New Zealand’s leading public intellectual of the Left, Chris Trotter, seems to have been genuinely unsettled by the defeat of Labour in 2008. Toys have been thrown, and targets targeted.
In an initial attack of post-election spleen Chris railed against those voters who brought in National as ” . . . the men who just couldn’t cope with the idea of being led by an intelligent, idealistic, free-spirited woman; the gutless, witless, passionless creatures of the barbecue-pit and the sports bar (and the feckless females who put up with them); who voted Helen Clark out of office.” (Sunday Star Times, Sunday, 9 November 2008 )
In the same article, Chris then grew left wing horns and charged the corporate media and class society (” . . you can read it on the pages of the right-wing media: the smug certainties of our genteel suburban fascisti – regurgitated to order by publications long-used to dripping the oleaginous phraseology of “responsible journalism” all over the jagged edges of their readers’ class-advantage”) and then rounded up by saying “many of us simply refused to believe our fellow citizens could be so dumb – or so mean.”
The question that remains though is why should the result have been so surprising? Defeat was on the cards, and was hardly a landslide of the type that threw Labour out in 1990 and National in 1999. More an accumulation of errors and the old idiocy of “it’s time for a change” in a two horse race. The “genteel suburban fascisti” were there for the last nine years and did reasonably well out of Labour’s tax cuts, as they will do slightly better under National’s tax cuts.
The National Party would not be in Government if it could not muster the votes of a substantial number of swinging voters, including some of the working class voters who will have previously voted Labour. So presumably, at least some of Labour’s voting base are made up of the same “gutless, feckless” creatures Chris identified. And those creatures have votes, and will have to be coaxed back into the “Labour” fold at some point.
Which all makes his more recent statement that “we should be striving to achieve ’emotional congruence’ with working people” somewhat odd. You can’t achieve emotional congruence with people by calling them names.
Faced with tax cut supreme from John Key or tax cut lite from Helen Clark, the middle of the road voters (or in Chris’s terms, the ‘passionless creatures of the barbecue-pit and the sports bar’) opted for the real deal.
After all, why would the working class feel passionate about Labour? This was a Government that relied on technocratic competence rather than building a political consciousness or spirit of community or class.
Labour failed to advocate for a democratic socialist society for the simple reason it is not a democratic socialist party. It is a liberal party dedicated to managing capitalism in a humane and competent way, benefiting from the benign state of the global economy during its nine years. It responded to the liberal middle class that now make up its key supporters on social issues far more keenly than it showed any interest in advancing the interests of its traditional support base, who seem largely voiceless.
The liberal goals of the Labour Party are very different goals than working towards a democratic socialist society.
The approach of Labour in Government has reinforced the development of a new type of voter and citizen, and this voter in turn influences the development of Labour as a political entity.
This is the kind of modern day voter, detached from any class awareness or political conviction, who is the end product of a society governed by management style, technocratic parties such as Labour.
The kind of modern day voter who has been convinced that a tax cut for themselves is a better bet than contributing collectively towards a better society.
Here is where the story gets a little more complicated. We now return to Chris’s post election musings.
A walk down Bowalley Road
After the initial outrage at the election of National, Chris embarked on a new quest, to convince the small number of “left of Labour” activists that they are either fools, irrelevant, extremists, or undermining the noble breed of left wing Labour MPs who are now moving up through the ranks.
It’s hard to see how you can be both harmful and irrelevant simultaneously, but perhaps we should thank Chris. Instead of sinking into a post election slumber, his broadsides have forced us to focus our thoughts on the road ahead, and make the argument as to why we think a left of Labour Party in New Zealand is necessary.
Firstly, some background.
In a blog post, Chris attempts a grand synthesis of history, describing my own party the Alliance as a creature that has served its purpose and now exists only as ” . . . a curse, because the Alliance’s undoubted (although limited) achievements have convinced individuals and organisations to the left of the Labour Party that the creation of a viable left-wing electoral option to Labour is a viable political project.”
He then attacks RAM activist Oliver Woods and by implication others who wish to oppose Labour from the left as taking part in “a project as bereft of sense as it is lacking in even the remotest possibility of success.”
