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

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Whither the (parliamentary) Left?

When I got back from my travels and back to blogging I said that one of the things I wanted to focus on more was the future of the NZ left, in particular in regard to the parliamentary path.

Since then I've written twice about my doubts about Labour, in particular about the lack of vision the party seems to have. No Right Turn and Just Left have also contributed to this debate, along of course with many valuable commenters. But recently we've all been a bit more focused on other matters. I'd like to get back to this subject because I really want to find a way forward for myself and possibly for others.

There are many non-parliamentary, non-party outlets (& inlets) for those interested in changing NZ for the lefter. But few hold the attractions that a political party does, as I am searching for a vehicle that not only covers a spectrum of issues but also has a structure that invites real member involvement in decision-making.

Let's look at the current options, party-wise. Since I last looked at them things have changed significantly, in terms of Rod Donald's death, the growth of the Maori Party, the election result and all the fall-out from that, the continued decline of the Alliance, etc.

In Parliament:

  • Labour - Pros: the biggest cab on the rank, with the most resources, highest profile, and the biggest political impact. The core of all future left-of-centre governments of the foreseeable future. Cons: quite simply, not left enough now and difficult to shift to the left in the medium term. No clear successor to Helen Clark who is on the left of the party, suspicion abounds after the 4th Labour Govt, plus hasn't treated other left parties well in the past.
  • Greens - Pros: politically the most left in Parliament in many areas, both in policy and in action. Some key left activists already members, eg Sue Bradford, Keith Locke. Structure-wise probably easier to get involved in than Labour. Has 5% plus following so likely to be safely in Parliament in medium term. Cons: environmental issues are priority and significant proportion of membership more Blue-Green than Red-Green (although National's shifts in this area might change that) or just Green-green.
  • Progressives - Pros: Small and possibly easy to get involved in. Cons: Jim Anderton, ambitions to be the party for small business, socially conservative in some areas eg marijuana, abortion, reliant on Anderton's seat so medium term future gloomy, policy-wise and media-wise not seen as separate from Labour. Quite old-fashioned left.
  • Maori Party - Pros: Tariana Turia hates Labour and thus maintains distance, new growing party with different approach to politics in some ways. Cons: Turia hates Labour and thus often motivated by this in a destructive way (eg how she cast her votes in the last Parliament). Focused on Maori, so appropriateness of tau iwi left being involved is questionable? Not clear whether they are left-of-centre as have little policy and seem to decide voting pattern bill by bill and even MP by MP(eg 90 Day Bill).
Outside Parliament:
  • Alliance - Pros: existing brand, mostly good left policies, some key activists with track record amongst left and valuable experience. Cons: Spent force? History. Profile members have left and media ignore those who remain. Few resources and possible struggle to maintain registration.
  • Workers Party - Pros: novelty factor, should have good left policy. Cons: likely to be seen as revolutionary and thus too fringe, some activists are not known as good at playing with others, no resources, no registration yet.
  • Socialist Workers et al - all small groups that have not succeeded in the past, and many don't actively seek votes.

Is there a possibility for a new vehicle, a new parliamentary party? There are many old players who I suspect it will be necessary to get back in the same tent again, eg Laila Harre, Jill Ovens. Many of the personal rifts that grew amongst some of those activists in the 1990s and early 2000s seem to be healing, but the deeper rift between those that left Labour in the late 1980s and those who stayed seems unresolvable for a large number.

I'm not sure that the Alliance can be the party to bring everyone back together and to enthuse and attract new people. I doubt that any of the existing parliamentary parties will work either, or it would have already happened. The only way I can see that changing is a major personnel change in Parliament, for example if Laila Harre got the vacant co-leader spot in the Greens when Jeanette Fitzsimmons goes (possibly for the 2008 election).*

Then there's the money problem. As the current funding system works there is effectively nothing for those outside parliament. Labour has signalled they may look at state funding of some sort, but the public would be highly cynical about such a move given events in recent months, and it would be a very unpopular move. Even if there was a system it would be highly skewed towards the major parties, which I think is unfair (but I've ranted about that before). Finding big pocket backers is not so hard for those on the right, but on the left it's all pensioners sparing you $1 a week off their pension and the odd union giving you $10,000 at election time if they haven't spent it all on Labour already.

