A Bold Move: The Green's appointment of Laila Harre as its Auckland-based Issues Director signals its intention to resist the tidal drag of Labour's rightward drift. It's an ideological flanking manoeuvre David Shearer will ignore at his peril.
THE APPOINTMENT OF LAILA HARRÉ as the Green Party’s Auckland-based Issues Director should be sending shivers down David Shearer’s spine. Henceforth, hundreds-of-thousands of former Alliance Party voters will no longer have to hum-and-haw about which left-wing party to support. Ms Harré, a former Alliance leader, is one of the Left’s most intelligent and articulate spokespeople. The clarity and radicalism of her thinking has been evident since her maiden speech to Parliament in 1996:
A government cannot both embrace the full force of globalisation and retain sovereignty over key economic decisions. A government cannot deliver a first class health and education service accessible to all regardless of wealth without a substantially more progressive income tax system. A government cannot deal with fundamental issues of biosecurity and ecological diversity by adopting a market model which will by definition subsume these needs to the perceived interests of foreign investors ….. These fundamental issues of difference between the Alliance and Labour must be resolved, and not simply disguised by clever packaging.
That the issues identified by Ms Harré sixteen years ago remain at the heart of contemporary political debate on the Left is proof of her analytical perspicacity. They certainly constitute the “fundamental issues of difference” that Labour and the Greens have yet to resolve.
Which brings us back to the shivers that should be running up Mr Shearer’s spine. Because, in just about every particular of Ms Harré’s 1996 challenge, the gap between Labour’s position and the Greens’ isn’t narrowing, it’s growing wider. Rather than increasing the progressivity of our income tax system, Mr Shearer intends to decrease it. And, far from attempting to free himself from the “embrace” of globalisation, Mr Shearer remains as committed as his predecessors to “free-trade” and “productive foreign investment”.
Mr Shearer’s principal policy advisers: His chief-of-staff, Stuart Nash; his policy consultant, John Pagani; and the Labour Right’s faction-leader, Trevor Mallard; would appear to have no intention of permitting either the Caucus, or the wider Labour Party organisation, to address these fundamental policy differences. Which can only mean that they intend to mask the ideological gulf separating Labour and the Greens with “clever packaging”.
The Greens are having none of it. Ms Harré’s appointment makes that clear. If Mr Shearer and his minions are signalling their intention to take Labour to the right; the Greens, by appointing a radical social-democrat as their Issues Director, have communicated their party’s strong disinclination to follow suit. More than this, the Greens are warning Labour that if it is no longer interested in the votes of the Auckland working-class, then they will gladly take them off their hands.
Ms Harré is not only a former Alliance leader and MP, but also a highly successful trade-union organiser. She masterminded the “Nurses Are Worth More” campaign of 2003-04, and was for four years the General Secretary of the National Distribution Union. In Auckland, where Labour’s organisation is weak (and where Mr Shearer and his allies have thrown their support behind organisational “reforms” which threaten to keep it that way) the Greens have installed a woman of proven organisational and motivational talent.
What we are witnessing is a fascinating historical reversal. Labour conquered power by first organising the working-class vote, and only then extending its reach into the educated middle-class and small proprietors. The Greens are expanding in the opposite direction: from their core base of support among the educated middle-class; to the small proprietor; to the working-class; and potentially to the much-despised “underclass” of beneficiaries and alienated youth.
Mr Shearer and his allies are, therefore, pursuing a potentially fatal strategy. By leading the party to the right they risk losing their working-class base, which, following the last election, is all that remains to them. The Labour leadership do not seem to appreciate that the Greens have already made off with the educated middle-class vote, and have won over a significant number of small proprietors. To leave their Auckland working-class flank exposed to Ms Harré’s organisational flair risks replicating here what has already occurred in Germany: the Greens supplanting Labour as the dominant left-wing party.
Labour members who would rather not see their party pushed into second place need to act swiftly and decisively. Not simply on the question of: “Who should be leading the party?” But on the more important question of: “How should the party be led?”
A crucial aspect of the Greens’ success as a political movement has been the open and transparent nature of its decision-making processes. In short, it’s commitment to democracy. If Labour’s membership wishes to make progress on those “fundamental issues of difference” between their party and the Greens, they must demonstrate an equally vigorous commitment to democratic values.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 April 2012.