- Is the left-right political spectrum still relevant to politics in New Zealand?
- What other spectrums are now useful for understanding politics?
- What is the difference between left-right and liberal-conservative in modern NZ politics?
- Why is politics increasingly based more around societal issues instead of economic ones? [Read more below]
The New Zealand left is possibly at the lowest point that it’s been at for over a hundred years. It is in a bad shape. I’m not going to waste much time cataloging the left’s desperate situation except to say that there are no significant leftwing groups around anymore, the so-called ‘leftwing political parties’ aren’t particularly left anymore, there’s no major journal of the left, magazine of the left, there’s few leftwing intellectuals of any prominence, and few people participate in leftwing protests.
There has also been a significant decline in the level of traditional working class militancy. One indicator of this decline is the sharp fall in strike activity. Whereas in 1986 there was 1,329,054 ‘person days of work lost’ in the New Zealand economy, by 2007 this figure had dropped dramatically to about 28,000 (Statistics New Zealand, 2008, p.138). Another indicator of the same general phenomenon is the drop in union membership. While in 1985 there were 683,006 union members (43.5% of the work force), by 2008 there were only 373,327 members – or about 17.4% of the work force (Department of Labour, 2008, p.1). It is also noticeable that there has been relatively little working class mobilisation in the streets in recent years. Despite the incredible reforms of the 1980s and 1990s there was remarkably little participation in protest.
Organisations on the left also went into decline in the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps as a result of the economic restructuring and lack of resistance, the demoralised institutions of the left are now in a poor state, with few having any real significance in modern New Zealand society. For instance, CORSO has only a fraction of its 1980s prominence, the Coalition for Public Health has dissolved, Halt All Racist Tours (HART) is also defunct, and the Auckland Unemployed Workers Union is now very quiet. On the far-left, too, the most significant Marxist organisations of the 1970s have all disappeared.
I think that the Drinking Liberally project is one of the few growing lights still present to suggest that the left even exists anymore in New Zealand.
The disorientation of the New Zealand left
There are a number of reasons for the decline of the left – both in New Zealand and internationally. And I’m not going to go through all the factors that I think are responsible for the decline – although I’d be very interested to hear from the group about your theories – but instead I’m going to concentrate on just one central aspect: the disorientation of the left. I think that’s our biggest problem at the moment. We don’t really know how to define ourselves, we don’t really know what leftwing means anymore. Some of us might have certain core ideas and ideals, but there’s still a great confusion about how to operate as a leftwinger in 2009, and how to orientate to many of the political issues that are important.
Left vs Right
So what has left and right traditionally meant in politics?
- French Revolution - representatives seated left-to-right
- Leftwing: equality, combatting oppression, worker's rights, economic interventions; larger government, collectivism
- Rightwing: efficiency; smaller government; laissez faire capitalism; protection of freedom; individualism; rights of private individuals; opposite of left-wing politics.
- Largely an economic/materialist cleavage
Perceptions of the left
Sometimes when you’re involved in something, it’s hard to know how outsiders view it. What does the general public think of the left? What are their impressions? I talk to students, and I’ve been particularly interested to talk to first and second year students to find out what they know of as the left and what they associate with left politics. Most don’t have any idea what it means. But those that do profess to know what it means or to have some associations in their mind with the concept, it means the following: social liberalism, gender politics, Maori radicalism, regulating personal behaviour, anti-progress, anti-technology, anti-science, high taxes and high government expenditure, and bans on things. In fact more than anything, leftism and socialism is associated with banning everything, telling people want is bad for them, telling people not to have too much fun, and generally being uptight about personal behaviour, language and morals. I’m not commenting on how fair or warranted such views are, but just pointing out that this idea that the left is made up of killjoy authoritarians is the perception out there for a lot of people.
