It has been a busy week in politics. One particular debate is worth pulling out, though not for reasons you might expect.
The Fighters Line Up
On Monday, Chris Trotter wrote a post called "Refugee Status", arguing that Labour is (to his mind) making a mistake in pitching to get votes off National rather than making big calls and big politics that will motivate the 800,000 who didn't vote in 2011:
"Too small and too timid to go after the 800,000 New Zealanders who did not bother to vote in the 2011 General Election, Labour’s strategy for 2014 appears to involve transforming itself into a refugee camp for disillusioned, disaffected, or just plain disgusted National Party voters."
It followed a related post from last Friday, called "Be Careful What You Wish For", where he appeared to argue that his identified trend of Labour moving to the centre to get voters from National would lead to a very difficult government between Labour and the Greens, should they form a coalition after 2014:
"As Labour’s more adventurous supporters abandon David Shearer’s sprawling centrist encampment, their places are being taken by refugees from National’s suddenly inhospitable political territory. If this process continues, the ability of both the Greens and Labour to negotiate a workable coalition agreement in 2014 will steadily diminish.
"The Greens’ planning up until now has been based on the assumption that Labour will remain a distinct political destination: a party whose foundations are sufficiently solid to carry the weight of a joint, red/green, policy platform. But what will happen to Labour’s foundations if Mr Shearer decides to make his erstwhile National supporters feel more comfortable?"
Josie Pagani, sometime Labour candidate and occasional commentator on RNZ's Nine to Noon show, responded - more to the Refugee Status post from Monday - with a note on her facebook page criticising Trotter's views:
"Chris Trotter’s latest column attacking Labour for being a ‘refugee camp’ for voters is infantile.
"I grew up in the 1980s in England. I watched the left eat away its support for nearly twenty years by blaming the working class for not voting Labour. “What on earth is wrong with them?” they asked.
"Actually it was worse than that. They used Trotter’s type of rhetoric, pretending they stood up for a ‘real’ working class, but they actually despised working people, looked down on their values, and enough working people understood that and elected Mrs Thatcher.
"These were wilderness years for Labour. It lasted decades."
Chris responded to this with a post called "Despising the Working Class: a reply to Josie Pagani" on Wednesday:
"Reality, however, is made of sterner stuff. Which is why the only social democrats who possess the slightest right to describe their time in office as “successful’ or “history-making” are those who left the society they presided over more equal, more free, better housed, better educated, in better health and working for higher wages in a union shop."Mr Shearer may win in 2014, Josie, but if, when he finally leaves office, New Zealand is a less equal and a less free country, whose working people are still living in damp and over-crowded houses, and which is still failing to address the educational needs of Maori and Pasifika students, still making people pay to see the doctor, and still allowing workers to be bullied into signing individual employment agreements in non-unionised workplaces, then I ask again, as I asked in the posting which so upset you:"What will have been the point? And who will notice the difference?"
Josie responded (or modified her earlier response) today (Thursday) with a post called "Chris Trotter doesn't like modern social democracy":
"In replying to my criticism of his post, Chris Trotter reveals he doesn’t like modern social democracy.
"He’s entitled to be disappointed by every social democratic party in every developed liberal democracy if he wants – but he shouldn’t pretend that they are all selling out, or abandoning their principles.
"He says talk of “hard work and personal betterment” is the language of Labour’s opponents. In this he is wrong. Since it was formed Labour has fought for the right of working people to have the same opportunities as someone born into money or privilege."
Got all that?
Clear as mud?
In many ways, the above exchange typifies all that is wrong with debate on the left. People make a point, respond, respond again (all without really trying to dig into what their interlocutor is talking about), make assumptions, sparks fly, positions become entrenched, and you end up with a reasonably prominent pair of commentators fighting over... well, over what?
I thought that both Josie and Chris made some reasonable points, and that in doing so both of them hit on some critical debates Labour and the left need to have as we settle on our strategy for 2014 and beyond (sometimes tangentially):
- How do Labour and the Greens fashion a coherent, credible alternative government?
- To what extent should Labour focus on motivating people who didn't vote in 2011?
- To what extent should Labour focus on winning support from current National voters, or current Green voters?
- Are the above two bullet points in conflict -- and if so, how should we resolve that conflict?
- What are the implications of the Global Financial Crisis and the Climate Crisis for Labour's statecraft, particularly in respect of the political economy?
- To what extent will better overall political performance and a coherent story about where we are going undo some of the hard choices presented in some of the above bullet points?
Sometimes Chris's nostalgia drives me mad, but I think there are times when his articulation of a society based on social democratic values is compelling.
Sometimes I think Josie's notion that there are lessons for us from British Labour's experience is a misreading of New Zealand, but I welcome her reminder that modernisation involves looking forward not back (to quote a Blair slogan).
Neither Josie's view nor Chris's view are particularly representative of where the debates at the core of the Labour Party are at. They are, though, both worth following. By virtue of their privileged access to a range of public forums, they do have the chance to raise issues Labour and the broader left need to consider.