Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Wrong Sisterhood: Forgotten Lessons of the 1984 Women’s Forums.

The Progressive Sisterhood: In 1984 Labour's women MPs launched a round of consultative assemblies - Women's Forums - to identify the priorities of their proposed Ministry of Women's Affairs (now the Ministry for Women). Unfortunately, this well-meaning exercise in participatory democracy very nearly ended in disaster. Progressive feminist reforms turned out to be much more easily engineered from above than below.
 
IT WAS ONE of the Fourth Labour Government’s more progressive initiatives, and its most productive outcome, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, endures to this day. It was, however, an initiative that also ended up spinning out of control in ways that its instigators neither anticipated nor appreciated. Indeed, so aggrieved were Labour’s feminists at the outcome of their well-meaning experiment in “participatory democracy” that its most important political lessons remain unacknowledged and, for the most part, forgotten.
 
The election of the David Lange-led Labour Government in July 1984 provided the first opportunity for Second Wave Feminism to show what it could do with the full resources of the state at its back. Labour’s women MPs: Anne Hercus, Margaret Shields, Helen Clark, Fran Wilde, Anne Fraser, Annette King, Margaret Austin and Judy Keall, along with the party’s president, Margaret Wilson, were determined to make rapid progress for women after nearly a decade of government by, of and for Rob Muldoon’s “ordinary blokes”.
 
Pushing them forward was the Labour Women’s Council – a body which had grown rapidly, both in size and influence, since the late 1970s. The consciousness-raising effects of the violent misogyny experienced by women during the 1981 Springbok Tour further strengthened the feminist impulse within Labour’s ranks.
 
Significantly, these new recruits (many of them from women’s groups active on the nation’s campuses) brought with them the non-hierarchical, loosely-structured and “facilitative” political praxis of feminism’s second wave. Born out of the New Left’s embrace of “participatory democracy” in the 1960s, this welcoming political style was founded on the optimistic assumption that, subject only to their consciousness of patriarchal oppression being raised by their feminist sisters, all women were natural allies.
 
That this assumption was far too optimistic had been demonstrated decisively in the United States by the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982. What had, at first, looked like a slam-dunk victory for second wave American feminism had been stopped in its tracks, and then turned around, by the aggressive counter-attack of conservative women led by constitutional lawyer and right-wing activist, Phyllis Schlafly.
 
The sheer scale of the conservative backlash against American feminism should have been taken as a warning by Labour’s feminist MPs. It wasn’t. The Women’s Council simply refused to believe that New Zealand was prey to anything like the reactionary forces that plagued the United States.
 
In the context of the burgeoning strength of the feminist, anti-apartheid, Maori Sovereignty and anti-nuclear movements, the notion that New Zealand women might prove susceptible to Schlafly’s conservative arguments seemed preposterous. David Lange’s easy victory over Muldoon likewise appeared to confirm that the country was moving left – not right.
 
Buoyed by these convictions, the new Labour government, guided by its women MPs, was persuaded to set in motion a series of “Women’s Forums”. Open to all citizens, these consultative assemblies were intended to set the priorities for and structure the agenda of the new Ministry of Women’s Affairs foreshadowed in Labour’s 1984 Manifesto.
 
The first forums appeared to bear out the most optimistic assumptions of the Labour Women’s Council. Representatives from women’s NGOs like the YWCA and the National Council of Women, backed by women trade union delegates, eagerly advanced the stalled reform agenda of New Zealand feminism. A radical edge to the ongoing discussion and debate was contributed by the activism of Maori and lesbian women.
 
And then things began to go very seriously wrong.
 
In the words of gay and lesbian rights campaigner, Alison Laurie:
 
“Now, the election of the fourth Labour Government in 1984, which is when Fran Wilde comes to Parliament, brought about the establishment of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. And prior to setting up this new ministry, the government had held women’s forums throughout the country which lesbians attended, and many women were alarmed by the presence of busloads of Christian fundamentalist women who carried Bibles and copies of the National Anthem, and who voted against abortion, lesbian rights and also against ratifying the United Nations Convention on the elimination of the discrimination against women.”
 
On one issue, however, radical feminists and fundamentalist Christians found themselves in perfect sororal agreement: pornography. They both wanted it banned.
 
