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.