IF THE ACTUAL RESULT on Saturday evening is anything like the latest UMR poll, Jacinda Ardern will have a problem. UMR has Labour on 50 and the Greens on 6 percent. Replicated in the polling-booths, those numbers would give the centre-left a higher percentage of the votes cast than Mickey Savage’s government received in 1938. Jacinda would have a problem because, unlike Mickey Savage, she lacks a clear and comprehensive plan for economic and social change.
It gets worse. In assembling her unbeatable electoral coalition, and holding it together, Jacinda has had to give an explicit promise not to enact the sort of urgent fiscal programme the country requires. This will be the new government’s dilemma. How to do what needs to be done without breaking its word, and without breaking up the cross-class alliance of voters that brought it to power.
To overcome this dilemma, the prospective Labour-Green Government will have to devise some way of persuading its working-class, middle-class and ruling-class supporters to pursue change together. The Government’s objective: to create a broad-based consensus around the policies needed to steer New Zealand through the Covid Recession to the point where a united and purposeful response to Climate Change can begin. Jacinda and her team will have to lead this discussion, but they must not be left to lead it alone.
Peter Dreier, writing in the Huffington Post, recalled an important anecdote from the early years of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” (FDR’s administration’s broad programme to meet the multiple challenges of the Great Depression.)
“FDR once met with a group of activists who sought his support for bold legislation. He listened to their arguments for some time and then said, ‘You’ve convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.’”
Fifty years ago, the institutions upon which a centre-left government could rely for that sort of coercion would have been the Federation of Labour, the NZ University Students Association, the major Christian denominations’ social service organisations, the universities, and a host of NGOs and progressive pressure groups. Today, virtually none of these institutions (or, at least, those that have survived!) could be relied upon to avail themselves of such a huge opportunity.
The successor organisation to the Federation of Labour, the NZ Council of Trade Unions, which should be chomping at the bit to “go out and make” a centre-left government do its duty, is a morally and organisationally moribund organisation. The vast majority of New Zealand workers are employed in the private sector, but only 8 percent of private-sector workers are unionised. Most unionised workers are public servants of one kind or another, and the unions they belong to dominate the CTU completely. In practical terms, this leaves the majority of New Zealand workers not only unprotected but unrepresented.
What this suggests is that one of the most useful initiatives the new Labour-Green Government could take would be to radically re-constitute the New Zealand labour movement. On this very blogsite, Matt McCarten has published a series of articles detailing the atrocious exploitative practices already deeply embedded in the New Zealand workforce. Along with the workplace reforms already promised, legislation to dramatically increase union density in the private sector would go a long way toward bringing the NZ working-class back on to the political stage.
The effectiveness of this reform would be further enhanced by facilitating the creation of a national organisation composed exclusively of unions representing private sector workers. The history of the CTU has demonstrated conclusively that the interests of public and private sector workers cannot be reconciled within a single organisation. It has also shown that ruthless centralisation and democracy make for extremely uncomfortable bedfellows.
It is difficult to imagine a more enthusiastic activist ally for a centre-left government than a working-class once again recognised as a vital part of New Zealand society. If Covid taught us anything, it’s that this country’s most essential workers do not wear suits and ties!
Another re-constitution more-or-less guaranteed to produce enthusiastic activist allies for a centre-left government would be the restoration of universal membership provisions to the nation’s university student associations, and, in the spirit of the union reforms, a revitalisation of democracy on the nation’s campuses. This would not stop at the radical re-organisation of student representation. Democratisation would occur across the whole university system, restoring the decision-making powers of academic staff in the management of the nation’s institutions of higher learning. Universities are not businesses and they should not be run as if they are.
These sectional reforms would be matched by a general restoration and reinvigoration of citizens’ rights generally. The powers of employers to gag their employees are in need of radical curtailment. Freedom of expression shouldn’t be restricted to a citizen’s spare time in their own home. Human rights do not cease to apply simply because workers are required to operate on their bosses’ real estate. By the same token, access to the courts should not be rationed according to the size of a citizen’s bank balance. Nor should the prohibitive cost of legal representation deprive ordinary New Zealanders of their day in court.
Jacinda and her team have given no irrevocable promises in regard to any of the above. Interestingly, very similar reforms were undertaken by the First Labour Government (1935-1949). The Labour Party acted as midwife for The Federation of Labour, and the associated legislation mandating universal union membership (via the closed shop) made the FoL a real and admirably democratic force for the advancement of workers’ interests for 50 years. FDR, likewise, through his radical Secretary of Labour (and only woman in his cabinet) Frances Perkins, made sure that the drive towards union organisation would be assisted by strongly facilitative legislation. It didn’t hurt that the President, himself, was willing to publicly declare that if he was an industrial worker, then he would most certainly be a union member.
As Peter Dreier put it in his Huffington Post article:
“Even in the middle of the Depression, Roosevelt understood that the more effectively people created a sense of urgency and crisis, the easier it would be for him to push for progressive legislation — what we now call the New Deal. FDR used his bully pulpit, including radio addresses, to educate Americans about the problems the nation faced, to explain why the country needed bold action to address the crisis, and to urge them to make their voices heard.”
Because one thing is absolutely certain: the representatives of business, the leading civil servants, think tank policy researchers, lobbyists and right-wing journalists (is there any other kind?) will be making their voices heard. A consensus cannot be forged where agreement is already unanimous. New Zealand has suffered from one-sided conversations for far too long. Helping to create a two-sided conversation should be Labour’s and the Greens’ top priority.
Expecting Jacinda and her colleagues to break their promise not to introduce a Wealth Tax is not only unfair it is unwise. A consensus for change has never arisen out of a series of polite discussions - or base betrayals. A better New Zealand becomes possible only when its citizens muster sufficient democratic force to guarantee themselves a fair hearing.
Change will only come when New Zealanders are strong enough to make Jacinda break her promises.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 15 October 2020.