Sunday 18 March 2012

Saying "No" To Labour's Right-Turn: A Reply To Matt McCarten

Not Again: Labour politicians have turned right on their Reds before - most recently in 1984. What left-wing trade unionist and commentator, Matt McCarten, seems to have forgotten is that in a political environment dominated by the Right, the "centre" keeps shifting - and not to the Left!

IT’S NOT OFTEN that I find myself in disagreement with Matt McCarten. For the best part of a quarter-century our “take” on the political scene has been distinguished more by the views we shared than the opinions which caused our analyses to diverge. On the question of Labour’s shift to the right, however, I find myself at loggerheads with Matt’s position.

Essentially, Matt’s line is that Labour long ago ceased to be a real left-wing party, and so it is both more honest, ideologically, and much more effective, politically, for Labour to seek the votes of those in the centre of the New Zealand political spectrum, leaving those on the Left to those genuinely left-wing parties, Mana and the Greens.

Under our MMP electoral system, Matt argues, Labour is most unlikely ever to find itself in a position to govern alone. Like John Key’s National Party, it will be forced to seek the support of parties located at a much greater distance from the centre than itself. Providing these parties keep their nerve at the point of negotiating confidence and supply agreements, says Matt, the overall programme of any new Labour-led coalition government will be considerably more left-wing than the manifesto Labour, on its own, presented to the electorate.

But, is Matt justified in assuming that Labour’s coalition partners will be either inclined, or permitted, to keep their nerve and negotiate an agreement at significant odds with that of the dominant coalition partner?

If, as Matt concedes, Labour’s political trajectory is now firmly set; from Goff’s hesitant (and personally discordant) leftism, to Shearer’s eager embrace of the policies associated with the conservative Finnish prime minister, Esko Aho; then a 2014 “win” by Labour will be attributed (both by itself and the right-wing news media) to the electorate’s endorsement of the very same policies. In this context, the ability of the smaller left-wing parties to “force” Labour to embrace radical policy initiatives – policies already “rejected” by a clear majority of voters – will be extremely limited.

The other problem with Matt’s analysis is that it makes no allowance for the impact a right-wing Labour Party is bound to have on the national (with a small “n”) political environment. By reinforcing the Right’s overall ideological dominance, Labour will make it that much harder for all political parties to evince radical left-wing ideas.

This is likely to be especially true of the Greens, who, having broken through the 10 percent threshold in 2011, will be especially reluctant to revert, at least in the public’s imagination, to once again being a radical party of the political fringe. In other words, if Labour shifts to the Right, the Greens are much more likely to shadow them than they are to increase the ideological distance between them. New Zealand leftists should not forget that the Green’s dramatically improved their electoral position in 2011 by tacking to the Right – not the Left.

Matt’s thesis would be much stronger if the Mana Party could be relied upon to motivate and mobilise a significant proportion of the 2011 “Non-Vote” of close to three-quarters-of-a-million New Zealanders. But building a truly mass-party of the Left is almost certainly beyond the intellectual, organisational and financial resources of Mana. And even if, by some political miracle, Hone Harawira proved equal to the task of creating a massive new block of radicalised voters from harassed and impoverished workers and beneficiaries, the change his success would bring to the national political environment would, almost certainly, see Labour tacking back towards the Left. In the circumstances of an electoral uprising of beneficiaries and the working poor, the political centre would no longer be a safe place for Labour to be found.

All of which points to the absolute necessity of Labour remaining firmly attached to the key left-wing positions it took in the lead-up to the 2011 General Election – especially its commitment to increase the income of solo parent families, and to increase the taxes of the top One Percent. Not least among the reasons for doing so is that the rank-and-file of the Labour Party have struggled long and hard to persuade the caucus to accept them. In the recent leadership contest, David Cunliffe made it very clear that he was committed to continuing Labour’s left-turn. Which is why even David Shearer admits that, had the leadership contest been decided on the basis of “one-person, one-vote”, Mr Cunliffe would have won at a canter.

Choice of the Rank-and-File: Had labour's recent leadership been decided on the basis of a party-wide, one-person, one-vote ballot, David Cunliffe would have won at a canter.

