Monday, August 20, 2012

The Man on the Roof

It’s as if he had forgotten he was the leader of the Labour party. It’s as if a Tory mole had swapped the speech he was going to give but he went ahead and read it anyway.

How many times might you have played this little game? This is a familiar story because it happens everywhere, all the time. It is the story of a great and continuing political shift, of centre-left parties buying into conservative orthodoxy throughout the Western liberal democratic universe. Adopting the language, the strategies, the tics of their traditional opponents. Losing the ability to decline social-democratic ideals except as a ritualistic preamble, or to huffily reaffirm that of course theirs is the party of the working people, the oppressed minorities, the welfare state. Or, in the most extreme cases, reimagining neoliberalism as the condition for socialism: a new equality based on the removal of safety nets and of all barriers to the circulation and accumulation of capital.

Douglas, Blair, Clinton: they were the first generation, brash and self-assured. Now, twenty years later: the exhausted groans of third-way politics.

When David Shearer woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found that he had forgotten he was the leader of the Labour Party. He didn’t forget that he was a politician altogether, or he wouldn’t have reached the Auckland headquarters of Grey Power in time for his scheduled appearance. He just forgot which party had elected him leader. All this could have been prevented had he resorted to tattooing, like the guy in Memento. YOU ARE THE LEADER OF THE LABOUR PARTY. THESE ARE THE THINGS YOU STAND FOR. But one always gets these ideas when it’s too late. The point is that nobody reminded David Shearer and so when he got to his meeting with Grey Power he said this:
Last year before the election, I was chatting to a guy in my electorate who had just got home from work. In the middle of the conversation, he stopped and pointed across the road to his neighbour.
He said: “see that guy over there, he’s on a sickness benefit, yet he’s up there painting the roof of his house. That’s not bloody fair. Do you guys support him?”
From what he told me, he was right, it wasn’t bloody fair, and I said so. I have little tolerance for people who don’t pull their weight.
This isn’t so much speaking like a Tory as living in a Tory world; a world in which the reluctant allegiance to a barebones welfare state is undercut by professing that – at all times and regardless of circumstances – fewer people should be on it, and holding that we should always be suspicious of beneficiaries, always on the lookout for their missteps. It isn’t bloody fair. This is the New Zealand I emigrated to in the late Nineties when, under the National government led by Jenny Shipley, the state television channels ran ads like this one.

Hence the sense both of déjà vu and of amnesia: for this is the same logic that infuses Shearer’s anecdote and fuels the sense of grievance of the ordinary, everyday person, the standard euphemisms that politicians use nowadays when they mean to say: normal people.

Living in a Tory world is another name for capitalist realism, and so we should at least entertain the possibility that David Shearer hadn’t actually forgotten that he was the leader of the Labour party that day upon waking, but chose rather to make his speech about benefit bludgers because he wanted to occupy that political ground on behalf of his party. I know, it seems further-fetched, but let’s explore the proposition. Let’s suppose that the speech was part of a strategy aimed at giving Labour an electoral advantage, as well as a platform from which to articulate its social policies.

I’m not going to get into the speech in any great detail, or restate the abundantly obvious, as it wouldn’t add anything to what’s already been said. What was surprising to me – and heartening – was in fact how many people voiced their anger. Entire networks that had up to that point either actively supported Shearer’s centrist line or maintained a degree of public discipline turned aggressively onto the leader. There were renunciations and denunciations, as well as much calm and dispassionate analysis. Most damningly of all, the speech was unanimously exposed as a cynical ploy: a dishonest attempt at triangulation from a leadership that, nine months into its tenure, has comprehensively failed to define itself or articulate an alternative and bold political vision for the nation. What this failure might suggest is to what extent Labour misjudged the political moment when it chose an inexperienced leader whose best, whose only idea seems to be to enact a soft version of Blairism, but also that third-way political strategy has become too transparent to be feasible. Nobody buys the stuff anymore. So in this instance, whilst there may be a broad support in the country for the odious welfare reforms enacted by National, the Labour Party finds itself unable to plug into that sentiment without coming unstuck at its core.