(My own view on RAM is straightforward. It was a mistake to try to set up at short notice a left wing party with the same policies as the Alliance and the results were predictable, even if the motives of some within RAM remain a little opaque. However, having said that, apart from this disagreement, Oliver’s analysis of the political situation and the Labour Party is pretty much bang on, and is summed up admirably in his blog post replying to Chris.
Far from being a wild eyed wrecker, Oliver is simply a principled social democrat who actually believes in the principles of social democracy and is prepared to stand up for them. Having been active within the Labour Party, he made a rational and informed decision based on his negative experiences and has since then been busy involved in playing an active part of building a social democratic alternative to Labour.
In response, Chris paints a picture of two options.
On one side is the realistic, sensible and practical Labour Party, with its bright clutch of new MPs, and its massed ranks of working class supporters:
and for Team B, a scattering of eccentric, rambling margin dwellers of the ultra-left, stuck in a time warp and cut off from those very people they claim to represent.
In this latter group he appears to include anyone who is critical of and outside the Labour Party. Everyone gets lumped in together. Social democrats like Oliver Woods are thrown in the pot, along with thoughtful and humanistic leftists such as Bryce Edwards and assorted crusties from the fringey anarchist scene. Don Franks is tossed in for seasoning and told to steer clear of politics and stick to the banjo playing. Even old friends in the Alliance are now added to the boil up.
This caricature is simply unworthy of a writer and political thinker of Chris’ stature and history.
If he wanted to make a point about some of the more bizarre outcrops of political activity, he could have done this easily. It would have been a pointless exercise because such groups and individuals have always existed and probably always will.
But the fact is that there are a substantial number of serious political activists in New Zealand who subscribe to a set of political ideas to the left of Labour. They may be relatively disorganized; they are certainly underfunded, and do not have the access to the institutions of power and resources as a status quo party of the establishment like Labour commands.
The personal element comes into play as well. As a left wing activist you will not find a happy home in the private sector or the public sector. You will not find a happy home in large parts of the trade union movement, except amongst the militant minority. As a worker you will be excluded from decision making; as a professional or business person your prospects will be less bright than your colleagues. There may be some opportunities as an academic.
You also have to contend with being attacked in the corporate press by left wing commentators. In other words it can be a thankless grind, with two dangers: you either become depressed and burned out, and either give up, or join Labour (which is another way of giving up), or you adopt a siege like survival mentality with a few likeminded souls who are still toughing it out in the wilderness.
To offer my own credentials, I have worked for the Maritime Union of New Zealand for a number of years, as well as standing for the Alliance in 2005 and 2008 in Dunedin North. I achieved the modest result of 448 electorate votes in 2008, and my deposit was donated by the Port Chalmers Dunedin branch of the Maritime Union. I also was invited to speak at stopwork meetings of watersiders and seafarers in Auckland and Wellington and received several thousand dollars of donations towards the Alliance from these Maritime Union branches. Being with a progressive and militant union, I have been more fortunate than others of my acquaintance in the wider trade union movement who have been subtly and not so subtly pressured for not complying with the party line.
I point this out to indicate that where someone makes the effort, there is a receptive audience for socialist ideas in parts of the trade union movement, although not necessarily at the top levels of the CTU.
Guilty as charged, m’lud
Back to the topic in hand, I’d like to deal with the charge as I understand it: that a democratic socialist “left of Labour” movement involved in electoral politics in New Zealand is futile at best and harmful at worst.
In reply, I would state there are a number of very strong arguments for a such a movement and such a party.
A socialist minority view organized in a democratic party is vital for New Zealand. My view of such a party is a democratic, mass based party that is a broad church but subscribes to key socialist principles. In the New Zealand context it could accommodate all those from progressives and social democrats such as RAM co-leader Oliver Woods or Alliance candidate and publisher Jack Yan, to democratic socialists such as myself or Quentin Findlay, to radicals and non-dogmatic marxists who are prepared to engage in a wider movement to promote their perspective.
The key values holding together such a party would not revolve around inflexible and dogmatic ideologies, but would accept the need for principles such as egalitarianism (versus elitism), democracy (versus corporate domination), sovereignty (and internationalism), community and public ownership of major areas of the economy, and a commitment to removing the pervasive destructiveness of economic insecurity and class division.