They see leftwing politics as a negative concept – not in the sense that they don’t like the left, but that they think the left is very negative, wanting to say “no” to everything, to stop things happening, to ban things, to stop progress. The politics of protesting against things. It’s humourless, angry and dour. Chris Trotter has also written about this. He says that, you don’t
have to go back very many years to discover a time when the Left’s current obsession with nay-saying would have been thought distinctly odd. Right up until World War II, left-wingers tended to be regarded as people with a positive programme. Leftists want to change things and they devoted all their energies towards persuading voters to say “Yes!” to their social, economic and political agendas. Full employment? Yes! Public health system? Yes! Free and secular education? Yes! Family benefits? Yes! State housing? Yes! In the 30s it was the Right which was the nay-sayer. Right-wing conservatives protecting the status quo, left-wing radicals trying to overturn it: that’s the way politics is supposed to look.
The decline of New Zealand politics
This disorientation is not confined to the left. Nor is the general decline confined to the left. The whole of New Zealand politics is somewhat disoriented and confused and at a very low ebb. Again, without going into a lot of detail for the moment, I’d just mention a few things:
- declining voter turnout (we recently had the second lowest turnout in a century – less than 75% of eligible voters actually voted),
- few people join political parties
- few people join societal organisations
- few people have much faith in political parties, in politicians, in Parliament – for example:
- 92% of adults had either ‘very little’ or no confidence in New Zealand parties (1999 Massey University study)
- Reader’s Digest 2008 Trust Survey: topped by sports people and entertainers; Prime Minister Helen Clark: 66; occupation of politician second from bottom (after telemarketers)
The leftwing intellectual crisis
One of my leftwing heroes is the late Bruce Jesson – the New Zealand socialist intellectual and activist. Jesson was an intriguing leftwinger, and I’d encourage anyone who isn’t familiar with his writings to seek them out. He was a public intellectual – in that he wasn’t an academic, but a writer interested in political ideas and combining this with political action.
Jesson was one of New Zealand’s most important leftwing intellectuals. He was also deeply concerned with this country’s anti-intellectualism together with the ideological poverty of the political left. Again and again Bruce Jesson expressed his frustration about the ‘mindless activism’ of the left in NZ. By this he meant that the left acted too much like headless chickens. In 1997, when looking back on the history of the left, he commented that, ‘Only a handful of people were interested in political analysis and discussion. Most leftwingers were more interested in the kneejerk politics of moral outrage and misery-mongering’ (Jesson, October 1997: p.27).
Jesson was constantly more impressed during the 1980s and 1990s with the operations of the New Right:
the fault everywhere [on the left] is the same. Intellectual mush. In this respect, the contrast between the Left and the New Right is a telling one. The New Right sees itself as an intellectual-political force and puts quite a lot of energy and resources into thought and discussion (which is not to say it does it well). The characteristic New Right organization is the think tank, which is a role the Roundtable has assumed. The Left in New Zealand puts its energy and resources into activism and electoral campaigns. The characteristic leftwing structure is a committee (Jesson, October 1997: p.32).
The near-total investment of the left in the parliamentary political parties was a particular concern, which Jesson felt needed to be counterbalanced by leftwing think tanks of some kind:
Essentially, all of the resources of the Left still go into mindless activism. In recent years, a large proportion of the energy of the Left has gone into the electoral and organizational work of the Alliance. Virtually nothing has gone – in any organized way – into the sort of intellectual-political role that the Roundtable fills. Yet that is the area of greatest need, given the total confusion on the Left as to what its role is. What is badly needed is a policy-research-proselytising institute rather like the New Right think tanks (Jesson, October 1997: p.33).
Jesson clearly believed in the need for a programmatic approach to social change involving theory, activism, and a well-organised political vehicle. The point was to understand the situation before leaping into action. In particular, Jesson thought that NZ’s anti-intellectualism led to a failure to take economics seriously.
The complaint that the NZ left was in an intellectual crisis was not merely an abstract or elitist complaint. Jesson’s concern was that the mindless activism combined with the anti-intellectualism produced a weakened left that would severely reduce its ability to make progress on, or defend, its political programme:
Intellectually, the Left was too soft to resist the New Right coup of 1984. It was obsessed by social issues and by foreign affairs, and couldn’t debate economic issues. In the early stages of Rogernomics, it tended to concede the big issues of economic policy in return for some concessions on foreign policy and social matters (Jesson, April 1997: p.113).
