Left politics – same old or transformational?

The resurgence of the Labour left in the UK under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has prompted discussion here about whether the New Zealand centre left should stick to something similar to the same old, or if they should be promoting some sort of ‘transformational’ politics.

Yesterday from the Drug Law Symposium at Parliament Green MP Chloe Swarbrick was quoted:

It’s important that as we talk about drug reform we realise it’s just one part of a broader system. Let’s just not rethink drug law, let’s not just rethink prisons, let’s rethink politics as a whole.

There were some pokes at this.

@MatthewHooton “It’s a Chloeism. It doesn’t mean anything. But it will be spoken with great professionalism and passion.”

@AndrewBLittleNZ “Clearly Chloe is talking about a paradigm shift – not just a reimagining, but a new hyper-reality. Bold, inspired.”

Rethinking politics as a whole might be an interesting exercise, but changing how our politics works any substantial way will be very difficult – after looking at opinions, issues and options on our system of MMP democracy several years ago the main parties chose the comfort and safety of the status quo.

Andrew Dean, a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, has written at Stuff: For the Left, more of the same won’t cut it

Over the last year, Left politics has been transforming across the world. This has especially been the case in Britain.

Running on a platform of strong economic redistribution and state intervention, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has inspired activists and voters alike.

From an almost 20-point deficit at the start of the election campaign in April 2017, the party ended up running the Conservatives remarkably close on June 8. Polls now suggest that if the election were to be held today, Labour may win.

The Corbyn phenomenon is part of the wider delegitimisation of the so-called “Third Way”. It has been a year in which Centre-Left politics globally has been defeated by establishment parties and newcomers to both the Left and the Right.

This may be true of the left in the UK (remember that Labour still lost the recent election) it is hardly representative of the world.

Last year in the US Bernie Sanders made a mark but still failed against the ‘same old’ Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton, who lost the presidential election the the sort of Republican Donald Trump.

So I don’t know what Dean bases his “Left politics has been transforming across the world” from.

In retrospect, the June 2016 EU referendum in Britain and Hillary Clinton’s November 2016 loss to Donald Trump, both appear to be decisive moments. The Centre no longer holds.

Emmanuel Macron and his new party were successful in France. He has been in the Socialist Party in the past but founded En Marche, a ‘liberal, progressive” movement’ got support from across the political spectrum and doesn’t appear to be swing France left or right.

Parties of the Centre-Left in New Zealand, however, have doubled down on business-as-usual politics. The “budget responsibility rules,” signed by both Labour and the Greens, would require that a coalition government keep spending “within the recent historical range of spending to GDP ratio” – with “recent” here meaning the last 20 years.  Such a government would operate a surplus and reduce debt.

Through this gesture, voters are being shown that under a Labour-Green government, they would get more of the same.

In my view, the budget responsibility rules are a serious mistake. At the very least, they are unlikely to convince voters. They reflect electoral strategies from the 1990s and 2000s, in which Centre-Left parties shied away from criticising the contemporary arrangement of capitalism.

Helen Clark’s centre-left strategy seemed to be pretty successful for three elections and terms.

It was imagined then that electoral success lay with winning over a “middle ground” of voters who didn’t want to rock the boat too much.

That closely describes the National led government of the past nine years. We have had eighteen years of fairly centrist politics. It may be no coincidence that this is under MMP, something the UK doesn’t have.

It is decreasingly clear, however, either that there is such a middle ground to appeal to, or that most people are truly satisfied with things as they are.

I don’t think that’s clear at all.

A recent survey out of Ipsos shows that disenchantment is at remarkably high levels in New Zealand. As Henry Cooke reports, according to this survey, 56 per cent of New Zealanders think that traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like them. Sixty-four per cent think the economy is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful.

But that doesn’t tell us much without knowing if it reflects a changing trend or if it is much the same as in the past.

It’s common to be disenchanted with the Government, but that doesn’t seem to urge people to vote for radical change.

Voters have resisted giving National one party rule, therefore moderating policies implemented. Green support seems to have hit a ceiling, suggested there isn’t a strong demand for a surge towards socialism.

In environments of high dissatisfaction, the middle ground contains fewer and fewer voters – and winning it will come at the cost of alienating many.

I don’t know where he gets this claim from. I don’t see any real sign of high dissatisfaction here – the poll didn’t measure whether people were dissatisfied enough to vote for radical change.

Promising not to change things too much is not an inspirational message for the political Left to be running.

Perhaps that’s because voters aren’t very interest in inspirational messages of radical change – and in any case we don’t have inspirational leaders of any of the parties.

A bolder Left party would make the following argument: wealthy households and companies are taking an increased proportion of national production, and have been doing so for decades. The idealised economic model which has driven this – that “free” markets are the most efficient, and therefore best – has failed on multiple levels, not the least of which is fact.

What ‘fact’?

We have nothing like an idealised free market. And our economy is doing very well right now, with larger than expected surpluses announced yesterday.

The concentration of wealth that we have seen has meant that political power has become further concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, stifling political change. Recognising all of this, this party’s policies are united by the grand vision of ensuring everyone has a fairer share of the nation’s economic production and political power.

A grand vision that is difficult to put into policies that appeal to voters.

In the place of budget responsibility rules and attacks on immigration, Labour and the Greens could make the case for an increased redistributive role for the government.

Rather than seeking to arbitrate between partisan tribes – constituencies in decline – they could try to give leadership to those who imagine themselves to be lonely and lost.

‘Partisan tribes’ probably are constituencies in decline, but the ‘ lonely and lost’ hardly seem to be in the ascendency as a voter bloc.

And it’s pointless trying to will Labour and the Greens into suddenly changing their election strategy of the past year just as they launch their campaigns.

A substantial change in approach now is more likely to be seen as a panic than bold vision.

There’s nothing wrong with grand political theories and visions, but parties don’t tend to read an article and suddenly change their whole approach based on claimed facts that don’t actually cite anything to back them up.

Any transformational politics is unlikely to emerge before the election. Post election, in coalition building is where that is most likely to happen, if it happens at all, but our MMP has so far moderated rather than radicalised.


  1. Alan Wilkinson

     /  July 7, 2017

    Dean obviously interviewed his typewriter for this story from the safety of a Lefty enclave. Best described as half-baked fantasy fiction.

    • PDB

       /  July 7, 2017

      Yes – Corbyn didn’t win anything and his increase in vote had naught to do with him or his policies. Cherry picking & spinning stuff from the recent Ipsos survey doesn’t make it true.

      Little’s recent announcement of workplace policy that takes us back to the worst days of the 1970’s tells us all what Labour’s ‘fresh approach’ is really all about.

      • FGANSAZ

         /  July 7, 2017

        Brixit was a major factor for Corbyn’s good electoral result, nothing more.

  2. NOEL

     /  July 7, 2017

    I didn’t vote for MMP . I forget now which option I preferred.
    But I agree with your assesment that its driven centrist policy.. Great.