Who is the left’s Rodney Hide?

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.

daenerys fire

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.

leo west wing what are you doing
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.

gladiator entertained

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.

QOTD: Hide on Sabin

From Rodney’s latest in the Herald on Sunday:

The date of any briefing is explosive. It’s certainly not nitpicking. Sabin chaired the law and order select committee, which oversees the police. He was hopelessly conflicted. So, too, was our Parliament and justice system.

How could the chairman be holding police to account when he himself was under police investigation?

We deserve to know who was responsible for such dreadful judgment and management.

It’s true, and very amusing to me, given how many rightwing commenters at blogs like The Standard have been trying their usual “this is just a beltway issue” or “this just proves Labour isn’t focused on the real issues” lines on it. Sorry, people, but even stalwart rightwingers can tell when something stinks.

As with Matthew Hooton’s scathing NBR piece about the SkyCity deal – in which he makes such damning statements as:

The origins of this fiasco lie in the close private relationship established between John Key and SkyCity in the mid 2000s.  When he became prime minister, Mr Key surprised many when he appointed himself minister of tourism but it was old news to SkyCity. Its executives had advised business partners well before election day that things were looking up because Mr Key had “agreed” to become tourism minister.

… it’s important not to get too excited. Neither Hide nor Hooton* have suddenly seen the light and realised that our government has been running the country for the benefit of an undeserving few, motivated entirely by self-interest. As Danyl notes at Dim-Post, Hooton is deliberately targeting his business rivals with this one.

But we can still marvel at the fact that only months into its third term, the rightwing fanboys are starting to turn on Key. Perhaps they’re hoping to resurrect the Act Party by getting enough rightwing folk fed up about National’s centrist ways. Perhaps with the discrediting of the Taxpayers’ Union there’s thought of creating yet another far-right front

What I’m saying is, their motives are far from pure. But most people aren’t as cynical as me and don’t spend nearly as much time thinking about that kind of thing. What the general public are seeing is their sensible, authoritative** rightwing columnists in sensible, authoritative publications disagreeing strongly with the PM and questioning his “relaxed” attitude on serious issues of conduct and selling out to big business.

That ain’t good for the government.

 

*Now I’m picturing a series of kids’ books about politics, following the magical adventures of two political hacks on a neverending quest to capture the mystical Thorndon Bubble.

**Because they’re published in our Paper of Record so what they say must be important.

Repost: A rightwing fairytale about Labour Day

(Originally posted at On The Left.)

I was casting about for something to write today, and that’s when the Internet gave me a gift: a column from Rodney Hide, conveniently timed, which decries the role of unions and even the very history of Labour Day:

Tomorrow is Labour Day. Once again we will endure the annual claptrap that unions are great and won for us the eight-hour day. Without unions we would be working 24/7. It’s nonsense.

He cites the story of Samuel Parnell, considered the father of the eight-hour working day. Conventional history will tell you that, in a terribly union-y fashion, Parnell organised his fellow tradesmen in Wellington to refuse to work more than an eight-hour day. Rodney tells it a little differently:

Hence was born the eight-hour day. The practice caught on. For more than 100 years we have celebrated the eight-hour day as a victory for trade unionism. We know it as Labour Day which, on the fourth Monday of every October, is a public holiday.

It’s a myth. The so-called victory had nothing to do with unions. It was simple supply and demand. The demand for skilled labour was high in the new and growing settlement. The supply was low.

Parnell could have negotiated more pay. But he chose fewer hours. That was his choice. That was the free market.

The myths are actually all on Rodney’s side. The myth that good business practices just “catch on”, like a fashion trend – when the reality is that unions almost always lead the way in securing better wages and conditions for workers, which non-unionised businesses then have to keep up with – unless of course you’ve spent a few decades dismantling workers’ rights and entrenching the power of employers, so they can do things like refuse to offer frontline workers a basic guaranteed number of hours while your CEO earns $11,000 a day.

The myth that the concept of unionism can’t have been involved in Parnell’s victory, because “it was just about supply and demand”. Yes, this was a unique circumstance – in 1840 Wellington there were literally three carpenters. You couldn’t hire one from London and pop them on the next plane over.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the eight-hour victory came down to collective action. If Parnell had said “nope, only working eight hours, soz” and the other two carpenters had said “sweet, we’ll take the job” there would be no history to remember on Labour Day.

The difference is that today, very few workers are in a position to say “well there’s only three of us you can hire, so you have to take our terms.” These days, thousands of people will queue for 150 supermarket jobs. People are living in cars. They don’t have the luxury of leveraging their specialised skills in a remote corner of the world.

And thirdly, the myth that unions have never achieved anything, ever. It’s a standard rightwing line. It relies on people taking a lot of things for granted – like equal pay for women, having four weeks’ annual leave, getting sick leave, having basic health and safety protocols in the workplace.

The greatest achievement is this, though: if you’re in a union, the chances are your pay is keeping up with, or even staying ahead of, inflation. This is an old graph from a 2012 post at The Standard, but it makes the point pretty clearly:

wages graph

In the year to June 2014, 98% of workers on a collective agreement got a payrise – compared to only 48% of workers on individual agreements.

I think that’s an achievement which a lot of workers can feel pretty happy about. Because they stood together. Because they leveraged their collective power into getting real gains for themselves and their fellow workers.

One important thing to note is this. It’s easy to roll your eyes at Hide’s bizarre re-writing of history. It’s easy to insult his intelligence or imply he’s out of touch with reality. But Rodney Hide isn’t a stupid man. Rodney Hide isn’t unable to see the ridiculousness of his words.

This is why the rightwing narrative has dominated NZ political discussion for years: because they decide what story they want to tell and they push it through every avenue they have. They drown out dissent and academic arguments about what really happened or how the economy really works in practice.

Let’s not read Rodney Hide’s column as a ludicrous piece of near-satire. Let’s take it for what it is: a cynical, deliberate attempt to erase the importance of unionism from New Zealand history and perpetuate the fantasy that workers and employers are on a level playing field.

And let’s celebrate Labour Day, and the power of our unions.