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They Were Wrong

September 1, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Politics seems to drift backwards and forwards over time and during certain periods one political style is popular before it becomes less fashionable and another takes over. We are currently nearing the end (at least I hope we are) of a period where the right has been in control and neo-liberal dogma has ruled. Obvious proponents of this style were Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher but the more significant point is that the idea was also taken up by those who were ostensibly on the left, such as Tony Blair.

Here in New Zealand an extreme form of neo-liberalism was introduced by the 1984 Labour government (theoretically center-left) and that was extended by National (our center-right party) when they came into power and has been continued in a less extreme form by all governments ever since. So we have had decades of privatisation, asset sales, foreign investment (AKA exploitation), lighter regulation, etc.

Now, even our government of the right has drifted significantly towards the center. Presumably this is because the people have seen that neo-liberalism doesn’t work as we have been told. Of course, any sensible person should have seen that from the beginning but, as I said at the start of this post, people tend to vote based on trends and fashions rather than logic and facts.

But if the zeitgeist is trending back to the left why have genuinely left-wing parties been so unsuccessful around the world? Here in New Zealand the Labour Party is a bit of a mess and many people think they are unelectable (I disagree but that’s not the point). In the UK the Labour Party failed spectacularly in the recent election. And the same applies elsewhere. So what’s going on?

Well there are a couple of factors to consider here (at least in my humble opinion). The first is that people may not be quite ready to head back to the genuine left after so long, so moderate right parties are still attractive. But more importantly (I think) the left have spoiled their credibility by, in the past, implementing the exact policies they are criticising right-oriented governments for now.

On so many occasions I hear New Zealand’s prime minister defending his actions by pointing out that a certain policy was actually initiated by Labour or that they had a similar policy when they were in power last. And he has a very good point. It must be very difficult for the opposition to attack National policies which are almost identical to what Labour had in the not too distant past.

I think the correct approach to this would be to just admit they were wrong but have seen the error of their ways and have now changed, unlike the current government who refuse to admit their errors. Or maybe, if they want to be a bit more disingenuous about it, say that the political and economic climate has changed and we should change our approach too.

But that’s not what the opposition have done. Instead they have embarked on a rather weak and unconvincing defence of their past and this is exactly what the PM wants: to shift the focus from his government’s poor performance and put the opposition on the defensive. As I have said many times before: the PM is a very smart politician (that isn’t necessarily a compliment).

I think there is a background of support by many people to return to more moderate politics: if not yet truly left, at least more centrist. The support for people like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US (about as close to the left as you can get there) shows this. But in many cases the fact that the left have often been responsible for the worst excesses of the politics of what would normally be seen as right-oriented has destroyed a lot of the appeal these people might have.

It does make the opinions that “they [political parties] are all the same” and “it doesn’t really matter who you vote for” harder to discredit. In the past these ideas were actually fairly true, although there has always been some difference in the enthusiasm the various parties had for their policies.

So it seems that in the short term the parties of the left were correct to shift to the right when that was fashionable because that made them more popular according to whatever was in favour at the time. But now that has come back to haunt them. Now they have to admit they were wrong. They need to show that they have changed and that there is a genuine alternative.

But will that happen? Probably not.

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