Some of these goals require an openness to ambiguity, and a commitment to open, transparent debate and structures. Debate there will be.
If such a party were to succeed to some degree in achieving its goals in the future, it might eventually become necessary for it to divide into social democratic and radical socialist strands, but in a way that learned from the lessons of the past and avoided the power struggles that have bedevilled the left.
This may seem a little pie in the sky to “realists” such as Chris, but as they say, if you aim for the stars you might make it to the treetops.
I believe that such a party should have an electoral strategy but should not be dominated by an electoralist mentality. Vote machines may achieve power but the goal should be to effect change. The activist, educational, cultural, industrial and intellectual roles of a socialist political party are also important.
Such a party provides healthy competition of ideas with the centrist liberals of the Labour Party. The way it can make Labour take notice, and build its ideas among the public, is by competing for votes as well.
It would act as an all-important ideological anchor to Labour, it would be part of an activist base in the more progressive and militant unions and in civil society, and provide an intellectual challenge to the free market and the centrist liberal ideas of the Labour Party.
It could negotiate supporting a Labour-led Government, moving such a Government to the left.
If you fundamentally disagree on key political matters, then it makes no sense to operate in the same organization. If there are areas of common ground, then these can be worked around, just as areas of disagreement can be. Just because this has failed in the past does not mean it can not be attempted again successfully.
Which brings us to our next point. New Zealand (for now) has an MMP system. There is absolutely no reason why New Zealand cannot have, like the many countries with similar electoral systems, a “party of the left.”
It appears that in New Zealand only us socialists are not allowed to have our own party. Maori, environmentalists, Christian conservatives, social conservatives (Anderton), Muldoonists (Peters), and the far right all have their own parties and there seems to be no problem with that. Chris appears to argue because at the current point in time the Labour Party receives a lot of votes then this in itself provides the practical and moral basis for all left wingers to cast aside their own independence and criticisms and “get with the programme.”
There is a minority of voters in New Zealand who would support a left of Labour programme – I will call them the socialists, and would suggest around 10% of the electorate might come into this category, although this is by its nature a crude estimate.
They are a dispirited and divided group, bruised by the events of recent years. They took the fight to the New Right, largely through the Alliance, and while they have seen the careers and political fortunes of opportunists be rewarded, they are still largely on the outside of the political machinery of the State, with the exception of a small number who proved useful.
The role of Jim Anderton in destroying his own party to protect the Labour Party is a fascinating study in political psychology, but one that we can learn from, especially in the fate of the “Progressive” Party that despite its parliamentary presence of one MP is an empty caricature of Anderton’s initial vehicle, the dynamic NewLabour Party.
Chris now is playing his part in rewriting history by identifying the real villains: the independent minded activist base of the Alliance membership who demanded democratic accountability in the Alliance. In his trajectory across the political firmament, we now find Chris admiring the resilience and realism of the political operator, the “strong man” who gets things done, who stands up against the crazy fringe, the terrorist-loving freaks and geeks with their looney left permanent opposition politics.
This is political fairy tale syndrome.
A democratic socialist political programme
There still remains, I am convinced, a bedrock support for ideas that are to the left of Labour today, and will continue to remain to the left of Labour.
This group of citizens are currently divided between voting for the Labour Party, the Green Party, perhaps a few for the Maori Party, and a smaller number who are involved in the left of Labour parties such as Alliance, RAM and Workers Party.
Those “left voters” who vote for Labour do so because they feel there is no alternative, and also because Labour commands a large advertising budget which it generates from donations from the likes of Owen Glenn and other well known leftists.
As one wharfie said to me, I’ll be voting Labour again, even though I don’t like them – but you guys (Alliance) may be back in the future. He joined the Alliance.
There is a grudging and reluctant support from those left wing voters for Labour, and many of whom would come over if there was a more substantial and growing “left party”. Of course, many of the right wing “swinging” Labour voters probably ended up voting for John Key this time (the feckless and gutless ones, as Chris referred to them).