But the biggest hurdle of all to a new party is really the 5% threshold. It effectively holds new left parties out, meaning the only possibilities are:

  • Capture a seat - best done by seducing an existing MP away from another party (Labour probably), or building around someone who leaves of their own accord (as the Maori Party did). But then you become beholden to them and many with a past in the Alliance would be wary of going down that road again.
  • Plug away for years and years on the outside pouring in resources (no taxpayer funding except for a small amount of broadcasting money every three years) and asking people to commit to possibly wasting their votes for several elections before success. Risky in the extreme, and likely to churn through a remarkable number of activists. Parties outside Parliament end up playing electoral catch 22 at the business end of the cycle, particulary with the media and thus with the public. It's a frustrating game to play and activists and members will only do it for so long before they look elsewhere.

All in all, it's not looking all that hot for some magical new left party to fall out of the sky and fulfill all my dreams. Or even give me something to get excited about and work tirelessly for.

Comments and thoughts please.**

* The rumour does NOT start here. I'm just speculating and have no inside info whatsoever.
**Obviously those on topic will be more appreciated than comments that merely seek to attack the left, lefties or left wing parties.


Gerrit said...

Excellent summation of the current position.

Cant see the greens going with Laila Harre. They have the watermelon problem (green outside, red inside) already and with Laila on board the green veneer would be stripped away. Not a vote retainer I would think when their leader actively follows capitalistic tendencies by owning shares in a wind mill technology company.

Maori party wont favour the left as they are aiming for seperate maori nation (as seen by Honi's statement he will only represent you if you are on the Maori roll). Supporting a general left wing party made up in part by non Maori New Zealanders is not in their interest. A left party may work with them but you could not hang your colours on their waka.

For any left wing party to make headway in the voters minds (90% of whom are centralists)they need to do two things

1. Decide exactly where they stand. You cant be a social democratic party while trying to represent communist or a communist party trying to represent social democrats.

2. Paint a picture to the electorate of how you envisage New Zealand society will look like and how much better they would be off, if they voted for you. Someone, somewhere in the left must have marketing skills (uni degree?) that can paint this picture.

The other option is to have a revolution. Cant see that happening as the conditions needed are presently not favourable. You would need a large number of the population disenfranchised, an armed force ready to impose martial law and leaders to make this happen.

stef said...

I would think another answer might be through tapping into exisitng political resources and building a movement from there.

Unite has been growing in size and influence over the last few years and could be an ideal breeding ground for activitists of the left.

Seems to me you need to build the societial institutions before you can even think of the political ambitions in this particular part of the political spectrum.

Anonymous said...

Politics in New Zealand is built around people and personalities. What you need is a person already inside Parliament (probably a Labour MP) with a safe seat that votes for them and not for them as a representative of their party and then you need them to get pissy and leave at an opportune moment. It worked for Tariana Turia, and it could work for new left upstarts.

Not that I can think of anyone off the top of my head, but I say this because most extra-parliamentary parties usually fail (and set themselves up to). The question of Laila Harre inside the Greens isn't a stupid question, though. One, because she had high name recognition and was quite likeable. Two, because she could unite the left-left. Remember that in 1999, the two left-of-the-centre-left parties scored (I think) 12% of the vote. I don't know where the ex-Alliance voters all went, but some sort of big tent thing could actually play well to voters and bring their share of the vote up past the 5.00001% they're on now (maybe kiss and make up with Jim Anderton?). Three, because the Greens are electoral poison, they're the 'break glass in case of emergency' of politics; Labour won't touch them. Unlike the (former) Alliance, the Labour support base won't swallow a coalition with what should be a 'natural' coalition partner.

The moral I think is this: the most successful LOTCL model was the Alliance before the Greens legged it. You can't have the Alliance back; but you can do something like it. Because, the last thing you want to do is start another party. We have enough parties.

