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.

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John Key announces his biggest trump card – himself.

John Key has just announced a possible election date for this year.  He also took the time to announce that he would resign if National loses the election. Key is a canny politician, he realises, as do a number of National Party officials and their members of Parliament, that He and not the National Party is actually the Government’s greatest asset. It has been Key apparently easy going charm and earthy approach that has befriended him to hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders, who would otherwise be deserting the Government in droves.

This has been the secret to Key’s success, the ability to be able to distance himself from the Government, but yet, at the same time be identified with the Government, so that his success is also transferred to them. This is despite a number of unpalatable policy decisions that they have made and will continue to make in the coming months.

Of course, Key’s road has been made smoother by the disarray in the Opposition. Labour truly is a party that is not fit to govern. Unlike Key, Goff exhibits no real warmth or apparent sincerity. Last year saw the Party and Goff flip-flopping over policy and the end of 2010 saw Goff trying to explain the oddities of his rental accommodation in Wellington. This is something Labour could have done without.

Of course, this policy failure is a long time coming and is the logical outcome of a Party that has been wandering ideologically directionless for a considerable period of time. And that is Labour’s real problem. Simply, Labour is a party without direction. It completely destroyed the social democratic consensus that the first Labour Government established, effectively wiping out its own ideological background and then adopted a conservative version of the third way programme. The third way itself has now been disowned by its own creators, the British Labour Party – leaving those Labour Parties who adopted it with nothing. In essence, the Labour Party has become a modern version of the early 20th Century Liberals, a party that seeks to do good for the poor, but is also committed to restrictive and conservative fiscal policies, which work against those actions.

The real danger then for National and Key is not that it will become the largest Party in the House, but that it might not have any potential coalition partners when it does. I cannot see National getting 51% of the vote, something that a major party has not achieved since 1951, but I can see it getting 44 – 48 % of the vote and then having to do deal with whom? It is entirely possible that in such a situation, I could plausibly see Key and National entering into negotiations with Parties like the Greens. And, considering the actions of the Greens in the past several years, there is a distinct possibility the Greens would react positively to such overtures. Of course, there are also the wild outside cards such as Winston First which could make a comeback. If anyone can rise from the political dead, it is Winston Peters.

National’s current crop of coalition partners (aside from ACT) will more than likely remain in Parliament, although it will be interesting to see whether the Maori Party remains as a distinct whole entity.

The other danger for National is what happens once Key goes. Having a leader like Key who is wildly popular is a blessing and curse – when he is up, you are up, and when he comes down…well…then you have problems. Tony Blair and Kevin Rudd are good indicators of what happens when the ‘sheen’ finally wears off. National must be hoping that they do not need to cross this Rubicon until sometime in the future. The problem is that the future has an awful habit of appearing.


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.


National Unravels

National is putting a brave face on its loss in the Mt Albert by-election, stating that it was always the underdog and that it never expected to win.  However, this merely masks the extent to which it has tumbled since it started the campaign. Initially, it had brave hopes.  Labour was at a very low ebb, National, on the other hand, had popular support on a number of issues.  The Government’s attitude in Parliament reflected this new reality, with National and ACT members running procedural and oratory rings around their hapless Labour counterparts. 

National was very confident that it had a real chance in Mt Albert.  At the beginning of the campaign, it was Labour that was seen to be on the back foot, lacking coherent policy and seemingly, any charisma.  Political commentators opined that it would be a close run between National and Labour.  In short, the by-election was National’s to lose.  And, lose it, National did.

At the beginning of the Parliamentary term, a newish National MP asked John Key a patsy question in the House.  The gist of the question was how confident was the Government that it had popular support.  John Key answered that the high level of support for the Government was reflected in the opinion polls, which showed Labour in the mid 20 percent rate and National in the mid 50s.  This was followed by snickering from the National MP’s and blunted wailing from Labour’s. Key would have done better to have kept in mind the political proverb attributed to UK Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who commented that ‘a week is a long time in politics, and a fortnight an eternity.’  

