The leftward and other blatherings of Span (now with Snaps!)

Friday, July 07, 2006

No heart (Happy 90th to Labour)

Idiot/Savant's post about Labour's 90th birthday has prompted me to deliver on my promise in my Back in Black comeback post, to continue to discuss the future of the NZ left.

Often it seems my posts on this topic end up really just being an excuse to vent my eternal disappointment with Labour (as I've commented over on I/S's post).

Today I'm particularly grumpy. Partly because I'm fed up with migraines and food poisoning (I thought fancy restaurants weren't supposed to be the cause of 2am vomiting fits). But mostly because I've been thinking a lot about how Labour acts to shore up the current capitalist system, rather than mounting any kind of serious challenge to it.

What really gets my goat is the number of decent activists who are hip deep in Labour, seeing it as the best way to advance their progressive politics. They will often be people switched on to the value of political activism by their own experiences in unions, the peace movement, Education Action Groups at university (oh dear, showing my age), or student politics. They have good intentions, and I don't doubt those for a second.

But is Labour the best way to achieve such desired outcomes as fully publically funded, publically controlled health and education systems? Can such aims be implemented or sustained in our current political system anyway? And if not, how is Labour changing the way NZ politics and society operate to enable their alleged principles to be deliverable?

Many years ago I was a law student. I had aspirations to practice, until one day I was sitting in one of the few Jurisprudence lectures we had about alternative analysises of the Western justice system, and it all fell to bits - my careful plan to complete law school, practice public law, and generally do good in the world by virtue of being that holy thing, A Lawyer. David Williams was the lecturer and he said (I paraphrase of course):

There is a view that left-wing lawyers who seek to make improvements to our legal system are merely entrenching further a system that is fundamentally unfair. The improvements they seek only make it less likely that real, radical change will ever occur, because they make the system slightly less unpalatable and make it seem as if addressing the root inequities can happen within the current system, when in fact it never can.

In essence he was saying you can make your incremental changes, feel as if you are doing good, but in reality you have not made a dent in the underlying injustice of our legal system. If anything you are helping to prop it up. You are doing the equivalent of buying the workers' happiness with a 2% wage increase when what they really want is democratic control of their own workplace.

I often feel that Labour activists are doing the same thing, but writ larger than just the law itself.

And sometimes when individual Labour activists realise this - when they get burnt out by the frustration of putting up endless remits seeking party policy that reflects what it says on their membership card, only to have Cabinet Ministers speak forcefully against them - they get fed-up with politics in general, bitter and twisted. Their energy and enthusiasm is all used up by a party machinery that is quite happy with capitalism, thanks very much.

Part of the problem is the current lack of viable alternatives for those activists attracted to Labour. Unless they are environmentally minded they are unlikely to see the Greens as an option, and other parties like the Alliance, the Progressives and Democrats for Social Credit seem too old-fashioned, and/or too much hard work. To attempt to operate in left wing groups outside of the parliamentary path is not an option for many - for myself I seek a single organisation that I can be involved in and pursue a number of issues dear to my heart, from both inside and outside the Beehive-centric system.

I have many friends in Labour, and I don't wish to treat them badly. But I do believe their own party uses them, quite disingenuously. If they want to change the direction of Labour, if they want true renewal, then they need to get organised, within their party, or they need to find an alternative outside it to support, so that Labour will seek the left ground as they did when the Alliance was a real threat in the early 1990s. And then they need to cement their power to keep it left, just as those who are quite comfy with the status quo have been doing within Labour these last few years.

Because, as I/S points out, Labour is going to be the core component of any progressive government of the forseeable future. The longer it occupies the centre and centre-right, the worse it will go for us all when National and its kin are in charge.


Idiot/Savant said...

Labour may not be the best vehicle for progress - but at least in the medium term, we're going to have to use it. My preferred method is to have a strong party to their left to force them in the appropriate direction during coalition negotiations. But as we've seen, this can only happen if the votes are in the right places (that is, if Labour has no other coalition options to moderate demand).

As for things being worse the longer Labour straddles the centre and centre-right, that depends. Faced with Blairite tactics, a right-wing party has two options: it can go harder right (as Brash has tried to do), or it can try and outflank their opposition on the left and try and force them to defend their home turf (as the UK's David Cameron seems to be doing a little of - and as Labour did to Muldoon in 1984 (only from the opposite direction)). It will probably all depend on who is in charge at the time, which means we should all be hoping someone rolls Don Brash ASAP.

Asher said...