It wasn’t enough. Participatory democracy, far from demonstrating that all women were sisters under the skin, had proved the opposite. Outside the funky enclaves of progressive inner-city activism; beyond the purview well-educated, Broadsheet-reading career women; there lay a vast hinterland of deeply-entrenched and easily-activated prejudice. Nor were these unsuspected masses of conservative women restricted to the rural and provincial bastions of the National Party. Feminists were just as few-and-far-between in the suburbs. Certainly, there appeared to be many more churches in these localities than consciousness-raising circles.
 
Shocked to the core, and fearful that if the forums were allowed to continue the progressive feminist agenda might end up being rejected by, of all people, conservative women, the Labour government hastily shut them down. Yes, progressive women had found themselves surrounded by a noisy and single-minded sisterhood. Unfortunately, it was the wrong sisterhood.
 
Between 1984 and 1990 the progressive feminist agenda was advanced. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs became a useful and productive reality. LGBTQI New Zealanders were liberated from their legislative shackles. Pay Equity (briefly) became a reality. But never again were the preferences of ordinary New Zealand women so openly and democratically solicited.
 
Sisterhood is, indeed, powerful – but only when your sisters can be relied upon to vote the right way.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Sunday, 19 February 2017.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Capitalism's Saviours: The Professional-Managerial Class.

"Hi! We're from the Professional-Managerial Class, and we're here to help!" The PMC downgraded the common experiences of economic exploitation which had formerly bound the Left together, supplanting them with exploitation narratives grounded in the experiences of race, gender and sexuality. Capitalism doesn’t oppress humanity, went the PMC’s argument, racism, sexism and homophobia do.
 
BARBARA AND JOHN EHRENREICH spotted the looming disaster on the Left nearly 40 years ago. This was an impressive achievement given the temper of the times. For right-wingers, the 1970s were a decade of dread. They feared that the Left was on the cusp of an irreversible victory. They would have been delighted to learn that their ideological foes faced disaster, but they would have struggled to identify the vector of their demise.
 
But the Ehrenreichs knew what it was. They had even given it a name: “The Professional-Managerial Class.” (PMC)
 
In the rather leaden Marxian prose then in vogue, the Ehrenreichs defined the PMC as “consisting of salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labour may be described broadly as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations.”
 
In slightly less daunting language: the role of the PMC was to explain and justify the workings of capitalism to everyone who was not a capitalist, a professional, or a manager.
 
Who were they talking about? Well, in addition to the more obvious groups “hidden within the processes of production” i.e. “middle-level administrators and managers, engineers and other technical workers”, the Ehrenreichs controversially nominated “workers who are directly concerned with social control or with the production and propagation of ideology”. These they identified as “teachers, social workers, psychologists, entertainers, writers of advertising copy and TV scripts”.
 
Now, if you’re thinking: “Hey, that sounds like a description of the membership of the Labour Party and/or The Greens!” Well then, take a bow, because you have grasped the essence of the Ehrenreichs’ troublesome prophecy.
 
The PMC was already on the rise politically when the Ehrenreichs’ seminal paper was published in 1979. Its impact was clearly visible in the Democratic Party where a new generation of liberal politicians were ruthlessly marginalising the defenders of Roosevelt’s New Deal in preparation for the Carter Administration’s turn towards the “monetarist” ideas of the right-wing economist Milton Friedman.
 
The “turn” in the United Kingdom had come even earlier, in 1976, when the Labour prime minister of the time, Jim Callaghan, told his stony-faced party conference:
 
“We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession, and increase employ­ment by cutting taxes and boosting Government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and that in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of infla­tion into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step.”
 
If Callaghan’s pronouncement prompts the thought: “But that sounds just like the sort of thing David Lange and Roger Douglas used to say!” Then, once again, take a bow.
 
The institutions that Callaghan’s and Carter’s little helpers were most concerned to rein-in were the trade unions. Organised labour represented a dangerously independent repository of economic, political, social, and, most crucially, class power. While they persisted there was always the worrying potential for explanations and justifications unfavourable to the “reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations.”
 
By the 1970s, trade unions in Scandinavia and the United Kingdom had even begun to construct practical alternatives to the capitalist way of doing things. The arguments of class solidarity and collective action were acquiring an unprecedented degree of persuasiveness.
 
The policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan eventually put paid to the union threat. But the iron fist of neoliberalism urgently needed covering with a velvet glove.
 
