Labour’s progressives co-opt kiwi workers

Labour is torn between the interests of progressives and workers, and the progressives are winning. The dominance of progressive values within the party has alienated working kiwis and left the centre open to National. Instead of seeking to represent kiwi workers, Labour’s progressive careerists attempt to co-opt them.

In recent decades, progressive and economically liberal values have had greater influence than workers’ values in the Labour party. Yet Labour still maintain they are a party for the workers.  The was most obvious during the Fourth Labour government, where the socially progressive faction (which included Helen Clark) supported Rogernomics in order to make gains on feminist and indigenous issues. Identity politics is important, but Labour have often promoted them at the expense of workers’ issues.

The Fourth Labour government, with Phil Goff at the head of the table

The Fourth Labour government, with Phil Goff at the head of the table

Before ripping into Labour I need to comment on being working class. Prior to entering the privileged worlds of university and bureaucracy, I spent the best part of ten years doing manual labour. However, possessing some working class attributes does not grant me the right to claim I represent workers. And so it is with Labour. (Disclaimer over).

The progressive vs. worker tradeoff in action

The progressive vs. worker tradeoff in action

Labour co-opts workers
I believe this for the following reasons:
1- They are not kiwi workers
2- They exclude kiwi workers from the any real power in the party
3- They reap the benefit of advocating workers’ issues
This is not to say that they cannot represent workers in future if they make meaningful change.

1- They are not kiwi workers.
The Labour caucus is disproportionately made up of careerists and people from the educated workforce unions (eg. nurses and teachers). Few Labour MPs can convincingly claim to be kiwi workers. Some Labour party activists and MPs may have been raised in the working class, but they cannot accurately be called working class anymore, especially if they have gone straight from high school to university.

2- The party institution excludes kiwi workers from the any real power.
Working kiwis cannot participate at the highest levels of our major parties. Generally speaking, our major parties want ‘capable’ (i.e., educated) people who have political support networks, not people who have come in from the coalface.

So if all major parties exclude working kiwis from the top, why do I single out Labour? Because Labour CLAIM to represent workers. Whether it’s an old Rogernomics hack like Phil Goff, or arch-careerist bubble-dwellers like Hipkins and Ardern, the claim is galling. The identity politics-driven progressive wing claim to represent the workers while maligning their relatively conservative values.

Compared to other parties, the Labour Party institution is also particularly effective at excluding workers. The wheel ruts on Labour’s path to parliament (university politics to Labour staffer to MP) are deep and rigid. This leads to university-educated progressives dominating the party. But by doing so, they take the party further from the workers in terms of personnel, values, culture, and policy. This is not to say that they do not deliver gains to workers, just that they exclude them from real power.

3- They reap the benefit of advocating workers’ issues
It barely needs stating, but Labour MPs and staffers gain a great deal from claiming the mantle of the workers. Being a Labour MPs brings a six-figure salary, (some) political influence, and prestige.

Co-option kills, but there is a cure
The dominance of progressive values in Labour has eroded the party’s credibility in the eyes of workers. While workers may swing back to Labour because it is in their interest, the party’s values keep it from actually representing them.

Instead, workers are drawn to National’s ‘they-can-do-what-they-want-as-long-as-they-don’t-do-near-me’ style of identity politics. National’s politics doesn’t ask people to examine their privilege. National know that people who are struggling don’t like being called privileged or prejudiced. By not doing so, National open the door to working voters and plant a stake in the centre. Labour, on the other hand, are embarrassed by the illiberal views of workers, so they seek to take the vote but silence the voter.

Labour CAN represent workers and thus help the Left reclaim the majority. But it will require the flow of progressives that now dominate the party to consolidate in a party that can be progressive without losing votes, most likely the Greens. This will free Labour up to ‘float with the votes’ and focus on the issues that matter to workers; issues that may be nationalist, socially conservative, or even outright racist.

This process begins with the next generation of the party- Young Labour. Young Labour members should ask themselves- “If I’m honest, am I actually more of a Green?” If the answer is yes, then they should shift to the Greens. Because the continued dominance of progressive values in Labour pushes workers to National.

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2 thoughts on “Labour’s progressives co-opt kiwi workers

  1. […] content is dated, but I think the fundamental analysis is ok. In rough order of relevance- here, here, here, here, here, here. Apologies for the verbose writing. I had just finished postgrad […]

  2. […] is solid (although too harsh). In rough order of relevance: The Left needs the division of Labour, Progressives vs workers 1, Progressives vs workers 2, Labour’s Tea Party, Young Labour needs to move on, and Only […]

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