On Brexit

I was discussing Brexit 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 the 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 and to what 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 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.

Bold politics: redefining a good business model

I’m slightly in love with this idea of Jeremy Corbyn’s: to stop companies paying dividends until they pay the people who work for them a living wage. He said in a speech to the Fabian Society on Saturday:

Only profitable employers will be paying dividends, if they depend on cheap labour for those profits then I think there is a question over whether that is a business model to which we should be turning a blind eye.

By “slightly in love” I mean I cackled for a good five minutes after reading it because it’s so beautiful, righteous, and utterly outraging to the anti-Corbyn folk who have so desperately tried to get him to back down from his principles. This is not a guy who’s worried about being called “hard left” or “socialist”.

jeremy corbyn gives you the eye

It’s a serious proposition, though. It challenges our ideas of how businesses should operate – ideas which we tend to take for granted.

We know what a “good business” is meant to look like. It must be profitable! And efficient! And innovative! And of course it must “value” its employees – by giving them their own nametags or buying them Christmas hampers or talking a lot about just how much you value them. Even the second-most-horrible employer would agree that having happy employees/staff/associates/~partners~ is important to the success of your business.

(The most horrible employer is the Talley family, who think workers should be grateful to be fired for wearing green t-shirts. There’s always an exception that proves the rule, etc.)

We often talk about profit as though it’s the single most important measurement of a company’s success – but profit doesn’t trump everything.

britney serious

We don’t say “you only need to implement basic food hygiene after you become profitable.” We don’t say “accuracy in advertising is only required once you’re making money.” We understand the need for common-sense minimum standards in business.

If a CEO stood up and said “Look, our business model just wouldn’t be profitable if we had to ensure there wasn’t fecal matter in the ground beef” we would say “Your business model is broken.”

If a Director of Corporate Social Responsibility stood up and said “Our business model isn’t sustainable if we have to stop pumping raw sewage into the harbour” we would say “Your business model is both literally and figuratively shit.”

We already accept the idea of a minimum mandated wage for people who work. So why not stand up and say, “if you can’t afford to pay the people who do your work enough to live on, your business model is broken”?

Of course there’ll be pushback. Of course there’ll be resistance. And the people opposing us will have larger media platforms and greater influence and more money to throw into advertising and astroturf.

But that’s nothing we haven’t overcome before. That’s pretty much the entire story of the labour movement and the entire reason we have Labour Parties across the world.

This is the kind of idea which ticks all the boxes. It just makes sense. It challenges the rich and powerful who get whacking great payrises while the people who do the work struggle.

It’s the right thing to do. And taking a stand when it’s the right thing to do is how you win progressive causes. Isn’t it?

Mhairi Black: I’m tired of being told that pain and misery are necessary for a stronger economy

My first speech of the week post was also a Mhairi Black one, so perhaps I should just have a “Badass Things Mhairi Black Said This Week” tag …

“I often find myself looking across that chamber at the Tory MPs and I think ‘are you so genuinely out of touch that you can’t see the damage you are doing’.

“Either way I am tired of being lectured by Tories as to why austerity is essential, why these welfare reforms – in fact they’re not reforms, they’re cuts – are essential. I’m tired of being told pensioners cost too much, I’m tired of our young people being told they’re not good enough, I’m tired of immigrants being scapegoated for the mistakes of bankers and politicians.

“I’m tired of being told that pain and misery are necessary for a stronger economy, for a long term economic plan.”

There could be a strategic opportunity here for UK Labour. The right, throughout Anglo countries, has dragged the political conversation in their direction, defining “common sense” or “the centre” more and more in their own terms. It leaves the big parties on the left chasing after them, crying “we’ll be fiscally responsible too!” or “we’re even better at delivering surpluses than they are!”

The big-party right (cough, National, cough) has often done it by having a more-extreme group on their flank (cough, ACT, cough). It makes them sound far more reasonable and measured when they say “well look, we’re not going to privatise all the schools/sell all the assets/eliminate all forms of taxation like those people want to, we’re finding the middle ground.” Even when the middle ground is a neoliberal wet dream.

