A Practical Utopian? Sir Michael Cullen advises Labour to recast its rhetorical appeal to voters in terms more acceptable to twenty-first century ears. The four watchwords he proposes for the 2017 election campaign are: Choice, Aspiration, Responsibility and National Pride. He is, however, eloquently silent on the question of how the New Zealand working class are to be re-admitted to the country's political stage.
THERE ARE FEW NEW ZEALANDERS better placed to speak knowledgeably about their country’s political future than Sir Michael Cullen. Finance Minister in Helen Clark’s ministry (1999-2008) he wrestled with New Zealand capitalism up-close and personal for nine years and is generally acknowledged to have emerged from the experience, if not unbeaten, then, at the very least, unbowed. The surpluses amassed under his stewardship armoured the New Zealand economy against the raking fire of the Global Financial Crisis; a barrage which could easily have sunk as less well-protected vessel. John Key and Bill English owe Cullen a lot.
Retiring from the hurly-burly of parliamentary politics in April 2009 to take up the Chair of New Zealand Post Ltd, Cullen has maintained a discreet public silence on both the new National Government’s conduct of political and economic affairs, and, more importantly perhaps, on the internal turmoil debilitating the Labour Party he joined 40 years ago.
Which is not to suggest that Cullen lost interest in his party, merely that he was wise enough to restrict his interventions to below-the-radar discussions with trusted friends and allies. When it came to the long-running feud between the supporters of David Cunliffe and the “Anyone But Cunliffe” (ABC) faction of the Labour caucus, Cullen came down firmly on the side of Mr Cunliffe’s opponents. He was an early supporter of David Shearer and, in the latest leadership contest, of Grant Robertson.
Cullen’s endorsement of Grant Robertson was the former Finance Minister’s first public intervention in the politics of the Left for many years – and he paid dearly for it. Widely tipped to lead the committee charged with reviewing Labour’s disastrous performance in the 2014 general election (the worst in 92 years!) Cullen was very publicly snubbed by Labour’s NZ Council, who gave the job to the more overtly left-wing party elder, Bryan Gould.
That rather petty decision to exclude one of Labour’s most experienced and intelligent kaumatua has now been remedied by Cullen’s recent co-optation on to the review panel. Whether the decision to rehabilitate Cullen was made before or after his delivery of a speech entitled “Labour: whither or wither?” is unclear. What cannot be denied, however, is that this 5,000+ word analysis of where Labour finds itself in 2015, and where it needs to be by 2017, more than justifies his inclusion.
The mission Cullen proposes for Labour is nothing less than to instil in the New Zealand electorate what the American political philosopher, John Rawls, calls the “reasonable hope” of living in a “practical utopia”.
It is difficult to conceive of a phrase which better sums up the historical aspirations of the New Zealand Labour Party. In a country that has never had much time for grand ideological systems, the notion of a down-to-earth, do-it-yourself, No.8-wire utopia; a practical utopia designed to meet the reasonable hopes and dreams of ordinary Kiwis, is as near to a perfect recapitulation of Labour’s mission as it gets.
And the need to recapitulate Labour’s mission in a twenty-first century context; deploying words and concepts acceptable to a twenty-first century audience; is central to Cullen’s argument. He uses his own family history to demonstrate how, in the space of just a single century, the solidaristic working-class culture out of which both the British and New Zealand Labour Parties were born, has been broken up and dissolved – not least by the comprehensive social and economic reforms Labour struggled so hard to introduce.
As was famously said of those Labour governments, writes Cullen: “success in improving the lot of working people began to move many of them into the camp of those who at least believed, or could be persuaded, that they had more to lose than gain from further change. And, associated with that, the centre-right began a long process of capturing the language of politics – for example, by talking of a property-owning democracy.”
These are the voters Cullen urges Labour to woo and win in the run-up to 2017. “To form a strong, stable progressive government Labour still needs to aim to get around 40% of the vote.” For those party comrades who argue that the gap between Labour’s 2014 result and Cullen’s target can be made up by mobilising the non-vote, Cullen has nothing but scorn:
“The missing 15% is not going to come primarily from non-voting socialist fundamentalists as some in recent time seemed to believe. We certainly need to motivate as much of the non-vote as we can to vote for us. But the bulk of the increase has got to come from recapturing votes from National, as they did from us in 2008.”
