Labour's history lesson
While Labour offered up an historical 'long view' of the present, using photos and newsreel footage disinterred from the archives, and then introduced a series of its members of parliament, each of whom seemed intended to represent some segment of New Zealand's diverse population, National's broadcast marooned John Key without his fellow MPs in what looked like a corporate conference room.
In an era where a twenty-four hour news cycle and social media like twitter and facebook sometimes seem to have created the political equivalents of amnesia and aphasia amongst wide segments of the population, Labour's insistence on the significance of the past to the problems of the present was welcome.
Labour offered viewers a rough timeline of the last century of New Zealand history, which took in events like the World Wars, the Great Depression, the post-war boom and its dissipation in the '70s and early '80s, and the trauma of Rogernomics. The party argued that, throughout the last century, thoughtful state intervention in the economy, and in society in general, had been vital to social progress. The Labour Party was presented as the means by which the New Zealand working class had taken hold of the machinery of the state and reformed society. Using their party, the workers had founded the welfare state, built state houses, created fair industrial practices, and ended discrimination against minorities. In the 1980s Labour temporarily slipped from the control of the Kiwi majority, and became the party of neo-liberalism, but that was, we were assured, an aberration.
National was presented throughout the broadcast as the party of the wealthy elite, with policies that sow class war and racial discord.
Some National supporters have criticised Labour's broadcast for making a tidy partisan narrative out of the complexity of the past. Like the Conservatives trying to interfere with the teaching of history in Britain at the moment, these folks seem not to understand that every historical narrative highlights certain events, and downplays or ignores others. History can never be a neutral procession of facts.
Accepting that there are different narratives which can be made out of the same past does not mean falling into some sort of crude historical relativism, of the sort associated with certain postmodernist thinkers. We can compare and evaluate different accounts of the past by asking which of these stories has the most explanatory power. We can ask, especially, whether the interpretation which the narrative is supposed to demonstrate fits with the events that make up the narrative.
This blog has at times discussed the ramblings of Kerry Bolton, New Zealand's most prolific neo-Nazi. Bolton's texts generally discuss the same events as those of more conventional historians, but they embed these events in a very particular and very peculiar narrative. Bolton believes, for instance, that when Roger Douglas and David Lange brought neo-liberalism to this country in the 1980s they were acting at the behest of a cabal of Jewish communists and Jewish bankers.
Bolton's story about the 1980s is not taken seriously because it is so clearly out of tune with the facts it seeks to explain. There weren't many commies in the Backbone Club, after all. Bolton is an extreme case, but he illustrates how we can assess a narrative by examining how well it explains the facts it contains.
How sucessful, then, was the history lesson Labour offered in its election broadcast?
I want to suggest that a number of the events in Labour's narrative actually contradicted the party's claim to be the historical agent of the Kiwi working class and of social progress.
Labour's broadcast began by talking about the formation of the party in 1916, and showing a photo from one of its early meetings. Explaining that Labour grew out of the struggles for better working conditions and wages in early modern New Zealand, the broadcast introduced a photo taken during the bloody Waihi Strike of 1912. This image, which was used on the cover of The Red and the Gold, Stanley Roche's book about the strike, shows workers protesting the death of Fred Evans, the miner who was shot in a Waihi union hall by a gang of drunken cops and scabs. The Waihi Strike was run by the 'Red' Federation of Labour, an organisation which used slogans like 'For the abolition of wage labour' and 'To the world's workers the world's wealth'. Inspired by the Industrial Workers of the World, which was enjoying its heyday in North America in the years before World War One, the 'Red Feds' refused to become involved in parliamentary politics, planning instead to seize power and overthrow capitalism with a general strike. In the 'Great Strike' of 1913 the Red Feds confronted the right-wing government of William Massey, fighting gunbattles in the streets of Wellington and setting up revolutionary councils in several West Coast towns. Cossey eventually defeated the Red Feds by deploying thousands of armed farmers on horseback, and the power of the union movement was much reduced.
