Why Labour can’t be trusted to address climate change

If you are left wing and concerned with climate change, then Labour is not for you.  I’m looking at Young Labour in particular, who made climate change one of their top policy priorities at their conference in October 2013.


Young Labour are concerned with climate change, but the party leadership is not. People concerned with climate change will have serious difficulty convincing senior MPs to take meaningful action. Let’s take offshore drilling as an example – David Cunliffe, Shane Jones, Andrew Little, and David Parker are all pro-drilling to some extent, with Jones’ and Cunliffe’s positions the best known. This means that Labour’s leader, deputy leader, and spokesperson for regional development are all in favour of offshore drilling.


Some of Labour’s other MPs have even worked in the oil and gas industries, including Labour’s climate change spokesperson Moana Mackay. Mackay was an analyst at Mobil Oil‘s  Technical Services Laboratory from 1996-1999. Chris Hipkins was employed to provide industry training for several large oil companies. Clayton Cosgrove also worked in oil and gas as a corporate affairs manager for the Churchill Group. It will be interesting to see whether these MPs’ time in the oil and gas industries has made them more sympathetic to its concerns. Backbencher Raymond Huo is also “economically right”, and thus more likely to favour a free market approach. This is to say nothing of senior Labour figures outside caucus who are involved in the industries, such as senior advisor John Pagani, who now works for Oil and Gas NZ.

Senior figures in caucus may have some concerns about harm caused by drilling accidents, but they they seem to have little concern about harm caused by continued emissions from oil and gas.

I’m not saying Labour should not discuss climate change. I’m saying that if you are seriously concerned with climate change, you should support a party that shares your views.


Behind Labour’s hollow claims to represent workers

The mechanics behind Labour’s broken claim to represent workers’ values are simple. As I argued in a previous post, there are deep incompatibilities between workers’ values and progressives’ values. Labour claims to represent both value groups, but is not effectively managing these incompatibilities. Obviously, part of this is the poor state of Labour in general, but part of this is the party’s new leadership selection rules.


Labour’s new leadership selection process effectively forces candidates to undergo a US-style primary campaign that openly pits the silent centre against the loud left. While the new process is more democratic, there is a trade-off between representation and efficacy. This primary dynamic tends to push candidates away from the centre and towards the disproportionately progressive membership to win selection. Since the progressive voice is particularly loud in the membership, only leaders with progressive credentials stand a shot at winning leadership at present (sorry Shane, you’re out of luck). This progressive dominance flows through to the issues prioritised by the party, and shapes the public’s view of the party.

The domination of progressive issues is accompanied (and reinforced) by a party structure that effectively excludes workers from the highest levels. This is caused by the party’s well-established pathways that turn young university politicians into party/union positions, then into MPs. I’ll have more to say about this in an upcoming post.

The dominance of progressive values pushes the more conservative social values of workers from the agenda. When the party claims to represent the workers while appearing out of step with workers’ values, it creates dissonance.


This dissonance is amplified when a wedge issue separates non-progressive MPs (such as Ross Robertson, Damien O’Connor, and Su’a William Sio) from the party’s progressive wing. This occurred with Louisa Wall’s (excellent) Marriage Equality Bill. Robertson, Sio and O’Connor voted against the Bill, much to the chagrin of the progressives. However, polls by Campbell Live and the New Zealand Herald showed 77% and 48% of respondents opposed marriage equality (admittedly, these are shoddy polls). While the Bill was a historic achievement, it trumpeted Labour’s progressive values. You may love marriage equality (I do), but we need to recognise that a lot of working kiwis do not, and these workers vote.

The promotion of progressive issues and progressive individuals, coupled with the exclusion of workers and their values, leads to the party appearing radically different to those it claims to represent. This dissonance makes Labour’s claims to represent workers ring hollow. This hollowness loosens the ties between workers and the Labour party, allowing them to drift towards the blokey blokes in National and New Zealand First, who better reflect the social conservatism of many workers.

So what can Labour do? I’ll have more to say about that over the next week. But in short, I believe the best tactical hope for the Left is for progressive issues to be fronted by the Left’s most coherently and authentically progressive party- The Greens. I think Labour should return to its roots and represent workers’ values and concerns, and bring them home to the Left.

