THE LABOUR PARTY has never been very tolerant of dissenters. It is, therefore, unsurprising that very few within its ranks have reacted positively to my recent posting on The Daily Blog. No matter how many private reservations Labour supporters may be harbouring about Grant Robertson’s “fiscally responsible” economic policies, they would rather his critics refrained from giving public voice to their concerns.
The case they make for maintaining radio silence on the new government’s performance is that criticism, no matter how well-merited or constructive, will only reinforce the National Oppositions “shambolic” narrative. What Jacinda Ardern and her team need more than anything else at this time, argue their supporters, is a few weeks of relative calm in which to prepare themselves for the challenges of 2018.
Convincing New Zealanders that their new finance minister is not a swivel-eyed economic loon is regarded as crucial to this process of political consolidation. Grant Robertson winning accolades from mainstream journalists for his fiscal and economic responsibility is much more to be desired, at this stage of proceedings, than receiving the hearty endorsement of radical leftists. It’s “baby steps” that Labour needs to take right now – not giant strides.
One critic of my criticism put it like this:
“What you are dealing with in NZ today, is a fairly conservative political climate. The political Left is no longer a strong and coherent force. The electorate is split roughly down the middle between Left and Right. Any government somehow has to bridge the conflicts and disunity to represent the voting population, and it’s going to be centrist. The new government is treading carefully very deliberately, so as not to alienate the business sector or impede market confidence. The new government has to gain confidence and that imperative guides it for now.”
But, if the electorate is “split roughly down the middle”, then describing the Left as no longer “a strong and coherent force” makes no sense. Equally nonsensical is the suggestion that in a society characterised by “conflicts and disunity” the only viable strategy is to embrace the politics of centrism. Governing on behalf of the centre makes sense when, on social and economic issues, there is a broad measure of agreement. While that may have been the case in the 1960s, it is certainly not true of today.
Nor is it true that New Zealanders are living in a “fairly conservative climate”. Mainstream newspaper and magazine editors may like to think that their own conservative views are also those of the majority; and talkback hosts like Leighton Smith will loudly insist that they are; but that half of the population routinely excluded from mainstream political discourse seethes with entirely justifiable resentment and barely suppressed rage.
These New Zealanders are unlikely to be mollified or impressed by the spectacle of a Labour-led government “treading carefully very deliberately so as not to alienate the business sector or impede market confidence.” They have, after all, seen this happen many times before and they know that the moment “their” government makes the maintenance of business confidence its No. 1 priority, then all hope of it ever living up to its promise of “transforming” society flies out the window.
Because, of course, gaining and maintaining the confidence of the business sector involves a great deal more than managing-down Crown debt and building up healthy surpluses. Nothing requires more in the way of constant state intervention and control than a laissez-faire economy. The slightest hint that the plethora of legal constraints required to keep the markets “free” might be thinned-out or, horror of horrors, done away with altogether, is absolutely guaranteed to send the confidence of the business sector into a nosedive.
Just recall the howls of outrage that accompanied Metira Turei’s promise to make a bonfire of the MSD’s hated “sanctions”. New Zealand’s brutal social welfare regime fulfils exactly the same role as Britain’s nineteenth century workhouses: it is a means of ensuring that workers will accept low wages and poor working conditions in preference to enduring the humiliation and material deprivation of life on “the benefit”. Any relaxation of the “rules” governing beneficiaries’ lives would shake the business sector to its core.
Even more destabilising to the business sector would be any serious attempt on the part of a “transformational government” to rebuild the strength and fighting spirit of the trade union movement. Restoring “compulsory unionism”, and lifting the current legal restrictions on the right to strike, would instantly provoke employers into full-scale revolt. They do not need to read the works of Karl Polanyi to know that “the only way politically to temper the destructive influence of organized capital and its ultra-market ideology [is] with highly mobilized, shrewd, and sophisticated worker movements.”
My point is that just about any measure aimed at loosening the controls that keep the “free market” running smoothly will be deemed unacceptable by the business sector. Any attempt to make the lives of working-class people less constrained and fearful; any move to emancipate and empower the inhabitants of the social depths; will be interpreted by those who occupy the commanding heights of our society as a direct thrust at their interests and privileges.
Yes, raising taxes and/or increasing the deficit would be regarded as an unfriendly act, but so, too, would decriminalising marijuana, or emptying the prisons of all those found guilty of victimless crimes, or following the example of Costa Rica and abolishing the armed forces.
In the end, the promise to be a “transformational” government is a promise to put the need of the many ahead of the greed of the few. That will do nothing to retain the confidence of the business sector, but it might just be enough to win the confidence of that “other half” of the New Zealand people whose votes made this government possible.