The NewLabour Party (NLP) was a classic social democratic labour party aimed at the pursuit of working class orientated social change through the institution of parliamentary democracy. Although it was a reaction to another parliamentary party of the left moving significantly to the right, the NLP too provides evidence of the inability of social democratic parties to maintain their initial radicalism due to their subsequent need to moderate their policy and political strategy. The party therefore provides an interesting opportunity to examine party transformation in general. This second blog post in the series on the NLP’s short history in New Zealand politics – which contains research carried out on this political project back in 1995 - therefore attempts to discuss theory in relation to social democracy’s transformation and set up some sort of framework for understanding the NLP’s short history. [Read more below]
The transformation of social democracy
The general nature of the NLP was that of a classic social democratic labour party. Social Democracy is the pursuit of working class orientated social change through the institution of parliamentary democracy. In general it aims to improve the living and working conditions of its mainly working class constituency, and thereby bring about a more egalitarian society.
The twentieth century saw the emergence of social democratic or labour parties in virtually every country in the western world. Such parties followed, however, a similar path of rightward deradicalisation. Everywhere it seems, traditional leftwing parties moved considerably to the right, often abandoning their original principles. The classic case was the British Labour Party which symbolically abandoned its 'Clause Four' which called for the ‘Socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange’.
Historically, the first major step to the right that most social democratic parties took was their fundamental acceptance of the capitalist economic framework. Social democrats believed that the enfranchisement of the working class meant that the state no longer represented the interests of old ruling elites. Keir Hardie expressed this view in 1907:
The state... is what its people make it. Its institutions are necessarily shaped to further and protect the... dominant influence... Now that the working class is the dominant power, potentially at least, it logically and inevitably follows that the class will also endeavour to influence the state so as to make it protect their interests. As the political education of the working class progresses, and they begin to realise what are the true functions of the state, their power will be exerted in an increasing degree in the direction of transforming the state from a property preserving to a life preserving institution (Hardie, 1907: pp. 23, 24).
The mechanism through which the state would be thus transformed was by the social democratic/labour party taking power. (While the European social democratic parties had very different origins — most beginning life as Marxist organisations — by the early 1900s they had adopted essentially the same ideas). The perspective of these parties has been described as ‘reformism’ and ‘state socialism’. For such parties, parliament mediates between different interest groups, and the state represents the will of all the people. It is thus possible to use the forum to abolish the inequalities and injustices of capitalist society.
Social democratic governments therefore sought to achieve an ‘historic compromise’ between the forces of labour and capital (Castles 1985; Jesson, 1989), choosing to attempt to manage capitalism in a manner favourable to their working class constituency. However, the economic exigencies of managing capitalism have tended to force most social democratic parties to move further to the right. In an article dealing with New Zealand, Britain and Sweden, Denemark notes, ‘Since the 1970s, Social democratic administrations have been associated increasingly with austerity measures, welfare cutbacks, and attacks on organized labour’ (Denemark, 1990: p.286). The point therefore is not that the actions of these socialist/labour parties were different from other governing parties, but precisely that they were the same as other governing parties.
It seems then, that viewed within their historical context, parliamentary parties of the left have been strongly inclined to move toward the right, and not necessarily just to the centre of the political spectrum, but often beyond that. For elaboration of the historical evolution of social democracy, see Epstein (1967); Prezeworski (1985); Przeworski and Sprague (1986); Denemark (1990); Padgett and Paterson (1991).
The question is: why and how do these parties change both their policy and their political strategies. This series of blog posts deals with a political party that paradoxically was both a reaction to the rightward deradicalisation process, and a further continuation of it. The NLP constitutes a reaction to deradicalisation, in that the party was formed out of a left-split from the Labour Party as a result of that party’s rightward transformation in the 1980s. But the NLP provides evidence of the inability of social democratic parties to maintain their initial radicalism due to their subsequent need to moderate their policy and political strategy. The party therefore provides an interesting opportunity to examine party transformation.
The NLP’s evolution did not follow any predictable and entirely consistent path. Parties do not evolve in a consistent and straightforward manner over time. Transformation comes in ebbs and flows, and at certain historical conjunctures the transformations of social democratic parties have been towards the left rather than the right. Clearly the nature, speed, and direction of the transformation is dependent on many factors. It is the objective of this research to identify and isolate what these factors are.
More generally, this research is concerned with the phenomenon of collective organisation. How has resistance to the new right organised itself in New Zealand? How has resistance to the rightward transformation of the NLP organised itself? What effect do the different ways of organising have on the results? How are individuals organised into, recruited, and contained in organisations? Why and how are activists co-opted into various conservative strategies and policies, and prevented from adopting radical forms of activity? How do the coalitions and alliances that political actors forge affect results?
It is somewhat remarkable that so little research has dealt with social democratic evolution and rightward deradicalisation. After all, this shift has characterised most social democratic parties around the world. More than this, Wilson maintains that there has been a remarkable lack of literature produced about any type of political party transformation:
Despite the extensive theoretical and empirical literature on political parties, the processes by which changes in the style, organisation, strategies, and pattern of relations with other parties occur has been largely neglected. There is considerable literature on the origins of parties, and there are many excellent studies of the shifts in electoral party alignments. What tends to be ignored is the transformation in the nature of existing parties (Wilson, 1994: p.263).
Much of the literature on party change emphasises a focus on external influences of change. The research for this blog post series uses a theoretical framework that combines this with the work of those theorists who cite internal organisational configurations as the key to understanding party evolution. Such theorists have argued that in order to understand and explain the activities and transformations of political parties, it is necessary to analyse their organisational core, paying particular attention to an organisation’s internal power conflicts (Panebianco, 1988). This research project attempts to do precisely this, concentrating on the particulars of the formation period as being crucial. However, as Gustafson has argued, ‘while any political party is the product of its history, it must respond to inevitable changes in the composition, values, demands, technology, economic realities and sectional relationships of its society’ (Gustafson, 1992: p.6). The theoretical framework of this project acknowledges this, and the project thereby constitutes an examination of both inside and outside factors in explaining the history of the NLP.
In general then, this blog post series represents an attempt to research and document the configurations, conflicts, and alliances of power within the NLP, and subsequently in the Alliance. This is done in the hope that the functioning and evolution of the NLP can be explained (at least partially) by the dynamics of the struggles for power and the way that these struggles bring about alliances, and opposition factions. Also central to the project is an effort to understand and document the NLP’s search for electoral support beyond what is thought of as the working class, and the examination of the effects of the external constraints of contemporary economic structures.
Next blog post: The New Zealand Labour Party