Workers vs. Progressives: the elephant hidden in Labour’s room

There is an old saying in politics that ‘the Right seeks converts and the Left seeks traitors’. While there are obvious exceptions to this (US politics/the Tea Party), whoever said it has a point. The Left has always had a vibrant and active witch-burning community. The Left has a lot of diversity and passion, but apart from opposing capitalist exploitation and the Right, it has no real unifying purpose. This is especially the case since the collapse of state socialism and the sharp decline of union power.

Workers, especially white provincial workers, are now likely to vote National. But why is this? And why is Labour so bad at appealing to them? I believe it is partly to do with Labour mismanaging the clashing interests of the Left’s three ‘values groups’- greens, workers, and progressives (which includes groups focused on identity politics). These three groups have a lot in common (being stocked with opportunistic careerists), but also important differences.

Over the next few posts I’ll outline the tension between workers and progressives, and how it affects the Labour Party’s appeal to workers, particularly white provincial workers. In this post, I’ll discuss the differences between the two groups. Later in the week I’ll discuss how this feeds into the factionalism and loss of the centre, and justify my conclusion that progressives need to be unified in a solidly left-progressive party (the Greens or Mana). I will further argue that trying to encompass these groups has led to the dominance of progressives within Labour, who (because of institutional factors) overpower the interests of workers and thus push them to National.

This dynamic has recently been brought into relief by Shane Jones, who appears to represent workers’ values, rather than those of progressives. He seems to have a good sense of what most working people care about- here’s a hint: it IS socially conservative, it ISN’T caucus gender quotas.

Jones has one eye on the left and one eye on the right. Puns fully intended.
Shane Jones has one eye on the left and one eye on the right.

Workers and Progressives: Labour’s hidden cold war
I argue much of Labour’s current structural problem lies with its mismanagement of the clashing values of workers and progressives. Here are some of the main differences:

Higher Education: choosing to be poor
Generally speaking, manual labourers come from manual labour families and do not have university degrees, whereas progressives (particularly leading progressives) are largely university educated. This difference matters because universities are uniquely effective at shaping the values of those that attend them, and are repositories of a particular set of values- specifically, upper and middle class white values. Additionally, those who attend universities are disproportionately upper and middle class, and can choose to be poor for a few years. In short, the university experience draws people of a certain background and instils them with a certain set of values, and these are not the values of the working class.

‘Material’ and ‘Post-material’ values: starving people care less about gay marriage
I think a great deal of the values differences between workers and progressives relate to what Inglehart calls materialist and post-materialist values. The former are concerned with economic and physical issues. The latter relate to self-expression and autonomy, and are usually advocated by those whose material needs have been met. Workers who are struggling to get by have more material concerns.

Precarious living and social conservatism
The lives of many workers are economically precarious, or not far above it. Precarious people do not often welcome change because it is destabilising. Precarious people don’t want this because they’re just keeping their head above water as it is. It is not surprising that they would care more about paying the rent than whether the next census has a genderqueer identity option.

But more than that, many workers are hostile to socially progressive values. Anyone who has worked a blue-collar job is likely familiar with the social views commonly held by many workers. Socially conservative views were certainly the most common views I heard in my ten years of manual labour prior to university.

New Zealand was reminded of the social conservatism of workers when Grant Robertson ran for Labour leadership. News media spoke to union members in South Auckland, many of whom said “I don’t like gay people”. Labour MP Andrew Little, a former union lawyer, was not surprised.

The social conservatism of workers has a long history. Workers groups, particularly unions, have opposed women’s suffrage and resisted immigration from poor countries, including in New Zealand. It all boils down to four words- “they’ll take our jobs.”

This is understandable when one considers the appeal of conservatism. For more information, see research from Jonathan Haidt, which demonstrates conservative values simply have broader psychological appeal.

One of the big issues that divides workers from progressives is meritocracy/equity. People who feel like they work lots to earn little begrudge those who seem to get it handed to them- it simply clashes with their sense of fairness. Hence the unpopularity of treaty settlements, identity quotas, and the dole amongst many working people. Treaty settlements seem to enjoy cross-party consensus now, so the issue has less heat. But Labour’s progressives are very interested in identity equity, and this simply does not resonate with many workers.

