Channeling Ramsay MacDonald: When Governments Give Up

New Zealand can be a very strange little country sometimes. Our memories of that fateful year of 2020 are a bit different from everyone else’s – specifically that New Zealand remembers it fondly. It was, after all, the year we collectively defeated the Virus – the year we ended with just twenty-six Coronavirus Deaths. “Team of Five Million” and all that, a truly inspired mantra, and one that calls to mind the efforts of Michael Joseph Savage and Peter Fraser some eighty years ago.

2022 is a different matter. Frankly, looking at the Government of Jacinda Ardern now, one thinks of comparisons to a Very Different Labour Government. Not the infamous Lange-Palmer Government of the 1980s… that would be to imply that the Ardern Regime has a meaningful commitment to genuine ideological change, however messed-up that ideology might be.

No, a day after New Zealand recorded thirty-four Covid Deaths – a higher daily toll, of course, than the whole of 2020 – I think the better analogy would be that of Ramsay MacDonald. Britain’s First Labour Prime Minister.

In marked contrast to the sainted Michael Joseph Savage, MacDonald’s efforts – or lack of effort – during the Great Depression overshadows his legacy. Well that, and him trying to push spending cuts through Cabinet meant that he wound up in coalition with the Conservatives. But that’s another story.

The fundamental problem faced by British Labour at this point was that one faction – that represented by MacDonald and his colleague Philip Snowden – were rigidly committed to the standard economic orthodoxy of the era. Balanced Budget, Gold Standard, and all that. The other faction thought they just had to wait for the Glorious Socialist Revolution to come and save them. Neither faction had the intellectual tools, nor even the raw political courage, to address the actual crisis on the ground, so the situation drifted, with a weak and pathetic Government stuck like a deer in the proverbial headlights.

(There is the apocryphal story that one of the former Labour Ministers later heard that the Conservatives had taken Britain off the Gold Standard. “No-one told us we could do that!” was his supposed reaction).

So it is with New Zealand Labour in 2022. A Government whose bread-and-butter has been its crisis management has decided that catering to the whims of the Business Community and the Media is more important than actually making an effort. Any effort. So it sits there, on an unprecedented parliamentary majority, and does absolutely nothing beyond chipping away at its own 2020 legacy, all the while opening up a yawning chasm between its rhetoric and the reality. It’s not just Covid either – the Government’s lack of interest in tackling the supermarket duopoly, much less the housing crisis, are there for all to see. The only time this Government ever does anything these days – most notably the temporary cut in petrol tax – is because external events have forced its hand. It is the MacDonald and Snowden fetishisation of the status quo come again, this time with arguably even less excuse.

It is true, of course, that perhaps nothing the Government could do would make a difference. The rest of the world is so infected (and pre-departure tests so corrupt and unreliable) that on-going MIQ leakages would have been inevitable. And the Friends of the Virus are highly enthusiastic about pursuing court cases and undermining what is left of the Covid Response. Meanwhile, tackling the poison of forty years of Neoliberalism is quite beyond the intellectual pay-grade of a generation of Labour politicians for whom the doctrines of social liberalism are more important than economics. That sort of thing requires courage, creativity, and copious pre-planning, and the stockpiles of that are somewhat lacking in Wellington right now.

It’s just that when one is confronted with thirty-four deaths in a single day, I’d prefer the Government to Try, in the way they Tried in 2020. Even if a last-ditch lockdown and tightening of borders couldn’t work, I’d prefer a Noble Failure over whatever the Hell they think they’re doing right now. The Right will go on about “Marxist agendas” regardless, and parade the self-inflicted suffering of anti-vaccine nutters as though it actually means anything. Certainly, the Government faces institutional sabotage at every step, from bureaucracy and media alike… but that’s part and parcel of being a Labour Government. You deal with it. You don’t just sit there like Ramsay MacDonald and wait for the Establishment to reward your pathetic loyalty to the status quo. Because it won’t.

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