Generational change

This paragraph in a eulogy for Jim Anderton on Newsroom, got me thinking about generational change in politics:

Trapped in near-perpetual opposition since the first Labour Government of 1935-49, with only brief single-term governments in 1957 and 1972, younger members of the party, the so-called ‘Vietnam Generation’ were desperate to modernise the party and reform it into an organisation capable of establishing a lasting government. To this generation, commitment to the party’s union origins was less important than social justice and, ultimately, power; compromise was needed.

It’s been clear for the past decade or more that a significant change is needed in progressive politics and activism. Centrism has drained the passion out of the left; the old ways of organising workers don’t apply to a casualised/”gig” economy; and the problems of poverty, inequality and injustice just keep getting worse (no thanks to the “compromises” the Vietnam Generation decided to make to achieve power – instead of driving genuine democratic and political change through the unions and other progressive movements of the day.)

It’s easy to point at the election of Jacinda Ardern as our second-youngest-ever Prime Minister, with new faces like Grant Robertson and Kelvin Davis at the Cabinet table, and say “things are obviously going to be different.” That thinking certainly drove a lot of Labour’s last-minute poll boost, which came from the disillusioned left, not “soft” National voters.

But it’s more complex than that. We have to reject the kind of “logic” which insisted in the early 2000s that having women in multiple important roles – Prime Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker of the House, Governor-General – proved sexism was dead, or more recently in the USA, where Barack Obama’s election “proved” racism was over, even as more and more black people were murdered by the police at “routine” traffic stops.

There’s always a system, a structure, a machine behind the fresh young faces. Hence rightwing pundits crowed at the news that Heather Simpson, who achieved legendary nemesis status as Helen Clark’s chief of staff, had been brought into the new administration and was exercising a high level of control over its setup. Other Clark veterans like Mike Munro and GJ Thompson were also announced as senior members of Ardern’s team.

Never mind that the same rightwingers would have hammered Labour equally hard for its lack of credibility (and did, over issues like the allocation of Select Committee seats) if the new PM hadn’t picked anyone with previous experience in government.

It would be worrying if Labour’s strategy were driven by people still operating in an early-2000s mindset, both in terms of policy direction and campaigning strategy. Especially with the Greens not delivering a strong election result and thus not in a position to exert as much pressure or provide cover for ambitious, progressive policies. The government sits on a knife-edge; even if you don’t necessarily agree with the need to push a strong leftwing, socially liberal set of policies, it’s a simple matter of survival. National know how to bounce back from defeat and adapt to new political circumstances. Once they’ve figured out who’s going to knife whom for the leadership and who’s going to strategically defect to ACT with a safe seat, they’re coming on hard. A Labour-led government which tries to focus-group and commission-of-inquiry its way through not offending anyone will not survive.

But it’s also a trap to think that progressive change requires youth, and there are no better examples than Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

Yes, little centrists, I know neither of them “won”; but I also know – as I suspect they both do – is not about single short-term election campaigns. It’s about changing the world and changing what’s achievable in politics, and if you want to argue that Corbyn and Sanders haven’t fundamentally altered the political activism of their respective countries, you’ll need to let me get a glass of water so I don’t choke on my cackling.

Sanders’ run took the word “socialist” from being a Fox News epithet levelled at anyone who suggested healthcare was a nice thing people should have to a badge of honour; combined with Trump’s victory, the Democratic Socialists of America have gained 27,000 members and seen their average age drop from 68 to 33. In 2017, socialists kept winning elections.

Corbyn – who we all know is totally unelectable except for all those elections he keeps winning or increasing Labour’s vote share in at almost unprecedented levels – is embracing new styles of campaigning, at the cost of traditional party structures:

If Corbyn gets his way, when you think of Labour, you won’t imagine rows of MPs on green leather benches, or a smartly suited minister chatting to a reporter. Instead, you’ll think of activists reinvigorating their estate’s tenants association, while others organise their co-workers and stand with them on picket lines.

