"Left" and "right"

Speech to the Wellington Rotary Club, 20 August 2001

I have for some years been fascinated by the fact that the National party dominated governments for the second half of the twentieth century. Political scientists by and large ignore this and expend great energy on Labour — which was a failure in that half-century.

I have been coming at this question from a number of perspectives — the balancing of freedom and security; being on the right or wrong side of history. Today I want to look at it from a left-right perspective. Why did a right party dominate the last 50 years and what chance has a left party of doing the same over the next 20 or 30 years?

But, first, does anyone believe there is a left and a right any more in politics? It is fashionable since the fall of the Berlin Wall — in fact, long before that but especially since then — to say left and right are meaningless.

In the early 1990s there was even a fashion to pronounce, in the words of a book written by the American scholar, Francis Fukuyama, “the end of history”. Capitalism and liberal democracy had won. There was no need for ideological debate any more.

And, indeed, the left seemed to give up. The British sociologist, Anthony Giddens, charted a “third way” for Tony Blair. Now other once-left scholars and politicians tread this or similar paths. Every now and then you will hear “third way” from the lips of our Prime Minister, though she has never been comfortable with the phrase.

The “third way” is technocratic. It is concerned with “what works”, not “what should be”. It is, as one Australian critic wrote recently, passionless. There are no stirring anthems, no marching slogans, no flags, no martyrs to the cause. That is because it is difficult to discern a cause, or even a programme. People as far right as Richard Prebble have claimed they are “third-wayers”. The third way looks to be any way between any two other ways: make your own map.

In fact, the original third way was an attempt by advocates of reform in communist eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s to pick out a route between communism and capitalism — a sort of social economy. But no one has been able to translate this into workable real-world policy programmes.

Thus has “left” all but disappeared from the left-right spectrum. Helen Clark now argues for free trade agreements. Jim Anderton accepts Reserve Bank control of interest rates. Michael Cullen, Pete Hodgson and Paul Swain lecture business on the need for competition. Most of those who were once “left” now accept that markets are the best allocators, that regulation should be light and taxes restrained, that the state cannot do everything and should work as a partner and facilitator rather than a dictator and regulator.

In place of what we used to know as the left is a hotchpotch of nostalgia trippers on old slogans (parts of the Alliance), believers that small and local is beautiful (the Greens) and a mishmash of voguish protesters with widely varying motivations against multinational companies and international economic initiatives, especially the likes of the World Trade Organisation and the World Economic Forum.

Well, if “left” has disappeared from the left-right spectrum, perhaps “right” has, too. Perhaps there is only a middle with some variations. That is the essence of the “end-of-history” case.

Were not “left” and “right” only terms of convenience anyway, the seating preferences in nineteenth-century European parliamentary assemblies, where socialists and reformers sat on the left and conservatives and defenders of the status quo on the right? Only later did ideologies acquire ownership of the designations.

At the most, left-right abolitionists argue, the designations really only applied in the heyday of what political scientists call the “cleavage” between workers (on the left) and owners, professionals and their lackeys (on the right) — Labour versus National in this country. In 1951 this cleavage could be said to have been such a complete description of the political landscape that Labour and National between them won 99.8% of the vote. Now society is far more complex. The cleavage has gone flat-chested or pigeon-chested or barrel-chested — anything but the pretty picture of political science.

Actually, the “cleavage” was never so clear-cut. The “aristocrats of labour”, as Ken Douglas used to call the wharfies and other highly paid blue-collar workers, often voted National. Liberal-minded professionals with a social conscience often voted Labour. A growing number of voters, notably small businesspeople and, later, families groaning under mortgages as they climbed toward the middle rungs of the social ladder, couldn’t identify with either side of the “cleavage” and gave protest votes to Social Credit. It didn’t help that the Labour party became dominated by educated liberals, whose parents might have been blue-collar workers but who were themselves professionals who did not live blue collar workers’ experiences, needs and aspirations.

Then came the rise of the service industries and computerisation in the 1980s. What was white collar and what blue collar? Workers in factories operated computers.

