Monday, 13 April 2015

Rhetoric From An Empty Stage: Sir Michael Cullen Offers Labour Some Suitable Synonyms For Socialist Terms.

A Practical Utopian? Sir Michael Cullen advises Labour to recast its rhetorical appeal to voters in terms more acceptable to twenty-first century ears. The four watchwords he proposes for the 2017 election campaign are: Choice, Aspiration, Responsibility and National Pride. He is, however, eloquently silent on the question of how the New Zealand working class are to be re-admitted to the country's political stage.

THERE ARE FEW NEW ZEALANDERS better placed to speak knowledgeably about their country’s political future than Sir Michael Cullen. Finance Minister in Helen Clark’s ministry (1999-2008) he wrestled with New Zealand capitalism up-close and personal for nine years  and is generally acknowledged to have emerged from the experience, if not unbeaten, then, at the very least, unbowed. The surpluses amassed under his stewardship armoured the New Zealand economy against the raking fire of the Global Financial Crisis; a barrage which could easily have sunk as less well-protected vessel. John Key and Bill English owe Cullen a lot.

Retiring from the hurly-burly of parliamentary politics in April 2009 to take up the Chair of New Zealand Post Ltd, Cullen has maintained a discreet public silence on both the new National Government’s conduct of political and economic affairs, and, more importantly perhaps, on the internal turmoil debilitating the Labour Party he joined 40 years ago.
 
Which is not to suggest that Cullen lost interest in his party, merely that he was wise enough to restrict his interventions to below-the-radar discussions with trusted friends and allies. When it came to the long-running feud between the supporters of David Cunliffe and the “Anyone But Cunliffe” (ABC) faction of the Labour caucus, Cullen came down firmly on the side of Mr Cunliffe’s opponents. He was an early supporter of David Shearer and, in the latest leadership contest, of Grant Robertson.
 
Cullen’s endorsement of Grant Robertson was the former Finance Minister’s first public intervention in the politics of the Left for many years – and he paid dearly for it. Widely tipped to lead the committee charged with reviewing Labour’s disastrous performance in the 2014 general election (the worst in 92 years!) Cullen was very publicly snubbed by Labour’s NZ Council, who gave the job to the more overtly left-wing party elder, Bryan Gould.
 
That rather petty decision to exclude one of Labour’s most experienced and intelligent kaumatua has now been remedied by Cullen’s recent co-optation on to the review panel. Whether the decision to rehabilitate Cullen was made before or after his delivery of a speech entitled “Labour: whither or wither?” is unclear. What cannot be denied, however, is that this 5,000+ word analysis of where Labour finds itself in 2015, and where it needs to be by 2017, more than justifies his inclusion.
 
The mission Cullen proposes for Labour is nothing less than to instil in the New Zealand electorate what the American political philosopher, John Rawls, calls the “reasonable hope” of living in a “practical utopia”.
 
It is difficult to conceive of a phrase which better sums up the historical aspirations of the New Zealand Labour Party. In a country that has never had much time for grand ideological systems, the notion of a down-to-earth, do-it-yourself, No.8-wire utopia; a practical utopia designed to meet the reasonable hopes and dreams of ordinary Kiwis, is as near to a perfect recapitulation of Labour’s mission as it gets.
 
And the need to recapitulate Labour’s mission in a twenty-first century context; deploying words and concepts acceptable to a twenty-first century audience; is central to Cullen’s argument. He uses his own family history to demonstrate how, in the space of just a single century, the solidaristic working-class culture out of which both the British and New Zealand Labour Parties were born, has been broken up and dissolved – not least by the comprehensive social and economic reforms Labour struggled so hard to introduce.
 
As was famously said of those Labour governments, writes Cullen: “success in improving the lot of working people began to move many of them into the camp of those who at least believed, or could be persuaded, that they had more to lose than gain from further change. And, associated with that, the centre-right began a long process of capturing the language of politics – for example, by talking of a property-owning democracy.”
 
These are the voters Cullen urges Labour to woo and win in the run-up to 2017. “To form a strong, stable progressive government Labour still needs to aim to get around 40%  of the vote.” For those party comrades who argue that the gap between Labour’s 2014 result and Cullen’s target can be made up by mobilising the non-vote, Cullen has nothing but scorn:
 
“The missing 15% is not going to come primarily from non-voting socialist fundamentalists as some in recent time seemed to believe. We certainly need to motivate as much of the non-vote as we can to vote for us. But the bulk of the increase has got to come from recapturing votes from National, as they did from us in 2008.”
 