What remains is a disconnect whose depth is truly difficult to measure. After linking to one of the harshest responses to the speech, I had the following brief exchange with deputy leader Grant Robertson:

Twitter is not a platform that favours the most constructive forms of engagement, but I think Robertson’s line of defence is worth commenting upon. Firstly, there is the personal story: I was out helping constituents on the sickness benefit, therefore the criticism levelled at me is misplaced. Secondly, there is the collective goal: that Labour be returned to power so that it can make life better for people on the sickness benefit. (That one such beneficiary just told him in no uncertain terms where he can stick his help doesn’t seem to trouble Mr Robertson at this time.) Finally, there is the appeal to shared values and common experience: You know it's not what I think. To which the obvious question is: How? What kind of confidence can I or anybody else have in a leadership who adopts the most strident conservative rhetoric on welfare yet presumes to demand that their progressive credentials not be questioned? Why, on what grounds is it expected of us that we continue to believe? Where, for that matter, is the political content that might enable us to begin to collect evidence one way or the other – in the form of what policy, what clearly stated opposition, what alternative project or proposal?

We may say nasty things but we are nice people. In fact to say nasty things is part of our burden, for this is how politics work. Perhaps that is the rationale. I don’t know and frankly I wouldn’t care if I weren’t of the opinion that the country can ill afford for Labour to go down this morally and politically bankrupt road again. How many failures are these people allowed, and do they ever ask themselves: what if we lose? What then of the beneficiaries we bashed because it worked for five minutes in the Nineties and we hoped that it might work again, somehow? The utterly self-serving cynicism of it.

Still there is that man on the roof, who may or may not be real. Does it matter? I think so, and plan to continue to pursue the matter. Questions would follow one way or the other, about process and strategy and politics’ ultimate referent: is it a statistical construct? A product of myth? Or is it that other subject, the citizen, in whom nobody any longer seems to believe? There may be answers yet to some of these questions lurking in the collective unconscious of our political class, but in the meantime I would excuse the man on the roof, whether real or imagined, if he too were to mutter: it isn’t bloody fair.

ADDENDUM: David Shearer's response.

Radio One's Aaron Hawkins has asked David Shearer about the veracity of his anecdote in this interview (from 5 minutes 20 seconds). I've transcribed the relevant segment below.

The response, muddled as it is, largely speaks for itself, so I'm not going to comment at great length. Mr Shearer is clearly not interested in whether or not what his informant told him is true. He claims to be innocently telling an anecdote about how people perceive fairness (with the implication that the very many people who responded to his telling of the anecdote, and that he has studiously refused to engage with - myself included - aren't representative in the sense that this particularly zealous citizen was). He likens talking to the beneficiary before proceeding to make dubious insinuations about him to the public to holding "a police investigation". He even has the gall to lament that deserving beneficiaries end up being tarred with the same brush - by people like, you know, David Shearer.

I'm not a member of the Labour party, so it's not my place to ask Mr Shearer to resign the leadership and get out of the way of the people in his party who are trying to make positive changes in this country.

Here's the transcript then.

Hawkins: To quote a famous Labour politician, 'I've been thinking' about this constituent of yours in Mt Albert that you have used to illustrate fairness and responsibility to society, this sickness beneficiary who's up painting his roof, and I have to ask on behalf of Giovanni Tiso, who has been campaigning now bilingually to get a straight answer from you for ten days now. Did that actually happen? Is that a true anecdote from your time... [Shearer interrupts]

Shearer: Yeah, yeah, I was going around the streets before the last election, knocked on a guy's door, he walked out on the lawn with me and pointed over and said this guy supposedly - I think he said he had a bad back or a bad something or other - and the point was, I mean, wasn't actually... whether this guy was right or not I don't know, but the point is, what I was trying to make is the point about fairness and the way New Zealanders feel about fairness. They don't want... this guy in particular said look I'm working hard, I pay my taxes, I'm doing all the right things and this guy - in his opinion, and that's what I said in my thing - is ripping the system off. Now I don't care if you're a millionaire not paying his taxes or somebody on the benefit who shouldn't be getting one. The way that New Zealanders see that is that it's not fair when somebody is not doing the right thing. That's the point of what I was saying.

