There's a fascinating discussion going on over at Spanblather about the Labour Party and whether it is left enough, sparked by Span's declaration that
I just find the whole concept that the Labour Party is somehow the Left so depressing. Sure there are (IMHO misguided but well-meaning) individuals in Labour who are genuinely left of centre. But the Party itself? Even those who argue their policy is leftish must be feeling secretly uncomfortable about the massive gap between party policy and what the caucus implement.
It's that old slogan all over again - I'd rather have a revolution than a Labour Government.
Obviously whether you agree with Span on that particular point is going to depend on where on the political spectrum you lie - but I don't think you need to be an Alliance supporter or a Marxist to be dissatisfied with Labour's leftness. Even those on the moderate left have good reason to question the direction of a party which, rather than standing up and advocating for a center-left position, tries to outflank National on the right whenever it is challenged. Likewise, I think they also have good reason to be disattisfied with how little Labour has done with its time in office. By any measure, the Labour government has enjoyed an unusually long spell of political golden weather - good economic times, declining unemployment, and ever-growing budget surpluses. But rather than using this extraordinary good fortune to repair the wounds left by the Revolution, they've done... what? While there has been some progress, particularly in the labour market (the ERA, four weeks annual leave, repeated increases to the minimum wage), and there is no question at all that things are far better than they would be under a Revolutionary National government, in most areas things have simply been frozen as they were in 1999, with the government content to tinker round the edges (if at all). And in other areas, policy has been downright regressive...
The government can of course cite reasons for its extraordinary apathy. They were elected in 1999 not to impose radical social and economic change, but to end it. And the MMP environment demands that they pursue the center, rather than the left, vote. But the former doesn't cut so much ice when Labour is on its second term and approaching a third. As for the latter, I think it is based on a fundamental misreading of where the center lies in New Zealand politics. As GreyShade pointed out, the New Zealand Way has traditionally been one of pragmatic state intervention to directly improve the lives of ordinary people - or what Michael Bassett called "socialism without doctrines". While the Revolution threatened this ideal, it did not eradicate it. The political centre in New Zealand is thus fairly left-wing by international standards, and there's solid support across our political spectrum for policies which Labour seems to have discarded as "too left". For example:
- there is extremely broad support for decent, universal, publicly-funded health-care. The running down of the system and the cutting of entitlements in the 90's caused widespread outrage, yet Labour has not tapped this. While it has increased funding and tried to repair some of the damage, it has not tapped this support by e.g. publically committing to "rebuild the health system" and provide full, universal care.
- there is a growing consensus that the student loan system is unsustainable in its present form, and that something must be done not just to prevent further debt from accumulating, but also to eliminate the burden on those who have already borrowed. This isn't driven by student protests, but by middle-class parents - center voters - who are seeing the effects of debt on their children's lives.
- there is also smaller (but growing) support for the reintroduction of a universal student allowance, driven mainly by revulsion at the idea that anyone in our society should have to borrow to eat.
- there is near universal support for the idea of kiwis owning their own homes (about the only person who doesn't support it is Don Brash), and concern that this is getting progressively out of the average family's reach.
So why isn't Labour tapping this support for universal health care, easier access to tertiary education, and assistance for home ownership? One reason is fear of a backlash from local business or international investors, who look disfavourably on anything resemblying "socialism" (or indeed, on any government expenditure which does not directly benefit them). Another is leftover baggage from 1984, the survival of Cabinet Ministers who may not have disapproved of the changes (remember, it was Phil Goff who introduced tertiary fees and means-tested student allowances...) But the most important reason is that, with National firmly in the grip of Revolutionaries, they simply don't have to. In other words, our political "marketplace" isn't working properly due to a lack of competition.
As for what left-wing voters can do about this, I think the answer is strategic voting. Under MMP we're not so much voting for a party to form a government as to be a component of one. So if you want a left-wing Labour government, then the best way of getting one is to support one of the smaller left-wing parties to pull Labour in the right direction come coalition-time.