What do we want from a labour-led government


I have avoided doing a blog on the Labour Party leadership race because I’m not a member of the Labour Party and I don’t have much confidence that they would deliver on the promises made.

In my view unionists and socialists should focus on building a social movement that can organise and mobilise working people in the hundreds of thousands. Relying on parliamentary representatives to do the job for us is a fundamental flaw.

Even if Labour’s new leader David Cunliffe was a committed socialist he would be powerless to stand up against the pressure big business would bring to bear unless there was a massive movement below to give strength to those in government who wanted to push forward real reforms in the interests of working people.

Big business launched a massive “winter of discontent” shortly after the election of the Helen Clark led Labour Alliance government in 1999. Following that display of strength the government reform programme came to a virtual halt. Similarly “closing the gaps” for Maori was shut down at the first hint of opposition and anything that smelt of affirmative action abandoned.

I don’t believe David Cunliffe is a socialist. He is someone from the right of the party who has genuinely come to question the mantras of free-market capitalism and the inequality it produces. But that is not unusual today – even World Bank and IMF economists are claiming a new found belief in the importance of reducing inequality. Their solutions to the problem however remain firmly within the bounds of those acceptable to the maintenance of the system.

And that is the nub of the problem. Big Business will only ever accept a programme of social reform that may benefit working people when they feel their system is under threat. That was true in the 1930 and 1940s. Millions of working people were mobilising internationally and usually under a socialist banner of some sort. The ruling classes got frightened and tolerated some reforms for a period. The great depression and war that followed also gave big business a profit boost that meant they could afford to pay a little more to keep the system safe.

That is not true today. Even the relatively modest policies that David Cunliffe is talking about – a living wage, small tax increases for the rich and a capital gains tax – are likely to generate significant business opposition.

The usual response from social democratic governments in those circumstances is capitulation. I expect no difference from a Cunliffe-led government. But I am also happy to be proved wrong.

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Unionists and socialists inside and outside the Labour Party actually have a common interest here. This includes people like myself who is a Mana supporter and many Green Party activists as well.

The only way there would be a hope for David Cunliffe and co to stand up against big business in government would be if we had had a massively organised and mobilised working class movement that had an interest in the promised reforms happening.

This is where I think we need to look at what the priorities are that we want such a government to focus on. At the moment is seems to me that the CTU leaders are focussed on measures that can benefit workers generally outside of any organised framework. This is true for example of the living wage proposal or the idea of industry-wide national minimum standards being imposed by the government.

I have no problems with the proposals as such – any increase in income or protections for workers is of course something to celebrate. However what we need above all is the ability to organise as a class and impose our own solutions to the problems that face us.

Much more thought needs to go into what legal changes could be made that would give unions a greater ability to organise the 92% of the private sector workforce outside of unions. This includes access to the workplace and forcing employers to bargain for multi-employer collectives. We also need a significant extension of the right to strike to include those for political demands and for the enforcement of the existing contracts – rights eliminated by a previous Labour government.


  1. One classic trotskyite position “little progress has been made because we predicted little progress would be made” is relevant here. Leaders not supported by the thousands do not get too far.

    Parts of Latin America are an exception to the general neo liberal fall out of disengagement, yay! but NZ social democracy is still an ideological dead end. But, But, reforms are a necessary evil sometimes like Mike advances so “work with and struggle against” as I was taught about the Labourites as a youngster.

  2. I don’t know why businesses would be against a capital gains tax. Surely it would mean a lower tax burden for companies and their employees and more investment in the sharemarket rather than property. Seems pretty pro-business to me.

  3. Besides of a smarter, better organised and functioning economy, I ABSOLUTELY expect more social justice, and that includes a fair, reasonable and decent treatment of beneficiaries, who should not be blamed for the poor government policies that leave them where they are! Empowerment, respect, inclusion are needed, not Mansel Aylwards and David Bratt’s moral lectures, pseudo science, unproved “findings”, and NO stigmatisation and harassment by Paula Benefit, thanks.

  4. “I don’t believe David Cunliffe is a socialist. He is someone from the right of the party who has genuinely come to question the mantras of free-market capitalism and the inequality it produces”

    I totally agree with you, Mike Treen, and it is sad that the Labour leadership campaign was so much abused to tell Labour members and supporters that so much will be different in future. There will of course be a change, but it will by no means be to the degree that most hope for.

    Yet most Kiwis are very gullible, and superficial folk, they fall for all tricks and cheats, and they repeat this behavior again and again. It is the same with gambling, casinos, investments in finance companies and more. There are too many wanting to “game” the system and get advantages, but if it goes wrong they all scream hell break loose.

    It has not sunk in that only collective, common and united efforts are the best safeguard for any risks and whatever, yes the future of society. So they will continue to try and beat the normal logic, like an addict trying to beat addiction, by having another try of the same kind.

    Sad this is, and other countries are miles ahead, even one like Chile, although also governed by capitalism and a rightist president, they at least allow debates of social issues on public television.

    Now when did I last see this on NZ television? I cannot remember to be honest.

  5. We want social and economic change in New Zealand, and it is overdue, and sadly we have been let down too much over many years by various governments.

    The social and economic war is between on one hand the neo-liberalism and the Chicago School of economics and on the other more progressive, post Keynesian economics. We are still waiting for that transition, and how it will work out. The forces opposed to this are formidable and hostile, and we must muster ALL forces available to beat them.

    I take spirit from our comrades in Chile, and sadly some are former ones, who were murdered by a fascist regime. We have not had open fascism yet in NZ, but there is definitely a trend towards modern day fascism in this country.

    Remember in spirit one of the most culturally in tune progressives from Chile, Victor Jara, who was tortured and murdered for the justice and freedom he believed in. We must be prepared to make the same sacrifice, for sure.



    Enjoy great music and revolutionary spirit, Viva Victor and others!

  6. Of course Cunliffe is not a socialist, but he has as Mike says seen the light around the gap between the rich and poor. Cunliffe moved to Herne Bay so his wife could breastfeed their kids, well now they are well past that he should move back to New Lyn.

    I think he is however the best of a bad bunch and I genuinely believe he will pull the GCSB legislation and do a few other good things.

    Big business would screw the country if they thought it was going seriously to the left.

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