Hawkins: So you don't know if it's true, at no point did you go talk to the beneficiary in question?

Shearer: No, the point was Aaron - the point was how people perceive others not playing by the rules, that's all I was saying. So I mean that's a story - the account of this guy, if what he was telling me is true, but I didn't do a police investigation on somebody, but the point was how do people perceive others, and I think overwhelmingly in New Zealand we don't like people who are not playing by the rules, in a sense not adhering to what I call the social contract.

Hawkins: I don't think it's the equivalent of a police enquiry to simply fact-check an anecdote that you are going to turn into a political platform.

Shearer: It's not a political platform, the whole point of it as I keep saying to you is illustrating how people feel about others. That was all it was saying. It was somebody relating something to me and I was relating that on. It is about how people feel about others not playing by the rules. And we have a very highly developed sense for that in New Zealand, for good or for bad, and I actually think it's good. But what does happen is that if people have that perception it means that everybody who legitimately receives a benefit - and overwhelmingly New Zealanders support that as well - they actually get tarred with the same brush. It's really important that we make sure that the system works well and that people have confidence in it.

Hawkins: Isn't that what Paula Bennett was doing, using a couple of examples of people not playing by the rules and not playing fairly within the welfare system to show up its flaws?

Shearer: Well what she did was she went into the Ministry, pulled out people's private information and using her privileged position as a Minister and then put them into the news media because they happened to disagree with it. I think it's a quantifiably mega-jump more than what I was talking about.


Deborah said...

I have a column in the Dom today (Tuesday), Gio, about the welfare state.

We all benefit from the welfare state

hncaotearoa said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments and love the title especially. Now in my 60s I think I have the perspective to see how NZ as a society has deteriorated in many ways since Ruth Richardson's 'mother of all budgets' in the 90s and the Rogernomics that preceded it. Only David Cunliffe seems to be addressing the concerns we have about the long term effects of the above. But still, I would like you and other commentators to explore the neighbour of the man on the roof. Where is he coming from?

Dougal said...

A fantastic piece, Giovanni, & very important. I remember those ads, too, and the later (and much less publicised) revelation that the 'fraud' the uncovered was mainly stuff-ups from the Department, not wilful deception from people on benefits.

I'm really pleased to know you'll have a column out, Deborah. I always find your work really thought provoking.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Maureen: The neighbour of the man on the roof is the part of the story I don't struggle to believe. I've met a lot of people like that, even in Italy where benefit bludgeing isn't really a political thing: the envy for the less fortunate, and the readiness to judge them, seems to me to be quite a common psychological type.

All the more a reason for an alleged progressive politician to distance himself from that kind of thinking, you would think.

Dougal said...

Two quick comments to the side of the post:

1) Robertson's response is symptomatic, and indicative of a wider pattern of Labour rhetoric: you know *because you're like us*, and so asking for evidence (a commitment a policy will be reversed, say, or public comment on whatever the latest outrage) is taken as sign of baid faith, sectarianism, etc. It's a useful way of feeding and sustaining a direction for (justified) aggrieved frustration in supporters: it's criticism *from the left* that prevents us going to the left.

2) You call Douglas et al the 'first generation' of all, but I think it's important to keep the historical sense that, in some crucial way, Social Democracy has *always* 'never been what it was,' has always been fallen, never had (or had only in complex, attenuated ways) a 'golden' or 'classical' period. Bill Hughes in Australia in 1916, Ramsay MacDonald in Britain in 1931, Nordemeyer's 'Black Budget' -- each of these moments used similar adoptions of Tory rhetoric (and, in Hughes and MacDonald's cases, outright renegacy). So a 'return' to 'real Labour values' (although an enormously powerful emotional/imaginative demand) has to confront that.

