The political prospects for 2017: living our values

This week I spoke on an panel with Morgan Godfery and Mike Munro at the Fabian Society in Wellington on the political prospects for 2017. A podcast of the discussion should be up on the Fabians website shortly. In the meantime, here’s my speech notes – about 90% accurate to what I ended up saying on the night, which is how these things always go.

The political prospects at the start of 2017 are looking pretty bleak. The polls aren’t great. The right is in ascendancy around the world. I don’t even want to know what new fascist executive order Donald Trump has signed in the time it took me to walk here this evening.

The challenge for the left is pretty massive. With crises at every side – climate change, housing, inequality – it’s not enough for us to just get over the line. We need profound progressive change. A fundamental shift in the consciousness of our society.

It can be done. The trick is not to take the wrong lessons from Trump.

We’ve heard it again and again since November. “The white working class feel ignored. That’s why Trump won. That’s why Brexit passed.” In New Zealand, we talk about Waitakere Man, a narrow-minded stereotype from a less-sophisticated Outrageous Fortune. We’re not talking enough about his issues. We’re not paying enough attention to his needs.

And subtly or more usually unsubtly, we hear, “Women? Shush. Brown people? Shush. Queer people? Shush. Your issues are distractions. No one wants to hear about it. Wait until we’re in power.” Feminism lost Hillary the US election, or maybe it was Barack Obama saying a few mild-mannered things about police violence. Here in New Zealand, senior Labour advisors publicly bagged Louisa Wall’s marriage equality bill as a distraction from issues that matter.

It’s like we’ve forgotten a basic fact of leftwing politics. It’s built on solidarity.

That’s the fundamental divide between left and right. We believe in community and cooperation. They believe in self-interest. We’re about the collective. They’re about the individual. We know that the important question is not “how does this benefit me personally?” It’s “how does this benefit us all.” Standing together, not because we’re all the same and we’re all after the same thing, but because we have the same enemy: capitalism, which takes many forms: patriarchy, white supremacy, social conservatism.

The Standing Rock occupation against an oil pipeline in North Dakota does not impact me directly. It’s not my water that could be polluted or my ancestral lands being torn up. But I know the struggle at Standing Rock is aligned to my struggle – against corporate power, against environmental destruction, against dispossessing and exploiting indigenous people and their land. It isn’t about my benefit. It’s about my values.

I don’t want to assume everyone here has sat through at least one Labour Party conference or candidate selection, but I know you’ve heard the line: “My values are Labour’s values. And Labour’s values are New Zealand’s values.”

We understand the importance of values. But we’ve forgotten that they’re not theory. They’re practice. We need to live them.

When we live our values, nothing’s a distraction. Every issue is an issue that matters.

Take healthcare. We Kiwis take such pride in our public health system. We look at the absolute disaster of American healthcare and feel very smug.

Labour’s policy platform says this about health: “a nation where all New Zealanders, regardless of income or social circumstances, are able to live longer and healthier lives because they have the knowledge to make informed health decisions and the support of a strong and adequately funded public-health system.”

That’s a damn strong set of values.

But let’s take three issues which put that principle on shaky ground. (This may be where I lose some of you.)

Abortion. Abortion is still a crime in New Zealand. It’s difficult to access, especially if you aren’t bureaucracy-savvy or don’t live in a major centre. A pregnant person on the West Coast will have to travel to Christchurch, at least twice, to a clinic which is only open a few days each week, in order to terminate a pregnancy. They’ll need to take time off work or find last-minute childcare and god forbid they’re in a vulnerable situation where they have to keep it all a secret. We’re talking about a safe medical procedure, a basic question of personal agency, a life-changing situation which is not adequately supported by our health system.

Assisted dying. Also a crime.  We deny people of sound mind the ability to make their own decisions about the end of their own life, no matter how much pain they’re in or how much time they have. We don’t let them treat their pain with cannabis, either.