The PMC was there to take on the task. They downgraded the common experiences of economic exploitation which had formerly bound the Left together, supplanting them with exploitation narratives grounded in the experiences of race, gender and sexuality. Capitalism doesn’t oppress humanity, went the PMC’s argument, racism, sexism and homophobia do. Eliminating these evils requires education, training and a willingness to embrace cultural diversity. A task far beyond the capacity of the working-class Left.
 
The Ehrenreichs knew how this would end. With the politics of identity and the politics of class in conflict – and left-wing unity shattered. The PMC and the working-class could have confronted the capitalists over who should own and control collectively created wealth. Instead, they confronted each other over the barricades of knowledge, skills and culture.
 
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, 17 February 2017.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Too Little, Too Late: Rachel Stewart On Climate Change.

The Rush To Destruction: Anthropogenic Global Warming signals a civilisation in terminal decline. A world owned and ruled by people who have given up on the future. Humanity finds itself in the hands of a pathologically dissociated global elite. Stupefied by greed and consumed with pride, the ultimate demonstration of the power they refuse to give up will be the irreversible collapse of the fossil-fuelled economic system they have committed so many crimes to preserve.
 
RACHEL STEWART’S COLUMN in yesterday morning’s (15/2/17) NZ Herald bears eloquent testimony to the global progressive community’s sense of helplessness. In it she berates herself for getting into a pointless altercation with a dirty-dairy farmer. Of what value are such small-scale exchanges, she demands, when the much larger and more important struggle against anthropogenic global warming is being lost all along the line?
 
“We need to wise up to the fact that continuing to compartmentalise our endless individual battles – pay equity, dirty dairying, transport, roading, autism funding, education, intersectional feminism, partisan politics – is a waste of precious energy.
 
“Don’t get me wrong. All are beyond important but, ultimately, unless we tackle climate change and right now, there’ll be no human rights or environment to actually fight for.”
 
There was one line in Rachel’s column that particularly resonated:
 
“[I]t’s time to stop getting caught up in the individual fights and realise that climate change is a mission that must be tackled on a World War II scale.”
 
Another way of expressing this is to treat global warming as the “moral equivalent of war”. This would require a level of personal and societal engagement proportionate to the existential threat which global warming poses to human civilisation.
 
The reason Rachel’s words resonated so strongly was that just over seven years ago I expressed remarkably similar thoughts in my own newspaper column ‘From the Left’.
 
On 9 December 2009 I wrote:
 
“If the battle against Climate Change does not become the moral equivalent of war for all the peoples of the Earth, then not only the battle, but the Earth itself, as a planet hospitable to human civilisation, will be lost.
 
“Our government – every government – must be willing to mobilise the population as it was mobilised during World War II. Our generation must plant its own ‘Victory Gardens’ and run its own ‘Salvage Programmes’. We must learn, as our parents and grandparents did, to ration scarce resources, pay special taxes, and buy as many ‘War Bonds’ as we can afford.”
 
I was moved to write these words seven years ago because the leaders of the world were gathering in Copenhagen for an international conference on combatting global warming. Even before that ill-fated conference collapsed in acrimony and confusion, I was doubtful as to whether any good would come of their going.
 
Seven years, and another fruitless international conference on global warming (this time in Paris) later, there is no doubt at all that no good has been done. The rate of global warming is already nudging the thresholds laid down in Paris.
 
As Rachel makes clear in her column, these failures are producing not only extreme consequences in the material world, but they are also generating extreme responses in the human psyche. Seven years ago people were asking “What can we do?” Seven years later, more and more of us are asking “What’s the point of doing anything?”
 
The sheer scale of the organised malice that has undermined every attempt to limit the damage of global warming is at once profoundly shocking and profoundly disempowering.
 
That global capitalism is fully conscious of the planetary harm it is causing, but resolved to go on inflicting that harm regardless, is a realisation so profoundly depressing that hitherto active citizens are robbed of all purpose and resolve.
 
It speaks of a civilisation in terminal decline. A world owned and ruled by people who have given up on the future. Humanity finds itself in the hands of a pathologically dissociated global elite. Stupefied by greed and consumed with pride, the ultimate demonstration of the power they refuse to give up will be the irreversible collapse of the fossil-fuelled economic system they have committed so many crimes to preserve.
 
The election of Trump, and the obvious incapacity of the American political system to defend itself against the madmen and women who have taken up residence in all three branches of the United States government, is merely the outward manifestation of global capitalism’s inner corruption.
 
