Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 9. 9 May 1972
Peter Wilson on 'The Dream' & the Labour Party
Peter Wilson on 'The Dream' & the Labour Party
Taking your Chances
"Is The Dream Over?" was based around one central theme, that demonstrations do not affect the policies of the Governments against whom they are aimed. This is a realistic reading of the recent history of protest marches, both here and in the U.S. And although there were and still are people who would disagree, who believe that marching has a direct effect on policy, I think most would go along with the author of the article when he says that demonstrations were only intended as a means of showing strength and of focusing public opinion on the issue. Within this limited framework the demonstrations in New Zealand against the war in Indo-China have undoubtedly made an impact, just how much success is of course another question. But when a movement is protesting against the mass murder of Asians and the wholesale destruction of their lands, it cannot forgo any opportunity to increase its support or to prod people into looking at the issues.
However I agree with the author that a time does arrive when the issue-evoking potential of demonstrations is exhausted, at which point marching may become counterproductive ie: marching for marching's sake, rather than to highlight the issue. Naturally, if it could be shown that marching did affect policy, then I would say keep right on, but unfortunately this is not the case—the New Zealand troops came out when Nixon allowed Holyoake to take them out. Our efforts did not figure in that calculation.
Young Dave to the Outer
So like the author of "Is the Dream Over?" we come to the question of "What Is To Be Done?" and simultaneously, we come to the addendum on the end of the Salient article there it is suggested that we put our noses to the grindstone and shoulders to the wheel for 26 year old Dave Shand, Labour Party Candidate, who will be elected in Wellington Central this year with your support, this unsubstantiated piece of philosophical voluntarism is followed by the assertion that, "He is admittedly a party man but if you can't get the support of a party yourself you may as well do all you can to support such young politicians". In a nation whose institutions are riddled with senility, it is perhaps too easy to see youth a as a political virtue in itself. But 'young' does not necessarily equal 'progressive' and the generation gap, while an important consideration, must always take a back seat to the ideological gap which in this case separates Dave Shand from socialists of all age groups.
Labour Don't Want us at all
Plunging on with "Salients" writer who seems intent on proving that the dream is not, in fact, over, we are told that "If you support their (ie young politicians) candidacy they will push your ideas". If this was not straight bullshit, it would almost seem as though the writer has received a tip from the inside—otherwise how could he know something the rest of us don't? To test the hypothesis try Dave Shand on the idea that if students are ever to be a real force for social change they must first be united, hence the setting up of University Clubs admitting only students who are graduates should be prevented because such clubs are elitist and divisive. Next point "Those who say there's no difference between National and Labour either, haven't looked closely or just can't make up their mind." Apparently the main difference is that Labour is more desperate for voters and vote — catching policies." Therefore "we are told, they want us" Without wanting to increase the degree of alienation present among students on campus, nevertheless must be said,"sorry, the Labour Party doesn't really want you at all." In fact, your support is a liability and its not worth chasing because your actual votes count for fuck all anyway. What the Labour Party wants is that wavering middle class voter who will be chased up the hill of state aid to private schools and down the dale of deliberately ambiguous attitudes policy towards the war in Indo-China. It all adds up to the fact that a voter who sees no difference between Labour and National is politically astute. And it is interesting to note that even "Salient's" writer who is presumably advising radicals, does not attempt to make out a case for a difference between Labour and National on the grounds of policy or principle. Instead he resorts to a pragmatism whose form at least would do Norm Kirk proud, while its content can again be related to Labour Party pragmatism in that it entails a program that simply will not work.
Rubbing the Oil Lamp
As for how to get rid of National Party M.P's such as Harry Lapwood, well, the writers recommended method is too involved and difficult I would suggest instead that we all rub our oil lamps and make the required number of wishes.
Pragmatism or Principles
Retrieving the debate from the realm of dreamland, it is obvious that many people, including radicals, socialists, will be giving thought to the Labour Party over the coming months and defining their attitudes both collectively and individually. In shaping my own attitude towards the Labour Party several small incidents come to mind and attain an influence that may at first seem out of proportion to their actual size. One example is when Gerry Wall, M.P. for Porirua, standing in a room with Dr. Jim Cairns of the Australian Labour Party and one of the leading figures on the Australian Left, could say, "I'm sure Dr. Cairns will agree with me when I say that a political party can only do one of two things, it can educate or it can get into power — we've chosen to do the latter." I also recall the wink Cairns gave to the other people in the room. Then there is Norman Kirk telling students at Vic last year—"We opposed the war in Vietnam in 1966, and look what happened, — it cost us Mirimar" Or Peter Debreceny who oversees the Labour Party's relationship with the media saying that "The job of an opposition party is to get into power", or more recently, the Party's General Secretary, John Wybrow, pronouncing that this year Labour will strive for the attainable rather than the desirable. These are fragments, but they add up to a strain of thought within the Labour Party that no-one least of all socialists, can ignore or should ignore in trying to decide whether to work or simply to vote for Labour. "Moreover the Wilsonian formula of the lesser evil is no answer to anyone who really thinks about his or her politics; on the contrary its appeal is strongest when people, frustrated in the search for alternatives cease to try.
In saying that all the statements above add up to a strain of thought, I am perhaps mis tating the case—in an important sense they add up to a strain of non-thought. They are all heavy with pragmatism, a dull pragmatism which has met with outstanding success in exorcising from the Labour party the kind of theoretical thought indispensable to any kind of socialist programme. Within the party this strongly rooted tradition manifests itself in a form of pure anti-intellectualism, one of Norman Kirks more distinctive traits. The rationale is that we cannot afford to play with ideas, by definition dangerous, whole we are engaged in the down-to-earth, practical business of trying to win elections. That we do not win elections is not a cause for rethinking, but rather a sign that the party is simply not swimming fast enough to keep up with the tide. Theories, ideas, become an even heavier ballast page break than before and must bejettisoned more furiously as a result. This may be variously called a vicious circle, a downward spiral or simply a swing to the right. Its effect on the electorate is fairly accurately gauged by a question posed in the New Zealand Partisan last year, "Is New Zealand Going Fascist?."
