A guest post by Mike Wilkinson:
I’d make a great left winger!
I reckon I’d make a great left winger. You see, I believe there are lots of issues our Government could do more to help people with. If only left wingers and their political parties were better at recognising them. In New Zealand, is the Labour Party bogged down in forever fighting the battles of yesteryear? Will it be the Green Party that’s the first to embrace a new approach to the issues it fights for?
For parties on the left, there is much to distract them. Their remaining supporters keep demanding they take more and more extreme positions. And parties on the right keep eating their lunch: witness National significantly raising benefits for the first time since 1970s or ACT playing to environmental concerns.
How do left wing parties recover their mojo? Be more appealing to Kiwi voters is the obvious answer. However, doing so looks to require a new approach. Parties of the left wing might need to embrace reforms once derided as neoliberal. And they might need to think carefully about the policies right wing parties will find it hard to support.
Being on the left
What would it mean for me to say I’m a left-winger? The term left wing has its roots in the French Revolution. It referred to the seating in the assembly, the Estates-General: those on the left generally opposed the monarchy and supported the revolution, while those on the right supported the traditional institutions of the French state. At its simplest, this suggests left wingers want to change the way things are run and right wingers to keep them the same.
So left wingers want change; but why exactly do they want it? Arnold Kling offers one way of thinking about that with his model, the three “languages” of politics. These are the three ways people often talk about politics and government, frameworks by which they measure what’s good and what’s bad. According to Kling, progressives typically express opinions along an axis of “oppressed-oppressor” – things that help the oppressed are good and the oppressor bad. Conservatives generally use an axis of “civilisation-barbarism”. He introduces a third axis for libertarians: “freedom-coercion”.
Kling uses this model to suggest that people are drawn to those who use the same axis as themselves for discussing their opinions – a group will be stronger the more who are comfortable with the way it makes its arguments. Left wingers are regularly seen as being against things like capitalism and free trade. Am I gonna feel comfortable when left wingers argue the TPPA is somehow oppressing the unemployed? Hardly. Yet a simplistic history of left wingers suggests fewer and fewer of them will say such things.
Left wingers in recent history – Organised labour and ‘neoliberal’ reform
The world has changed much since the time of the French Revolution. In the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, organised labour became involved in politics in many countries, doing such things as promoting socialism as an alternative to capitalism. It gradually established itself as an important focus for left wingers, helped by things like the Great Depression and a moderating of its views to promote a mixed model economy, rather than full socialism.
In the 1970s and 80s, governments around the world started responding to concerns about their excessive size and role in the economy. Many began extended periods of economic reform, reform by governments on both the left and right wings. Still, the anti-capitalist roots of some left wingers made it understandable they’d resist market-orientated reform, including things like free trade. The dislike of such reform was so intense that some left wingers invented a code word to describe it – ‘neoliberalism’.
Yet, is there a future for left wingers who resist reform? In a world of increasing globalisation where nimbleness becomes ever more important, it’s hard to see one. And the success of New Labour in the UK suggests other routes are available to left wingers. With the New Zealand Labour Party bogged down and going nowhere, will it be the Green Party that first starts to embrace reforms that were once derided as neoliberal?
What might become of Labour and the role of organised labour in politics? I’m certainly not brave enough to predict the end of either. However, with Labour’s Future of Work Commission generating little more than a proposal for a universal benefit, it’s easy to feel doubtful about their future. When it comes to guiding principles, there might not be much left in the bank.
Who ya gonna call? Right wing busters!
Yet, there are already issues affecting NZers that our Government could do more to help. Can’t find a job in your region, yet can’t move to Auckland because NIMBYs have made housing there too expensive – could there be a more obvious case of oppressors holding back the oppressed? And don’t get me started on the inequality caused by a substandard public education system. Although government handouts won’t fix these things. left wingers should be all over them. I hope they one day will.
So it might gradually become less controversial for me to call myself a left winger. But why would I choose to do so? Well, since it currently derives much support from conservatives, people who dislike change, at some point the current Government is going to stop changing. Following the last election, John Key warned his party about losing touch and becoming arrogant – we can tell it’s only a matter of time, though. If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, who ya gonna call? Right wing busters!
I acknowledge this guest post is very simplistic. I’m hardly an expert on left wingers and have no doubt ignored factors very important to their way of thinking. Also, change happens only slowly, especially when it involves people’s opinions – you don’t suddenly ignore a century of resisting capitalism. Still, I am by nature an optimist. Do readers agree with my case for the rejuvenation of left wingers?