Reflection on the Elections – Labour’s Loves Lost

It’s been a long time since I have written a blog. My thesis got in the way and I made a promise to my Supervisors not to write a blog as it took time away from that. I was, I admit, bad at keeping some of the other promises that I made to them but I did keep the one about the no blogging – until now.

After one of Nationals’ inevitable victories when I was a kid in the 1970s, my father, who was a railway worker and Labour supporter, said to me; “You know I often think that the working class is its own worst enemy.” Doubtless, if he was still alive he would have said that last night as well. While I feel it’s an overstatement, there is a large amount of truth in that observation. After all, in 1931 in the depths of the Great Depression, the majority of people marched to the polling booths and voted for the Tories. In 1935, the majority of people again marched to the polling booths and voted for the Tories. The difference was that in 1935, the Tory vote was split and the FPP system favoured Labour which won its first election. In 1938, after three years of a Labour Government, the majority of people finally marched to the polling booth and voted Labour.

Not blogging and not being, until relatively recently, politically active has allowed me time to think. To be honest I am really disturbed by the lack of progress that the left has made in the past decade. Certainly, the Labour party needs to have fingers pointed at it. Simply, the party appears to have lost the plot. It does not seem to have any sort of coherent programme or vision. A friend of mine made a similar observation today on his face-book page commenting that once Labour stood for workers. Back in those far-flung days, when my father supported it, Labour did support workers and the poor and it used to get over 40 percent of the vote. We have been informed that times have changed and as a result Labour needed to move and so it therefore adopted neo-liberalism and the ‘third way’ or as the former deputy leader of the UK labour party, Roy Hattersley described the third way “a series of cliques looking for a coherent thought.” Yet, horribly for David Cunliffe his most successful moments as labour leader was when he was actually contesting the position and in the immediate aftermath of his win. This was when he actually had stated positions on programmes and actually renounced the ‘third way’ liberalism of his predecessors. However, this success stopped at his first conference as leader when he fudged over free trade and then continued to fudge thereafter.

Of course, Labour is not alone in its sins and, in this breath, I could mention certain left-wing bloggers who regrettably appeared to spend their time inventing or promoting conspiracy theories or scandals. Certainly, the allegations behind Dirty Politics need to be fully investigated. However, the most annoying thing is the extent to which Dirty Politics and the ill-named ‘The Moment of Truth’ were promoted by these bloggers as legitimate alternatives to serious debate and analysis.

All of this leads me to ask what precisely is it that the left actually stands for? People on the left used to talk about the ‘grand plan’ or ‘grand narrative.’ Essentially that they (we) had a set of ideals for a better society which set them (us) apart from the Tories or the capitalists. This grand plan used to be generally referred to as ‘socialism’ and/or social democracy. While, socialism is a term which I am comfortable with, but which has many unwelcome connotations for others, it nonetheless promoted a society which accepted social justice, equality and economic democracy as its basis. Social Democrats tended to opt for the phrase ‘equality of opportunity’. However, the idea was that in this society people had the equal opportunity to achieve their various aspirations.

I have been told that the social democratic project is over. I would argue that it barely got started in New Zealand and that we adopted a conservative version of it. The Welfare state with its emphasis on full employment, free health care and education, decent standards of living, etc are an important part of such a society. But, they are only one part of the programme. The other part which guarantees economic and social democracy and participation remains untapped. A recreated social democratic grand vision needs to turn its back on neo-liberalism and agitate instead for the restatement of social, economic and democratic justice as a central part of its programme. It needs to restate the ideal that people’s aspirations are not achieved through the ‘free market’ but through the ability of equality of opportunity.

