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.


One thought on “Workers vs. Progressives: the elephant hidden in Labour’s room

  1. […] 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. […]

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