And trans health care. Trans people face horrific difficulties getting the health care they need, and that’s putting aside the horrific levels of harassment, discrimination and violence they experience. The waiting list for trans feminine surgery, or male to female surgery, has 71 people on it. Doesn’t sound too bad – except that at current rates, someone going on the waiting list now will be there for fifty years.

This surgery literally saves lives. Those of us who don’t have to live every day in the wrong body might find it hard to comprehend. But it is absolutely basic, necessary medical care, which our health system does not provide.

What do these three issues have in common, besides making me incredibly angry? They’re Kryptonite, as far as our leftwing politicians are concerned. They’re dismissed, regularly, as unimportant distractions. Alienating fringe issues.

We’re talking about healthcare. About the value we place on supporting every New Zealander to get the treatment they need, quickly and effectively. Unless you’re unhappily pregnant. Or terminally ill. Or trans.

When we talk about values, and say we believe in certain things, and then we turn around to people and say “shush! Wait your turn! We don’t want to talk about your health, or your lives, or the support you need, it’s a distraction!” all we do is undermine ourselves. We show that our values aren’t dearly-held and unyielding – they’re flimsy. No one elects flimsy.

Imagine if, when a Labour Party conference passed a remit on reproductive rights, or a private member’s bill on assisted dying was drawn, we didn’t flinch. We didn’t throw basic issues of health access and bodily autonomy under the bus for fear of the polls. If progressive MPs and commentators and campaigners all stood together and said “Yeah. We believe every New Zealander deserves modern, accessible medical treatment, unlike this government which has ripped $1.7 billion out of the health system.”

Health is only one example. Imagine if David Shearer hadn’t flinched, when he was asked about the man ban. If he’d said, “It’s 2013. It’s ridiculous there aren’t more women in Parliament. Labour’s looking at ways to change that. Why not go ask John Key why his Cabinet’s such a sausage fest?” Maybe he’d be Prime Minister now.

This is how we improve the political prospects for the left in 2017: being bold. Standing on our principles. Even if people disagree with you, they respect you when you’re consistent and honest. And when you’re running against double-dipping Bill English and Paula Bennett the bully, that can be enough to swing a vote. How many people have you ever heard say “Look, I don’t agree with Winston, but I always know where he stands?”

We don’t narrow our focus. We reach out and show that all our struggles are the same struggle.

This achieves several things. It means our values of solidarity and universalism and community are demonstrated to an immensely broad group of people. Two, it gives people certainty.

Maybe their bugbear is the opening hours of the dental clinic down the road, but they live in a safe rural Tory seat that doesn’t get a lot of attention and certainly won’t warrant a visit from Andrew or Metiria or James. But when they see us standing up for increased health funding, and comprehensive services for marginal communities, and saying “we’re not turning our backs on this group of people, or that small town, or this particular need” they see what kind of people we are. They see our values in action.

A mass movement is not built by finding the largest homogeneous group we can and appealing solely to them. A mass movement is not built by nominating one group – like white working-class men – as the most important people to reach, and expecting women or Māori or queer activists to fall in line for the good of the cause.

Thousands of veterans turned up at Standing Rock to show solidarity with the water protectors. Muslim organisations have donated tens of thousands of bottles of water to Flint, Michigan. And I’ve got to be the only person in this room who hasn’t seen Pride, right? Don’t boo.

That’s how we change the world. By being ourselves. Being the people who believe in solidarity and standing up for the oppressed, even if they don’t look like us or sound like us or need the same things as us.

If we learn the wrong lesson from Trump’s victory – if we accept that the white working class will only support us if we speak exclusively about them and their issues, we are frankly fucked. We’ve sold out the notion of solidarity, which is the heart of our politics.

In 2017, the challenge for the Left is not to find the magic words which will make a mythical racist white working class vote for us. It’s not to silence women or transgender folk or Indigenous people. It’s to stop buying into this divisive bullshit, and show everyone what our values are, and that a better way of doing things is possible.

