Critiquing Simon Wilson at the ‘TheSpin’ – Leading Labour’s Broad Church

By   /   January 12, 2017  /   10 Comments

THE SOLUTION, if there is one, to Labour’s political woes is unlikely to involve the wholesale adoption of the führerprinzip. The notion that all Labour has to do to reclaim the Treasury Benches is to find a leader capable of being admired, trusted and liked by the voters has found an enthusiastic advocate in Simon Wilson. Unfortunately, enthusiasm is no substitute for political understanding.

“I’d have voted for Helen Kelly for prime minister”, gushes Wilson. “I’d have voted for David Shearer, too. I dearly wish I’d been given the chance to do both.” Never mind that a vote for Shearer would have been a vote for the resumption of Rogernomics, and a vote for Kelly would have been a vote for its long-delayed repudiation. For Wilson, a party’s principles, and the content of its manifesto, mean nothing. The sole criterion by which its fitness to rule should be judged is whether or not its leader gets the electorate’s juices flowing.

That this approach to politics amounts to an open invitation to the Donald Trumps and Adolf Hitlers of this world to traduce our democratic institutions in no way slows Wilson down. Indeed, having proudly declared that he would have voted for Helen Kelly, Wilson proceeds to rubbish her final political testament that politics should be “about values” and that there is “far too much attention on leadership”.

“It sounds sensible”, says Wilson, “but sadly it’s not. It’s the idea that has done more damage to the Labour Party than any other since Rogernomics. Why? Because it keeps them out of power.”

Quite how Wilson is able to reconcile identifying Rogernomics as one of the main reasons Labour finds it difficult to attract electoral support with his earlier contention that he would have happily voted for David Shearer, is anybody’s guess. Perhaps he doesn’t know that Shearer became active in the Labour Party because of Rogernomics – not in spite of it. Or that shortly after becoming Labour’s leader, Shearer informed New Zealanders that he was an ardent admirer of Esko Aho, Finland’s neoliberal shock-therapist prime minister. I guess it all comes back to Wilson’s contention that ideas and policies are less important than whether the voters are ready to give their führer what really counts – power.

That one of the reasons political leaders are admired, trusted and liked is because their party’s ideas and policies correspond closely to broad swathes of the electorate’s own hopes and dreams, does not appear to have occurred to Wilson. We should not, however, be surprised at his failure of imagination. Wilson’s political vantage point is that of the elite observer; the technocratic fixer; the well-connected insider looking out – and down. Viewed from this perspective, voters are clay to be shaped and moulded, not citizens to be heeded.

If power is something that can only be bestowed from above, not seized from below, then Wilson’s support for the idea that Labour should be a “broad church” makes perfect sense. If one’s choice of political party is dictated solely by considerations of personal taste – like the choice between Coke and Pepsi – then the political ideas of its membership are irrelevant. Except, of course, membership of a political party is not determined by personal taste but by personal conviction. Once again, Wilson is guilty of a profound political misunderstanding.

The idea of Labour as a “broad church” harks back, as the metaphor suggests, to matters of individual conscience – not political economy. In the days when it really was a working-class party, Labour had to be able to accommodate both teetotal Methodists and Salvationists as well as hard-drinking Catholics. Staunch educational secularists had to be willing to get along with the supporters of parochial schools. Arguments for and against capital punishment raged alongside debates pitting pacifists against the supporters of king and country.

On questions such as the state’s dominant role in the New Zealand economy, and the centrality of the trade union movement to the working-class’ economic and political power, however, Labour was – until Rogernomics – a very narrow church indeed.

It is doubtful whether any party could have survived the sort of breakneck ideological expansion that Roger Douglas and his allies imposed upon the New Zealand Labour Party in 1984. Indeed, the only truly surprising aspect of the internal reaction to Rogernomics was how long Labour’s left-wing waited before splitting away in 1989. The latter’s departure did not, however, make Labour a broader church ideologically. On the core issues of political economy, Labour remained as narrow as ever: neoliberalism taking the place democratic socialism.

More surprising, perhaps, was the party’s failure to remain a broad church on matters of conscience. As the party’s socialist credentials faded, the rainbow colours of the new social movements of feminism, anti-racism, gay rights and environmentalism intensified. So brightly did this “identity politics” shine that Labour’s long-standing tradition of agreeing to disagree on issues of personal morality retreated into the shadows. In 2017, it is still possible for a member of the Labour Party to be “misogynistic”, “racist” and “homophobic” – but not openly.

The present-day party’s vigilant intolerance of socially conservative views is only possible because the ideological upheaval of Rogernomics reduced Labour’s membership from a staggering 85,000 in 1984 to around 8,500 in 2017. The militant “political correctness” of which Labour currently stands accused would have been unenforceable in its days as a mass party and remains a significant barrier to it ever becoming one again.

This is a problem, because although the purposes of politically correct party cadres may be served by ensuring that Labour’s membership remains “fewer but better”, the business of winning elections is all about “the more the merrier”. If all that Labour is prepared to offer the electorate is an unpalatable combination of watered-down neoliberalism and beefed-up identity politics, then winning elections is not going to be easy.

Wilson argues that Labour must learn from Michael Wood’s emphatic by-election victory in Mt Roskill: “Wood joined the dots. A party committed to raising wages must also be committed to better parental leave, childcare support and equal pay for women. A party determined to resolve the housing needs of the destitute and the working poor must confront the complex issues involved on the basis of class and race.”

But isn’t this precisely the sort of values-based and ideas-driven politics that Helen Kelly championed, and Wilson decries? And wasn’t Wood admired, trusted and liked because the people of Mt Roskill knew him to be a politician whose hopes and aspirations matched their own? And didn’t his campaign succeed because, rather than highlighting the characteristics that set the multi-ethnic communities of his electorate apart, he focussed on the issues that drew them together?