This is an aside though to a crucial piece. I hope that Shearer - or even the moaning neighbour, or better yet the mythical house-painter - come forward.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Deborah: "The outrages of ill luck can happen to any of us"? I was promised Shakespeare!

Giovanni Tiso said...

Dougal: "2) You call Douglas et al the 'first generation' of all, but I think it's important to keep the historical sense that, in some crucial way, Social Democracy has *always* 'never been what it was,' has always been fallen, never had (or had only in complex, attenuated ways) a 'golden' or 'classical' period."

I was referring to what has been explicitly theorised as the third way, thus possibly rationalised and integrated in the social democratic project in a different way from those earlier examples, but you make a great and very important point.

Stack said...

The smoke screen of bludgers and benefit fraud is a long used tool of conservative politicians. For the Labour strategists to think that a speech to Grey Power, jumping on that band wagon, could be useful in influencing swing voters is depressingly understandable. It may be Mr Shearer's actual opinion, I guess. Does he also think that 65 year olds, who are working shouldn't get the old age benefit?

As you so correctly point out Labour had success in the 90's pandering to middle class New Zealand with working for families and free child care. The most common reason I've heard for people to switch from one party to another is "I'll vote for who most benefits my family". Labour's merely a slighly more benevolent version of National in our two party dictatorship.

James Butler said...

I wouldn’t care if I weren’t of the opinion that the country can ill afford for Labour to go down this morally and politically bankrupt road again.

Again? Did they really reject this ideology, or did the last Labour government just fortuitously find themselves with enough spare cash that they didn't need to think about it?

Deborah said...

@Giovanni - youse all talked me out of it.

Giovanni Tiso said...

No, they never rejected this ideology, in fact about this far into his term Goff was just as solidly (if less incompetently) behind it as Shearer is. Then closer to the election things changed but my personal, not at all connected impression is that it's because there was no longer a political line, just caucus infighting shaping all-over-the-place policies, some of which represented a bit of a break from the dominant right wing consensus within the party.

I meant again as in one more time.

Giovanni Tiso said...

@Stack: "Does he also think that 65 year olds, who are working shouldn't get the old age benefit?"

He does - that's why he's raising the age of superannuation!

Anonymous said...

Robertson's response also kinda reeks of "Sorry, keyboard warrior, I was out there doing REAL work." Which as a valiant keyboard warrior princess I'm always very eye-rolly of.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I was trying not to get hung up on that, as it could be blamed on the medium to a certain extent. But yeah, it could also not.

Unknown said...

As I try ever harder to get to the core of the issue I find anomie best describes what these leaders are enacting over us every day.
The atomisation of the individual, the alienation from community, the Potempkin village of our democracy. For what does it gain an individual to merely make profit for another?
Yes, I have been talking with my Russian friend.

Chris Trotter said...

Like the Kingdom of Heaven, "True Social Democracy" is not something we will ever find on this sad old earth.

Our salvation lies in how hard we attempt to fashion an approximation.

hncaotearoa said...

I'm still thinking about the neighbour. In fact I started to write the Secret Diary of the Man on the Roof's Neighbour. It's not going very well.
But if Obama has to virtually pretend to be a hard core Christian to even begin to be considered as a presidential candidate, then an NZ PM might have to get into the head of the Man on the Roof's neighbour.
Deborah's column was wonderful but we need more defences of beneficiaries from people who are perhaps squirming around in the centre? Those of us on the left should grasp this nettle less idealistically>???? (Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower
, safety"

Keir said...

One, there is a valuable place for rebukes aimed at theorists from people charged with electoral and face to face political work. This isn't to take a particular stance on that particular exchange, but.

Two, to Dougal: I think that's actually a pretty important point. Fundamentally, the Labour Party has a massive trust problem. At a fundamental level, members don't trust caucus. (And this isn't about the latest issue with Mallard playing wind-up merchant or whatever, that's all just surface guff. It's deeper even than the flattering nonsense Cunliffe is peddling about how important activists are and how the mean nasty mps are being mean and nasty.)