The Greens have become the default party of liberal left voters in New Zealand, due to various historical factors. Some former Alliance leaders seem to have offered their support towards the Greens in a kind of coded way.
However, as has been pointed out by Professor Jim Flynn, the Green’s economic and taxation policy with its lack of detail and focus on “resource taxes” as opposed to progressive taxation, is not a democratic socialist approach and would penalize low income people.
The Greens fuzziness and ability to appear to be all things to all people is not something that I could operate within, although their brand image is certainly a winner with people who aren’t too worried about the finer details.
Likewise the Maori Party has collected a substantial group of voters within Maoridom, although as I predicted several years ago, rather than having proved to be a natural ally of the Left they have evolved into an actual ally of the Right. Their support is magnified due to the Maori seats. How the Maori Party will fare in its liaison with National will be an interesting sight.
Both the Greens and the Maori Party may seem part of the “new politics” that transcend the old class-based politics. But because the class basis of society is still around, it requires a socialist party to actively represent the majority of working people while incorporating environmental and ethnic awareness into its politics.
Why are some of us democratic socialists intent on building such a party? Because, we simply have a different political vision and goal to Labour.
Let us outline some of the key policy “points of difference” that a democratic socialist “left” party such as the Alliance supports and where we diverge from the Labour Party.
• A more equal distribution of income and wealth through progressive taxation.
The Alliance is fortunate enough to have a comprehensive alternative budget and tax tables drawn up by Professor Jim Flynn of the University of Otago. These taxation tables and budgets provide a concrete plan for how a more equitable and democratic society could be brought about that is clearly different from the Labour Party plan of tax cuts that benefit the middle to upper income earners.
Professor Flynn has given several lectures on the Alliance’s policies in recent years, and has described the Alliance as a “political party in waiting.” He also pointed out the importance that the Alliance continues to advocate its goals for a humane society such as free education and health care – as if no one advocates the ideas, the ideas die and are lost.
• Free education. Faced with the prospect of defeat in 2008, Labour rolled out some last minute opportunistic moves, driven by circumstances, and tried to paint them as part of some vision. One of which was universal student allowances, a sop which the student movement accepted, has served to cement in and obscure the much bigger issue of student debt, now well in excess of ten billion dollars – the death of free education in New Zealand. Free education is a basic goal of democratic socialism.
• The buyback of KiwiRail and the establishment of KiwiBank (public ownership)– KiwiRail obviously had to be bough back because of the failure of private ownership, and should have been done nine years ago. A democratic socialist programme would insist on a high level of accountable public enterprise. If it had not been for the Alliance, the highly successful Kiwibank would never have happened.
• A rejection of Free trade deals that are further enmeshing New Zealand into a global capitalist system that will further devastate the working class and threaten democracy. The evaporation of the remaining high tech manufacturing in New Zealand, for example the Dunedin Fisher and Paykel plant relocating to the Mexican maquiladoras, gives the lie to the so-called “niche market” theory. Under Labour we have travelled further down the path of New Zealand becoming a paddock with a golf course attached, relying on two commodities agriculture and tourism that are extremely vulnerable to market fluctuations and face an uncertain future in a world of climate change and peak oil.
The much boasted low unemployment rate was due to positive global economic conditions rather than any specific policy of the Labour Government. Now we are entering into a period of “creative destruction” for world capitalism, the essential vulnerability of the New Zealand economy and society will become apparent – a legacy of the Labour Party’s commitment to leaving it more or less to the market.
• Job security. Casualization has been allowed to take hold in the workforce. Now we are moving into a period of growing unemployment the negative effects of insecure jobs will become apparent. I have spoken to a number of workers during my work with the Maritime Union who have been in basically the same job as casuals since the 1990s.
• Housing. A generation of New Zealanders are now priced out of their own homes. An unstable market means that those who did buy in at the height of the bubble are now left with negative equity. And who does all this serve? Private investors, banks, and the middle aged and wealthy. The obvious answers such as capital gains tax have been ignored. The bizarre spectacle of a new National Party housing minister discussing the need for expanding the stock of state housing says it all. This is one central area where after nine years Labour had failed to get a grip on.