Labour attempts to represent two large values groups; workers and progressives. While these groups have shared interests, they also have important differences. Later in the week I’ll claim that this structural dissonance in the Labour party makes their claims to represent the workers ring false, and thus drives them to National.

The upsides of a Labour leadership contest

Since the Herald Digipoll came out showing Labour at under 30%, there has been renewed speculation about rolling Cunliffe. Much of this can be put down to speculation, but if it were to happen, would there be any advantages? In this post I’ll examine some of the advantages of Labour running a leadership contest prior to the election.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that it’s a good idea to do so. But I haven’t seen anyone discussing the upsides of such a bleak situation, so I thought I’d fill the gap. I am NOT suggesting Labour should do it.


Owning the news 
The first and most obvious advantage of a leadership contest would be dominance of the news. It would provide an opportunity for Labour to drive the political discussion (although ‘Labour are screwed’ is obviously going to be a popular headline too). Labour would be able to raise issues and thus put National on the back-foot.

Promises that don’t require keeping
A further benefit of a leadership contest is that it allows Labour leadership to make attractive promises that don’t need to be kept. Candidates can advance policies that draw media attention, but only the winner’s promises are expected to be kept.

Showing both flanks
A leadership contest would almost certainly be between Shane Jones and Grant Robertson. It would give the party opportunity to demonstrate its potential appeal. Jones would talk centrist and blokey, speaking particularly to the majority of kiwis who are not university-educated or living in a city, while Robertson would play the leftist and appeal to the base. In doing so, they could demonstrate leftist credentials and centrist sensibility, thus reminding voters that Labour is (meant to be) a broad church.

Consolidating the party
Another way a leadership contest could benefit the party is by providing opportunity for consolidation. This would partly depend on whether Labour’s far left actually wants to win elections, or merely advance its position in a long march through the party institution. If the far left of the party cannot be brought into line, then the party runs the risk of leaving more of the political centre to National.

In any case, the party needs to avoid becoming further trapped in a dynamic where losing factions/candidates sharpen their knives, undercut the leader, and pray for more failure. Similarly, Labour needs to avoid a Chris Trotter-esque ‘Rooibos tea party’ response, where it claims ‘we lost because we weren’t left enough’.

No, you lost because people are voting for John Key.

It’s a pretty bleak situation. Finding advantages in a leadership contest prior to the election is not easy. Good luck, David.

A brief response to Bomber- Yetis exist.

Hi Bomber,

You mentioned my blog in a recent post on thedailyblog, comparing Blue-Green voters to the Yeti, so I thought I’d give you a quick reply.

Firstly, thanks for posting my blog on your website.

Secondly, you seem to have missed my point. I’m not saying “the greens can’t move too far to the left or they will alienate the great mythical ‘Blue/Green’ voter”, like you claim. I’m saying the Greens don’t have to move to the centre to get the Blue-Green vote. Instead, they just need to be tactical about the messages they prioritise when speaking to the general public. Motherhood-and-apple-pie issues like clean rivers and safe beaches can draw marginal Blue-Green votes from National.


You also claim that the Blue-Green voter is mythical, like the Yeti or the “LockNess Monster”. This is pretty easily refuted. You can either look at the NZES data that I’ve posted here, or go talk a few of the people I’ve identified here, or read some Roger Scruton. I can tell you for a fact that they exist. My father is a lifelong pig-hunter, and has alternated between the Green and National for the past few elections.


You also claim MANA are the Greens’ best friend. That’s kind of missing the point. It’s not about who the Greens’ besty is. It’s about how the Greens (and the Left) can grow their vote, ideally at the expense of the right. We already have MANA in our corner. We need to convince marginal voters to change to us.

The hunt for the ‘mythical ‘Blue/Green’ voter’ has ended, and discussions with actual Blue-Greens are already taking place.

National benefit from standing for nothing

The beliefs of New Zealand’s political parties can generally be distilled into a principle or two…. except for National, who don’t really stand for anything. I think this helps them, because when you don’t stand for a principle, you can’t really disappoint.

