Five questions for the Left in New Zealand (and the CLASS conference last weekend)

Last weekend, on Saturday 2 November, I attended the first CLASS (Centre for Labour and Social Studies) conference.  CLASS is a new thinktank, backed by unions, which aims to spearhead progressive debate in the United Kingdom – and this was the first conference that the thinktank has hosted.  

It was an inspiring day.  Speakers included Owen Jones, the energetic 29-year old author of Chavs and political commentator; Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London; Francis O’Grady, the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC); and Len McCluskey, the General Secretary of Unite.  I attended break-out sessions on the role of unions and economics during austerity, as well as an interesting panel discussion where various speakers presented proposals that were voted on (relating to nationalisation of railways, increasing the jobseekers’ allowance, and other ideas), and a rousing final session calling on those attending to organize and mobilize.

For much of the day I thought of New Zealand.  I miss home, and spend a lot of time comparing UK politics and society to New Zealand – and thinking about how ideas raised in the UK might apply in Aotearoa.  So I thought I’d jot down some questions that were sparked in my mind throughout the day, which we all need to answer on the Left in New Zealand.  In some ways these questions are relevant, I think, to the Left all over the world – questions 4 and 5, in particular, are more general queries about the future of progressive politics.


1. Do we need more gatherings of the Left in Aotearoa?

The conference wasn’t representative of the whole Left in the UK.  But much of the political spectrum was represented, and these whole-of-Left (or aspiring-to-be-whole-of-Left) festivals and conferences are quite common in the UK – I also attended the Festival of Dangerous Ideas for Dangerous Times in May-June of this year.  All this raises the question: do we need more attempts to unify the Left in New Zealand? Sure, we have groups like the Fabian Society who attempt to unify those of the progressive bent.  And there are online spaces, like The Daily Blog, which try to serve this function virtually.  But we don’t have the same hui in person – perhaps because the Left is quite divided under MMP (in some ways, for the best) – and I think this is a missed opportunity, for solidarity and the experimentation with ideas.

2. Do we have enough left-wing journalists?

Throughout the day, sessions were chaired by journalists like Seumas Milne and Zoe Williams, who were open about their sympathies for positions on the Left.  This got me thinking: why do we not have more journalists with such transparency and overt political views in New Zealand? Perhaps it is for good reason: maybe New Zealand is so small that young journalists have to aspire to be neutral; maybe there is no space to carve out a political niche.  Perhaps, also, I’m wrong – and we do have some of these journalists: think of Tapu Misa, or Chris Trotter, or Nicky Hager.  I tend to think, though, that such writers are few and far between back in Aotearoa.  It was refreshing hearing journalists speak out critically in London, and I wonder whether it is too much to hope that more journalists of this kind can develop in New Zealand.

3. Do we think enough about “the best of our traditions” on the New Zealand Left?

Owen Jones ended the conference with an inspirational cry.  He said “we need to stand in the best of our traditions”: we need to stand in the traditions of the suffragettes who fought to get women the vote, in the traditions of those who fought homophobia, in the traditions of the families of Hillsborough victims who fought for justice – in order to find the values that will lead a new political settlement.  There are sometimes mentions of similar themes in New Zealand politics.  But I wonder whether we could do more, as New Zealand progressives, to remind ourselves of the victories won and the traditions in which we stand.  We need to stand in the traditions of suffragettes who won women the vote in Aotearoa, in the traditions of unionists and workers who have stood up against industrial forces (for instance, in 1951), in the traditions of those who called on the pooling of our resources as a community to set up ACC, in the traditions of those who sought to right historical wrongs by setting up the Waitangi Tribunal, in the traditions of those who ensured homosexual law reform, in the traditions of those who struggled to make New Zealand nuclear-free – and more.  Put simply, history matters.  We must remember it.

4. Could we do more to reconceptualise the role of the State?

The session at the CLASS conference on the role of the State offered some of the most innovative ideas of the day.  In particular, Mariana Mazzucatto – who’s just written a book on “The Entrepreneurial State” – offered a dynamic presentation on how the State has always played a central role in driving economic growth, by supporting and funding innovation in the public sector and driving long-term value creation.  You can get a flavour of her thoughts through her TED talk on the same issue.  I think there could be more discussion of this perspective, especially by the Labour Party in New Zealand.  Many agree that we need a new narrative for the Left, and I think central to that narrative must be an account of what the State can do – as redistributor, as rudder for our economy’s long term direction, as robust regulator.  Mazzucatto provided a framework for some of that thinking.

5. Do we need to rename “austerity”?

The final question I had is not exclusively directed at New Zealand.  It’s about the term “austerity”.  The anti-austerity campaign really seems to be gathering force in the UK, and “austerity” is now a loaded word.  But I couldn’t help but think at the conference that we may need a new term for austerity.  It describes, of course, the move towards “belt-tightening” in the UK, supposedly in response to the financial crisis – and all the associated public service cuts and damage to human life and community.  However, “austerity” sounds all-too safe, all-too technical, all-too cautious for the system of politics that it is meant to capture.  Do we need another way to frame this destruction of public service and public-spiritedness? I don’t have any specific ideas close to hand, and I accept that this may be less of an issue in New Zealand, where “austerity” is invoked less frequently, and where there was no shift in policy from stimulus spending to austerity (the National government responded to the crisis in 2008 simply by going straight to cuts).  But this seems a pressing issue that we all need to address.


I do not mean all of this to sound as if I believe that the UK is some progressive paradise, to which NZ must look for solutions.  Of course, in many respects it is the UK that should be borrowing from NZ, and not the other way around.  