An integral part of socialism (and of Sesame Street) is the concept of co-operation. This is something that the left (and yes, the Labour party) has particular trouble with. To be fair, so does the National party. Peter Dunne and the new forgettable ACT MP for Epson are not co-operating partners with National. Rather, they are vassals to a feudal lord. National has effectively cannibalized the right-wing vote which will cause it problems at some point in the future. But, quite frankly, having partners on the left is not, as many in the Labour party appear to believe, a bad thing. It is, particularly in an MMP situation, a good thing. It is something that should be encouraged. The reason for this is because such parties can actually contribute to building and strengthening the left. They can go places, engage with people and suggest things that might be an anathema to some of Labour’s own supporters but nonetheless shore up a left-wing vote and actually help develop an alternative programme. It has to be remembered that most of the reforms that we have today – the welfare state, employment rights, public healthcare and education were all someone’s radical and revolutionary idea at some point.

It is, therefore, disconcerting when you decide to ‘kill off’ your potential partners. Last night, Labour killed Internet Mana. It may deny that, but that is what it did. For Laila Harre, it would have been a situation of déjà vu, as she was the leader of the Alliance when the Labour party decided to kill it off in 2002. The outcome of that killing was Labour coalitions with Jim Anderton, Peter Dunne and Winston Peters.

Simply, the days of the Labour party being the only major force on the left is over. Subsequently, it should (needs to) embrace other parties on its left as perhaps bothersome, but nonetheless useful potential allies.
This is already occurring in terms of the party vote. Although, the campaign slogan is “only two votes for Labour can change the Government.” People largely know that this is not true with the result that people are casting their electorate and party votes for different parties. This I feel explains some of the discrepancy in votes in various seats. The media, fixated as they are on simplistic reporting, overlook the combined votes of the Greens and Labour in a seat and instead decide to focus on the single large National vote. Mostly, because the vote for National’s right wing partners are virtually non-existent.

Lastly, there remains the need to engage with people. I have been told, but am yet to check that the turnout in this election is low. If it is low then National’s grand victory is illusionary and that the engagement process has failed. People remain disengaged and feel that the current electoral system does not have a place for them within it. It is little good to encourage people to advance vote if the only people who do so are those who would have voted anyway. If the turnout was reasonable then the left has simply failed in its attempt to engage with people. Certainly, the National party has a simple message to engage people by tying their aspirations to those of its leader. He is a self-made man and you can be too. National’s message is like a Tony Robbin’s advertisement or a verse from Hot Chocolate, “Everyone’s a winner, babe, that’s the truth.” Only, it ain’t.

It would be best at this point to reflect on the attitude of Labour’s first (and only Marxist) leader Henry Edmund (Harry) Holland. Holland knew that the progress of a party was based on more than simply an electoral cycle. It was a long-term project which required patience and education. To conclude this is not the time for fear. Now is the time for reflection and rebuilding. To quote the old catch phrase, “Things are always darkest just before the dawn.” The dawn is coming. It might be a while, but it is coming. People just need to have a little patience and a little faith.


Unpaid Jobs – The Abnormal becomes Normal.

A friend posted the following on his facebook page.

Unpaid jobs: The New Normal?

March 25, 2011 12:33 pm

While businesses are generally wary of the risks of using unpaid labor, companies that have used free workers say it can pay off when done right.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor

FORTUNE — With nearly 14 million unemployed workers in America, many have gotten so desperate that they’re willing to work for free. While some businesses are wary of the legal risks and supervision such an arrangement might require, companies that have used free workers say it can pay off when done right.

“People who work for free are far hungrier than anybody who has a salary, so they’re going to outperform, they’re going to try to please, they’re going to be creative,” says Kelly Fallis, chief executive of Remote Stylist, a Toronto and New York-based startup that provides Web-based interior design services. “From a cost savings perspective, to get something off the ground, it’s huge. Especially if you’re a small business.”

And, thus begins the latest onslaught against conditions and rights.

I remember, several years ago, watching an item on ABC News (with Dan Rather).  ABC used to be shown on TV 3 late at night in opposition to BBC World, which was being shown on TVNZ.  The item in question detailed the problems of a US based software firm which was being undercut by its competitors in India.  The firm’s profit margins were being severely squeezed and there was a danger of it being forced into liquidation.  The owners of the firm hit on an ‘ingenious’ idea to save it.  This was to lower employee’s wages, thereby making them competitive with the Indian based company.  ABC interviewed some of the employees and the owners who testified as to the beneficial effects this was having.  Several months later, I was watching ABC and learnt that the firm had gone out of business. It appeared that the competing firm in India had simply lowered their wages further.  The moral of this sordid tale was that you cannot compete against firms in developing nations which pay their workers food.

