IN A RECENT COLUMN the veteran political correspondent, John Armstrong, accuses the Labour Party of “fighting too many old battles”. The perennial socialist causes, for which Labour’s politicians should still feel duty-bound to draw their swords, declares Armstrong, “have long been lost or are no longer relevant to most voter’s daily existence”.
By way of example, Armstrong draws attention to Labour finance spokesperson, David Parker’s, snappish criticism of Treasury’s “Investment Statement”.
This latter document, released nearly a fortnight ago, was responsible for raising considerably more than Parker’s eyebrows by suggesting that public ownership of health and education services, “should not be seen as the default setting”.
Labour’s finance spokesperson was having none of it and came out swinging. The Department, he said was “out of touch” with New Zealanders and accused it of promoting privately-owned “McSchools” and “McHospitals” instead of publicly-owned (and, therefore, accountable) education and health facilities.
“I can be completely clear”, thundered Parker, “Labour rejects that philosophy. Public ownership of public schools and public hospitals is essential to provide opportunity and protection for all New Zealanders. This is what people pay their taxes for.”
Borrowing a line from his predecessor in the finance role, Dr Michael Cullen, he characterised the Treasury’s highly contentious statement as yet another example of its unnerving predilection for unleashing random “ideological burps”.
Parker concluded his media release by challenging the Prime Minister and Finance Minister to combat Treasury’s rebarbative ideological offerings with the same antacid remedy as Dr Cullen.
That neither John key nor Bill English accepted Parker’s challenge, Armstrong argued, is attributable to the National Party’s belief that Labour is trapped in an “ideological time-warp”. The clear implication being that when it comes to the traditional Left/Right squabbles over Private versus Public ownership – the average voter no longer cares.
Armstrong’s concluding paragraph is bleak:
“National argues that if Labour could not prompt a voter backlash against the partial floats of the remaining state-owned electricity generators, it will struggle to stop the growing trend for private provision worldwide. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Labour has little hope of stuffing it back in.”
That the Right struggled very successfully to stop the growing trend toward public provision worldwide, and found it surprisingly simple to stuff the socialist genie responsible back in his bottle, seems to have escaped Armstrong.
And if he were to recall that, in New Zealand, the whole privatisation process was initiated by Labour, then the public’s unwillingness to be convinced by their re-conversion to the virtues of public ownership might look less like indifference and more like once-bitten-twice-shy caution. And who can blame them – given Labour’s repeated refusal to commit unequivocally to the repurchase of the privatised shareholdings?
Parker’s stout defence of public health and education speaks eloquently of Labour’s determination not to be caught equivocating on the last remaining bastions of collectivism in New Zealand society. Were the Right to be successful in privatising our schools and hospitals (and finally taming the education- and health-sector unions) there would be little left for Labour to defend.
The key strategic question Labour has yet to answer, however, is: when will it finally make the transition from defence to offence?
When the Right finally realised (in the mid-1970s) that the last great bastions of private enterprise – those the British Labour firebrand, Tony Benn, described as the “commanding heights of the economy” – were about to come under full-scale assault by the forces of the Left, its more far-sighted and aggressive advocates realised that defensive tactics were losing them the battle. Tory hardliners like Sir Keith Joseph, Airey Neave and Margaret Thatcher didn’t bleat on about it being too late to stuff the socialist genie back in its bottle – they made stuffing the socialists their No. 1 priority.
The greatest enemy any ideology – Left or Right – will ever face is not indifference but equivocation. The achievements of the Liberal Government of 1890-1912 and of successive Labour Governments up to 1984 were not laid low for want of voters willing to defend them, but by politicians unwilling to re-state – unequivocally – the reasons why socialists must never for a moment cease “re-fighting old battles”.
Margaret Thatcher always referred to her country as “Great” Britain, because reclaiming Britain’s greatness was her whole manifesto.
What will Mr Cunliffe ride forth to battle to re-claim?
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 April 2014.