New ways of ‘doing politics’
We still haven’t seen the creation of that leftwing thinktank. And in my view the left still just moves from one campaign onto the next and is still obsessed with activism to the detriment of thinking. But Drinking Liberally is a good way to continue with Jesson’s advice. I’m sure he would have been impressed with Drinking Liberally – just as I am. But as people might know, I’ve made some critiques of the Drinking Liberally project, which I’ll come back to later.
What is particularly interesting and encouraging about Drinking Liberally is that it represents one of many new innovative ways of ‘doing politics’. Clearly we need to find new vehicles, forums, and strategies for debating and promulgating political ideas, and the left needs to catch up with changes in society. At the moment there’s a lacunae of leftwing cultural networking in New Zealand. Yet, no movement succeeds without a cultural level. And it’s interesting that in the US, the Drinking Liberal venture is part of a multifaceted, grassroots progressive community-building movement involving comedy shows, film screenings, book clubs and food clubs. I look forward to the expansion of that here!
And in looking for a way forward for the left, some of us want to find different ways to interact with activists and the general public. Sometimes this will be in recreational and social activities and venues - such as pubs and cafes. We need to branch out of our 'traditional left' ways of operating. Public meetings in drafty halls are not the future of working class agitation.
And another thing that impresses me about the US operation of Drinking Liberally is that aspiring politicians are forbidden to deliver speeches. Instead, apparently they are handed a jug of beer and told to mingle. So it’s kinda in the regard that I don’t want to attempt to answer the question, but just get a conversation going and hear what you people think is the answer.
The need for analytical concepts
In terms of the left’s disorientation, I believe that the left has a major identity crisis at the moment, but that it’s a bigger problem than that – as a society we are having trouble understanding politics at all. The old ways of understanding and explaining politics isn’t really working. People look at the Maori Party and wonder why the party that they assumed is a leftwing party is in coalition with the National Party. People don’t know whether the Seabed and Foreshore Act – which was essentially an act of nationalization – was a leftwing policy or a colonialist and racist land-grab. Voters see the politicians of the left advocating a carbon market to solve climate change. We see politicians trying to restrict immigration numbers and keep foreign goods out, and we don’t know if that’s left or right. We see the prime minister at a gay pride rally dancing with transsexuals, and we wonder if that makes him more leftwing than previous prime ministers.
The point here is to bring a few issues up of ambiguity, and show how we use the left-right analytical tool to try to understand things. Whether we like it or not, we all use various intellectual or analytical concepts to help us categorise what’s happening in politics. The most important concept that we use, in my view, is the concept of left and right. But this is a concept that is increasingly problematic in 2009 New Zealand politics. And so we need additional analytical tools, which I’m going to talk about soon.
Political and social cleavages and dimensions
I want to examine the interrelationships between the cleavages in society and the cleavages in politics. Cleavages are lines of division in society and politics that separate groups that have different attributes. You can differentiate between social and political cleavages. Social cleavages are those based on identifiable traits that divide society, such as gender, religion, class, ethnicity, language, and region. Political cleavages are those based on ideology, attitudes and opinion, and they divide society and the party system. The two types of cleavages are interrelated, as often social cleavages are politicised (or ‘partisised’), hence becoming political cleavages (or ‘issue dimensions’). However, not all political cleavages are reflections of a social cleavage. Put another way, social cleavages just divide society, while political ones divide both society and the party system.
We are used to thinking that New Zealand politics is overwhelmingly characterised by one dominant cleavage – the left-right class cleavage, otherwise referred to as the socioeconomic, economic or materialist cleavage.
The connection between New Zealand’s political parties and their social bases of support is often stressed by political scientists and commentators. This is because Labour has traditionally derived most of its support from lower socioeconomic voters in the cities, while wealthier voters in both urban and rural areas have formed National’s voter base.
This relationship between social structure and the distribution of votes has also been seen as strongly driving the ideologies of the parties, allegedly making the Labour Party a left-wing (or socialist) party and the National Party a right-wing and free enterprise, conservative party.