It could be argued that this is merely the next step in this progress.  Simply, why should you pay your workers at all? Currently, Federal and state laws in the US (and in other developed countries) prohibit this sort of action.  Workers undertaking specific tasks and roles are paid. There are laws guaranteeing them such.  But there has been a recent tendency in some US states to look at rolling back some of these collective rights, such as in Wisconsin, where the Republican Governor and Congress have repealed the rights of workers to collectively bargain.  If one can do that, why not simply pass a law providing for volunteer work in certain areas or on certain days.  You could additionally argue that the current world recession could bring upon the need for such action.

Certainly some employers and industrialists would argue that such action would actually help workers by allowing them to work.  Being the benign and progressive souls that they are, these employers are providing workers with employment, experience and, more importantly, self worth, in an ever competitive workplace.

Before people laugh, similar policies have actually occurred before.  In 1991, the New Democratic Party (NDP) provincial Government in Ontario, Canada implemented a series of economic and social policies designed to halt the growing recession in the province.  This included cost cutting, privatisation and the introduction of what were know as ‘Rae Days’ named after the NDP Premier, Bob Rae. Rae imposed a wage freeze and then legislatively forced civil servants (including teachers, doctors, nurses, etc.) to take ten days off without pay per year.

What Rae did is, of course, different to making workers work with no pay, but in the midst of a recession with high unemployment, a case could be made to do so, as it appears to be in this article.

Essentially, what is being suggested is a modern form of slavery.

However, it may not prove to be in anyone’s economic interest to introduce such a policy.  The reason for that is because the one thing that actually doomed traditional slavery in the United Kingdom and in the US Civil war was that it was actually economically inefficient.  (This is aside from the moral aspect). It was actually more efficient and productive to pay your workers.  But, this issue is not just about paying people, it is about who holds the economic and political power.

Lastly, one also notes that it is not the Captains of Industry who will be forgoing wages or salaries.  It will be left, as of always, to those on the lower ranks of society to do so.


Unf**k the World – The Perils of Being Green

I was greeted by a poster this morning when I entered work urging me to attend a talk being given by Gareth Hughes, the Green list MP about the world and how Green solutions could unf**k it.  For the record,  I like Gareth, he has struck me as a hard working and honest MP.  I also have voted for the Greens in the past, as they are, currently, the most progressive option on offer in Parliament.  However, the meeting struck me as slightly ambitious mainly because while the Greens do have a number of progressive policies, what they really lack are progressive solutions.

The slogan of the Greens used to be neither ‘left nor right, but out in front.’ A Green MP once explained this to me as meaning that the Greens eschewed the traditional ‘materialistic’ left/right economic spectrum. Of course, one cannot escape the spectrum that easily, but it allowed the Greens to recruit a number of people who believed in the Green ethos even if they had vastly different views on the economy and social policy.  The situation changed after the 1990 elections. The Greens moved to the left in the 1990s due to their membership of the left wing Alliance.  Consequently, the deep Greens left and formed the Green Society, a short lived political grouping and the market Greens left mostly to the newly formed Blue Greens in the National Party.

For the most part the Greens have maintained a left position since they departed the Alliance in 1998.  That is the Greens are to the left of Labour in parliament and are seen as their natural coalition partner or allies.  Of course, being to the left of the Labour Party is, actually, relatively straight forward.  One only needs to believe in a more progressive economic policy which advocates regulations and controls, more rights for workers and the poor and fair over free trade and viola’.  The point I would make is that the Greens are to the left of Labour because Labour is not a social democratic party in the traditional sense and the Greens have moved to partially full that placement.  However, they would be considerably to the right of the Bill Rowling led Labour Party of the late 1970s and early 1980s and, of the Values party, which was their Green predecessor (and the world’s first Green Party) in the 1970s.

