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Will Labour Take The Third Way?

By   /  September 2, 2013  /  7 Comments

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Third way social democracy was never an ideology of or for the left. It was an experiment. Can Labour afford to experiment with Grant Robertson?

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Consider this:

Labour Party deputy leader Grant Robertson has moved to try and reassure financial markets that its sudden lurch to favour central planning in the electricity industry is one-off…

Mr Robertson says: “Labour makes no apology for stepping in to fix problems in the electricity sector. But this is not a signal that Labour is going to intervene elsewhere in the economy”.

And compare it with this from David Cunliffe:

While the hippies were out protesting in the streets… Milton Friedman was selling his students the idea that taxation was evil and that businesses worked best when they were deregulated. .. the Labour Party in New Zealand enthusiastically took up Friedman’s philosophy, which is now called neo-liberalism …

All around the world this realization is sinking in: the unregulated marketplace has been a disaster, and the costs have always been borne by ordinary people.

Try and reconcile it with Jane Clinfton’s recent column:

[Grant Robertson is] also – and this is a bit of a secret – way more left-wing than Cunliffe. This will come as a surprise to many of the latter’s supporters.

The claim that Grant Robertson is “way more left-wing” than David Cunliffe doesn’t compute. In 1993 Chris Trotter labelled Robertson the “reluctant radical”. There’s isn’t anything in Robertson’s public record that denies the label.

Robertson can’t be held against a ministerial record, but he’s credited with persuading Helen Clark to introduce interest free student loans. On that policy achievement alone, Robertson is a third way social democrat – the policy took the rough edges off of the loan scheme but didn’t radically reform or replace it. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair would be proud.

But in 2012 Robertson delivered a sweeping and progressive speech on the environment. He linked the environment with the economy, the government and the opportunities it presents the left. Where was that Grant Robertson when NZ Powergave the establishment the jitters? MIA. Instead, the Grant Robertson of the fifth Labour government – the reluctant social democrat – arrived. If Robertson is “way more left-wing”, then it’s no surprise that it’s “a bit of a secret”. His record doesn’t broadcast strong social democracy.

That’s not to say Cunliffe’s a socialist, he’s a social democrat. His record in the fifth Labour government isn’t unblemished. He was an enthusiastic supporter of PPPs. But two things occurred between then and now: the GFC and the Great Recession. Cunliffe acknowledges that the collapse “changes things” and offers the left the “freedom  to ask big questions” about whether pre-crash policy settings are appropriate. According to Cunliffe,  in many cases “the anwer is no”.

The International Socialist Organisation of Aotearoa New Zealand argues (with strong qualifications) that Cunliffe “is talking a language almost unheard of from Labour politicians in a generation”. When Cunliffe delivered his invisible hand speech the only other politicians who dared mention neoliberalism were Hone Harawira and Annette Sykes. On yesterday’s Q+A Robertson rejected neoliberalism – but it smells of a Johnney-come-lately.

While Cunliffe was rejecting neoliberalism Robertson was propping up a leader who demonised beneficiaries. So it surprises me that Robertson is apparently the candidate of the left. The Labour left, probably, but the wider left is clear in its preference for Cunliffe. Robertson would energise Labour, but Cunliffe would energise the wider left.

Third way social democracy was never an ideology of or for the left. It was an experiment. Can Labour afford to experiment with Grant Robertson?

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About the author

Morgan Godfery

Morgan Godfery - Te Pahipoto, Lalomanu (Samoa). Morgan is based in Wellington and is a political writer specialising in Maori politics. Better known as the author of Maui Street, Morgan spends too much time following international politics, indigenous peoples and TV. He is humbled to be a part of New Zealand’s best blogging line up.


  1. […] Morgan Godfery does an excellent job in his blog today of examining the difference between Grant’s cautious re-invention of himself as a left wing Labour leader and Cunliffe’s road to Damascus during the Global Financial Crisis. For me, Grant is the cautious prodigy of Helen Clark’s style of softly-softly-manage-rather-than-challenge style of politics where as Cunliffe strikes me as someone who was surprised by the free market collapse and has had to ask himself hard questions of the hegemonic structure which leads him to some pretty radical conclusions. Jones on the other hand is wanting to earn his place on the front bench and wants to stamp some authority on proceedings, his countless hours in the courts of Maoridom has given him oratory skills that really need to be seen to be believed. […]

  2. Countryboy says:

    Very good Post in my humble opinion . Thanks Morgan Godfrey .

    I can’t get past that odd vibe coming from Grant Robertson . He vibrates like a career politician . He vibrates like a Player .

    And you are correct in suggesting that it’s significant that Cunliffe , most notably , mentioned neoliberalism .

    My deep fear is that the process of discussion re the impact neoliberalism has had on us will normalize it’s effect and the proponents of Milton Friedmans guide to carte blanche treachery for fun and profit will quietly slip into obscurity along with our money , stuff and the lives of the many , many good people [it’s] ruined over the last thirty or more years .

    I want to see roger douglas and his minions standing before a commission of inquiry to publicly explain themselves once David Cunliffe has lead Labour to victory in 2014 .

    • Tim says:

      “He vibrates like a career politician . He vibrates like a Player .”
      In less polite circles and for those that have attended the Shane Jones/Nosher Powell finishing school for gentlemen, I think they would call him a “scene queen”.
      Scene in all the right places – i.e. those beneficial to career advancement and self-interest.
      And after all, it IS Jane Clifton claiming he is to the left!

      • Tim says:

        Ekshly, if and when Grant becomes leader, and Trev becomes Mr Speaker, Jane’s having the Speakers chair converted to a chaise longe – she’ll be lounging to the right. It’ll be done out in leather, but rest assured Jane will be lounging around in a business suit made from one of grandma’s old sofa upholstery.
        Bitchy and manipulative, or what!

  3. thesilence says:

    mallard as speaker revenage on the national party

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