Thursday, March 24, 2005

Labour and the left

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.


A major problem is that most voters consider their vote "wasted" if the party the vote for fails to make it into parliament.

Yet after the way Jim Anderton (et al) spectacularly destroyed the Alliance, I don't have the stomach to vote for him.

Possibly my best option is to join the Labour party and attack from within. Yet its consitution is so incredibly anti-democratic that this is hard to do.


Posted by Anonymous : 3/24/2005 11:51:00 AM

You forget labour is a minority government supported by United Future. The "left" (if such a moniker can be given to the rag-tag bunch or middle class chardonnay reactionaries and luddites who make up the Greens) is directly responsible for this with their mischief making over corn-gate at the last election.

I agree, strategic voting is the key - but politics is the art of the possible, there is rogernomics generation out there now who sceptical of leftish reform and to me the left needs another decade and another gneration to reverse reforms that were designed to irreversable.

Posted by Anonymous : 3/24/2005 12:01:00 PM

Icehawk: you can always think of it as voting for Matt Robson instead. Or you can hold your nose and vote for the Greens. While they tend towards Luddism and romanticise medieval peasant living, I expect the coalition pocess will prevent them from turning NZ into a giant organic farm...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/24/2005 12:37:00 PM

Anon: I think we all agree that the Greens' position in 2002 was a mistake and that we need better cooperation in future. But that cooperation is now on offer. As for the art of the possible, I agree that it is going to take a long time to unravel the worst of Rogernomics - but at the same time, it seems that Labour is not even trying to take some very obvious, and very popular steps to do so.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/24/2005 12:49:00 PM

Oh, and I assure you that Phil Goff is not forgotten. He's the first MP I ever wrote to, and it was re tertiary fees. I honestly still don't know whether he was lying or stupid when he claimed that the tertiary fees he introduced, would not be a gateway for ever-increasing fees.

He was also the minister of Justice during the Chch Civic Creche fiasco. And even anyone who still thinks Peter Ellis was guilty would have to admit that the police investigation and conduct of the court case was a complete fiasco - one that the minister of justice utterly ignored.

He's been in parliament - usually cabinet - most of my adult life, and I can't think of a single important accomplishment of his.

His presence in cabinet is a sad reminder of what lightweights we have in parliament these days.


Posted by Anonymous : 3/24/2005 01:48:00 PM

The Greens, definitely.
I like their red-blooded social policies, opposition to belting kids (Section 59 Repeal) and their
principled support for Ahmed Zaoui. They're left enough for me, although part of me wishes that it'd be more proactive in terms of LGBT rights. There, I have nothing to complain about. And as for the Alliance self-destruct, I think Matt McCarten had some part in it as well as Jim A.

Craig Y.

Posted by Anonymous : 3/24/2005 01:58:00 PM

Indeed, Icehawk. Of all the Labour people who are on my personal shitlist, Goff ranks highest. Kneejerk, authoritarian panderern - well on track to being our own Jack Straw.

Posted by stephen : 3/24/2005 01:59:00 PM


An interesting question that deserves a lot more thought and analysis: is Don Brash winning?

He pushes the Nats to the right on populists issues - and Labour chases after them. Is he succeeding in setting the agenda and creating a more right-wing govt?

That it's a more right-wing Labour govt would just make it an ironic success, not a failure.


Posted by Anonymous : 3/24/2005 02:09:00 PM

I don't think NZ's centre is left at all. NZers believe in the "fair go" but they also have a natural distaste for the "bludger" - Labour's constituency. We want people to be able to have good health, education etc, but the average NZer doesn't believe that someone who left school after 5th form should be paid the same as say a doctor through "redistribution". It is simply a natural human trait that the average person resents those who get "something for nothing".

Posted by Anonymous : 3/25/2005 12:18:00 AM

Anon: it is on any international scale. Belief in a "fair go" for all, regardless of the circumstances of wealth or birth is very much a left-wing value. It's not about simply procedural fairness, about eveyone (with the means) to have access to decent education and decent health - it's substantive; if you don't have the means, the state provides it. Likewise, it's about positive freedom (in its enabling sense) rather than simply negative. That puts it firmly on the side of the left.

Much of what we simply take for granted in this country - publicly funded superannuation, for example - would be denounced as "socialism" in the US. I think that tells us where our political mainstream lies.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/25/2005 10:36:00 AM

a pure rightist government (assuming the real world did not constrain them) would want a "fair go" for all. they would want prfect parket condition and identical starting positions. they jsut tend to be more pragmatic posibly because they also tend to be richer and richer people are pragmatic.

