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Utopians and pragmatists

Written By: - Date published: 11:43 am, October 10th, 2016 - 32 comments
Categories: activism, elections, labour, local government, Media, Politics, the praiseworthy and the pitiful - Tags: , , ,

justin lester mayor

Guyon Espiner wrote this interesting recent article in the Listener.  The article was written before Justin Lester bet Nick Leggett for the Wellington Mayoralty and reads like a promo piece written by a Leggett publicist.

In it Espiner talked about the utopians and pragmatists.  Amongst the ranks of pragmatists are Nick Leggett, Phil Quin, Shane Jones, David Shearer and presumably others such as Josie Pagani.  If I was to categorise myself I would clearly think that I am a utopian.

The language and thought processes involved are clumsy, self fulfilling and lead to a predetermined decision.  The basic premise is “pragmatist good, utopian bad”.

The article speaks in approving terms of Legatt’s campaign meeting, how the room was full of some of the leading lights of the left including people who have held leadership positions and Cabinet posts, people who have been chiefs of staff and speechwriters, strategists, hellraisers and fundraisers.  Sounds impressive although spoilt by a further comment that the number present is small.

The article then contains this passage:

Over the next few hours, the table talk buzzes around but returns to a common theme. The Labour people in this room see themselves as more electable than the ones in the caucus room. They think Little has veered too far left, are scathing of the relationship with the Greens and think Labour is heading over the cliff for a fourth consecutive defeat.

As the evening wears on and the beer and wine loosen the lips, it becomes more and more obvious: they see themselves as the Mainstream Labour Party in Exile and, tonight at least, their champion is Nick Leggett. He may be standing for mayor of Wellington, but having resigned from Labour, he’s also sending his old party a message: this is what Labour might look like if it actually wanted to win.

Leggett clearly thinks of himself as a pragmatist.  From the article:

“There’s the Utopian Strand and the Pragmatists. I fit into the Pragmatists, but it’s a much smaller group now,” he explains. “The Utopians are quite happy to sit in Opposition and have their positions validated by a small echo chamber on social media and in activist groups. They don’t really seem interested in the much harder task of actually building a plank for government.”

He identifies another closely related strand. “The Hate John Key Movement. They have failed to impress for eight years. They need to say why they are better than John Key and why they have got ideas that are more compelling.” He sees Labour’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a classic example of caving in to bloggers and tweeters rather than preparing for government. “If you are arguing from a perspective that says, ‘Yep, we are thinking about when we are in government’, their stance was wrong. I think that we should be a free-trading nation.”

There are in my humble view two problems with his thinking.  Firstly it is abundantly clear to me that us utopians are not willing to sit in opposition.  We want to change the world.  We can’t do this from opposition.  And over the past few years the only destructive behaviour I have seen, by way of leaks and attacks, has come from those who could be loosely classified as “pragmatists” although in the loosest possible sense.

Secondly the utopians think about issues deeply and have complex responses to ideas.  Saying “Trade is Good therefore Opposition to TPPA is bad” is insulting and ignores the many deeply flawed provisions in the treaty such as the investor state resolution procedure.

Leggett then talks about how business friendly MPs have been exiled from the party and mentions Shane Jones, Phil Goff and Clayton Cosgrove.

I am not sure which party Leggett is referring to but Shane Jones was seduced out of the party by the baubles of an office involving semi permanent paid touring of the Pacific and a diplomatic passport, Goff has just been elected to the second most powerful office in the country thanks in no small part to a huge effort by the Auckland Labour Party and Cosgrove is still in caucus.

Leggett then makes the startling comment about how MPs such as Stuart Nash are viewed with suspicion if they win votes.  Well Nash’s win was thanks in no small part to a new National candidate and the presence of Garth McVicar as a spoiler candidate.  And in Napier the party lost 3.13% points of the party vote as compared to the countrywide figure of 2.35%.  Dear pragmatists, in an MMP environment the party vote is king.  Nothing else matters.

And besides pragmatic Leggett has just been beaten by Utopian Justin Lester.  Maybe utopia is not such an unpopular thing.