National chose the wrong candidate in Melissa Lee.  A favourite of John Key and of the party leadership, she was seen as having been parachuted into the position over the previous National candidate, Ravi Musuku.  She then proceeded to blunder from one gaffe to another as the campaign progressed.  Her comments on the motorway, followed by her refusal to front at meetings in the electorate provided the impression of a candidate who was afraid to appear in front of voters.  Even her jokes backfired on her, with her comments about MPs working long hours for low pay which she gave at the launch of the Unite Union’s campaign in favour of raising the minimum wage, making her look ‘out of touch’ and arrogant.  

Into this mix was the decision by National to press ahead with the motorway, which meant bulldozing hundreds of residential properties, the somewhat teenage stalking by MP Richard Worth of two women and the continuing saga of the Auckland Super-city, spearheaded by ACT Minister, Rodney Hide.  When you have friends like ACT, one wonders, who needs enemies? By the end of May, National looked slightly seedy and  slightly shabby.        

However, despite its convincing win, Labour should not take the Mt Albert result as vindication for its strategies and programme.  In spite of Labour swamping the electorate with its workers and its supporters, what really superbly aided its campaign were National’s own appalling political decisions and their final one to desert Melissa Lee, leaving her to sink. 

Labour still lacks a coherent programme, its policies and strategies offer the same approach as they did prior to its General Election loss (Tory-lite).  In this, Labour’s candidate David Shearer is a prefect representative, presenting himself as conservative and bland, much like Labour’s leader, Phil Goff.  Labour, remains an aimless Party, pursuing an aimless agenda. 

At the end of the day, Labour won in Mt Albert, because National lost.


Unity

Word has finally filtered down about the date of the Mt Albert By-election. John Key has announced that June 13 will be the date that people get to decide who the new MP should be, and from which party. National, has already publicly announced that it feels that it could win the seat and Labour, has already publicly announced that it could lose it. Hence, the campaign will no doubt be bitterly fought in the full glare of the media.

However, as these two paragons of modern right wing political activity contest the seat, my own thoughts turn to the problem that the left has in contesting the seat and upcoming elections. Maybe, it is the thought that a clear consistent left wing point of view and programme needs to be articulated that prompts me to say that members of the democratic left need to be singing from the same song sheet. So far, the Left has proven itself incapable of doing so. In the last General Election, three parties from the left stood, the Alliance (of which I am a member), RAM, which is mostly Auckland based and the Workers Party. None of the aforementioned Parties broke the 1 percent barrier and none of them look likely too in the near future.

The onslaught of the Recession and the inability of the Government to deal with the cumulative crises that are rolling across the economic landscape bring the need to have a united democratic left ticket into focus more sharply. After all, the recession has brought the free market experiment to a grinding shuttering halt. Merely tinkering around the edges which appears to be the economic programme of both the Tories and the L(iberals) is not going to restore economic or social well being.

In such a situation, a rejuvenated democratic left would be well placed to offer an alternative to the tired right wing agenda that is being promoted. Although, it would need to be a left that in a sense returned to ‘first principles’. One of those principles being that a society needs to be inclusive and democratic in the real sense of the word. This is contrary to the idea that paradise can be achieved through the teaching and action of a small elite.

Chris Trotter wrote some time ago about the glee that appeared on some of the faces of the extreme left when they talked about the deepening recession. With every piece of misery that appears, some people on the left appear to have a public orgasm. As far as they are concerned each piece of misery brings us closer to the ‘Revolution’. Of course, this is far from the truth. As the recession cuts its way across economies, for the most part, people become fearful. They become fearful of losing their jobs, their homes, their standard of living and they start to gravitate toward parties and organisations which can offer them and their family’s stability in an unstable time.

However, Chris’s comment also reminded me of the remark of a German Social Democrat at the beginning of the Great Depression. They noted that the socialists were in the inevitable position of being doctors wanting the patient to recover, but also impatient heirs who wanted the patient to pass on, so that they could inherit the estate. However, bad economic news notwithstanding, I do not think that capitalism is about to collapse. And, even if it did, I really don’t think that the revolutionary left in this country is a long way away from being capable of either mounting or accepting such a challenge.

