Labour’s trouncing by John Key raises searching questions
Now that the dust is settling on the rather tumultuous events of the 2014 General Election – Labour’s worst performance in 92 years – and with the resignation – well sort of – of David Cunliffe, the Labour Party is now going through an official review.
But how fundamental this will be is very much open to question. What is really needed is a fundamental reappraisal of just what ‘Labour’ means and what the party stands for. Also needing serious thought is the relationship between Labour and its proposed coalition partner – the Greens. If it wasn’t clear earlier, the two parties are now actually rivals. At least two key electorate seats were lost to Labour eg Nikki Kaye’s Auckland Central and Peter Dunne’s Ohariu because of vote-splitting with the Greens (albeit Labour’s triumph in Napier was due to vote splitting between Conservatives and National – a rare tactical error by the right). The Greens despite their usual upbeat pronouncements can take no comfort from this election either. They need a fundamental reappraisal themselves. Ironically MMP is not working for the centre-left. The National propaganda theme of the hapless red and green characters floundering around in a rowboat – all at sea – was not too far off the truth.
But of even more fundamental concern should be the remarkable, indeed shocking, phenomenon of voters in traditional Labour seats giving their party vote to National.
In my opinion there were two main reasons for this – and both reasons reflect profoundly on what is the present-day Labour Party. While Labour long ago dropped any reference to the politically radical goal of socialism and indeed since 1984 has become a party of neo-liberal capitalism, (albeit of a somewhat softened version in recent years), interestingly it is openly radical on questions of social liberalism – radical but always within the bounds of and never challenging capitalism. It would be a mistake to identify this social liberal zealotry as being ‘left’. Issues raised by Gay marriage, ‘man bans’, third genders on passports, and gay adoption, etc., while apparently of passionate interest to the party insiders, do not sit well with the working people that Labour professes to represent, nor with the ethnic immigrant communities Labour fondly imagined (until the election anyway) were permanently loyal to it. Some defection to NZ First would be expected in these circumstances – but to National?
Another reason why core Labour voters voted National, in my opinion is so obvious that I fear it probably doesn’t even register with Labour’s policy makers. Labour’s policy of retrenching national superannuation entitlements from age 65 to 67, was a direct attack on the social entitlement of working people – what used to be called social security. Labour’s leaders in promoting this policy obviously hoped to score ‘brownie-points’ with Treasury and the business-financial establishment. A signal that Labour was still ‘sound’ and could be still relied on to take the ‘tough’ economic decisions (at the expense of its own people, just like its Rogernome predecessors). How the trade union leadership allowed this policy to get through is bewildering. But then again, it asks searching questions about present-day trade union officialdom as well. There are notable exceptions of course but it seems that much of the politicised trade union leadership is dominated by the same sort of people as the party officials – sedentary ‘middle class’ tertiary graduates. There is an impression from ordinary workers that many of their trade union officials are more interested in a career in parliament than working for the members. That for many ambitious and politically correct university graduates with connections, an office job in the union is just a step along the way to a parliamentary office and then the party list. Plainly, most Labour MPs and officials, have very little meaningful contact with manual workers. The people who work on the roads in all weathers, on building sites, cleaning offices and factories at night and driving heavy trucks. These people tend to be physically worn out by the time they reach the age of 65. Work for them is bloody hard. Labour’s policy makers obviously don’t understand that fact. For them in contrast ‘work’ (the constant round of meetings, the office, travel, conferences) is stimulating if not addictive.
Though many workers may not have university degrees they are not mugs. John Key to his credit held out against all sort of pressure from the usual interests (and no doubt his own caucus) to roll back superannuation. Key’s determination was not only vindicated – but proved to be a political masterstroke. It is the thousands of party votes netted from Labour voters that will enable National to govern in its own right. This is unprecedented under MMP and a personal triumph for Key.
Meanwhile life is not getting easier for the average person in the street – national and world conditions (economic, social and environmental) over the past thirty years appear to be deteriorating. There is growing wealth disparity. As the historian Frank McLynn observed:
‘It is a perennial peculiarity…to object to inequalities of race, sex, title, distinction, and even intellect but remaining blithely untroubled about the most important form of inequality; the economic.’
There is not a great deal of optimism that things can change – and underneath a great deal of fear and frustration. Given this situation there are plenty of things the Labour Party can do to renew itself and make itself relevant to the New Zealand people. But, unless the current party review is more thoroughgoing than one would imagine – I don’t hold out great hope.
The difference between 1922 and 2014 is back then Labour was a party of outsiders on the way up, motivated by a transcendent vision of a bold new world, authentic and with deep roots within the community and the labour movement. Labour may not have had the best result in 1922 but it was poised to overtake the previous reforming party, the Liberals. Unless there is a fundamental change, sadly I fear, the Labour Party in the 21st century will continue its slow decline, much as the Liberals did in the 1920s.