The right-wing forces behind Mr Shearer’s caucus victory, led by Trevor Mallard, are well aware of this fact and their strategic response is now clear. The reorientation of Labour must be drawn out over at least 18 months so as to make it next-to-impossible for Mr Cunliffe’s champions, and their potential supporters among Mr Shearer’s less-than-enthusiastic younger backers, to entertain any thoughts of organising a leadership spill before 2014. The last thing they will do is provide either the caucus or the party with an excuse to make Mr Shearer a twelve-month wonder.

The whole raison d’ĂȘtre of the electoral Left is to transform the national political environment by giving radical solutions to economic and social problems the widest possible currency. The left-wing writer, Naomi Wolf, explains this by citing a possibly apocryphal story about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s relationship with the American Left.

In the early days of the New Deal a multitude of progressive groups would visit the White House with bold new ideas for tackling the Great Depression. Roosevelt would listen attentively and, when they had finished, would simply say: “Now got out there and make me do it.”

That is Labour’s role. To bring about change by making it impossible for its parliamentary leaders to doing anything else.

With the greatest respect, Matt, you don’t do that by sanctioning the attempt by a bunch of parliamentary has-beens and Rogernomes to reposition their leader, their party, and the broader progressive movement, to the Right.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.


Alex said...

Nailed it Chris. By moving right Labour is betraying their core support and their activists. They are also betraying the nation's voters by not offering them a credible choice between the two potential governing parties.

Anonymous said...

Labour has been failing its working class support for at least 30 years now.

Maybe the best thing it can do is move to the right where its heart now belongs and clear the way for a new working class movement.

You are correct about the lack of capacity in Mana but if Labour sheds its best people either Mana's capacity can be increased or a new vehicle put in place.

At least that offers some hope for the future rather than having to continue the thankless task of continually trying to make the right wing social democrats who control Labour show a bit of spine indefinitely.

Leaving things as they are will lead to more and more people become totally alienated from the political system until only the far right bother participating at all.

We have had right wing governments for a long time now. Removing Labour from the political scene is our best hope, even if it takes another couple of decades to build a genuine left opposition.

Shearer might be just the man to finally rid us of the useless buggers.

guerilla surgeon said...

Shearer's speech was depressing. Not just no real ideas, but he firmly cemented Labour as National light. Just like Blair, just like Clinton. They were less than ethical even for politicians, possibly because they were willing to compromise their principles or had none to begin with. The jury's out on Shearer as far as I'm concerned. I've never come so close to not voting. Greens are very middle class, and it remains to be seen how they react to the possibility of real gains for workers. Mana- maybe just to small. Gave them my vote last time, but maybe a considered non - vote might be better.

Anonymous said...

So Chris, what is your political 'nous' suggesting the rank and file of 'real' Labourites do in the full face of Labour being steered by Shearer into the path - while apparent undergoing a serious (yeah)reorganisation ! - well trodden by the Rogernomes and Tony Blair?

Anonymous said...

Here we go again.

Anxious fussing about where Labour is heading, as if it wasn't a totally committed capitalist party, with only one possible destination.

The 'Labour should be doing this or that' brigade are bothering themselves about the cleanliness of the ashtrays on the TITANIC

Unknown said...

Very perceptive comments Chris.

The other danger of Labour moving to the right is that it will shed more and more of its activists who will look at Mana or the Greens as more philosophically sympathetic organisations to join.

Activists are underrated. They do not tend to affect policy debates unless the Parliamentary party is way off course but they do get most of the work done. Without them the cost of putting pamphlets out and erecting billboards and enrolling voters would present a horrendous extra expense. And the loss of networking ability and word of mouth cut through would be considerable.

Shearer needs to be careful in the policy decisions that he makes and in the party's relationship with the Trade Union movement. Because without the activists the party is a pale shell of it's former self.

Anonymous said...

The very worrying non vote at the last election is what Labour needs to be concentrating on.

So called "left" and "right" has become irrelevant. "Centre" is meaningless (always has been).
Symptomatic of lazy writing and stupid journalists.

Anonymous said...

I can't see why I am supposed to care what Labour does or does not do, or any other political party for that matter.

Democracy has passed its use by date. What the left is asking is for it to do something that it simply cannot do, which is operate on a reality based policy platform. Get over it. It does not work.

The longer it takes for people to realise this, the longer we will drift on aimlessly in our own version of the Brezhnev stagnation.

Michael Herman said...