And isn’t that what being the leader of Labour’s “broad church” is really all about?

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10 Comments

  1. “The present-day party’s vigilant intolerance of socially conservative views is only possible because the ideological upheaval of Rogernomics reduced Labour’s membership from a staggering 85,000 in 1984 to around 8,500 in 2017. The militant “political correctness” of which Labour currently stands accused would have been unenforceable in its days as a mass party and remains a significant barrier to it ever becoming one again.”

    It’s too easy to flutter past those numbers. Just stop and look again:

    1984: 85,000 members.
    2017: 8,500 members.

    It confirms more than anything that these people can only rule as the big sharks in a tiny pond. And that they would rather be big sharks in a tiny pond than one shoal in the sea.

    Opportunity for Gareth Morgan right there.

  2. Brendon Harre says:

    Chris this is the first article in a very long time in which I fully agree with you. I often find you prone to negativity. But this is an essay Chris which showed us at your clear thinking and articulate best. Well done mate.

  3. Afewknowthetruth says:

    As long as Labour remains fully committed to refusing to discuss everything that needs to be discussed (i.e. the collapsing global environment, the imminent collapse of the global energy system, and the commensurate collapse of the financial-economic system) Labour remains part of the problem and can never be part of the solution. And political commentary continues to be nothing other than distraction.

    • Blake says:

      Exactly ! ! ” Political undertstanding ? ” Where is that seen much ? Another somewhat historical and semi-distracting piece by Chris and if Simon wanted to vote for Shearer, then he knows very little and is not one to admire. If the masses are uneducated and unaware- then who cares about getting their electorate ” juices flowing ” ? Lets get the masses educated.
      Labour refuses to confront many of the major issues and so, I feel, they are more part of no solution happening at all. Both parties are ineffective and will keep the same ole same ole just rolling along.

      That is what political understanding looks like ==>> Same ole 1080 poisoning – same ole lobbyists having our politicians by the short hairs – same ole laws being re-written to benefit corporate take over and greed —
      same ole – co2 levels raising – same ole corporations in charge – same ole
      weather haarp generated manipulations – same ole deep sea oil drilling and sonar killing our sea life — same ole denial of any global environmental problems — same ole America style military and police state growing in our backyard and America moving in to use us as their next south pacific military style base instilling more fear and greed.
      Manipulate the masses with fear and lies and false propaganda and then control them with mind numbing TV etc.

      I always agree with – Afewknowthetruth and also when he continues to state that — ” Any political commentary continues to be nothing other than distraction. ” — Would like to see TDB up its level of exposing the truths and commentary that is not so much of a distraction and helps with some real change and deeply and genuinely exposing the true culprits behind the scenes.

    • Mike in Auckland says:

      Labour tries to sell the NZ dream of continued wasting of resources for a nice middle class lifestyle, they have so far not got the message, that we simply cannot carry on as usual, the planet is being stuffed up massively.

      How can you sell illusions not much short of Nat Party ones and expect to be taken seriously, I wonder. But then again, most NZers are as ignorant as can be, when it comes to addressing the issues of sustainability, resource scarcity, of climate change and what else there is, I see every day, most choose to live in lala land.

  4. Sanctuary says:

    Simon Wilson is a middle class liberal, a group nowadays indistinguishable from the neoliberal technocrats and managerialists who offer constant excuses for the status quo. This group holds both a neo-laissez-faire economic and a socially liberal world view.

    Now, neoliberalism is a form of extemism that seeks to subjugate every aspect of life to it’s “rational” economic values. Since fascism may be defined as the subordination of every part of the State to a totalitarian and nihilistic ideology, I would argue that at the very least in spirit neoliberalism is a strain of fascism – which is why apparently socially liberal urban types like Simon Wilson see no contradiction in his doe eyed attraction to führerprinzip.

    If as a middle class winner from neoliberalism Simon Wilson cannot conceive of politics beyond managerialism of the existing ideology then rationally all that is left for the electorate to chooose is what type of party leader the one party state has.

  5. Ahu says:

    Great piece Chris.

  6. Mike in Auckland says:

    Hmm, Simon Wilson, that wannabe “urban liberal” from the boomer generation, he also supported the passing of the IHP recommended Unitary Plan for Auckland, after it took a shape nobody had expected, overly developer friendly, reduced much in rules and standards, and like a blank cheque for the business lobbyists to get it their way.

    This man lost credit long ago, who cares what he thinks and writes about.

  7. Stuart Munro says:

    Well done Chris – though I think that in the case of Gnats membership arises not so much from convictions as an ability to avoid conviction, albeit temporarily.

  8. Olwyn says:

    I think you have hit the nail on the head here, Chris, and this sentence sums it up: “On the core issues of political economy, Labour remained as narrow as ever: neoliberalism taking the place democratic socialism.” What people need to see is that many liberal advances take a very different form under the neoliberal model than under a democratic socialist one.

    Take the notion of inclusion: It is straightforward, where there is a policy of full employment and universal housing, to insist “No one should be excluded because of their race, gender or sexual orientation.” With the more competitive, less secure, neoliberal model, this translates into a more nuanced “No one should be impeded because of their race, gender or sexual orientation.”

    Since a number of things potentially impede one, the liberal is left asking “Did X miss out on the job because of one of these things, or for some other reason?” The question of inclusiveness is reduced to a kind of cultural policing, while the underlying real-politics roll on unchallenged. I do think that there have been genuine liberal advances, like the legalisation of male homosexuality for instance. But liberalism by itself is a weak stand-in for real political leverage, and real political leverage will only be gained when people are ready to cast off the neoliberal model.