"We're finishing an excellent year in which the polls and popular feeling on the streets tells us that we are on course to victory in 2017" – Nigel Haworth, 23/12/2015
There's an important epistemological distinction – perhaps more accurately a chasm – between bullshit and lies. Princeton philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, in On Bullshit, his classic essay on this subject, describes the essence of bullshit as "a lack of connection to a concern with truth [and an] indifference to how things really are". In other words, to lie is to consciously claim something at odds with what the liar knows to true; whereas, to bullshit is to make claims without any concern for their truth value. In this sense, to bullshit is morally less defendable than to lie to the extent that the liar at least implicitly acknowledges (even as he contradicts) the truth.
As Frankfurt points out in his 2005 article:
The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.
In politics, outright lying in far less common than bullshit, which is utterly ubiquitous. A politician who has just slashed schools funding is less likely to say, "we have actually increased schools funding" (a falsifiable lie) than "we have realigned budget priorities to better reflect the values and aspirations of the community" (straightforward bullshit). (I use the pronoun "he" not because I am a sexist troglodyte, but rather in recognition that a comfortable majority of politicians, as well as bullshit artists, are male).
Now, you see above an excerpt from NZ Labour's Christmas newsletter; specifically, it is drawn from party president Nigel Haworth's message.
It is a striking example of staggeringly audacious bullshit.
At the end of this apparently "excellent year", this is the average of polls about which Haworth bullshits:
To Haworth, this means Labour is on "path to victory in 2017".
In which multiverse, one wonders.
Now, it has now been widely reported that there is an internal Labour poll that places them at 35 per cent, only (only?!) ten points behind the Nats. But a single poll is largely meaningless, and the notion that "internal polls" are, by definition, more robust and accurate than public polls is...well, bullshit. In fact, Labour tends to underperform polling averages on Election Day, as do (invariably) its likely coalition partner, the Greens. But, even if we take the averages as a fair representation of voter intention:
- The polling average shows Labour plus the Greens behind the National Party by nine points.
- Even with NZF included in the so-called Centre-left bloc, they fall short by three points.
- The notion that an incumbent government on anything like 49.6% can be forced from office is risible. In fact, I cannot find a single example of a government in the mid-high forties in any jurisdiction with proportional representation who have lost. It's mathematically possible, sure, but implausible in practice – and National has hardly dipped below 45 percent during their whole tenure.
So the notion that Labour is "on track to victory" bears no relationship to the truth. It is – and I mean this in the strict, technical sense – flagrant bullshit. Given this, why does Haworth say it?
- Well, it feels good for him to say it.
- Party members and supporters to whom he is communicating love to think it is true.
- Telling the truth – to say out loud that there is no evidence whatsoever that Labour is any more likely to win an election today than it was at its previous historic drubbing – is unpleasant for all concerned.
- The broader media/political class, jonesing for a genuine contest in 2017, willingly suspend disbelief and therefore don't question Haworth's bullshit, allowing him to get away with it.
Sadly, Haworth's bullshit is greatly damaging. Labour would be much better off with a president who is willing to confront party members and activists with the ugly truth of Labour's predicament. As with any individual, organisation or company that has endured persistent failure, there can be no hope for Labour until it can reckon with the underlying causes for the existential crisis it faces but refuses to acknowledge. Doing so would be bloody hard because it would entail a course of action Haworth lacks the moral or political authority to implement –.across policy, personnel and party organisation. But because Haworth is all but powerless, what option does he have but to revert to wishful thinking, platitude-spouting and undiluted bullshit?
And now the New Year's Eve email — yet more bullshit.