Leggett then chips at Labour’s deal with the Greens.

Leggett says that mentality leads to an unrealistic election strategy. “These are people who think they can get into government with 32% of the vote. When Helen Clark lost, Labour got 34%, so they are not even close. I want to be part of a movement that says: we are a 40%-plus party and we are taking New Zealand with us. We don’t want to be part of a two- or three-headed coalition. We want to be the leader.”

I’m sorry but the Greens are far too professional and organised and principled and will not be going anywhere soon.  They are a permanent feature of the political landscape and their 10% to 15% support is right now bedrock support.  Contrast this with the right where National has cannibalised the support of their support parties and the difference cannot be clearer.  Commentators need to realise that this is the new reality and adjust their thinking.

Leggett’s analysis is basically business good, rich people good anyone who criticises them is a hater and splitter and can’t we all just get on?  This is fine as far as it goes and I do not know anyone who does not want to get along with others.  But it is totally devoid of any insight into what the big issues are and the article mentions no issues apart from “business friendly” ones.

The left has always been at the cutting edge of issues whether social or environmental  Often to its electoral damage it has advocated for brave principled responses to current and future crises.

Placing your head firmly in the sand and refusing to even discuss the big issues is not pragmatic.  It is regressive.  May utopian control of the progressive parties continue for many years to come.

32 comments on “Utopians and pragmatists ”

  1. McFlock 1

    I think it’s more accurate to say that Utopianism and pragmatism are each a distinct continuum, rather than being on the opposing ends of a single continuum.

    The ultimate “pragmatist” is a cynical, party-hopping but constantly-elected MP of no real principle, but at the same time pragmatism is what helps the utopian actually bring about their dream.

    But it’s also interesting that self-described “pragmatists” still long for the FPP days of monolithic parties controlling the bulk of the electoral vote – National will go the way of Labour, that’s why Colin Craig was targetted by tory muckrakers (deservedly, don’t get me wrong, but the tories didn’t do it out of conscience). The nats need to spend as much time killing seedling parties growing in their portion of the garden as they do trying to prune votes off Labour. Sooner or later the nats will encounter a few stronger seedlings than the convicts and sleazebags they’ve controlled so far.

    • weka 1.1

      Utopianism and pragmatism on an axis then?

      • McFlock 1.1.1

        I guess, but (and the data analyst in me is about to call that blasphemy) that might be overanalysing it.

        I’d be happy to think of them as independent guages at this stage, like the heading indicator and vertical speed indicator 🙂

      • Garibaldi 1.1.2

        On a continuum? This divide on the Left is not a continuum….. it’s an either/or.
        I wish these people ,who are so pragmatic that they are total sell-outs, would form their own Party because it is wrong to falsely claim you represent what Labour stands for when you are clearly (for want of a better term) a third way goon like Blair and Clark.
        The Left has to get this issue settled very soon, especially with it being so obvious now with rapid climate change that we cannot go on with growth ,growth and more growth on a planet with finite resources. Being National lite is not good enough to get us elected.

        • Once was Tim now no longer

          “I wish these people ,who are so pragmatic that they are total sell-outs, would form their own Party….”

          +100. Ain’t that the truth!

          The problem being they don’t have the nouse nor the guts to do so, but would rather hijack, slither and steal the principles of others, then warp, spin and slide them into something else – all in the name of ‘pragmatism’.

          It’s all very reminiscent of those fellow Onslow College so-called ‘ idealistic’ teenagers of yesteryear: protesting about all and sundry and what greedy, conservative, out of touch arsholes their parents were.
          Now of course (40 plus years on), they sound a damn sight worse than their parents ever did. In fact worse because they’re quite happy to mortgage their own kids future in the name of that ‘pragmatism’ – plus a second flat screen for the bedroom, and a few visits for “wifey’ to the Caci Clinic.

          and apologies for posting – it’s just that some of the hypocrisy almost causes me an infarction.

        • McFlock

          Of course it’s a continuum: some folks want compulsory unionism, others happy for closed shop, others would just prefer to strengthen/restore union powers (e.g. striking in sympathy and rep access) and leave unions to increase their own membership. At which point do they stop being “left”, in your opinion?

