Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Danger for Labour?

Writing in the Guardian, Tony Benn highlights six dangers for Labour which are progressively alienating its core supporters. He's writing about the British Labour Party of Tony Blair, but there is a similar trend at work here: in the struggle to hold the centre ground against National, the New Zealand Labour Party has adopted the Blairite tactic of trying to outflank their opposition on the right. While this robs National of issues, it is making the party increasingly unpalatable to parts of its support base.

The obvious danger area is the crime/immigration/security axis. Labour has fought hard to avoid being labelled "soft on crime", increasing penalties and reacting to any perception of "weakness" with draconian new legislation. They have just introduced legislation to prevent prisoners from gaining compensation for being abused in prison (effectively making them second-class citizens and giving abusers a free pass), and are considering an asset forfeiture regime which treats suspects as being guilty until proven innocent and would not require any specific offence to be proved. On immigration, they have moved us from being an open, welcoming country to one that says "don't call us, we'll call you" and demonised people seeking refuge in this country. Their attitude is epitomised in the treatment of Takshila, a 16-year old Sri Lankan girl who was forcibly sedated and deported from New Zealand back into the hands of her abusers. The Labour party of old would have had a sense of mercy; under Clark, they regard it as a weakness rather than a virtue.

On security, we have seen an erosion of civil liberties in the name of the "war on terror", with the government passing a "Terrorism Suppression Act" so vague as to allow Greenpeace to be designated as a "terrorist entity", and pushing a bill which would allow the government to strip New Zealanders of their passports with no effective or timely right of review. And then there's the Ahmed Zaoui case. While the government could have taken a neutral stance and hidden behind the courts, or (god forbid!) stood up for the right of everyone to a fair trial, they have instead backed the SIS to the hilt and taken every opportunity to try and deny Mr Zaoui his human rights. The position of some government MPs has at times been indistinguishable from the xenophobes of NZ First on this issue; David Benson-Pope, for example, has echoed the NZ First call for Zaoui to simply be put on a plane, regardless of his refugee status.

These are not the sort of policies traditionally associated with a Labour government, and they have a cost: the progressive alienation of the liberal strand of Labour's support base. Labour is pursuing them to "capture the middle ground" and hold power - but at the cost of losing its soul.

Where the New Zealand Labour Party differs from its British counterpart is that it really is delivering in social areas. Blair's Britain seems little different from Thatcher's, and in many areas his government has simply continued her policies. But Clark's New Zealand has put the brakes on the neo-liberal economic revolution, and while it has not rolled it back significantly, it has counteracted the worst effects of the neo-liberal core. In areas of labour law, welfare policy, and commitment to public services, the New Zealand Labour Party stands exactly where it should. But on human rights issues it falls well short of what is expected.

Unlike Britain, New Zealand voters have alternatives. If they cannot stomach voting Labour because of their attitude towards human rights, they have other credible left-wing parties to choose from. And voting for these alternatives does not run the risk of "splitting the vote" and allowing National to come through, because it does not affect the left's overall share of the party vote. Instead, it simply alters the balance among the potential coalition partners, in favour of greater respect for human rights. The danger for Labour then is that an increasing number of their supporters will take this opportunity, and vote to have a stronger left-wing coalition partner as the keeper of Labour's conscience.