Sep 10, 2013

The Left must have the courage of their convictions

At the launch of his leadership bid in New Lynn, David Cunliffe was handed a bunch of roses by a supporter. He held them aloft and proclaimed in a hesitant, unsure-of-himself kind of way that: "the red rose is the international symbol of socialism!”

The mainstream media seem unable to entertain the idea that David Cunliffe and Grant Robertson might actually be honest in their critique of neo-liberalism and the economic orthodoxy. By extension it seems that they believe that socialism is a defunct ideology in 21st Century New Zealand. But in ideological terms, the history of the New Zealand labour movement is relatively typical of its counterparts in other Western liberal democracies. It is a history of socialism. It’s rise, it’s dilution and it’s near death.

The First Labour Government was a truly socialist government, and is the benchmark of democratic socialism in New Zealand. But with the collapse of the post-WWII economic boom, social democratic parties found it increasingly difficult to enact further socialist reforms due to the restraints they placed upon themselves within the capitalist framework. This led to the economic liberalisation and financial deregulation of the 1980s and eventually the Third Way agenda under Helen Clark. These historical trajectories have divorced the Labour Party from its socialist traditions and its grassroots support base. Voter engagement has plummeted. Political apathy and cynicism has never been higher among working class New Zealand.

In the wake of the Global Financial Crisis and considering the climate crisis, peak oil and resource depletion, New Zealand is ready for its next ‘big change’ moment.

Evolutionary socialism: The First Labour Government
The evolutionary socialist school of thought has been the dominant and only viable socialist framework since the collapse of the USSR and the moral failures of violent revolutionary communism.

Democratic socialism was founded upon the belief that to achieve social gains, one must work within the democratic system of Parliament. Gradualists, as they were known, including the Fabian Society and Eduard Bernstein, believed their vision was inevitable because of the qualities of the democratic system itself and the truth of their ideas.

Many social democratic parties were formed across the Western world to utilise this democratic approach. The New Zealand Labour Party was established in 1916. From this early period of its history, Labour broke free from the communist movement to pursue a social democratic agenda; in 1925 a membership pledge was signed to affirm the Party’s commitment to democratic constitutional processes of governance. Yet it was clearly a socialist party; this is shown by its 1922 election manifesto which describes the Party’s key aim as the “socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. When Labour was elected to Government, with Michael Joseph Savage as Prime Minister and Peter Fraser as his ministerial workhorse, it enacted a wide range of socialist reforms including legislating compulsory trade union membership and passing the Social Security Act 1938, which effectively provided welfare cover from ‘the cradle to the grave’. The welfare state was expanded and entrenched under the premiership of Peter Fraser.

The second and third Labour governments continued down the same path of evolutionary socialism; egalitarianism became a mainstay of New Zealand politics from both right and left governments up until 1984. This was due to the entrenchment of social democratic principles in politics by Labour governments.

The death of social democracy: Rogernomics and The Third Way
Social democratic parties in the late 20th and early 21st Century have been embracing neo-liberal economic policies to fit within the framework of capitalist democracy.

As Dr Ashley Lavelle, an Australian political scientist, has pointed out, the solutions to the world’s problems that are being put forward by social democratic parties barely differ from the solutions of their conservative and liberal counterparts. Furthermore, the fundamental reform plans that they put forward in the 20th Century "to challenge entrenched power and privilege or redistribute the wealth have disappeared"*. 

Lavelle notes that the primary cause of the death of social democracy is the collapse of the post-war economic boom so that the return in the 1970’s of low economic growth led to the removal of the economic base used by social democrats to enact their social reform. This reform relied upon high revenues and incomes to reduce inequality and raise living standards without undermining capital accumulation. This reality required Governments and therefore social democratic parties to “remove the constraints on capital” and to create opportunities for business*. Social democrats were forced into this approach, as these were the boundaries set by economic democracies, which was the framework in which social democrats were pursuing their socialist goals.

