What Phil Goff didn't say though is that the Maori corporate elite - represented in Parliament by the Maori Party, emerged under policies first adopted by the Labour Government of which he was a influential part. It was the fourth Labour Government that began the process of co-opting the newly-emerging Maori elite into the capitalist infrastructure.
Related to the charge of opportunism, Goff has also been criticised as being insincere in taking up the politics of the class because of his neoliberal and conservative political background. Ostensibly, Phil Goff is the most socially-conservative, rightwing leader the Labour Party has ever had. Compared to other Labour leaders of recent decades, there is evidence that Goff is economically to the right of Helen Clark, David Lange, Bill Rowling and Geoffrey Palmer, while also being more socially-conservative than Mike Moore or Norman Kirk.
Yet although Goff is all these things, his dominating politics is actually pragmatic managerialism. In this way he is the ideal heir to Clark. What’s more, he’s the ideal Opposition leader to Prime Minister John Key, as Goff is actually another version of Key – a political chameleon who is hyper-attuned to the public mood.
There are in fact some important parallels with Key. Prior to 2008 most left commentators initially misread John Key as some sort of radical neoliberal rightwinger – but as I blogged back in 2006, Key’s overwhelming politics are in fact his malleability and ideological pragmatism – see: Where is National going?. Goff is very similar to Key in this regard, and a sober study of Goff’s political career shows that he has moved with great ease between different ideological positions and trends. So to typecast Goff in a neoliberal portrait might be satisfying to leftwingers – myself included – but it ignores the more mundane reality that he is actually no deep ideologue or radical. Whenever he has embraced radicalism its always been rather superficial.
Goff of course began his political life as a radical leftist. Joining the Labour Party in the late 1960s, he campaigned for the party and worked as socialist union organizer, and became an activist in the anti-Vietnam War protests in the early 1970s. He is infamous for standing up at the 1976 Labour Party conference, and declaring: ‘We stand opposed to a capitalist system based upon the exploitation of the many by the few’ (quoted in Collins, 1987: p.10). Similarly, when Saigon fell to the Viet Cong in 1975, Goff was a junior lecturer in the Auckland University Department of Political Studies, where he hoisted the VC flag onto the outside of the building.
As will be detailed more in some future blog posts, Goff eventually shifted significantly to the right, and was a leading player in the neoliberal reforms of the 4th Labour Government, being an energetic proponent of Rogernomics, and infamously introducing university fees in the late 1980s. Even as late as the mid-1990s, it was revealed that Goff had held talks with the Act party, with a view to jumping ship.
Yet since this period, Goff has seen which way the wind is blowing and distanced himself from his strong 1980s support for Rogernomics. An ideologically re- engineered Phil Goff then pushed ‘third way’ politics and no longer espoused any real extension of neoliberalism. In fact during the last term of the Clark administration he was behind the opposition to selling shares in Auckland Airport to a Dubai group, cashing in on the xenophobia to demonstrate his credentials to the nationalist centre-Left. Thus there has always been a strong current of opportunism in the politics of Phil Goff.
While the allegations leveled against Goff of insincerity might be fair enough, such charges shouldn’t necessarily render the policy/ideological shift as invalid or even as ‘rightwing’. A number of motivations feed into the political strategies of all politicians, so it would be a bit precious to single out this instance. Anyone following the political career of Jim Anderton, for example, will find that he sometimes shifted leftwards in significant ways, and sometimes this could be related to opportunism, yet this didn’t invalidate the correctness of these left pronouncements. After all, a shift to the left is still a ‘shift to the left’ regardless of motivations.
And as will be shown in a later blog post, Goff’s recent controversial speech came about in the context of a more general shift towards the left (including a challenge to the monetary policy consensus, opposition to sending the SAS to Afghanistan, and support for union struggles). Such contextualization is crucial – it shows that Goff’s speech was part of a wider ‘left-turn’ that seeks to reconnect the Labour Party to working class voters – a substantial proportion of which no longer vote Labour.
Obviously Phil Goff is not to be trusted in his newfound leftism – at the moment it is only a flirtation with class rather than anything authentic and deep. But that doesn’t mean it should be ignored or misread.