I had some thoughts on Rodney Hide’s latest column in the Herald on Sunday:
And they kept developing so I figured I had the makings of a blog post there!
Who’s the left’s Rodney Hide? I submit we don’t have one. Many people have equally-extreme leftwing views, but not a weekly column in the Herald on Sunday. Hide is a commentator – not a blogger. There’s a lot of authority in that distinction, and a lot more influence.
We have some great progressive commentators – like Michele A’Court, Dr Susan St John, Deborah Russell. They get some column space and a few TV spots. But they’re usually talking about real issues. (Shocking!) Rodney Hide talks in narratives. Like redefining the word “industrious” to mean “people with a lot of money”. Or reinforcing the idea that the only good thing is economic value, and the only proper frame for deciding what’s right and wrong is profit and loss.
He’s not discussing a real issue or a concrete policy. He’s tearing down a reverend who dared to say money isn’t everything, and people’s lives are more important than one man’s wealth. The rightwing narrative is so entrenched that we don’t even notice that he’s basically arguing against everything Jesus ever said.
There are staunch left commentators – like Helen Kelly and Robert Reid – who get op eds and panel seats on The Nation or Q&A. But they aren’t the equivalent of Rodney Hide, because they’re not actually extreme. They talk about fairness and decent working conditions, not, say, the immediate need for compulsory unionism and the renationalisation of all private property.
And some people who get to comment “from the left” are significantly to the right of Labour.
Across the Anglo world, we’ve seen rightwing parties get into power and stay in power, despite passing harmful, often unpopular policies, because (in part) they’ve got a loud voice on their right making them look reasonable by comparison. The UK Tories have UKIP, National have ACT, the US Republicans have the Tea Party.
(They’ve also got a lot more money and convinced us all that economics is a hard science, but baby steps!)
The respective Labour/Democratic parties have chased the ever-moving-rightwards centre – conceding the basic argument that the economy is more important than people. Not only that, they’ve usually been the most vigorous opposers of their own left flank.
This plays out every time Young Labour put forward a remit on, well, anything. Instead of rolling out MPs to say “no, that’s stupid”, these are opportunities for Labour to go “well it’s a bit extreme, but” then re-affirm its leftwing principles and announce a toned-down version as reasonable, progressive policy.
That is, do what National do when their right flank calls for total privatisation of state assets – “oh no, but what about selling off 49% of the shares in them?” – or a flat tax – “oh, that’s too far, but what about slashing the top rate?”
Expand the frame of available, credible opinions and declare yourself in the middle.
It may seem difficult in practice, because anyone from the left is automatically “less credible” than a taxpayer-rorting ex-MP like Rodney Hide. But our media are crying out for a drawcard, in this age of falling ad revenue and social media distractions. They want drama.
Look at the Goff vs Collins segment on Stuff: the idea (however well you think it’s executed) is to get a bit of argy-bargy going, post something which will simultaneously outrage the lefties and the righties, and voila: more eyeballs on product. Consider Radio NZ’s Panel, which gets a lot more buzz among the #nzpol blogosphere when it’s not Matthew Hooton vs Mike “I agree with Matthew” Williams. Want to get the left and the right tuning in? Have a real argument. That means having real differences of opinion.
I think there’s space for a few more staunch, out-there leftwing voices in our discourse. But there’s a final wrinkle: it only works if Labour wants it to. Only if we want to be the party which puts people first, and isn’t afraid of doing the right thing even when the high priests of the economy scream the sky will fall, which refuses to play the right’s game on their terms.
Find the right people. Put them up there. Shift the centre. Or it’s just going to be two more years of Rodney Hide making it easier and easier for National to get that fourth term.