Is Labour turning blue?
I wonder whether Phil Twyford's campaign against Chinese investors might be part of a wider strategy that New Zealand's Labour Party has imported from Britain.
In the eight months since he won the leadership of Labour Andrew Little has worked to move the party towards a rapprochement with socially conservative Kiwis. He has distanced himself from the socially liberal Greens, and has refused to endorse liberal causes like euthanasia, flag change and gender therapy.
During the Northland by-election Little made a coalition with New Zealand First, and watched Winston Peters overturn an enormous National Party majority. Peters won because he and Little were able to convince the relatively poor and socially conservative Pakeha voters of Northland that National was out of touch with their worldview and unaware of their needs. Peters and Little portrayed National's leaders as a clique of privileged, effete urbanites, who were more interested in profiting from Auckland's property boom than building roads and bridges in the regions. When John Key proved unable to hammer a nail into a billboard during the Northland campaign he amplified these charges.
Like Peters' and Little's rhetoric on the campaign trail in Northland, Phil Twyford's warnings about the takeover of Auckland by Chinese seem aimed at socially conservative Kiwis unhappy at the cultural as well as economic changes of recent decades. As Chris Trotter observes, few New Zealanders have understood until recently that the globalisation of their economy would inevitably lead to the globalisation of their population. A free trade deal with China has been followed by a flow of Chinese investment and immigrants. Most New Zealanders are unhappy with the housing bubble that Chinese investment has created. Sadly, many of them are also dismayed by the changing ethnicity of their neighbours.
Historically, New Zealand's Labour Party has often been ready to adopt ideas and strategies developed overseas. The first Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand, Michael Joseph Savage, was born across the Tasman, and learned his politics in the small towns of New South Wales and Victoria. The radical free market reforms that the fourth Labour government gave New Zealand in the 1980s were sourced from the University of Chicago. A decade later, Helen Clark turned to Tony Blair and his notion of a 'Third Way' between social democracy and neo-liberalism when she wanted to remake the New Zealand Labour Party and prepare for a new term in office.
Like Little's by-election rhetoric, Twyford's warnings about Chinese investors seem borrowed from the playbook of an influential section of Britain's Labour Party. For years now, this circle of politicians and intellectuals has been promoting the notion that the left can win power by courting conservative working class voters alienated from the right by the economic and also cultural side effects of globalisation. They call their faction Blue Labour.
Blue Labour believes that decades of free market capitalism have disoriented and demoralised the British working class. The stable jobs, monolithic state institutions, and ethnically and cultural homogenous communities that supposedly characterised Britain in the decades after World War Two have been replaced by a fragmented state, which outsources many of its services, and a chaotic economy, in which the job security of the old era is hard to obtain. Meanwhile, new immigrants have altered the appearance and culture of many communities.
Britain's Tory leaders have traditionally posed as the defenders of their nation's borders and the champions of its traditional culture, but Blue Labour thinks they are more interested in importing cheap labour than protecting British sovereignty, and are more comfortable hobnobbing with Saudi investors in the City of London than drinking warm beer in an English pub. To fill the political space left by the Tories, though, Labour must repudiate both the enthusiasm for capitalist globalisation that dominated the Blair years and the opposition to nationalism that has been a staple of the party's socialist left.
It would be wrong to say that Blue Labour captured Ed Miliband, but the faction's influence could certainly be seen on the former leader's speeches and policies. When Miliband used the slogan 'One Nation Labour' and invoked the nineteenth century Tory patriot Disraeli he was trying to occupy ground David Cameron had supposedly vacated. When Miliband made new curbs on immigration one of his election campaign pledges Blue Labour cheered.
Although Blue Labour talks about reaching out in a very accessible way to ordinary voters, it bases its strategy on some quite sophisticated, and indeed esoteric, ideas.
Blue Labour is influenced by Toni Negri and Michael Hardt's idea that twenty-first century capitalism is outgrowing the nation state, and rendering traditional forms of government redundant. In their briefly famous book Empire Hardt and Negri argued for the bypassing old forms of government based on the nation state, and the creation of new, international structures. Blue Labour leaders like MP John Cruddas and academic-turned-peer Maurice Glasman, though, see the structures of the nation state as safeguards against a runaway capitalism.
Blue Labour also borrows ideas from Telos, a journal that began in the 1970s by promoting a sort of Marxism, but has become, over the last couple of decades, a supporter of various forms of nationalism and regionalism. For many of the writers who publish in Telos and attend the journal's conferences, outfits like Italy's Northern League are bulwarks against a capitalist system and a set of supranational institutions that threaten to dissolve borders and submerge cultural differences. In the era of globalisation, parochialism is supposedly as subversive as socialism once was.
A third source for Blue Labour thinkers is the left-wing versions of British nationalism developed by the likes of Henry Hyndman and George Orwell. In his little book The Lion and the Unicorn, which he wrote in the midst of the Battle of Britain and subtitled Socialism and the English Genius, Orwell compared his homeland to a family where the wrong members had all the money and power. The British ruling class was like a senile and extravagant patriarch that needed to be disciplined by its more sensible working class relatives. Orwell is remembered for his satires of Stalin's Soviet Union, but he also hated the capitalism of America, and feared that its crass and alien culture would overwhelm his beloved Britain.
Orwell's left-wing nationalism found some surprising echoes in the decades after World War Two. When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, for example, the Communist Party of Great Britain applauded, because it considered the coronation a show of British independence in the face of American-led global capitalism.
Nostalgia for an order lost to the chaos of global capitalism has long been a part of left-wing discourse. In the ninteenth century William Morris deplored the destruction of Britain's countryside and craft industries by mills and railways; in the 1930s Walter Benjamin described socialist revolution as 'an emergency brake' that could save humanity from the destructive 'progress' of capitalism. Even Karl Marx, who as a young man celebrated the way that capitalism could make 'all that is solid melt into air', ended his career lamenting the destruction of the peasant communities of Russia at the hands of property speculators and industrialists.
But where Marx and Morris and Benjamin advocated revitalising old institutions and practices and making them into components of a new, improved society, the Blue Labourites seem to take an uncritical and sentimental view of traditional parts of their society. The faction seems to support anything that socially conservative working class Britons favour, and to oppose whatever those Britons oppose. Maurice Glasman's statements of unqualified opposition to immigration and paeans to 'traditional religion' would fit easily into The Sun or the Daily Mail.
Footnote: I discovered Blue Labour a couple of years ago, when Stuart White wrote an article called 'The Dignity of Dissent: EP Thompson and One Nation Labour' for the online journal Open Dissent. King was responding to the Sheffield political scientist Michael Kenny, who had suggested that the slogan 'One Nation Labour' might have pleased Britain's greatest twentieth century historian. King argued that Thompson would not have liked the intolerance that is implicit in the words 'One Nation':
Disunity...is a sign of democratic health. But the rhetorical momentum of One Nation seems to carry us away from this, evoking unity as the ideal. Does dissent get in the way of the desired unity? Is it, therefore, fundamentally undesirable? How does One Nation Labour discriminate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ kinds of division and disagreement? How can the necessary discriminations be conveyed within the confines of the One Nation concept?
I'm pleased that Stuart White cited my book about EP Thompson in support of his argument, because I think that the case he makes is both eloquent and correct.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]