The Labour Party capable of reclaiming these lost sheep, Cullen argues, will have “a clear philosophy, an intelligent strategy, appealing and relevant policies, effective and coherent leadership, and, above all, better emotional connection with a majority of the population.”
 
To secure that connection, Cullen suggests “capturing the ownership of some emotionally resonant words and concepts which we have all too easily allowed our opponents to expropriate.” He lists these words and concepts as: Choice, Aspiration, Responsibility and National Pride.
 
These concepts, says Cullen, need to be “associated with and to suffuse our more traditional ones of fairness, equality, opportunity and (more recently) sustainability.”
 
Easier said than done, one might reasonably object. Because, on the face of it, the concepts Cullen is promoting all possess a distinctly conservative flavour.
 
It is all very well to argue, as Cullen does, that “Choice” can be re-translated to mean “a form of democratisation but only where it is available, as far as possible, to all.” But, for most voters under 40, the word will continue to mean “what I want”.
 
The concept of “Aspiration” faces similar difficulties. Can it really be redefined to mean “opportunity for all”? For most New Zealanders, aspiration is what John Key’s life-story embodies. It’s all about a little boy raised in a state house by his widowed mum, who went on to make $50 million and become New Zealand’s prime minister.
 
The concepts of “Responsibility” and “National Pride” are likely to prove even more resistant to redefinition. Cullen, himself, concedes that” “there is a tendency on the left to think that this is just a cover for beneficiary bashing or some other kind of judgemental approach to life.” Well, yes, there is, and with very good reason!
 
But Cullen indisputably has a point when he says: “At the very heart of social democracy surely lies the notion that we have responsibilities to each other. That is, that we are social beings who wish to pursue the common good – again the idea of a practical utopia. We reject the idea of atomised individuals perpetually striving to climb over each other, that what matters above all is where we end up within a hierarchical society (in essence, alas, a practical dystopia).”
 
Cullen is equally eloquent when it comes to the concept of “National Pride”: “In brief, we need to own a new national pride around our identity as a proudly diverse nation, around what we can do to create a better world, and around a focus on independent, morally-based action in a dangerous world that we cannot opt out of.”
 
When he speaks like this, Cullen recalls his younger self. As a history-lecturer at the University of Otago in the 1970s he thrilled his students with lectures on the English radical tradition; of a world turned upside down. Clearly, it is a tradition that Cullen is reluctant to disown.
 
“The notion of inherent equality allied with the common good stretches far back into the English radical tradition which, at least for some of us, is part of our heritage. As far back, indeed, as 1381 when John Ball posed the searching question “When Adam delf (i.e. dug) and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” (A reproduction of the woodcut by the great Victorian socialist artist, Walter Crane, asking exactly that question, once held pride of place in Cullen’s university office.)
 
Or the Knight, for that matter?
 
But if the sort of world in which “what matters above all is where we end up within a hierarchical society” is one deplored by Cullen as dystopian, then why did he allow himself to be made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit? Being lectured to about the central tenets of social democracy by someone called “Sir Michael” is just a little disconcerting.
 
Equally unsettling is Cullen’s studious avoidance of the central role played by the trade unions in the development of both British and New Zealand social democracy. Only twice in his paper does Cullen make reference to trade unionism.
 
The first reference is to the New Zealand worker’s supposed lack of faith in unions – as evidenced by National’s decisive victory in the snap-election of 1951:
 
“Increasingly, sections of the working class began to see at least trade unions other than their own as inimical to their interests. The public reaction to the 1951 waterfront dispute typified that development.”
 
The second reference occurs as part of Cullen’s explanation for the Clark-led Labour Government’s failure to roll back the neo-liberal revolution:
 
“But the neo-liberal revolution was central to intensifying trends that were already clear. In terms of legislation, the most important and decisive was the Employment Contracts Act which decimated the trade union movement, at least in the private sector. And so profound was the success of the Act in completing a long term change in public sentiment that it was impossible to fully reverse its effects after 1999.” [My emphasis.]
 
Given that the destruction of organised labour has always been, and continues to be, the key objective of neoliberalism: the one great “reform”, out of which all other neoliberal “reforms” flow and endure; Cullen’s flawed historical observations, and his failure to address the future of organised labour in his recent lecture, are absolutely critical omissions.
 