Neoliberalism has immobilised humanity in the manner of those parasitic wasps whose offspring excrete a chemical which fatally overpowers their host’s self-protective reflexes. Aware that we are being destroyed, we are nevertheless incapable of resisting our destroyers effectively.
 
Rachel gets it: “Just about every bit of bad news is directly linked to climate change. Everything. Oh, and the greed of the few who are trying to extract even more before the inevitable breakdown.”
 
She has also, perhaps unintentionally, chosen the epitaph for the entire Anthropocene epoch.
 
Quoting the father of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin, Rachel ends her column with his observation: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
 
We have changed far too little, and left it far too late.
 
This essay is also posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 16 February 2017.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Is Winston Peters New Zealand's Donald Trump?

The Populist Cocktail: Take, ‘Immigrants willing to work for ridiculously low wages preventing ordinary Kiwis from accessing well-paying jobs’. Add, ‘Big cities – particularly Auckland – sucking up the nation’s scarce resources and leaving New Zealand’s provincial heartland starved of everything from decent roads and railways to policemen able to respond when called’. Shake vigorously and decant into the nearest polling-booth.
 
TRUMP, TRUMP, TRUMP. Has an American president ever dominated the global conversation so effortlessly – or so absolutely? All those foreign policy “experts” who argued that under the lofty administration of Barack Obama American power has waned have been forced to reconsider their position. And no wonder, because practically every hour of every day since his inauguration, President Trump has proved beyond all doubt that the United States remains, indisputably, “the indispensable nation”.
 
So completely does Trump dominate the global news cycle that, even here, at the bottom of the world, political experts have begun speculating as to whether New Zealanders might be in line for an Antipodean version of “The Donald”.
 
Others object that the Americans have, as usual, come late to the party. New Zealanders, they insist, have had their very own populist political leader for nigh-on a quarter-century. His name? Winston Peters.
 
But identifying Peters as the New Zealand Trump merely pushes the question back one space. Instead of asking: Does NZ have its own Donald Trump? The question now becomes: Can Peters replicate Trump’s extraordinary success?
 
The short answer is: No. Trumpism could only be established in New Zealand by a politician drawn from the ranks of one of the major parties. Such a person would then have to take his or her party by storm: over-ruling and over-powering its existing power structures with the assistance of fanatical supporters drawn from both within and without the party.
 
Labour’s rules make such a political eruption much more achievable than National’s, but the absence of a Trump-like figure in its caucus makes one much less likely. National, on the other hand, has Judith Collins who, given the right conditions (and they would have to be very far-right conditions) could place herself at the head of a populist putsch – but only if her caucus colleagues believed themselves to have no other option.
 
Because populism is not summoned into existence by the wiles of an ambitious politician. In fact, the opposite is true. The conditions that make populism viable invariably prepare their own political executors. “Rogernomics” empowered Jim Anderton. “Ruthanasia” called forth Winston Peters. The disintegration of the American working class caused by globalisation and automation; the challenge posed to the hegemony of White America by rapid and irreversible demographic change; these were the principal ingredients of the spell that summoned forth Donald Trump.
 
What, then, are the economic and social forces currently influencing New Zealand society that could enable Peters and NZ First to give the forthcoming general election a populist tinge?
 
Essentially, they are the same forces that drove the United States into the arms of Donald Trump: fear of the “other”, and the hollowing out of the heartland.
 
The ethnic composition of the New Zealand population has changed so dramatically since the mid-1980s that native-born New Zealanders no longer regard their social and economic ascendancy as unassailable. Although Peters has yet to give unapologetic voice to these racial anxieties, their potential to deliver the coup de grace to an already faltering bi-partisan consensus on population policy is undeniable.
 
What populist worthy of the name could have viewed the shocking video footage of an angry young Maori woman abusing a pair of young Muslim women stretching their legs at Huntly and not drawn the all-too-obvious conclusions about the volatility of race-relations in contemporary New Zealand?
 
It is, moreover, very likely that the young Maori woman’s anger was fuelled by more than racial animus. It’s highly probable that envy was also a factor.
 
For those whose lack of education and skills keeps them trapped in declining provincial communities, the presence, however fleeting, of young professionals from metropolitan New Zealand can only remind them of all the things they seek but cannot find: employment, income, accommodation, mobility, freedom … and a future.
 
It is a potent political cocktail just waiting to be mixed.
 
