Cunliffe or Shearer for Pope?
The New Zealand Labour Party's leadership election reminds me of the strange process documented in The Shoes of the Fisherman.
Labour is clearly in crisis, having just seen its vote drop to a level not seen since the 1920s, and grassroots party activists - the sort of folks who will never be MPs, but who nevertheless go door-knocking in the rain during election campaigns, and sell raffle tickets at the local markets week after week, year after year - are wondering whether the leader who succeeds Phil Goff will be able to revive the organisation's fortunes. Recent discussion at Labour-linked blogs like The Standard has revolved around the question of leadership.
Like those Catholics in Vatican Square, though, Labour's grassroots members are locked out of the contest for the leadership of their organisation. They can watch the contestants debate each other on television, and they may be able to ask one or both of them a question at the public meetings being held in a few major centres, but they can't cast a vote for their party's leader. Only Labour's members of parliament get that privilege.
The contestants in Labour's leadership election are almost as mysterious as the robed men who vie for the Papacy in The Shoes of the Fisherman. David Cunliffe and David Shearer may have been all over the media for the past week or so, but neither has deigned to discuss in any detail either his political philosophy or the policy programme he favours for Labour.
Shearer and Cunliffe have confined themselves to repeating cliches about 'rejuvenating' and 'bringing together' the party, and 'taking New Zealand forward'. Although some political commentators have identified Cunliffe with the 'left' of the party and Shearer with a 'right' faction, no platforms or manifestos have been produced, and most Labour MPs are refusing even to say which candidate they support.
It is interesting to compare this rather miserable leadership election with the internal politics of some of Labour's sister parties. Nearly twenty years of domination by Tony Blair and his clique of spin doctors and technocrats saw the British Labour Party lose much of its internal life, but the organisation was still able to hold a democratic contest to choose a new leader after the election defeat it suffered last year. Five candidates representing various ideological nuances of the party toured the country, arguing about issues like the global financial crisis and the Iraq War in packed halls. Although uber-Blairite David Miliband had the backing of the media and much of the Labour establishment, tens of thousands of grassroots members cast their ballots for his brother Ed, who had tried to present himself as the post-Blair, anti-war candidate.
The Australian Labor Party also appears to have a positively healthy internal life, in comparison to its sibling in this country. This weekend's national conference of the Aussie party has been full of loud debate about issues as different gay marriage and cuts in the federal budget, with remits flying from the left and the right of the organisation. A greater contrast with the decorous, stage-managed, extraordinarily tedious conferences of New Zealand Labour could hardly be imagined.
Labour loyalists might argue that, even if the New Zealand party's leadership election is pathetically at odds with its constitution's commitment to 'democratic socialism', the most important thing is to unite behind the leader the election will produce, so that John Key can be pushed out of office in 2014. But Labour's atrophied internal life is connected in important ways to its poor showing in the recent election, and its poor prospects for 2014.
The global economic crisis which began in 2008 has revived old debates about whether governments should stimulate depressed economies by putting more money into the hands of workers and the poor or whether they should instead try to cut state spending. In the early 1930s the latter approach was tried by the likes of Herbert Hoover in America and the Forbes government here in New Zealand, with disastrous results. By the end of the decade social democratic governments dedicated to stimulating the economy had been elected in many countries. In New Zealand the Labour Party won a landslide election victory in 1935, and immediately set about pouring money into the economy by boosting pensions and building thousands of state houses.
Along with the leaders of many Western nations, John Key has chosen to ignore the lessons of history and obey the dictates of big business by responding to the new economic crisis with tax and spending cuts. The result is a deepening recession.
But instead of countering Key's doomed policies with an unequivocal commitment to stimulating the economy, Labour offered voters a very mixed message during the recent election campaign. Labour put forward some solidly left-wing policies, like a proposal to raise the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour. When Key tried to argue that a rise in the minimum wage would create unemployment, Phil Goff quite correctly pointed out that it would actually create more jobs, because it would see more money being spent in shops and flowing through the economy.
At other times, though, Labour confused voters by borrowing policies from the right. The proposal to raise the old age pension threshold to sixty-seven, for instance, was cribbed from the Act Party. Labour also talked, in imitation of National, about the importance of containing state spending. Campaigning in the high-profile seat of Epsom, David Parker positioned himself to the right of Act candidate John Banks, and called Labour the 'party of fiscal responsibility'. Phil Goff argued often on the campaign trail against National's plan to sell off parts of state-owned companies, but he never committed Labour to changing the corporate structure and profit-making orientation of those companies.
Political scientist Bryce Edwards correctly complained that it was sometimes difficult to differentiate Labour from National during the election campaign. The blurring of the two parties' policies encouraged voters to treat the election not as a clash of ideas but as a charm contest between Goff and the younger and more charismatic Key.
Labour's refusal to campaign on a full-blooded social democratic programme is linked to its lack of faith in grassroots political mobilisation. Members of the party elite like Goff and Parker kept the election programme timid and incoherent partly because they were worried that international money markets and credit rating agencies might adjudge a Labour government 'fiscally irresponsible', and decide to stop the flow of credit to New Zealand, creating a Greece-style economic meltdown.
During economic crises even moderately left-wing governments inevitably clash with big business and international money markets. After 1935 the Labour government faced pressure over its spending programme from the British banks which had lent it money, but Michael Joseph Savage and his caucus were able to use their grassroots support to deflect some of this pressure. Labour's Undersecretary for Housing John A Lee openly criticised the British capitalists, warning them that New Zealand might renege on its debts and seize foreign assets if it were treated unfairly by creditors. John A Lee knew that Labour's tens of thousands of members and New Zealand's trade union movement would not allow a group of foreign bankers to dictate the country's economic policy. He was prepared to call his supporters on to the streets in defence of Labour's programme.
The pragmatic Savage and his Finance Minister Walter Nash were eventually able to make a deal with the British banks, but the threats of radicals like Lee and the strength of grassroots support for Labour had strengthened their negotiating position.
The notion of using people power as a counterweight to the power of capital is simply unthinkable to the elite of today's Labour Party. Where leaders like John A Lee saw Labour's members as a mass force, the likes of Goff and Parker see them simply as door-knockers and raffle ticket sellers.
As long as its grassroots members are disempowered and disregarded, Labour will never advance a coherent left-wing policy programme. The concerns of business and the international money markets will always be more important.
Fortunately, New Zealand has recently seen the emergence of a party with an engaged membership and a staunchly left-wing programme. Instead of waiting for the outcome of another leadership contest amongst their party's distant and secretive elite, Labour's long-suffering grassroots members should make the move to Mana.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]