One of Bruce Jesson’s constant bugbears during the New Right revolution of the 80’s and 90’s was that the Left allowed itself to be positioned as conservative. That we were simply fighting for the status quo rather than providing a proper progressive alternative to the imported market ideology that was being foist upon us.
He blames a variety of factors for this including the anti-intellectualism prevalent in New Zealand society, the rise of a global economy focused on finance rather than production and the lack of a New Zealand identity or sense of nationalism from which to argue against the ceding of our sovereignty to multi-national capital.
Although Bruce never lived to see the fifth Labour government in action I suspect he would have pointed to this conservatism as having sowed the seed for their loss in 2008. Helen, Michael and many of the other senior MPs in our last government, including Phil Goff, cut their political teeth in the 80’s and 90’s and in many ways their brand of leftism was in exactly the conservative mode Bruce criticised.
For all of the raving and ranting of the right the last government was not socialist but rather tended to tinker around the edges. They introduced a fourth tax bracket but failed to deal with the pure monetarism that has strangled New Zealand’s productive sector; they revoked the worst parts of the Employment Contracts Act but left the market-orientated focus on enterprise agreements in place; they presided over record unemployment but failed to meaningfully increase benefits for those who could not gain employment; they buckled to the lunatic fringe on law and order.
One of the things they did not do was produce a clear progressive vision. One can deduce something approaching such a thing by reading between the lines of their flagship policies (and occasionally hear traces of it in private conversation with senior MPs) but there was never an explicit expression of grand political vision.
Of course it is easy to forget the state of the nation at the time this government started. There was a real sense of desperation and a real desire for stability from an electorate that had been battered from a decade and a half of reforms. Those reforms that had cost New Zealand its assets, its wealth and its economic sovereignty and left many New Zealanders wary of the language of change. At the time the phrase “no more restructuring” was a mantra Labour had to repeat again and again to sooth an electorate that had been repeatedly betrayed by governments enacting “big idea” policies they had never mentioned on the campaign trail and, ironically*, by NZ First’s decision to support a third National term.
But Labour got stuck in that softly, softly mode for too long. It just worked for them in 2005 with the “don’t put it all at risk” message but by 2008 people were too far from the 90’s to comprehend the need to conserve what they have. I recall sitting in on a focus group in 2007 in which the majority of the group had no idea how long Labour had been in government for, they finally made the collective decision that it must have been ten years at least. When asked about high unemployment and hard right reforms they were of the opinion that these things “wouldn’t happen here”.
That complacency may be challenged by the recession but I suspect that we are going to be spared the worst of it due to our low public debt levels. If anything the recession should be used as an opportunity to campaign on and socialise ideas that are truly progressive alternatives. The Left will be back in government, perhaps as soon as 2011, and as such should be prepared to provide some real alternatives. If it were up to me I’d start with the reserve bank act but that’s grist for another post.
Of course Labour were not all bad, they were in fact very good in many ways. I think that history will remember Clark as the first PM to ever foster a sense of nationalism and of New Zealand identity. That may seem minor now but it has acted as a vaccine for the cultural cringe that allowed the New Right’s reforms to roll over public opinon in the 80’s and 90’s (just look at the public outcry over the possibility National would sell KiwiBank). In that respect Clark has been a master of the long-game.
*I say ironically because in many ways Winston’s betrayal in ’96 dwarfs the seedy business that finished him off this time.