Friday 5 March 2010

Labour Needs A Plan

Not another bus tour! Political battles are won with ideas - ideas organised into programmes. Phil Goff needs to reach back into Labour's history, back to the days when it felt confident enough in its own ideas and programmes to publish a pamphlet entitled "Labour Has A Plan". Labour Party photo.

SURVEYING THE LATEST BATCH of lack-lustre poll results, Phil Goff must be asking himself: "What must Labour do to win?"

His answer, pro-tem, is a nationwide bus-tour opposing the proposed rise in GST. Is it the right answer? Probably not.

For a start, the last GST increase (in 1988) came from a Labour Government in which Phil Goff was a minister – and it arrived without compensation.

The other problem he’s got is that those responsible for introducing GST did much too good a job of selling it. Unlike Australia, where GST sparked genuine political resistance, New Zealand has always patted itself on the back for the tax’s smooth and almost trouble-free introduction.

The only real success the New Zealand opponents of GST ever had was in convincing the electorate that consumption taxes are regressive, and that low income Kiwis must be adequately compensated for any increase. The latest batch of polls confirms this conviction is still strongly held by most voters. Opposition to an uncompensated rise in GST is high, but falls away sharply when compensation is guaranteed.

So, given that the Prime Minister has already promised that low income Kiwis will be compensated for the estimated 2.22 percent rise in living costs which an increase in the GST rate from 12.5 to 15 percent will produce, what does Goff hope to gain by embarking on yet another Magical Mystery Tour?

Perhaps he’s hoping to expose the rather strange logic behind the claim that a rise in GST is necessary for the Government to recoup the revenue lost by reducing the top tax rate of the 8 percent of New Zealanders earning more than $70,000 per anum. Does Telecom’s Paul Reynolds really need (or deserve!) an extra $6,000 per week?

But even on this issue the polls are against Labour’s leader. Fully three-quarters of the electorate support a reduction in the top tax rate – proof positive that Key’s "aspirational" message still resonates strongly with voters across the political spectrum.

As a commentator on this blogsite put it last week:

"I grew up working-class in a working-class street in a working-class town. What truly united people was the urge to stop being working-class as soon as possible. The only ones who wanted everyone to remain among the noble poor of the working-class were the ‘Left’."

Goff is the living embodiment of that perennial working-class determination to "better" oneself. The son of a skilled factory-worker, he took advantage of the opportunities created by the First Labour Government’s welfare state to climb out of the working-class and into the ranks of the educated middle-class.

From the mean streets of Mt Roskill to a ten-acre-block in genteel Clevedon is precisely the social trajectory that thousands of working-class Kiwis aspire to. (And remember, it’s not only Goff’s trajectory, it's Key’s as well.)

The First Labour Government gave New Zealanders a genuine (as opposed to purely rhetorical) "step change" by moving an entire generation up two whole levels of Abraham Maslow’s "hierarchy of needs" – from the basic physiological need for food and shelter, through the need for security and safety, to the level where psychological needs begin to take precedence.

Labour was voted out of office in 1949 because, for a majority of voters, safety was no longer enough. By making them secure in their jobs and in their homes, Labour had freed New Zealanders to pursue more individualistic goals. Labour’s collectivism no longer satisfied voters – as it had in the depths of depression and war. Men and women were hungry, not for the basic necessities of life, but for the feelings of accomplishment, respect and recognition that come from achieving private and personal ambitions. National’s promise to let hard-working New Zealanders "get ahead" was exactly what they wanted to hear.

Something very similar occurred in 2008. The insecurities and hardships of the 1980s and 90s had been banished. Labour, once again, had brought a majority of New Zealanders to the point where they no longer felt the need for the protection of "Nanny State". They were ready to fly solo, and John Key promised to let them try.

By focusing his party’s attention on the minority of New Zealanders who remain trapped on the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, Goff is condemning Labour to a lengthy period in opposition. Only if the perceived "recovery" turns out to be a mirage, and a collapsing economy sends thousands of Kiwis tumbling down to join their poorest fellow citizens on the unemployment lines, can Goff win power via this route.

And even then, the classic colonial structure of New Zealand’s population militates against a Labour victory. Most of the poor are not only socio-economically but racially separated from the rest of the New Zealand electorate. For Labour to win it must somehow persuade its "aspirational" Pakeha voters to make common cause (and share their wealth) with a marginalised Maori, Pasifika and immigrant lumpenproletariat – the people Key refers to as the "underclass".

But, as this latest recession has amply demonstrated, the experience of deprivation in a globalised economy is by no means a generalised phenomenon. For most well-educated and/or highly skilled Pakeha, the Global Financial Crisis was something they read about (and for a few worrying months, feared) but is was not something they lived. Overwhelmingly, it was the young, the brown and the male who felt the full impact of the recession’s blows.

Labour’s only hope of drawing these under- and over-classes together, electorally, is by devising a policy framework which not only guarantees Maslow’s "basics" – food, shelter and safety – to the poor, but which also, and at the same time, provides the aspirant layers of the population with the opportunities they crave for recognition, respect and self-actualisation.