For fifty years New Zealand politics orientated to the basic socioeconomic cleavage in which Labour and National were in dynamic competition. That class and a basic economic cleavage underpin the way New Zealand politics is carried out has become an almost unchallenged assumption for some.
Decline of the class cleavage
Want to talk about whether New Zealand politics is still driven by the traditional class cleavage, or whether other political cleavages are replacing it.
I’d challenge the idea that such a relationship between politics and social structure still exists, and suggests that party competition is structured less-and-less by this traditional socioeconomic left-right cleavage.
The notion that Labour is a party of working people and National is the party of farming and business is long disappeared, and instead, it is clear that these parties, as well as the more newly-established ones, increasingly find their support in all sections of society. Therefore, today there is significant evidence of the declining influence of class in shaping voting behaviour and the ideology of the parties.
Class voting in Dunedin in 1960:
74% skilled and semi-skilled blue-collar workers voted Labour
87% unskilled blue-collar workers voted Labour
80% carpenters voted Labour
89% wharf labourers voted Labour
86% of upper-professionals voted National
73% of doctors voted National
67% of lower-professionals voted National
Nowadays most parties have fairly even support across income groups: National receives large proportion of its vote from workers; Labour receives large proportion of vote from professionals and employers
In line with this reduction in the class voting habits, the class struggle doesn’t really drive modern politics at all. This isn’t to say that it shouldn’t or that it won’t in the future, but that it doesn’t at the moment. Instead we have a situation now whereby there isn’t even really any major debates about the economy. The differences between the parties on economic issues are more narrow now than ever before. Certainly in the last election campaign it was hard to see how either of the major parties were going to manage the economic recession in any significantly different way.
Of course the 1980s and 1990s were a time of major differences and debates about economics, while the neoliberal revolution was in full swing. Now the debate is over (unfortunately). A new consensus has been created whereby the rough edges of neoliberalism are removed but the general economic framework established in the 1980s and 1990s continues. Parties like the Alliance and NZ First rose up and became highly relevant due to the huge debate about economic issues, but now with the debate sadly over, those parties are relatively irrelevant.
Other dimensions of political conflict
Some political commentators and academics expected the introduction of MMP to facilitate the establishment of alternative dimensions of political conflict (and thus parties).
• Ethnic cleavage
• Gender cleavage
• Age cleavage
• Geographical cleavage
• Religious cleavage
Postmaterialist consensus and conflict
A postmaterialist liberal-conservative political cleavage is also increasingly identified – one that might be seen to encompass most of these alternative cleavages and broadly represent non-economic societal issues. I’d argue that these alternative cleavages are becoming relatively stronger, and that the traditionally dominant socioeconomic cleavage has lost much of its potency.
The strong convergence on economic issues has pushed the parties to compete more on this alternative dimension of issues. Although the parties still share many similar non-economic policies, they increasingly differentiate themselves by emphasising (or exaggerating) their differences in these areas.
The new consensus has largely centred on economic issues, and therefore party conflict in New Zealand is now occurs mostly around non-economic issues.
These issues can be said to exist on a separate political dimension to the left-right scale – and one that is not always identified by New Zealand political scientists. Most commonly, this non-economic area of conflict is called the postmaterialist dimension, and is associated with issues of ‘tradition, moral order, moral conservatism vs moral liberalism, ecology, materialism vs postmaterialism’. This spectrum of issues mostly involves ‘societal’ and ‘cultural’ issues, but is largely differentiated from economic issues through the materialist/non-materialist divide. Whereby economic issues such as wages, provision of healthcare, education, and welfare are deemed to be materialist concerns, other less tangible issues such as justice, the environment, and immigration are considered postmaterialist.
This alternative dimension is usually interpreted in terms of either the traditional left-right continuum or else a simple liberal-conservative dimension, whereby the liberal side of the spectrum is associated with progress, modernity, libertarianism, and the conservative side is associated with order, tradition, and authoritarianism.