That’s what people are desperately after.

The prospects for 2017 aren’t looking good. But it could look better.

On Trump

Similarities to any previous posts are entirely coincidental.

I was discussing Brexit Trump with a group of Wellington lefties last night over a few craft beers* and was dismayed to hear some of them applying the analysis that it was the result of the masses acting out of uneducated racism.

That’s an analysis that’s not just wrong, and a little classist, but – if it is the final analysis social democratic organisations fall back on – extremely dangerous.

With the Brexit referendum Trump the US Government foolishly gave the nation the opportunity to raise a middle finger to a political and financial establishment that they have been systematically estranged from. And the nation took that opportunity.

Much as they took a similar opportunity when they voted Corbyn in as Labour leader, and much as their brethren across the Atlantic did in voting up Trump as a candidate and in getting a septuagenarian socialist within cooee of taking the Democratic candidacy.

In a smaller way there was an element of that reaction against the establishment in the election of the last two Labour leaders here in New Zealand – neither of whom were caucus’ first choice.

These are lessons it’s important for the establishment to learn. Particularly the social democratic establishment. Representative democracy fails to maintain legitimacy when it is no longer representative of the people. And in an interconnected world in which the most successful businesses and movements are those that give voice to their customers and members, the insular paternalistic liberalism of late 20th century social democracy no longer provides enough sense of such voice.

The Brexit failure of David Cameron notwithstanding, the right have generally adapted better to this new electoral environment, perhaps because it reflects an atomised and individualised customer environment they have been dealing with through business for some time, perhaps because they take a more cynical and expedient approach to politics than your average wonky lefty.

The danger is that by not taking this lesson on board, and instead dismissing the electorate as ignorant or racist, social democratic organisations in particular would move further away from their traditional base and cede even more ground to the right. Because people can sense when you don’t like them and they don’t support people who don’t like them.

An even more dangerous situation would be these organisations mistaking the symptoms – anti-immigration and other reactionary positions – for the cause and trying to regain currency by triangulating these positions. That would be a serious error – the electorate is extremely clever, not in a delving-into-debate-about-policy-detail way (really, who has the luxury of time for that kind of thing?), but in their ability to recognise when people are being inauthentic. And there are few things as inauthentic as a triangulating social democrat.

A much better reaction to Brexit Trump and to what is clearly now appears to be a wave of anti-establishment reaction across western democracies, would be for social democratic political parties to look for ways to reengage with the electorate, and particularly the working class, on progressive issues.

That means seeing the parliamentary left not as leaders of the debate but as an equal part of a broader progressive movement. It means giving more authority to rank and file party members (it’s no coincidence that people joined NZ Labour and UK Labour in droves when they had a meaningful opportunity to make a choice of leader), it means working alongside democratic organisations like unions and NGOs as a parliamentary cog of the progressive movement rather than acting as defacto leaders of it.

Ultimately it means acknowledging that representing people in the 21st century means opening the doors to them, not just “looking after” them from within the inner sanctum. That shift was what Corbyn was signalling when he let the people have his parliamentary questions to Cameron, it’s what Sanders was showing with his mass rallies and campaign advertising focused on other people’s stories, and it’s what has worked best for New Zealand Labour when they have done it.

Even in opposition, social democratic parties and non-parliamentary organisations have incredible opportunities to make change. If there’s one thing they should learn from Brexit Trump it’s that they need to work with the electorate as equals to do it. That’s how you re-engage people, and it’s how you build the trust that allows them to feel you are fit to lead on their behalf.

~

*there you go, Paddy.

Don’t despair

I know how you feel, team.

It’s year 8 of a National/ACT government and things are looking pretty bleak. And it’s really, really easy to spin down into a spiral of bleakness and anxiety.