More than anything else, this requires Goff and his colleagues to come up with an innovative, coherent and – most importantly - believable economic plan. A plan which, unlike the programme of the present government, is neither fiscally reckless, nor ecologically unsustainable. A plan which enlists, democratically, the huge and shamefully under-utilised talents of all the New Zealand people.

To win in 2011, Labour must step-up to the job which, historically-speaking, it has always done better than anybody else. National may know how to offer special favours to New Zealand’s capitalists – but it takes a Labour Government to re-structure and re-energise New Zealand Capitalism.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 4 March 2010. 


Olwyn said...

One way of doing this, and the way I initially thought Phil Goff was going to go, would be to seek common cause between manufacturers and workers against the hollowing out (to use the buzz word) of the NZ economy by the investment class. This will not be easy, as many manufacturers and well-paid workers are also part-time landlords, though they are but a small part of the problem.

The problem as I see it can occur both left and and of the spectrum. Back in the sixties and seventies, people emerging into the middle classes largely wanted to be teachers, medical workers, public servants and the like. What they sought was security, but it needed a productive base if it was to be maintained. On the right, the desire now is to own assets; land, water and power, and to sit on various boards, but if this is not supported by a productive base the result is the hollowing out of the economy, whereby a few own everything and little else happens.

Bearhunter said...

I think the first move Goff to make is to come up with a strategy group that contains people who actually know what it is like to live on a shoestring alongside all those university graduates who have never worked in the private sector; the ones Labour's policy arm seems to be made up of.

Then Labour needs to come up with a workable plan to actually enlarge and improve our economy (a radical idea, I know, but it hasn't been done with conviction for a long time). How it does this is beyond me, frankly, butu I'm sure there are better minds than mine that could work at it. I have my own ideas, but no one listens to the likes of me, so I'll leave it to the "professionals".

Once Labour can show that it can provide more for everyone, it needs to (and I hate this word, but however) "re-engage" with what used to be its core constituency. If it can carry both the actual working class along with the wristy-intellectual cadre then it will have a chance. But it needs to realise that the socially liberal policies so beloved of the middle-class left are not necessarily attractive to the working class, especially the Maori and PI elements, who are often more socially conservative than Pakeha (as for the immigrant lumpenproletariat I have no idea what they represent, even though I suspect I am one of them myself).

Labour needs to choose its battles carefully - Axe the Tax is a crap slogan and a misguided campaign, for example, and virtually untenable given Labour's GST history.

For instance, it could redeem itself in Auckland by taking on the appalling Super City structure thrust upon ratepayers by Rodney Hide. Offer to change that and they'll haul in more votes than they could have fairly imagined after the last election.

Sanctuary said...

As Austin Mitchell so pithily observed in the "Half Gallon, Quarter Acre Pavlova Paradise" Labour wins election campaigns on a platform of "Let's get NZ moving" and National defeats Labour with the slogan "Let's Keep NZ Moving". That was in 1972. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

In terms of how to build an aspirational program, I think this goes back to your observations of how the right has somehow subverted the language of radicalism to serve, at best, a nugatory and limited idea of negative liberty and at worst to simply corrupt language and meaning as a way of undermining resistance to authoritarian capitalism and to allow the perversion of the very meaning of words like liberty and freedom.

Labour firstly needs to start using aspirational language - that the left offers freedom, individualism, and liberty in the true meanings of those words - and challenge the idea that freedom and capitalism and two words for the same thing. Everyone knows intuitively that ACT's definition of individualism and liberty are a mean and mocking shadow of what they words mean; Only a fool doesn't grasp that National's talk of free markets and responsibility are a cruel joke to the victims of their particular blinkered and parochial brand of crony capitalism. Yet the left allows the right to almost exclusively use these aspirational words. It may sound silly, but the battle begins by no longer allowing the right a free ride with the English language.

StephenR said...

Does Telecom’s Paul Reynolds really need (or deserve!) an extra $6,000 per week?

The existence of millionaires doesn't really seem like a good reason not to reduce tax rates...those earning 70k a year are a long way off being Paul Reynolds.

MB said...

Sorry, I know this column is meant as positive and constructive, but I am increasingly finding the whole aspirational-social progress assumptions problematic.

What the post-1935 generations gained in security (after discovering they had "needs") they lost in various crafty ways to eke out a subsistence.

My grandfather, who was unemployed for most of the 1930s, my father (who never forgot) and now myself have a thing about vege gardens. Back in those days, most people were poor, they grew veges wherever they could and had poultry. If you look at 1920s photos of Te Aro flat, all those little backyards were full of potatoes, not ornamental flax with pebbles, like they are these days.

I don't want to romanticise this too much, but nor should every part of it be dismissed as something people have to "progress from" or "aspire beyond". Many of the working class in those days actually had rich cultural lives, they read Marx, went to the WEA, they could quote Shakespeare by heart, they sang around the piano or played the mouth organ. How many of the working class do this now?