• Power. The continuing arrogance of the private or corporatized power companies and their operations make a bad joke of Labour’s supposed commitment to “sustainability” and social requirements. Should we be surprised? When I questioned the then Minister of Energy David Parker on this issue in 2008 and suggested that a public-owned system run on social lines was necessary, I was told that “capitalism generated the wealth.” (?)
Of course, the fascinating spectacle of being lectured to use ecological light bulbs while we export coal to China is another example of the contradictions of Labour. As it happens, with issues such as free trade and coal for China, it is not so much that Labour is having to deal with economic realities that I object to, simply its mealy mouthed hypocrisy.
Chris argues that “As democratic socialists, we should be striving to achieve “emotional congruence” with working people. Our political messages should map, as closely as possible, the way people are feeling about the problems and challenges that beset them.”
I disagree with this impressive sounding but essentially empty statement. It is the role of those of us on the left, who still believe in the left, to take on a leadership role in advocating our solutions and building support for our goals in the community. This means understanding and being part of the wider community; but it does not mean dissolving our principles and goals for short-term “emotional congruence.”
Such an approach does not mean subscribing to dubious concepts of revolutionary vanguards. It means being persistent, honest, dedicated and open minded, and engaging with people, in the course of promoting our ideas. It means politics in the best sense of the word.
There is no alternative, redux
What I find the most concerning aspect of Chris’ basic argument is its lack of imagination. He sees a future where the Labour Party is the repository of all that is good and great along with a neutered trade union sector (you couldn’t describe it as a movement) that serves as a support arm for “partnership” with employers and as a career path for union officials to seamlessly move into political careers, as long as they stick to the “party line.”
This is a future where politics is fixed and static. This seems to have no basis in any objective reality. Chris has created an equation which says: New Zealand politics will remain the same as they have since 1935. National and Labour are the same two players who will always exist. There was a brief upset in the 1990s but transmission has returned to normal. Please sit back and enjoy the show.
My perspective is different. My argument would be that after the stability of the late 20th century, we have entered since 1984 into a era of realignment of New Zealand politics that has gone through turbulent times (1984-1999) and a “consolidation” period (1999-2008 ) and we are now entering into a new period of instability.
If one returns to a century ago, the same pattern of instability occurred with depression, industrial strife and political ferment – the period from the Maritime Strike of 1890 through the surge of socialist activism in the pre War years, the cataclysm of the Great War, the roaring twenties, the Great Depression and the Second World War.
This fifty year period saw the growth of a socialist movement in New Zealand that went from a radical fringe to consolidation into a social democratic Government that set the political agenda for two generations (1935-1984).
Is it a possibility that New Zealand is now half way through another fifty year cycle of instability? It took socialists fifty years last time to move from the radical fringe to running a Government. Why should we think that it is going to happen overnight, without retreats and reversals, to establish a progressive political movement this time?
Chris’s perspective seems to ignore the fact that change is constant and indeed an accelerating feature of modern life today, and politics is part of this. There may be something called “the Labour Party” today but what relationship does it bear to the Labour Party of the past? Having the same name or being a component in a two part system is not a guarantor of historical continuity. Having lots of people vote for you does not mean you’re right, it just means you’re popular. While popularity may be an important part of democracy, it is not the only lever of political change, and can be a very transient phenomenon.
Within the space of a generation, New Zealand has experienced a tectonic shift in the political landscape. Labour nearly collapsed altogether in the 1990s, and the Alliance did collapse in 2001. My view on this is that it reflected bad decision making by the Alliance leadership rather than a rejection of Alliance policies, and perhaps a move towards the centre by a Labour Party that had been dominated by right wing ideas.
The country has gone from a Cold War style, conservative, protectionist Government through an extreme free market revolution in the 1990s and returning to a less extreme capitalism in the last decade. However the key policies of the Labour Government have been to relieve some of the more extreme manifestations of the New Right revolution while maintaining a commitment to the status quo in most areas.
We have also experienced a period of stable economic growth underpinned by strong commodity prices and largely illusionary forms of wealth based on property prices and massive debt, a situation that has come grinding to a halt in recent months. It is probable that we will see a return to the level of unemployment and social disruption of the 1990s.