David Williams' critique (and yours) are fairly similar to anarchist criticism of electoral politics. Just with different conclusions about "where to from here".

I'd be interested to explore some of the reasons behind that - maybe I'll try to sling something together on Anarchia in the next few days...

backin15 said...

Span, I guess I don't agree and, though you may easily discount my views (having been both a student politican and a Labour employee), I don't agree because I'm not sure what you're unhappy with.

NZ workers are doing well by and large, poverty is being reduced, social equity is being advanced, NZ is a just and fair place to live. Labour is both a progressive and labour party. Reforms of IR laws have led to wage advances though I agree there are still too many people on the margins.

Alliance imploded for reasons I don't completely understand, the Greens remain a potent party albeit tactically limited.

I don't want to see the left canabalise itself. I enjoy your postings and respect your views, I am just unsure what you believe Labour is doing wrong?

backin15 said...

Oh and get well soon.

Cheezy said...

Hi Span... Interesting thoughts, as usual... However, I have a question - Don't you think that the NZ Labour Party has always been, at essence, a capitalistic political party? Sure the First Labour Government created the welfare state in NZ, and thereafter it has been Labour governments who have most benefitted the working classes and the disempowered...

However I would contend that they've achieved all of this within the context of a mixed economy, and have best achieved their ends when both public and private sectors have been doing well. I've never personally been a party member so I can't testify about any socialist rhetoric that may or may not still be perpetuated at the grass-roots of the party - however what I can say is that the legislative fruits of what the Labour Party has sown has never been close to true socialism. So you can't really betray what you weren't in the first place.... That's my two cents worth anyway.

Make Tea Not War said...

Some random thoughts: I had David Williams for Legal Systems. I liked him a lot. That view he put across to you is a Critical Legal Studies perspective emanating from Harvard. For an alternative perspective you could take a look at Margaret Davies "Asking the Law Question." She summarises some really interesting arguments which run counter to that perspective. The most compelling being an argument by an Afro American law academic about how crucial law is for minorities. The argument is that it is all very well for left wing white privileged academics to for eg. say they won't engage in rights discourse or litigation because what they should be doing is questioning and undermining the entire edifice which is flawed- but, when you are a member of an underprivileged minority rights language become quite a powerful tool for dealing with constant racism and exclusion from jobs etc. Margaret Davies reached the same conclusion after doing some activism and work among Aborigines. You have to be aware of the flaws in the system but at the same time also use it. Some might call that selling out but I call it sanity.

Thats just a point about alternative perspectives on legal theory (in which I reveal my utter geekiness but oh well).

As far as your points about Labour go. I don't really like them either but I suppose I see where they are coming from. They are committed to incremental change because they don't want to be doing any blitzkriegs after the shock the country went through in the 80s. If I were a joiner or especially Machievellian I'd probably join the Green Party and try to move them away from some of what I consider to be their nuttier views, towards more the sort of Green Perspectives I've seen elsewhere. See for eg.

Ghet said...

In 1989, I sat round in a Mt Eden living room with a bunch of people I'd come to really care about, and debated what the best course was from here: stay with Labour and try to push change from the inside, or leave, join NewLabour, and start again, free of that nasty taint of compromise. It was about a 50-50 split, and yet we all pretty much believed in the same thing, just not how to get there.

Labour has changed enormously since those days, for whatever reasons. They're not slashing the DPB and fire-saling state assets any more, and I mostly worry not about what will come from inside that party, but what they're prepared to do to secure coalition agreements.

As for the law thing, I'm an incrementalist now, being old. Should we have pushed for full gay marriage, knowing it wouldn't pass, because we really wanted it idealistically, or taken the 'compromise' of civil unions and made a material difference in people's lives in the meantime?

Rich said...

Thing is, you have to decide between being a progressive and a revolutionary.

Progressives want to make things incrementally better. Labour are progressives. The trouble with progressives is that the dog-whistle politics of the right is so entrenched that progressive parties end up offering mostly right-wing policies in order to stay elected. They justify this with the belief that at least people are better off with a centre-right coalition "led" by Labour, as opposed to a right-right coalition led by the Nats.

Revolutionaries want to rip it up and start again. To do this, it's often necessary to aim to make things worse in order that people will get angry and join the struggle. For a revolutionary, a National government is a Good Thing as it will help radicalise workers.

Asher said...

Rich - Not quite.

"For a revolutionary, a National government is a Good Thing as it will help radicalise workers."

As a revolutionary anarchist, I wouldn't agree with this statement, and I can't think of any revolutionaries that I know would...