Take, ‘Immigrants willing to work for ridiculously low wages preventing ordinary Kiwis from accessing well-paying jobs’. Add, ‘Big cities – particularly Auckland – sucking up the nation’s scarce resources and leaving New Zealand’s provincial heartland starved of everything from decent roads and railways to policemen able to respond when called’. Shake vigorously and decant into the nearest polling-booth.
 
Peters delivered the latter ingredient straight to the voters of Northland in March 2015. Mixed with the former, and garnished with the bitter fruit of homelessness and poverty, he would have a political cocktail of unprecedented potency.
 
The only question that remains is: will Peters mix it?
 
Is our political culture as irredeemably divided as America’s? Are our core institutions as bereft of competent defenders? Is Winston Peters as blinded by ignorance and narcissistic self-regard as President Trump?
 
Personally, I do not think so. If the drumbeat is Peters, Peters, Peters – it’s unlikely to accompany our collective march to the scaffold.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 February 2017.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Just How ‘Broad’ Was Labour’s Church?

On The Right Of The Left: Raised in the public works camps of the Great Depression; organiser for the Workers Union; staunch anti-communist: Ron Bailey held the Heretaunga electorate in the Hutt Valley from 1960 until 1981. Few Labour parliamentarians have exemplified more vividly the ideological elasticity of Labour's "broad church".
 
THE FIRST LABOUR CANDIDATE I ever voted for was Ron Bailey. He’d inherited the Hutt Valley seat of Heretaunga from Labour’s outstanding Minister of Trade & Industry, Phil Holloway, in 1960. Encompassing a good part of the Hutt Valley’s manufacturing industries, the Heretaunga electorate was about as safe as any aspiring Labour MP could wish. Having won it, Heretaunga should have been Bailey’s for life.
 
Not that I knew anything about Ron Bailey as I conscientiously drew a line through the names of all the other candidates on my ballot paper. (I must confess, however, to hesitating over that of the Values Party candidate, J.M. Overton.) As a callow 19 year-old, I cared a great deal less about the personal histories of the candidates than I did about the parties they represented.
 
I cast my first vote for Labour in 1975 to honour Norman Kirk’s legacy. His leadership had impressed me tremendously. From the dispatch of a New Zealand frigate to the French atomic testing site at Mururoa, to the cancellation of the 1973 Springbok Tour, Kirk laid down a template for moral clarity and political courage by which I, and many thousands of other young New Zealanders, could judge his successors.
 
I was also voting for the self-evident decency of Kirk’s political heir, Bill Rowling; the progressive education policies of Phil Amos; and the radical social vision of Labour’s Attorney General, Dr Martyn Finlay. Theirs were the democratic socialist stars by which I allowed myself to be guided. Against such a flaring legacy, the star of Ron Bailey, Minister of Railways, shone only dimly.
 
Had I bothered to investigate the background of the man I was voting for, I would have been, by turns, both impressed and appalled.
 
Born in 1926, Bailey spent his childhood years in the infamous public works camps of the Great Depression. In his 2015 obituary of Bailey Dominion Post journalist Tom Fitzsimons describes the sort of places that five-year-old Ron would have called home: “His family lived in two conjoined gable-style tents with wooden floorboards, a corrugated-iron fireplace, no sink or bath, and kerosene lamps for light.”
 
Bailey’s political career didn’t really get started until he was 29, when he became an organiser for the New Zealand Workers Union. That was in 1956, and he must have impressed his fellow unionists as a go-getter because just four years later he was the Labour MP for Heretaunga.
 
If you’re thinking Bailey was some sort of socialist firebrand, then think again. Like so many of his conservative working-class contemporaries in both the unions and the Labour Party (including Kirk himself) Bailey was a staunch anti-communist. Indeed, in 1975, when I first voted for him, Bailey was, allegedly, an active member of the New Zealand chapter of the World Anti-Communist League (WACL) a sinister, far-right outfit with its origins in Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (Taiwan).

Reading between the lines of Bailey’s obituary, it would seem that his far-right views had, by the early 1980s, become so extreme (WACL was exposed as having ties to neo-Nazi death-squads) that even in Rowling’s broad Labour church they could no longer be tolerated. Amid the dramatic upheavals of 1981 – the year of the Springbok Tour – Bailey was somehow prevailed upon to step aside for the affable (and considerably more moderate) lawyer, Bill Jeffries.
 
