In her celebrated maiden speech Mhairi Black talked about Tony Benn and the inspiration that he provided her. Benn was a true left winger who stuck to his beliefs. He was described as one of the few United Kingdom politicians to have become more left-wing after holding ministerial office.
She referred to his famous dicta where he talked about politicians being either weathercocks or signposts. Weathercocks changed with the prevailing wind of public opinion whereas signposts stood firm and pointed in the direction they thought our society should move in. She expressed a clear preference for politicians who are signposts.
Her party has created quite a stir in English politics. The inspiration provided by the SNP has led to the formation of branches throughout England. Of course in a first past the post system this will only help the tories but you can understand the motivation and the exasperation of former Labour supporters when UK Labour has decided not to vote against the Conservative’s planned welfare cuts.
To Benn’s comment there could be added a third class of politicians, those that appear to be signposts when in fact they are weathercocks.
Recent examples from the United Kingdom and locally show how adept the Conservatives and National are at appearing to make a stand on policies that progressives support. You get the strong impression that this is not a road to Damascus type conversion to socialism but rather a cynically targeted political tactic. But you have to admire its apparent effectiveness. Crosby Textor are obviously earning their fees in both countries.
A UK example is that the Conservative Government has decided to introduce a living wage. The announcement was made at the same time that benefits were frozen but went further than what Labour had promised during the election. The proposal will be gradually introduced and the net savings will allow a surplus to be declared in election year (where have we heard this before) but the assimilation of the language of the left is unmistakable.
We saw a similar thing happen in New Zealand with the announcement of a $25 dollar a week increase for beneficiary families with young children. Suddenly the right can claim to be as caring as the left. The left being too timid to do something effective about poverty means that the right can cynically out position them and claim the moral high ground. And the media gleefully accept this framing even though the reality is that this increase is inferior to what Labour had proposed.
The problem with Labour Parties trying to inhabit the centre and refusing to fulfil their historical mandate to provide more radical solutions is that they will be easily out positioned by their conservative opponents. And they do not have the resources to focus group the ideal position and will lose calibration competitions most of the time. If you get the feeling that John Key is able to stare deep into New Zealand’s psyche it is because he does through the extensive use of polling and focus groups.
Labour politicians are better off being signposts. Historically it has been the trade unions and members and activists who have meant that Labour has been able to defeat its opponents even with their far superior financial resources. This is not going to change any time in the foreseeable future. And they are invigorated by signposts, not weathercocks