I would say there are positive sides to National being elected, but I most definately wouldn't call it a "good thing" (tm).

On the other hand, National led attacks on the populace (as opposed to Labour led attacks) are more likely to be opposed by the unions (which have their mouths too close to Labour's arse to do anything when Labour attacks them) and other such groups. This is both good and bad - good in that it shows an increase in class consciousness and a desire for change, but bad in that it reinforces the naive and false idea that unions are a tool for real change and true justice.

Either way, you win some, you lose some.

Side note - one of the small marxist sects (I think the CWG, but could be wrong?) endorses voting for Labour under the "hanged man" strategy - ie, they believe revolution won't come until the working class, having put their faith in Labour, get disappointed when they get fucked on yet again.

Rich said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rich said...

The "working class" are now a minority, and a minority without much industrial power.

20 years ago, the traditional groups such as dockers, miners & railwayman had the power to damage (and even bring down) governments through industrial action. Nowadays, they're divided and they've been persuaded to divert any resentment onto those worse off than them. Unionising fast-food workers is all very nice, but even if they were all persuaded to work out, no KFC and Maccas for a few weeks is hardly going to bring down the government.

Asher said...

rich - Depends on how you define working class. Personally, I don't see things from a classical Marxist perspective, which is essentially what you seem to be talking about.

Joe Hendren said...


"Labour has changed enormously since those days, for whatever reasons. They're not slashing the DPB and fire-saling state assets any more, and I mostly worry not about what will come from inside that party, but what they're prepared to do to secure coalition agreements."

While Labour claims to have 'changed enormously' there is a big difference between the rhetoric and the reality. It could be argued that Maharey cutting the benefit to DPB recipients who did not name the father was a cut in the DPB. Secondly, while they do not openly sell assets anymore, they did allow NZPost to sell off half of its courier busines to a German mulitnational, and they did allow Transpower to take part in a deal that 'leased' NZ line network, as part of a deal to help a US corporate dodge tax - that looks like a sale for most purposes to me.

Jordan said...

I wanted to write a long comment on this but I am going to email you instead, and post something more considered on my blog when I get the chance. :)

Commie Mutant Traitor said...

Also, they're not restoring the DPB to its pre-slash levels, and not reacquiring former state assets (with the partial and very reluctant exception of airnz). "Progress" that doesn't even undo past regression is... unimpressive.

PabloR said...

Hi Span

I can see your point about perpetuating the capitalist system.

In many ways I think that is Marx's greatest achievement, whether you think it is good or bad. He pointed out the inherent contradictions in capitalism in a way that allowed capitalists and capitalism to mitigate them enough to allow capitalism to prosper. It's worth noting that Marx (and most Marxists) didn't believe in incrementalism but in revolution as the only way to do away with 19th century capitalism. I wonder what he would make of the type of capitalism employed in countries like NZ where there are "working-class" parties (for want of a better term) working towards making capitalism better for workers, rather than overthrowing the system we have. Given that the only socialist revolutions so far seen in the world have led to totalitarian governments, I'm not sure that that option is ideal either.

I agree with I/S that we need to see a strong party of the left that can pull Labour in that direction and kick it in the head every now and then, but I believe we still need Labour (a good Tory party, as a tutor of mine at Auckland Uni once said) to hold the centre ground and keep true conservatism/right wing capitalism at bay. Unfortunately, as a Green voter, I can't see the Greens becoming that party so it is difficult to see where it will come from.

span said...

Part of my perspective is my extreme frustration that Labour has not swung the pendulum back anywhere near where things were prior to the National Govt of the 90s (never mind prior the 4th Labour Govt itself). I don't expect (nor desire) a total return to the NZ of the 1970s. But, to take but one example, the ERA has not undone all the bad of the ECA, in fact it has entrenched some aspects of our employment law, in favour of the employers, in particular in regard to the right to strike.

The benefit cuts of 1991 (as mentioned above) have not been reversed, and there appears to be no serious intention to address the insufficiency of benefit levels.

Our health and education systems are still underfunded, and in fact rely largely on the goodwill of the people who work in them. Without staff who take a professional approach and agree to work longer hours than they strictly have to our hospitals, schools, and many other institutions would be in undeniable daily crisis.

And yet we have a Labour-led Govt?!

