This post argues the Left needs the division of Labour to beat John Key. Socially progressive issues should be driven by the Greens, and Young Labour should embrace the shameless careerist opportunism and unprincipled positioning that has always the party’s strength. Young Labour activists who care more about issues than craven pursuit of power should migrate to the Greens for the good of the left. Those who are more interested in power should focus on issues that matter to the soft centre. In the following post I lay out the problem for Labour, and a solution.
The Problem with Labour
Labour has had a range of problems over the past five years. Some of these are personal (/personnel), some are policy, some are delivery, and some are structural. But I believe the problem that underpins their drop to the low 30s is structural. I won’t discuss good leadership, robust policy and sound delivery here, since it’s a given that a party should do them well.
The Left’s structural problem is Labour’s left flank, particularly Young Labour. Their thinking is more socially advanced than middle New Zealand, which is a problem as Labour needs middle New Zealand to win the election. That’s not to say Young Labour are wrong on the issues. I agree that society is structured in a way that privileges white, western, straight, able bodied, cis men. But these are just not the kind of issues that will make Joe and Joanne Bloggs change their vote from National to Labour. These issues must be advanced, but we are fools to expect middle New Zealand to vote for us after confronting them about their privilege.
(Young) Labour can not plausibly expect the support of working class kiwis while scorning their social values. No one should be surprised that so many white men in the provinces have gone to National. (Young) Labour is effectively saying ‘we represent you, but we are embarrassed and offended by your views’.
I am not saying that the left should give up talking about privilege. Rather, the left should be strategic about WHO does the talking. The structural issue here is that we have two parties trying to span the entire left. This creates inconsistent messaging and internal tension. Obviously, we need a centre-left party and a left-left party (I’m setting aside Mana here because, for whatever reason, not many leftists are interested in them).
A Solution for Labour
So what is to be done? Well, we certainly shouldn’t run further from the majority, as Chris Trotter suggested in a recent post. Trotter claims:
“What the Left generally – and Labour in particular – needs … [is something] that signals unequivocally to the Left’s electoral base that Labour’s radicalisation project … is still real, still in earnest and … still on track.”
This is, of course, batshit crazy. Making left-wing voters ‘vote left harder’ is no way to win an election. Motivating the base is not enough. Joe and Joanne will not come with us because they don’t go in for radicalism.
We need to take votes from Key. We need to appeal to voters who are more socially conservative than we are. But to do so can be galling for a principle-driven activist.
I argue that if Labour wishes to represent New Zealand generally (and the working class specifically), it should address their concerns, not those of Young Labour and the left flank. In order for this to happen, activists need to move to a party that can authentically promote these issues without jeopardising votes from the centre. That party is the Greens. In doing so, Labour stands a better chance of pulling the apolitical, struggling, and poor away from ‘that lovely man John Keyes’.
In my view, the truly principle-driven should leave Labour, join the Greens, and allow Labour to drift back to the centre. The Principled Left’s long march through Labour’s institutions has anchored the party too far to the left. This has prevented it from placing electoral gain above principles and winning the centre. In doing so, Labour has effectively ceded the centre to National, which has seized it with relish.
I recognise this will be an anathema to Young Labour. Many Young Labour kids are torn between burning idealism, and the desire to sell this enthusiasm for a shot at being PM. If they favour idealism, they are best placed in the Greens. If they favour ambition, then they are best placed in the careerist vipers’ nest. But, either way, beating Key is looking increasingly difficult unless we face some facts and swallow some dead rats. First and foremost is a realistic and sober reflection on the issues that matter to a majority of New Zealanders.
Polygamy, quotas and LGBTQIA struggles are not in this category. These issues are best addressed from government, and the best way to get into government (I argue) is for the Greens to focus on these issues and for Labour to compete in the centre. This is not a question of what is morally right, but what is tactically effective.
The left needs division of labour, with Labour stealing votes from Key in the centre and the Greens advancing the important social issues on the left.