Both David Cunliffe and Grant Robertson have pledged
 to repudiate the 'Third Way'
In the New Zealand context, it was the fourth and fifth Labour governments that implemented both the initial market liberalisation and the more moderate Third Way agenda that followed. By implementing this approach of neo-liberal policy, Labour has faced significant political consequences. They have suffered major electoral setbacks as a result of voters’ discontent with their neo-liberal economic policy and inability to stick to manifesto pledges.

Another major issue that is affecting social democratic parties is a decline in membership. This is an issue for all parties in the 21st Century but there is evidence that social democratic parties have lost members specifically in response to capitalist entrenching policy. This disconnects parties with their own history and the ideological base which gave them the mandate to exist in the first place.

The Third Way agenda of Helen Clark failed to address environmental degradation, carbon pollution and resource depletion. Centrist social democratic parties like the current Labour Party are unwilling and ill-equipped to tackle the underlying problems of our capitalist economic system.

Can Labour, on the back of the democratisation and re-invigoration of their party, redefine 21st Century politics in New Zealand by bringing its traditional values to the fore, while at the same time modernising it's policy platform?

Eco-socialism: democratic socialism in the 21st Century
Eco-socialism, which is an ideology that has roots as far back as the mid 1800s*, has the potential to become a dominant ideology in the 21st Century. Eco-socialism draws on both the ecologist and socialist opposition to capitalism.

Ecologism is founded upon the basic reality that there are natural limits to growth as we live on a planet with finite resources. This is a complete contradiction to the structure of capitalism that promotes never ending economic growth and labels environmental protection and social equality as “external dis-economies"*. Eco-socialists assert that the world is interconnected and that the economy is based on the health of the environment and those living within it.
The Greens have led a change in the political climate and
ensured that eco-socialist ideas are firmly on the agenda

It is evident that eco-socialist ideas have been gaining traction in the Western world, especially since the Global Financial Crisis. The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand has over the last decade lead a change in the political climate and ensured that eco-socialist values and solutions are firmly on the agenda in this country. While no longer radical in tone and appearance, the Greens champion a future economy and society that is far from the status quo.

But it's no longer just the Greens that are talking about transformative change; Labour leadership front-runner David Cunliffe, and to a lesser extent Grant Robertson, have also been articulating a vision that is starkly at odds with the capitalist orthodoxy.

Cunliffe's rhetoric in speeches such as 'The Dolphin and the Dole Queue' and 'Get your invisible hand off our assets!', represents a kind of thinking that is remarkably similar to prominent eco-socialists and the Green Party's co-leaders.

The clean tech revolution can build resilience in our economy, while protecting the environment and under the right settings could ensure full employment for our people. The scale and pace of change that we require is even greater than the situation that the First Labour Government faced. Harnessing a revolutionary ideological base combined with a democratic approach to fulfillment, the eco-socialist movement proves that socialism is a relevant ideology in the current political climate.

The real test lies ahead
For New Zealand's progressive leaders, both Red and Green, the real test lies ahead. If they follow through on their bold rhetoric and abandon the weak social democratic agenda, then the First Labour-Green Government could be as historically significant, world-leading and revolutionary as the First Labour Government that was sworn into power over three-quarters of a century ago.

While some in the media are probably right in that many see the word 'socialism' itself as an "instant turn-off"*, that does not mean that the ideological underpinnings of the candidates and the movement that they are seeking to lead won't have a huge effect on the outcome of not only this election, but also Labour's electoral platform for the next general election.

Its a no-brainer that New Zealand will remain a mixed economy, with the private sector playing a large role in our economic future. For example, both Labour and the Greens favour market incentives and price signals to address certain economic and environmental problems. But the time has come for the Left to reassert the fundamental values that built this nation.

Radicalism has for a long time been seen among the media as both a cardinal sin and a sign of electoral oblivion. But with the economic and environmental crises that engulf the world, and the massive skepticism of many people towards the political establishment, there are so many issues that require radical solutions. It could well be just what's needed to get disenchanted voters to turn around and listen.

