On its own, Goff’s speech might not be seen as particularly significant. However, it needs to be analysed in the light of a range of leftwing pronouncements by the Labour Party.
Labour Party MPs have been engaging in the normal Opposition behaviour of a mild social democratic party – criticising Government cutbacks and restructuring. The Labour campaigns against cuts to adult and community education, against the extra funding for private schools, and against the restructuring going on within ACC are standard Labour Opposition activity. But statements by Goff et al indicate a shift beyond mere superficial and reactive statements.
Most significantly, Goff has renounced the longstanding bi-partisan approach to monetary policy and the way the Reserve Bank operates. As well as attacking one of the central pillars of New Zealand’s neoliberal framework, Goff has also critiqued New Zealand’s foreign policy. In this area, he has repositioned Labour on the left by calling for a rejection of American pressure for New Zealand to send the SAS troops back to Afghanistan. Goff has now argued that a new deployment of New Zealand troops will merely act to prop up a corrupt regime.
The Opposition leader has even ventured into the realm of industrial relations and, within a certain context, hasn’t been afraid to use militant language. In late November, for example, Goff addressed a picket of Service & Food Workers Union members, urging them to ‘use their union to fight, for a decent wage increase’ - see: The Komissariat strikes back. Such fighting talk has rarely been used by modern Labour leaders or MPs.
Therefore, Goff’s ‘nationhood’ speech needs to be placed in the context of this wider left shift by Goff and the Labour Party. Only then can the link be made between Goff’s attacks in his speech on the Maori iwi/corporate elite, and the wider repositioning of Labour towards a form of class politics, which has been consciously counterposed to the party’s standard ideology of identity politics.
Understanding Labour’s political divide
The left’s failure to understand, or even acknowledge this left shift comes from a flawed theoretical framework that equate leftism with liberalism and fails to understand how the Labour Party is still, in very contradictorily, partial, and tenuous ways, connected to a form of class politics. Goff’s flirtation with class can only be understood in the context of Labour’s tenuous yet real links with what remains of a working class movement in New Zealand.
It has long been argued on this blog that the Labour Party has transformed from being a party championing materialist issues, and that orientated towards a working class constituency, to being a party of liberal middle-income professionals. Liberals, who champion identity politics over class politics, have dominated the party since the 1980s. However, the Labour hierarchy now faces a severe problem. The politics of the Labour liberals, with its entire nanny/bully state image, has become incredibly unpopular with the general electorate. Any new leader of Labour therefore needed to reposition Labour in a new and more popular direction, which openly broke from its ‘namby pamby’ image. That Goff has been able to move Labour somewhat to a class position is linked both to the need to regain Labour some support and with the suppressed class nature of the party itself.
Why is Labour shifting left?
So why this tilt to the left, and a re-engagement by Labour with the language of class? The political framework that dominates the party, that of middle class identity politics, is now widely unpopular, and has led to the party’s support base plummeting. Any new leadership by necessity needed to not only distance the party a way from its more unpopular policies, but to actually reposition the party in such away as to draw on concerns that would resonate with voters. Goff, the ultimate chameleon, has chosen to draw on Labour’s past, and weakened links with the union movement, to reposition Labour to the left. He has sensed a growing disquiet and resentment towards the favouritism shown by National and its coalition partners towards elites, and has decided to exploit these concerns. It is partly because Goff is from a party that has tenuous yet real links to both working people, through union affiliations, and with a ‘socialist’ history, that he is able to tilt Labour back in such a direction.
Hence it’s possible for Goff to claim – as he did recently when delivering a speech to a Drinking Liberally audience – that his favourite quote from the bible was, ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven’.
Limitations of the shift
Labour has not returned to the position of being a traditional social democratic party, one organisationally based on a large union movement and who centre on reformist materialist policies aimed at a working class electorate. Goff’s repositioning of Labour can be seen as a ‘testing of the waters’ on his part – an attempt to see if capitalising on social divisions in New Zealand, such as between ordinary Maori and corporate Maori for example, will resonate with a segment of the electorate. If Goff’s flirtation with class doesn’t lead to at least a minor surge in support, we are likely to see him drop such class-based politics and attempt to reposition Labour in a different direction again.
Writer Chris Trotter has shown an astuteness missing from other political commentators in highlighting the conflict in the Labour Party between identity and class-centred politics. Trotter has correctly seen Goff’s speech as indicating a shift to the left, and correctly saw the Opposition leader as appealing to both a pakeha and Maori working class electorate. However, Trotter has been perhaps wishfully exaggerating things with the degree he sees this left shift:
By abandoning the failed, identity-driven politics of the past 30 years, and returning his party to its egalitarian and socialist roots, Phil Goff has taken the first, and absolutely necessary steps towards Labour’s rehabilitation – and re-election.
At the moment, Labour’s left tilt is both tenuous and perhaps episodic. Goff is no radical socialist. Recently he defended capitalism as the best and only viable system. Although Trotter labeled this statement by Goff as unwise, it is in reality an indication of a wide chasm between genuine socialist and egalitarian politics and the politics of Phil Goff and the Labour Party.