Concrete public commitments to specific actions become this hugely charged currency in that environment.

Giovanni Tiso said...

“One, there is a valuable place for rebukes aimed at theorists from people charged with electoral and face to face political work.”

I welcome them. I would note however that they are primarily theorists too - in that they don’t have a meaningfully direct, transparent knowledge of ‘the electorate’, but operate rather based on theories of what will work, which they partly develop as they go. And they are terrible at it. This is the same strategy team that steered Labour to its worst electoral defeat in the history of the party. Mr Robertson, the critic, led Labour to a honourable third place in Wellington central. And what they are trying now is the same strategy that they tried under Goff for the first year of the last cycle, and that was so divisive, deplorable and electorally ineffective that it resulted in his completely losing control of the caucus. So I welcome a debate with Grant on anybody else on these issues, any day of the week.

(There is also the not so small matter of the fact that I and others do our own political work, in areas where Labour is either an ally - rarely - or simply gets in the way. It's not just what Grant does for his constituents - as indeed many of his Tory colleagues do, it being their bloody job and all - that counts.)

Keir said...

And they are terrible at it.

Yeah um this is a bit of an odd statement and I fundamentally don't agree. I mean sure it's nice to go on about how crap they are, but in fact I think that they are currently performing somewhat below average for a Labour front bench. And many of the people that are being named as incompetent were part of a hugely successful operation. (And, of course, are up against a National Party which has a very popular leader and has moved so far left they are in some respects closer to Clark-era Labour than Labour are.)

Also the actual impact of the political superstructure on politics is quite limited, compared to the economic base.

So I am perhaps somewhat more sanguine about the whole thing (in simple electoral terms).

Giovanni Tiso said...

"And many of the people that are being named as incompetent were part of a hugely successful operation."

The last thing they did was lead the party to its lowest result ever. And the only reason why they kept their jobs after that performance is that they had successfully stacked the list and their faction is the one that survived the decimation of the party in the least worst shape. Hence they're still running a conservative line predicated on political survival, as opposed to political success.

These guys don't want to win, they just want to still be there when National has finished tiring itself out. Base and superstructure have very little to do with anything.

Keir said...

And Bill English lead the Nats to their worst ever result. He's still hanging around.

Erm, the list stacking thing is something i'd like to see way more detail on. As is the claim that there's a faction here, and the idea that this faction is primarily conservative.

Giovanni Tiso said...

English is still around, yes, after spending a fair amount of time in the wilderness. I'm not suggesting Robertson et al. need to be taken behind a shed and shot, just that maybe leaving the same strategists in place and trying the same strategy that saw a collapse in the party support last time around might not be as self-evidently good an idea as the current lot seem to think that it is.

As for whether the coalition behind Shearer is conservative or not, I guess that if you think that Mallard, Goff, King, Robertson and David bloody Parker are the left wing of the party, then it's your prerogative. But I meant conservative in the sense that they are literally conserving, building on the loss as it were. What staggers most of all is the lack of ideas, and that is the truly infuriating part of the Shearer speech. It's trolling, pure as simple. It is arrogance mixed with telling the base well, what are you going to do about it? Mallard illustrated it best of all when he posted that offensive piece of anti-welfare claptrap with the passive-aggressive tag “At the risk of being treated like Josie”.

These people see themselves as victims. They think they are misunderstood. It takes a truly special kind of arrogance and self-involvement to be that way.

Unknown said...

They think the world has order, bless ,em.

Dr Jack Ross said...

This is a truly epic post. Thanks for putting it up, Giovanni.

A very salutary reminder that if you sacrifice principle to get into office, then nothing worthwile can be expected of you there ... Shearer never impressed me much, but it seems that I was wrong even to give him that much of the benefit of the doubt.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"I was wrong even to give him that much of the benefit of the doubt."

A classic case of benefit fraud.

Thank you Jack.

Keir said...

