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At last we’d found our fight. We’ve longed for politics to be the battling of ideas, but it isn’t, not normally. Decades of elections have been contested by incrementalism and managerial competencies. MMP has asphyxiated our radicalism with its consensus coalitions and the boredom of the majority. Not since 1984 have we elected a government with the guts to actually change this country. For those who long for change, that hurts. But this election was different. This time, Labour had found something to fight.
The Labour Party’s manifesto was not more of the same. Collectivised wage-setting with a much higher minimum rate, taxes on capital gains, centrally controlled electricity pricing and that grand apology on behalf of the patriarchy – Labour presented a narrative in which our country was ill. We were sick from socioeconomic inequality, and health required fundamental social change. For once, the challenge to the status quo was real.
But Labour lost and our radicalism resigned. Labour, we sighed, must mumble back to the middle. They must acquiesce to the median voter, to that boring old man from Tawa who didn’t want taxes on his rental property. As David Shearer explained last Sunday, “You have to have the centre – this is 101 politics. If you don’t hold the centre, you don’t win.”
Politics isn’t a horizontal beam on which politicians balance, wrestling left to right. Politics is an expression of tribal identity rooted in complex social narratives. The demographics suggest Labour lost because they lost the support of working-class blokes. Working-class blokes don’t like being told to stand shoulder to shoulder on a balancing beam.
Labour’s story about haves and have-nots allowed the academic left their sociological conceit: it made intellectuals the hero who would save us from social illness. But in doing so, it told the working poor that their struggles mattered only in aggregate – that it wasn’t their individual aspirations which mattered but only the social order those aspirations produced. Labour never spoke to the struggles that a working family sees.
Consider wages. National insists that wages reward hard work. You give a boss labour hours, he gives you wages that reflect those hours’ worth. In response, Labour muttered, “Aw yeah, sure, your income reflects your economic worth, but, like, we need to also think about the social.” That doesn’t speak to the fast-food teller waking at 4 am for a double shift on minimum wage. When a worker sees his boss making six figures, it isn’t an abstract inequality that pisses him off – it’s that his boss gets a salary which the worker thinks the boss doesn’t deserve.
Labour won’t find a solution in the centre. Stumbling away from real politics will solve nothing. The solution lies in a truer left. They must stop expropriating struggle into abstract inequalities. They must recognise struggle in its own terms. They must abandon their grand social illness. They need to start talking about social injustice.