The Left faces a host of challenges, not least of which is the courage of their own convictions. It seems that they themselves are aware of that. In the words of soon-to-be Labour leader David Cunliffe:

"We must also have leadership that has proven it can stare down vested interests – because make no mistake, the beneficiaries of neoliberalism will not give up their privilege quietly."*

Post by Jack McDonald

* Ashley Lavelle, The death of social democracy: political consequences in the 21st Century (Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited), pp. 1-2
* Lavelle, The death of social democracy, p. 2
* Bradley J. Macdonald, ‘William Morris and the vision of ecosocialism’, Contemporary Justice Review, Vol.7, No.3, 2004.
Bradley J. Macdonald, ‘William Morris and the vision of ecosocialism’, Contemporary Justice Review, Vol.7, No.3, 2004, p. 287
*Jessica Williams, 'It's just a jump to the left...',, Radio Live, accessed 09/09/2013
*David Cunliffe, 'David Cunliffe',, The Standard, accessed 09/09/2013


  1. A really interesting insight into the position of the Labour Party situation in NZ.In Ireland I fear that our Labour Party has lost all semblance to what a socialist/labour party should represent and will indeed face a very irate electorate come the next General Election here.

  2. A consideration you haven't accounted for is, as Marc Andreessen said, software is eating the world. Software and robotics will probably reduce the number of people driving motor vehicles for money by two orders of magnitude in the next two decades, and it may well do the same thing to eg surgery.

    The problem for socialism — and every other economic doctrine of the 20th century — is that they work on the premise that the active workforce makes up more than 50% of the population, and they're managing the work-or-starve problem. But if technology reduces the amount of people you need to do and make things how do you keep the rest feed and sheltered? Left to it's own devices, socialism will keep chasing full employment even if that means having people waste their time digging holes and filling them in again. What we need is an economic movement accepts that GDP can't distinguish useful work from make-work, and doesn't count volunteer work, and that what we need to work towards a universal allowance for basic needs, allowing people to work for luxuries.

  3. –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
    Is Cunliffe the "canary in the coalmine” ?

    It looks like David Cunliffe will become the Labour Party’s next leader.

    And, going by Cunliffe’s public statements over recent times, that outcome should represent at least some improvement over David Shearer’s right-wing mantras and political incoherence.

    Here’s a couple of sound bites from Cunliffe:

    "Sure, we will have to both protect dolphins and shorten dole queues,” said Cunliffe near the start of a speech in June 2012. "But actually, 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.”

    And, two months earlier, Cunliffe had set the scene for a speech titled "Get your invisible hand off our assets!” with these words: "The major reason that voters didn’t vote for Labour, and sometimes didn’t vote at all, is simply that Labour failed to inspire voters that it was a credible alternative to National.” Here he defined Labour as "a left-wing party” which stood for "community ownership and/or control and/or responsibility”.

    The reason why such sentiments earn Cunliffe the title of “radical” from the business media and other corporate propagandists is the abject surrender to capitalism by all Labour Party leaders from at least the time of Rogernomics.

    It does seem as if Cunliffe has some appreciation that “business as usual” is unsustainable in the face of the systemic crises being ushered in by climate change, resource depletion and financial mayhem.

    Maybe we should view Cunliffe as the "canary in the coalmine” as he warns of approaching dangers that will put an end to world capitalism as it has been.

    Grant Morgan

    1. You are exactly right, Grant. In the New Zealand political context, I have never seen this kind of rhetoric outside of the Green Party.

      As you say, what Cunliffe has been saying is considered very radical by the mainstream, but in my view what he is saying is genuinly pretty radical. And that's a good thing. We need radicalism considering how far gone some of these international crises are. Urgent solutions are required to protect our interests in a globalized and volatile world.

      But of course how far Cunliffe actually goes, is still unclear. He is in my mind, very clearly genuine, but for the moment is still a part of a moderate Labour caucus.

      A strong Green Party will be needed in the next Government, to force some courage into Labour. But the Greens also need to have the courage of their own convictions, as I point out in the post.



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