Saturday, 3 October 2015

Thoughts on Labour (NZ or British variety)

The other day I treated The Standard to a long and waffley post about the not-as-similar-as-they-initially-appear plights of the British and Labour parties.  It is all to easy to assume that what will work for one may work for the other; and if that were so, my (very) cautious optimism about Jeremy Corbyn would look to be at odds with my glum response to David Cunliffe's quixotic campaign in 2014.  But there are differences between New Zealand and Britain, and between the British and New Zealish Labour parties.

So it was with some bemusement I noted that great minds think alike, or fools seldom differ, as the New Stateman also publishes a piece of Corbyn inspired navel gaving, covering roughly the same terrain (albeit with out the New Zeal element).

They start off by re-framing some thoughts from that profound left wing thinker, Lord Ashcroft, from his 2005 opus telling Dave Cameron how to get re-elected (helpful advice for which he felt he was was not rewarded adequately, leading to the publication of another, slightly less helpful book in 2015).  The main points identified by are:
  • A party must target their scarce resources at people who are more likely to vote in places which are more likely to decide elections.
  • A party must campaign hardest on the things that matter most to people, rather than things they hope can be made to matter.
  • There are number of parties competing for voters. It should never be assumed that one party’s unpopularity directly translates into support one other single party.
  • A party must not simply indulge the instincts of its core voters. The core is, by definition, not big enough to win an election on its own. By endorsing their views and tactics (e.g. classist, inverse-snobbery) too strongly a party risks alienating wider sections of the public that are needed for electoral success.
  • There are a number of different types of voters that must be brought together under the umbrella one party’s support. They are likely to have some diverging interests but it is the managing of your loyalists with the persuadables that is key to avoiding become an unelectable rump.
Which is all well and good, though I think actually more applicable to New Zealand than to Britain.  They are not the same, you see.

I think Corbyn can succeed in Britain, which may not be quite the same thing as winning an election.  But I’m not sure a Corbyn figure - something some on the left are trying to imaginate - could succeed in New Zealand. They are very different countries and have very different electoral systems.

Britain has a much longer and stronger left wing tradition, where as New Zealand’s left is more of a fickle beast. How many genuine, irredeemable socialists are there in New Zealand? I’m not convinced there are that many.

There are a lot of socially concerned liberals and lots of people who instinctively oppose National’s combination of neo-liberalism and rural conservatism. But that’s not quite the same thing, and moving left tends to make this loose coalition fragment. After all, in New Zealand they can do that – if Labour smells too strongly of Trotsky, the wets can always vote for the fragrant Mr Dunne, or Mr Peters (he looks like he uses Old Spice) or the Greens, depending on their perversion preference. They’ll still get what they want at the end of the day – a government that reflects some of their centrist principles, built on the back of a diluted version of Labour or National.

I think – this is all just opinion – Britain has a much larger socialist / social-democrat demographic. They are, however, deeply apathetic and disengaged. Turn out in British elections is about 10 percentage points lower than in New Zealand – a massive difference. It is unlikely, in my opinion, that there is much to be gained by campaigning for the non-voters in New Zealand. You might get a few more votes, but it would be at a huge cost – and if winning those votes meant moving left, it might also cost centre votes. Whereas in Britain, there are a lot more votes to be gained, and the archaic monstrosity of First Past the Post means there is no-where for votes to go. As a Brit, I’m quite familiar with having to vote for a party that is only vaguely representative of my opinions (take a bow, Tony Blair!) because the only alternative is much, much, worse. That’s less of an issue in New Zealand, for reasons already described.

We saw what happened with a nominal leftie here in 2014. 25% of the vote. The ‘Missing Million’ did not show up. Hell, even many of those committed enough to vote for Goff in 2011 abandoned ship.

Yeah, I know. The media blah blah blah and / or not sufficiently left wing blah blah bah.

Be honest with yourself for a moment. Do you think the media are really, truly that bad here? Look at what Ed Miliband had to put up with, what Jeremy Corbyn has already had to endure. The NZ media are lightweight. And as for trying again even further from the left, I’m not sure repeating the same experiment, once more with feeling, is the best choice anyone has ever had. Corbyn may work in Britain (and it is a big may) – but I doubt he would here. New Zealand just isn’t the sort of country that would vote for a socialist. And voters are clued up enough to know if they vote for an allied party, they’ll likely get something they don’t want.

What we need is a strong, charismatic centrist figure, someone with a strong social conscience to actually make a real difference (a positive one!) to people’s lives. I don’t think we can realistically hope for more than that at this time.

Which brings us back to the five points identified by Lord Ashcroft.  No-one likes compromise and no-one likes centrist muddle.  We all dream of red flags and revolution and storming the barricades and whatnot.  But the whole point of such shenanigans is that they don't win elections.  Doing that is a grubby, miserable, fraught business of trying to persuade enough people into agreeing with you to let you do more good than bad.  It's not terribly inspiring, but it is reality.

The left need to grow up and stop pining for their own romantic revolutionary hero who will somehow conjure victory of of impossible electoral mathematics.  A pragmatic compromiser, with a dash more charisma and core of principle but an instinct for building bridges rather than barricades, is the best medium term option.

But who the Hell fits that description? And even if we did have such a figure, what’s the likelihood of infighting and factioneering bringing him or her down?

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