NZ Labour Party: The Man on the Roof

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 ordinaryeveryday 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.

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Comments

  1. Don Franks says:

    This long wordy article reads like notes for a Dean Parker screenplay tapped out very late at night to be binned in the clear light of morning.

    What is the point of it?

    That Labour politicians should try and be a bit more left reformist?

    • I took the point as being more that there aren’t alternatives to Shearer’s approach coming from elsewhere in the Labour Party. Starting off with the ironic idea that he was an anomaly, and then pointing out that he’s actually typical.

      Have noticed that a lot of Labour apologists will say it’s just a matter of the leadership (oh it’s just Goff, oh it’s just Shearer) and the party just needs a reshuffle.

  2. So how is the roofing going?

  3. “I took the point as being more that there aren’t alternatives to Shearer’s approach coming from elsewhere in the Labour Party.”

    Yes, that’s all ok Ian, but really, so what.
    Picking over the shit bags in the backyard of Labour’s yuppified household has nothing to do with trying to make some advance for workers liberation.

    Labour is the sworn political enemy of socialist revolution.

    Opportunists like Socialist Aotearoa might seek social relevance by having a Labour mp speak at their conference.

    In the big picture, Labour is no more than a dated ideological obstacle to the progress of our class.

    We need to get rid of this shit.

    • And angry kicking against the pricks isn’t going to get very far either. Whether we like it or not, these are the conversations that need to be had, I’d rather we didn’t have to discuss this sort of stuff repeatedly, but we don’t choose the political climate we work in.
      Your rant only confirms what those who already agree with you think, I think capitalism is a bit more dynamic than you would give it, a reason behind why Labour is still a force, not matter how dated it might be.

  4. i keep telling you people you need to take the hand of the right who are pulling you along and run with them into them and over them then you will have your change.

    Current policy of the left is to stop change and maintain the status quo. Protect the school system, minimum wage and work conditions fighting to protect this just prolongs the existence of the class structure you seek to removed. You are the protector of the class system.

    If you want revolution you need to be revolutionary.

  5. “capitalism is a bit more dynamic than you would give it, a reason behind why Labour is still a force, not matter how dated it might be”

    Ok Joel, so given that Labour’s still a force – which I have never denied – how to we deal with it as revolutionaries?

    Do we invite these smug yuppified anti working class bastards to sit and korero with us as honoured guests at our conferences?

  6. I don’t know Rossc, but he / she has a point with the accusation:
    ” Current policy of the left is to stop change and maintain the status quo”.
    We do need to kick against the pricks and in the process posit an alternative line of march in the direction of a better world.

    • Ross’ argument, which he’s put forward on here before, is that we shouldn’t fight for reforms because if the working class has it tough revolution is more likely. Which doesn’t deal with the way that victories make people more confident, and the last time the West was looking remotely close to revolution was during a boom period.

      You seem to be conflating a few things. Tiso isn’t a member of Socialist Aotearoa or the Workers Party, this is just a blog entry saying Shearer’s position is typical Labour politics.

  7. “Your rant only confirms what those who already agree with you think, I think capitalism is a bit more dynamic than you would give it, a reason behind why Labour is still a force, not matter how dated it might be.”

    Ok Joel,

    it is a bit of a rant.

    It is also a heartfelt class statement from an experienced communist worker who has seen the devastation Labour mps have wrought across the workers movement towards liberation.
    I hate those bastards with every atom of energy I can summon up.
    Why Socialist Aotearoa wants to be buddies with the advance force of the class enemy is absolutely beyond my understanding.

    • But this article isn’t by a Socialist Aotearoa member, or on the Socialist Aotearoa blog…

      At the last Workers Party national conference we held a panel on “Left Perspectives” where we invited other left groups, including Socialist Aoteaora, the International Socialist Organisation, and Australian left groups to speak. No Labour Party bureaucrats spoke, though we have publicly debated them in the past.

      By contrast, at their national conference Socialist Aotearoa did not invite other communist groups to speak, and instead hosted Darien Fenton to speak on their “Revolution” panel.

  8. I think what Labour says matters, and what they will do when they’re returned to government will matter, in the same way that what National says and does matters a great deal to the citizens of this country. I don’t have to like them to analyse their public positions and seek to divine their intentions. Nor am I trying to engage with them, reform them, make them better. This is a piece of political commentary that seeks to highlight the disconnect in the nation’s largest Left wing party between stated values and political rhetoric (not policy because, well, there is no policy). Is it a disconnect as old as the party? Probably, but that is not to say that it always stays the same. There are historic ebbs and flows. This – I’ve attemped to argue – is where the party is at.