The men and women who founded the Labour Party in 1916 were making a conscious effort to chart a new direction for the union movement and for the left. Where the Red Feds had talked of smashing capitalism, the new party talked of regulating and reforming the system. Fair wages and not the abolition of the wage system were to be the new aim. Where the Red Feds had eschewed 'ordinary' politics, Labour made parliamentary elections its focus.
Labour quickly became the dominant force on the left and inside the union movement, but the tradition inaugurated by the 'Red Feds' did not disappear from this country in 1916. A number of organisations, most notably the Communist Party, reaffirmed the revolutionary tradition of the Red Feds in the inter-war years. The Red Feds' example influenced militant post-war unionists like Jock Barnes, the leader of the watersiders during their epic 1951 confrontation with the New Zealand state. In the 1970s and '80s a new generation of radical leftists founded organisations with names like the Socialist Action League and the Workers Communist League, and played a major role in the union movement and in protests over issues like war and racism. Today many members of the left-wing faction in the Mana Party identify with the radical politics of the Red Feds and their various successors.
The Red Feds and their progeny create certain problems for Labour's propagandists. Last Monday's election broadcast tried to present Labour as the sole political representatives of the Kiwi working class, but the Federation of Labour was a mass organisation which espoused a politics very different from the social democratic ideology of Labour. And, although it has been nowhere near as popular as social democracy since 1916, the tradition represented by the Red Feds has persisted in a variety of organisations.
Last Monday's broadcast tried to deal with the Red Feds by making them part of the prehistory of the Labour Party, and this sort of interpretation might be supported by certain historians. Michael King, for instance, argued in his Penguin History of New Zealand and elsewhere that the revolutionary turmoil of the pre-war years was something exceptional in our national history, and that the Labour Party which emerged from the ashes of the Red Feds was, with its moderate ideas and constitutional methods, much more representative of the New Zealand working class than its revolutionary predecessor. King suggested that the leaders of the workers' movement had to be defeated, and to learn from their defeats, before they could found a durable and successful political organisation. The minority which still held to the politics of the Red Feds was rendered irrelevant. But the revolutionary tradition in the New Zealand left was not absent from Labour's election broadcast, even after that broadcast had moved its focus forward from the turbulent first decades of the twentieth century. Even if the revolutionaries were never acknowledged by the broadcast's voiceover, they could again and again be seen, on picket lines and in protest marches.
Labour's broadcast repeatedly referred to campaigns against injustice in New Zealand, and sought to associate Labour with these campaigns. Often, though, it was the members of the tradition represented by the Red Feds who were in the vanguard of the struggles that Labour wanted to claim as its own.
Labour's broadcast discussed the Great Waterfront Lockout of 1951, and expressed sympathy with the locked out wharfies who had their civil rights annulled by Sid Holland's National government. In 1951, though, Labour refused to throw its weight behind the embattled wharfies, who turned instead for support to the Communist Party.
Labour's broadcast went on to discuss the massive anti-Springbok protests of 1981, but it gave no hint that groups to Labour's left, like the Socialist Action League and Nga Tamatoa, played vital roles in running these protests.
During a discussion of the deeply unpopular National governments of the '90s, Labour's broadcast showed footage of the eviction of pensioner Len Parker from his state house in Balmoral. Supported by the State House Action Coalition (SHAC), Parker had barricaded himself in his home in protest at the charging of market rents for state tenants. Hundreds of people turned up to try to protect Parker, and to protest his eventual removal by heavily armed police. Despite repeated requests, though, Labour refused to throw its weight behind Parker's cause. Parker himself was a member of the Socialist Workers Organisation, and many of the activists in SHAC were linked either to the Alliance Party or to small Marxist groups like the SWO or Workers Power.
Labour wants to present itself as the sole political representative of the workers' movement and the sole agent of progressive politics in New Zealand, but when it attempted to tell the story of progressive politics over the past century on Monday night its claims to exclusivity began to unravel.
The voiceover in Monday night's broadcast may have avoided mentioning men like Jock Barnes and Len Parker and organisations like the Communist Party and the Red Feds, but the events the broadcast described and the images it provided hinted at a story more complicated and more interesting than the one Labour wanted to tell.
[Posted by Maps]