Deane Jessep said...

I am not going to back this statement up right now, but might do some digging if I have the time but:

I suspect... call it a developing feeling, that The Maori party are actully a Conservative, Pro Family, very Center Right (if not a little further) Party. I think some of their ultimate tendancies are being tempered by a need for socialism style support for their predominantly underclassed supporters. All I can say is I know of quite a lot of white center right christian familys whose mums and dads are seriously looking at what the Maori party has to offer the family unit... a very interesting possibility would be a groundswell of right and left pro family people shifting to the Maori Party, I just dont think their name ultimately lends itself to it well, it is still a little too divisive.

The best chance of a center left party winning the next election would be through a very quick change of leadership to someone high calibre in Labour, with two years to rebuild they could do it. One things for sure though... Helen has reached the end of popular support (Barring a political Miracle on all of this bad PR).

Deane Jessep said...

I should add, that if a strong leftwing outside influence staged a coo on labour (kinda like the Don Brash entrance to National) it could have its policies changed for the democratic better... but in all likelyhood that will only be able to happen after Labour has been decimated at an election to weaken it enough to be susceptable, Helens grip although becoming unpopular is likely to hold firm well into the next election.

Heine said...

All very good points Span, however I feel there is room for another left (and right) wing political vehicles in NZ. Under MMP we should have a wide range of parties rather than this 2 party system.

Laila is a tragic figure in far left politics. She won't be the face of it but I suspect she will spend many more years working up the grassroots. Labour itself isn't a strong unit if you take into consideration the "right" faction which will try and take more advantage when Clark loses the next election. (heh) The Greens are (and should be) wary of the far left like Laila etc trying to jump onto their vehicle. That is why the Greens left the Alliance all that time ago.

I think after the next election we will have a better idea how it will all go. It all depends on if Labour can stay together after Clark goes.

Anonymous said...

(1) I think that rumours of the Labour Party's forthcoming death are greatly exaggerated.
(2) the far left of the Greens...? Of the Greens?

Span said...

The below comment was emailed to me by a reader during the recent comment downtime

I think probably those on the far-ish left with an interest in
Parliamentary politics need to decide where their priorities lie.

Is it more important to work towards being in power?

Or more important to be strongly articulating a principled vision
whether or not you ever get into power?

I'd say if you want to be in power then join Labour and work towards
subverting from within. This is a long term strategy but the current
leadership will not last forever. The Labour party has a long history
and the people who happen to be in charge at the present time don't own the party or get to define what it stands for forever. It could be

If it's more important to articulate an alternative vision (of eg a socialist Aotearoa) then focus on the intellectual work of articulating and promoting what you believe in with whatever like minds you can find accepting that you may always be working at grass roots- street corner.

When the commenter confirms what they would like me to put for their identity I will add that in a future comment

Span said...

And the comment above was by Make Tea Not War, whose excellent blog can be found here:

Anonymous said...

Anderton's party is just a personal vehicle, eh? If he was in Labour he'd just be a back bencher so having his own party gives him the ego boost of being a minister.

The Maori party hasn't really done very much that's even slightly left wing. With their recent ideas on fishing workers pay I'd call them feudalist - basically it's ok to screw any of the 6 billion people in the world who aren't NZ Maori.

Is the Labour party open to entryism or is it structurally protected so that the status quo gets maintained forever? Would a Militant Tendency style group work in NZ?

And finally, if you want to *end* capitalism rather than modify you aren't going to do it with the consent of the middle classes or even the "Lumpenproletariat". You need to progressively radicalise a (smallish) class based group into becoming the core for a steadily escalating revolution that can eventually forcibly take control. Read your Lenin!

Gerrit said...

Taken Anon revolution a step further we would have civil war. With the revolutionaries on one side and the middle class plus Maori on the other defending their property rights.

Be interesting if this scenario were to develop if the USA or more particular Australia would intervene?

Australia probably would as their companies have invested heavily in New Zealand and would not want to loose out to the nationalisation of those assests.

Heine said...