The Devil you Know
The other major side effect is that which the "Salient" writer sought to deny - the essential sameness of the Labour and National parties. The manner in which this sameness contributes to the consistent electoral failure of the Labour Party in N.Z. is well expressed by Ken Coates speaking of the Labour Party in Britain, "there has seldom been good reason to change the devil you know for the devil you don't know: and against a Labour Party every principle of deference to the Establishment is always active unless it can be undermined by credible alternative policies. That is after all, what an Establishment is about". And further "...no alternative administration can field itself until means have already been discovered to persuade enough people that there are good reasons why they need a change, until then all that exists is what already exists, which will present itself as all that can exist. All this is summed up in the conservative presumption that politics is the art of the possible, which always means the acceptance of what is actual as being also ultimate. Socialist politics is the art of enlarging the possible, not that of kowtowing to the actual, which is frequently absurd where it is not flagrantly dangerous. Understanding the need for a programme for change, and for alternative policies, the Farm Road Branch of the Labour Party has established "Policy Study Groups" and has so far held seminars on social welfare and workers participation, and has brought out a monograph on the first area. Viewed as dangerous insurrectionists they received the Party's cold shoulder, though apparently more interest in their activities has been shown shown in the last couple of weeks by the hierarchy. This is the kind of important change possible from within, but without having had Farm Road's first-hand experience I would still say that to change the Labour Party so, one must beat it first. To a party whose prime concern is to catch the prevailing wind, firm alternative policy is a liability - it may confirm friends, but more importantly it will almost certainly run the risk of alienating people.
All Things to all Men
The built-in ambiguity and indecisiveness of Labour Party policy in the past is the outcome of an attempt to remain all things to all men. That we are not likely to see any noticeable change in this attitude towards policy was established at last year's conference when President Bill Rowling smugly assured members that Labour knew what its election policies were going to be, but wasn't going to announce them too far in advance because the nasty old Tories would pull their usual fast one and steal our policy That is a fair indication that in November, Labour will as usual be relying on the law of averages and the indifference of the voter to the small print, for its chance to administer the status quo for three years. As usual also, it will fail.
But in its attempt to win it will use and thereby expose another strain in the Labour Party that must be opposed by any socialist. I am speaking of the "market researchy - trendy - charisma" approach. The recent history of charisma (a la J.F.K.), in the Labour Party is an interesting one. It took on advertising, market research types to "sell the product" to the people as the jargon goes. Ironically enough, it now seems that we're getting landed with a party full of these trendies. Hand in hand with this have gone the gains made by the pseudo-concept of "charisma". The party now appears to believe that it may be able to pull off a swifty whereby innovative clothing (i.e. trendy gear) and innovative "packaging" may be adequate substitutes for innovative thought. The drive for "charisma" entails another, more serious danger to those in the Party who believe that social change is more important than "pop politics". And that is that rank and file members, particularly younger and more impatient ones, who are only too ready to seize on anything that will replace their feelings of frustration with a sense of positive contribution, will quickly latch on to a figure who, by possessing certain personal characteristics, seems to hold some sway. As Erich Fromm puts it in Heart of Man, people try to reject their impotence by attempting "....to restore their capacity to act. But can [they] and how? One way is to submit to and identify with a person or group having power. By this symbolic participation in another person's life, [men have] the illusion of acting, when in reality [they] only submit to and become a part of those who act." Radicals on the outer fringe of the party, or outside of it altogether, who are considering throwing their efforts behind candidates who convey the illusion referred to by Fromm, should carefully consider the motives for their intended participation. All those within the Labour Party should join with the Farm Road Branch in attempting to show the Labour Party that market research is not sociology.
Finally could it not be suggested that the Party use its close contacts with the media men to investigate the reestablishment of a Labour Party newspaper. The difficulties would, of course, be immense. But without this the long-term education and persuasion of public opinion towards socialism remains a dream and it is dreams we are attempting to eliminate.
Hopefully it will be clear by this stage that what is wrong with the Labour Party will not be corrected by electing its candidates to Parliament. There is much more basic work to be done in the fields of communication and education between party and society. The party's parliamentarianism, its belief that getting one-up' in the House is significant, and its electorialism, its devotion of all its energies to the moment of the vote, are both serious; impedements to the creation of a party which can take part in and even lead ongoing political activity in society at large. The party's inability to do so at present, its insensitivity to what is alive and moving in society is reflected in its failure to respond in any way at all to the radicalism of youth in particular.
Keep on Laughing
I do not think we should allow that ardour and radicalism to be dragged down by the weight of the Labour Party's electoral mechanism. Rather it should be expended in trying to explode the oppressive weight of sanctified encrusted authority and custom. We have no obligation to accept their forms: to do so is to accept subjugation. Before people are prepared to challenge formal authority, that authority must first be desanctified, it must be ridiculed and laughed at for the farce that it is, and yet at the same time it must be realised that the task is a serious one that it must be hand in hand with the construction of real alternatives.
For young radicals the best thing that could happen in November would be as many people voting informal as possible - we know that the whole gambit of elections and parliamentary democracy must eventually go if we are to achieve the aim of a self-managing society, and the sooner we promote an awareness of its irrelevance and dispensability the sooner will we enter the necessary transition, wherein new perspectives for action will begin to unfold.
Peter WilsonPresident Vuw Labour Club