"It Is Mine, I Tell You. My Own. My Precious.": Like Bilbo Baggins, Labour understands that neoliberalism’s ring of power is perilous, and will forever be bending it towards the purposes of its dark transnational masters. And yet, though challenged again and again by the party’s left-wing to let it go, neoliberalism never quite makes it out of Labour’s pocketses.
HOW DOES A PARTY abandon neoliberalism? Even if the New Zealand Labour Party wanted to repudiate the ideology that has caused it so much grief – could it?
Think about the scene in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings where Gandalf asks Bilbo Baggins if he’s passed on Sauron’s perilous ring to his nephew, Frodo. Bilbo is quite sure that he has – only to discover that it is still in his pocket. Parting with the Ring of Power is a great deal harder than Bilbo ever imagined. The same appears to be true of neoliberalism.
In 2013, for example, at the infamous annual conference Labour held at Ellerslie, there was an attempt made to repudiate the neoliberal legacy of Rogernomics. The party’s Draft Platform: a statement of Labour’s core principles and policies; actually contained a section condemning Labour’s fatal embrace of neoliberalism in the 1980s. By 2014, however, not the slightest trace of the anonymous author’s condemnatory prose could be found in the Party Platform. Somehow, the Ring had found its way back into Labour’s pocket.
I have spoken to Labour Party members about the fate of the Draft Policy Platform’s rejectionist section. Who re-wrote it? On whose instructions? Is there any official record of the original language – important for historians, if for no one else? No one has yet been able to satisfactorily answer any of these questions. It’s as if the 2013 attempt to repudiate neoliberalism never happened. (If any reader of The Daily Blog can shed more light on this murky business please do so!)
The furore over Jeremy Corbyn’s stunning sprint into first place in the race to replace Ed Miliband as leader of the British Labour Party is another indication of just how difficult jettisoning neoliberalism is going to be. The reaction of the British Establishment has veered wildly between loud guffaws and anguished squeaks. Politicians and journalists cannot make up their minds whether Corbyn’s success constitutes a joke or a threat. Not that it matters. If he wins, the MP for Islington North should prepare himself for the most unrelenting campaign of vilification and ridicule in British history. The members of the British Labour Party, like the people of Greece, are about to learn the hard way that “elections don’t change anything”.
As the veteran British political journalist, Andrew Rawnsley, put it in a recent Guardian article:
“The big truth that is being exposed by this battle is that Labour is really two parties and they can no longer stand each other’s company. The social democrats despair that those to the left always pull Labour into suicidally unelectable positions from which it takes years to recover before the party sees power again. The socialists rage that the pragmatists make so many compromises in the pursuit of power that it ends up not being worth it. Really, they’d be happier if they could go their separate ways. Then the electorate could choose between an offer from the centre-left and one from further left.”
Except that those who despair of the Left’s “suicidal” positions are very far from being “social democrats”. The people Rawnsley dignifies with the title “pragmatists” are actually the defenders of the neoliberal settlement. Their absolute determination to prevent the “socialists” from taking over the Labour Party reveals just how formidable the obstacles to genuine social-democratic change have grown.
Not even New Zealand’s adoption of MMP was sufficient to thwart the purposes of neoliberalism. The Alliance, NZ First and the Greens certainly offered New Zealanders a choice “between an offer from the centre-left and one from further left.” While Labour remains the dominant force on the left, however, the parties representing the “further left” face precisely the same conundrum currently taxing New Zealand’s TPPA negotiators. Yes, they can refuse to compromise and remain on the outside looking in. But, if they do, then other parties will, eventually, secure the concessions that would otherwise have gone to them. You gotta be in to win!
It’s a conundrum Andrew Little is finding it increasingly difficult to resolve. His caucus retains a good many hangovers from the Rogernomics Era who will be counselling caution on the TPPA. The country, meanwhile, grows increasingly apprehensive about an agreement negotiated in secret, and over whose content they have little or no say. What Labour needs to do is take a position. Either, reaffirm its support for free trade and get in behind the official negotiating team. Or, repudiate TPPA as neither a free nor fair trade agreement. One or the other, please Andrew. Because announcing “bottom lines”, when your party will play no role in sealing the deal, really does sound a bit fatuous.
Like Bilbo, Labour understands that neoliberalism’s ring of power is perilous, and will forever be bending it towards the purposes of its dark transnational masters. And yet, though challenged again and again by the party’s left-wing to let it go, neoliberalism never quite makes it out of Labour’s pocketses.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 3 July 2015.