The Apotheosis of Shane Jones
The New Zealand media have crafted an image and narrative around Shane Jones that is at odds with reality.
Shane Jones’ shock resignation from Labour has provided another occasion for the New Zealand media to express their affection for and admiration of the former MP.
Members of the media have never been shy about expressing their support for Jones, coincidentally easily the most right-wing of Labour’s various prospective leaders. Yet the display of fawning that has followed his departure has reached new heights, all rooted in a narrative arguing his disappearance from Labour is not simply an embarrassing episode for a struggling party, but an earth-shattering blow to its political fortunes.
Much of this is based on an image of Jones that has been crafted and insisted upon again and again as a straight-talking, shoot-from-the-hip, man of the people; the only MP among Labour’s out-of-touch, elitist, intellectual, and liberal membership with his finger on the pulse of the party’s constituency. In this narrative, Jones, and his more business-friendly, less-PC views are the true solution to Labour’s woes, and with his departure, so goes Labour’s best shot at winning the hearts and votes of the working man it has abandoned.
Without exception, these pieces largely assert these 'facts' and Jones' strengths as an MP in vague, woolly language—his straight-talking, his “quick wit” and “chutzpah,” his rhetorical gifts, and his appeal to the Maori and working class vote—but apart from his crusade against Countdown, list no actual significant accomplishments he achieved in his nearly decade-long political career. Jones never passed any significant legislation and, despite being tipped to be a future party leader, handily lost the contest for Labour’s leadership. Moreover, there’s the question of whether any of Jones’ supposed benefits to Labour are grounded in truth, or if this is simply a case of repeating a fiction over and over until it becomes reality.
Jones’ image as a working-class hero is questionable at best. Though starting from humble beginnings, he was educated at Harvard (like liberal elite David Cunliffe) and was once a chairman of Sealord. John Key similarly came from humble beginnings, yet no one cites that as evidence that our Prime Minister is a regular bloke who’s “gotten his hands dirty.” So why Jones? Because Jones could, like the best politicians, project a less high-brow image to the public, slipping a "bloody" or a "shit" into conversation here and there, or relieving himself on a tree. Jones was a canny and shrewd politician who knew his audience.
What about his political beliefs? As we’ve been told, while the majority of Labour focused on irrelevant identity politics, Jones was fighting for the welfare of the common man. This is presumably based on Jones’ staunch defence of Sealord from environmental criticisms and his championing of coal mining. Of course, this ignores that Jones had received only a measly 12% of the union vote during the contest, which hardy points to workers' confidence in his leadership. It also ignores Jones’ total lack of enthusiasm for the living wage during the Labour leadership battle, a policy that would make real, tangible improvements to some hard-working kiwis’ lives, and one that his supposedly elite, out-of-touch leadership rivals embraced. But for our media, defending business interests is equivalent to defending that of workers.
As far as identity politics go, Jones had no issue embracing them when it suited his interests, promising a Pacific Island language TV channel to a South Auckland crowd during his leadership campaign. Moreover, as others have pointed out, it is the worst kind of condescension to assume sexism and homophobia are appealing to the working class. Lastly, Jones’ appeal to the Maori vote is grossly overstated—while Labour, supposedly hopeless without Jones to woo the Maori vote, won just under 50% of the party vote in the Tamaki Makaurau electorate in 2011, Jones won only 35%.
What’s behind this full-throated defence of Jones? Much of it is grounded in the punditry’s supposed wish for Labour to return to its roots of championing workers and the down-and-out. Yet Jones was a staunch friend to business, for which he was handsomely rewarded, and let’s not forget the fact that his leadership campaign was partly bankrolled by a National party stalwart. Even the man himself admits that he isn’t “naturally left-leaning” and that his support for Labour stemmed from his admiration of the neoliberal Lange government of the 1980s, whose market reforms ironically destroyed the old Labour which Jones supposedly represented and the media now pines for. To be sure, members of the press clearly do personally like the man, who is charismatic, well-spoken and entertaining. But could it also be that Jones’ more right-wing politics are more comforting to a media and political class which fret about Labour’s “lurch to the left”?
Hence we now hear that the Left's celebration of Jones’ departure is “sectarianism at its worst.” No comment, however, on whether Jones’ frequent baiting of and open hostility to the Greens, a Labour ally and potential coalition partner, was similarly damaging. One is only guilty of sectarianism when moving leftwards. Likewise, while John Armstrong instructs us that the Judith Collins “witch-trial”—involving very real and serious implications of the abuse of political power for personal reasons—doesn’t matter because the kiwi public doesn’t care, he insists on the vital importance of the Jones issue and its electoral fallout for Labour.
Does Labour really need Jones to win the working-class back? In fact, does it need anybody from a working-class background? If National’s domination of politics for the last 6 years is any indication, no. Neither does Jones’ departure eliminate political diversity within Labour—a fact confirmed by the media’s continued reports of division and factionalism within Labour. There are clearly still plenty of Labour MPs who lean closer to Jones’ thinking.
The media have a right to celebrate Jones. But they shouldn't mask their preference for his more political beliefs under assertions that his working-class credentials are the only thing that would keep Labour in the game. If Jones was the best working-class defender the party could find, then it's certainly in trouble.