But it remains true that in Aotearoa we can learn from other countries.  The Labour Party under David Cunliffe has borrowed a number of ideas from the UK Labour Party already (including the idea of “predistribution”).  There is more cross-fertilization that can be done.  The creative adoption and adaptation of ideas (combined with an understanding of New Zealand society and culture) is, in my view, essential to the crafting of a new body of Left thought in New Zealand that can shuffle out from the shadow of the Clark years, and begin to stand up to the excesses of neoliberalism.

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8 Responses to Five questions for the Left in New Zealand (and the CLASS conference last weekend)

  1. Max,

    In respect of your fifth point, on what basis do you consider that National “went straight to cuts”?

    • mxharris says:

      By that I mean there really was no stimulus in New Zealand – and what we see was immediate austerity. National axed public service jobs and cut funding for other services after being elected (for example, sexual violence support services have struggled up and down the country since 2009), and quickly adopted rhetoric of belt-tightening in a time of crisis. My main point was that whereas some countries (such as the US and the UK) have started with stimulus and then slid back to austerity, in NZ we went straight to austerity.

  2. D C K says:

    I can’t remember who wrote it, but the other day I read an interesting take on the rise of the far right in Europe – namely that the right’s successes of late derive in part from their inclusive approach, in stated contrast to the divisive guilt-tripping of the left. Further gatherings of the left in New Zealand might help to address this, and give us a greater (and much needed) cohesion with which to approach the dominant paradigm.

    • mxharris says:

      Good point. There certainly is a lot of in-fighting amongst parts of the Left in NZ – see the relationship between the Greens and Labour, or Mana and the Maori Party, for evidence of this. I think we could remind ourselves more that the parties of the Left draw their policies from the same reserve of core values (at least in my opinion).

  3. Kirk Serpes says:

    Hey Max, I found your blog quite interesting. I just got to NZ from a similar conference in Australia (where I had been campaigning on the election). The conference was called Progress 2013, and brought together progressive icons like Richard Wilkinson, Tim Flannery and even Jeremy Bird who led the digital side of the Obama campaign.

    I found the US speakers the most interesting. Esp Bird and Anat Shenker-Osorio. They both worked extensively to build the progressive ‘infrastructure’ over about a decade so they could now reap the benefits. The way the US is going the Dems can potentially win Texas in 2016 at the earliest. The infrastructure they built spans across everything from the policy ideas, to the framing of concepts (like ‘austerity’), the online stuff and the grassroots oranising of course. I think we need to do the same in NZ and tbh to certain extent I’ve started building parts of that infrastructure through Gen Z. We have a lot of really good campaign experience now and in some ways the skills are more than is necessary for a single issue organisation.

    We should catchup for a chat the next time you’re in NZ again.

    • mxharris says:

      Thanks for your fascinating comment, Kirk. I’d love to chat more about Progress 2013! It sounds like just the kind of gathering of the Left we need in NZ. The idea of a progressive infrastructure – preparing the ground for progressive government – also seems very important. Definitely let’s chat next time I’m back home, but since that won’t be for 6 months at least, maybe we can Skype sometime too?

  4. below are some thoughts responding to your questions and your thoughts

    1. Do we need more gatherings of the Left in Aotearoa?
    gatherings are essential in a non-proportional democracy as the factions need to line up as much as possible in order to maintain a majority within an electoral bloc. it is less important for the similar political parties in NZ under MMP to be wholly joined up in this way, therefore what would additional gatherings accomplish? My feeling is that they could/would be very interesting in establishing clearer overlaps and divergences between the parties though more coordination and alignment of efforts, however this almost works against party’s large power bases as supporters working closely with another party might convert (and visaversa, but it seems like most parties would only want this process to be one way therefore trust between parties could become an issue.

    2. Do we have enough left-wing journalists?
    Not something I am totally worried about, but then I am not a big fan of the newspaper split between the left guardian, and the right telegraph. I prefer my media mixed with both opinions.

    3. Do we think enough about “the best of our traditions” on the New Zealand Left?
    I know this is not what you are getting at but to me the labour party movements tend to over romanticize its past and its traditions. I only have to look at some of the more contemporary labour disputes in both the UK and in NZ, and Union leaders and structures have continuingly disappointed me in terms of failing to adapt to difficult circumstances and not setting out to find the best possible situation for their constituents (workers). I don’t think nation wide unions structures can properly support and advocate for the specific and desperate needs of their base. And in a time where more and more power resides with large employers I think it is important for workforces to be involved and engaged in local collectivism rather than ‘outsourcing’ their interests to these generic national unions. Sorry using tradition and left in the same sentence always gets me on my union rant. ‘the left’ has acheived great things which is awesome and should strive to achieve more, but it should use fit for purpose tools for the job not necessarily the traditional ones.

    4. Could we do more to reconceptualise the role of the State?
    Massively excited about this, definitely think that big no longer works, but nor does small. I think this is one of the most exciting areas partly.. 5. Do we need to rename “austerity”? YES!, because it is here to stay. austerity is just good budgeting, ie lets do what we do now AND do some more for the same cash. This is going to be the focus for the public sector for the next 20 years or more. using state assets more effiecently, while also getting more out of them and providing if not more then better services using those same assets. To me this is exciting and improving and expanding the service we provide to citizens while being careful with the money they give us is what I am all about and why I am so happy to be a public servant.

    Great post max! really got me thinking sorry about the somewhat ranty writing, just figured it was best just to get it down and out there! Looking forward to talking/emailing/discussing more.

  5. Alexis says:

    Interesting – but – to what extent do you think that the Left’s success rests on countering itself against the right? Also I think a unified Labour-Greens could be damaging for the left. Maybe we need more ‘gatherings of the Left’ that are not specifically party-oriented? How were the gatherings in the UK framed – as in, how central of a role did the Labour Party play in the meetings?

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