Sep 18, 2013

Reasserting progressive values: the Labour Party edition

In addition to my last blog post, The Left must have the courage of their convictions, I am writing a short series of posts on the need for the parties of the Left to reassert progressive values in order to offer a credible alternative to John Key and the National-led Government. First up; the Labour Party. 

David Cunliffe needs to reassert both working class and progressive values 
while modernising Labour's political platform
The democratisation of the Labour Party’s leadership election processes have provided an opportunity for party members, the union movement and the broader left to push for the reassertion of progressive values and the repudiation of the Third Way agenda of the Clark era.

Both newly elected David Cunliffe and his primary opponent Grant Robertson took to the campaign trail with promises of significant industrial relations reform, a new-found commitment to the environment, and pledges on women’s political participation and increased student support. They would “end neo-liberalism” and even distanced themselves from Helen Clark’s legacy. Even Shane Jones in some ways promoted progressive values; he committed to supporting a universal student allowance and a pushed for a breakup of the supermarket duopoly.

This has reinvigorated Labour's base to a significant degree. It is these kinds of bold ideas that will drive greater participation and involvement in the political system. 

But the media consensus proclaims that this high-minded progressivism is fit for the campaign trail, but will be discarded at the earliest opportunity; that Cunliffe will default to the centrist direction that the Labour Party has been previously heading down. This highlights two things; the media are hostile to the interests of genuine left-wing politics, and many in the media are disconnected from the realities of those struggling to survive in this land of plenty.

At Cunliffe's first press conference as leader, he distanced Labour from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and said "my challenge to John Key and his government is to put that information in the public domain so the debate can begin". This is a radical change in the direction of the Labour Party caucus, as was put so well by TPPA expert Jane Kelsey over at The Daily Blog.

So already Labour's new leader has stood up to the proponents of liberalised free trade, many of whom are a part of his own caucus. Will he continue down this path? How far will he go? What other progressive values will he reassert? 

Inequality and markets 
Inequality is at the highest point it has ever been in the history of this country. This proves the necessity for a reassertion of progressive values and there is a great opportunity for these values to resonate widely. A fundamentally new direction in the economy is sorely needed. As fellow working class New Zealanders will know, poverty and hardship are only getting worse. Helen Clark's government stabilised things in the wake of Rogernomics and Ruthanasia, but the fundamentals of her economic management allowed for continuing unemployment, high power prices, low-wages and shocking rates of child poverty.

David Cunliffe will need a great deal of courage to steer a fundamentally new course of economic management. He leads what remains a largely moderate Labour caucus; his newly elected deputy leader David Parker is on record saying "competitive markets don't need regulation", while newly appointed Shadow Leader of the House Grant Robertson said around the same time that "as we said on the day we launched NZ Power, we have no plans to intervene in any other markets."

While I'm sure Cunliffe is in favour of the market economy where it works, if he wants to significantly reduce poverty and inequality then he will need to regulate other markets as well. Competitiveness does not always lead to positive outcomes. To ensure that his vision and convictions lead the party's economic platform, he will need to take an active role in finance and economic development and not leave everything up to the likes of Parker and Shane Jones.

Social welfare
Low benefit levels, and the toxic nature of WINZ, contribute hugely to the ongoing poverty and deprivation in this country; we know that two-thirds of children in poverty are living in benefit dependent households.

But there is a deep reluctance in the Labour caucus to provide real and increased support to beneficiary families. Given National's succesful strategy of pitting communities against each other by beneficiary bashing, it's a political minefield for Labour. But this is an issue that should be above political posturing and electoral calculation.

Social welfare is a core progressive value and was at the heart of the First Labour Government's working class agenda. The welfare system itself under that government didn't have to be a huge drain on resources, as the government ensured pretty much full employment. While it does have significant financial implications in this day and age, we must also remember that we are spending $6 billion a year on preventable crime, illness and lost educational opportunities – the direct cost of keeping kids in poverty.

Thousands of families will continue to live in deprivation if the government doesn't step in. Employment must be the key aim, but children are not impoverished because of any fault of their own. They deserve compassion.

The policy for universalisation of the working for families scheme, which has been Green policy for over a decade, was adopted by Phil Goff before the 2011 election but then abandoned again under David Shearer's leadership. This is a policy that will go a long way to reducing poverty among families on welfare and should be part of a welfare tool kit for an incoming centre-left government.

Promoting both employment and social welfare as progressive values, and convincing the public that they aren't mutually exclusive, will be a real test of David Cunliffe's leadership.

Environment and sustainability
A core progressive value of the 21st Century is environmental guardianship and sustainability. However, it has not traditionally been a value that Labour has embraced. Water quality was incredibly bad under the Fifth Labour Government and has led to the current situation of 60% of monitored rivers being unsafe for swimming. Also, the process for granting risky deep sea oil permits was instituted under Labour.

Environmental protection and sustainability represent very fundamental issues that Labour must grapple with. For example, reducing river pollution to sustainable levels is going to require a rethink of the continuing intensification of the agricultural sector, one of the nation's most economically productive industries. This reality challenges not just river pollution but the very idea of never-ending economic growth.

Deep sea oil drilling and the future of wider extractive industries is another kaupapa that Labour needs to provide clarity and consistency on. There are clear divisions over this issue. On the hand, Shane Jones promotes oil drilling and mining as a solution to youth unemployment while on the other hand, MPs like Moana Mackey and Grant Robertson are much more hesitant to support these risky ventures. A massive deep sea oil spill could effectively destroy New Zealand's economy. David Cunliffe needs to make a stand on this.

And of course this all ties in with the climate crisis and our need to significantly reduce emissions and play our part on the global stage. A weak and ineffectual carbon trading scheme like our ETS will not achieve this. New thinking and innovative solutions are required.

David Cunliffe was dead right when he said:

"the nature of this crisis is far deeper and more fundamental than the standard environment-economy trade-off thinking might suppose. The coming crisis threatens more than just marine biodiversity. The species we are trying to save could be our own."

Cunliffe's Challenge 
The forces of reluctance, moderation and conservatism will do their very best to hound David Cunliffe's leadership and the opportunities for true progressivism that it represents. We need to expect more of Patrick Gower appearing on the 6 o'clock news attacking Cunliffe for stumbling on a word. He will also continue to promote the idea of Labour disunity.

Cunliffe must have an iron will and unify his caucus behind his economic and environmental vision. This will be the biggest challenge of his entire leadership in the lead up to the 2014 general elections.

Those of us who believe in a compassionate, sustainable and socially just future need to be vigilant in our support for a new direction and as equally vigilant in our critique of the forces of negativity and conservatism that inhabit both the major political parties, the mainstream media and elements of the business community.

Post by Jack McDonald

1 comment:

  1. Yes, the giddy lurch left. Its hard to see how this can take votes from Nat since we do not favour too much redistribution. I suppose we can only assume that motivating eligible people who didn't bother to vote last time may make the difference.. If the polls start to improve for Labour watch for a sell of the $NZ, good for exporters and bad for those on fixed incomes



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