With the SNP in a strong position and people like Mhairi Black speaking some damn fine truth to power, UK Labour has a readymade, strong left flank. Corbyn is being painted as an absurd extremist, with the kind of labels the right (and his own “centrist” colleagues) hope will distract voting people from the fact that most of the policies he supports are incredibly popular ones. The SNP, who are unafraid of saying radical things like “your welfare reforms are cuts, stop playing” and are frighteningly, well, Scottish, can be a fixed point to Corbyn’s left – a concrete bit of evidence he isn’t the resurrection of Lenin.

They can’t start in Scotland, of course. The worst thing Labour could do is run around undermining its natural allies by talking to their voters about how scary and extreme they are. They need to show the people who’ve been voting Tory for the last few elections that they can have stable, safe government and not sell off the NHS.

That’s how the left redefines the middle ground: by showing there isn’t just an alternative, there are multiple alternatives. Give people options and say, pick the one which matches your current comfort level. And move from there, leftwards.

Transcript via The Scotsman.

Centrism and Canada

I’m not an expert on Canadian politics, so the only thing I have to go on regarding its New Democratic Party is what Rob Salmond says in his latest argument on trying to campaign for the centre.

It’s like a poster child for every political consultant’s “grow from your base, then reach to the centre” fantasy. …

That focus on middle-income earners, and on widely shared, optimistic self-images about “hard work” is textbook political strategy, employed by left and right parties alike. Tell swing voters in particular that they’re the most important, tell them they’re great and deserve more, and if you’re the challenger tell them the incumbent is failing them.

But there’s a logical hiccup. Rob himself says right up top:

Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) stands proudly for the progressive left in Canadian politics. Very few would accuse the NDP of being “Blairite.”

And good for them. But this pretty much ruins any argument that the NDP proves that a move to the right is a winning strategy for parties like UK or NZ Labour.

If there is validity in a push to the centre, it surely only works when, like the NDP, you’re still seen as “standing proudly for the progressive left”. It works because the left feel secure. They aren’t worried you’re selling out for the sake of a Crown limo.

This is not a luxury afforded to leftish Anglo parties like UK Labour which have been described as “Blairite” on a regular basis.

I said in The base is what you build on:

Let’s accept the idea that Labour activists don’t reflect the views of enough voters to form a government. Let’s even accept the idea that we can magically convince those voters that we agree with them on everything without compromising our basic principles. The point is that Labour can’t reach those voters without its base. No point agreeing with them on everything if they never hear about it.

But why would Labour’s base, those silly lefties with their silly principles, keep grinding on trying to sell a moderate/unfrightening/uninspiring message which has only led to increasingly terrible election results?

Label them fringe, call them the Twitterati, accuse them of living in an echo-chamber and being out of touch with ~real voters~, but someone has to run your phonebanks. If your strategy is “winning both the left and the centre”, you need to win both the left and the centre. What concerns me is the idea – illustrated in another post – that:

Around a third of New Zealand’s population are leftists. Same for right-wingers. But you need 50% of the vote to govern

… so you assume you’ve got 33% in the bank and just need to convince half of the swingers (no pun intended) to back you.

For the non-Scottish parts of UK Labour, that’s not too silly, especially after the Lib Dems slit their own throats. In New Zealand, with MMP, it’s dangerous. Leftist voters have other options. One is “not showing up”. And we’ve had two elections to see exactly what that looks like.

There are other issues with Rob’s analysis. Implying that only a centrist strategy can have “professionalized “slick” messaging” is a bit weird, given that Jeremy Corbyn won with some pretty slick, professional campaigning. It would be sad if Rob were trying to paint people to his left as mud-covered rabble.

monty python executive power

Rob also sneers at Jeremy Corbyn’s style of campaigning by saying “the progressive citizenry now demands conviction politicians who say what they mean, no matter how out of step it might be with swing voters”. But the polls – the data – show that Corbyn is firmly in-step with swing voters in the UK. He is “a mirror to swing voters’ self-images and desires”. And he can say exactly what he thinks.