It’s because we care. Because we see what this National government is doing to people, to our communities, to the things we’re proud of: having a social welfare system which genuinely helps people when they’re down, ensuring every family gets to live in a warm, dry house, going to see a doctor when you’re sick, getting a free, world-class education, being able to raise your kids without having to work three jobs.

The right are laying waste to our country and it sucks.

And god, I know the frustration you feel at your fellow New Zealanders. When you’re faced with what seems like an unstoppable war-rig of capitalism, it’s so much easier to scream at the people who voted National, or didn’t vote at all. “This is your fault! If you weren’t so stupid and self-absorbed and watching Real Housewives of Auckland we wouldn’t be in this mess!”

But we have to rein that in, folks.

We have to remember that a defining part of being on the left and being progressive and believing in social justice is that we have faith in people. We know people are fundamentally good. We know humans are social animals who form communities and friendships and look out for each other, when they’re not being hammered every day with rightwing narratives about bludgers and self-interest and YOUR taxpayer dollars being wasted on those parasites.

bioshock-parasite-poster
Andrew Ryan … why does that name sound familiar?

If we know people are basically good, how do we explain the situation we’re in?

We have to remember what the effects of this government look like. They look like people not being able to survive working 40 hours a week. People having to run Givealittle campaigns for the medical treatment they need. Airport security and junior doctors and bus drivers all having to threaten industrial action just to get safe rosters and decent pay increases, while economists still talk about a “rock star economy“.

And to be honest, many people don’t see a viable political alternative. Argue about rogue polls and methodology as much as you like, but the numbers aren’t really budging in terms of central government politics, and local body politics are in a dire state.

Little wonder a million people would check out of the political game when there are far more pressing little-picture concerns like “food” and “shelter” on their minds and there’s no easy way to change the big picture anyway.

maslow-hierarchy
People worrying about the bottom steps ain’t burning energy on macroeconomic policy.

But we also have to remember that all is not lost.

arwen-hope

We’ve got inspiration popping up all over the place. Jeremy Corbyn just got thunderously re-elected leader of UK Labour, Bernie Sanders fundamentally shifted the debate on the US centre-left, Justin Trudeau is pretty hot, Podemos is kicking ass, and that’s just the stuff that gets West Wing fangirls hot and bothered.

Right here in Aotearoa, we’ve got ESRA kicking off talking about alternative forms of political organisation, the Meat Workers Union making forays into local politics with the Jobs That Count campaign, No Pride in Prisons systematically challenging the major flaws in our “justice” system, Living Wage Aotearoa bringing together communities and unions and faith groups to change the conversation about the very definition of pay.

At the Stand Up conference just over a week ago we got a hundred young unionists marching in the rain in Auckland to protest the housing crisis on a shoestring.

We can totally do this.

captain-planet-powers-combine

And we – the political nerds, the people who know how the system works, the ones who are, to be honest, obnoxiously “comfortable” middle-class types with time on our hands and access to plenty of the levers of power – can help change happen.

It’s not on us to lead it, God no – but it’s our duty and frankly our honour to hold open the door for other people, share our platforms, spend our time and money and exploit the hell out of our influence and privilege to support

We’re still going to be frustrated as all hell, and sometimes we’ll feel like it’s all bloody hopeless because goddammit why don’t people understand the issues??? But quite literally nothing will change if all we do is sit on our hands and rail to an increasingly small audience about how shit everything is.

Now chill with some Bob Marley.

The middle vs the centre

There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle about the “political centre” in the last week or so,  particularly due to the fact that Andrew Little denied its existence, instead talking about the “middle”.

The thing is, he’s correct.

The notion is there’s a left/right continuum and people are smoothly spread across it in a kind of a bell curve. The implication is there’s a big chunk of voters out there who think the same way politically.

centrism

On this basis, the closer you move to the centre (being neither left nor right), the closer you get to that big peak of potential votes. Do the market research, find the sweet spot in the distribution, pitch to it incessantly and you’re home and hosed.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Very few people outside of the small niche of politically engaged types who read blogs or work in politics actually think about politics as left and right. Fewer still would place themselves on that spectrum and base all their political decisions on that position. Pitching to the “centre” starts to look a bit like a fool’s errand.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t a whole series of shared values held by New Zealanders – a kind of “middle ground”. And my guess is that this is what Little is talking about when he makes the distinction between “middle” and “centre”.