For example, the Green’s tax policy was actually to the right of Labour’s, this largely due to the Greens pendant for resource taxes.  From a Green perspective they make sense, unfortunately, these taxes are also indirect taxes and can be passed along until it ends up being paid for by those unable to pass it on. Also, as Bryce Edwards noted last year in his blog ‘Liberation,’ the Green’s alternative budget had accepted the 15 % GST increase and the party had included it in their costings.  However, these things in themselves do not cause me concern.  What does concern me are the issues that may arise in the aftermath of an election which nets the Greens more seats, but leaves National firmly in control as the largest party in the House.

And such an issue might arise for the Greens in the aftermath of this year’s election, especially if National (if expected) becomes the largest party in the House but lacks plausible coalition partners (read no ACT MPs and 1 Maori Party MP).  It is always been my impression of Key that he wants to be a long serving National Prime Minister (aka Keith Holyoake) and if that means that he has to strike a few deals and water a few policies down then he is prepared to do it.  In political terms this is called being a ‘statesman’.

But, would the Greens go for such a deal?  It is worthwhile noting that even though people (and Green Party members) assume that they would only go into coalition with or cooperate with Labour, the Greens have not, at this point, ruled out a deal with National.  Further, it is rumoured that in the aftermath of the 2008 elections, the Green caucus briefly entertained the idea of cooperating with National and allowing them to govern.  Such a deal was torpedoed by left wing members of their caucus

Certainly, a formal coalition with National would gain the Green’s Ministerial portfolios, and palatable influence within a National led Government.  But, it would almost certainly earn them the approbation of a large number of their voters and their members and either end the Greens as a political force or significantly weaken them.

A more likely scenario would be a similar deal which the Greens struck with Labour and the Alliance between 1999 – 2002.  In which they agreed to abstain on votes of confidence and supply thereby allowing Labour/Alliance to govern as a minority government.  They could strike a similar deal with National, freeing them from a formal coalition.  In return the Greens could gain some select committee chairs and have key policy aspects put into the Government agenda.  This would probably be the more palatable option for the Greens, but the results would be the same the Greens would be responsible for keeping the Tories in power and they would suffer for it at the 2015 election.

Of course, rumours are dangerous things and I think that the Greens will probably (at the end of the day) back a Labour led Government.  Certainly, I think that their policies and their membership would demand such an outcome.  But, I need certainty.  With the days counting down until the election and the choices to me closing in terms of voting preference, I am reluctant to cast my vote for something that could be used to support the Tories, even as a minority government.

New Left or Merely Confused? Thoughts on the New Left Party

I thought that I would blog on the prospect of the new Left Party, which appears to have been a reasonably warm topic in the blogosphere. Quite frankly such blogs also take my mind away from the quake (as I live in Christchurch) and its various aftermaths, which is good.

Several years ago, I and a friend undertook a piece of data research in the aftermath of the 1996 General Election. What we found was very interesting (But, when one considers it, not very surprising). Essentially, the Alliance polled behind Labour in working class areas. This is despite the fact that the social democratic policies of the Alliance would benefit working class voters. Where the Alliance polled best was actually in lower middle class areas, specifically in those areas populated by public servants. It was these areas that showed a tendency to support the left.

The Mana By-election was a case in point. Matt McCarten, (President of Unite and former President of the Alliance) stood on a left wing platform in a poor working class area. If one talked with the proponents of the various socialist groups, then it was perfect territory for the left. They thought that Matt would do exceptionally well. Even I thought that Matt would come a good third, by which he would gather several thousand votes. But, instead he came in an exceptionally poor fourth. Working class voters stayed away in droves and when they did vote they voted for Labour.