The Labour Party capable of reclaiming these lost sheep, Cullen argues, will have “a clear philosophy, an intelligent strategy, appealing and relevant policies, effective and coherent leadership, and, above all, better emotional connection with a majority of the population.”
To secure that connection, Cullen suggests “capturing the ownership of some emotionally resonant words and concepts which we have all too easily allowed our opponents to expropriate.” He lists these words and concepts as: Choice, Aspiration, Responsibility and National Pride.
These concepts, says Cullen, need to be “associated with and to suffuse our more traditional ones of fairness, equality, opportunity and (more recently) sustainability.”
Easier said than done, one might reasonably object. Because, on the face of it, the concepts Cullen is promoting all possess a distinctly conservative flavour.
It is all very well to argue, as Cullen does, that “Choice” can be re-translated to mean “a form of democratisation but only where it is available, as far as possible, to all.” But, for most voters under 40, the word will continue to mean “what I want”.
The concept of “Aspiration” faces similar difficulties. Can it really be redefined to mean “opportunity for all”? For most New Zealanders, aspiration is what John Key’s life-story embodies. It’s all about a little boy raised in a state house by his widowed mum, who went on to make $50 million and become New Zealand’s prime minister.
The concepts of “Responsibility” and “National Pride” are likely to prove even more resistant to redefinition. Cullen, himself, concedes that” “there is a tendency on the left to think that this is just a cover for beneficiary bashing or some other kind of judgemental approach to life.” Well, yes, there is, and with very good reason!
But Cullen indisputably has a point when he says: “At the very heart of social democracy surely lies the notion that we have responsibilities to each other. That is, that we are social beings who wish to pursue the common good – again the idea of a practical utopia. We reject the idea of atomised individuals perpetually striving to climb over each other, that what matters above all is where we end up within a hierarchical society (in essence, alas, a practical dystopia).”
Cullen is equally eloquent when it comes to the concept of “National Pride”: “In brief, we need to own a new national pride around our identity as a proudly diverse nation, around what we can do to create a better world, and around a focus on independent, morally-based action in a dangerous world that we cannot opt out of.”
When he speaks like this, Cullen recalls his younger self. As a history-lecturer at the University of Otago in the 1970s he thrilled his students with lectures on the English radical tradition; of a world turned upside down. Clearly, it is a tradition that Cullen is reluctant to disown.
“The notion of inherent equality allied with the common good stretches far back into the English radical tradition which, at least for some of us, is part of our heritage. As far back, indeed, as 1381 when John Ball posed the searching question “When Adam delf (i.e. dug) and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” (A reproduction of the woodcut by the great Victorian socialist artist, Walter Crane, asking exactly that question, once held pride of place in Cullen’s university office.)
Or the Knight, for that matter?
But if the sort of world in which “what matters above all is where we end up within a hierarchical society” is one deplored by Cullen as dystopian, then why did he allow himself to be made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit? Being lectured to about the central tenets of social democracy by someone called “Sir Michael” is just a little disconcerting.
Equally unsettling is Cullen’s studious avoidance of the central role played by the trade unions in the development of both British and New Zealand social democracy. Only twice in his paper does Cullen make reference to trade unionism.
The first reference is to the New Zealand worker’s supposed lack of faith in unions – as evidenced by National’s decisive victory in the snap-election of 1951:
“Increasingly, sections of the working class began to see at least trade unions other than their own as inimical to their interests. The public reaction to the 1951 waterfront dispute typified that development.”
The second reference occurs as part of Cullen’s explanation for the Clark-led Labour Government’s failure to roll back the neo-liberal revolution:
“But the neo-liberal revolution was central to intensifying trends that were already clear. In terms of legislation, the most important and decisive was the Employment Contracts Act which decimated the trade union movement, at least in the private sector. And so profound was the success of the Act in completing a long term change in public sentiment that it was impossible to fully reverse its effects after 1999.” [My emphasis.]
Given that the destruction of organised labour has always been, and continues to be, the key objective of neoliberalism: the one great “reform”, out of which all other neoliberal “reforms” flow and endure; Cullen’s flawed historical observations, and his failure to address the future of organised labour in his recent lecture, are absolutely critical omissions.
What they confirm is that, in spite of his sage and often persuasive advice concerning Labour’s electoral rhetoric, Cullen, and the faction of the party he represents, is not yet ready to challenge the singular foundational achievement of the neoliberal era: the expulsion of the New Zealand working-class from the nation’s political stage.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday 11 April 2015.