I don't see NZ going in any way towards socialism, although this Labour government has done far more than National has ever done towards changing our society.

Unless Labour is willing to backtrack on its rather splendid reforms of the 80's then I have no fear whatsoever.

Psycho Milt said...

"You need to progressively radicalise a (smallish) class based group into becoming the core for a steadily escalating revolution that can eventually forcibly take control."

Yeah, that's been such a roaring success everywhere it's been tried. A relatively small group of disciplined, ruthless socialist killers can indeed forcibly take over a country - in every case it's resulted in a dictatorship of disciplined, ruthless killers, ie a situation worse than what socialists in general had been trying to replace. Read your Lenin alright - for a case study in what to avoid.

Psycho Milt said...

I do agree with Anon re the Maori Party though - not even remotely left-wing. Any socialist supporting tribalists wants their head read.

Span said...

I think in order to subvert/reclaim Labour you would need a very tight group of disciplined activists who were in it for the long haul. I'm not sure that's achievable, given the structure of the Labour party (in particular the way unions and networks interact with the party) and the sheer reality of how life changes for people over a long period of time. That's not to say some group isn't doing it right now of course - all power to them if they are!

I think the most sensible strategy to do it would be to pick an electorate with an MP likely to stand down in two elections from now - plenty of time to build and not look like a radical takeover.

I'm wondering why I never see the Greens as a serious option. Someone I met at a meeting the other night was asking me why I didn't consider joining the Greens and I don't really have an answer. Unless you count being uncomfortable about the fervency (is that a word? it should be) of many of their members. I do care about the environment, and they have some individuals I have a lot of time for, but...

Interesting comments folks, would be nice to hear more from Labour activists, Green members, non-partisan lefties.

Gerrit said...

Problem with subverting the labour party further to the left is that people may not vote for you. The vote is in the centre and at most to stay in power you need to be centre left.

Thus the socialist left, even having regained the power in the labour party may never be in a position to set policy and pass laws because of sitting on the oppostion benches.

The other option of converting a renegade labour MP and setting up as an independent socialist party will only get you minimal parliamentary exposure (aka Jim Anderton and Peter Dunne) About the only electorate that this could work in would be Mangere. The current labour party will be very guarded on who they put in this red ribbon electorate to replace Philip Field.

Sanctuary said...

It seems to me that everyone here is over emphasising vehicles rather than a structural change to the political landscape generate leftward movement. Remember, the destruction of the old socio-politcal order by the new right in the 80's was designed to entrench their thinking and ensure their revolution was permanent. Everyone here seems to have accepted that paradigm shift, and is discussing how we can possbly get the best deal for the left when the new right still holds all the best cards. But nothing that has been done cannot be undone, no matter how mch the right might try to entrench their privilege.

The biggest lesson still unlearned by the left from the Bolsheviks of the new right is that the political vehicle is irrelevant, its the ideas - and the actions and structures that flow from those ideas - that count most. Labour & Rogernomics to start, tossed aside for National's Ruthenasia, in turn thrown on the scrap heap for millions to ACT, ACT relegated to the scrap heap for National ("No Brash no cash") again. The New Right don't care what colour the cat is, as long as it catches their mouse. We on the left ought to be similarly pragmatic about the vehicles we use.

What we should be looking at is how we change the nature, and thus political outlook and mental landscape, of the political elites. The left has to seize opportunities to reverse the new right revolution and create the circumstances that allow the left to flourish again. As an example, to me the left/centre is always strongest when it has a mass movement - union and political - behind it. How do we create (or rather recreate since up until the shattering in the 1980's both Labour and National were mass movement political parties) this circumstance? It seems to me that much of the current republican based right wing tactics, designed to weaken public faith in institutions of government, can be made to backfire and offer the left golden opportunites to make serious structural reforms that will deliver us serious new power. Let's use the electoral funding row to abolish secret funding via anonymous trusts and create a state funding model built at least partially on party membership numbers. Lets reform media ownership laws to ensure that duopolies of vested corporate interest don't dominate & set the media agenda.

With mass based political movements and decent media representation the vehicle will take care of itself.