“If I said, “Boy, I really love corn dogs!” it doesn’t mean I actually love a corn dog. Because love has nothing to do with corn dogs. But it’s just language. It’s a state of mind. You take for granted that my intention is really to express that I enjoy them a lot and I want to eat one right now. That’s what it’s meant to do. But if you have an agenda and you want to take my sentence apart, you could certainly say, “Oh, my God! You love a corn dog? What do you mean by that? Do you want to marry it? Do you want to put it inside of you?” It’s like, “That’s not what I meant and you actually know that’s not what I meant and you’re only using it because you have an agenda so that you could get attention for whatever reason you have.”
We face daily pressure to behave according to gender, race and sexual norms, so it’s ironic that we use the same progressive values that aim to challenge these norms as a new standard of conformity.
In my pretty middle class, inner-city suburban existence, progressive values are mostly a given and something we strive to prove on a daily basis, not only as a personal aspiration but also for social credibility. It usually takes little to align this social-political algorithm, just the occasional Facebook post of a Ta-Nehisi Coates article or an Instagrammed Green Party ballot selfie every election.
Equally important is to avoid accusations of the opposite: racism, misogyny, classism, homophobia or transphobia, the recriminations of which are amplified in the digital age. As a result, personal ‘brand’ purity has become a dogmatic virtue. Our social media identities increasingly resemble political agendas, where our worth and effectiveness is measured by our ability to identify and call out marginalisation and privilege in face-to-face and online feeds. We’re easily wound-up and prone to react, with the onus always on the other, readily diagnose statements with ‘White, cisgendered straight male privilege’ – the predictive text judgement of these times – and respond to skepticism with privsplained logic akin to Hare Krishna or Scientologist street-bothering screed. Our focus has shifted from concrete political, legislative and social change to battles over academic and campus experiences. So dedicated to our new approach that proven allies who oppose our blanket judgements are criticised as enemies and the context of good satirical TV comedy is misinterpreted humourlessly.
These social media scraps against moral depravity is, in my view embarrassingly similar to those of the moral right – the same talkback callers, social conservatives and religious activists whose moral panic on welfare, sex and violence on TV, sacrilegious art and the role of certain musicians in social breakdown we snidely deride. Like them, we fear morally permissive values as driving bad behaviour and seek open confrontation to judge perceived transgressions. Like many born-again evangelists, there’s a tendency to blame others for preventing utopia. While certainly a combination of class, race, gender and sexuality reflect certain overall privileges or disadvantages, privilege, to me, is like meditation or prayer – a good exercise in self-reflection and contemplation of the state of the world. Yet, diagnosing others according to broad formulas that often rely on blanket assumptions simplifies complex individual human motivations and experiences and can easily misinterpret opinions and language without context.
Actions motivated by moral zealotry are always driven by political agendas. As social media users with the ability to play the role of moral arbiters in public, too frequently we act disproportionate to the situation and context to justify our political outlook and to accumulate gravitas as legitimate commentators – including those white, straight, middle class cisgendered males who appropriate others’ experiences. In a New Yorker article on this issue, the generational gap between an English lecturer at Oberlin College in Ohio and her students was noted: “Her generation, she said, protested against Tipper Gore for wanting to put warning labels on records. “My students want warning labels on class content, and I feel—I don’t even know how to articulate it,” she said. “Part of me feels that my leftist students are doing the right wing’s job for it.” Moral politics is ironically turning us into the very people we oppose.
Humanity chafes under moral conformity and history shows progress tending towards the blurring of gender, sexual and racial norms. Feminism, LGBTI and ethnic rights movements have made gains because they have rebelled against such conformity. Not only through protest but by developing concrete goals for bold political, legal, economic and cultural change, working with similarly-minded allies – many of whom they disagreed with on many issues – they have gradually won widespread public support.
Surely, genuine public belief in progressive ideals is more preferable, which depends on opposing moral panic of any political stripe. While real bigotry is inexcusable and should be challenged, not every perceived slight is worth a reaction nor every bigot merely the value of their transgression or their perceived privileges. Rather than replace one set of moral norms with social algorithm and forumla as another, real change must question all norms.