A pure left would also want a fair go but probably also equality of outcome possibly because poorer peopel tend to be more iealistic posibly because they tend to be more radically unsatisfied with the world as it is.

Each side will of course attempt to say that the other must oppose them on all good issues, and thats why they should win.

Posted by Genius : 3/25/2005 12:17:00 PM

A very related concern for Labour is the environment, challenged most often by those who are least progressive on social policy.

The Labour Party of the 70's through to the late 90's could credibly be described as having an environmental tinge, taking proactive steps (if even symbolic or concessions to allow right-wing economic policy) to protect the natural environment.

This is now so far from the case that even Labour sympathetic environmentalists are becoming more frustrated than ever. The problem is that protecting the planet means constraining or reversing economic growth in many areas, and careful government management (call that socialism if you want, state limits/control over business is a hallmark of successful environmentalism).

The Government's agenda is a social cart pulled by a business horse; the right factions have enough muscle to stop serious challenges to this model. Phil Goff indeed ranks among the worst, but Cullen, Anderton, Sutton etc. are just as bad in this respect. In the end we all lose out... we cannot treat such challenges as global warming, biosecurity and mass extinction such a cavalier fashion.

The two ministries charged specifically with environmental matters have been ringfenced. The Department of Conservation is solid, but cannot even hold it's ground; and our frogs and birds continue to slide towards extinction, and unseen environments such as our ocean floor continue to be destroyed wholesale. It's budget is limited, and unlikely to increase in real terms any time soon.
The Ministry for the Environment has become a Ministry for Sustainable Development, whose primary role is assisting business to grow in ways that do less (but still serious) harm to the environment. This is in large part due to the weakness of Hobbs, who has not been willing to act in the confrontational manner needed. Many of the aims of other departments and SOE's are in direct conflict with protecting the environment (witness Solid Energy) If the MfE is not an advocate and challenger within Government, who will? Treasury?

I see that Hobbs has been given a reasonably high list ranking... perhaps this will allow her to be transferred to another ministry after a possible coalition with the Greens?

Environmental policy is also vote winner, helping to deliver every election since 72. Labour would do well to remember this, even if only for such a superficial reason. It might even soak up some of the Green Party vote if it implemented more green policy!

Posted by GeorgeDarroch : 3/26/2005 03:58:00 PM

Genius: Identical starting positions and pure markets would be a pure left-Libertarian (note big "L") government, and I wouldn't describe it as at all "pragmatic". OTOH, it's at least more fair than the usual Libertarians, who seek to use pure markets to entrench and defend existing inequality and privilege. But given the way that advantage begats advantage (and disadvantage, disadvantage), either will result in a breakdown of meritocracy and social mobility (as we are seeing in the US), and an entrenched aristocracy that enjoys privilege, status and wealth regardless of talent. Which is deeply ironic, given Libertarianism's origins in the Enlightenment struggle to overthrow exactly that sort of social arrangement...

Continuously striving to raise the bottom and ensure that everyone gets a decent start regardless of who their parents are may require continuous redistribution, but it's far more solidly practical than trying to arrange some great "year zero" after which the competition can begin. The fact that it also allows continuous meritocracy, with real competition, a far lower level of human suffering, and a far higher degree of real, practical freedom for everybody just makes it more attractive.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/26/2005 04:05:00 PM

Identical starting positions and pure markets would be a pure left-Libertarian (note big "L") government

Libertarian is Libertarian. the right just happens to think market forces should be involved - The left seems to want to do it in some complex form of co-operatives.that is the fundimental difference not anything to do with starting points.

> and I wouldn't describe it as at all "pragmatic".

that was my point. It isnt - thus they tend not to take that position.

Pure "lasse faire", in that you have no government, is not libiterianism - it is anarchy and law of the jungle. you could argue, as you seem to here, that pure libiterianism is nonsense ie its concequences are contradictory to its philosophy (therefore it is fundimentally inferior). I of course would not have much argument with you in that regard.

It seems to me that your view of libiterianism is the same sort of "bastardization" of libitarianism as communism is of "pure commmunism". the suporters and the instigators believe in the philosophy primarily for how it serves their interests - so they change the implimentation to suit themselves.

Posted by Genius : 3/26/2005 05:12:00 PM