Friday 12 June 2020

Absent Friends: Labour knows what needs to be done to win – but not how to make it happen.

Give Her The Tools: The challenge confronting the Prime Minister and her colleagues is to somehow muster the intellectual forces needed to move Labour’s admirably simple campaign strategy from the lofty realm of theory into the gritty world of practice.

WINNING IN SEPTEMBER should be a doddle for Labour. The successful campaign strategy virtually writes itself. Draw together a comprehensive plan for economic recovery post-Covid. Indicate the Government’s general direction of travel by announcing creative solutions to the problems which will, inevitably, arise over the next 100 days. Maintain a “relentlessly positive” approach by insisting, in the spirit of 2017, “We can do this!”

Unfortunately, the biggest problem confronting Labour isn’t recognising what needs to be done; it’s working out how to make it happen.

For the best part of 30 years, Labour’s caucus hasn’t needed to draw together a comprehensive economic plan. In 1984, the plan that came to be known as “Rogernomics” was handed to them, ready-made, by Treasury. Labour and National have dutifully followed Treasury’s plan ever since. So rock-solid has the neoliberal consensus become in New Zealand that both of the major political parties have forgotten how to think in any other way. When either one of them wants to know what to think, they simply ask Treasury.

Prior to 1984, in the years when both Labour and National were mass parties boasting hundreds-of-thousands of members, policy advice was largely sourced in-house. What could not be obtained from members tended to be supplied by key interest groups. National could rely on Federated Farmers, the Employers Association and the Chambers of Commerce. Labour had the trade unions, schoolteachers and university staff, liberal churchmen, voluntary-sector workers, and elements of the Manufacturers Association. The secret to successive National Governments’ extraordinary longevity was simply a matter of stealing Labour’s policies, watering them down, and then introducing them as their own.

This complex process of producing economic and social policy even had a name: “Pluralism”. Society was presented as a multitude of competing “power centres” which the pressure of regular electoral contests forced into the self-reinforcing negotiation of political compromises. Viewed historically, pluralism was an indisputably progressive system. It guaranteed that the interests of workers and their families were both protected and advanced, but only at a speed with which capitalist investors and employers could keep pace, and which afforded them the time required to adapt. In this way “evolution” forestalled “revolution”.

Obviously, pluralism represented everything which the followers of what we now call neoliberalism detested. In their estimation, the only “power centres” which merited the state’s protection were those which protected the rights and interests of the market. Rogernomics thus set about the systematic dismantling of just about every competing centre of power in New Zealand society. Its straightforward purpose was to create a system in which the formulation of economic and social policy became the preserve of private think tanks and a state apparatus re-configured to serve the interests of capital exclusively. Their objective, largely achieved, was to leave all those seeking an alternative to neoliberalism with literally no viable means of either thinking it up, or making it happen.

You see the problem here? The Covid-19 Pandemic has exogenously generated (i.e. in the way the asteroid-Earth collision influenced the dinosaurs!) a critical need for new and imaginative economic and social policies. Unfortunately, the only institutions capable of formulating such policies are intellectually incapable of thinking outside the neoliberal box. The ideas of neoliberalism permeate not only the advice flowing into National’s caucus from the “Right”, but also the advice flowing into Labour’s caucus from the “Left”. Neither the trade unions, nor the universities; the churches nor the not-for-profit sector; have anything to offer, policy-wise, that even remotely resembles a detailed and comprehensive alternative to the status-quo.

Just consider the fate of what is probably the most heterodox policy package presented to a New Zealand government in the last 30 years: the report of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group. What happened to this radical, sector-wide suite of reforms? It was almost completely ignored. Carmel Sepuloni, the Social Development Minister, simply couldn’t summon-up the independence of mind required to over-rule her MSD advisers – for which her colleagues were no doubt profoundly grateful. What on earth would they have done if she had!

Because it would be a mistake to think that policy orthodoxy and a general reluctance to challenge official advice is behaviour peculiar to Carmel Sepuloni. The same could be said of just about every minister in Jacinda Ardern’s cabinet – including Jacinda herself.

She and her senior colleagues cut their political teeth in an environment where the neoliberal foundations of social and economic policy were regarded as immovable. Those who suggested otherwise, like Jim Anderton’s Alliance, and the Green Party under Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimons, were treated like embarrassingly eccentric family members: people to be endured – not heeded. Certainly, anyone within Labour’s ranks foolish enough to suggest that neoliberalism might have had its day – like David Cunliffe – inspired only the rolling of eyes and grinding of teeth among their colleagues.