          This “if you’re not with us you’re against us” bullshit is pathetic. Yes, there’s a point where some members would be better suited to other parties than a left wing party, but a democratic party structure means you can’t kick them out. We don’t do purges these days, because it all ends in tears. So you need to get votes within the party to change the party, and those that don’t belong will wander away on their own volition.

          But sooner or later you need to sit down with people whose well-meaning and well-considered opinions differ in some way from your own, and you have to decide whether those differences are extreme enough for you to leave out of principle, or whether you can stay and try and change the party from within.

  2. Sanctuary 2

    The Blairite technocrats are so awesomely arrogant. Their arrogance is a thing of fascinating beauty, it is like watching a sumptuous but vapid banquet of deluded fools in a Spanish noir horror movie directed by Guillermo del Toro.

    • aerobubble 2.1

      Hooten was scathing, Goff used blue, was rebuffed by Goff would h’ave won with pink. But it does showup Hooten arrogance, acknowlegding Keys ability to steal off with Labour policies but decrying Goff using blue, simply not analysis just arrogant bullshit. Hooten then went on, in the same nr political anaysis, which isnt, it just a talk fest for hooten to push rightwing w*nk. Seems Clark is now irrelevant, as the UN is, and Hooten wants the govt to stop paying dues to the UN, and let us get on as a country burning our future workforce, improvishing, indebting, polluting. I am continually struck by how NR continues to pedal this troll as a analyst, its just jerkoff rambling of the farright. a wish list for our servitude to money. Hooten claims the blue, but he isnt, he’s not a conservative, his weekly ploy of pushing black far right agendas, that hurt moderate conservatism is now clear fact. Burning our economy with debt, pollution, social improvishment has never been conservativism, too conserve. Hooten’s neolib burn down the old, dont ask hard questions, ignore and belittle current power is astonishly bad for our economy. NR need to find analysts to give politcal prespective.

  3. Olwyn 3

    The term “pragmatism” is often used as a euphemism for expedience. There is a difference between the pragmatist who has ideals and seeks ways of turning at least some of them into practical realities, and the person who is expedient in order to get what they want. A person saying “we have to be practical about it” all too often means “we have to do what is expedient”.

    • Pasupial 3.1

      They are very loaded terms. If you were to go through the article and replace each instance of; “pragmatist”, with “unprincipled” or “soldout”, then you would create a very different impressionds. Utopian is derived from the greek for; “nowhere”, and still carries a connotation of impracticality. “Idealistic” or “principled” would again create a different impression. I understand that MS is trying to flip the use of the terms for stylistic effect in the OP, but would be very wary of adopting them outside that context.

      • mikesh 3.1.1

        “Utopia” is actually the Greek word “eutopia” which means “good place”. Pragmatism usually refers to the adoption of methods which will succeed in bringing about desired ends – whatever those ends happen to be. Methods which succeed in gaining the treasury benches, though pragmatic, would be pretty useless if the resulting government is committed to crappy policies.

  4. adam 4

    The public are not convinced by these people, these so called pragmatists.

    They are the lossers who helped kill the left. These radical centrists who are off into lala land.

    The closest historical analysis I can see is they are like the Bolsheviks, a lunatic minority who are smug, self righteous and with a definite tendency towards ideological purity.

    I think that disgust me about this group is two fold. They decry change, when change is happening all around them. They trying desperately hard to kill off any the voice of descent. When the greatest strength of the left is new ideas and new ways to deal with issues.

    I’d call the pragmatists radical centrists who know only one form of politics, destructive.

  5. rhinocrates 5

    Still a [deleted], I see.


    The Mayor’s Office has typically underspent by 10%, but Goff wants to sack lower-paid staff. He’ll keep the high paid parasites of course because he wants “top people”.

    [Gender based insult deleted. And the article says nothing about sacking staff. In an organisation of that size, redeployment would be the most likely option if he chooses to downsize his office’s overall numbers. Goff’s attitude to lower paid staff is covered in the article; he wants to introduce the living wage for council and CCO staff. No more sexist insults or mindless trolling, please. TRP]

    • dukeofurl 5.1

      Its like a ministers office, all staff are on contracts connected to who the mayor is.

