Taking A Lead: The CTU's Helen Kelly has made repeated attempts to lure the Labour Party towards meaningful labour relations reforms - with very limited success. The CTU's, and the broader labour movement's, proposals need to get a lot bigger and bolder. The restoration of universal union membership and the return of national awards would do more to reduce social and economic inequality than any other single measure of labour reform .
ACROSS THE WORLD political parties of the centre-left struggle for relevance. Those in power compete with their centre-right opponents for the title of “The Biggest Loser” vis-a-vis deficit reduction. Those in opposition, including our own Labour Party, adopt right-wing policies as proof of their “realism”.
Outside of Latin America there doesn’t seem to be a single centre-left leader who conceives of his/her mission as anything more than “administering capitalism” more successfully than “the other lot”. The notion that contemporary free-market capitalism has failed, and ought to be replaced, receives short shrift from all but the most radical of social democratic leaders. Advocates of overtly left-wing economic and social policies find themselves ridiculed and ignored; driven into that friendless no-man’s-land which separates the centre- from the far-left.
The only certain outcome of this kind of politics is that the ideological battleground is moved further and further to the right.
What lies at the heart of this abdication from principle? Is it the steady perfection of the science of opinion sampling? Is the professional pollster’s superior grasp of the electorate’s collective mind responsible for strangling the politician’s infant principles in their cradle? Does the judgement of the omnipotent Focus Group stop all radical policy in its tracks?
Certainly, the opinion polls play their part. But could they really prevent a politician convinced of the rightness of his/her cause from marching without flinching into a hail of unfriendly ballots?
We already know the answer to that question. Were the members of Helen Clark’s caucus listening to pollsters and focus groups when they backed her decision to give Labour’s full support to Sue Bradford’s “anti-smacking” bill? On that issue they were willing to defy the wishes of more than 70 percent of the electorate.
Clearly, then, there are some principles which the centre-left will uphold – even if 99 percent of the electors are arrayed in opposition. How many Labour members, do you suppose, would back the re-criminalisation of abortion – or homosexuality?
But, can the same be said of the centre-left when it comes to legislation held dear by the wealthiest 1 percent of the electorate? The Employment Contracts Act, for example? Judging by how much of the latter’s repressive intent somehow found its way into its pallid successor, the Employment Relations Act, the answer can only be “No.”
This is curious because more and more evidence is emerging that a healthy trade union movement is one of the prime guarantors of effective wealth redistribution. Statistics published recently in the Guardian newspaper show unequivocally that the point at which the top 1 percent of income earners in the UK controlled the smallest amount of national wealth was in the mid-to-late 1970s – the exact same moment when the number of British trade unionists reached its zenith. A CTU analysis of the same statistics here in New Zealand has confirmed the UK experience. Universal union membership, coupled with national awards, acted as a brake on the growth of inequality for nearly fifty years.
For any Labour Party worth its salt this evidence should be conclusive. Not simply because the maintenance of social equality is one of the centre-left’s traditional objectives, but also because rampant inequality manifests itself in a host of other social indicators relating to the general health and well-being of the population. More than any other single reform, the restoration of effective trade unionism in New Zealand would halt, and then narrow, the gap between rich and poor. The consequent improvements in the health and educational attainment of New Zealand’s most deprived citizens should make radical labour law reform even more of a no-brainer for social-democratic policy-makers.
Even those Labour leaders, like David Shearer, who speak eloquently about lifting the game of New Zealand’s manufacturing industries should embrace radical labour law reform. By raising wage levels across-the-board such measures would winnow out the lazy and inefficient managers of New Zealand businesses. The long-term effects on productivity of restoring powerful and progressive trade unions are positive – not negative.
Why, then, do centre-left parties run a mile from such policies? Why will they die in a ditch for gay marriage – but not an empowered workforce? Why defend a woman’s right to choose – but not a worker’s right to effective representation on the job?
In politics we are defined most accurately by the policies we refuse to promote.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 February 2012.