• Live Mandela’s Principles In Our Own Society Today

    The world’s response to the death of Nelson Mandela is a richly deserved recognition of the suffering and struggle he endured in defence of his principles, and the humility and magnanimity he showed when he finally achieved his, and his people’s, freedom.

    He didn’t just proclaim his belief in human dignity, and his insistence that we are all equal in our humanity – he lived it. It is this shining example, this living embodiment of the quest for freedom and justice, that has touched so many people.

    Nelson Mandela at least had the satisfaction of living long enough to see his life’s work vindicated, even by many of those who opposed him. It is a safe bet that a substantial proportion of those world leaders who paid him homage at Tuesday’s memorial service would not have given him the time of day when he was incarcerated on Robben Island; some, we are told, “can’t remember” what they thought of him at that time and others condemned him as a terrorist. The prospect of the presence of such people at his memorial service was an irony that was not, it seems, lost on Mandela himself.

    But history is full of examples of brave men and women who stood against the prevailing tide – in other words, against the dominant power structures of the time – in order to stay true to the ideals of freedom, social justice and human dignity but, unlike Mandela, went to (or were sent to) their graves without ever seeing the fruits of their efforts. For many, it was only in death, and often much later, that their true worth, and the rightness of what they fought for, was recognised.

    Mandela was, in this as in so many other respects, an exception to the general rule. While he himself was the first to recognise that his eventual triumph did not mean that South Africa became overnight the promised land (in economic terms at least), the outpouring of love and gratitude for what he had achieved shows how much the freedom from repression and injustice has meant to the people whose interests he served so faithfully. In his case, he was left in no doubt that freedom and justice – and the chance of a better life – mattered greatly to those who had been denied them.

    So we must ask why so many of our leaders were so slow to value the universal issues that Mandela stood for and why even today we still resist them when they arise in our own societies and in our own times. Why is it that it is only when history and distance lend a longer perspective that understanding spreads as to the worth of what the champions of human dignity and equality – the fighters for the vote and the rule of law, the opponents of discrimination on grounds of race or gender or sexual orientation, the defenders of equal and basic rights for all – were trying to achieve?

    Is it a failure of imagination? Are we are so comfortable in our easy lives that we cannot conceive that many people – even in our own country – are denied what we take for granted? Are we so persuaded by the constant propaganda that everything is fine that we close our eyes to the real lives of so many of our fellow-citizens? Instead of making the small effort needed to remedy the deficiencies, would we rather deny the facts or blame the victims?

    What to make, for example, of the now incontrovertible evidence of the growing extent of child poverty in our supposedly prosperous society? Are we really prepared to dismiss the the Unicef finding that New Zealand is no longer a good place for children to grow up in or the report commissioned by the Children’s Commissioner that showed more than a quarter of a million children live in poverty?

    At a meeting in Auckland last week, an American woman told me that, when she decided during the course of her first visit to New Zealand in the 1970s that she would settle here, her bewildered family back in the US asked her why. “Because here,” she replied, “there is enough for everyone.”

    It is hard to think of a better definition of a society that functions well and successfully. So how did we become a society in which, despite our increased wealth, there is no longer enough for children who are brought up in cold, damp and overcrowded houses and have to go to school on empty stomachs? Why are we surprised that the illnesses of third world poverty are now rife amongst us and that our educational standards are slipping?

    Will those who find it opportune to pay homage belatedly to the achievements of Nelson Mandela now bring that apparent conversion to bear in the here and now? Will they recognise and act on the claims of so many our children to an equal chance in our rich and beautiful land?

