Not Again: Labour politicians have turned right on their Reds before - most recently in 1984. What left-wing trade unionist and commentator, Matt McCarten, seems to have forgotten is that in a political environment dominated by the Right, the "centre" keeps shifting - and not to the Left!
IT’S NOT OFTEN that I find myself in disagreement with Matt McCarten. For the best part of a quarter-century our “take” on the political scene has been distinguished more by the views we shared than the opinions which caused our analyses to diverge. On the question of Labour’s shift to the right, however, I find myself at loggerheads with Matt’s position.
Essentially, Matt’s line is that Labour long ago ceased to be a real left-wing party, and so it is both more honest, ideologically, and much more effective, politically, for Labour to seek the votes of those in the centre of the New Zealand political spectrum, leaving those on the Left to those genuinely left-wing parties, Mana and the Greens.
Under our MMP electoral system, Matt argues, Labour is most unlikely ever to find itself in a position to govern alone. Like John Key’s National Party, it will be forced to seek the support of parties located at a much greater distance from the centre than itself. Providing these parties keep their nerve at the point of negotiating confidence and supply agreements, says Matt, the overall programme of any new Labour-led coalition government will be considerably more left-wing than the manifesto Labour, on its own, presented to the electorate.
But, is Matt justified in assuming that Labour’s coalition partners will be either inclined, or permitted, to keep their nerve and negotiate an agreement at significant odds with that of the dominant coalition partner?
If, as Matt concedes, Labour’s political trajectory is now firmly set; from Goff’s hesitant (and personally discordant) leftism, to Shearer’s eager embrace of the policies associated with the conservative Finnish prime minister, Esko Aho; then a 2014 “win” by Labour will be attributed (both by itself and the right-wing news media) to the electorate’s endorsement of the very same policies. In this context, the ability of the smaller left-wing parties to “force” Labour to embrace radical policy initiatives – policies already “rejected” by a clear majority of voters – will be extremely limited.
The other problem with Matt’s analysis is that it makes no allowance for the impact a right-wing Labour Party is bound to have on the national (with a small “n”) political environment. By reinforcing the Right’s overall ideological dominance, Labour will make it that much harder for all political parties to evince radical left-wing ideas.
This is likely to be especially true of the Greens, who, having broken through the 10 percent threshold in 2011, will be especially reluctant to revert, at least in the public’s imagination, to once again being a radical party of the political fringe. In other words, if Labour shifts to the Right, the Greens are much more likely to shadow them than they are to increase the ideological distance between them. New Zealand leftists should not forget that the Green’s dramatically improved their electoral position in 2011 by tacking to the Right – not the Left.
Matt’s thesis would be much stronger if the Mana Party could be relied upon to motivate and mobilise a significant proportion of the 2011 “Non-Vote” of close to three-quarters-of-a-million New Zealanders. But building a truly mass-party of the Left is almost certainly beyond the intellectual, organisational and financial resources of Mana. And even if, by some political miracle, Hone Harawira proved equal to the task of creating a massive new block of radicalised voters from harassed and impoverished workers and beneficiaries, the change his success would bring to the national political environment would, almost certainly, see Labour tacking back towards the Left. In the circumstances of an electoral uprising of beneficiaries and the working poor, the political centre would no longer be a safe place for Labour to be found.
All of which points to the absolute necessity of Labour remaining firmly attached to the key left-wing positions it took in the lead-up to the 2011 General Election – especially its commitment to increase the income of solo parent families, and to increase the taxes of the top One Percent. Not least among the reasons for doing so is that the rank-and-file of the Labour Party have struggled long and hard to persuade the caucus to accept them. In the recent leadership contest, David Cunliffe made it very clear that he was committed to continuing Labour’s left-turn. Which is why even David Shearer admits that, had the leadership contest been decided on the basis of “one-person, one-vote”, Mr Cunliffe would have won at a canter.
Choice of the Rank-and-File: Had labour's recent leadership been decided on the basis of a party-wide, one-person, one-vote ballot, David Cunliffe would have won at a canter.
The right-wing forces behind Mr Shearer’s caucus victory, led by Trevor Mallard, are well aware of this fact and their strategic response is now clear. The reorientation of Labour must be drawn out over at least 18 months so as to make it next-to-impossible for Mr Cunliffe’s champions, and their potential supporters among Mr Shearer’s less-than-enthusiastic younger backers, to entertain any thoughts of organising a leadership spill before 2014. The last thing they will do is provide either the caucus or the party with an excuse to make Mr Shearer a twelve-month wonder.
The whole raison d’être of the electoral Left is to transform the national political environment by giving radical solutions to economic and social problems the widest possible currency. The left-wing writer, Naomi Wolf, explains this by citing a possibly apocryphal story about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s relationship with the American Left.
In the early days of the New Deal a multitude of progressive groups would visit the White House with bold new ideas for tackling the Great Depression. Roosevelt would listen attentively and, when they had finished, would simply say: “Now got out there and make me do it.”
That is Labour’s role. To bring about change by making it impossible for its parliamentary leaders to doing anything else.
With the greatest respect, Matt, you don’t do that by sanctioning the attempt by a bunch of parliamentary has-beens and Rogernomes to reposition their leader, their party, and the broader progressive movement, to the Right.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.