|Sold! Is Labour capable of putting its ideological convictions to one side in the name of holding on to its electoral advantage? There is a price to be paid either way. So, which of Labour's two "masters" will pocket it? Pragmatism or Idealism?|
THE QUESTION to be answered, one way or the other, before 2023 is pretty simple: Can Labour serve two masters? Will it hold to the course recommended by its professional advisers? Or, will the party be driven into the weeds by the convictions of its caucus? Put another way: is Labour capable of putting its ideological convictions to one side in the name of holding on to its electoral advantage? There is a price to be paid either way. So, which master will pocket it? Pragmatism or Idealism?
Before anyone gets too excited, the idealism in question is not the old-fashioned social-democratic kind. Virtually no one in Labour’s caucus favours pushing capitalism to the outer limits of its tolerance. This is not a caucus that is going to agitate for the reintroduction of universal union membership, or the unfettered right to strike. There’s no hardcore bunch of “Big Taxers” arguing for a top income tax rate of 90 percent on incomes over $200,000. Nor will a “Renationalisation Faction” emerge to threaten the Aussie banks. The Labour Party of 2020 doesn’t do that sort of idealism.
There is actually a greater chance of Labour’s pollsters and focus group moderators advancing these sort of ideas than Labour’s MPs. That’s because New Zealanders, like Americans, are surprisingly positive about making the rich pay their fair share and reclaiming their country’s economic sovereignty. Notwithstanding the electorate’s willingness to embrace such progressive policies, those same pollsters and focus group moderators would, nevertheless, hesitate to recommend their official adoption. Poke capitalism too hard and it will, most assuredly, poke you back – but much harder.
Labour’s professional advisers would also be acutely aware that a fair amount of the poking-back would come from the party’s parliamentarians. Considering the socio-economic strata from which nearly all Labour’s MPs have been recruited, such opposition would be entirely understandable and predictable. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.
No, incipient socialism is not what Labour’s professional advisers fear. After all, it’s not as if there’s anything resembling a majority available for such a programme in the House of Representatives. Not even the Greens would feel comfortable advancing such a programme – not when they considered the reaction of their voters in the central city electorates, the ones on fat salaries, the ones among whom both their own party and Labour go looking for “good” candidates. New Zealanders may surprise opinion pollsters with their progressive policy preferences but, lacking a political party to take them forward, those preferences don’t amount to a hill of electoral beans.
What scares the bejesus out of Labour’s advisers, however, is the radical cultural agenda for which an alarming number of Labour and Green MPs would be prepared to die in a ditch. They are all-too-aware that this is not an agenda which enjoys broad electoral support. Even worse, they know that it is not an agenda which the parties of the Right (even in the unlikely event that a significant number of liberal Nats subscribed to it) could possibly allow to pass unchallenged. More bluntly, it’s an agenda which promotes division and dissension in ways that do not favour Labour’s re-election. The Government’s professional advisers will be urging the Prime Minister and her Cabinet colleagues to steer well clear.
But will they listen? Can Kris Faafoi be dissuaded from introducing legislation against “hate speech”. Can the Maori Caucus be turned aside from embracing the sort of constitutional radicalism that the Maori Party has already gone all the way with? How many women in Labour’s caucus are willing to wear the term “TERF” as a badge of honour? Will Nanaia Mahuta’s Cabinet colleagues counsel her against removing the right of electors to force local authorities to submit their proposals for Maori wards to a referendum? Is Chris Hipkins strong enough to resist the introduction of a compulsory New Zealand history curriculum in which greedy Pakeha settlers are invariably cast as the “baddies”, while noble indigenous Maori are consistently presented as the “goodies”? Will agreement at Ihumatao open-up all previous Treaty settlements for re-negotiation – even as it allows privately-owned land into the anti-colonial Poker game?
Labour MPs who would energetically resist being labelled “socialists” (in any other sense than endorsing the nostalgic veneration of Mickey Savage) might find it a great deal harder to deny their support for “decolonisation”, curbing hate speech, and facilitating early gender transitioning. Repudiating such key elements of the radical cultural agenda will be made even harder if they become the subject of private members bills. Will Jacinda Ardern risk a caucus revolt by ordering her parliamentary troops to ruthlessly vote all such legislation down? And, if she doesn’t, how does she propose to prevent such bills passing? Now that Winston’s handbrake is no longer there to give her plausible deniability on the pragmatism front?
The Prime Minister’s problem is positively Biblical in its moral complexity. It is, after all, in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus is recorded as saying: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”
Unfortunately, it is Jacinda Ardern’s efforts to serve both masters that has so far distinguished her second term. Mammon, it must be said, has – so far – received the best service. Keeping the business community sweet, and not “the preferential option for the poor”, has been the order of the day. God must be wondering when it’s going to be his turn.
There is a way in which the Lord could be served that even the professionals might see some merit in exploring. If economic and cultural radicalism could be combined: if emancipating people from the grip of poverty could be undertaken at the same time as they were being encouraged to break free from the grip of racism, sexism and transphobia, then the prospects of success for each of these emancipatory projects would be greatly enhanced. History, certainly, leaves little room for doubt: if a revolution is not an all-embracing festival of freedom: economic, cultural, sexual and political; then, almost certainly, it is not a revolution at all.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 8 December 2020.