Strangely enough, they didn't necessarily "need" the package of state services people now can't do without, let alone the X-Box, flat-screen TV or er... the internet. (Admittedly, some tools are very good: running water, sewerage, washing machines).

All this talk of meeting people's needs, expanding the economy - where is it all going? Off into the bright glorious future, where we will become like those Orwell described as "enlightened sunbathers... whose sole topic of conversation is their superiority to their ancestors".

Isn't there another way?

Clunking Fist said...

Jaysus, only 8% of NZers earn more than $70,000? No wonder the "trickle-down" effect is weak at the moment.

solatnz said...

Sanctuary I cannot help but be reminded of a quote from RH Tawney:
"…a large measure of equality, so far from being inimical to liberty, is essential to it … Liberty is, in fact, equality in action, in the sense, not that all [people] perform identical functions or wield the same degree of power, but that all [people] are equally protected against the abuse of power, and equally entitled to insist power should be used, not for personal ends, but for the general advantage."

Victor said...

An excellent article and some excellent responses, particularly from Olwyn, Bearhunter and Sanctuary.

I was struck during the last election (and in 2005) by a comparison with the loss of power by the centre left in the late 1940s and early 1950s and the resurgeance of the centre right.

It wasn't just a New Zealand phenomenon either but common to the US, UK, Australia and much of Western Europe.

Much of the step change was just a matter of boredom, both with the old faces and with the Spartan equality of the war years.

I'm just about old enough to remember that time and I recall the world becoming suddenly more colourful, interesting, comfortable and 'modern'.

Then as now, the Left had a hard job reinventing itself, made harder by the fact that the Right was very cautious about dismantling the Left's achievements.

A major difference, as far as New Zealand today is concerned,is the the existence of a Neo-Liberal super-right, its appetite whetted by years of hegemony in the 1980s and 90s.

This places the centre-right under a pressure from its own supporters to do more to impose the Neo-Liberal agenda.

Another key difference is, obviously, that New Zealand no longer has Commonwealth Preference to keep our economy ticking over. We are on our own in a world which knows little about us and cares even less.

The premium on sensible policies is therefore far greater and so is the need for Labour to get its act together and return to a position where it can manage capitalism.

Once again, Chris, I'm struck by the wisdom of your view that Labour is better for capitalism and National for capitalists.

Croneyism may yet deal the death blow to our under-resource, under-skilled economy.

Chris Trotter said...

I wish I could claim credit for the "capitalists/Capitalism" formula, Victor, but the kudos for that shrewd historical insight belongs to the late Bruce Jesson.

David Baigent said...

Hi Chris,
What follows is just one man's thoughts.
Not meant to be anything other than a line of action that may open up a way to change quickly..

1) To get the aged and failing Labour Ministers to exit, use the miss-use of money/perks gambit.
This will be terribly effective and will certainly get voter approval.
May even catch a few extra National members at the same time.

2) Fill the gaps with a younger age group of candidates (while allowing the "floor" to have a primary role in selection).
This latter point is especially real if the Greens fall over.

3) Re-emphasize the fundimentals of the Labour Party from the view point of a 25 year old NZ born polynesian in permanent employment. Not living at home but visiting regularly.
Married or partner, but not tied to the Church.

4) Make a sharp distinction/seperation of Politics from all other authority figures.
eg. Police, IRD, Council, Legal, Church, Unions, Employer groups, Rental home owners.

5) Emphasize the fact that gains follow productive work, and responsibility.
Move away from finding some one/thing to blame.
Accept complaint as an opportunity event.

Painful for some but will work.

Victor said...


It's still your view, even if you borrowed it from Bruce, may he rest in peace.

Another Auckland academic whose name escapes me said, during the 1997 Asian meltdown,: "When Asians do it, it's called croneyism. When Europeans do it, it's called networking".

As far as I can make out, there's a heap of 'networking' going on in NZ at the moment, with short term gain for mates helping to drive policy.

Sooner or later we will have to realise that our only significant asset is our people. Not our lignite, not our 'iron sands',not our water and not even our clean green image, now sadly undermined both by our own policies and by some of our markets' often misplaced concerns over carbon footprints.

Our human capital is just as likely to be growing up with a solo mum in a state house as in a leafy suburb, close to an elite school. It is economically self-defeating as well socially callous to impoverish the mother or fail to provide optimum opportunities for the child to learn and develop.

Given his background, John Key should understand this. But I'm not holding my breath, waiting for it to impact on policy.

Anonymous said...

I was re reading some of John A Lee's books, and his Biography last week.

Where are the parlimentarians with his drive, passion and committment to their beliefs in our Parliament ??

Shiner said...

Anon =

John A. Lee, despite doing much to help the Labour Party, was smeared and booted out by Fraser and his henchmen. (Fraser incidentally was Helen Clark's favourite PM.)

Just shows you the party's style & methods haven't changed much.