DAVID CUNLIFFE is going to betray us. Why? Because David Cunliffe is the leader of the NZ Labour Party and labour parties always betray the hopes and dreams of their supporters. Always? Even the first Labour Government? Yes, even Mickey Savage’s Labour Government. Really? Yes, really. Because? Because all labour parties draw their inspiration from the social-democratic political tradition and a core belief of social-democracy is that you cannot take on capitalism and win. But, if you’re unwilling to take on capitalism, then you’ll never win, and conceding the contest to the capitalists is just another way of betraying your supporters.
At least that is what John Moore, in his latest posting over at Bryce Edward’s “Liberation” blogsite, is telling “the bloggers, political activists and union delegates who make up the current crop of leftie cheerleaders for the Labour Party”.
In “The Left’s New Love For Labour”, John argues that any future centre-left government “would still have the primary role of managing New Zealand’s small capitalist economy in uncertain times, with the aim of providing the best conditions for economic growth in a business-friendly environment.”
I’m not quite sure whether John sees “providing the best conditions for economic growth” as a good thing or a bad thing. Personally, I look upon the new jobs and higher wages that generally accompany any sustained period of economic growth as a very good thing indeed – but, then, I’m a social-democrat.
In promoting capitalist-centred growth, says John, Cunliffe would undergo a sort of Dr Jekyll to Mr Hide transformation. He would “inevitably be a very different beast to David Cunliffe the current friend of unions and leftists.” Just as easily as he had moved to the left “Cunliffe will move back to the centre, or even to the right, depending on the economic and political situation a future government that he leads is faced with.”
No, no, no, no, John. You’re just not reading the events of the past few weeks correctly.
With the changing of Labour’s rules, the ability of a Labour leader to pivot in the way you suggest has been dramatically curtailed. David Cunliffe, in particular, would find such a shift next to impossible. His leadership is absolutely dependent on his retaining the confidence and good-will of Labour’s rank-and-file members and trade union affiliates. He cannot do what David Lange and Roger Douglas did in 1984-85 without running the risk of sparking a party-wide revolt and opening the way for a new caucus champion of the rank-and-file.
Rules changes notwithstanding, John takes The Daily Blog editor, Martyn Bradbury, and myself to task for giving Cunliffe “almost uncritical support”. Apparently, we should have adopted the blowtorch tactics of Socialist Aotearoa’s Omar Hamed.
Omar vilifies Cunliffe on the SA blog for failing to release Ali Panah and half-a-dozen other Iranian Christian asylum-seekers who went on hunger-strike back in 2006-07 when Cunliffe was Minister of Immigration in Helen Clark’s cabinet. Omar’s colourful depiction of Mr Panah’s plight cannot, however, erase the historical fact that the hunger-striker was ultimately released from Mt Eden Remand Prison. Nor does Omar disclose that Cunliffe’s actions were guided by advice received from the Refugee Status Appeals Authority which had dismissed Mr Panah’s claims as “lacking in credibility”.
Moving on from Omar’s excoriation of Cunliffe, John makes a concerted effort to condemn me out of my own mouth by quoting postings I have made on the Clark Government’s failure to persist with the Labour-Alliance coalition’s progressive agenda in the face of concerted capitalist resistance during the infamous “Winter of Discontent” in 2000.
This incident did indeed provide a vivid lesson in the power of capital to intimidate and disrupt the programme of a social-democratic government. But John’s analytical mistake in relation to my account of the Winter of Discontent is to confuse a description of what happened in May 2000 with some sort of unshakeable ideological conclusion that the fate of the Clark government must necessarily be the fate of every other Labour-led coalition government that courts the displeasure of the ruling class.
But this is not the case. History is not driven forward by some sort of schema, and events do not unfold according to an inexorable determinism. People are capable of learning from the past and politicians exhibit very different styles of practising politics.
Salvador Allende’s socialist government was overthrown in a coup d’état 40 years ago – in large part because he did not mobilise his working-class supporters soon enough against an insurgent Chilean middle class. Thirty years later, Hugo Chavez’s socialist government was also toppled in a coup, but this time the left-wing president was restored to power by the Chavistas of Caracas’s slums – marching in their thousands against the plotters’ regime and bringing it crashing down.
Social democracy enjoyed extraordinary success during the 1930s – most particularly in Sweden, New Zealand and the United States. Those successes were entrenched during the post-war economic boom years, but they were not extended. The emergence of the Soviet Union as a totalitarian superpower caused strict political boundaries to be set in the nations of the West. Those who attempted to exceed the limitations imposed by a nervous capitalism paid a very high price. The fate of Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile and of Gough Whitlam’s Labor government in Australia were salutary.
In the 1970s social-democrats across the globe had surprisingly little awareness of just how close they were to fundamentally undermining the capitalist system. The capitalists, however, were in no doubt as to the seriousness of their predicament. Their answer – neoliberalism – was unleashed upon the social-democratic parties and governments of the 1980s before they could grasp how fragile and vulnerable the capitalist system had become.
The capitalists’ fightback was as comprehensive in its scope as it was ruthless in its execution. Social democratic parties that failed to “get with the programme” were subjected to relentless attacks by the news media and plagued by internal subversion and debilitating factional strife. “Centre-left” politicians like David Lange and Roger Douglas in New Zealand, and Tony Blair in the UK, soon discovered that they got along much faster by going along with the new, neoliberal orthodoxy.
But the Cold War ended in 1991 and neoliberalism foundered in 2008. Astonishingly, the social-democrats of the twenty-first century seem as unaware of the opportunities confronting them as the social-democrats of the 1970s. Not since the 1930s has there been such scope for a fundamental reconfiguration of our economic, political and social institutions. The trick for the social-democrats of 2013 is not to let this opportunity slip through our fingers like we did the last one.
If I seem “almost uncritical” in my support for the Cunliffe-led Labour Party it is not because I have succumbed, as John charges, to “the politics of low horizons”, but because I still understand what I have always understood: that “politics” – full-stop – is all we have.
To move the social-democratic project forward it is necessary to fight every day with what life “on the desperate edge of now” places in our hands.
Two years ago, listening to David Cunliffe speak to a Labour Party gathering in Blockhouse Bay, I realised that the Labour caucus possessed at least one member who grasped the possibilities for advancing social-democracy in a world ruled by neoliberal zombies who had yet to come to terms with the fact that their god had failed.
I decided then and there that Cunliffe was worth supporting. Not because he is the “perfect knight”, wholly unblemished by compromise or error; but because, in the course of my daily assessment of who is moving the left forward, and who is holding it back, Cunliffe consistently comes out on the side those who are advancing the cause.
Which is pretty much what Eduard Bernstein, the founder of social-democracy meant when he declared: “The movement is everything, the final goal is nothing.”
The “revolution” is the accumulation of the progressive choices that left-wing people of goodwill make every minute of every day. If you wait for it to happen, John, it will happen while you wait.