‘Go to hell, you old bastard’
New Labour is dead. Jeremy Corybyn’s 59.5% of the vote in the first round of the Labour leadership election is as revolutionary as Tony Blair’s 57% in 1994. Even if Corbyn loses the 2020 general election, is deposed or resigns, the membership and supporter-based electoral system makes it impossible for leadership candidates to ignore or dismiss principled leftism as ‘Old Labour’ or return to the days of Blair. This is a disaster for aspiring politicians who chose the New Labour parliamentary advisor path to elected office over the trade unionist, activist, or community development alternative. Unless they all quickly adopt Breton caps and find work at Oxfam, they’ll fast become the manky strays of the political world, surviving off scraps from Blairite think tanks.
With the election of Corbyn signalling the end of New Labour, it’s now possible for Labour to achieve what it has struggled to do since 1979: provide a credible answer to Thatcherism. New Labour wasn’t a modern social democratic response but more a string of focus group-tested, voter-friendly strategic positions that remained within the free market economic structures created by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government. Any real gains in poverty reduction were built on sand already partially subsided by Iraq, easily kicked down by Tory beach bullies, and washed away with the tide of public opinion.
A key challenge of this answer is to reclaim from Thatcherism the concept of freedom to control your own destiny. Corbyn’s association with 1980s radical Labour hero Tony Benn is indicative that this is understood. Both have advocated a more participatory, democratic ‘socialism from below’ rather than ‘socialism from above’ in which government solves all problems and synonymous with welfare state. This could prove an appealing, relevant answer to Thatcherism in post-GFC Britain rather than the 1980s. Such a vision of freedom would require being equally critical of big government and big corporate. Where the role of government would be to set electorally-mandated minimum, universal standards while communities and the public are empowered with greater political and economic decision-making powers. Where ministerial and public servant-based policy development is balanced with strong mechanisms for public participation – something even the Conservatives have experimented with through patient participation in NHS policy development. With local authorities and users of health, education, housing, transport, and employment and economic development services having greater control over ability to raise revenue, spending, and approaches. Where companies would be required to have worker representation on boards and there is a greater role for worker and consumer-owned enterprises. Rather than Corbyn as a saviour who will solve our problems for us, there is an opportunity to empower people with a real freedoms and opportunities in their lives.
It is claimed that the UK Labour establishment is in panic over opinion polls and endorsements indicating that left-wing leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn is the frontrunner in the leadership election. Former leadership candidate Chuka Umunna has fronted criticism of Corbyn in an attempt to temper left-wing Labour members with realism, yet this might not be enough. Corbyn’s level of support arguably reflects a wider shift in centre-left values worldwide. In this environment, there are signs that primary voters are moving away from mainstream options in favour of their ideal candidates. Hillary Clinton’s strongest challenger in the Democratic primaries is independent, self-described socialist Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is running on a left-wing platform similar to Corbyn, and is performing far better than anticipated. Both candidates are fuelled by grassroots campaigns with strong youth support. In that sense, Corbyn’s obvious parallel is Tony Benn’s close challenge to Labour deputy leader Dennis Healey in 1981.Corbyn and Sanders are, like McCarthy and Benn, transformed from rebels to serious contenders. Sanders’ campaign has similar vigour to Senator Eugene McCarthy’s campaign against President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, in which a narrow Johnson victory in the New Hampshire primary caused him to drop out. The outcome of these elections depends more on how their mainstream opponents respond to the new political environment.
So far, the Labour leadership election campaign has been lacklustre and often limited to the ad-nauseum repetition of words such as ‘aspiration‘ that have stripped of meaning to a degree that it wouldn’t be entirely surprise the public if the main candidates are either clones or alien replicants. Though Liz Kendall has arguably had more success articulating a coherent, down to earth narrative than other mainstream candidates Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, Corbyn has been the main beneficiary of this, probably because he has claimed the mantle of idealism. Corbyn acts as a Tony Benn-like figure representing a grassroots socialism and whose appeal contrasts with the image of professionally-designed, poll-driven, focus-group tested, policy and talking points communicated in pure political speak synonymous with the downside of New Labour. Likewise, Hillary Clinton is hindered by a long-entrenched image as an inauthentic, calculating politician in opposition to the curmudgeonly but passionate Sanders who has taken up the abandoned mantle of idealism which Obama had used to defeat her in 2008. In any case, what worked for Tony Blair in 1997 and Bill Clinton in 1992 might not succeed in 2015. In a world of austerity, ongoing inequality, mass data collection, drone strikes, and failed military interventions, there is an arguably greater passion for figures like Corbyn, Sanders, and others who articulate an passionate idealism rather than those who stake out calculated, strategic, tested positions. Candidates must acknowledge the limits of an overly cautious, professional approach.
