Has Labour finally returned to its roots? The answer would be a firm yes, if one is to believe the bloggers, political activists and union delegates who make up the current crop of leftie cheerleaders for the Labour Party. So, with the election of David Cunliffe as leader, will we see Labour finally dispense with its soft-neoliberalism and third-way politics and take up the mantle of being a genuine leftwing force? In this guest blog John Moore argues that, despite Labour's current tilt to the left, a future left government led by Cunliffe will act to betray the hopes of its leftwing and working class supporters, as it always has in the past. [Read more below]
A tilt to the left
With the election of 'born-again socialist' David Cunliffe as party leader, Labour will certainly move somewhat to the left. However, it is highly questionable how much of a genuine lefty Labour's new leader actually is. But what is true is that Cunliffe – unlike David Shearer and the slightly more left-leaning Grant Robertson – has been able to capitalise on the new opportunities offered to politicians in our post-financial crash era. That is, he is attuned to the new zeitgeist, and has a good sense of the growing disillusionment with 'neoliberal/third-way' politics.
Cunliffe's election as Labour leader primarily comes from the failure of David Shearer, and Phil Goff before him, to reposition the party in its post-Helen Clark period. That Cunliffe has presented himself as a 'hard-leftist', in contrast to Shearer, Goff and Clark, needs to be understood within the context of a resurgence of progressive politics in New Zealand since the financial crash of 2008. The on-going crisis of confidence and [lack of] direction we have been witnessing within Labour comes from the fact that the political framework that dominates the party, that of middle class identity politics and neoliberal economics, is now widely unpopular and has led to the party’s support base plummeting. The more astute party members have realised, since Labour's defeat in 2008, that a new leadership needed to not only distance the party from its more unpopular policies, but to actually reposition the party in such a way as to draw on concerns that would resonate with voters. And to a growing number of activists in Labour, this meant moving the party left.
David Cunliffe’s sudden rise has come about through his nurturing of himself as a new leftwing pinup politician. He has worked hard to win the confidence of the left-leaning members that now dominate the party base, and this has led to his victory against his more centrist or right-leaning foes. Cunliffe has been able to sense the growing disquiet in the party with the old 'neoliberal' guard, and so he has ostensibly at least ditched his own rightwing third-way ideology and transformed himself into a champion of old-style Labour politics.
However Cunliffe, who has had a foot in the private capitalist as well as public sphere, will be very aware of the kinds of pressures a future left-leaning Labour-led government would face. The pressure to move rightwards would be immense for such a government, with business leaders being certain to show high levels of hostility to any move away from the current economic framework. And a future 'centre-left' government would still have the primary role of managing New Zealand's small capitalist economy in uncertain times, with the aim of providing the best conditions for economic growth in a business-friendly environment.
Therefore, Cunliffe as a future prime minister, whose role would be to lead a government promoting capitalist-centered growth, would inevitably be a very different beast to David Cunliffe the current friend of unions and leftists. So, just as easily as he has moved to the left, Cunliffe will move back to the centre, or even to the right, depending on the economic and political situation a future government that he leads is faced with.
Social democratic parties in and out of power
The left's new love for Labour betrays their impressionistic politics; a politics lacking in a thorough understanding of the nature of social democratic-type parties under capitalism. That is, leftish commentators and activists including Chris Trotter and Martyn Bradbury have all of a sudden declared Labour worthy of almost uncritical support because the party has merely elected a left-sounding leader. This is despite the party's ongoing history of betrayal and of quickly ditching more controversial leftwing policies once in power. This rather hasty declaration of love for a Cunliffe-led Labour Party by Bradbury and others on the left has rightly been passionately critiqued by leftwing activist and socialist Omar Hamed:
Despite the radical rhetoric he has since adopted, Cunliffe was never a friend of working people while a minister in Clark's cabinet.
Way back in 2006 and 2007 while happily ensconced in his Herne Bay abode, Cunliffe left a half dozen Iranian Christian asylum seekers to rot away in the bowels of Auckland Central Remand Prison. The great Anglican socialist David Cunliffe even let one of this band -Ali Panah get to the 54th day of his hunger strike before setting him free. The repeated hospitalisations, the weekly protests outside Mt. Eden prison and the advocacy of Keith Locke couldn't warm Cunliffe's heart of stone then. It wasn't Cunliffe's sympathy but the arrival of the media circus outside Mt Eden prison in the wake of five protesters chaining themselves to the prison roof that finally set Panah free. Now he has the gall to lecture us about the dying light of hope in people's eyes.
When Cunliffe made an anti-National speech at Avondale markets in 2011 he made a staunch speech in which his accent slurred from time to time with some sort of faux-Pasifika tone. It's a reminder of what Cunliffe's radical rhetoric really is - an accent.