The fly in the ointment for us is that a pillar of Sanders’ and Corbyn’s success is in their respective decades of unwavering commitment and activism, which gives them a credibility young up-and-comers can’t get; but there’s no one I can think of in New Zealand politics with similar bona fides.

Ultimately, it’s simply too early to say which way our new government will go. In the most refined managerial terms, there are risks, and there are opportunities. There are other obstacles to be overcome – like entrenched ideologies and ass-covering instincts among our public sector leaders, or the simple inertia of any large organisation which is used to doing things a certain way.

But age doesn’t determine whether you’ll change the world: what does is having the will to do it and the skills to do it well.

QOTD: Aunty Helen on women, leadership and NZ

Great interview of our former Prime Minister in the Sunday Star-Times yesterday, including these gems on the campaign to elect a woman Secretary-General of the UN:

“I’m of the view that all the great citadels of power should be aiming to have women as leaders on a reasonably regular basis,”

And the distance yet to go for women’s equality in NZ:

“When I was Prime Minister, we had a lot of women at the top of things and I always had a slight concern that there might be a relatively small group of over-achieving baby boomers that made it look like we were doing really well as a nation on these things, and then when the over achieving baby boomers move on to other things, was there a critical mass behind? The answer is not yet – but it will come.”

“There are still structural issues. Women are still more likely to have the care of small children, of the elderly, frail and otherwise indisposed relatives, and there’s more call on them for family duties than men and that impacts on career structure.

we are not worthy

QOTD: Jackie Blue on feminism

From an entirely excellent open letter to renowned progressive thinker Paul Henry:

Feminism is a belief that gender should not limit anyone’s chances at life and quite frankly people are deluded if they believe women currently get the same opportunities as men to make it in business, politics and the like.

Only yesterday lawyer and international public servant Vicky Robertson was announced as the Ministry for the Environment’s new chief executive, however the headline just described her as a “Former Hockey Player”. I can’t help but wonder if this headline would have been the same if she were a man.

Jackie Blue’s appointment to the Human Rights Commission in 2013 raised some eyebrows at the time – and fair enough, when a Cabinet Minister with a reputation for making self-serving appointments just happens to name a fellow National MP to a key role in a non-government organisation. But she’s more than proved herself in the role, with no-nonsense statements on the abysmal Roger Sutton sexual harassment case, the Roastbusters investigation, and now on Paul Henry’s sneery mansplaining.

Obama is not a “lame duck” President

This post was inspired by a comment on the State of the Union post at The Standard, but it’s something I’ve been annoyed by for a while: the current framing of Barack Obama as a “lame duck” President.

It’s not just the cringey outmoded language, it’s the blatant spin involved – just another attempt by the Republican Party and their stooges to paint the duly-elected President of their United States as illegitimate and his decisions as optional parts of the law.

Like I said over there (why retype perfection?):

I really hate this usage of “lame duck”. Traditionally, especially in US politics, a “lame duck” President is one whose successor has already been elected, i.e. in the period between an election and the subsequent inauguration. The whole point of the idea is that it’s seen as inappropriate to be using Presidential powers when you’re quite literally *done* and shouldn’t force policy on the new representative of the people.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lame_duck_%28politics%29#United_States

Of course the US Republicans are desperately trying to extend the meaning to imply that Obama’s administration is illegitimate (just like they have since the day he won the nomination) but FFS, the next election is in November 2016.

Unfortunately it happens all the time in NZ politics too, especially if you’re talking to a leftwinger who really likes to emphasise that Helen Clark was our first elected woman Prime Minister. Sorry, lefties, but it’s a bad argument and it just makes us look insecure. Jenny Shipley got there first. There’s a great story to tell in that a rightwing politician became our first woman PM by virtue of knifing her leader in the back in the time-honoured masculine power-grabbing traditions of capitalist power structures and the New Zealand National Party, but we’re not winning any hearts and minds by pretending she didn’t exist.

Also if we could stop importing terrible American political jargon (looking at you, Beltwaygate) that would be choice.

(And like Megan Garber, I endorse the sweary internet-age alternative to “lame duck”: “zero fucks”.)