      The few clerical staff might be staying or would have jobs lined up in the wider council, as they are likely high performers anyway.

      • rhinocrates 5.1.1

        Considering that he wants cuts across the board merely starting with the already underspending Mayor’s office, I think that it’s unlikely that there will be any places for those people to go when their positions are made redundant.

        Sorry about the P-word.

  6. Adrian 6

    “Leggett then makes the startling comment about how MPs such as Stuart Nash are viewed with suspicion if they win votes”

    Wrong, Nash is viewed with suspicion because of his own stated opposition, in fact ridicule of having a firm moral and principled political position, Nash in his own words…
    “Let’s be clear about one thing: politics is about winning. There is no such thing as a ‘glorious defeat’, leaders who lose are not, as some may believe, ‘martyrs to the cause’, and ‘coming second but maintaining our principles’ is a ludicrous proposition.”

    One time when I brought up this statement of Nash’s on this site, in contrast to Corbyn’s and Sanders highly principled platforms, Nash replied to me saying something like, “and how’s that gone for them”

    Well in as it turns out pretty good for Corbyn, the biggest and most invigorated left party in the western world, Sanders claimed more votes than Trump in the US primaires, even while being undermined by his own party infrastructure, and most MSM.

    Looks like Utopian politics, if that is what wanting a fair and equal society for all means, is doing very well thank you.
    Some prefer, myself included, to call it Socialism.

    • dukeofurl 6.1

      Clinton had more votes ( 17.8 mill) than Obama( 17.5mill) in the primaries in 2008, but Obama won ( with super delegates)

      So remind us how many votes Sanders got ? A measly 13 mill !

      • Adrian 6.1.1

        Your analogy doesn’t hold water, unlike Clinton/Obama in ’08. who were both accepted by the establishment media, hence both received relatively impartial coverage, where as Bernie was basically blocked out of the primary race by both the media and as it turns out the DNC, until about 2/3rd’s of the way through the race, by then it was essentially all over for him.
        Sure a lot of the limited press that he did get was favorable, but that is because he ran a positive campaign, it is pretty hard to run to many negative stories about fair minimum wages, less war and cleaner energy.
        So I would say 13 million votes brought about by nearly pure force of citizen power is a wonderful testament to a newly invigorated left progressive movement.
        Now I assume you like your power in it’s nice old stale debunked centrist establishment form, and that’s fine, I guess I just hold my political ideology and it’s leaders to a higher bar, guess I just believe we can do better,that’s all.
        Call me old fashioned.

    • Whateva next? 6.2

      Nash is making it very clear he only wants to win, and integrity is not part of his character, like a used car salesman really.
      As for Nick Legget, his ambition seems to be for himself rather than his city, to call this pragmatism, well, it’s you that’s dreamin Nick, not us.

  7. swordfish 7

    Leggett: ““These are people who think they can get into government with 32% of the vote. When Helen Clark lost, Labour got 34%, so they are not even close.”

    Sounds remarkably like David Farrar’s spin. In fact, almost word for word.

    More importantly:

    2008 General Election

    Green 6.7% … NZF 4.1% = 10.8%

    Average of Last 4 Polls

    Green 12.8% … NZF 9.3% = 22.1%

    As with John Key’s favourite blogger, Leggett’s de-contextualized stats = deceit

    • weizguy 7.1

      “Sounds remarkably like David Farrar’s spin. In fact, almost word for word.”

      Which isn’t surprising, seeing as Farrar is very positive about Leggett and was employed as his pollster.

      I enjoyed many things about the Wellington result, not the least of which was seeing Farrar’s polling being miles off.

  8. dukeofurl 8

    “And in Napier the party lost 3.13% points of the party vote as compared to the countrywide figure of 2.35%.”