The basic challenge of whoever wins is to achieve what Ed Miliband failed to do: channel empathy and articulate policies that make a meaningful difference in peoples lives in a way that captures an idealistic desire for change. For Burnham, Cooper, Kendall, or Clinton in America to win, this means communicating with authenticity and empathy rather than gimmicks and orthodox solutions. UK Labour MP Simon Danczuk cites Andy Burnham’s idea of more regional accents in shadow cabinet as a patronising, cosmetic solution that doesn’t address a deep distrust of politicians. Danczuk proposes that leadership candidates should listen, communicate authentically, and relinquish greater power to local government and service users for communities to find solutions to unemployment, poverty, and education that reflect their needs. This approach articulates both idealism for political change that is also pragmatically grounded.
If Burnham, Cooper, Kendall, Clinton or any centre-left politicians worldwide disagree with radical opponents, they would be better served with an authentic, pragmatic idealism rather than dismissal. If they cannot do this, then candidates like Corbyn and Sanders become – at least by default – the best candidates.
I’ve refrained from saying anything about Auckland’s infamous Ya Ya Club – the high society banquet club – because it wasn’t worth an evening at the pub typing over several pints. However, this week social media crusade has flared up, this time over the ‘Bal Du Monde’ event featuring ethnic world-influenced fashion costumes which many have denounced as racism and cultural appropriation. Far from me to defend this group, I find some of our broader motivations in our sneer and dislike somewhat misguided.
Our existing hatred towards the Ya Ya Club reflects a common problem among modern leftists in imbuing individuals and groups with a power and mythology they lack, and this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve complained. John Cleese, in an excellent 1980’s political party broadcast, suggests we often justify our righteous anger at individuals and groups because they are the source of evil. In this case, the Ya Ya Club is treated as the cause of socioeconomic inequality rather than a symptom. They provide a proxy through which to express our hatred towards John Key and the ‘rich pricks’, like similar social media snark towards son Max and daughter Stephanie. Rather than focusing our time and energy on the complex task of how to reduce inequality, it’s easier and more instantly gratifying to play a perpetual game of political whack-a-mole. Ironically, Ya Ya Club members behaviour is more simply explained as the predictably behavior of many children who were raised wealthy. They have more access to money and spend it on luxury items in which they flaunt. As I have written in the past, a common affliction among the modern left is, living in a free market democracy, we treat all decisions – whether fashion tastes or political opinions as consumer ones and a matter of personal choice rather than the result of class and/ or cultural upbringing. We treat Ya Ya Club members as making the wrong political and luxury consumer choices compared with our superior ones without a consideration of class culture.
Us politically engaged left leaners are hardly immune to the flaunting of our exquisite tastes either. Politically, our Facebook posts and tweets against the Ya Ya Club too often contain an underlying narrative of “I am against bigotry and I need as many people to know this as possible.” – itself a branding exercise. There’s also a hypocrisy from many critics’ anger at Ya Ya’s glamourising consumer wealth. Consider how many of us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook celebrate our consumer choices: the bottles of Bollinger, the food selfie from an expensive restaurant, and the exotic beach holiday. To an extent, Ya Ya Club is not dissimilar to one of our Instagrammed potlucks, but with more money and therefore a better venue, more famous guests, and more likes.