The real emphasis is on the democratic left to promote a radical and alternative democratic vision.

Mount Albert could be the start of that realignment.


Full of Sound and Fury

 We live in a disconnected age and nowhere is this disconnection more prevalent than in New Zealand’s Parliament. Over the past several weeks I have been subjected to watching parliamentary debates.  I say, subjected, because a friend and I watch Shortland Street (my guilty little secret) and he has taken to recording Parliament TV prior to us watching the recorded episode of ‘Shorties’.

Parliament TV reveals that National is, simply, arrogant. Its election victory and its continuing high ratings in the polls have led to it treating the business of the House with, what verges on, open distain. Watching John Key in action is like watching the stereotypical smarmy used car salesman at work. Key, who gives the impression that he is generally out of his depth, nonetheless answers questions with real arrogance and glibness. This attitude is more than matched by other National MPs, who following the behaviour provided by their leader, openly mock the Opposition.

However, if the National Government is arrogant and smarmy, then the Labour (Liberal) Opposition is generally loud and ineffectual. L(iberal) MPs appear to be the parliamentary version of possums caught in headlights – in short, parliamentary road kill. The L(iberal) Party has not adapted to its role of parliamentary opposition well. It appears to spend a lot of its time in meaningless points of order, asking (often ineffectual) questions that National effortlessly bats away or bizarrely pointing out the deficiencies of existing policy and statues. The problem with this line of questioning is that, as National points out, Labour had 9 years to rectify the very issues that it is now raising as problems.

If evidence is needed of the inane attitude of parliamentary debates then it was ambly provided for me on March 4 with questions from L(iberal) leader, Phil Goff to John Key about the outcomes of the Job Summit. Key was arrogant and mocked Goff, who subsequently tied parliamentary proceedings up with points of order and supplementary questions that led nowhere. Another was the bumbling attempt, provided last week by Progressive MP,  Jim Anderton (who is essentially a defacto L(iberal) MP), to discredit National in relation to the reintroduction of the royal honour system.

People need to be aware of the debates and discussions that occur in parliament. Indeed, it was this principle that led the first Labour Government to broadcast parliament on the radio. Michael Joseph Savage felt that people should be able to listen in and have the ability to discuss that legislation debated by their parliamentary representatives. He felt that such broadcasts would actually improve the level of democratic discussion both within and without the House.  Unfortunately, parliamentary speaking and debate appear to have actually got worse over the intervening decades. As part of my thesis, I have had to read parliamentary debates from the 1920s and 30s and a comparison of the standard of debate and discussions from that period presents a group of people who were (for the most part) well read, well informed and exceedingly literate. Whereas, modern parliamentary debate and discussion is best summed up by Rodney Hide comparing Points of Order to limbs of trees.

No longer is parliament the place for ideas or wider discussion. Instead, it has become increasing disconnected from the wider world, becoming merely a place for petty point scoring. It is, to paraphrase a soliloquy from Shakespear’s ‘Macbeth’, a place full of “tale(s) told by a fool(s), full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”


Riding High in the Saddle…

The National led Government completed its first 100 days in office recently. And, among all the self trumpeting about its various achievements in this period, it gained an added bonus in the form of several opinion polls that showed National leading Labour by a substantial margin. National, it appeared could do little wrong in the eyes of the voters.  It was reacting quickly and decisively to the economic crisis, leaving the Liberals (Labour) to wallow in its wake and claim that they would have done exactly the same, only better. 

Frankly, I would have been surprised if the Government had gone down in the polls. It has come freshly elected into office and inherited an economy, which is in a deep recession.  It has then suggested various schemes and programmes to promote economic growth and employment.  The L(iberals) on the other hand have not really been able to suggest an alternative.  Indeed, L(iberal) leader Phil Goff actually stated that he would support government proposals and the suggestions from the Jobs Summit, if the Government dropped its commitment to tax cuts. 