What the response of the National Government – and a population who were getting used to the boom times – will be is hard to predict.
Internationally over the last two and a half decades since 1984 we have seen major economic shocks and vast expansion of the global capitalist system, the replacement of the Cold War with the Clash of Civilizations, the continued indication that unrestrained market-driven growth is threatening the long term viability of human race or at least civilization as we know it, the collapse of Stalinism and the laughable “end of history” thesis, and the growth of a major anti-capitalist globalization movement and its subsequent collapse in the hawkish paranoia of the post-9/11 world.
Currently we are witnessing what is being described by establishment commentators as the biggest failure of the market system for generations. While the full implications have yet to be seen, it is safe to say that global capitalism is taking a battering and the downstream effects on the developing nations such as China will be substantial.
Time to start walking
While this is unlikely to result in an international revolution, it has created a huge space for debate and democratic ideas to compete with the corporate globalization standpoint. Even in the heartland of capitalism, the United States, there is a huge simmering sense of anger against the plutocracy.
In Europe the existence of left-wing parties has been a feature for some time. The success of Die Linke in Germany and in France the establishment of a new radical left anti-capitalist party (alongside the existing reformist Communist Party and a new left social democratic party) are two major factors. In Scandanavia, red-green socialist “left of Labour” parties similar to the Alliance are major players in the political system, as they are in southern European nations like Italy.
Latin America has seen left wing reformists elected in many countries with more radical socialists coming to power through the ballot box in Venezuela and Bolivia.
In the English speaking world, we see a more complex situation. The United States maintains its two party system, a situation which offers little chance of serious resistance to free market capitalism – yet it is exactly this two party system of “conservatives” and “liberals” that Chris Trotter is proposing is the only way forward in New Zealand.
In the UK and Australia, there has been little success in establishing a left wing opposition to Labour. However in other nations, we see a social democratic party in Canada, the NDP, competing with the Liberals and Conservatives. In Scotland the main competition to Labour is the left leaning Scottish National Party, with the presence of small but vibrant socialist parties.
New Zealand has its own unique situation. Although following the trend of the English speaking nations of having established Labour Parties that have evolved from social democratic to liberal, USA-Democrat style parties, we also have two important factors: the successful (for a time) establishment of left of Labour parties, and an MMP system that provides an avenue for smaller parties to gain a foothold in Parliament.
We also have the likely impact of a global recession. Unemployment in the New Zealand context has usually led to a left swing amongst the working class, which has taken some time to result in change – the 1930s and the 1980s/1990s being the two examples of the 20th century.
The major feature of the election campaign in 2008 was an American-style attack on the “PC liberalism” of the Labour Party. This to me is of very great concern: it points the way to political debate over social issues with the fundamental economic argument won by the capitalist right wing, as we see in the USA today.
As Oliver Woods has explained to Chris from his own experience, the Labour Party may have many well meaning people in it but it is controlled and dominated by those hostile to socialist politics.
My own experience as a unionist informs me that there is a client style relationship between the peak levels of the Union movement and the Labour Party with an extremely narrow range of debate outside the smaller militant unions.
This is the other thing that concerns me about Chris’ argument. Whether he intends this or not, his approach would lead to a shrinking of the “biodiversity” of the political scene. A left wing that was cramped and caged inside a liberal party like Labour would be no more likely of success than if it remained as an external force.
The main problem is not a minority of principled democratic socialists of a new generation, discussing and debating and experimenting to find the way forward. These people are valuable and offer a ray of hope. There needs to be a political alternative to Labour.
Like National’s argument that we need to be “fast followers” in dealing with climate change, Chris seems to be urging us to become “fast followers” in “system change”. He even drags up a hoary quote from Jim Anderton who instructed, no doubt in one of his interminable speeches we all had to sit through, to “Build your footpaths where the people walk.”
My own view is different and summed up by the words of Antonio Machado: “There is no path. Paths are made by walking.”
It is time the left started making a path. It is time we started walking. And the best time to do this is now.
New Zealand’s leading public intellectual of the Left, Chris Trotter, seems to have been genuinely unsettled by the defeat of Labour in 2008. Toys have been thrown, and targets targeted.