Nothing Left To Say: Labour's pollster, Stephen Mills, remains swaddled-up in the comforting myths of the 1980s. As if the experience of Roger Douglas’s genuinely radical post-Muldoon policy agenda was literally a once-in-a-lifetime thing – as much as the party could possibly absorb for at least the next 50 years.
MEMO TO THE Prime Minister’s Office: Please tell Stephen Mills to stay off the radio. When the boss of Labour’s polling agency, UMR, comes across on RNZ’s Nine to Noon “Politics” slot (14/10/19) as considerably further to the right than both Kathryn Ryan and Matthew Hooton then, believe me, it’s time to tell your pollster, very politely, to stick to his stats.
Listening to Mills in the aftermath of Justin Lester’s shocking loss to Andy Forster in the Wellington mayoralty election provided depressing confirmation of Labour’s current malaise. The party has no use for new thinking – about anything. It remains swaddled-up in the comforting myths of the 1980s. As if the experience of Roger Douglas’s genuinely radical post-Muldoon policy agenda was literally a once-in-a-lifetime thing – as much as the party could possibly absorb for at least the next 50 years.
Mills confirmed this quite unconsciously, when Matthew Hooton noted the irony of Muldoon’s massive energy projects taking on a prescient quality in light of the massive infrastructure challenges currently facing New Zealand. All Mills could offer by way of reply was a reflexive jibe about Hooton coming out in favour of “Think Big”. The man showed no inclination to step outside the dusty orthodoxy of the past 30 years. It’s as if Mills’ watch stopped in 1984 and he’s never felt the slightest inclination to re-wind it.
These jibes are a not uncommon feature of Mills’ commentary repertoire. A little while ago he derided a critic of government policy as “one of the last seven Marxists living in New Zealand”. At least that little joke raised a smile, but only if one was willing to ignore its unpleasant, red-baiting subtext.
Because, as the sorry fate of David Cunliffe testifies, open hostility towards anything further to the left than Tony Blair’s bland Third Way has long been de rigueur in Labour’s senior ranks. It’s why you will never hear Jacinda Ardern (who worked for a time in Blair’s administration) or Grant Robertson (who remains Michael Cullen’s prize protégé) offer a word of support or praise for Jeremy Corbyn. This hostility to any hint of socialism (even the “democratic socialism” enshrined in the NZ Labour Party’s constitution) is even stronger among those of Jacinda’s political advisers who learned their trade from the Clinton/Obama Democratic Party in the United States.
The kind of politics such rigidly orthodox and pathologically risk-averse conduct produces leaves most voters cold. It’s grey practitioners accept as gospel the fundamental neoliberal proposition that the last people who should be allowed within a mile of important policy decisions are politicians. These latter, say the neolibs, are best left to senior bureaucrats – preferably those with a background in the private sector. It explains why, in ordinary people's eyes, today’s politicians appear more interested in addressing the priorities of business leaders and bureaucrats than those of the broader electorate. It also explains why the priorities of the voters are addressed so selectively.
The fate of Wellington’s Justin Lester illustrates the learned helplessness of modern political leaders to perfection. Faced with the utter failure of the Regional Council’s public transport re-vamp, Lester responded that, as Wellington’s Mayor, it was not, actually, his responsibility to fix the bus service. Ditto with the proposed, highly controversial, property development at Shelly Bay. That was a private sector initiative. All of these excuses were grounded in administrative fact. But, it is very poor politics to keep telling people that there is nothing you can do to help them – especially in an election year!
Which is why, with Lester’s fate firmly in their minds, Jacinda’s advisers in the PM’s Office should urge Mills to get off the air. As the supposed voice of the “Left” his only contribution to the progressive cause is to rubbish every idea that doesn’t come straight out of The Big Blairite Book of Conventional Wisdom. The notion that democratic politics was once, and could be again, about something more than securing the narrow interests of big business – as interpreted by its bureaucratic and media enablers – is conspicuous by its absence from Mill’s Monday morning political discourse. Astonishingly, RNZ’s listeners are more likely to hear that sort of talk from Hooton, speaking for the Right, than from the Left’s supposed spokesperson.
Quite why RNZ continues to offer-up the likes of Mills (and his stand-in, the former Labour Party boss, Mike Williams) as representatives of the Left is a mystery. There was a time when genuine left-wingers like Laila Harré were given the job. Back then, listeners could be assured of hearing ideas that most assuredly did not fit the description of “conventional wisdom”. Nor was it the practice of the Left’s champion to tell her audience what they couldn’t have, because what they were asking of their elected representatives were things they couldn’t do.
It is difficult to imagine an approach to political debate more likely to foster voter disengagement than the one currently in evidence on RNZ. Kathryn Ryan and her producer are certainly not doing the Left in general, nor Labour and the Greens in particular, any favours by allowing them to be represented by a person so strongly wedded to the notion that his clients will always be better served following public opinion than leading it. Or, that the art of politics consists in persuading the voters that their political leaders are making new mistakes – rather than repeating old ones. Indeed, the real question that is left hanging in the air after half-an-hour listening to Stephen Mills is not why anyone wanting real change would vote for the parties of the Left, but why they would bother voting at all.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 15 October 2019.