  9. “By contrast, at their national conference Socialist Aotearoa did not invite other communist groups to speak, and instead hosted Darien Fenton to speak on their “Revolution” panel”

    In so doing Socialist Aotearoa made a mockery of the word revolution and dragged the movement for workers liberation back by a considerable distance.

  10. As a sickness beneficiary I am horrified by rossc’s comments. rossc – Do you want me to starve, or die, or suffer more than I already do so you can have your precious revolution? Because that’s what’ll happen if things get worse. People like me will die. We already do, because of the barriers, be they financial or bureacratic, to decent treatment. I have had friends kill themselves, deaths that would have been preventable, if they had had access to decent mental health or addiction treatment. Are we expendable to your revolutionary goals? Because if we are, then I want no part in your fucking revolution. It’s hard enough to live on $260-odd dollars, and be stuck on waiting lists for treatment, while WINZ continually pester me about “getting better” so I can somehow work (that won’t happen while I’m stuck on a fucking waitlist, Paula). If things get worse, I don’t know how I’ll stay alive. I won’t be around to see your glorious workers’ utopia. So fuck your revolution. If I can’t be part of it, if you won’t fight for me and people like me, I will fight against you. Revolution should be for EVERYONE. If it’s not, if I’m not welcome as part of it, you can take your rhetoric, your endorsement of the suffering and death of the most vulnerable people in society – those you’re meant to be fighting for, if you had any decency – and you can shove it up your arse.

  11. As a sickness beneficiary I am horrified by rossc\’s comments. rossc – Do you want me to starve, or die, or suffer more than I already do so you can have your precious revolution? Because that\’s what\’ll happen if things get worse. People like me will die. We already do, because of the barriers, be they financial or bureacratic, to decent treatment. I have had friends kill themselves, deaths that would have been preventable, if they had had access to decent mental health or addiction treatment. Are we expendable to your revolutionary goals? Because if we are, then I want no part in your fucking revolution. It\’s hard enough to live on $260-odd dollars, and be stuck on waiting lists for treatment, while WINZ continually pester me about \”getting better\” so I can somehow work (that won\’t happen while I\’m stuck on a fucking waitlist, Paula). If things get worse, I don\’t know how I\’ll stay alive. I won\’t be around to see your glorious workers\’ utopia. So fuck your revolution. If I can\’t be part of it, if you won\’t fight for me and people like me, I will fight against you. Revolution should be for EVERYONE. If it\’s not, if I\’m not welcome as part of it, you can take your rhetoric, your endorsement of the suffering and death of the most vulnerable people in society – those you\’re meant to be fighting for, if you had any decency – and you can shove it up your arse.

  12. Hello rRossSelavy

    You are at the point you will stand up for change. You see I have been a union delegate (a poor one I admit) and during my time when ever we had negotiations I would look around to see who would fight and how far and most wouldn’t because they have to much to lose.

    Look at union struggles where the workers fight long and hard very rarely would they be in high paying jobs the more you have the more to lose. For a major change in thinking to happen a large majority need to have nothing to lose. Revolutions are about change if people fear change because they may lose what they have there will be no change.

    The more people with little the greater chance of change you just need to articulate their desire into a real change.

    National is publicly victimizing beneficiaries on a divide and rule campaign unfortunately for national if you are correct there will be more redundancy within the working class as well as less economic wealth spread within so more people in poverty or close to it.

    More people with less to lose. This country is still a democracy despite what some think and if you can put up a viable plan for real change and not just ideological waffle and put in a way those at the bleeding edge support you could get change.

    This article was about the hopelessness of labour so perhaps you need to forget about labour and move on. Take a leaf from the book of capitalism and creative destruction. Use the tools around you, new innovations and new ideas and old ideas that work.

    What i say sounds terrible but you will not get change if most people live OK the arab spring happened when food prices reached 40% of income for a majority so in a non violent way what conditions would have to exist in New Zealand to cause a large group of people to vote for a party other than National or Labour and under which government would those conditions most likely occur.

    And I will guess that the arab spring will turn into winter because the ones ready to participate did not necessarily have the welfare of all the people at heart.

    So instead of fighting a slow losing battle over bread crumbs build a social base and wait the time will come. The less you fight the faster it will arrive.

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