But at the same time that this faction is supposedly conservative it is overseeing a massive change in the party structure.

(And there are failures of communication around that.)

Lack of ideas: I dunno; this is going to sound weird but the feeling that I get is that there's a lot more ideas floating around at the moment than in a very long time. Dealing with neo-liberalism is obviously the issue. (What is the point of a Labour government?) Being better managers isn't, I don't think, enough any more. Does the rest of the Party agree? I dunno.

The draft platform stuff will be quite revealing, I think.

Megan Clayton said...

With a small kaleidoscope
you make a great panopticon.
There are the men, the men on the roofs,

you saw one, now you see them all.

First give notice, then take notice.
I have a memory, long as a piece of string.
I have a plumb line ready for the telling.

A man comes home from the Forestry service

or the Broadcasting corporation
or off the farm. A man comes in the door.
He takes out his hearing aids

and sits down for ten years.

The man has a long ladder
and his house a low roof.
The man is caught between work

and a piece of the grave.

You see? Then measure,
but you do not have the measure.
What you call a mirror

is a camera obscura.

hncaotearoa said...

A great poem, Megan

Ben Wilson said...

>English is still around, yes, after spending a fair amount of time in the wilderness.

Yes, but National took 6 more years after that defeat to regain power. Furthermore, there was a fairly significant poll bounce for National when they put Brash in and he made his first speech, and still it took them 6 years. Labour's not even getting a dead cat bounce.

I'm still unsure, however, if their strategy is unsound. Tactically, taking Nat votes might work, even if they shed votes to the left, which are hoovered up by the other parties. I certainly won't vote for that, but I can see the logic. Target the soft Nats, and every vote counts twice. Target the left, and every vote counts not at all.

However, I don't think they are doing a very good job of taking Nat votes. Once people have made the mental conniption of buying fully into neoliberalism, I think it's an ideal that has it's epicentre to the right of where National appears to be. People would rather buy neoliberalism than neoliberalism-lite. All of the theory and rhetoric trends naturally towards the shithouse do-nothing-and-blame-the-poor ideas that are calling all shots in this country.

They really need a new angle, one that is not reliant on the idealism at all. An appeal to pragmatism might work better, to simply cast National as the incompetent mismanagers and themselves as the steady as she goes ones. Quite frankly that is actually what I think they are anyway.

Ben Wilson said...

My previous comment should be appended with what I personally would like to become the ruling party in this country, which is a party with a plan for the recession that unabashedly involves changing the economic status quo. I would like it if they sold the idea of sweeping economic reform to the populace and contended the election in a marketplace of actual ideas. But I don't think Labour is the party to do that. As such, if they move to the middle and shrink, leaving room for parties that do actually have ideas and plans, then I'm not going to shed a tear for the old fading dinosaur.

I personally think the party will always be fundamentally compromised by its own economic origins, that the worker movement is just a offshoot of capitalism, and that the deification of paid work itself is a harmful idea that both the major parties happily share in. The Man on the Roof is the perfect exemplar of this, that the man is actually being castigated for working, because he is not doing it within the structure of the system, and that is seen as a crime more noteworthy than someone who does nothing at all.

Taramoc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Taramoc said...

I'm amazed by the constant repeating by Shearer that New Zealanders don't like injustice or people that don't play by the rules. I'm Italian by origin and I live in Canada and I can assure you that in both countries people don't like who rips off the system. It's not just a New Zealand thing, believe me.

What he fails to acknowledge even once is that the program is not invalidated by a few that abuse it (no matter what fundamental social program you put in place, there's always going to be a percentage of people that scams it, it's part of life).

If you are really concern on the fairness, just put more safeguards in place (assuming it's worth it, after a cost-benefit analysis) instead of using real of invented anecdotes to try to undermine the whole thing.

Sadly, these kind of programs are easy targets as you'll always find enough people that don't understand their value until they need to use them.

chris said...

For me, this post is that moment of clarity that plays over and over in the mind, everything since and to come merely the aftershock. Cancer of the party, usually lethal.

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