This article on the Labour Party, by Giovanni Tiso, was originally printed on his blog Bat Bean Beam. It will be reprinted in the upcoming issue of the Spark.
It’s as if he had forgotten he was the leader of the Labour party. It’s as if a Tory mole had swapped the speech he was going to give but he went ahead and read it anyway.
How many times might you have played this little game? This is a familiar story because it happens everywhere, all the time. It is the story of a great and continuing political shift, of centre-left parties buying into conservative orthodoxy throughout the Western liberal democratic universe. Adopting the language, the strategies, the tics of their traditional opponents. Losing the ability to decline social-democratic ideals except as a ritualistic preamble, or to huffily reaffirm that of course theirs is the party of the working people, the oppressed minorities, the welfare state. Or, in the most extreme cases, reimagining neoliberalism as the condition for socialism: a new equality based on the removal of safety nets and of all barriers to the circulation and accumulation of capital.
Douglas, Blair, Clinton: they were the first generation, brash and self-assured. Now, twenty years later: the exhausted groans of third-way politics.
When David Shearer woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found that he had forgotten he was the leader of the Labour Party. He didn’t forget that he was a politician altogether, or he wouldn’t have reached the Auckland headquarters of Grey Power in time for his scheduled appearance. He just forgot which party had elected him leader. All this could have been prevented had he resorted to tattooing, like the guy in Memento. YOU ARE THE LEADER OF THE LABOUR PARTY. THESE ARE THE THINGS YOU STAND FOR. But one always gets these ideas when it’s too late. The point is that nobody reminded David Shearer and so when he got to his meeting with Grey Power he said this:
Last year before the election, I was chatting to a guy in my electorate who had just got home from work. In the middle of the conversation, he stopped and pointed across the road to his neighbour.
He said: “see that guy over there, he’s on a sickness benefit, yet he’s up there painting the roof of his house. That’s not bloody fair. Do you guys support him?”
From what he told me, he was right, it wasn’t bloody fair, and I said so. I have little tolerance for people who don’t pull their weight.
This isn’t so much speaking like a Tory as living in a Tory world; a world in which the reluctant allegiance to a barebones welfare state is undercut by professing that – at all times and regardless of circumstances – fewer people should be on it, and holding that we should always be suspicious of beneficiaries, always on the lookout for their missteps. It isn’t bloody fair. This is the New Zealand I emigrated to in the late Nineties when, under the National government led by Jenny Shipley, the state television channels ran ads like this one.
Hence the sense both of déjà vu and of amnesia: for this is the same logic that infuses Shearer’s anecdote and fuels the sense of grievance of the ordinary, everyday person, the standard euphemisms that politicians use nowadays when they mean to say: normal people.
Living in a Tory world is another name for capitalist realism, and so we should at least entertain the possibility that David Shearer hadn’t actually forgotten that he was the leader of the Labour party that day upon waking, but chose rather to make his speech about benefit bludgers because he wanted to occupy that political ground on behalf of his party. I know, it seems further-fetched, but let’s explore the proposition. Let’s suppose that the speech was part of a strategy aimed at giving Labour an electoral advantage, as well as a platform from which to articulate its social policies.
I’m not going to get into the speech in any great detail, or restate the abundantly obvious, as it wouldn’t add anything to what’s already been said. What was surprising to me – and heartening – was in fact how many people voiced their anger. Entire networks that had up to that point either actively supported Shearer’s centrist line or maintained a degree of public discipline turned aggressively onto the leader. There were renunciations anddenunciations, as well as much calm and dispassionate analysis. Most damningly of all, the speech was unanimously exposed as a cynical ploy: a dishonest attempt at triangulation from a leadership that, nine months into its tenure, has comprehensively failed to define itself or articulate an alternative and bold political vision for the nation. What this failure might suggest is to what extent Labour misjudged the political moment when it chose an inexperienced leader whose best, whose only idea seems to be to enact a soft version of Blairism, but also that third-way political strategy has become too transparent to be feasible. Nobody buys the stuff anymore. So in this instance, whilst there may be a broad support in the country for the odious welfare reforms enacted by National, the Labour Party finds itself unable to plug into that sentiment without coming unstuck at its core.
What remains is a disconnect whose depth is truly difficult to measure. After linking to one of the harshest responses to the speech, I had the following brief exchange with deputy leader Grant Robertson:
Twitter is not a platform that favours the most constructive forms of engagement, but I think Robertson’s line of defence is worth commenting upon. Firstly, there is the personal story: I was out helping constituents on the sickness benefit, therefore the criticism levelled at me is misplaced. Secondly, there is the collective goal: that Labour be returned to power so that it can make life better for people on the sickness benefit. (That one such beneficiary just told him in no uncertain terms where he can stick his help doesn’t seem to trouble Mr Robertson at this time.) Finally, there is the appeal to shared values and common experience: You know it’s not what I think. To which the obvious question is: How? What kind of confidence can I or anybody else have in a leadership who adopts the most strident conservative rhetoric on welfare yet presumes to demand that their progressive credentials not be questioned? Why, on what grounds is it expected of us that we continue to believe? Where, for that matter, is the political content that might enable us to begin to collect evidence one way or the other – in the form of what policy, what clearly stated opposition, what alternative project or proposal?
We may say nasty things but we are nice people. In fact to say nasty things is part of our burden, for this is how politics work. Perhaps that is the rationale. I don’t know and frankly I wouldn’t care if I weren’t of the opinion that the country can ill afford for Labour to go down this morally and politically bankrupt roadagain. How many failures are these people allowed, and do they ever ask themselves: what if we lose? What then of the beneficiaries we bashed because it worked for five minutes in the Nineties and we hoped that it might work again, somehow? The utterly self-serving cynicism of it.
Still there is that man on the roof, who may or may not be real. Does it matter? I think so, and plan to continue to pursue the matter. Questions would follow one way or the other, about process and strategy and politics’ ultimate referent: is it a statistical construct? A product of myth? Or is it that other subject, the citizen, in whom nobody any longer seems to believe? There may be answers yet to some of these questions lurking in the collective unconscious of our political class, but in the meantime I would excuse the man on the roof, whether real or imagined, if he too were to mutter: it isn’t bloody fair.