And also came the rise of the beneficiary. In the 1940s, through the 1950s and 1960s and much of the 1970s, beneficiaries were unusual. From the 1970s numbers rose inexorably. Once the beneficiary was an unemployed or retired worker and there was solidarity between the worker and the beneficiary. But in the past 20 years beneficiaries have become a distinct class, a drag on workers’ taxes. Labour politicians’ championing of beneficiaries — and of feminism and opposition to rugby with South Africa — left many low-middle-income workers feeling disenfranchised and from the mid-1970s on they sought out more empathetic leaders: Sir Robert Muldoon, Bruce Beetham, Winston Peters. When Rogernomics threw very large numbers of them out of work, the betrayal was complete.

Now there is anything but a perfect political cleavage.

Take, first, the Greens. They subscribe to policies of social justice, collective action and suspicion of big (especially foreign) business, which gives them a traditionally “left” look. But a lot of the old left attitudes are foreign to them. Greens do not celebrate the state as the ultimate political weapon; they favour small-scale cooperative, collaborative and community action. They value individual freedom, which is why some (small-g) greens (though not the present Green party MPs) could link up with National, which does in fact have a Blue-Green special interest group attached to it.

Next, take Winston Peters. He is not in the centre between Labour and National as he likes to claim — and as Peter Dunne’s micro-party is. Peters’ constituency was (and is) the “angries”, especially the old angries. New Zealand First’s policies were a grab-bag of borrowings from left and right, not a centrist compromise. Peters’ counterpart in Australia is Pauline Hanson, who sings a hymn of hate indiscriminately to both left and right.

Then take ACT. ACT is a curious mixture of neoliberal purism — by neoliberal, I mean Rogernomics — which is usually classified as “right”, and opportunistic populism — in which Richard Prebble competes with Peters for the disgruntled, particularly those who blame the state for their woes. ACT is recognisably within cooee of most National principles, though more extreme than all but a few Nationalists would approve. It is also within cooee of some of New Zealand First’s positions. This muddle of objectives and positioning cost ACT dearly in 1999.

And then there is Maori politics. Maori politics has often been seen as “left” because Maori are generally less-well-off and less-educated than Europeans. Maori voted Labour. But modern Maori politics, the politics of the Maori electorates, while still concerned with state assistance, now pushes for Maori control of that assistance and of specialist educational and health institutions and a full-scale revision of the constitution to give more influence and decision-making power to Maori. An increasing number of influential Maori now translate that last point as according equal political weight to Maori and non-Maori, regardless of numbers.

But even acknowledging all those variations, there is still a recognisable left and right. Better-off and better-educated people will generally tend to vote for National or one of its allies and less-well-off and less-educated people (which scoops up most significant ethnic minorities as well) will generally tend to vote for Labour or one of its allies. At the very least it is convenient to label the two broad coalitions of support — Labour, Alliance and the Greens and National, ACT and United Future — as left and right. It is a useful political geography.

Moreover, there are still traces of the old “cleavage” in the policy approaches. The Labour-Alliance government is favourable to employees, prefers state-run health and education systems and, compared with the previous National-led government, is more environment-friendly, a little more generous to beneficiaries and a little more regulation-minded and favours slightly higher taxes. It uses some of the old language of the collective against National’s and ACT’s emphasis on the individual.

If you want to pinpoint the faultline of today’s politics it runs through the workplace: Labour and the left see wages as the sustenance of the worker and family; National and the right see it as a business cost. For Labour and the left workplace relations are a social issue; for National and the right workplace relations are an economic issue.

All that said, however, if you look at today’s politics through the ideological telescope of 50 years ago or even 25 years ago, today’s left would look like the right of old.

But that does not obliterate the left-right spectrum, as the abolitionists would have us believe. It merely repositions the centre of gravity. We were all “social democrats” or “welfare statists” 50 years ago; we are all “third wayers” now.

Last year’s policy “rebalancing”, giving effect to the “credit card” pledges in the 1999 election campaign, was not a wildly leftward lurch. The fetching-up point this year, after the lurch, is well to the right of Sir Robert Muldoon, who went out of office only 17 years ago. In Sir Robert’s day the Economic Stabilisation Act could be — and was — used to regulate the whole economy; compulsory unionism had the backing of law and was accompanied by national awards and strikes; import licensing and massive state subsidies kept inefficient businesses afloat and people employed in imaginary jobs; the Budget ran large deficits to fund handouts to friends and even some foes (the freezing workers got $1.8 million to end a strike); and you had to grovel to the Reserve Bank for the price of a hotel room when you travelled overseas.

