Well, isn’t that convenient: the tenth-most-read post on Boots Theory in 2017, and thus the first to be posted in this 2017 rewind series, is from the beginning of the year – looking at the year then-ahead.
These are speech notes from a Wellington Fabians panel I was on with Morgan Godfery and Mike Munro. Our topic: the political prospects for 2017.
Originally published 28 January 2017
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.