Sunday, December 04, 2011

Cunliffe or Shearer for Pope?

In Michael Anderson's classic thriller The Shoes of the Fisherman, delegates from around the world gather at the Vatican to elect a new Pope. Although it occurs amidst a global economic and political crisis, the election is conducted in secret. While cardinals and bishops debate theological and political issues and cast ballots in one of the Vatican's ornate halls, crowds of Catholics mill about in the square outside, waiting for their new leader to appear on a balcony and announce his name.

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]


Anonymous Raymond A Francis said...

I often wonder what would have happened to the NZ Labour economics if WW11 had not arrived in 1939
By the end of that somehow NZ was near the top of the world economic pile
And ever since opposition politicians have been comparing that high position, to where we have slipped to
So, was it because we were not ravaged by war (apart from exporting our boys off to fight) and were providing our bulk agricultural products to a starving World
I would like to see some serious studies on this if you know of them

9:53 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David Cunliffe is the voice of the left. Get behind or GET LOST.

11:02 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We need real leaders, not dreams.

11:02 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

'I often wonder what would have happened to the NZ Labour economics if WW11 had not arrived in 1939'

It's an interesting question, I agree. The Labour Party was definitely running into trouble in 1938, as its programme of pumping money into the economy and raising consumption irritated local capitalists and UK bankers. Walter Nash had to travel all the way to the Mother Country - no small undertaking, in those days - to negotiate with the bankers. The contradictory nature of social democracy - its desire to please both capitalists and workers - was fraying the edges of the party.

There's an irony, of course, in the opposition which capitalists showed to Keynesian economic policies in New Zealand, and in other countries like Roosevelt's America. Stimulatory policies wound up individual capitalists, but they actually helped capitalism as a whole to survive.

David Harvey explores this paradox in a section of his new book The Enigma of Capital, pointing out that the Keynesian policies advocated by leftist commentators like Paul Krugmann represent America's best hope of avoiding economic catastrophe, in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. Despite the fact that Krugmann and other social democrats offer the best recipe for restoring eonomic growth, though, the US capitalists are demanding greater and greater cuts in government spending and the redistribution of income from the poor to the rich - measures which will deflate consumer demand and turn a deep recession into a 1930s-style Depression.

But social democracy doesn't necessarily have all the answers to a crisis of capitalism. Marxists like to point out that although the Keynesian policies pursued by the Savage government and Roosevelt in the US ameliorated the worst effects of the Depression by restoring consumer demand and increasing production, they didn't solve all of the problems of capitalism. Unemployment was still well over 10% in the US when the '40s began.

It was World War Two which definitively ended the Depression, by destroying vast amounts of unprofitable capital, rationalising global capitalism (a hegemonic US replaced a group of major powers), and allowing governments to ignore the resistance of private business and reorganise their economies (in New Zealand, the Fraser government took an unprecedented level of control over the economy, directing companies to do its bidding and threatening to nationalise them if they complained too loudly).

I think the postwar data which shows New Zealand near the top of the economic pile is slightly misleading, because it reflects the devastation of major European economies by the war. As nations like Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and so on recovered they inevitably usurped New Zealand in the rankings.

6:24 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

The same thing, by and large, was initiated by Roosevelt with his New Deal and thus came via that to NZ. Is this true? It wasn't (or was it?) the war (effects of) really the moves were undertaken by Savage etc in 1935 or so...

Or ir was maybe more the general capitalist crisis of over production which is what we are really in now.
The problem is not a lack but that Big Money has produced too much and there aren't enough with sufficient income to buy enough (or they already have enough products - taken overall) and also they have to keep cost of labour down so as usual business is in a bind. Now unless you can move to socialism etc this is possibly the way it always has to be. Eventually the total supply-demand equation will even out in all probability. But all will still not be well...(for everyone, as for some life will get better and for many others it may get worse. But economics is not an exact science...

Chris Trotter's book has something on the formation of the Labour Party so it would be interesting to hear his opinion or his statement on this subject of Labour and history on here.

I just got his book "No Left Turn" but haven't yet read it bu I want to as it does look quite fascinating and it is very well written (from what I have read).

8:10 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard Chris Trotter is a communist he openly admits it!

For the truth about the communist plot to control NZ see Trevor Loudon at

8:26 pm  
Blogger Skyler said...

Somehow Labour has lost touch with its constituency. They need to reconnect with them through the unions and other community organisations and community meetings. They need to encourage people to join the Labour Party by understanding what issues will motivate them to become active party members. I also think most people don't see the point in joining most political parties (including Labour) because they don't believe their voices will be heard. Labour needs to become a truly democratic organisation and members should be the ones who vote in a new leader. A new leader should have transparent policies and ones that reflect and appeal to grassroots party members. I've heard nothing but waffle from both Davids to date. Also, Labour’s caucus does not reflect who they represent – where are the ordinary working people...they are all technocrats who have been to Harvard etc I think the ordinary worker would have a hard time relating to people like Cunliffe and Shearer.

10:32 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

2 right-wingers. what's the difference?

pathetic how some identity politics people are going for cunliffe because he has nanaia mahuta as deputy...

3:25 pm  
Anonymous floating voter said...

Frankly at this point, I don’t even give a crap. I want someone who can fix some of the mess this economy is in.

I am sick and tried of holding my nose and voting!

Parker doesn't have the fight in him.

Cuntliffe? He hasn't closed the sale with enough voters to really be a contender, and I highly doubt that he can build the sort of following necessary for him to clinch the deal.

Political outsiders wanting to really change the system are not welcome by media or the current insider players. Haven’t “earned” it, put their time in, played the game to be brash enough to say the system needs to be overhauled.

But so what?We are all sinners guilty of something. I just wish that some young, ambitious reporter, wanting to make a name for himself would dig in on this and ferret out the truth. For me, it doesn’t pass the smell test.

It would be great if the truth were exposed?

Parker could have done much better in how he handled this...

11:10 pm  
Anonymous Raymond A Francis said...

Thank you for that Scott, I will check out that book, any others you could recomend that would be helpful
I agree with you regarding NZ world positioning post war
Our decline was more about other climbing form a low base rather than our fall

9:16 am  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

Nope, Anonymous, the only ideology I've ever subscribed to is good 'ole social-democracy. Trevor needs to update his files.

9:23 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Chris - these anti-Communist guys are just insane or pulling everyone's leg.

Muldoon of course was the great anti-Communist man. "He he he! Ahaha ha trendy lefties, commos, ...Tom, I thought I warned you, no Tom, get! Security!!" And Tom Scott was chucked out of Muldoon's meeting!!" Lange at least (with all his faults and we all have those) had some compassion and learning compared to some on the Right... ]

TO the "Less-Than-Centre-Right (!) anyone who, say, believes in any social welfare is communist (or even in Health Insurance at one stage.

Just by coincidence I starting reading a book ('Code name "Mary"') about a Muriel Gardiner who a socialist of a -Social Democrat and bravely stayed in Vienna (where a she points out that a degree of Social Democracy (and some Health Insurance) was introduced before WW2 and Germany to assist the underground there. I thought it was just a kind of spy book (it is to some extent but she was remarkable woman...

Thought you might have heard of her.

I'm looking forward to reading your book.


10:26 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home