Like that asteroid, however, the Covid-19 crisis has brought on one or two changes. As both the Prime Minister and her Finance Minister have made clear in recent weeks, the need for a comprehensive policy reset is now urgent. Facing unemployment levels not seen since the darkest days of the Great Depression, the Labour component of the Coalition Government is reaching back, through its own history, for the inspiration needed to confront the vast challenges ahead.

What they are discovering, however, is that Rogernomics’ most pernicious legacy – at least in Labour – is the extraordinary damage it inflicted on the party’s intellectual and moral capacities. Never has the left-wing faction of the party which departed with Jim Anderton in 1989 been needed so desperately. Never has the absence of the alternative thinking it would have encouraged been more telling.

Pluralism, you see, is as vital to the health and progress of parties as it is to the general welfare of societies. I have this on the authority of no less an expert than Matt McCarten – who served as chief-of-staff to Jim Anderton, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little. Ruminating recently upon the ideological monoculture Labour has become, he told me sadly: “We should have stayed, Chris. We should have stayed.”

History, however, seldom offers us second chances. Notwithstanding Jacinda’s need for new ideas, she is unlikely to find them within her current ranks. Certainly, she will not discover them in the policy papers passed up by her neoliberal officials. They won’t be found in the glossy submissions of right-wing think tanks and PR firms either.

The challenge confronting the Prime Minister and her colleagues, therefore, is to somehow muster the intellectual forces needed to move Labour’s admirably simple campaign strategy from the lofty realm of theory into the gritty world of practice.

Never was the old saying more true: “Now is the time for every good person to come to the aid of the party.” Especially those with democratic socialist ideas!

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 12 June 2020.


Brendon Harre said...

NZ could reinvent the MoW.

Trev1 said...

When it comes to "mustering intellectual forces" Chris, Labour is richly endowed. I give you the Hon. Phil Twyford, Minister for Economic Development. We cannot fail with such intellects to guide us.

Kat said...

@Brendon Harre
Yes the need for a 21st Century MoW is now more vital than ever. Like the light Rail it may be something planned to happen after the election. Hope is eternal but the top of my hobby horse is wearing thin..............

Fred Dagg used to reckon the Trevs were useful once they "got in behind"......

John Horst said...

One can only hope that Labour, anticipating an outright majority, is seriously evaluating their list MPs, so they are not scraping the bottom of the barrel, post election. One can only hope that in anticipation, an ambitious and truly transformational range of policies is developed as we speak. One can only hope that Labour will be prepared to spend their political capital and not waste it. One can only hope that Labour understands that if an outright majority eventuates, it presents a once in a lifetime opportunity. I am not holding my breath…..

aberfoyle said...

Winston,his charm may be enough to swing Labour, back again,for a certain the buffoonery of Jones,winning up north,will be akin to Winston,winning Epsom.

The Greens may give Labour,the lift needed,for all our present Prime Ministers, charm, d beguile, that will not carry a open majority to carry another term without aid in their bubble.

The majority of the voting kiwi,has always been working tory,therefore a partner is indeed a need, and with present numbers on all sides,Labour shall need a partner with enough votes to out vote the Nats,always strong ballot box showing,the Greens,N.Z.First,is both register the percent either may swing it,yet not forgetting N.Z.First!s fence sitting when in a dominant possition to swing either way,as their goal dictate.

As for the Maori Party,maybe they may make a swing come back,and they like New Zealand First are political swingers.

sumsuch said...

No, I'm not joining Labour. I joined to vote for Cunliffe, whereafter he dropped out. Hate'm and have never voted for them

Other than that, inspiring words. And so few of those without you.

You and Matt, sorry about your tactics. How could you not do what you did? And tactics are not what you can regret. Being wrong-hearted or lacking force, these are righteous regrets.

Supernova said...

Yes I agree Brendon. With neoliberalism NZ lost any ambition for the state, it simply became to let the market do its thing. The Ministry of Works had huge ambition but alas was a rival power centre to treasury. A reinvented engineer led MoW such as a Ministry for Sustainable Development would have a goal bigger than market economics - surviving climate change - and bring a new perspective and power to create an comprehensive economic plan.

Nick J said...

Statism, the basically Keynesian solution ultimately gave us stagflation. Freidmanism made the rich hugely so and impoverished the rest of us. It too failed.

