I find myself wondering whether I want to be bothered with the Labour Party any more. Increasingly, it seems to me, the Greens reflect the philosophical and moral values to which I subscribe more accurately than the Labour Party whose philosophical and moral values are now so ill-defined as to be beyond definition. I’m a socialist at heart and, whatever it is, New Zealand Labour is not a socialist party. It wasn’t just Rogernomics that scotched that idea; Tony Blair’s ‘third way’, a significant influence on the Fifth Labour Government, was really just a watered down version of Douglas’s ‘trickle-down’ economics. The ‘third way’ was, by definition, a ‘middle-way’, neither one thing nor the other and ill-suited to political idealism of any stripe – a Clayton’s political philosophy. I read that Labour’s new leader, David Shearer, wants to move the party to that ideological no-man’s-land that is ‘the centre’.
National already occupies that space but, as the distinctions between Key and Shearer lose focus – both promising to deliver ‘a brighter future’ and the Labour leader ditching policies specifically directed at putting more money into the pockets of the poor – I’ve no doubt that an accommodation can be reached between centre-right and centre-left. The centre is a wide church. I was brought up the only son of a solo mother in a council housing estate just outside Belfast. Technically we weren’t working class. My mother’s parents were wealthy antique dealers in Antrim. But a bad marriage left her with no money and a kid to look after in wartime and post-war Northern Ireland. So she got a job as a shop-assistant with a Belfast optician at 19 shillings and sixpence a week before joining the Inland Revenue Department as a Collector of Taxes in the early 1940s. She kept the job for life.
The thing about the Northern Irish working class is that they value education for their children above everything else. And, then at least, education was essentially free at all levels – primary, secondary and tertiary. My mother chose to send me to a ‘state assisted’ grammar school, which my uncles and male cousins had attended, and which cost her, I think, about £10 a term. My university education was to all intents and purposes free. I’d been studying for my Ph.D. in Edinburgh for two years when I discovered I had been entitled to a married student allowance. I belatedly applied and a huge cheque duly arrived from Belfast. These experiences informed my view that, in any enlightened and progressive society, there should be no financial barriers to getting an education to the highest level.
Education should be freely available to everyone. Health care should be freely available to everyone. Social security should be freely available to everyone who needs it. You get the picture. I’m a socialist at heart. I’ve done reasonably well in life. I’m not rich but, at 74, I’m what you might call ‘reasonably comfortably off’. In the process, I’ve paid a hell of a lot of tax. And I don’t mind. I’m a firm believer in progressive taxation – ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,’ as Marx so neatly put it. You can call that Communism or Socialism or pure Christianity. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is the core principle that the strong should support the weak. So it’s good that Labour’s new leader is at least intent on keeping a Capital Gains Tax as Labour policy. The earnings of the rich should be taxed to support the poor.
But I’m not comfortable with Mr Shearer’s reported intention to move the party ‘to the centre’. It’s a misnomer for one thing. Labour is already in the centre. It has already lost its working-class constituency. Any move ‘to the centre’ will merely be, as the share-brokers say, ‘a technical correction’, not as extreme as in ‘84 but a move to the right nonetheless. What Labour politics now seem to be about is finding ‘sellable’ policies and a ‘sellable’ leader in order to regain power. (For National read ‘retain power’.) What Green politics seem to be about is persuading people to come across to policies not obviously or immediately founded in self-interest, but in the long-term interests of all of us and (there’s no avoiding it) of the planet. No doubt they’d like to be in government too. But it doesn’t seem to be their primary motivation.