The centre of gravity of our politics has moved a long way from those days. You have to go a long way from today’s centre of gravity to reach what in 1980 would have been called “extreme left”. From 1940 to 1980 the centre of gravity was much closer to the “extreme left” than the “extreme right”. Now that political geography is reversed: the centre of gravity is much closer to the “extreme right” than the “extreme left”.

As I will explain in a minute, this new positioning favours a “left” government, just as the lie of the political land favoured a “right” government for 35 years after 1949. But also, just as the “right” government accepted a broadly leftish centre of gravity after 1949 as part of the deal, if the “left” wants a long period in office now it has to accept a broadly rightish centre of gravity. So far Helen Clark’s government has done that and the left has been rewarded with a huge opinion poll lead over the right, averaging just under 20% in the past month.

In two speeches earlier this year I asked why National dominated governments for most of the last half of the twentieth century and which, if either, of the two main parties, might dominate the first quarter of this century.

In the first speech I suggested voters’ taste for the mix of “freedom” and “security” changes over time and the party or grouping best reflecting that changing taste over any period is more likely to be in power. I suggested that National had got that right in the 1950s and 1960s but lost track in the 1970s and never quite got it right after that. I suggested that Labour had got the mix right in 1999 — but only for the moment.

In the second speech I suggested National had been broadly on the right side of history through the 1950s to 1970s and Labour had got out of date. Then I suggested that two linked revolutions — the “values” revolution of the 1960s and the economic and independence revolution of the 1980s — had made it very hard for either to keep its footing and the 1999 election was the last round of two punch-drunk prize fighters rather than a resolution of who will be on the right side of history through this decade and next. I suggested that maybe Labour has the better chance, especially since its ally, the Greens, is a party with future-looking policies that appeal to the young, but that the game is far from over.

Now let’s ask the same questions from a left-right perspective.

The decades after 1950 were the preserve of the right, operating conservatively on ground that was broadly left. Labour had shifted the political centre of gravity far to the left in the 1930s and 1940s, close to the extreme left and distant from the extreme right. This gave National two advantages. It could sprawl over a wide territory of voters out to the right of the centre of gravity, giving it an almost automatic majority if it didn’t try to move the centre of gravity much to the right — and that is the strategy it chose. National could also effectively frighten voters with the spectre of extreme leftism if voters moved a little further to the left and elected Labour. The shadowy world communist threat loomed over Labour and its politicians had to work hard to dispel the taint. To label someone “communist” or “fellow traveller” was effective political abuse, widely used by National politicians. A party which could be tarred, however lightly, with that brush was on a handicap.

The communist bogey began to lose its power in the late 1960s as the values revolution did its work among the young, who saw international — mainly American — capitalism as at least an equal threat. Moreover, by the early 1980s the emerging new breed at the top of the Labour party were themselves well to the right of the 1950 political centre of gravity: they were liberals, not socialists. Muldoon was still able to squeeze some life out of the old bogey in the early 1980s, partly by successfully labelling as “extreme” the new -isms and single issues which Labour and its extra-parliamentary allies were championing: feminism, pro-choice for abortion, civil rights for homosexuals, Maori activism, anti-apartheid activism disrupting rugby with South Africa, environmentalism.

But, in a sign of things to come, anti-apartheid activism and environmentalism had in the 1970s and early 1980s many adherents among liberals normally of the right. Many of them defected from National. The old bogey was losing its force.

In the 1990s, after the Rogernomics (and independence) revolution of 1984-92, the bogey for ordinary folk became the “new right”, the advocates of deregulation and globalised free trade and Helen Clark exploited that bogey as a term of abuse effectively in the 1999 election. Rogernomics caused a lot of fright and disruption to ordinary folk but when the smoke cleared it had irreversibly dragged the centre of gravity rightwards — as close to the “extreme right” as it had been close to the “extreme left” in 1949.

