Safe Haven: David Shearer has a great deal of experience working with refugees. He knows that the last thing people fleeing from war and oppression want to encounter is divisive political ideology. Voters migrating from National to Labour are much the same - and Mr Shearer seems only too happy to oblige them by transformimng Labour into a "politics-free zone".
NATIONAL DROPS four percentage points in the latest 3 News/Reid Research poll and Labour picks up almost exactly the same amount. What’s wrong with this picture?
Too small and too timid to go after the 800,000 New Zealanders who did not bother to vote in the 2011 General Election, Labour’s strategy for 2014 appears to involve transforming itself into a refugee camp for disillusioned, disaffected, or just plain disgusted National Party voters.
David Shearer knows a great deal about refugee camps, he did, after all, spend many years working for the United Nations. He knows, for example, that if they’re to function properly refugee camps must steer well clear of politics. All that people fleeing war zones and/or massive persecution are looking for is a place of safety: somewhere they can find food, shelter and, if they’re lucky, some semblance of human warmth and sympathy.
When former National Party voters abandon John Key’s government for Mr Shearer’s opposition, the last thing they want, upon arrival, is to be bombarded with radical left-wing propaganda. Ideologically-driven policy-making is what they are fleeing. If they discover they’ve only exchanged one bunch of gimlet-eyed apparatchiks for another, they’ll simply keep on moving. Some will push-on to the Greens, some to NZ First, while others may even travel as far as Colin Craig’s Conservative Party.
There is nothing homogeneous about this stream of refugees, it contains many political tribes. Former Labour supporters – the ones who abandoned the party in 2005 and 2008 – will be the easiest to assimilate. All Mr Shearer has to tell them is that the party has rediscovered its respect and admiration for their values - especially their commitment to hard work and personal betterment. It’s an assurance that will serve equally well for the dwindling tribe of National Party moderates. In Labour’s camp, Mr Shearer will tell them, they’re in capable and experienced hands. Here, they’ll encounter no promises to raise taxes or restore trade union rights. Here, their investments in the partially-privatised state assets will remain perfectly secure. Here, they will be safe.
And the Labour tribe itself – the people who stood loyal right through – how will they react to their leader offering such reassuring guarantees to turn-coats and Tories?
Some, as the 3 News/Reid Research poll indicates, will decamp to the Greens in disgust. Others – a smaller but much more dangerous number – will throw their support behind Mr Shearer’s rival, David Cunliffe (now registering for the first time in the preferred prime-minister stakes). But most, delighted by Labour’s steadily expanding claim upon the affections of the electorate, will think only of the prospect of defeating their traditional enemy, the National Party, and of laying low its infernally popular leader.
The option of going after National’s vote will also appeal to Labour’s mostly middle-class membership because it involves so little genuine political effort. No one will expect them to venture into the neighbourhoods of the poor, where vicious dogs wait to leap at their throats and hostile Maori and Pasifika voters ask embarrassing questions about jobs and housing and health care for their kids and how long Labour’s MPs would last on shit wages and inadequate welfare payments?
In their heart-of-hearts they know that to provide adequate answers to such questions Labour would have to develop policies that would instantly drive away all of those refugees from the Centre-Right. They know from bitter historical experience that putting people first and money second only earns Labour the unrelenting hostility of the mainstream media (not to mention putting-off potentially generous business donors). It’s just so much easier and less risky to rely on slick TV ads showing Mr Shearer playing his guitar to delighted classrooms of healthy Pakeha children. So much less hassle to distribute glossy, platitude-packed pamphlets in neighbourhoods where the residents don’t bite. And so much more satisfying erecting billboards featuring the rugged (but reliable) face of their “anti-political” leader, promising New Zealand “A Future That Works”.
Spare some sympathy, then, for the newly-elected Policy Council of the Labour Party: Jordan Carter, David Craig, Nigel Haworth, Leanne Dalziel and Michael Wood. Theirs is the unenviable task of pulling together an election platform that still has some kind of connection with the “democratic socialist” principles to which the Labour Party still officially subscribes, but to which the parliamentary caucus is still prepared to give its support. David Craig, for example, has fought for years to extend the same level of state support to mothers and children on the DPB as that extended to low-paid workers by Working For Families. The same policy that Josie Pagani decried as unhelpful to Labour’s candidates in 2011. Will that policy make it into Labour’s 2014 manifesto? Will any policies likely to upset the party’s new, conservative, supporters?
The radical Marxist scholar, Slavoj Zizek, writing in the London Review of Books about the imminent Greek elections, warns upholders of Europe’s political legacy that:
In his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, T.S. Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is between heresy and non-belief – i.e., when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split. This is the position in Europe today. Only a new ‘heresy’ – represented at this moment by Syriza – can save what is worth saving of the European legacy: democracy, trust in people, egalitarian solidarity etc.
The sprawling political refugee camp that Labour is busily turning itself into will find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the “No Discussion of Beliefs Permitted” rule it is currently enforcing in order not to upset its National refugees, and a position which denies the importance of espousing coherent political beliefs altogether. Such a Labour Party, by extirpating the “heresy” of genuine social-democratic thought and allowing itself to become a safe haven for an ideologically inert and politically demobilised population could, paradoxically, win election after election.
But what would be the point? And who would notice the difference?
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.