It started me thinking about the nature of Matt’s campaign and I concluded that it was about ‘quick fixes’. For someone who talks about the need to have a strategy, it is the one thing that he appears to lack. Instead, his campaign was about stunts. The Mana By-election was a case in point – it was a series of stunts, some of them, like the state house occupation had a serious point. Empty state houses at a time, when the Government is screaming about a housing storage, is frankly embarrassing. It proves the lie to the Government’s allegations. But, after making the point, Matt never followed up on it. Instead, the stunts got more extreme and irrelevant – until finally viewers were subjected to John Key being howled at in a Mall and some ‘dumb-ass’ Labour supporter being subjected to a shouting rant by one of Matt’s supporters.

I understand that Matt and others are now advising the newly independent MP Hone Harawira on the establishment of a new Left Party. The issue of a new Left Party, which being a democratic socialist, I would support, needs serious consideration. I fear that it is not getting it. Indeed, it would appear that any conversation or discussion about the creation of a new Party appears to be directed in an ad-hoc manner and, my fear, is that if it comes about; it will be launched in such a manner as well.

It also, alarmingly appears to be based around the need to have strong central figure leading it. In the 1980s and 90s, this was Jim Anderton, in 2010 and 2011 it is Hone Harawira. Strong leaders, particularly if they know that the Party depends on them, tend to use that for their own advantage. I have very vivid memories of NLP and Alliance Council meetings being used in that way. It has left me extremely cautious about such people. My experiences in the NewLabour Party and the Alliance in the 1990s demonstrated to me the need to counter such people by having a strong and committed membership and to have a detailed set of policies and principles.

The second reason that I am cautious about a new Left Party being led by Hone Harawira is because regardless of what people like Matt have said about him, he has not struck me as being that left wing. He has struck me as being very inconsistent on a number of issues. Before people accuse me of being some sort of ‘super ‘socialist, I would like to point out that my core beliefs remain a belief in the rights of all people to free and comprehensive education, health care, universal social security, full employment etc – all standard social democratic fare. These principles used to be core policies of the pre-1984 Labour Party (when it was a social democratic party) and it was these principles that motivated me to join the Labour Party in 1982 and to leave it in 1989. Simply, I do not know what Hone’s principles are on a number of matters and what I do know about some of them have left me feeling cold. Further, Tariana Turia does have a point, Hone supported the idea of a coalition with National, he voted for many of their policies. True, he is now questioning them, but this does not put my mind at ease.

Lastly, my real fear is that the launch of a new Left Party will be done, as I mentioned previously on an adhoc basis. This will be several months prior to the election (and before electoral registration closes) with great fanfare and lacking detailed policies and principles. It will also be done with no consultation with other existing left groups, such as the Alliance, which still exists in Canterbury and Otago. Cracks and gaps will be filled later after the election. I have vivid memories of strategies like this too in the 1990s, again spearheaded by the Alliance and NLP leadership – it did not work out well.

I want a new Left Party, but I have my doubts. I sincerely hope to be proven wrong on a number of counts.

God is a Tory

I find that coming back to blogging is always something that is difficult especially if you’ve been away for a while.  My only excuse is that I have other commitments which mean that I can only post intermittently, as opposed to some other bloggers who seem to live permanently online.

I wonder whether it (blogging) is worth it.  But, then something gets you thinking or annoyed and before you know it you are putting your hands on the computer key board and away you go……

I live in Christchurch.  And, Christchurch is in the midst of the local body elections as is the rest of the country.  However, unlike the rest of the country, a month ago Christchurch suffered from an ‘Act of God’, which left sections of the city looking like down town Beirut.  This ‘Act of God,’ however while laying waste to parts of the city and surrounding districts did deliver something positive for its first citizen – it rescued his election chances in the mayoral race. 

Prior to September 3, it would have taken something of extra-ordinary magnitude to have rescued Bob Parker’s mayoral campaign.  A shroud of controversial, ill-conceived and disliked decisions clung to him.  From the City Council purchase of Dave Henderson’s properties to the abolition of Ecan (and the removal of Canterbury’s regional electoral rights), Parker was involved in and tainted by them all.  Prior to September 3 it was difficult to conceive that Parker would be Mayor after the October elections.  His main competitor, Jim Anderton had a comfortable lead in the polls and people were talking about Parker’s Mayoralty in the past tense and in much the same sense that one might make mention of a deceased (and not very popular) distant relative. 

