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.