The curious career of Ron Bailey illustrates just how widely the net of Labour’s candidate recruitment was flung in the 1950s and 60s. The party was very far from being a monolithic organisation for the very simple reason that its core working-class and professional middle-class constituencies were themselves anything but monolithic. Staunch anti-communist trade unionists like Bailey were joined in Labour’s caucus by radical Christian socialists like Hastings MP, Richard Mayson. The social-conservative Kirk sat at the same Cabinet Table as the social-radical Finlay.
 
For those politicians who prefer their parties to cleave to just one line, Labour’s “broad church” must sound like hell-on-earth. As a left-wing Labour Party activist – against whom the Rogernomics-supporting “Backbone Club” (of which Ron Bailey was the Auckland convenor) regularly hurled thunderbolts, I can certainly vouch for it being a very hard slog.
 
What I must also vouch for, however, is that even in a disastrous election year, like 1975, Labour’s “broad church” could still attract 39.6 percent of the popular vote.
 
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 10 February 2017.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Breaking Point.

Parting Company: Little’s reaching out to Greg O’Connor and Willie Jackson – both of them social conservatives – was a test of whether Labour winning in September mattered more than ideological purity: and the social liberals discovered that they could not pass it.
 
WHAT AN EXTRAORDINARY WEEK it’s been! Two years of exemplary discipline within Labour’s ranks have been unceremoniously ditched in favour of rank insubordination and revolt. Poto Williams’ intervention and its aftermath have left Andrew Little’s carefully cultivated image of unity and loyalty in tatters. No amount of “robust and honest conversation” can hide the fact that a depressingly large number of Labour Party members would like nothing more than to punch their supposed “comrades” in the face.
 
Williams’ decision to publicly challenge Little’s recruitment of Willie Jackson represents the breaching of a dam behind which huge amounts of anxiety and anger has been building up since November 2014.
 
The Labour Party’s social liberals may have cringed when their leader, David Cunliffe, said he was sorry for being a man, but they also loved him for it. With his enforced departure, the allegiance of his faction shifted decisively in favour of Grant Robertson. Their champion’s defeat, by the narrowest of margins (50.52 percent/49.48 percent) left them with no other practical option except to swing-in behind Little and breathe through their noses. Three leaders in six years was enough. The party had no chance of winning in 2017 if it failed to rally convincingly behind the fourth.
 
It is now agonisingly clear that while the party membership and caucus may have marched behind their new leader, by no means all of them were enthusiastic followers.
 
Little’s powerbase in the affiliated trade unions made many of them uneasy. Labour’s activist base of highly-educated middle-class professionals were only too aware that the people represented by Labour’s mostly blue-collar union affiliates came from socio-economic backgrounds very different from their own. A party leader who owed his position to the votes of working-class New Zealanders was unlikely to be guided exclusively by the policy priorities of the professional-managerial class.
 
If Little was to deliver to his working-class base, then he would have to expand Labour’s demographic reach well beyond its inner-city nuclei of metropolitan social liberalism. The party’s catastrophic collapse to just 25 percent of the popular vote in 2014 could not be repeated without throwing Labour’s long-term survival into serious doubt.
 
Rousing the Registered Non-Vote and winning back the defectors to National was, therefore, essential to Labour’s success in 2017. But these twin objectives could only be achieved by making Labour much more attractive to all those voters who had turned away from the party in 2008 and not returned.
 
For Labour’s social liberals the logic of Little’s strategy was at once self-evident and threatening. Deep down they understood that the number of New Zealanders who subscribed to their ideology was far too small to win the Treasury Benches unaided. They also understood that the hundreds-of-thousands of ordinary working-class people whose votes made a Labour-led government a feasible proposition were by no means wholehearted in their embrace of the social liberal values to which Labour’s inner-city activists subscribed. After Brexit and Trump, the latter were fearful that the willingness of working-class voters to go on acting as the uncomplaining enablers of social liberalism’s policy agenda might be compromised.
 
This was their dilemma. They grasped that Labour must broaden its electoral appeal if it was to win. But, at the same time, they knew that if Labour once again became a “broad church”, then their position in both the party and the caucus would be seriously – perhaps fatally – weakened.
 
Little’s reaching out to Greg O’Connor and Willie Jackson – both of them social conservatives – was the test: and the social liberals discovered that they could not pass it.
 
Though they could not admit it in as many words, their loud and very public rebellion against the recruitment of Willie Jackson made it crystal clear that if the choice was between winning the election, or compromising their social liberal ideology, then they were willing to give up winning the election.
 