The thing is, these shared values usually aren’t politically coherent in the left/right sense. Even in the more sophisticated two-axis left/right-liberal/authoritarian model. Two values held by the majority of the electorate (and simultaneously by many of the individuals in that majority) might be “we need less government” and “we need more law enforcement” or “we need lower taxes” and “we need to invest more in healthcare”. More often than not, voters will hold two or more middle values that significantly conflict on the basis of a left/right analysis.

Political theorist George Lakoff talks about these voters as “biconceptuals” – people who identify as conservative but have some progressive views (and vice versa). It has to be remembered that Lakoff operates in a two-party system and pays particular attention to how this idea manifests in relation to Republican vs Democratic politics. As he should – that’s his intellectual hunting ground. I’d argue that voters are more multiconceptual – the majority of us have a grab bag of political preferences that come from all areas of the political compass.

The great thing about New Zealanders is the majority of these identifiable “middle” values are progressive. We believe in increasing spend in healthcare, we think that corporates should pay more tax, we hold our environment dear, we want medicinal cannabis legalised, etc. Alternatively we also hold a few less-progressive views. We can be a bit insular, we don’t like beneficiaries (but we also don’t like poverty – go figure), we take far too much pride in our military escapades, we have/had a taste for tax-cuts (there’s strong evidence this is diminishing).

There are a whole lot of possible reasons for why a larger and larger part of the population (probably a majority now) in New Zealand are tending toward a multiconceptual view: political disengagement, more decentralised access to information, a lack of political education in schools, whatever. My personal theory is that market decentralisation has led to political decentralisation. We haven’t suddenly started consuming politics as if it were baked beans, but we expect to be able to choose organic baked beans, good old Watties (English or Kiwi), or the budget ones or whatever. And we expect to be able to eat them alongside a whole host of other choices too.

baked-beans

In effect, New Zealanders now expect to be able to personalise their political beliefs the same way we personalise most other aspects of our consumption – rather than slot into one position on a fixed spectrum and stay there.

The trick is to find the shared middle values that align with your core principles as a political party, or don’t strongly run against them, and play them up to the electorate. National understand that: it’s why John Key plays to “the centre” on a regular basis. But it’s not the centre he’s playing to, it’s a broadly shared value set that happens to be progressive. And it’s important to note that he never ever plays to a progressive value that cuts across his constituency’s interests – eg any policy that might seriously harm speculative investment in housing, any hint of drug liberalisation, any increase in work rights that might significantly tip the balance away from employers.

cornel-west-thermostatThe best thing an effective opposition can do is map the middle values that the government can’t touch, such as deterring housing speculators, investing in health, or strengthening work rights, and play these up as much as possible to wedge the government against middle voters.

The worst thing an opposition can do is pick a middle value that runs against their core constituency and try to play to it because they mistake it for the “centre”. All that does is piss off your base and reinforce the values your opponent (or in an MMP environment – your competitor) can play to more strongly than you. It makes you look incoherent to all but the small part of the population that holds that particular value set plus one of your more progressive ones. It’s like deciding to market baked beans with dill pickles in them instead of those little sausages – there will be a tiny part of the market that thinks these are just the best baked beans ever, but the majority of people, even the majority of people who really like baked beans, and the majority who really like dill pickles, will just be like “WTF?”

Unfortunately, a lot of progressive parties confuse the middle – those (mostly) good shared values – and the centre – that stupid bell curve. That leads to looking incoherent, and it harms the good parts of your political product. My hope is Andrew Little’s rejection of the centre shows NZ Labour is starting to avoid that trap.