Increasingly it is argued that politics in industrialised democracies is based around a set of issues that do not directly relate to the traditional class-economic-materialist left-right cleavage, but which fit broadly into a postmaterialist cleavage, in that they are not concerned with the struggle for material security (as seen in conflicts over income, tax, state social support and so forth). Significantly, this new political cleavage of postmaterialism is characterised by identity, values, culture and psychology rather than social background. Rather than being understood by the polarities of left and right, the terms of liberal and conservative are more useful. In being about issues, this dimension still relates to – and incorporates – many of the ‘alternative cleavages’ outlined above. Issues relating to ethnic culture, gender discrimination, policies on age and so forth are more often postmaterialist in nature rather than materialist. In fact, this postmaterialist political cleavage has grown in significance with the decline of social cleavages:
Cleavages linked to social stratification are no longer the main correlates of a party’s position on the left or right of the political spectrum. Issues revolving around morality, abortion, ‘family values,’ civil rights, gender equality, multiculturalism, immigration, crime and punishment, foreign policy, and supranational communities push individuals and groups in directions that are independent of their socioeconomic position (Lipset, 2001: p.62).
Experts points out that the postmaterialist cleavage has not been incorporated into the existing class dimension of conflict, and as such is not simply a reflection of a social cleavage. Postmaterialist issues – for example, abortion or state censorship – often crosscut social cleavages rather than reinforce them.
Increase in postmaterialist issues
Certainly the last three decades of New Zealand political history have seen the emergence of growing debate around issues such as law and order policy, Treaty of Waitangi policy, drug reform, and environmental policy.
In the 2008 general election, postmaterialist issues dominated the campaign, as most political parties ran campaigns that centred on societal issues.
In particular, it is indicative that New Zealand First’s much-heralded major issues in recent years – immigration, crime, and the Treaty of Waitangi – have all non-economic issues. While the party had been formed on mainly economic grounds – namely opposition to the neo-liberal policies of Labour and National – it had to change to try to score all of its political points on the secondary spectrum of societal issues.
The Green Party, likewise, has tended to run ‘quality of life’ campaigns – a distinctly postmaterialist issue. Like the old Values party, the new Green party is thoroughly postmaterialist, with policies that indicated the influence of members who had been involved in progressive politics against war, racism, and sexism. In this sense the Greens are largely a continuation of the new social movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
Act has also placed non-economic issues – namely law and order and the Treaty – at the centre of its campaigns.
Immigration had been one of the most contentious issues since the mid-1990s, but by the late 1990s an immigration consensus had been reached by nearly all parties.
On environmentalism, too, virtually all New Zealand political parties went to some lengths since the 1990s to illustrate that they were strong advocates of the environment. This apparent consensus on environmental issues began to break down, however, after the Green Party’s election to Parliament in 1999 and the rise of GM as an issue. The party system has been relatively divided over GM, the requirement to ratify and conform to the Kyoto Protocol, and the issue of native forest logging.
The issue of violence and crime in society has also increased in importance in recent years, after a period when crime was not heavily political. In recent elections nearly all the parties have adopted hard-line law and order policies. In particular, it seems all the parties of the centre and centre-right have been attempting to outbid each other in order to differentiate themselves as the party of law and order. National, Act and New Zealand First all took harder lines on crime in recent years than previously. Yet much of their rhetoric was stronger than their policies. Labour has also shown little differentiation, and in office, initiated legislation to lengthen sentences for serious crimes of violence.
Thus, the use of fear is a central part of our new politics:
- Act tries to ‘convince voters that New Zealand is headed towards complete lawlessness, with criminals waiting to pounce at every corner’
- New Zealand First pushes ‘the message that disease-ridden immigrants are pouring over the borders looking for the promised land’
- The Greens play on fears by suggesting – rightly or wrongly – ‘that letting the genetic modification genie out of the bottle could result in mutant corn and four-eyed fish’, and climate change will drown us.
Nonetheless, there has been some congruence between the parties of the left and certain postmaterialist values:
the parties of the left, although still identifying themselves as social democratic or socialist, have largely reconstituted themselves as liberals in the American sense of the word, emphasizing postmaterialist themes like environmentalism, equality for women and gays, minority rights, and cultural freedoms (Lipset, 2001: p.62).
