THERE’S A VIDEO doing the rounds on social media. It features the octogenarian Labour MP and socialist, Dennis Skinner, addressing the British Labour Party conference in Brighton. Even Helen Clark was moved to pass on the link to her many thousands of followers. Her accompanying comment, however, was telling: “We shall never see his like again.”
Having viewed the short video clip, however, I feel obliged to voice my disagreement with Helen. That Dennis Skinner was invited to address the Labour Conference at all is a remarkable testament to how far the party has departed from the Blairite path. The rapturous reception he received, plus the warm handshake from fellow socialist, Jeremy Corbyn, add up to one inescapable conclusion. That the ideas of Dennis Skinner are not on the way out – they are on the way back. Meaning that the British Labour Party will be seeing a great many more like him in the years ahead.
Where I believe Helen’s comment does ring true, however, is in relation to the New Zealand Labour Party. I have been racking my brains to think of any living equivalent to Dennis Skinner in the party of Jacinda Ardern – and have come up empty.
There’s a very simple reason for that. There are no Dennis Skinners in the NZLP because, in 1989, just about every Labour socialist abandoned the Party of Rogernomics to join Jim Anderton’s NewLabour Party (NLP). By 1991, the NLP had joined forces with Mana Motuhake, the Democrats and the Greens to form the Alliance. What followed was a bitter struggle for supremacy. Between 1991 and 1998, Labour and the Alliance battled for control of the left of New Zealand politics. Though Labour would, ultimately, emerge triumphant, its victory over the Alliance was only secured at considerable cost.
Stripped of its left-wing members, and all the transformational and emancipatory impulses that inspired them, Labour ceased to be a party committed to bringing the voices of working-class Kiwis into government, and became instead a party dedicated to providing good governance for all New Zealanders. This distinction between government and governance is crucial to understanding the difference between Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Jacinda Ardern’s.
Perhaps the best way of distinguishing government from governance is to examine the two distinct phases of Labour’s 2017 election campaign.
For the first few weeks of the campaign, the country was seized by the giddy notion that Labour’s new leader was about to upset the New Zealand Establishment’s apple-cart. Her gloriously vague slogan – “Let’s Do This” – allowed every person to project onto Jacinda all their hopes and dreams for the country’s future. Labour’s poll numbers rocketed upwards on the strength of the popular conviction that a Jacinda-led government would be a government dedicated to installing new priorities and new voices at the heart of the State.
Augmenting this heady notion was the way in which Jacinda appeared to seize the torch of radical change even as it fell from Metira Turei’s grasp. Had she not made the Greens’ priorities her own? Had she not vowed to make Climate Change the “nuclear-free moment of her generation”? Metria had lit the fires of hope, and Jacinda (at least at first) seemed willing to keep on fanning them.
That was when the Labour Party dedicated to providing New Zealand with ‘good governance’ stepped onto the stage – and everything changed. From the young and fearless people’s champion, Jacinda morphed into an earnest young person talking about “working groups” of “experts”. Her marvellous slogan “Let’s Do This” shrank before our eyes. From a brave call for radical and far-reaching change, it was reduced to a brisk and business-like appeal to simply swap one team of “good governance” providers for another.
That was all the National Party needed. Up against a ‘people’s champion’ they had nothing to offer. But, on the subject of a young and inexperienced woman asking us to believe she can provide New Zealand with ‘good governance’, from the top down, they had plenty to say. The moment Jacinda allowed her mission to be diverted from changing the purpose and direction of government, to changing the oil in New Zealand’s clapped-out neoliberal machine, all hope of genuine change was lost.
Even if Winston Peters deigns to make her our next Prime Minister, Jacinda has made it very clear that she hasn’t the slightest intention of frightening the Establishment’s horses; and that her own – and Labour’s – determination to provide good and responsible governance to all New Zealanders, from the top down, will not falter.
Dennis Skinner addressed Britain’s Labour Party in front of a massive screen emblazoned with the slogan “For the Many – Not the Few”. He and his leader talked about unions, and nationalisation, and ordinary people taking power into their own hands. Their promise was not to provide a passive population with ‘good governance’, from the top down, but to make sure that the many are given all the tools they need to bring down the towers of the few.
It was the sort of inspiring performance I’d very much like to see again in New Zealand’s Labour Party.