Another big part of my frustration, to be truthful, is my sorrow (for want of a better word) over how Labour (as in the leadership, not the party activists) treats it's allies to the left. People here have said that the implosion of the Alliance seemed inexplicable, yet it only seems that way now in hindsight, when the need for such a party is so obvious. Labour played a hand in that split, a big hand. Anderton (and others) were deliberately woed, separated from their party activists. (Which is not to say that Anderton is blameless, far from it). Whenever a Labour activist honestly says to me that he or she wishes the Alliance was still in Parliament I wince. Fat lot of good those words do now, when so many Labour activists poured into Waitakere to kill off the Alliance's hopes of return.

Ok enough blathering from me for now - thank you everyone (even the ones I disagree with) for your comments, I am finding this debate useful and hope it continues.

Ghet said...

Joe et al, I don't mean I agree with the way Labour operates wholesale. I also don't wish to dismiss them wholesale, particularly not after the time my partner and I spent working with Tim Barnett last year.

But it realistically, at least for the moment, comes down to a govt coalition based around Labour, or one based around National, and for all their faults (not extending WFF to beneficiaries makes me absolutely livid) I'm being completely honest and saying I'll take the Labour one every time. I personally go for the by voting Green, I don't know if I could ever make myself vote Labour unless it ever came down to just them, Act, National, and Destiny, and then I might well just move to Canada. What I'm saying is that if it comes down to a choice between a half-measure and nothing, I'll take the half-measure. That doesn't stop me fighting for the rest of it.

And as a side-note, I think maybe the worst thing that happened in regard to the DPB might have been the introduction of the concept of 'emotional support', with all its private investigators parked across the road watching to see if a man came out of your house in the morning.

PabloR said...

I think the disappointing thing for the left is that political consensus has moved so far to the right that wholesale change is just not possible any more, particularly under MMP. The ERA might be a long way from perfect, but it is a world away from the ECA and the sort of crap the Aussies have just landed themselves with.

By claiming that the only way for government's to grow the economy is by being "business friendly", and by implication anti-worker, is the biggest impediment to serious change. Any party advocating out and out socialism is doomed at the polls.

Gerrit said...

Why would business friendly governments be anti-worker. Business needs the workers not just to produce the goods and services but because they are their customers as well. Workers need capitalist to fund the workplaces. Each is mutually dependent on the other (hopefully not codependent). If organised labour (workers) are so keen to own the workplace why dont they buy it? Or do they want it for free? Labour is incrementally buying back assets (Air New Zealand, Landcorp, etc.) I guess the 9 Billion dollar surplus might be used to buy a few more. Do the revolutionist want to take workplace assests by force? This might well work but once you "own" them you still have to make them work productively. Is this where the workers collective comes in?

Joe Hendren said...


I have a lot of respect for Tim Barnett - he is one of Labour's better MPs. The fact that a guy who is obviously capable of being a minister is being shut out in favour of right wingers like Clayton Cosgrove ought to give people cause for thought on the direction of Labour as it seeks to 'rejuvinate' its cabinet lineup. I hope Tim runs for Mayor - I'll be voting for him.

It just irks me that Labour and some of their supporters attempt to insist on Labour being the only 'left' party on their radar, when it would be far more accurate to now call them a Liberal party (capital L important). A lot of time it seems like the independant left are fighting brand loyalty rather than anything substaintial.

PabloR said...

Gerritt, that is exactly the contradiction that Marx points out: Workers are also consumers, however employers need to continually improve profits, whether that be by increasing sales or reducing costs. A major cost? Wages. Reduce wages, reduce the ability of the consumer to consume is reduced.

The types of social progress that left wing parties promote aims to reduce that pressure between the individual as worker and consumer. The far right achieves this by identifying individuals as consumers only and by referring to the owners of capital as the "Wealth Creators".

PabloR said...

Joe, I agree, Labour are a Liberal Party now, more than a Socialist one.

They differ from the Right parties in the same way that "new-liberalism" (John Stewart Mill) differed from "old-liberalism" (Jeremy Bentham.)

Perhaps that is the trick for us on the left, Span? Better Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied...

span said...

PabloR, I agree with your point about the political centre having shifted decidedly right. (Yet another reason why I get so irate at RW bloggers who persist in calling this govt, or the Labour party or leadership, "socialists") I wish that Labour would mount some serious challenge to the ideas of the right that are considered to be politically agreed or neutral, when in fact they are anything but.

Oh and I'd rather be Socrates satisfied if possible ;-) But sometimes I do wish I didn't care. Then I could watch the news without yelling at the television, listen to talkback without steam coming out of my ears. However I suspect I would also then not be very me. And of course this blog would not exist!