The weakening of social cleavages has opened the way for the development of this postmaterialist cleavage. It seems that one result of the decline of the traditional class cleavage is that the parties have to find alternative cleavages (or enemies) to define themselves against, thus other issues become more central. Therefore, on the right, communism (or at least ‘creeping socialism’) has been replaced by issues like crime and immigration as the prime generator of public paranoia. On the left, issues of economic inequality are increasingly replaced by issues that relate to ‘quality of life’, such as the environment or cultural diversity.
Whereas most of the ‘alternative’ political dimensions discussed in this section reflect social cleavages, the postmaterialist dimension represents a political cleavage without any substantial social base. It seems that in the absence of a strong social cleavage, parties now need to find other political cleavages on which to compete, and the most obvious one is values. Act picked up on this in the mid-1990s, with the slogan, ‘Values. Not politics’. The increase in the significance of this cleavage, and the decline of traditional social cleavages signals the decline of politics, as structured by social division.
Rise of the new social movements
Part of the shift to a focus on societal issues instead of economic/class issues is also reflected in significant changes in the New Zealand left.
The ascendancy of the new social movements from the late 1960s onwards. The rise of the new social movements was a phenomenon throughout the west, whereby oppressed groups other than simply the working class became much more politically organised and visible. Typically, the new social movements involved gay liberation groups, the feminist movement and nationalist groups, and in New Zealand this included Maori cultural revivalist movements and Pacific peoples’ cultural and nationalist groups (Roper, 2005, pp. 95-96). Leaders from a variety of groups and movements promoted the idea of identity based on gender, sexuality, culture and origins. This was often consciously contrasted with models of identity and community action based on class.
Within these new social movements there was a contest of ideas over concerns relating to identity, political tactics and strategies, class and ideologies. The eventual cementing of ‘identity politics’ as the framework through which these new social movements operated developed through discussions, fights, government cooptation and class conflict within the groups themselves (Trotter, 2002).
It was not only the new social movements that were key to the state’s adoption of the paradigm shift in ideology. Since the early 1980s, practically every faction of the New Zealand political left also adopted the culturalist model. This development was closely related to the New Zealand left becoming enmeshed in an ideological project at odds with its core values and objectives – ‘the politics of identity’ (Trotter, 2002, p. 6). The advocates of identity politics proposed the ‘tripod theory’ of exploitation, according to which race, gender and class comprise the separate but equal pillars of human oppression. The tripod political ideology held that class should no longer be the primary concern of the left. Gender, race and class were to be given equal status in terms of analysing society and in terms of engagement in political action. Disillusioned leftists, who were desperate to discard their unfashionable baggage, enthusiastically embraced this new approach.
Such tripod theories can be seen as a variant of post-modern approaches to struggle, with no form of oppression or identity afforded primacy. Instead a tolerant, non-critical approach was given to various avenues of struggle. These ‘new leftists’ therefore rejected the Marxist view of identifying racism, sexism and homophobia as subordinate (but highly effective) strategies of oppression, which complement and intensify the dominant relationship within capitalism – which is class exploitation. Those who resisted this new paradigm were branded ‘racists’ by the Maori activists and liberal pakeha who now dominated the left and set the framework for left politics (Trotter, 2002, p. 6).
It has to be pointed out, however, that this tripod trend was partly a reaction to an equally negative economistic position on the left before then. For many years the left tried to pretend that gender, racial, and national oppression were either non-existent or unimportant. For these leftists – who were often situated in trade union activism – economic issues were all that mattered. Thus the pakeha left swung from one negative extreme to another – from ignoring the oppression of women and Maori, to then obsessing over these types of oppression, yet without locating them within a wider understanding of the economic social system. Class exploitation and the class division of society were systematically downplayed (Poata-Smith, 2004, pp. 71-72).
These ‘new left’ ideas of identity politics and tripod theories soon transmitted into the Labour Party via the influx of young, middle class liberal-left individuals that essentially took over the empty shell that was the Labour Party in the 1970s. By the early 1980s this new educated liberal-left milieu clearly commanded the party machine, and a liberal uniformity developed around issues such as feminism, peace and anti-racism (Jesson, 1989, p. 48).
