The lifestyle block socialist
Chris Trotter and several other commentators have divined a leftward turn in the policies of Labour since the election loss of 2008 and Goff's assumption of the leadership. For Trotter, Goff's attack on the Maori Party's alliance with National as a betrayal of ordinary Kiwis is a sign of a return to class politics, and not a cynical dog whistle. Trotter has backed calls for Labour to rejuvenate itself by dispensing with the tight top-down control of the Clark era, and by building up its membership. Goff's call for feedback on his party policies might seem, superficially at least, like a move in that direction.
Isn't it notable, though, that the party chooses to make contact with the masses not through the door knocking and town hall meetings of the good old days, but through glossy 'personal messages'? Why isn't Goff, or at least one of his supporters, joining the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and Sky TV salesmen in the queue outside our door?
The paradox of the Labour Party is that it has maintained a mass electoral base without a large organisational base. After fronting the first part of the neo-liberal 'reform' programme that devastated New Zealand in the '80s and the '90s Labour deservedly lost its mass membership. For a time the party looked like it might have lost its vote too, as the breakaway Alliance made large strides in opinion polls. Labour eventually won the voters back, and then held power from 1999-2008 by tinkering artfully with the status quo that had been established by the reforms of the '80s and 90s. The nastiest manifestations of neo-liberalism, like charges for hospital beds and market rentals for state houses, were dropped, and a few progressive measures like Paid Parental Leave were adopted after vigorous lobbying, but Helen Clark's government worked well inside the parameters set by the previous, neo-liberal administrations.
Although it retains the electoral loyalty of the urban working class, Labour has never regained the activist base it had in the early eighties, when its membership rose to close to one hundred thousand. At election time, the party often relies on paid organisers working for sympathetic trade unions and the extended families of candidates to get its vote out in areas like South Auckland. The party's MPs are generally middle class professionals with university degrees. Although some trade unionists graduate to the parliamentary team, they generally do so by converting themselves, culturally and politically, into middle class technocrats.
The content as well as the delivery of Phil Goff's 'personal message' reflects the conflicted nature of the contemporary Labour Party. Although Labour's greatest strength lies in the poorer suburbs of Auckland, Goff's message deploys imagery drawn from the city's posh southeastern fringe. Behind the pohutakawa tree which has replaced Labour's traditional red banner we can see the estuary of Whitford Creek, and the pleasant hills around the 'lifestyle villages' of Whitford, Maraetai, and Clevedon.
In the area the photograph shows, dairy farms and horticultural operations have been replaced by five or ten acre 'lifestyle blocks' whose owners can simultaneously seclude themselves from the crowds of the city and pretend to be indulging in the wholesome rural practices - erecting fences, stocking paddocks, and setting up TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED SIGNS - that have traditionally played such a part in the self-definition of Pakeha New Zealanders.
Whitford and the areas that surround it have become much more heavily populated in recent decades, as real agriculturalists subdivide their properties and depart, and pretenders relocate from the cities to toy farms, yet the photograph is almost uncontaminated by any sign of humanity. There are no cottages, or corrugated iron sheds, or septic tanks leaking through mud. Only a couple of puriri posts from a pleasantly decrepit fenceline are allowed into the view. Why should people and their doings spoil paradise?
Phil Goff may well have supplied the photo that accompanies his epistle - he lives in Clevedon, on a ten acre block, close to a new marina and several upmarket restaurants, and a good forty-minute drive from his constituents in the working class Auckland suburb of Mt Roskill. Perhaps Phil's glossy 'personal messages' are his only way of staying in touch with the people who vote for him?
This marvellous leaflet (click to enlarge it), which I discovered recently at the cafe in Swanson's gentrified train station, lacks the production values of Goff's 'personal message', but offers an equally sumptuous vision of utopia.
The first of the two texts on the leaflet comes from an ancient issue of the fearsomely dreary journal of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, an organisation which was long ago dubbed the 'Small Party of Good Boys' because of its resolute refusal to tarnish its message of the moral superiority of socialism with anything so coarse as political activism. For over one hundred years, the SPGB has contested parliamentary elections using the slogan 'World Socialism Now', whilst condemning the 'opportunism' of leftists who organise protest marches, stand on picket lines, and volunteer to fight fascism in Spain or pick coffee in Nicaragua. For reasons that are perhaps not mysterious, no SPGB candidate has ever come close to winning a seat in parliament.
The anonymous author of the Swanson leaflet has enlivened the SPGB's rhetoric wth an annotation that must have been produced on one of the last manual typewriters in New Zealand. The annotator's talk of socialism existing 'intuitively elsewhere' in the universe reminds me of Juan Posadas, the Argentinian Trotskyist and UFOlogist. Posadas believed that aliens regularly visited the earth, and insisted that these aliens must be socialists, because only a socialist system could bestow the levels of technology, productivity and cooperation necessary to the development of long-distance space travel. Posadas repeatedly called on the pilots of UFOs to intervene in human political affairs by overthrowing the rulers of the United States and the Soviet Union.
The demand for 'Intuitive Universal Socialism' may seem a trifle abstract, but I don't find it any more bewildering than Phil Goff's use of Whitford and Clevedon to illustrate the merits of twenty-first century social democracy.