What they confirm is that, in spite of his sage and often persuasive advice concerning Labour’s electoral rhetoric, Cullen, and the faction of the party he represents, is not yet ready to challenge the singular foundational achievement of the neoliberal era: the expulsion of the New Zealand working-class from the nation’s political stage.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday 11 April 2015.

18 comments:

Guerilla Surgeon said...

It's always interesting how retired politicians seem to just slip into plum jobs in the public or private sector. I mean head of NZ Post. I can just imagine the interview.
"Well what's your experience Mike?"

"I was an academic, and then a politician."

"Ever delivered any mail?"

"Nope."

"Just the man we need."

Davo Stevens said...

Revolving door GS. From politics to private enterprise and often back again.

I see that the boss of the Securities Commission was the king pin of Goldman Sachs!

peter petterson said...

Like Helen Clark, Michael Cullen just walked away from the people of NZ and the Labour Party after Labour was defeated by the fascist John Key and his Nationalist Party in 2008.

Now he appears to be a know-all about what the future of the Labour Party should be.

The first thing the party needs to do is to walk away from the neoliberalism that Lange and douglas introduced and Clark and Cullen retained. Then consider the future philosophy of the Labour Party.

Brit Bunkley said...

I keep hearing that Labour needs to move right because the last election was "the worst in 92 years!". So? National’s 2002 election was far worse and they didn’t change course. Many left parties who did poorly in Southern Europe a few years ago are doing well now by moving left, not right. Albeit it will take an economic downturn here… of which such a cyclical event will eventually happen Additionally, the economy was among the fastest growing in the developed world. Voters always vote their pocketbook (in spite of wages falling- they were told otherwise by the not so honest media). And the campaign was among the dirtiest in NZ history (with complicity by an increasingly right-wing media). In that context, the centre left (if including the socially conservative, but economically progressive NZ First) really did not do that bad.

Brit Bunkley said...

Yes, very Herbert Spencer. "Choice" is presumably synonymous with markets...or in reality, the illusion of markets. Those businesses with the biggest megaphone, largest budget and who are closer to government will always do better. Choice, in reality in 2015 has little to do with quality. "Responsibility" is simply the macro/subtext for the poor who are naturally "irresponsible" and justifiably poor and imprisoned in the eyes of the New Right... (and 18th century capitalists and social darwinists such as Spencer). "Aspiration" means that all of us are supposedly capable of being rich as long as we are governed by the "even playing field" of markets. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herbert_Spencer

David Stone said...

Hi Chris
From the position of the left of N Z politics since the'30s labour leapfrogged national to the right in 1984. Since then national has reclaimed its traditional place on the right . Labour has manoeuvred itself out of existence .
Something new, without the baggage is now required.
Cheers David J S

Kat said...

Labour needs a 'Far Left' version of Labour such as National has in Act. All the Clark/Cullen haters can go there and still be a part of Labour the 'real' NZ.

pat said...

although I know nothing of Cullen the philosopher I have great respect for his abilities displayed as finance minister in the Clark government..his prudence and reticence in the face of contrary opinion was i believe vindicated by the events that followed ...this perhaps is a good marker as to the questions you pose at the end of your piece and also probably explains my disappointment that he should essentially say 'more of the same but done better' given what has occurred since he left that post.

Anonymous said...

It was interesting to read Michael Cullen's thoughts - I agree that Labour needs to focus on regaining the support of swing voters.

Labour has now suffered three consecutive election defeats. In all the circumstances, I must admit to finding the left's criticisms of the centrist Clark Government somewhat self-indulgent.

Davo Stevens said...

With a MMP system the two main parties move to dance around the centre of the floor. They pirouette around that centre point in a dance of passion. Moving left then right then back again. The "Left/Right" doesn't exist anymore. What we have is Right and Rightish.

Even the Greens, which had taken the "Left" position in some instances, has moved to the centre too now.

NZ needs a genuine "Left" party to give people a real choice.

Anonymous said...

A minor point, but why so against the Knighthood?
I can see why people are against honours systems in general but the objection seems to be against one that recognises our British history.
Are you against use of Maori titles? (Perhaps you are).
Knighthoods are (at least in theory!) supposed to be awarded on merit.
Cultural self hatred is an ugly thing.

Olwyn said...

There are two further points I want to make about this speech, having also commented on the TDB version.