The claims of racism and cultural appropriation also run a huge risk that potentially ensnares ourselves – something I’ve been concerned about social media calling out for some time. High fashion photo shoots and runway fashion commonly feature exotic influenced designs and costumes, which themselves only become a problem when public sensibilities deem individual instances cultural appropriation, like in this case and with Stephanie Key’s Native American headdress before it. However, the difference between what is acceptable and what is bigoted can change overnight. I recall friends wearing Native American headdresses a few years ago when it was considered perfectly acceptable, with most of them likely embarrassed about it now. Changing cultural mores are unpredictable. Soon it may be Asian peasant hats from the Auckland Lantern Festival, yoga pants, or dressing as a cholo/ chola for a costume party. The well meaning among us may be caught out by shifting social mores.
If anything, those who oppose the Ya Ya Club would be better served considering it as satirical fodder. A youthful version of the silver-haired Toorak Liberal Ladies who lunch and fundraise for charity. An removed experience but mostly harmless, earnest, and at worst needlessly provocative. The Ya Ya Club are not the cause of inequality or racism and make poor substitutes for John Key, the National Party, and the ‘rich pricks’ and cannot heal our wounds of seven years of political disappointment. Unless the Ya Ya Club sends out a press release inciting a race war or merges with the Taxpayers Union, then it means little to me beyond an amusing curiosity.
My memories of the ‘golden years’ of Helen Clark are far less nostalgic than many of my contemporaries. Then, I was perpetually frustrated with unfair economic structures, increasing student debt, and a lack of bold policies. Over three electoral defeats, many left voters – including those who voted other parties – have advocated that the solution to Labour’s woes is that it should adopt their utopian ideals: far-reaching economic reforms, renouncing unaccountable trade agreements, and transformative feminism. Yet, this ignores Labour’s role in politics. The result of Labour’s upcoming leadership election will be meaningless if it can’t replicate the formula of a big tent party that will inevitably disappoint people like myself.
Those who advocate a ‘return’ to radical roots forget that Labour has historically been a pragmatic left party of government. Prior to electoral victory in 1935, Michael Joseph Savage jettisoned policies such as nationalisation of industry and farmland and adopted an internationally mainstream welfare state model. Public works, state housing, universal and cheap education and healthcare, and unemployment benefits were hardly revolutionary for the Great Depression. Left radicalism within Labour under John A. Lee ended when he was expelled and founded the Democratic Labour Party, leaving Labour to remain pragmatic; the party of Fraser, Nash, Kirk, Rowling, and Clark. The exception of Rogernomics distorted this tradition, leaving many nostalgic for a radical Labour government that never truly existed rather than Helen’s reassertion of a tradition approach.
A successful Labour must, like National now, extend beyond inner city and suburban strongholds to the regions. At the high point of 2002, Labour held both Hamilton seats, East Coast, Taupo, Rotorua, Whanganui, Otago, and Invercargill – all lost to National by 2008 and most of which need to be reclaimed.This requires articulating concrete positions on local issues. Napier MP Stuart Nash, the only regional success this year, partly attributed this to focusing on three local issues “the reopening of the rail line to Gisborne, the threat to after-hours services at the local clinic and strong local feeling against amalgamation to form a Hawkes’ Bay “super-city””. This approach would be easily replicated across locations, for example, if Labour were to commit to a 30 year public transport priority build in Auckland.
This approach doesn’t need to ‘win the centre’ but requires an alternative narrative and economic and social policy combination that improves the daily lives of working and middle class voters across different environments. Appearing on the Nation, NZCTU President Helen Kelly cited promises to shop workers in 1935 as examples of understanding of peoples’ experiences: “You’ll have a chair in your shop and you’ll be able to sit down when you’re working, or you won’t have to work more than 50 hours: workers identified with the real problems linked to the real solutions.” People prefer policies they can understand and feel makes a difference to their lives. Ipads in schools had vision but arguably not the biggest priority.
This approach must also accommodate both social liberals and social conservative Labour factions and potential voters under a centre-left banner. The loss of votes to NZ First and National arguably indicates the isolation of centre-left social conservatives from Labour. While John Key could safely balance his support gay marriage within a conservative party, the widespread derision of Labour MP Sua William Sio’s opposition reinforced the notion that social conservatives aren’t welcome. Progressivism cannot be purist checklist akin to a Buzzfeed quiz entitled ‘How Progressive Are You?’, but allows respectfully debate and acknowledges that social conservatives and liberals have the same basic needs.