But, just as in 1949, government policy in the 1990s had gone further out towards the extreme than the people were prepared (grudgingly acknowledging reality) to resettle the centre of gravity. So, just as in 1950, there was in 2000 some initial balancing of policy to bring it back to where the centre of gravity had actually fetched up. Opinion polls tell us that Helen Clark has got it about right — for the moment.

So now we have a political landscape which is the mirror image of 1949, tailor-made for a left government operating conservatively on ground that is broadly right. Labour has the opportunity to sprawl over a wide territory of voters out to the left of the centre of gravity, potentially giving it and its allies an almost automatic majority if it doesn’t try to move the centre of gravity much to the left. And Labour can effectively frighten voters with the spectre of “new right” extremes if voters move a little further to the right and elect National and ACT.

Certainly, for the 2002 election, Labour is strongly placed. Even if National closes the gap (unlikely, though not impossible), Labour’s allies, the Alliance and the Greens, are commanding far higher support than National’s allies, ACT and Future United.

But that is for the moment. Labour has yet to prove as adept as National at managing the politics of a centre of gravity nearer its opponents’ end of the left-right spectrum. Labour has yet convincingly to demonstrate it can embed itself as the normal party of government as National was for half a century. That is what Helen Clark wants. Can she achieve it?

She faces some formidable obstacles.

First, the 1950s and 1960s were a time of expanding prosperity and desire for the quiet life. They were tailor-made for conservative — by which I mean cautious, careful, don’t-frighten-the-horses — rule. The decade or two ahead of us now look, if anything, likely to be economically very bumpy. While voters will be looking to governments for reassurance and security, they may well not find conservative rule enough of an answer, whether by a left or a right party. That may trigger sudden breakouts of populism of the Winston Peters sort.

Second, society is much more diverse, with those many cross-currents I noted earlier. That makes it much more difficult now than in the 1950s and 1960s for any political party or group of more-or-less like-minded parties to establish a stable electoral base.

This is not the product of MMP; it is why we got MMP. MMP is the third obstacle to dominant rule by either party. Small parties do not need to worry about the mainstream. The Greens or the Alliance or ACT, or a moral conservative or Maori party if such parties emerge, can offend middle New Zealand with impunity, as long as they can appeal to their particular niche. With MMP, Labour and National need one or more of those parties to maintain a steady majority.

Even if Labour increases its vote in 2002, unless it gets an outright majority with the Alliance — and even then its chances of holding that majority past 2005 are poor unless the electoral system then changes to make it easier for Labour or National to get a majority on their own — Labour is likely to need Green goodwill because it most likely won’t have New Zealand First to turn to on the occasions the Greens put their foot down, as they will over genetic modification.

And that brings us back to the danger of being drawn too far to the left of the current centre of gravity to re-enact the post-1949 circumstance in reverse — that is, a “left” government operating conservatively on ground that is essentially “right” and exploiting the “right” bogey to keep National out.

Labour might even drift away from the centre of gravity all by itself. It is more “left” than mainstream opinion on a range of counts: political correctness, moral liberalism, minorities (gender, sexuality, ethnic), environmentalism, Maori issues. So far Helen Clark has proved adept at not letting those issues divide it from the mainstream. But what if Labour overcompensates and opens up space for parties to its left to increase their votes at its expense — and ironically, that pulls governments it then leads fatally away from the mainstream?

Similar problems, of course, face any attempt by National to establish long-term rule, though obviously from a different direction. And National has first to overcome the obstacle of being squashed into a smallish enclave on the right.

All this suggests the long-running Prime Minister of the future must be quick on the feet, adaptable, responsive to enough of the cross-currents to keep afloat, election to election, while reassuring the middle who mainly want a quiet, predictable life. That is a very tall order and would have been beyond Sir Sidney Holland in the 1950s.

To summarise: We can still usefully talk about “left” and “right”, at least terms of political geography. National’s great success in the second half of the twentieth century in part stemmed from its ability to operate conservatively on ground that was essentially “left”, locking Labour into a confined space. Labour has begun down a similar track, aiming to operate conservatively on ground that is essentially “right”, locking National and its allies into a confined space — and National’s disorientation in defeat has given Helen Clark valuable breathing space — as Labour’s disorientiation did for Sir Sidney Holland after 1949. But to emulate National’s post-1949 feat will require great skill — and quite a bit of luck.