Co-opting the new social movements
The election of the Fourth Labour Government in 1984 marked a conscious and dramatic shift in government policy regarding Maori, woman and various ‘minority’ groups. Feminism, biculturalism and identity politics were embraced and actively promoted by the state.
Many of the aspirations of members of these new social movement could be met, at least in a superficial way but at times in a real and substantial way, without threatening or curtailing the profit accumulation abilities of business in New Zealand. Within the new social movements and the Maori nationalist movement was an ascending and conscious aspiring middle class. Many aspired to new ruling class status, and saw opportunities to use the leadership opportunities in organizations defined by feminist, Maori nationalism or gay politics as a base from which to rise within mainstream political and economic structures. The Fourth Labour Government was adept at uniting and transforming these various strands into a ‘new right’ synthesis of neoliberal economic restructuring and seemingly radical social reforms including homosexual law reform and the extending of the terms of the Treaty process.
Neoliberalism and identity politics
Many commentators have struggled to reconcile the parallel development and dominance of neoliberal economic policies with the development and dominance of liberal ideologies such as feminism, biculturalism and identity politics in New Zealand. Yet these were not distinct and unrelated developments. The new liberal social agenda promoted initially by the Fourth Labour Government and state bureaucracies went hand in hand with neoliberal polices.
Like all forms of identity politics, the culturalist model has proven to be a dead-end. It is time that the left began to seriously address the question of class instead. This is the best hope of offering some real solutions to the impoverishment of Maori and other groups.
Does liberal = left and conservative = right?
This socially liberal-conservative spectrum is usually overlaid on the left-right scale so that ‘liberal’ equates with ‘left’ and ‘conservative’ equates with ‘right’, and although it is true that there is often a strong correlation in politics that makes this appear warranted, there is nothing intrinsically related between the two dimensions, and there are plenty of examples that contradict it. For example, the Fourth Labour Government was considered to be right-wing on economic issues and liberal on postmaterialist (or societal) issues. Generally the New Zealand Party was similar. In terms of contemporary politicians, Jim Anderton is considered to be left-wing on economic issues but conservative on societal issues, while Deborah Coddington is considered right-wing on economic issues but liberal on societal issues.
Therefore it seems sensible to regard the two dimensions as separate, and for this reason some theorists present the liberal-conservative spectrum in a vertical form so that it can then be laid over top of the left-right scale, cross-cutting it to form an X-Y axis or a square. Such a system allows for a more adequate plotting of Western party systems. This section of the chapter also takes this approach in examining the growing centrality of political conflict with regard to postmaterialist issues and, crucially, how this trend relates to the growing economic consensus.
Theory about the postmaterialist dimension is most commonly associated with Ronald Inglehart, who predicted that as economic deprivation dissipated in Western societies, postmaterialist values would increasingly dominate and reshape our politics.
Jesson’s call for critical assessment of the left
During the 1970s and 1980s one of the key trends was the left’s embrace of social liberalism at the expense of working class socialism. As Bruce Jesson told the Labour Party journal Labour Network in 1988:
I think the left caved in because it became liberal. It ceased to be socialist and became liberal. That left which identified with the working class, with unions, with the welfare state created in the 1930’s, died in the 40’s and 50’s, in that period when the working class dropped out of the Labour Party, when it became almost a shell without a membership. And when the Labour Party revived in the 70’s it wasn’t a socialist working class left in that sense, it was a liberal left concerned with individual rights and opposed to Muldoon because he was authoritarian and opposed to centralization and bureaucracy and all those things (Jesson, 1988: p.3).
The legacy of this is still with us.
A major strength of Bruce Jesson’s writings was the fact that he was a left dissident and not a left apologist; he believed strongly in the need for the left to be self-critical and to bravely and honestly speak openly about where mistakes were being made. Hence Jesson was a left ‘outsider’, never really part of the left ‘mainstream’ because he challenged the left orthodoxy and trends. I think we can all learn from him, and the future state of the left is dependent on such an approach.
Questions to answer or discuss:
What is leftwing in 2009?
What is ‘liberal’ in 2009?
Are they the same thing? What is the relationship between the two?
What is the way forward for the left?