I BLAME IT on student politics. This strange, behind-the-scenes revolution, currently unfolding with minimal media coverage, but making undeniable progress, day, by day, by day.
The “left-wing” student politicians of the 1990s, and the people who voted for them, never trusted the majority. The reason for their mistrust was very simple: they all knew that if a majority of the student body ever got interested in the affairs of their associations, then their “progressive” brand of politics was bound to lose. Progressive politics was best conducted out of sight: by working inside, not outside the system; making the necessary connections; and, always, by making sure the dangerous democratic beast remained fast asleep.
Thirty years later, their “long march through the institutions” completed, the modus operandi of these former members of the student political class remains the same. Keep your true intentions hidden. Rely upon bureaucratic instruments rather than democratic mandates. Use the power of your political office to shut down opponents. Suborn the media (easy to do in student politics!) so as to avoid unhelpful scrutiny and political accountability.
The central “principle” of this form of progressive politics is: “you have to be in to win”. All that truly matters is that the “right” people, with the “right” ideas, make it into the “right places”. Only then can good things be made to happen.
The halcyon days of student radicalism of the 1960s and 70s, distinguished by the mass participation of the student body in the great issues of the day – the war in Vietnam, apartheid in South Africa, nuclear disarmament – had, by the end of the 1980s, given way to a desperate attempt to hold on to the “free” tertiary education enjoyed by previous student generations. By the end of the 1990s, however, not even the students’ obvious self-interest in getting rid of tuition fees was sufficient to generate mass protests.
The student associations, however, remained powerful reservoirs of progressive activism. Astoundingly, given what had happened to the trade unions, membership of the student “unions” continued to be compulsory. As tertiary student numbers grew, so, too, did the budgets at the disposal of those who controlled them. Since very few students bothered to participate in student association politics, these well-funded shells constituted a large and valuable prize for that dwindling number of progressives who were still “in to win”.
Unsurprisingly, the small fraction of the student body who were right-wing activists, appealed to their allies in the major right-wing political parties to de-fund these bastions of left-wing power by abolishing compulsory membership. Small wonder that the former student leader, Grant Robertson, fought National’s and Act’s obliging legislation to the bitter end. One of the Labour Party’s great reservoirs of activist recruits (the trade unions being the other) was about to be drained.
That there was no mass resistance to the dissolution of independent student associations (they survive today only by the grace and favour of the university authorities) merely confirmed the belief of the progressives that the majority of students – or any given population – simply could not be relied upon to support progressive political activities. Indeed, the only beneficiaries of any successful attempt to stir-up the majority would be the Right.
The brutal reality, as far as these in-to-win progressives are concerned, is that the majority of men are misogynists; the majority of whites are racists; and the majority of heterosexuals are homophobes. Stir up “ordinary people” and all you are likely to get is the equivalent of Brexit and Trump. Left-wing populism might be good for working-class males – and even some working-class females – but it could very easily end up being hell for everybody else. Best not to mobilise the masses – especially when preventing them from rejecting politically correct ideas is so very difficult. Besides, a mobilised population is the very last thing that the right people, in the right places, with the right ideas would consider helpful.
Not that these in-to-win progressives are about to allow their fear of mobilising the masses to serve as an excuse for inaction. They have, after all, made their way to positions of extraordinary power and influence. In Parliament, the judiciary, the public service, the news media, academia and the arts: all those whom patience has rewarded with institutional power have at their disposal mechanisms which can, if required, compel the compliance of the majority.
Not that compulsion is likely to be necessary. The lessons these progressives learned back in in their student days: keep the student journalists and broadcasters sweet; don’t go out of your way to let people know what you’re up to; make sure the elected offices of the association are packed with your ideologically-sound friends and comrades; and don’t, under any circumstances, irretrievably alienate the people in the University Registry, the true locus of campus power; are all readily adaptable to national politics.
The only problem – and it’s a big one – is that, unlike student politics, national politics has the Left facing well-organised right-wing opponents. Not every news-media outlet can be nobbled. People can be rarked-up by politicians espousing all kinds of reactionary ideas. And, worst of all, the turn-out at general elections can climb as high as 70-80 percent. Progressive student politicians always relied upon between half and three-quarters of eligible student voters not bothering to cast a ballot.
Though the in-to-win progressives energetically resisted being educated by their examples, there were student politicians who sought nothing more than to represent the majority of the student body. They weren’t progressive, or, at least, not in the way the Left thought of itself as progressive, but they did know how to talk to ordinary students. More than that, they knew how to make fun of the Left and its obsessions. Student leaders like Paul Gourlie and Graham Watson (who was elected President of the Auckland University Students Association a record four times) understood that democratic politics is about rousing the majority, not preventing it from waking up.
In the much more dangerous world of the twenty-first century these sort of politicians would be branded populists. They would not object. Nothing frightens the in-to-win progressive more than politicians who not only make the people listen to him, but who also listen to the people.