Left wing voters who want more would be wiser to channel their passions through the Greens or future parties to the left, and civil society. A party promoting truly reformist economic policies and widereaching social change can maximise their party votes to leverage concessions that Labour may be sympathetic to/ not entirely oppose but needs a reason to approve. Case in point: ACT and charter schools. Equally as important for idealists is to participate in civil society organisations and causes to educate and mobilise the public to convince/ pressure parties to commit to more wide-reaching change. Only when the perception of Labour among more radically-minded leftists switches from ‘incompetent’ to ‘unprincipled sellouts’ will things be improving.
Lisa: “Dad, for the last time, please don’t lower yourself to the level of the mob”.
Homer: “Lisa, maybe if I’m part of that mob, I can help steer it in wise directions. Now where’s my giant foam cowboy hat and airhorn?”
-The Simpsons, ‘Whacking Day’
There’s an irony lost on New Zealanders relishing in the slaughter of a beached whale. For over a week, many of us have been consumed both by shock at the degree of unethical practices of Judith Collins, Cameron Slater, and potentially John Key and belated joy of comeuppance and revenge – clutching our metaphorical harpoons.
This is the venting of anger and frustration of six years of powerlessness on the left. Two terms of political opposition, an ineffective and often incompetent Labour Party, and a highly organised, generally popular government in alliance with well-followed, effective, sympathetic bloggers. With Labour opponents falling again and again to untraceable leaks, for many it became akin being at the mercy of a cruel set of schoolyard bullies who also happen to be the prefects. Though many in the political realm had suspected a darker ethical depths of Slater and connection to the Beehive there was little concrete proof, so many felt powerless to stop this and resorted to squabbling amongst themselves instead.
After the release of Dirty Politics, a renewed confidence has developed solely from the felling of the indestructible image of Slater and Key. Slater has been unable to defend his actions and attempts to pin the blame on Kim Dotcom have fallen entirely flat. More importantly, we relish in the fall of Key. Guyon Espiner’s brutal interview with Key on Radio NZ on Monday will be remembered as his worst yet: the evolution from charming and disarming to a clearly rattled robot repeating contradictory talking points regardless of the question. The newly empowered, baying mob demanding everything from the rolling of prized heads to the settling of petty scores such as the revocation of Slater’s Cannon Media Award – demanded by the runner-up.
The downside of this monumental turn of events is that this has nothing to do with a resurgence of left wing ideals or an effective grassroots political movement but entirely reliant on the revelations of Dirty Politics. That the root cause of dirty politics is the culture embedded within the parliamentary system should be cause for concern and unification on the left to do better. Duncan Garner confirmed from Press Gallery experiences the use of dark tactics by left wing parties including leaking personal or political information to the media by Helen Clark, Pete Hodgson, and former Alliance President and current Labour Chief of Staff Matt McCarten. One of Clark’s Minister of Immigration Lianne Dalziel resigned after leaking information about an asylum seeker deportation case. In fairness, left parties haven’t visibly plumbed to the depths of the revelations of Dirty Politics, but that hardly excuses past actions. Clark’s government existed prior to the realised power of the blogosphere, nor can collusion between the left blogosphere and left party organisations be ruled out in the past, present, or future. The only real difference of principle is that Labour politicians tended to leak straight to journalists, whereas National outsources traditional functions to private contractors – rather fitting for the government who started charter schools.
While Dirty Politics has been an incredibly important milestone in revealing the sinister nature of NZ politics, it can’t only be addressed in retribution, which will beget more retribution and rob the public of political debate. Without real debate on the legitimate issue of ethics in politics – which so far politicians on neither side appear to address at depth – real political power will continue to be concentrated in a self-interested political class of politicians and professional staffers on all sides, professional pundits, and politically obsessive social media types engaging in the theatre that is politics as sport – every event and policy reduced to winners and losers or, in this, case the hunters and the hunted.
“So come up to the lab and see what’s on the slab. I see you shiver with antici… pation.”
