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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 9. 9 May 1972

Pragmatism or Principles

Pragmatism or Principles

Retrieving the debate from the realm of dreamland, it is obvious that many people, including radicals, socialists, will be giving thought to the Labour Party over the coming months and defining their attitudes both collectively and individually. In shaping my own attitude towards the Labour Party several small incidents come to mind and attain an influence that may at first seem out of proportion to their actual size. One example is when Gerry Wall, M.P. for Porirua, standing in a room with Dr. Jim Cairns of the Australian Labour Party and one of the leading figures on the Australian Left, could say, "I'm sure Dr. Cairns will agree with me when I say that a political party can only do one of two things, it can educate or it can get into power — we've chosen to do the latter." I also recall the wink Cairns gave to the other people in the room. Then there is Norman Kirk telling students at Vic last year—"We opposed the war in Vietnam in 1966, and look what happened, — it cost us Mirimar" Or Peter Debreceny who oversees the Labour Party's relationship with the media saying that "The job of an opposition party is to get into power", or more recently, the Party's General Secretary, John Wybrow, pronouncing that this year Labour will strive for the attainable rather than the desirable. These are fragments, but they add up to a strain of thought within the Labour Party that no-one least of all socialists, can ignore or should ignore in trying to decide whether to work or simply to vote for Labour. "Moreover the Wilsonian formula of the lesser evil is no answer to anyone who really thinks about his or her politics; on the contrary its appeal is strongest when people, frustrated in the search for alternatives cease to try.

In saying that all the statements above add up to a strain of thought, I am perhaps mis tating the case—in an important sense they add up to a strain of non-thought. They are all heavy with pragmatism, a dull pragmatism which has met with outstanding success in exorcising from the Labour party the kind of theoretical thought indispensable to any kind of socialist programme. Within the party this strongly rooted tradition manifests itself in a form of pure anti-intellectualism, one of Norman Kirks more distinctive traits. The rationale is that we cannot afford to play with ideas, by definition dangerous, whole we are engaged in the down-to-earth, practical business of trying to win elections. That we do not win elections is not a cause for rethinking, but rather a sign that the party is simply not swimming fast enough to keep up with the tide. Theories, ideas, become an even heavier ballast page break than before and must bejettisoned more furiously as a result. This may be variously called a vicious circle, a downward spiral or simply a swing to the right. Its effect on the electorate is fairly accurately gauged by a question posed in the New Zealand Partisan last year, "Is New Zealand Going Fascist?."