Irony: Labour are being made irrelevant by technology

The party is aware of its past and its traditions in much the same way Aunt Agatha is aware of what your second cousin twice removed said over the Cold Duck at a family wedding four decades ago, and who still isn’t speaking to some family members as a result. New Zealand Labour faces many of the same difficulties of its counterpart parties around the world – although in some other ways it is in a better position. It is certainly in better shape than the UK Labour Party but there is detritus on footpaths outside public bars in better shape than UK Labour. Both are victims of similar global pressures but you need to go back further than 100 years to understand what is happening now. Go back, instead, 200 years.

A large, monolithic enemy had been defeated in Europe. There was an economic revolution under way. Governments were extending their power, oversight and control of citizens: official paranoia about the Illuminati and/or a return of Napoleon or his backers saw a boon in spying on citizens. There was growing unrest: Citizens wanted more say in how they were governed and felt locked out by the elites of the time.

They were, of course, worse off than those protesting today: They didn’t have the vote, and a wave of policies aimed at protecting landowners against the efficiencies of the industrial revolution saw food prices rise. But between roughly 1815 and 1848 you had the rise of the international labour movement, in English-speaking countries spearheaded by the Chartists who wanted the vote and greater political freedom to better the lot of the working poor. Industrialisation saw more people congregate in towns and cities, discover their numbers and their common interests and form what became trade unions. 

The current economic revolution – computerised, beginning from the 1970swith the use of technology to shift money but which now envelops so much global commerce – has had a similar effect, albeit with a lag. Trade unions and the restrictive, defensive, and authoritarian mindset that went with them have been in retreat –a retreat which began before the internet revolution but which has been accentuated by that. And although nostalgists foretell a trade union renaissance, it appears unlikely.

A mentality, a world view less aligned with the old school union mindset than the attitudes and expectations of today’s so-called “millennials” would be difficult to find. Expectations there are for choice, for flexibility, and for autonomy. But the internet revolution has also led to a repeat of the early-mid 19th century: discovery of commonality of interests, and a recognition of the number of people sharing those interests, of the kind seen when large groups of employees first found themselves in towns and cities 200 years ago.

The links now are not physical; they are via bits and bytes. But communities of interest are being performed and developed. They will deepen and broaden over time. They will not replicate the trade union movement for a number of reasons; the most important being political divisions are now less clearly about capital and labour. Two other divisions are of growing importance. One is nationalist versus internationalist. That cuts across traditional allegiances and is why, in the UK, the vote to leave Europe was so much an alliance between the left and right wings of the two main parties.

The second growing division is between authoritarian governments versus liberal, open societies. That kind of liberalism was something the originators of the labour movement were on the side of. Influenced by a mix of Marx and intellectual ideologues, what developed as socialism lost sight of that founding emphasis on freedom. Labour, both here and overseas, needs to rediscover that, if it is to be “on the side of history” as its partisans like to claim, again.

Labour movements worldwide are completely confused as to whom they represent. Here in New Zealand, they seem to think they are the party of the underdog: the criminals, the gang members and the rapists who have their civil rights violated in technical terms. They haven’t figured out that the factory workers, the tradies and the waged are damn proud of their hard work and resent the cuddling of the lazy, the illegal and the perennial victims of society.

In New Zealand, the Labour party need a total clean-out of dead and rotting wood. Anyone who served under Helen Clark needs to go. The next four years should be used to introduce new talent and new faces, and to get some experience and blood flowing to ensure that 2020 is the year Labour don’t just return, but they can show they finally ‘get it’ by taking back the centre-left from National.

It’s hard to envisage this happening while the party are still dominated by last century’s politicians and strong-armed by inward looking union interests.

 

– Andrew Patterson, NBR


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