–Dr Frank N Furter, Rocky Horror Picture Show
Paddy’s Rort Retort
Patrick Gower accusation of “rort” at the Internet Mana Party alliance use of a Maori electorate to jump the 5% hurdle by a non-Maori party misses the point. A political alliance happened because of the unfairness of the 5% threshold, especially for new parties. Lowering the 5% or one electorate seat threshold was recommended by the MMP Review and rejected by the National Government, so parties operate accordingly within these flawed rules for advantage.
Yes, “The Maori seats are special. They have a unique constitutional role which is to give the Tangata Whenua a place of their own in the New Zealand Parliament”– but not so sacred as to be exempted from normal rules. IMP as a Pakeha-Maori alliance is not exceptionally different to the Labour-Ratana alliance of the 1930’s, NZ First in 1996, or the Mana Party as an alliance of Indigenous and left wing activists.
It’s Just a Jump to the Left
IMP’s potential success depends on public demand for a party to the left of Labour – something lacking since the defeat of the Laila Harre-led Alliance in 2002. Alliance members found new homes in Labour, the Greens, and Mana.
For years, space to the left of Labour was mainly occupied by the Greens, which once had a powerful working class focus most symbolically represented by Sue Bradford. The election of Russel Norman and Metiria Turei to the co-leadership has de-emphasised a socialist approach to poverty and focused more on broader green economics. With Labour, many former Alliance supporters would have compromised their values and experienced disenchanted with the Shearer/ Cunliffe/ Robertson as saviour/ villain sideshow. IMP’s election result will hinge on the ability to convince disenchanted Labour/ Greens activists and voters like myself who yearn for a more leftist choice but are unsure about the party.
A successful IMP is no threat to Labour or the Greens, instead a simple realignment of the left in an MMP world. If rumoured Greens fury at Harre’s defection is true, it would be a tribal claim to left voters like Labour MP Clare Curran’s similar attitude towards the Greens in 2011, which ignores the plural reality of MMP. In proportional electoral systems, especially in Europe, exists enough space for a social democratic party, a Green party, and a democratic socialist (in NZ allied with Indigenous left). National’s share of the party vote is aided insofar as the right wing realignment hasn’t happened yet and probably needs the death of ACT, NZ First, and the Conservatives to happen.
The reemergence of key Alliance figures Matt McCarten, Laila Harre, Pam Corkery, and potentially Willie Jackson across left parties is telling in terms of re-emphasis on the importance of grassroots mobilisation. Rather than a retro revivalcomeback tour, these figures possess institutional knowledge and campaign management skills crucial to the revival of the left overall and their parties must know this.
If IMP is successful, it won’t diminish the left vote but realign it and potentially turn out new voters.
One More Thing….
I raised concerns on an earlier post on this blogthat (1) IMP would be a contradictory coalition of ideologies akin to the Alliance and (2) the party would be dependent on personality rather than grassroots energy.
Harre’s appointment has complicated the first point, and though is more ideologically in-tune with Mana, she’s not known as a proponent of internet civil liberties. For IMP to truly develop legitimacy, the Internet Party would need prominent candidates well-versed in internet privacy, civil liberties, and youth engagement. If Harre focuses more on traditional left issues, the party will split. This proved difficult in the divided Alliance, so this would be a complex balancing act. To achieve this, Harre would need to combine left beliefs she’s known for with innovative new policies such as e-democracy through citizen participation in legislation and policy development to stake out a political space. This would mobilise a left wing base and could attract new voters.
On the second point, the development of a strong grassroots financially independent of Kim Dotcom’s finances would ensure long-term sustainability. Harre reduces concern over the power of Kim Dotcom, but the right will still raise the spectre of control held by a millionaire fighting extradition. IMP’s financial dependence on Dotcom in the long-term would reinforce a perception of the Internet Party akin to the Conservatives: a rich man’s plaything without roots. The Internet Party could justify initial investment only to build a grassroots membership and donor base and would have to do so within a parliamentary term – a big ask but crucial for long-term survival. The dominance of Jim Anderton’s leadership over grassroots activism killed the Alliance. Harre’s ability to learn from history will prove crucial to success or failure.