20 August 2015
The British Labour Party is currently whipping itself into a frenzy at the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming its next leader. The veteran, hard-line left wing Islington North MP is a less polished modern version of Michael Foot, the scruffy academic journalist and politician remembered for his big glasses, wild white hair, and appalling jackets, whose leadership in the early 1980s ensured Labour was out of office for almost 20 years, cementing the rise of Thatcherism in the process. (It was not all bad – Foot’s old-fashioned demagoguery also ensured the revival of liberalism and the rise of the Liberal Democrats as disaffected middle class Labour voters sought a new home.)
The Labour grandees (including former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who built “New” Labour in the 1990s) are naturally horrified at the prospect of history repeating itself, but they are now so reviled that the more they comment, the more they seem to entrench Corbyn. At least Jeremy Corbyn stands for something. His left-wing agenda may be old-fashioned and out of step with reality, but he is putting a clear stamp on the type of Labour Party he wants for Britain, and forcing Labour supporters to make a choice.
The contrast with the New Zealand Labour Party could not be more striking. Rather than standing for anything, it seems to have decided that the best way for it to reconnect with New Zealand voters is to be against everything, despite the absurd situations that creates. For example, since the time of Norman Kirk, now over four decades ago, Labour has been in favour of changing the New Zealand flag to something more representative of our country today, although it has never actually done anything about it. Now, when the Prime Minister initiates a referendum process to change the flag, Labour is suddenly against the idea.
Similarly with the new Health and Safety legislation. Everyone accepts the current law is inadequate and in need of reform. The legislation currently going through Parliament does not meet Labour’s objectives but is nevertheless acknowledged as an improvement on what we have at present. But contrary Labour opposes it as not going far enough. In other words, it would rather stick with an unacceptable status quo, putting more people’s lives at risk, than support changes which at the very least improve the current law. These knee-jerk reactions are symptomatic of a Party that has lost its way, and does not know where it stands anymore.
Who, for further example, would have ever imagined a Labour Party in New Zealand apologising to Chinese migrants one decade for the disgusting, discriminatory poll-tax imposed on their forbears a century ago, in the next decade attacking those with Chinese sounding surnames for buying residential property in Auckland? Or, with its historic commitment to free speech, singling out particular journalists and commentators for attack because they are perceived to be supportive of the current government?
Labour needs a Corbyn-like threat, a contemporary Jim Anderton if you like, to shake it out of its torpor and to allow it to redefine itself in terms of what it actually now stands for. As the failings of the Little leadership start to become obvious, and the mutterings begin about possible replacements, the challenge will be to find a candidate to stands for something and is prepared to fight for it. That forlorn hope probably means Andrew Little is safe for a while, and that Labour’s spiral of angry negativity will continue. It also means John Key’s smirky grin will grow ever broader.