The public wanted a political change and fresh ideas and, from their perspective, Key and co are providing them.

Of course, as the old saying goes, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating.’  The Government’s economic package is actually not daring or fresh. Like three day old cabbage it is rather stale.  As such, the L(iberals) are quite correct in their assertions that they would have done the same or better, simply, because they would have.  Indeed, economically there is not that much different between either National of Labour.

A case in point is the recent Jobs Summit.  The Job Summit has played a part in stimulating debate about the economy and job creation even if its proposals were laughably weak.  The promoted ideas from the summit were policies relating to tax write offs for business, a 9 Day Working Fortnight and the building of a nation wide system of cycle lanes.  

The 9 Day Working Fortnight is especially being touted by the Government and its allies in the Business community, as being useful for those in the manufacturing and service sector.  It’s implementation, they claim, will allow workers to keep their jobs in this area, even if they do not keep their wages or conditions.  As the Prime Minister euphemistically stated on March 4;

“…even if workers are to take a reduction in their pay, we have always made the case that it might be a lot better for workers to hold hands and for all of them to keep their jobs, even if on a slightly reduced pay, than for some of them to lose their jobs.”

Some people have commented about the need to have ‘equality of sacrifice’ during the recession.  However, what is emerging is that the sacrifice is going to be very unequal.   Nowhere is this more evident than in the 9 Day Working Fortnight and its emphasis on those industries which are largely staffed by low income workers. Of course, these industries are merely a reflection of the low wage status of the New Zealand economy as a whole. 

This fact was even touted by the Government in a Question in Reply to National List MP, Michael Woodhouse.  In response to Mr Woodhouse, the Minister of ACC, Nick Smith noted that the average household income is $67,000. This amount, which if it was divided between two main bread-earners in a household, would equate to roughtly $33,500.  This is hardly a princely amount on which to feed, clothe and provide shelter and provide transport for a family.

Equally, while National, ACT and the Business Community argue that workers taking a 9 Day Working Fortnight and forgoing two days worth of pay is a sacrifice worth making to save their employment, it might very well have the opposite effect.   A 10 percent pay cut, which is what the 9 Day Working Fortnight effectively is, will detrimentally affect the living standards of those workers who undertake it and of the wider community. The 9 Day Working Fortnight with its 10 percent less pay for workers will mean 10 percent less to spend in the community. In the 1991 recession, cuts to wages and benefits by the fourth National Government literally bled the economy, by substantually reducing domestic demand and increasing unemployment.  Wage cuts in the Great Depression had even worst effects.  In short, wage and salary cuts in economic recessions are not good ideas.

As I mentioned previously, the proof of the pudding lies in the eating.  And, the day for eating is rapidly approaching.  Although, National is currently riding high in the saddle, New Zealand and the two main parties have been largely living in a ‘fool’s paradise’.  This country has been largely engaging in a phoney war with the economic recession, with the result that most people have been thinking that it won’t be that bad.  Only now are they becoming aware that it very well might. 

Weaned on 25 years of neo-liberal economic thought, National and Labour are largely relying on the market and the Business Community to economically revive themselves.  Unfortunately for them, the Business community are in the process of  bunkering down. Thus, we come to the nub of the problem, as aside from tinkering around the edges, neither party appears to have any coherent long term plan.

The Government needs to provide a strong lead and to do so it needs to work out what its priorities are.  At the moment, both major parties appear to be to hoping for a quick return to the economic conditions of the early 2000’s. Therefore, there has been no movement to examine the underlying commitment to the market and policies and legislation like the Reserve Bank Act, Free Trade, Overseas Investment and the like.  These cornerstones of the freemarket are to remain in place, even as the edifice crashes around itself. 

I would argue that if we want to have an economy that promotes high wages and full employment, then like the first Labour Government we have to be courageous and to commit to those principles as the centre piece of the economy and put in place programmes that promote those goals. Unfortunately, National and their L(iberal) counterparts are shaping up more like George Forbes and his failed United Party than either Harry Holland or ‘Micky’ Savage.