New ideas, yes the best of both. Markets where they belong, government where it is needed.
We need innovation, capital spent on new ventures, or placed into greater efficiencies to drive profit. NZ is locally capital poor because of rent seeking behaviour. The investors put their money into safe returns, utilities that should never have been privatised, property etc. That needs to be discouraged by strong anti monopoly legislation and nationalisation of key strategic assets.

Government needs to cease to regard itself in business terms and rediscover public service and delivery of a proper welfare net to the citizens.

Our education sector needs to lead us in science especially export related. It also needs to expand language and marketing outputs to sell to new markets. We are fortunate to possess Chinese and Indian communities to help that along. The future belongs not to law graduates but to those who can sell our exports, and who do reciprocal trade deals.

All trade should be viewed as reciprocal and fair, NZ needs to be seen as a standard setter who people know that they will get a fair deal from. We don't need to be protectionist but we need to move towards only trading on equal terms.

Hell there's so much we could and can do, it's a time to be really positive. Henry Ford attitude, fail until we win.

I don't trust Natz to deliver any future, they represent leaches who give their local overseers the crumbs from the table. Labour needs to cook the cake and invite us all to the table.

Jens Meder said...

I think if Labour's policies will be more economically prudent and closer to the center of the political spectrum than National, it will have a better chance to win than National.

Veering further to the left from what the govt. is now, might mean reduced support at least on the economics level.

John Hurley said...

I think at the core people are still social primates.

In the light of the attacks on statues someone noted that National had just "evaporated".

National and Labour are committed to the idea that we are a multi-ethnic population subject to management by people like Paul Spoonley. Consequently he talks to his chosen guests on RNZ about "how we do diversity". Julie Zhu says "Maori are the only unique aspect to New Zealand that needs to be upheld and there just needs to be solidarity" Paul Spoonley grins in agreement. The public can only groan.

I get the sense now that things are different. The progressives have thought that the media smoke screen covers their advance (everyone else is rendered harmless - atomised - only connected by social media to use Paul Spoonley's analogy). Now we see Churchill's statue boxed up to protect it from BLM while a photo-shopped image has Hitler looking on smiling. I notice more letters in the Press and although they have to pass the gatekeeper I sense there are too many to ignore.

Before people go to war or knuckle down against a foe they need to believe their fellows are allies. That is where national identity comes in:

People take history and identity quite seriously and they see themselves connected to the feats of their ancestors so history lives in the present, even though the society looks totally modern" - Eric Kaufmann Conversations With Tyler Episode 70.

Which ties in with Jon Haidt's ideas about sacred symbols and ideas uniting people.

Tops isn't going to get much support when it blames Maori crime on colonisation.

The evidence is that populism is a result of political entrepreneurs channelling public concerns about immigration at the national level.

Jacinda's crown can quickly fall. Already she has signalled support for BLM by encouraging school pupils and their posters. The Media Party is the Kingmaker not NZ First.

David George said...

Recent pronouncements from National indicate a departure from core principles; namely away from personal responsibility towards the collective. Sickening stuff for the genuine conservatives and libertarians among us. I suspect ACT will prosper as a consequence and, God willing, if the two of them have the numbers to win the election ACT can act as a handbrake on the Nats disturbing dalliance with leftist "thinking".
Perhaps that's the plan; it's a good one if so.

Patricia said...

I wonder what would happen if Labour AND National formed a government with MPs voting on their conscience and not party lines....

David Stone said...

I have always imagined , though Chris will likely know if this is correct, that in the original concept of the Westminster parliamentary system that we follow, there were no parties, no division into government and opposition factions, just some representatives of the various regions voted to go to parliament and nut out amongst themselves how to deal with the matters of state as they came up. With no objective in the mind of any except to make the best decision for the nation on each issue as it arose.
I think the formation of parties has distorted and damaged that concept in that now the most pressing concern on the part of all parliamentarians is to score points off the other party. On whatever aspect of the individuals in focus seems most damaging often without any relevance to the best outcome for the nation whatsoever.
I think all political parties should be outlawed .

Patricia said...

Perhaps it would be better if they voted in accordance with the wishes of their electorate. Now that would be democracy.

sumsuch said...

DJS, that's your conclusion? My conclusion is a strong demo-cratist party. Which is how the progressives in America conclude. Fighting against organised money and for the people.

Limited terms and no parties are side cul-de-sacs. The Left letter-writers here can be so piss-poor.