    Bryan Gould

    10 December 2013

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 11 December 2013

  • Labour Bounces Back

    Eight months after the general election defeat, Labour is in surprisingly good shape – and, paradoxically it may seem, that perception is strengthened rather than reversed by the Shadow Cabinet reshuffle forced by Alan Johnson’s resignation.
    The improvement in Labour’s fortunes is not just a matter of the encouraging bounce back in the polls or the Oldham by-election victory. It is not even the choppy water already encountered by the briefly popular coalition government or the prospect of the much stormier seas yet to come. Labour, it seems, has started to feel good about itself again.
    This is partly because it is now becoming clear – assuming that it wasn’t on the day after the election – that, as Ed Miliband said in his Guardian article last week, Labour may have lost the election but the Tories failed to win it. That failure was more than a statistical fluke; it was a reflection of the fact that progressive opinion in Britain is in the majority. Labour lost because it failed to represent that opinion. It now sees the need and the opportunity that remedying that failure represents.
    But Labour’s improved morale is also the consequence of the canny strategy being pursued by its new leader. Ed Miliband has been criticised, in media accustomed to a diet of constantly manufactured headlines, for a lack of action. But what he has done has been well directed.
    He has understood the need to distance himself and the party from New Labour. Newness is of course and by definition a wasting asset, but Miliband recognises that “New” Labour was a victim not just of the passage of time but of its own hubris.He has accordingly done what is needed to acknowledge the most egregious of New Labour errors – the invasion of Iraq, the obeisance to the City, the tolerance of widening inequality, the “intense relaxation” about the “filthy rich”, the genuflection to market forces, the subservience to President Bush; the list must be ended for reasons of space rather than because it has run out of items.
    The one significant area where the new leader has seemed reluctant to start afresh has been the economy. The uncertain response to the government’s deficit inherited from the Brown government has left the coalition government free to re-write history and to invent a new narrative which lays the deficit at Labour’s door.Miliband has seemed content to allow unfolding events to conduct the argument for him. Fortunately for him, Alan Johnson (whose appointment as Shadow Chancellor was in any case a puzzle) has forced his hand. Ed Balls seems certain to carry the argument to the Tories, and to expose the supposedly inevitable cuts as an ideologically driven attack on public spending in principle and as precisely the wrong response in economic terms – a response which guarantees a longer recession and tougher times.
    But Labour’s bounce back is more than merely the renunciation of particular items on the agenda of the new leader’s predecessors. Miliband has begun the task of re-building the values and principles on which a modern progressive party must operate.In doing so, he has of course half an eye on disappointed and disaffected Lib Dems. This is partly a matter of electoral calculation and none the worse for that. But the attempt he makes to re-position what, in today’s Britain, should constitute the progressive force in British politics, while of obvious interest to many Lib Dems, is also critical to Labour’s future.
    His starting point seems to be that New Labour’s fundamental mistake was to abandon Labour’s historic mission by aligning itself with the big battalions. Those big battalions included most notably the rich and powerful who had most to gain from the unfettered operation of market forces. If the market was not to be challenged, was to be regarded as virtually infallible, (and this was the sometimes explicit basis of New Labour policy), the ability of a supposedly progressive government to intervene in the search for social justice and – crucially – economic efficiency as well was severely curtailed.
    But the powerful forces with which New Labour aligned itself were not limited to those who were dominant in the market. To many of those ordinary people who expected the support of a progressive government against those big battalions, the government itself was one of the oppressors. Ed Miliband is clear that New Labour’s betrayal of its natural supporters was a double let-down; they not only left many defenceless against the economically powerful but they used the power of government to reinforce that sense of powerlessness by failing to listen to what ordinary people wanted.
    In arguing that Labour must now correct those mistakes, the new Labour leader seems to adopt a view of progressive politics with which I strongly agree. I have long argued that the fundamental issue in politics is the response that must be made to what – if left uncorrected – will be the inevitable concentration of power in a few hands. Dominance of an unfettered market is one obvious form of that concentration. A government that is unresponsive to the people is another. The role of progressive politicians should be consciously to counteract those concentrations of power, and to ensure that power is as widely diffused as possible throughout society. The goal of progressive politics must be that people should have the greatest possible degree of control over their own lives.
    This kind of thinking is not new. It gains increasing expression in the many voluntary and community-based activities and initiatives that are springing up around the country. The task for progressive politicians is to show that government is an essential ally, and not an obstacle, to this kind of people- and community-based politics. People who are active in politics will be more effective if the government is on their side. That, after all, is what Labour came into being to achieve.
    Bryan Gould
    22 January 2011