiaries of post-war affluence and optimism. In the language of that long-ago time: Finlay linked the Old Left with the New.
It was a vital exercise in political chemistry. A political party must be able to reassure young voters that the ideas, hopes and aspirations of their generation are well represented within the parliamentary system. It must also instil confidence that their agenda for change has every chance of achieving legislative expression – and sooner, rather than later. Without that reassurance and confidence, a party risks turning itself into a generational redoubt. An isolated ideological fortress, in which the achievements of the past are celebrated constantly; but where the anticipated achievements of the future are either dismissed or deferred indefinitely.
This was the party that Labour had become by the late 1940s, when the heroes of 1935 told the party’s younger and more radical members that they should cease their agitating because “everything is done”. It wasn’t until the much more intelligent and open-minded Arnold Nordmeyer finally succeeded the deeply conservative Walter Nash, and was joined in Labour’s caucus by Norman Kirk, Bob Tizard, Bill Rowling, Phil Amos and Martyn Finlay himself, that Labour’s forward march was resumed with vigour.
Looking at the endless stream of media releases emanating from today’s Labour Opposition, it is impossible to identify a figure even remotely comparable to Finlay. In 2017, there is simply no way that Labour’s media minders would allow an MP to declare, in the name of human dignity, that no prison should be designed to eliminate the possibility of escape.
The very idea that such an audacious and jarring pronouncement might provoke the electorate into thinking about the crushing realities of prison life; or challenge them to decide whether rehabilitation is even possible for a prisoner from whom all hope has departed; would be dismissed as politically suicidal.
When David Cunliffe, moved by the devastating evidence of domestic abuse, delivered his Finlay-like apology to the 2014 Women’s Refuge symposium: ‘‘Can I begin by saying I’m sorry – I don’t often say it – I’m sorry for being a man, right now. Because family and sexual violence is perpetrated overwhelmingly by men against women and children”; the news media (and his colleagues) tore him to shreds.
But, if Labour is unwilling to tolerate a twenty-first version of Martyn Finlay, then how can it hope to construct the bridge to the future it so desperately needs? Norman Kirk may not have welcomed Finlay’s radical outpourings, but he endured them. Andrew Little is nowhere near as flexible. While Canada’s Justin Trudeau prepares to legalise cannabis, the leader of New Zealand’s Labour Party delivers ponderous homilies about its danger to young people.
While tomorrow’s voters grow increasingly desperate to hear a Labour MP willing to proclaim, without equivocation, the need to break definitively from the failed neoliberal experiments of the past, the party clings ever more tightly to the social liberalism by which it chose to define itself thirty years ago. With the bloody injuries of class everywhere on display, Labour stubbornly refuses to select a candidate capable of describing them.
If Labour wishes to avoid becoming a moribund relic, then it must learn, again, how to infuse New Zealand politics with Martyn Finlay’s radical moral purpose.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 January 2017.