Labour stand for equality, the Greens stand for conservation, and New Zealand First stand for, well, putting New Zealanders first. The Māori Party stand for indigenous rights, the Conservatives stand for conservatism, and Act stands for the freedom to marry and eat dead babies (and libertarianism).

But what do National stand for? Perhaps ‘common-sense’, although that’s not very audacious. Or in the case of the Key government, maybe ‘optimism’- but that’s more a disposition than a principle. They’re too statist to claim they stand for ‘freedom’, like right-wing parties overseas.


This works to their advantage because the problem with standing for a principle is that you can fail to act in accordance with it. For example, when David Cunliffe tried to talk about inequality by raising John Key’s house in Parnell, he looked like a hypocrite. When Green MP Mojo Mathers flew to a radio interview, she was accused of not being conservationist. National rarely face accusations of this kind because they don’t stand for anything. Also, it’s fairly clear when something departs from equality or conservation. It is difficult to reach consensus about when something is inconsistent with ‘Common-sense’.

Standing for a principle can energise some voters, but I’m not convinced Kiwis as a whole are swayed by principle-driven campaigning. If Obama arose in New Zealand I suspect we would all be slightly embarrassed by his soaring rhetoric and vision. National seem to know this, and play it nice and safe as a result.

So how should the Left respond to this? Should we adopt a light touch in regard to principle? I wouldn’t go that far, but there is something to be said for being tactical in how we prioritise the principles we espouse. I believe the Left should consider prioritising principles that enable progressive change while still resonating with the political centre. That is not to say that we should replace existing guiding principles. Rather, they can benefit the Left if prioritised effectively.

Advancing equality as your guiding principle is tough, especially when it requires more than just a law change. But equality can be tweaked and turned into ‘fairness’, which is less problematic. It can be deeply progressive, while at the same time being very hard for the Right to oppose.

Unsurprisingly, I also think ‘conservation’ is a great principle too, as I have stated in several previous blogs. Conservation neatly merges hostility to change, an impulse to protect, and appreciation of New Zealand. It can also provide a vehicle for progressive policy.

Another potential principle that no one on the Left seems to prioritise is ‘valuing family’. I believe the Left has given up the argument on family too easily because it carries undertones of the patriarchal nuclear family, and is strongly associated with conservatism. But ‘valuing family’ has immensely broad and deep emotional appeal. By this I mean a lot of people care about family, and those people care about family a lot. Furthermore, ‘valuing family’ as a political principle can be the basis of progressive policy ranging from guaranteed minimum income and welfare programmes to immigration reform (‘uniting parents and their children’). This is especially the case when one adopts a non-traditional conception of the family.

These are just three possible principles that could benefit the Left. I’ll have more to say on the Left’s lack of use of ‘valuing family’ in another post.

How badly do you want to win, McCarten?

You know things are getting desperate when your team starts giving up six months early. Desperate times may call for desperate measures, so if I was a skullduggerous bastard as Matt McCarten is alleged to be, I would consider ‘swiftboating‘ John Key and the MPs close to him.

For those who don’t know, swiftboating is when an officially unaligned political group deliberately smears a politician in order to undermine their greatest strength.  The idea is that the smear damages your opponent, and the unaffiliated group gets the blowback. Effectively, it is striking hard and dirty at an opponents strengths, rather than their weaknesses. The term comes from the 2004 Bush vs. Kerry election, where the war hero Kerry ran against the draft-dodging Bush. An outside group viciously and effectively attacked Kerry’s war record.  The Greens have already dabbled with a similar tactic by trialing #Natsbadwithmoney on twitter last week.

In this post I’ll outline why a skulldeggerous bastard might consider swiftboating. I’ll start with the purpose of swiftboating Key et al., then outline some possible tactics, and conclude with some of the drawbacks.

The purpose here would be to attack Key’s greatest strength and destroy the credibility of National’s main election plank. Since the Nats have put most of their eggs in Key’s basket, it makes sense to break the basket. Swiftboating is particularly appropriate here as Cunliffe’s weakness is Key’s strength- likeability.

