Listen while reading what follows. It will help, one way or another.
One of the basic tenets of most strains of socialism is that people are the product of their environment.
This can be abstracted to the nth degree, with the materialist view of the world; or targeted specifically, where we try to tease out the socio-psychology of the individual. The concept is the same, and fundamental to most socialists. Circumstances create people before people create circumstances. Otherwise, why bother about the material and economic relations of society? If they aren't fundamental to the shaping of people, why worry?
But there's an uncomfortable shadow to that, the fact that we live in a society that has been openly, aggressively encouraging selfishness, individualism and consumerism for over three decades, in most countries of the developed world.
If we accept that people are formed by their environment, then we probably have to accept that people have been changed by the relentless narcissism and consumerism which has been the (hem) predominant discourse in western societies for the last 30 years. This is why I’m not convinced by the loud voices wailing that Labour's current woes can be alleviated by a sharp turn to the left.
People voting National are not going to suddenly vote Labour when they are offered a more left wing alternative. They’re going to be even more repelled. The most we can do, in the short term, is pry off the centre vote, and then when people realise the Sky Has Not Fallen, persuade them it will still not fall if we move a little bit further, then a little bit further.
The neo-liberals had the advantage of circumstance when they moved the country the other way in the 80s. But I think a crisis generally favours the right (and they deceived as to how far they were going to go) as witnessed by the right wing retrenchment after 2008.
Unless there is some system busting crisis (which we’ve been waiting for for over 150 years now!) Fabianism is probably the only way for the left to return to power. Bolsheviks might dream of seizing control and imposing (their version of) the dictatorship of the proletariat, and then persuading people they were right all along, but most historical examples warn against that route.
(By Bolsheviks, I meant (nearly) literally that – a small group of extremists seizing power by non-democratic means. This happened in the 80s, when the neo-liberal Bolsheviks won power through deception. Do we want to go down that road? Democracy requires winning the argument before taking power. If we can not win compliance, coercion or deception are our only options. I don't think they are good ones.)
It’s an argument born of practicality. Yes, we're facing a catastrophe in the form of climate change and environmental destruction. But the Greens get about 10% of the vote. They need another 40% before they can do anything. The planet, unfortunately, is a big place and it is hard to take in the impact of human activity. And people – weaned on consumerism and selfishness for three decades – are more receptive to iphones than egalitarianism or environmentalism.
Hence the needs for small steps.
The missing million have sat out three elections now. It is unlikely they will be tempted back in significant numbers. They are the flip side of the neo-liberal-narcissistic-consumerists; the permanently disenfranchised and alienated.
If they couldn’t be bothered voting AGAINST John Key, what sort of inducements can we offer them that will get them to vote FOR the left? It’s a pleasant fantasy that they will roll up to the polling station in 2017, if only we offer a sufficiently leftwing program … And even if we entertain that fantasy for a few moments, what do you think will happen to centrist voters if Labour lurches left? They’ll leave, probably in greater numbers than the ‘missing million’ are being won back.
(The great thing about the ‘missing million’ delusion is that it can be recycled, of course. It’ll work just as well prior to the 2020, 2023, 2026 and 2029 elections as it does now.)
They won't vote because they don't care. It's alienation. It's not a pleasant thing to contemplate, but it seems to me to be the reality. If you don't like reality, you can dream about them all you like. You can devise a fabulous platform of policies. They won't listen in significant numbers. And for every one you win, you'll lose two at the other end. You might not care, too much, but you won't win. Savour your ideological purity because it is all you'll have to enjoy until 2026.
And in the mean time, another generation will have had their lives blighted by the right.