How should I respond to Chris Trotter’s cynical summary of why it is pointless to rail against Labour’s lack of gumption in addressing the distressing wealth and income divisions that result in damaging and entrenched poverty?
Maybe one way, is to take his critique to heart.
According to Chris the reason that “a government with a clear majority of parliamentary seats, facing the worst Opposition in a generation, with the perfect excuse of a global pandemic, will still not take the drastic actions necessary to rescue its most vulnerable citizens” is that the required increase in redistribution (aka tax hikes) is unacceptable not only to National supporters but more critically to “the well-heeled, Labour-voting professionals who inhabit the leafy suburbs of New Zealand’s largest cities”.
As much of my life I have inhabited the group he targets I think I understand the point he is making.
Two things drive the “don’t do anything about the poor” group attitude. The first is naked self-interest, the second is ignorance. Perhaps the best approach is to appeal to the first and dispel the latter. The latter may be hardest. Well-educated they may be, but do the well-heeled who favour doing nothing for the poor understand the role of the state in a mixed market economy? Were they ever taught anything at all about taxes, social security, public goods, externalities, collective action or political philosophy at school? I certainly wasn’t.
I was however fortunate to escape from the confines of a traditional science education by taking the opportunity to retrain as an economist specialising in a core discipline public economics. When I diverted into the field of social policy I was grounded in the interlinked relationships between the old and the young, and the top and the bottom of the wealth divide.
This lockdown awakens the imagination by throwing into stark relief this intersection of those interests. Essential workers, skilled tradespeople, supermarket workers, carers, cleaners, and nurses underpin the living standards of the well-off. What good is a treasure chest of money when there are no trained plumbers, cleaners, or lawnmowers to be found? Wealth does not prevent dementia or the need for 24-hour care in late old age: having the money to pay is not the issue, the actual skilled workforce is. Who are you going to call when for decades the potential of so many of the young, particularly Māori and Pasifika has been undermined by poverty, debt and the failure of housing policy?
Chris Trotter is saying that Labour, like National will respond to its voting base, which is not the young and poor. If so, and assuming the Labour government would prefer to have a more equal society, the task for the Prime Minister will be to provide the leadership she is so good at, to get that neoliberal left to re-envision the future. In a sentence: appeal to their self-interest and challenge their ignorance.
Thus the rhetoric should make it clear that the future lifestyles of the well-off require that they invest extensively in poverty prevention, decent social housing, health and education of the generation on whom they will depend. Nowhere is there a better opportunity than this lockdown to show this- the costs to everyone, including restrictions on lifestyle of those in Auckland’s “leafy suburbs“ reflect decades of serious underinvestment in social capital in South Auckland.
Instead of Labour taking credit for subsidising foodbanks, the Prime Minister could express alarm that able-bodied, desperately needed in the health sector, are diverted to service the ever-expanding charities. The food parcel recipients who are made time poor and feel diminished and stigmatised are not likely be productive cheerful workers either. This is what the European settlers left Britain in the 19th century to escape. As Anand Giridharadas brilliantly explains in this interview, using private philanthropy and charity to address inequality undermines democracy and perpetuates, not solves, inequality.
To return to Labour’s voting base. It is the men, it seems, the “aristocracy of labour” who are the hardcore anti-welfare brigade that glorifies the paid work that men do. “But just let Jacinda threaten to raise their taxes, and that nostalgia vote will disappear in an instant. National and Act are always just a polling-booth away.”
If Labour’s voting men are a dead loss what about Labour women? Chris Trotter’s claim that “the kind, well-educated women who now constitute Labour’s electoral core get a kick out of voting for a party that talks about helping the poor – just so long as it doesn’t help them too much” is patronising and dismissive.
Women tend to get the intergenerational issues and the value of unpaid work. These ‘kind Labour women’ have a unique opportunity to flex their muscles. If their deep-felt concern for the unconscionable struggles of families and women doing the undervalued social care in society remains cynically dismissed, it is at Labour’s peril. The Greens are just a polling-booth away. Go the sisterhood!