To understand Labour's cautious move to the left, we need to have some understanding of the nature of Labour/social democratic parties that operate and manoeuvre within a capitalist system. So, a basic understanding of social democratic parties like Labour is that they always act differently in power compared with when they are in opposition. That is, often Labour-type parties that are out of power will promise leftish policy, spout anti-business/corporate rhetoric, as well as calling for social equality as against the reality of class inequality. That such parties act to appear leftwing and, to some extent, hostile to the blind pursuit of profit has to do with the historical development of social democratic political organisations. Historically, social democratic/Labour parties were based on union movements and were ideologically defined by either moderate or radical appeals to socialism. However, the contradiction within social democracy has always been that, despite being defined on the basis of working class and leftwing politics, social democracy has attempted to promote ‘socialist’ or leftish policies within a profit-centred capitalist framework. This contradiction therefore inevitably leads to some form of compromise when Labour-type parties gain state power.
So once in power, parties like New Zealand Labour will either act to betray their supporters, the classic example being the neoliberal Fourth Labour Government of David Lange and Roger Douglas, or at least act to rollback their more radical or leftwing policies. Helen Clark’s government certainly followed the second scenario, especially during the so-called ‘winter of discontent’.
Those leftists who have suddenly made an about-turn in supporting David Cunliffe have therefore chosen to ignore the realpolitik of leftish parties holding state power under a capitalist system. Instead commentators, including fans of David Cunliffe at both The Standard and the Daily Blog, have given rapturous applause to him for his apparent newfound boldness and radicalness. Amongst his strongest supporters is Chris Trotter, who has painted a rosy picture of a future true-red Labour government now that Cunliffe is at the helm.
Chris Trotter's on-again, off-again love for Labour
Chris Trotter's writings are a valuable point of reference for anyone wanting to study the New Zealand Labour Party. And as one of New Zealand's sharpest public intellectuals, he has written some of the best commentaries on the question of social democracy and the labour movement in New Zealand. It was therefore rather frustrating for those of us who have been keenly following Trotter's recent critiques of the Labour Party to be faced with his sudden about-turn due to the election of a new leftie-sounding leader. However, this does not reduce the importance of Trotter as a critic of the Labour Party.
So how does Trotter help us to understand the contradictory nature of social democracy? Chris Trotter, who has an in-depth knowledge of Labour past and present, is very aware of the problematic nature of social democratic-type parties holding state-power. And in this regards, he has provided some of the best analysis of the Clark-led Fifth Labour Government in terms of its compromising nature when it was faced with the realities of being a government under New Zealand's capitalist system. Here is sample of his analysis of the Labour-Alliance government’s ‘winter of discontent’ in its first year of power:
The Left-wing Alliance MP and Associate Labour Minister Laila Harre was proposing an employer-funded paid parental leave scheme, and New Zealand's bosses were not happy. It seemed to them that Helen Clark had a socialist tiger by the tail and its claws were threatening their bottom lines… The degree of employer disaffection could be read in the sudden and sustained fall in the value of the New Zealand dollar, which bottomed out at an alarming US$0.39…By late May 2000, the Government caved. At a series of meetings, Dr Cullen set about reassuring business leaders that the government was not composed of sharp-clawed socialists: ''We want to be a government that moves forward with business,'' he told a business audience, ''not one that watches indifferently from the sidelines''. For good measure, the prime minister declared that employer-funded paid parental leave would be enacted ''over my dead body''…It was a U-turn executed under duress. In early June, at the funeral of Jock Barnes, the militant leader of the watersiders in 1951, Council of Trade Unions president Ross Wilson quietly informed me that, only days before, the prime minister had warned him the country was facing an ''investment strike''.
So then, what would have happened if Helen Clark had decided to stand up to the bosses and ‘called her supporters out into the streets’? Chris Trotter explains:
…in doing so she would have raised the political stakes to such a dangerous degree that 99.9 per cent of politicians would simply have run the other way. To openly pit ''the people'' against ''the bosses'' is to place the option of full-scale revolution - or repression - on the table…Having done so, Miss Clark would quickly have discovered that breaking an ''investment strike'' is in no way comparable to breaking an ordinary strike. In the latter case, only the future of a single company and its employees is on the line. With the former, you're hazarding the future of an entire social class. Most political parties would rather keep control of the losing side than lose control of the winning side.
So there we have it in a nutshell. When social democratic parties attempt to implement leftwing policy and are then faced with a disaffected employer class, they will quickly retreat into a state of acquiescence.
So just as easily as Labour can tilt to the left, it can again reposition itself to the right. This example of Helen Clark's government and its readiness to compromise when faced with bourgeois wrath, highlights both the contradictory nature of social democracy and the foolishness of the left for holding any real illusions in the New Zealand Labour Party.
The politics of low horizons
So why has the left in New Zealand once again gone gaga for Labour, despite decades of the party acting left in opposition and then moving to the right once in power? Really, this comes down to the incredibly low expectations that the majority of leftist activists and commentators hold out for progressive change. And David Cunliffe knows this all too well. So with utter cynicism, he has thrown some leftwing policies to an eager rank and file Labour, which has been immediately met with cries of joy by this worn-down left.
Yet, Cunliffe has actually failed to challenge any of the fundamentals of the neoliberal framework that has been in place for several decades now. And he certainly hasn't called for the kind of militant union-led resistance that would be needed to back a future left-reforming government against inevitable business-led economic sabotage. So, once the left are betrayed yet again by a future Labour-centre government, will the best of this left finally break with Labour and transcend the politics of low horizons?