Don't Do It, Josie! Frustrated at Labour's failure to connect with the electors in 2011, Labour's highly talented candidate, Josie Pagani, penned an article for the NZ Herald in which she hints that if abandoning New Zealand's poorest families will help Labour regain the Treasury benches, then that is what it should do. But if electoral victory means embracing the prejudices of your political enemies, then what, exactly, have you won?
“ALL POWER CORRUPTS”, wrote Lord Acton, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But the risk of political degeneracy exists not only in the proximity of power, but is also present in its absence. If winning is the politician’s sole objective, then seeing victory slip through her fingers over and over again surely renders her equally vulnerable to corrupt counsels?
The most persuasive of these siren songs is the one that begins: “One day in Government is worth a thousand years in Opposition.” Meaning: genuine political achievement is available only to those with access to the levers of power. Once this precept is accepted, the idea that serious politicians must be willing to do “whatever it takes” to win office becomes dangerously easy to sell.
And the moment it is purchased, the politician is lost. The means we adopt inevitably shape and determine the ends we arrive at. Being prepared to do “whatever it takes” means being willing to enlist evil in the cause of right; and in that encounter it is not evil which is changed.
Like all stories peddled by the corrupt, the notion that political achievement is restricted to those with access to the levers of power is a lie. The greatest movers of human events are ideas and the moral force they generate. And a person does not need to be in government – or even in Parliament – to advance an idea or exert moral force.
It would be most unfortunate, therefore, if Josie Pagani, the young, compassionate and very talented Labour Party candidate for the blue-ribbon seat of Rangitikei in last year’s election, and all the other progressive candidates who failed to enter Parliament, succumbed to the twin fallacies that only those who sit on the Treasury Benches wield genuine political power; and that parties should, therefore, do “whatever it takes” to get there. Unfortunately, a close reading of her recently published assessment of Labour’s unsuccessful 2011 campaign indicates that she’s at risk of doing just that.
“We lost because [we] were seen as looking backwards, not forwards” says Ms Pagani. “We didn’t sound aspirational, we sounded miserable. We were turning up on people’s doorsteps telling them their lives were gloomy. And anyone who has ever been poor knows the last thing you want is someone telling you your life is crap.”
Well, if Ms Pagani was standing on people’s doorsteps telling them their lives were crap it’s hardly surprising that she lost! And if the perceptions she describes were as widespread in the electorate as she claims, I’m not entirely sure it’s fair to lay the blame exclusively at Labour’s door. Isn’t it more likely that the voters’ negative perceptions of Labour are simply evidence of the superiority of National’s propaganda? Labour had a story to tell in 2011: it lost because it didn’t tell it well enough.
Much more disquieting, however, is Ms Pagani’s statement that: “The hardest week to door-knock was when we were telling people - who had just come home from a day’s work earning the minimum wage - that it was a great idea to extend their Working for Families tax credit to beneficiaries.”
This comment represents a calculated slap in the face to the many Labour members who have struggled ceaselessly for nearly a decade to force the Labour caucus to acknowledge the enormous social damage their policy of denying beneficiaries the economic relief of Working for Families was inflicting on the children of the poor. That Annette King and Phil Goff finally allowed themselves to be persuaded by the irrefutable evidence of the harm this policy was causing represented a genuine moral triumph for them and their party.
To abandon Labour’s new position, as a gesture of appeasement to the ill-informed prejudices of working-class National voters – because that is what it takes – would signal a willingness to march into office over the backs of impoverished families.
It’s hard to conceive of a Labour victory more corrupting – or less worth winning.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 January 2012.