Tuesday 19 October 2010

A Change Gonna Come (Labour Abandons Neoliberalism)

A New Day Dawns: At it's Annual Conference in Auckland last weekend (15-17 October) the NZ Labour Party finally and decisively abandoned its 26-year experiment with Neoliberalism.

IT BEGAN, as so many things do, with words on a page. Seated in the sprawling foyer of Auckland’s Aotea Centre, I was flicking through the pages of the Labour Party’s "Policy Framework" document, when suddenly it struck me. These weren’t words of continuity – these were words of change.

As a former trade unionist, the first section I always turn to in any Labour policy document is the section dealing with industrial relations.

Now, about the best one can say of the employment reforms enacted by Helen Clark’s government was that they were a cautious improvement on the infamously harsh Employment Contracts Act. But the policy I was reading in the foyer of the Aotea Centre last Friday evening was anything but cautious. Dammit – this stuff was radical.

What Labour is proposing is nothing less than restoring to the many thousands of workers currently lacking an active voice in their workplace the right to engage in collective bargaining. Across entire industries minimum pay-rates and conditions will again apply. State-facilitated and binding arbitration will again be made available to both employers and employees. For nearly quarter-of-a-century, New Zealanders rights in the workplace have been unconscionably abridged, Labour is promising to restore them.

My fellow journalists hadn’t missed these proposed changes. Eyebrows were raised. Clearly, this Labour Conference was going to be different.

They weren’t wrong. In the bars and cafes of the Auckland CBD, where many of the 600 registered delegates gathered that night to catch up and compare notes since last year’s conference in Rotorua, there was a palpable sense of excitement. Those who had been most closely involved in the drafting of the new policy framework all wore the same expression of quiet satisfaction. I half expected them to break into Sam Cooke’s haunting anthem: "It’s been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come."

By Saturday lunchtime it was becoming clear just how dramatically things were changing. Policies which had once been the preserve of a handful of persistent dissidents were now being forcefully promoted from the top-table.

In one session, I witnessed what I thought I’d never see: left-wing unionists and staunch Labour members enthusiastically applauding businessmen and economists. The combined message of Selwyn Pellett, John Walley and Ganesh Nana: that the neoliberal experiment had failed, and that it was time to reclaim New Zealand’s economic sovereignty by helping the export sector repay New Zealand’s mountainous debt; was fast becoming the theme of the conference.

The raw emotion of business journalist and commentator, Bernard Hickey’s, address to conference delegates brought tears to more than one hardened observer’s eyes. His potent mixture of dire economic prophecy and unashamed patriotism moved even Labour’s usually irrepressible finance spokesman, David Cunliffe, to tell Hickey’s audience, in choked tones: "You will remember this day."

Perhaps it was simply the fact that this was the conference of a party in opposition that contributed so forcefully to the impression of an organisation vigorously exercising its limbs – and mind – after a dangerously long period of enforced restraint. Personally, I think there was more to it than that. Personally, I think what I witnessed over the weekend was the long-awaited lifting of Helen Clark’s shadow from the New Zealand Labour Party.

No one has ever dominated Labour so thoroughly or for so long as Helen Clark. Her great historical achievement was to keep it together after the bitter divisions of the Rogernomics Era and the defection of its left and right wings. But, like all great achievements, hers came at a high cost: the surrender of the Party’s freedom to the leadership.

This was the conference where the Party won it back.

But it did not win it back at the expense of its current leadership – it won it back with the leadership's active and eloquent support.

In the course of just 22 months Andrew Little has transformed himself from dour union boss into a party president capable of both passion and (who knew?) humour. In contrast to last year’s rather wooden presidential address, Mr Little this year gave voice to genuine political oratory.

But, it was left to Phil Goff to set the capstone on the edifice of change which, by Sunday morning, Labour’s 2010 conference had become – and he did not disappoint. In what was undoubtedly the best Labour speech in thirty years the Leader of the Opposition finally and with considerable eloquence announced the end of Labour’s 26-year long neoliberal experiment.

Recalling the New Zealand of his youth where "the rungs of the ladder reached down to where everybody grew up" Labour’s leader pledged to make "a place at the table" for every New Zealander.

"I believe this", he said, as his party rose to its feet. "We can do this!"

It was a long time coming, but change had come at last.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 19 October 2010.


Jordan Carter said...