While there is nothing quite as unremarkable or impersonal as the "Anonymous" cognomen, this bland and undifferentiated individual is a remarkably active participant in Bowalley Road's Comments page.

I'm of the view that if you're unwilling to put your name to an opinion then the best place to post it is where it truly belongs, up your arse; and, yes, that includes the opinions with which I agree.

I accept that numbered among the anonymous posters are most likely members holding public office in a certain political party or those attempting to channel the departed - yes, Mick(E)y Savage, very ho hum - who fear being the subject of an intra-party vendetta for sharing their true views, but is this timidity and intellectual dishonesty not itself the pure source of the Labour Party's failure of leadership and a significant contributor to the general torpidity of New Zealand's political discourse?

Chris Trotter said...

I have to say, Michael, that I find much to agree with in your comment.

Restricting commentary on Bowalley Road to those who use their full and real names is something I have been considering for some time.

I find it quite incredible that New Zealand has descended to a point where it is no longer safe for people to express their opinions in public.

More believable is the contention that anonymity frees the individual from any true accountability for the views they express - thereby allowing them to indulge in the sort of viciousness and extremism that makes so much of the blogosphere such a toxic environment.

For the moment I will continue to allow the use of pseudonyms and anonymous commentary, and will, likewise, continue to ruthlessly delete all comments that breach the basic rules of civility.

Nevertheless, the temptation to pioneer a blog where nobody gets to wear a mask remains very strong.

Anonymous said...

Chris, in a sense this is the 'product' of the blog system - everywhere - whereby people hide behind whatever, for whatever reason...I susect your dialogue might dry up if you demanded full and real names.

The question is surely - would this be a good thing? And judging from the range of anonymous comments I actually don't think so, as a lot of your contributors say 'bloody' good thinsg irrespective of whether one agrees or not and makes YOUR BLOG one of the most effective out there appealing to the left.

I think that people logging in with usernames is a possibilty though.

As I asked before... what should Labour party activists do now in your a former member?

Anonymous said...

"I'm of the view that if you're unwilling to put your name to an opinion then the best place to post it is where it truly belongs, up your arse; and, yes, that includes the opinions with which I agree."

Clearly logic is not your forte. Disagreement should be aimed at the opinion posted and not the identity of the person who posts it. After all, a good or bad argument is just that, whether or not it is posted by Bertrand Russell or Joe the fishmonger. That some people use the protection of anonymity to rain down abuse and vitriol upon others does not change that fact. Play the ball and not the man.

People often have good reasons for using the Anonymous option. Some are quite mundane. I use it here for my infrequent posts because I dislike the odious name tracking services that are the other options and because my browser has not played nice with the simple "give a name an/or URL" approach in the past (leading to posts vanishing into the ether).

Say what you like about the Standard, at least their system is simple and not a gaping maw into which posts disappear and are never seen again. This obviously isn't Chris's fault, but it has happened to me more than once.

Unknown said...

Interesting read as always. If I was a Labourite (LMAO) I think I'd make the democratic election of the leadership my main priority. Best way to get the leadership and the members trusting each other again ;)

btw Not sure how you'd stop pseudonyms Chris, given the ease with which a gmail account can be set up. Nice thought though.

Anonymous said...

The anonymous commentaries are driven by the exasperating drivel of

"Choose an identity".

You invite comment on a blog spot then present a list of irrelevant IT hurdles.

There are plenty of other blogs without the exasperating border controls displayed by this one.

The easiest option is "anonymous".

Forget conspiracy theories and/or trolls.

A more "user friendly" border control will see a drop in "anonymous" contributions.

antoinette stones said...

3ooo kids passed their NCEAs but weren't awarded them because they hadn't payed the $76.00 dollars required.

Anonymous said...

