The political left has traditionally been defined by, more than anything else, its agenda for increasing economic equality. In all its different forms – social democracy, socialism, communism, Marxism, anarchism, trade unionism – the left has pursued a fight against economic inequality and in favour of systems whereby the wealth and income can be more fairly distributed. The different elements of the left might have had many differences over means and goals, but their one uniting factor has been this orientation towards basic economic inequality. This used to ensure that politics in democracies like New Zealand was intrinsically concerned with issues of economic inequality and distribution. Voters had a choice between parties, movements, ideologies that represented two different approaches to the distribution of material, and this kept issues of economic inequality on the political agenda in some form or another. The left-right dimension thus structured New Zealand parliamentary electoral politics. For fifty years New Zealand politics orientated to the basic socioeconomic cleavage in which Labour and National were in dynamic competition. This has obviously changed significantly, as this blog post will argue. The material in it is taken from a draft paper that I delivered to a interdisciplinary Workshop on Inequality at the University of Otago in June entitled ‘Why Economic Inequality Matters’, and it also draws on some previous blog posts. [Read more below]
This ideological dimension is largely an economic cleavage in the sense that the issues are primarily about the struggle for material security relating to wages, tax, the provision of healthcare, education, and welfare, and so forth. Also, its economic basis is derived from the fact that it inherently reflects social stratification (classes or socioeconomic divisions and gradations in society).
The state of the left
Given that the political left is the force, the philosophy, and the organized movement that is supposed to take economic inequality seriously, then if we are interested in explaining why economic inequality does not matters in New Zealand anymore, then it is worth looking at the state of the political left. After all, this is the part of society that is supposed to tell us ‘why economic inequality matters’. It is supposed to give us the answers and lead social change. In New Zealand, however, the state of the left is very poor, and where it might seem healthy or at least successful it is not particularly concerned with economic inequality.
The New Zealand left is possibly at the lowest point that it’s been at for sometime. It is in a bad shape – there are no significant leftwing groups around anymore, the so-called ‘leftwing political parties’ are not particularly left anymore, there are no major journal of the left, magazine of the left, there are 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.
There are a number of reasons for the decline of the left – both in New Zealand and internationally – and they are beyond the scope of this particular blog post. One reason, however, can be found in the left’s relative disconnect with its original raison d’etre. The fact is that fewer people now associate the left with the struggle for economic equality. I talk to students, and I have 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 do not 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, and bans on things. In fact more than anything, leftism and socialism is associated with banning everything, telling people want is bad for them, stopping people from having too much fun, and generally being uptight about personal behaviour, language and morals. If these perceptions are true and typical, then it is clear that the left no longer fulfills its historic mission of making economic inequality matter.
Decline of the class cleavage and left-right spectrum
This paper challenges the idea that the old dominant left-right relationship still exists in New Zealand politics, and suggests that party competition is structured less-and-less by this traditional socioeconomic left-right cleavage. The notion that Labour is simply a party of working people and National is simply 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.
It can therefore be argued that the left-right spectrum is of declining importance in New Zealand politics, and that ideological conflict is cohered to a greater degree by post-materialist issues. To a certain extent these issues can be said to exist on a separate political dimension to the left-right scale. According to theorist Seymour Martin Lipset, this postmaterialist political dimension is increasingly de-coupled from both the traditional left-right spectrum and from social cleavages such as class:
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).
Lipset 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.
An 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. And in recent general elections, postmaterialist issues have dominated the campaigns, as most political parties have run campaigns that centred on societal issues.
On environmentalism virtually all New Zealand political parties now go to lengths to illustrate that they are strong advocates of the environment. 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.
Immigration had been one of the most contentious postmaterialist issues since the mid-1990s, with parties such as New Zealand First and Act putting such issues at the centre of their campaigns. In fact, it is indicative that New Zealand First’s much-heralded major issues in recent years – immigration, crime, and the Treaty of Waitangi – are all non-economic/societal issues. While the party had been formed on mainly economic grounds – namely opposition to the neoliberal policies of Labour and National – it eventually accepted the economic paradigm shift of the 1980s and 1990s and switched its focus to societal issues, attempting to score all of its political points on socially conservative postmaterialist issues.
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.
On the more socially liberal side of the postmaterialist divide, the salient issues have related to ethnicity issues, cultural freedoms, and gender and sexual politics – in particular with the lowering of the drinking age, prostitution law reform, debate around civil unions and gay marriage, and general issues of women’s equality.
Survey research for the elections of 1996, 2002 and 2008
This blog post utilises the results from the survey of political scientists in New Zealand conducted for the elections of 1996, 2002 and 2008, which asked respondents to locate the positions of the parties on a left-right scale but also allows respondents to create additional scales to represent any other significant political conflicts they identify. For the 1996 election, less than half of the survey respondents (47 percent) classified New Zealand politics as multi-dimensional, i.e. given the opportunity to mention any other policy dimension in addition to the economic one, most choose not to (Brechtel and Kaiser, 1999: p.7). By contrast, in the survey for 2002, three-quarters of respondents now classified New Zealand politics as multi-dimensional, and for 2008 the proportion was almost the same (72 percent) – see Table 1 below.
Clearly there has been a significant shift in either the nature of ideological conflict or else in the understanding of this conflict by political scientists. Either way, we can regard the electoral competition in New Zealand politics as now being multi-dimensional, regardless of when the dimensionality changed.
When the 1996 respondents were also asked to estimate the relevance of the economic left-right dimension on a five-point scale from 1 (very low importance) to 5 (very high importance) they provided a mean value of 4.0, which originally Brechtel and Kaiser classified as ‘high importance’, concluding that this ‘value leaves no doubt that the economic left-right dimension fundamentally shapes party competition in New Zealand’ (ibid). By contrast, for 2002, the survey found the mean value of the economic left-right dimension had declined to 3.2 (i.e. moderate importance), and by 2008 it had declined further to 2.8 out of 5 (low-to-moderate importance).
In contrast to the declining relevance of the left-right dimension, those survey respondents stating that some sort of additional dimension exists, have been evaluating it as of increasingly importance. In 1996 the average relevance rating of the liberal-conservative dimension was deemed to be only 2.8 (out of 5), but this has steady climbed in importance to 3.1 in 2002 and 3.6 in 2008. Hence, although the survey respondents had deemed the liberal-conservative dimension to be of less relevance than the left-right dimension in both 1996 and 2002, this changed in 2008 and for the first time they deemed it to be more relevant than the left-right spectrum.
This decline in relevance of the left-right dimension in electoral politics reflects the wider problem that the left in New Zealand is failing in its historic task of combating economic inequality. The next blog post will attempt to explain why.