Firstly, the line between those "expelled from the stage" and the more precarious of the middle class is not as sharp as it is often portrayed as being. Some people who voted National in 2008 in hope of retaining what they had gained under Labour, now find themselves in the position where helping their kids into a house would risk the whole of the family's wealth, which they are also being pressed to use up supporting family members who are unable to get an economic foothold.

The Northland by-election and the public responses to the projected demise of Campbell Live and zero hour contracts tell us that the zeitgeist is changing. It is worth looking at why votes move from one side to the other at certain times, and not just that they do.

Secondly, no Rawlsian "practical utopia" is going to emerge from a political stance that insists upon severing economics from politics. In the end that amounts to "doing the right thing where expedient." The holders of the economic levers determine the room made for such expedience, which decreases with each increase of their power. The fact that we are unable to entrench such fundamental human rights as the right to secure dwelling and the right to earn a living suggests we are a long way from any sort of utopia, and most unlikely to get there while a political/economic separation is maintained.

Nick J said...

To Anonymous re Knighthoods. So many deserve, so few deserving chosen, so many interlopers.

Of the many deserving my dear mother, 81 and still on council serving her community as she has for 30 years, always available any time of day for any reason. Years in service organisations, 40 years an inspirational teacher, always doing good for other people. I suspect when she finally stops and is laid to rest every attendee will recount a good deed she has done for them. She does not mind being overlooked, she would say look at who else missed out, she is in good company. And it was never about her or titular recognition.

Of the chosen, lets just look at the undeserving. Mark Weldon, hell he has done so much for personal reward, quite ruthlessly at times. For this he is chosen. Services to business, to private gain, to personal aggrandizement.

Fact is Anonymous the system is a crock. Anybody who wants the title Sir does not deserve it. In its current rendition the whole thing is a farce, like the court at Versailles.

Victor said...

I can't claim to be privy to Sir Michael's thinking.

But it's quite possible he accepted a knighthood in recognition of how proud his working class English immigrant parents would have been of their son's achievements.

Victor said...

I agree that the crucial electoral battle is for swing voters.

Some might conclude from this that parties of the left should adopt more centrist (or even right wing) policies.

Another approach, though, is to drag the centrist consensus leftwards.

That involves challenging the neo-liberal economic narrative and denying its assumed status as the quintessence of common sense and prudence.

Wattnot said...

I heard Michael Cullen reprise that speech at a Fabian's meeting yesterday. He always gets the fundamentals right, and is always amusingly, not to say hilariously, self-deprecating, about his part in where things went wrong. He saw, and sees, as only those who aspire hopelessly to something can, that Labour has to connect to the mob, emotionally. And everyone at the front of Labour today simply has too big a vocabulary to do it. Nobody will ever hear John Key say "altruism", not because he has no idea that the word exists, but because using it would make 500,000 people immediately suspicious of him. He will say, "looked pretty kind, that's cool", and everyone knows what he doesn't mean. Cullen's known affection for Grant Robertson is based partly on Grant's ability to suppress his vocab. Andrew Little is completely unable to hide the fact that his razor-sharp intellect is at work. 24/7. People with dull intellects feel as though they are being cut to pieces by Andrew. People with dull intellects vote,
whether we like that or not..

Davo Stevens said...

The biggest problem that Labour has is that core of Neocons in it's Caucus. They are slowly drifting away but there are still some left who are pulling the strings. Until they are purged the party will not move to where it really belongs.

Shane "Porn King" Jones has gone and one can see where his politics lay in the job he has now. Steve Maharey left a few years ago, Phil Gogh is looking at the mayoralty of Auckland, good luck to Jaffatown there.

The question remains; will Little Andy move it back to it's rightful position?

Labour has a problem with finance, it must get it from the same sources as the Gnats and that makes them too similar. Their old sources (the Unions) are decimated now.

The only true Left party was Mana and that was too Maori for mainline Kiwis and it was a disaster hooking onto Kimmie too.

They need to become the true centre left party they were.

Charles E said...

Cullen was sent by his aspirational socialist parents to the Eton of NZ, presumably on a scholarship. Good on them and him. Clearly they wanted to escape their class and if he has children I presume that journey is complete.
That is just one example of why workers' socialism and unionism have died out. There are other more common routes out of the working class but the point is, Labour does not have a sustainable base because its vote fodder always wants out whereas its well educated leaders while trying to keep them in, are out themselves of course.
Cullen knows this so he is telling Labour to move on or die out.