Labours problem was it only attracted 25 % of the vote, no doubt its core support that vote for it come hell or high water. This however, was woefully short of gaining the Treasury benches, therefore its dilemma will be how to position itself, while not alienating this core vote and two how to attract those who left it (excuse the pun) disenfranchised. Further, as observed, Shearer etal also has to fight a constant rear-guard action against the five columnists of Cunliff’s/Little brigade constantly sniping from the fringes while plotting a coup.
Shearer needs to fire the first shot across the bows and reorganise party membership and kill off union dominated selections and have more inspiring persons to join the party who talk pragmatic sense and promote policies that are not economic suicide such as working for families for beneficiaries. Then, maybe I would consider voting for them – I suspect somehow this is a bridge too far. If this does not happen, Labour is destined for the political wilderness worthy of a Greek Tragedy.
Labours heartland is the worker class epitomised by the “courier driver” who over the years have lost their collective and now are classed independent contractors paying their own ACC, GST earning a net 40 K. This is where they need focus not a 300 unionised dinosaurs. There are thousands of them in the workforce looking for pragmatic policies not some drivel about growing the pie for more welfarism, the very pie they work their butts off for – this is where Labour needs to go.

Victor said...

Hi Chris

Being a vile,low wretch, I can't resist a "told you so", concerning Labour's answer to Chauncey Gardner!

BTW. I choose to use my otherwise under-utilised second name on blogsites, as I suffer from OOS and it's a way of preventing cyber controversy following me everywhere and wrecking my body.

Such are the consequences of hard work,a debilitating practice that should be discouraged amongst the young.

Michael Herman said...

Anonymous circa March 19, 2012 9:10 PM misses my point entirely and, alas, has also not followed my preferred protocol for unidentified posts. I don't expect compliance but in this instance it would have been welcomed.

Whether or not I excel at logic is hardly relevant and certainly vitriolic. His/her assertion that my desire for comment posters to take ownership and responsibility for their opinions by declaring who they are so that they can be vilified in name for holding one or other opinion with which I don't agree, is not only offensive but also paranoid.

While I deplore the fascist inclinations of the ACT-National-Maori compact, we live yet as free citizens in a functioning democracy, not subject as a matter of course to the violent intrusions in civic and private life of the likes of the Stasi or Gestapo, BoSS or any other of the oppressive instruments of authoritarianism.

If free men and women are unwilling to defend their democracy by exercising their right to free speech then they not only endanger it but also insult those many millions now and before who have longed for the freedoms we enjoy.

Moreover, knowing who are the other participants in a discourse is an expectation and convention offline - is there any honest reason supported by logic that this courtesy shouldn't be extended to online forums as well?

I agree we ought to play the ball and not the player but when debating matters more nuanced than two opposing sides trying to land a bladder of air on the other side's turf, context, affiliation and ultimately identity are indeed part of the game.

If comparisons were called for then the debating chamber of parliament would be more analogous to this forum than a ball sport. The notion of anonymity in that setting is for good reason laughable; not much less so the argument that it has a place here - it is disrespectful and cowardly. Anonymity is the shadow behind which intriguers lurk and under whose cover darkness steals light.

Anonymous circa March 19, 2012 9:10 PM trivialises an issue way more important than his/her struggles with tracking services and browsers.

Len Richards said...

Let's get a few facts straight. Labour got 27% of the Party vote and 35% of the electorate vote. That's because a sizeable proportion of Labour voters split their votes to give Labour a partner to allow them to form a government. They were thinking MMP.
It appears lots of Labour voters saw Winston Peters as a strong voice against privatisation of assets and didn't realise that NZ First consistently votes against workers' interests (as they did tonight by voting down Labour's amendments to Tau Henare's secret ballot bill).
Also what many commentators don't seem to realise is that Labour increased its vote significantly in its South Auckland heartland in 2011, both in the Party vote and the electorate vote. Labour didn't do this by abandoning their working class and union base. In fact it was workers contacting workers who got the Labour vote out.
Before you say, but the turnout was down in South Auckland, no the Labour turnout was up as can be seen by the number of votes cast. National's vote was well down in these working class electorates, despite blanketing South Auckland with John Key's face and exhortations to Party vote National.
And the number of people on the Electoral Roll was well up in all 3 South Auckland electorates. Problem is, half of them aren't there. 1000 people every week have buggered off to Aussie, especially from the working class areas. And the rest -- well goodness knows where they are, but one thing is for certain (as we know from our door knocking), they aren't where the Roll says they are.
Mana is not the answer, any more than the Alliance was. Mana was irrelevant to the workers and beneficiaries of South Auckland, as were the Greens. Check out their election results.
I would suggest this will always be the case as long as Labour puts up policies such as reducing inequality by taxing the rich (eg CGT, higher top tax rate) and raising the minimum wage (would have been $15 in 10 days time), by putting children first (extending working for families to beneficiary families), and importantly keeping our assets in public hands.
It is simply not the case that Labour is a right-wing Party as some of your bloggers contend. Labour today is not the Party it was in the 1980s when it was captured by the Right.
But because there is a good chance Labour will lead the Government, they can't make wild promises. It's easy for the minor parties as I know. I wrote the 2005 Alliance Manifesto with my partner. We painted a wonderful Utopian vision of a society in which every citizen could flourish, but we were never going to have to try and implement it.
The problem for Labour is that tempering your vision with what is possible can lead to being over-cautious. We need to offer hope, the possibility that we can create a more equal society where we take care of our environment for future generations.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous circa March 19, 2012 9:10 PM misses my point entirely"