And there’s this:

If you go centrist on innovation, you can go left on climate change. If you go centrist on taxes, you can go left on education. And so on.

I want to believe, folks.

i want to believeI’m honestly interested to know which issues the NZ Labour Party’s centrist crew are willing to go left on. Because when it’s come to extending benefits, advancing gender equality, or not participating in the second invasion of Iraq, it’s been a resounding no. Tinkering at the edges of student loans or hospital waiting lists isn’t “going left”. If we’re selling our soul to polling, I want to see more out of it than a halfway public-private KiwiBuild policy.

We hear a lot about how moving to the right doesn’t mean compromising our principles. But I still don’t know what the centre stands for.

The line between political activist and commentator

Owen Jones wrote a great piece the day before Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the UK Labour Party, reflecting on his own role and how people’s perceptions of his writing might be affected if Corbyn won.

It was never my intention or ambition to become a writer. … All I’m interested in is reaching people with political ideas that are otherwise banished. Obviously, the role of any individual in political change is limited and modest. I’ve spent the last few years trying to contribute to rebuilding an alternative politics, and unashamedly so. I see myself as an equal to any other activist: we’re all trying to achieve political change and contribute in different ways.

That makes my relationship with the mainstream media pretty difficult and conflicted. … Choose your metaphor or simile: but it feels like swimming against an extremely strong tide, without getting out the world’s smallest violin (oops, another one).

The point I’d make is this. I make my opinions and biases abundantly clear. But there are news journalists who are as opinionated as me, but pretend to be impartial. Indeed news and opinion are extremely blurred in this country. It is often possible to read through a news article about British politics and have a fair guess at the political convictions of the writer. As for the mainstream press as a whole — while, it serves as a very sophisticated de facto political lobbying operation, overwhelmingly promoting the cause of right-wing politics.

Go read the whole thing, it’s excellent.

It obviously gave me a bit of pause for thought. I don’t have anything like Jones’ reach or platform (no paid media gigs is a significant one) and I don’t think I’m anywhere near his level. But I am a party activist. I was fairly closely involved in Andrew Little’s campaign for the Labour leadership (enough so, and proud enough of my work, to stick it on my LinkedIn page like a total nerd, prompting a few interesting “who’s viewed your profile” results.) I work for the biggest Labour affiliate union, and blog in my free time on a clear understanding I am expressing my personal opinions.

There are plenty of other people in the NZ political blogosphere and commentariat who wander back and forth across the pundit/activist lines. Many, unfortunately, don’t draw clear lines about when they’re acting as one or the other – and that goes for people on the left as well as the right. And many, I believe, don’t reflect Jones’ commitment to only put in print what he would say behind closed doors anyway.

I can tell you I’m happy to make that commitment. I may choose to comment or not to comment on different issues, but when I comment, you’re getting my opinion on the matter. (Of course, if you already think I’m a party hack regurgitating Head Office’s key messages you aren’t going to believe me, but that’s up to you.)

I have an agenda, just like Owen Jones and just like anyone else who believes passionately in their politics. I want to see “my side” succeed. But a pillar of my ideology is that democracy is the bedrock of our society, and for democracy to function properly it needs an informed, aware electorate.

If we start telling voters what we think they want to hear, in order to gain power at any cost, we don’t deserve power. The other side don’t deserve power either, but I’m not willing to destroy everything that makes our movement worthwhile to get them out. What precisely would we achieve then? The same cold-hearted value-free government with a different arrangement of faces on the front bench.

Words are my tool. I love to write and express my political beliefs through writing. Sometimes that’ll be within the Party of which I’m currently a member. Sometimes that’ll be here. Usually it’ll be on Twitter.

I do work in communications, and I haven’t always worked for employers whose policies or processes I agreed with. And yeah, in those instances I’ve given advice on how to communicate their terrible policy or process best, if that was my job. But when I tell you something is my opinion, you can believe it, and you can believe I will say it to anyone behind closed doors who wants to listen.

If someone wanted to pay me to say it in a major newspaper I’d be down with that too …

freddie mercury wink