Reaching For The Red Pill: David Cunliffe and Labour have a rapidly dwindling period of time in which to convince "Middle New Zealand" that its programme represents not a lurch to the left - but a lurch to sanity.
BOLDNESS IN POLITICS is rare. Major political moves are routinely pre-tested in focus groups and opinion polls before being announced. The untested, out-of-left-field appointment of Matt McCarten as David Cunliffe’s new chief-of-staff consequently caught New Zealand’s political class almost completely off-guard.
Nowhere was this more embarrassingly apparent than in the reaction of Helen Kelly, President of the Council of Trade Unions (CTU). Asked to comment on the rumour that McCarten was in line to replace Wendy Brandon as Cunliffe’s CoS, Kelly retorted that such an appointment was “highly unlikely”. (A spectacular demonstration of out-of-the-loop-ness which should dispel, if only for a moment, the right-wing notion that the Labour Party takes its marching orders from the CTU!)
Like all genuine coups (and make no mistake, McCarten’s appointment was very much an Independence Square moment for the Labour Opposition) Cunliffe’s decision has hit the fast-forward button on Labour’s internal politics. Just as well, really, because until last Wednesday it appeared to be operating in slow-motion.
Exactly how long McCarten’s galvanising influence will last, however, rests entirely in Cunliffe’s hands. The boldness of inviting this country’s leading left-winger to occupy the office next to the Leader of the Opposition’s does require some explanation.
Not, of course, to the Labour voters who sat out the 2011 election on the grounds that the party’s parliamentary team really didn’t seem to have their hearts in the fight. They will have “got” McCarten’s appointment instantaneously and it will have cheered them up no end.
Can the same be said of the middle-class professional or the small business owner?
It is Middle New Zealand that needs to hear the reasons why the appointment of the “hard left” McCarten is not, in the words of political journalist, John Armstrong: “confirmation that Labour is shifting markedly and permanently to the left under Cunliffe's leadership”. And, if it is, why they should not be feeling afraid – very afraid?
In framing an answer to that question, Cunliffe could do a lot worse than let himself be guided by McCarten’s own response to the Prime Minister’s insinuation that his appointment represents a lunatic lurch to the Left.
“I’m bemused that the Prime Minister calls my appointment in a non-policy-making role a lurch to the left […] When did it become so outrageous to call for the hourly minimum wage to be raised to $15, or argue that the breadwinners of a family deserve a living wage for a decent day’s work? When does affordable housing for all, a decent job and support for families to support children get a good start in life become so unreasonable?”
For practically the whole of its democratic history, New Zealand has been the home of what one French visitor called “socialism without doctrines”. Beginning with the Liberal Party in the 1890s, most New Zealand politicians (including a number of right-wing leaders like the Reform Party’s Gordon Coates and National’s Keith Holyoake) have looked to the state – as the only reliable possessor of the resources and expertise required to develop a very lightly populated country – to take the lead in nation-building.
New Zealand’s relatively tiny population probably also explains its inhabitants’ longstanding hostility to entrenched economic inequality and the social injustices that follow in its wake. New Zealanders insist that every citizen be given a “fair go” and that their access to education, health-care and a decent place to live should not be determined by the size of their bank balance. The ravages of the Great Depression added a job, a living wage and the maintenance of a social welfare safety-net to this list of things that every Kiwi has to have.
In many countries default policy-settings of such collective generosity would be condemned as “socialist”, and fiercely resisted. But, between 1890 and 1984 large-scale state involvement in the New Zealand economy and the provision of universal social services became the equivalent of our political wallpaper.
Cunliffe’s challenge is to make middle-class New Zealanders understand that it is not the policy package of a Labour Party determined to return to roots that they have to fear, but the extreme policy prescriptions of the neoliberal Right. He needs to explain that between 1983 and 2013, the policies which caused the number of Kiwi kids living below the poverty line to nearly double were not the policies of Richard Seddon, Mickey Savage or even Rob Muldoon, but of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson.
It was the policies of the latter (and, yes, Cunliffe needs to acknowledge that one of them was a Labour finance minister) that were “outrageous”. That it was the sudden and utterly unmandated lurch towards neoliberalism that unleashed the economic and social madness of the last thirty years.
To win, Cunliffe must convince voters that Labour’s “lurch to the Left” is actually a long-delayed lurch to sanity.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 4 March 2014.