    The boundaries have shifted a lot in Napier last election. ( same as a lot of provincial cities), its now up to the outskirts of Gisborne.
    Boundary change pulls rural voters into Napier electorate

    Surely you would know this MS ?
    From memory when the seat waqs last held by Braybrook it only went just past Tutira


    This map shows it running from Cape Kidnappers , inland to Tarawera on Napier Taupo rd and then to Mohaka River to sea.
    The southern part is cut off at Ngaruroro River now just outside Taradale

    • swordfish 8.1

      A quick look through the new booths suggests the Napier Electorate boundary changes would’ve only given the Nats a nominal advantage of about 280 Party Votes compared to 2011.

      So, boundary changes can’t, of themselves, explain Labour’s 2014 Party Vote fall in Nash’s Napier of 455, nor National’s Party Vote rise of almost 1500.

      Boundary changes may look impressive on the map but we’re really talking about the addition of a very sparsely populated rural region. People in the City and outer suburban area of Napier (including Greenmeadows and Taradale) continue to comprise the vast majority of voters in the seat.

      • swordfish 8.1.1

        In other words, all things being equal, National’s Party Vote lead over Labour in Napier should have increased by about 280 votes in 2014 due to boundary changes … whereas it in fact increased by a massive 1922 votes.

        • dukeofurl

          And how many labour Mps won the party vote in their electorate ?
          Not in New Lynn
          Not in Roskill
          Not in Mt Albert.
          Not in Rongotai
          Not in Hutt South
          Doesnt that suggest some arent doing the whole party a favour ? And for some splitting their vote suits them.

          You seem to have the numbers at your fingertips, where were they ?

  9. Ad 9

    Don’t fall in love with a dreamer
    ‘Cause he’ll always take you in
    Just when you think you’ve really changed him
    He’ll leave you again
    Don’t fall in love with a dreamer
    ‘Cause he’ll break you every time
    Oh, put out the light, just hold on
    Before we say goodbye


    If ever we needed a false dichotomy masquerading as debate, it’s during a local government election when it’s a whole bunch more about name recognition, mobilization, and unity. You need at least two of those to win.

    Meantime, for all you Corbyn fans, here’s Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes telling it you your heart.

  10. I want to be part of a movement that says: we are a 40%-plus party and we are taking New Zealand with us. We don’t want to be part of a two- or three-headed coalition. We want to be the leader.”

    The guy who came up with that considers himself a pragmatist? Does he lack a dictionary or something?

  11. Adrian 11

    Here is a great interview on Corbyn with the author Richard Seymour on his new book, Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, from Behind the News- KPFA

    He has a very good and quite cutting analysis of why the center left and establishment liberal media hate Corbyn so much, definitely worth a listen.

  12. b waghorn 12

    Nick Leggett, Phil Quin, Shane Jones, all ex labour nothing says screw you to an ex like going on to bigger and brighter things while they wallow in their own delusions ,

  13. Sirenia 13

    Guyon Espiner is apparently a close friend of Nick Leggett’s hence the puff piece in the Listener. I don’t think Guyon Espiner really understands Wellington. Leggett has been badly advised in his run against the first official Labour Party mayoral campaign in 30 years. He had some dodgy backers. But he is now seen as part of the right.

    Justin Lester had huge popular backing, mainly of young people and activists in this election. People easily understood Labour values. He had the good backstory of a poor single mother state housing childhood, which he kept saying he will never forget. He is also a very successful businessman (and Living Wage employer), and has the cheerful demeanour of Phil Goff.

    Nick Leggett’s main backer, one time Wellington Act Party chairperson Chris Parkin, now says Nick Leggett would be a good National or NZ First MP. I think he has burnt his bridges with the Labour Party.

    Incidentally, I am pleased that Phil Goff has committed to paying the Living Wage like the Wellington City and Regional Councils.

    • tc 13.1

      Gluon is an enabler of this govt, thats why he got the gig on nationals RNZ.

      This kind of academic pontification the left do just turns the average voter off, stick with the issues and keep it simple, only you political anoraks care.

      It will be a challenge with the likes of twyford who seems incapable of simple easy to digest comments running labour campaign.

  14. mauī 14

    Ew yuck. As an aside, I think comedian Chris Lilley would be able to impersonate Leggett perfectly 🙂

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