Nice piece Chris.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article, Chris. Think I would have liked to have been there! Given that Labour now have some "big boys" like Bernard, John and Ganesh on their side, they may have some hope of succeeding in their attempts to get change in this country. Change and soon is our only hope of remaining a sovereign nation. The right wing retaliation to what Labour proposes is going to be fierce though.

Anonymous said...

Is this "change we can believe in" or actual, real change in the Party?

Anonymous said...

Yes, Labour are moving left but lets not overplay it.

neo-liberalism has been a dead duck internationally since the 2008 credit crunch and subsequent market meltdown.

promising tighter controls of the labour market, foreign ownership, and better early childhood state intervention is excellent but the core problems with neo-liberalism are untouched.

this is lurch left represents a strategic grasp for votes, just like goffs lurch right last year was. the hacks in the labour party don't give a fuck about real working class new zealanders.

lefties should welcome the lurch left, but recognise it as a strategic move rather than because of some new found principle.

Jordan carter, phil goff and et al would sell their own grandmas for votes.

Chris Trotter said...

Do you know Jordan, Anonymous? Have you met Phil Goff? If not, I'd urge you to avoid "sell their own grandmas for votes"-type comments.

On Bowalley Road we strive to maintain civility in our debates.

Michael Wood said...

I'm one of those hacks anonymous, and I can assure you that the new positions put forward at conference are far more than cynical strategic positioning. If anything, they actually buy the party a major fight with powerful vested interests - a more cynical approach would have been to "play it safe", waiting for National to make mistakes and positioning oursleves to be better managers of the current structure.

Chris touches on one of Phil Goff's, generally unacknowledged, strengths as a leader. He has genuinely democratic instincts and is prepared to put old positions to one side, allow the party to engage in debate, and then work with the consensus positions that emerge.

tob said...

To be fair Andrew was rather unwell last year. He's always been a great speaker, something I first noticed back in 2005 in the fair share campaign.

Mark Wilson said...

I would like to thank Labour for conceding the election so early. Very decent of them.
Their acolytes will love it and middle NZ will not. I wonder if they have heard of preaching to the converted? Now all we have to do is find a way to subvert the wealth consuming non wealth producing Greens and it's a landslide.

Shona said...

So there is finally some Labour policy worth voting for after nearly 30 years! repeal the Reserve Bank Act first.

Anonymous said...

I was reading about a developer in todays Press.He is from Auckland but finds Christchurch land cheaper, and he is building "cheaper" apartment blocks for "workers". I bet they don't have sound proofing in the walls?
It reminded me of the "worker" housing built around Riccarton early last century. Many of the workers worked for the railway workshops. Those workers had a vege garden.

Joseph said...

Best thing about that conference was the new edition of Anti Capitalist from the Socialist Aotearoa stall out front ;)

peterpeasant said...

Heart warming post.
Great pic.

Not sure the "no gst on fresh fruit and vegetables " is going to help.

Still too much "nanny state" hangover.

Anonymous said...

I want to hear Goff say, "In the 80s we got it wrong - we went too far, too fast and the NZ people payed the price for the enrichment of a few." Then, and only then, will I believe he and the Party have changed.

Anonymous said...

Michael- thank you and the Labour party for being prepared to buy a fight with the vested interests. I thought the Labour party was going to cynically concede the next election and then aim to come back as National lite in 2014 and it would be business as usual. You have given me hope, and if you and the party are going to fight for us then I will get out and fight for you. Even Phil Goff, who I had written off for dead, seems to have revealed hidden depths and after the weekend I can actually imagine him as a successful prime minister.

Anecdotally, the next election may not be as difficult for Labour as current polling would indicate. I live in a National stronghold, and at the time of the last election my daughter was nearly lynched at school for saying she was a Labour supporter. Yesterday she came home and told me the parents of a couple of her friends will be voting Labour next election. No idea what these people thought they would be getting from John Key, and what has disappointed them, but disappointed they are and seemingly already resolute in their desire to see him and his government gone.

omar said...

I don't personally know Goff or Carter. The question is whether the LP are a party of principle or opportunism though.

There are plenty of dedicated, principled, hardworking LP activists throughout the country. They've got some good MPs and you've got to respect that. the LP also has plenty of hacks- technocrats, opportunists and yesmen.

You know it and I know it. They are not a party of principle.

war in afghanistan? sweet as.
free trade with the butchers of beijing? no worries.
massive child poverty? you bet.
thousands of maori and pacific youth locked away with no rehabiliation? done.

they might not sell their grandmas for votes but they don't mind killing afghani grandmas for votes.