MAY DAY is traditionally the day Unions celebrate the progressive change they have impacted upon society – This May TDB has asked leading progressive voices in NZ to give their views on the pressing issues that require solving in progressive politics. This is fourth one – James Ritchie
“Can the Left Survive” shouts the headline from the Tory press two weeks after the British elections.
Such a headline asks if economic and social justice can survive as if it is some kind of endangered fauna. It ignores the Scots overwhelming vote against austerity and glosses over the failure of British Labour to put a coherent alternative before the electorate.
For many years we have been looking for a coherent alternative that can resonate with the electorate and avoid environmental and economic catastrophe.
The question is not whether the fight against inequality and the fight for human rights can survive but what form it will take in the future.
There is no simple path and we need the wisdom to find new language and new methods to express progressive egalitarian values.
No single person or political party or social movement has all the solutions to work our way out of this mess. There can be certainty on principle but not on process and I therefore offer a few observations that might contribute; not to a debate but rather to finding a politics of consistency and humility which can focus on the planet and its people, rather than on the relentless pursuit of economic growth and corporate profit.
We should do more listening and less hectoring and lecturing. People do not like to be given a lesson in polemics. We sometimes use the language associated with totalitarianism and economic failure. This is a major impediment to progress.
We need consistency in our principles rather than consistency in supporting anything perceived as ‘Left’. To illustrate this point we only have to look at the labour movement’s ambivalent relationship to ILO conventions. We declare that we take a rights approach to the workplace and then excuse the extensions of the State apparatus that masquerade as unions in nations such as China, Vietnam and Egypt.
We either support democratic and independent trade unions and the right to strike or we support state control of workers organizations. Labour activists are not the nation state and are not required to practice international diplomacy, so we would be better served by a consistent approach to human rights.
Change does not come easily. It will not be won through passive observation and reliance on dialogue in social media.
It takes work, struggle and commitment. It will take patience and respect and consideration.
We could begin by developing a greater understanding of the reasons why so many working class people are turning to UKIP or NZ First (I am not equating the policies of these two political parties but I suggest that both attract disaffected working class voters.)
Voters for these parties are rejecting globalization and the self serving inadequacy of the political establishment.
Many voters believe that the free flow of labour threatens their jobs and incomes. While expressing concern about the free flow of capital as disrupting social protection and putting downward pressure on wages and living standards, we are quick to point out any xenophobic tendencies in the debate over the free flow of labour. We might be better to acknowledge that people want an immigration policy that contributes to economic security.
If we can acknowledge that the increased mobility of labour might cause greater chaos, insecurity and social dislocation then we can start developing a humane immigration and refugee policy that contributes to community and builds economic and social security.
Our role is to work with people to lessen insecurity, not to collaborate in neo liberal policies which increase it.
The strengthening of economic security requires the championing of regulation and collective rights. It is the freedom from poverty rather than the freedom of our choices as consumers that requires attention in this age of obscene inequality.
Individual rights are not a threat to corporate capitalism. Euthanasia, marriage equality, and racial equality do not challenge corporate dominance and the economic order. This is not to diminish the importance of these rights as the fight against discrimination is integral to the struggle for social justice.
However, there is not media space or serious consideration in most political discourse concerning the suppression of collective rights. The right to form and join unions of your choice and join with others to collectively bargain terms and conditions of employment threatens the dominant world order and the debate is shut down or ignored by mainstream media and most politicians at every opportunity, including by many in Labour and social democratic parties.
Financial regulation and redistributive tax policies also challenge corporate dominance and these must also be kept at the top of the agenda for progressive activists.
This is the political battleground where the stakes are highest. And frankly most social democratic and Labour parties are avoiding the battlefield in favour of ad hoc populist skirmishes (mansion tax, work for beneficiaries) and the support for individual rights.
And while we are distracted by the daily news cycle we continue to condemn citizens of the future by refusing to seriously tackle climate change. The intergenerational theft of today blocks the access of young people to decent employment and social benefits. We must not tolerate these crimes of the 21st century and we must not be distracted from the struggle to restore the rights and incomes of working people everywhere.
James Ritchie runs one of the largest Unions on the planet – the IUF-UITA-IUL