A Dying Sun? Perhaps one hundred years of Labour is enough.
AS THE OLD YEAR shuffles towards the wings of the political stage, the Infant Year arrives garlanded with many questions. For those who position themselves on the left of the political spectrum, the biggest of these questions concerns the future of the Labour Party.
Love it, or hate it, Labour is the sun around which all the other progressive parties and institutions of New Zealand’s political life must orbit. It’s gravitational pull being inescapable, Labour’s fate, and the fate of the Left in general, are inseparable.
Significantly, 2016 marks the centenary of Labour’s birth.
In July 1916, in the midst of a monstrous war whose gargantuan appetite had already consumed thousands of young New Zealand lives, representatives of the “democratic public” arrived in Wellington determined that Government plans to conscript men must be accompanied by plans to conscript wealth. The delegates were also seized by the effects of the hitherto all-conquering Liberal Party’s inability to any longer honour its mandate as the democratic public’s principal standard-bearer. Progressive New Zealand was in the mood for something new.
The temptation to compare and contrast the Labour Party of 1916 with the Labour Party of 2016 is irresistible. And, no matter how hard the party’s supporters try to convince progressive voters that the opposite is true, it is not an exercise from which Labour emerges with any credit. In 1916, Labour was led by heroes. One hundred years on, perhaps predictably, it is led by colourless political careerists: men and women lacking the character, courage and creative intelligence to be genuine revolutionaries – or even effective reformers.
Labour in 2016 is a party dominated by Members of Parliament who seem to be simply waiting their turn to form a government. Labour’s view of politics is, at best, instrumental. Her advisers argue that if the voting public can no longer be inspired (a proposition with which they heartily concur) then it must be manipulated. Cynicism on this scale, however, is only ever successful when backed-up by copious quantities of cash – and the Labour Party of 2016 is broke.
Accordingly, about the only thing 2016 has in common with 1916 is the growing sense among progressive voters – the democratic public – that the hitherto all-conquering Labour Party has lost its way.
International trends in progressive politics provide considerable encouragement for this point of view. In Europe and the United States there is growing evidence of the emergence of a new progressive paradigm: one which takes as its starting point the necessity of challenging and defeating the dominant neoliberal worldview.
2015 began with the stunning electoral victory of the radically left-wing Syriza in Greece, and ended with the much-better-than-expected showing of the equally radical Podemos in Spain’s general election. In September, to the consternation of just about everyone, the radical leftist, Jeremy Corbyn, was elected Leader of the British Labour Party. One month later, the first Democratic Party presidential candidates’ debate in Las Vegas was dominated by the self-proclaimed “Democratic Socialist”, Senator Bernie Sanders, and an at least rhetorically radicalised Hilary Clinton – who promised, incongruously, to “save Capitalism from itself”.
Not that the news has been all good for the Left. Syriza’s, and by democratic extension, the Greek people’s, brutally enforced submission to the European Union’s financial diktats offers a terrifying object lesson about the very real dangers inherent in challenging the neoliberal world order. As does the vitriol directed against Jeremy Corbyn, not only by his Tory opponents and the right-wing press, but also by members of his own Labour caucus!
Mention Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Syriza or Podemos to the New Zealand Labour Party, however, and you will be met with a mixture of impatience and hostility. As if New Zealand is in any way comparable with the UK, the USA, or Europe! As if this country has ever before fallen victim to political trends originating in these utterly alien cultures!
The year following the Labour Party’s foundation, revolution erupted across the Russian Empire. Labour’s leaders in New Zealand were excited, enthralled and inspired. That dour Scot, Peter Fraser, who was later to become New Zealand’s 24th Prime Minister, proudly proclaimed that: “If I was in Russia, I’d be a Bolshevik!”
Can anyone imagine Andrew Little proclaiming: “If I was in Greece, I’d be a member of Syriza!”
Perhaps one hundred years of Labour is enough?
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 Saturday, 2 January 2016.