‘Hard’ Left … Who you callin’ Hard Left, Willis???

I was going to write something about the ‘hard left’ in New Zealand.  However, I see that Chris Trotter has partially beaten me to it on his blog.  For the past week, Chris and Oliver Woods of RAM have been involved in a rather in-depth discussion on whether there really is a future for the left, outside of Labour. 

I want to comment on this discussion because some of the remarks that have been made, in addition to other comments that have been said to me since the election, have really cheesed (he politely says) me off.

Initially, my posting was to be about the fact that Andrew Little, in a recent response to a (rather inept) question about the left at a recent function in Christchurch, referred to the Alliance as the ‘hard’ left.  (Little, incidentally, is seen as part of Labour’s left faction and is being touted as a future leader of the Party).  I wasn’t impressed by Little’s response, one because it lacked any real content and two, because of the ‘hard left’ comment, from which I took to mean that the ‘hard’ left is now being seen as anything from the Alliance (and one assumes sections of the Greens) to the Workers Party and the SWO.

I have often mused as to what type of country we live in, when traditional social democracy is perceived as the same as revolutionary socialism.  The answer to that question is very simple; we live in a country that is ideologically right wing and despite nine years of a Labour-led Government remains so.

And, this is the rub of the argument, the people who label the Alliance as ‘hard’ left are the same people who generally term Labour as left and claim this because Labour has ‘reclaimed’ its social democratic soul.  But, what is constituted as modern social democracy is in fact the ‘third way’ so beloved of Tony Blair and his ideological philosopher, Anthony Giddens.  Indeed, the social democratic ethos that modern Labour has claimed is not really ‘social democratic’ at all, rather it is an ethos borrowed from the ‘social’ Liberals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  It is the same liberal ‘soul’ that inspired Asquith, Campbell-Bannerman, Lloyd George and in New Zealand, Balance and Seddon and it has largely the same policies; free trade, restrained free markets and use of the state as a redistributive tool. In fact, this social liberal principle is nicely articulated by new Labour MP, Phil Twyford who in his maiden speech comments;

“It is possible to run an open economy that welcomes good foreign investment while also protecting what is good and valuable about our landscape and our institutions and our way of life. It is possible to have a business friendly environment while also treating workers with dignity and respecting their rights. It is possible to celebrate success and wealth creation while also giving a hand up to those who need it”

To paraphrase, George Dangerfield from his 1932 classic book, The Strange Death of Liberal England, the modern Labour Party, like its Liberal predecessor is simply to the left of the Tories.

The follow on argument that I have heard frequently is that the way forward for people like me is through supporting the ‘progressive’ members of the Labour Party, and, if one follows that line of thought to its ultimate conclusion, by re-joining the Labour Party. 

I won’t lie. I have thought of rejoining the Labour Party at times. However, a visit to the Labour Party website or a conversation with Labour Party activists quickly discourages me from doing so. From what I have learnt, there is still an ongoing fight with the Party’s right (which appears to be very entrenched in both numbers and philosophy) and many of the policies that I do agree with, such as free education and health care, economic justice and popular sovereignty, fair trade and progressive taxes appear to have long since been removed from the Labour Party’s political vocabulary.

But, what worries me the most is the manner by which the left has been forced back into the notion of supporting Labour.  We are told to support it because it is the only ‘game in town’. In essence, we now have ‘first past the post’ by default. For example, in 2008, the comment was that support for any left party other than Labour, lets in the Tories.  Horribly, this is precisely what MMP attempted to overcome by allowing people the choice to vote for those parties which best represented their viewpoints or opinions.  If you could get enough votes to cross the threshold, then you gained seats in parliament.  

Yet, the two major parties have been intent on driving parties out of parliament. Labour drove the Alliance out of parliament in 2002 (after the Alliance/Progressive split), when it ran a vigorous, EPMU funded campaign in Waitakere, against a real left social democrat MP Laila Harre, in favour of the lack lustre EPMU organiser and Labour candidate, Lynne Pillay.  If the Alliance had survived, there would be three progressive parties in parliament, the Greens, Labour and the Alliance (I count the Progressives as part of Labour). This would have shored up left support for the Labour led Government.  

Of course such an undertaking would have meant that Labour would have needed to realise that while it was the major party on the left, it was no longer the most dominant. And, this is the real crux of the matter; Labour wants to be the only game in town on the left. 

Chris has noted in his article in Raymond Millers book, Party Politics in New Zealand (2001 edition) that by 1999, the Alliance’s strategy had to be one of reabsorption into Labour, due to its falling vote.  Its task was completed.  That may have been Chris interpretation of Alliance strategy, but it was never mine or that of any party activist.  The ‘strategy’ of the Alliance was never to be reabsorbed into Labour.  If indeed that had been the case, I wouldn’t have bothered to get out of bed in 1993, let alone campaign for either MMP or the Alliance during that period.  Initially, the ‘Grand Plan’ was to replace Labour as the major party of the left. Later, it was to forge itself as the main party of the left as opposed to Labour being of the centre left. 

But, the Alliance failed.  The Alliance failed, because there was never a clear view on what it wanted. It failed not due to the membership, but due to the decisions of the leadership. Who, after each election (and particularly, after 1996) decided to progressively water down the Alliance’s platform so as to become more responsible (to its potential partner, Labour) and to gain more electoral support from voters.  However, in each subsequent election, the Alliance lost support.  This was in comparison to the more left wing NLP (NewLabour Party) which had actually gained support after its first election in 1990, before its absorption into the Alliance

People who know me are aware that I am currently undertaking a part-time PhD thesis on the Labour Party from 1919 – 1935 and its relationship with Democratic Socialism.  A read of the 1919 manifesto shows that by 1984, Labour had achieved much of what it had advocated in its early years.  By 1989, the fourth Labour Government had given much of those achievements away. By 2008, the modern Labour Party is not even close to re-achieving them. 

I know that there is a real constituency for people who believe in progressive taxation, free education and health care, more participation by people (dare, I say ‘workers’) in the economic system and in their places of work, a system of social security etal. When I joined the Labour Party as a teenager in 1982 (under Bill Rowling), it believed in many of these things.

Bill Rowling was not a member of the ‘hard’ left. 


3 Comments on “‘Hard’ Left … Who you callin’ Hard Left, Willis???”

  1. Oliver Woods says:

    Excellent post – you said what I wanted to say far more eloquently and in far less words! It’s great to have people like yourself arguing from very strong positions of both historical involvement in the Alliance and of academic knowledge.

    It may sound silly and self-evident, but us directly proving folk like Twyford et al are not progressive is very important. I think many on the Left forget that we need to voice our concerns with specific Labour members who claim to be ‘socialists’ or ‘progressives’. A direct debate with these people is the only way we can force our voices into the more respectable fringes of the public sphere!

    Regarding thoughts about rejoining Labour, I think it’s inevitable simply because of the inevitable ‘physics’ of the contemporary political situation. But as we have all discovered (including in your own studies I imagine), Labour has always been unreformable from the bottom. To invoke nautical mythology, Labour is the beautiful siren that looks so attractive on those rocks – sometimes it can be hard to resist!

    Was it not Bill Rowling who said that the Rogernomes would “sell their grannies if they had the chance” as the Fish N’ Chip Brigade was trying to take over the party? Heh heh.

    Kindest regards,
    Oliver Woods

  2. Julie Fairey says:

    Very interesting post Q, thanks. Sorry I only just got around to reading it. Will have to have a think 🙂

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