However, on the morning of 4 September that changed.  In the space of a minute, Parker was elevated to the top of the greasy poll. With every thudding brick that landed in Christchurch from a damaged building, his situation improved.  In the aftermath of the Earthquake Parker has busied himself to such an extent that he is no longer even bothered by the campaign – politics is, according to him beyond him.  He is sick of it and he has no time for the triviality of campaigning.    

Parker is being disingenuous though.  For better or for worse, the Earthquake is Bob Parker’s campaign.  It has provided him with endless photo opportunities and media comments.  He is seen in the company of the Prime Minister, he is seen on a cherry picker surveying damaged buildings – since he is not a qualified engineer no one is sure to why he up there.  He is seen delivering progress reports to the waiting press about the state of the city.  In one particular incident, a TV3 news report inadvertently caught Parker actually pushing a Civil Defence spokesperson out of the way, so that he and not the spokesperson could make a statement in relation to civil defence. 

And, this exposure has had its effect.  It has put Parker on the front foot and allowed him to put aside all the controversial and hotly contested policies of the last three years.  He is no longer ‘Sideshow Bob’, but ‘Bob the Builder.’  A man dedicated to rebuilding his city after a devastating earthquake.  One person, a local Unionist said to me that he was voting for Parker on this basis.  Parker, he said was ‘rebuilding the city.’  Where was Anderton? He asked.  Parker, he said, was on the news everyday saying that the city was to be rebuilt, Jim wasn’t. 

Well, quite. 

It is difficult to respond in these situations aside from stating the obvious.  This is that it was hardly surprising given the circumstances that from the moment of the first shake on that fateful Saturday morning, the focus would be on Bob Parker.  Any Mayor worth their salt would have risen to the occasion.  It is also obvious that Anderton would be on the back foot after the quake.  What could have Anderton have said and done in the immediate aftermath? What could any contender have said or done?  If Anderton had criticised Parker in the quake’s immediate aftermath or tried to involve himself in the situation, he would have been accused of politicking on the back of a national disaster. 

If, and as the polls predict, that Parker wins, it will be interesting to see what the situation is like in a year’s time, as the situation here in Christchurch slowly normalises.  Will there be a return to the pre-September 2010 Bob Parker? Will there be a significant number of Christchurch’s citizens writing letters to the Press and on talk back radio berating him over some decision?  Will they be lamenting on the lack of direction of the Council and accusing it and him of a lack of consultation? 

God has, for the time being, provided a helping hand to Parker.  But, it could also be a poisoned chalice.

by way of introduction…

It’s hard to know exactly what you want to write in a new blog. You see, I’ve had a blog before.  However,  I found it too time consuming.  I also ran out of things to say.

But,  I’ve got more time on my hands now (better time management skills) and thanks to the election of a new National/ACT government, I’ve got lots to say.  I’ve also decided that I’m going to use my real name in this blog, as I’ve always thought that it is important to stand behind what you write or speak. I’m not ashamed of anything that I have to say.

I make no apologies for my views.  This is a left wing blog. It is dedicated to discussing left wing (democratic socialist) politics in New Zealand and internationally. I’m a left winger, I believe in democratic socialism and, unsurprisingly, I’ve belonged to left wing parties. 

 I live in New Zealand, probably the only place in the western world without a left party in parliament and with little hope at the moment of gaining one.

I don’t consider the Greens to be a left party (like the time warp they are jump to the left and then a step to the right), although I do consider them to be a progressive party.  I consider Labour to be less than that – a social liberal party in the tradition of Balance, Seddon, Asquith and Lloyd George. It’s only claim to being left,  is that it is to the left of National.

My politics – are to the left of them both– full employment, free education and health care, progressive taxation, worker participation, equality of the sexes etc – not the revolution by any means, but enough in modern New Zealand to class you as a dangerous and out of touch subversive.

I look forward to writing this blog and sharing my thoughts with you and listening to yours. Hopefully something, in the realm of intelligent and informed discussion, might come of it.