They could do this because their position in New Zealand society was sufficiently secure to endure another three years of National Party government without significant material hardship. Moreover, yet another electoral failure would, paradoxically, strengthen, not weaken, their ideological grip on the Labour Party. As a shrewd trade unionist once observed of the cynical political strategy of the Soviet era Socialist Unity Party: “Better to keep control of the losing side than lose control of the winning side.”
 
Unfortunately, the losing side in 2017 will be made up of the least securely positioned members of New Zealand society.  Those impoverished and marginalised citizens whose endurance will be tested to breaking-point, and beyond, by another three years of National Party government.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 11 February 2017.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Freedom Of Expression And Its Discontents.

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. - John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
 
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION has long been regarded as the cornerstone of liberty. Indeed, without the ability to speak our minds freely the whole notion of liberty begins to unravel. Freedom of expression is vital in at least one other respect – it helps us to arrive at and recognise the truth. This is important because, as many philosophers and religious leaders have observed, it is the truth that sets us free.
 
The Left’s relationship with freedom of expression has never been an easy one. Ever since the French Revolution of 1789-99 the desire to maintain the purity of the revolutionary message has weighed heavily against those who dared to raise objections concerning the Revolution’s means – if not its ends.
 
The relaxation of state censorship is the first and most important gift to any revolutionary cause. Historically, the sudden appearance of posters, pamphlets, newspapers and books authored by those whose voices had hitherto been suppressed has always been the surest sign that the old order was crumbling. In today’s repressive regimes it is the unfettered use of social media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and blogs; which signals the arrival of the revolutionary moment. Think of the Arab Spring.
 
In its youth the Revolution hails freedom of expression as sacrosanct. The revolutionaries know that without it the power of the elites cannot be challenged. As the Revolution matures, however, and new power structures begin to replace the old, the criticism and analysis which freedom of expression makes possible seems less and less like an unqualified good. To the new occupants of these new structures, it is the protection and consolidation of the Revolution’s gains that should take priority. There is no surer sign that the Revolution is over than when the new power elite begins to punish people for exercising their right to free speech.
 
By this analysis it is clear that the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 70s have well-and-truly passed their expiry date. The great provocations of the Hippy era: think of the Broadway musical “Hair”; the proliferation of revolutionary underground comics; the human “Be-Ins” and “Love-Ins”; Ken Kesey’s “Acid tests”; would today be dismissed as either infantile or inappropriate.
 
Only last week, on the University of California’s Berkeley campus, birthplace of the “free speech movement” which touched off the student revolt of the 1960s, the world was treated to the spectacle of furious students doing everything in their power to prevent the Alt-Right provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos, from exercising his right to (yep, you guessed it) free speech.
 
In discussing these sorts of incidents with contemporary leftists, I have been staggered by the consistency of their responses. “What you’ve got to understand, Chris,” they reply, “is that while people have the right to express themselves, they have no right to expect that the things they say will not have consequences.”
 
If free speech is met with "consequences" - is it any longer free?
 
Just what those consequences look like can be seen every hour of every day on social media. Relentless incivility; extraordinary personal abuse; the issuing of threats to attack (and even kill) those whose expression is deemed offensive to, or transgressive of, the great revolutionary “truths” of the once “new” social movements; this, sadly, has become the norm on what passes for the “Left” in 2017.
 
The liberal tradition of responding to the expression of ideas with which you disagree with a reasoned, evidence-based argument in rebuttal no longer seems to fall within either the ideological of intellectual repertoire of today’s left-wingers. The only form of argument they seem capable of deploying is the abusive and circumstantial “Argumentum ad Hominem” – attacking the person rather than his or her ideas.
 
In his celebrated treatise, “On Liberty”, the nineteenth century English philosopher, John Stuart Mill, states: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
 
In the ears of far too many contemporary leftists this oft-quoted passage will sound either incomprehensible or offensive. (Mill does, after all, use the sexist noun “mankind” rather than the more appropriate and gender-neutral term, “Humanity”.) To their way of thinking it is entirely right and proper that those who give voice to offensive or hateful opinions should be silenced. If these people would rather not endure the consequences of exercising their freedom of expression, then they should STFU.
 
“Those who defy the self-evident truths of the new order,” thunder its uncompromising defenders, “must endure the consequences – humiliation and pain!”
 
What tyrant king or totalitarian dictator could possibly disagree?
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 8 February 2017.