AFTER THE BIGGEST WIN in nearly 50 years, you’d think the Left would be cheering. But, no, you’d be wrong. While ordinary New Zealanders: factory workers, shop assistants, storepersons, bar-staff, teachers, hospital orderlies and nurses; are still pinching themselves to make sure Labour’s stunning landslide isn’t a beautiful, impossible dream; the Left’s grim keyboard warriors are predicting a dismal future of failure and betrayal. It’s nothing short of astounding, and I’ve got to admit that I’m struggling now to understand exactly what sort of election result could possibly make these Cassandras of the Left happy!
Actually, that’s not quite true. I do have an inkling of what sort of election result would transport these revolutionaries into the realm of unqualified delight. Unfortunately, it’s the sort of election result that would cast a heavy pall of fear and dread over the rest of us.
Imagine a political amalgam of the Alliance, the Maori Party, Mana and the Greens. Now imagine its manifesto. It’s pretty short: “Socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” No ifs, no buts, no maybes: full-throated socialism.
Don’t laugh. That used to be the primary objective of the New Zealand Labour Party. It was deleted back in the 1950s: partly in response to the red-baiting excesses of the 1951 snap election (called to supply ex post facto validation for the National Government’s crushing of the Watersiders’ Union) partly in recognition of its electoral toxicity in the Cold War political environment. [1951 was also the last election in which a party received more than 50 percent of the votes cast.] In practical terms, however, Labour’s hardline socialist objectives were quietly set aside by Michael Joseph Savage in the run-up to the 1935 general election. He wanted New Zealanders to vote for Labour – not run screaming from it!
But, if Kiwis weren’t willing to vote for full-throated socialism in the midst of the Great Depression, then it’s really difficult to imagine the circumstances in which they would be prepared to vote for it. And that is the problem, really, isn’t it? The hardline Left’s general failure of imagination. They are very quick to prejudge any government Jacinda Ardern might form as a creature of the bosses, but that is where their imagination peters out.
My own imagination, however, does not. I can easily visualise New Zealanders’ response to confiscatory tax rates; full-scale re-regulation of the labour market; restoration of the untrammelled right to strike; climate change legislation that drives more than half of New Zealand’s farmers out of business; raising welfare benefits to equal the minimum wage. While one half of the country might applaud such a programme, the other half would, almost certainly, rise-up against it in open revolt.
Now, I have a sneaking suspicion that there are many on the Far Left who would be delighted with such an outcome. At long last, battle could be joined, and capital and labour could slug it out in a fight-to-the-finish class war. Except, “class war” is just another name for “civil war” – which, as any historian will tell you, is the very worst sort of war a nation can fight.
Bloody civil war is not, however, the inevitable consequence of all radical programmes of economic and social reform. Many of the “socialist” measures described above were part and parcel of Labour’s plan for putting New Zealand back to work. They were not, however, implemented without having thoroughly prepared the public for their introduction.
That’s because Mickey Savage understood what his more revolutionary critics did not: that the only sort of socialism that endures is democratic socialism – socialism by popular demand and with popular consent.
Without consent there is only force, and force acts like acid on the ethical foundations of the socialist dream. Socialism by force is best summed-up in the line I heard long ago, spoken by a crusty old socialist in a long-forgotten New Zealand television drama. “It’s not hard”, he admonishes his fishing companion, “nationalise everything and shoot the buggers who complain.”
That is, of course, if they don’t shoot you first.
Personally, I’m with Mickey – and Jacinda. I want my fellow New Zealanders to press their government for change, not be oppressed by it. Socialism imposed without a democratic mandate cannot – and should not – last.
Like the Prime Minister, I want “change that sticks”.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 23 October 2020.