You didn't really have a good point.

"Whether or not I excel at logic is hardly relevant and certainly vitriolic."

It's absolutely relevant in the sense that the worthiness of the content of a post exists independently of the perceived worthiness of the person who posts it. If we're debating ideas, then the former is what matters.

"His/her assertion that my desire for comment posters to take ownership and responsibility for their opinions by declaring who they are so that they can be vilified in name for holding one or other opinion with which I don't agree, is not only offensive but also paranoid."

An assertion that was never made. Read the original post again. The point was that although some people use the protection of anonymity to be rude, not everyone does. People sometimes have good reasons to wish to remain anonymous.

This is a moderated blog and Chris is able to filter out abusive posts before they can be published. Why bother requiring names when you can filter out abuses already?

"Moreover, knowing who are the other participants in a discourse is an expectation and convention offline - is there any honest reason supported by logic that this courtesy shouldn't be extended to online forums as well?"

Yes, because it isn't true. There has been a long history of public figures publishing opinion under pseudonyms. Benjamin Franklin is perhaps one of the most famous examples, and hardly a troll.

"context, affiliation and ultimately identity are indeed part of the game."

Only if we define "the game" in the way you do, and there is no reason to do that. If "the game" is just discussion of the veracity of ideas (even political ones), then no names are required, because the truth value of an utterance is (in non-indexical cases) independent of the person saying it. If Tame Iti says that Maori were treated badly, then this is no more or less true just because he said it.

Attempts to say the opposite appear to be some version of the ad hominem circumstantial fallacy.

One reason people use anonymity is to head off people who reason in this fallacious manner. There are after all some people who will just discount any statement if it is made by a perceived political opponent. That's a silly and dishonest thing to do.

"If comparisons were called for then the debating chamber of parliament would be more analogous to this forum than a ball sport. The notion of anonymity in that setting is for good reason laughable;"

News at 10. This is not parliament. We are not voting on issues of import and our words have no power of compulsion. That would appear to be a very big difference. It's not like a case where a corporation uses fake identities to gin up support for its own interests. This blog is not a star chamber There is no possible gain to be had from anonymity on Bowalley Road because there is literally nothing at stake.

"Anonymity is the shadow behind which intriguers lurk and under whose cover darkness steals light."

Logic fail again. It is the means by which some people do bad things. Others do not. Attempts to prove that it is unequivocally bad rest upon that fallacy. It has its good uses as well, and there is no point insisting on it to prevent troll posts because Chris already has the means to censor those, because this is a moderated blog.

"Anonymous circa March 19, 2012 9:10 PM trivialises an issue way more important than his/her struggles with tracking services and browsers."

Not really. The only thing evident is that you are engaging in the classic trick of defining the nature of the debate to suit yourself. You are the one who wants to compromise the privacy of others for no good reason.

Alex said...

Chris, I love the article but totally disagree that Cunliffe would have won the rank and file vote. I am personally a strong Cunliffe supporter and have been for years. However he is severely disliked by a large majority of the Labour caucus and activists. I think it is wishful thinking by the intellectual left that the Labour rank and file are as rational and would support Cunliffe.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris - have just read your reply to Matt - and like Alex, I reckon you've got it right. And I wouldn't mind betting that right now Labour is suffering from a lack of interest and commitment in its activists.
What is more, by moving to the right Labour is disenfranchising that huge proportion of enrolled non-voters who have not seen anything worth voting for in the last two elections - most of them potential Labour voters. Labour HAS to change - not move to the right - to get any traction with voters.