The principles underpinning this are simple- when an opponents strength is very strong, attack that rather than their weakness. I find it helpful to think in terms of ‘chains’ and ‘sails’. Chains are only as strong as their weakest link- if you break the weakest link, you break the chain. Sails are only as effective as the mast that holds them- if you want catastrophic damage, break the mast. National are in the latter category- damaging the sail is insufficient because the mast (Key) still stands. Labour are more like a chain- almost any scandal seems to hurt them as a whole.

Screenshot 2014-03-06 22.54.09

The key factor here is whether or not there is a wide disparity between a party’s strengths and weaknesses. In National’s case, Key is so strong that none of the stink from any of National’s mistakes can touch him, with the exception of a select few (Judith Collins being one).

This is why I think National won in 2011 despite widespread opposition to asset sales. People cared about asset sales, but National’s strength (Key) outweighed their weakness (asset sales). This is still the case. So if I was a skulldeggerous, I would be thinking that it’s time to ‘break the mast’ and go after Key and the MPs closest to him. But how?

It’s hard to talk tactics when I don’t have stats on Key’s favourable traits, but I’ll proceed anyway.

For the sake of argument, I’ll use my own views on Key. Basically, I think Key’s strength is that he comes across as an authentic, down-to-earth, nice guy. I would be thinking that each of these attributes needs to be destroyed by any means possible.

If he is considered authentic, a dubious outside group needs to undermine this by making plausible claims of inauthenticity. ‘Down-to-earth’ requires a claim that screams ‘let them eat cake’, like Mitt Romney’s car elevator. For ‘nice’, there is real potential. If I was skulldeggerous, I would be looking for stories that can be spun into ‘John Key fired my Mum’ (more vicious smears are easy to think of, but I won’t list them).

Also, any attack on MPs close to Key could have a similar effect. There are few MPs close enough to taint him. But Key’s relatively firm line with Judith Collins last week showed how keen he was to isolate her scandal.

But who would these outside groups be? I think bloggers are an excellent option, although a skulldeggerous bastard would have to be careful they are not directly linked to Left parties. The blowback of the smear has to be restricted to the swiftboaters themselves and not bleed into the party.

When should these attacks take place? Obviously closer to the election, so they’re still fresh, and away from weekends or big games. But more specifically, I would conduct coordinated smears in the late afternoon. By that time the swiftboaters would have an idea of what their competition will be for the 6 o’clock news. Late afternoon will give the journalists time to put an item together, and give National very little time to convincingly refute the story. Hopefully some of the mud will stick, and the blowback will be contained to swiftboaters. This latter part will require some pretty stern denunciations from Labour along the lines of ‘there is no place for this kind of politics in New Zealand’.

Obviously the most effective story would be a true one, but a story that is at least arguable would suffice. Selection of a story should be such that if it completely backfires, it still reminds the audience of something unpleasant about Key, such as the fact that he was a merchant banker who got rich while firing lots of people.

A weak swiftboat will have limited impact, but also limited blowback, and could still erode Key’s reputation. Furthermore, the refutation of the accusation will get less media time than the accusation itself. A strong swiftboat has high impact potential but a lot of blowback, and will give greater prominence to the refutation.

If I was skulldeggerous, I would see the obvious drawback as the possibility that blowback could taint Labour, or that the public could find the attacks so abhorrent that they rally to Key. A big issue would be potential leaks. I wouldn’t want to end up looking like Don Brash with the Exclusive Brethren. I’m not saying swiftboating will be the best option, or that it should be adopted. It will have to be considered on its strengths and weaknesses, like any strategy.

Obviously, assessing this strategy is difficult because of the differences between here and the United States. In the original swiftboat attack, the attackers represented an incumbent with an established reputation, not a challenger who is vulnerable to shifts in narrative. And, of course, the scale and stakes of US politics is vastly larger than ours.

Luckily I’m not a skullduggerous bastard. Swiftboating is morally reprehensible and a terrible addition to our politics. But it is an interesting thought experiment, and I think striking National where it is strongest is a good strategy. People are voting for Key, not National. National can screw up over and again, but as long as Key remains popular, National remain popular.