It’s easy to feel a bit giddy – even queasy – after reading and hearing the reaction of politicians and commentators to the appointment of Matt McCarten as David Cunliffe’s Chief of Staff.
John Armstrong has invited a picture of complete chaos within Labour by likening the appointment to “a case of inviting the fox into the henhouse“. Feather’s flying, hen’s frantically squawking, wings flapping in wide-eyed panic – and nothing but dead chooks to look forward to!
Apart from breathless, synchronised dancing, that giddy queasiness is largely because, for some time now, political commentators have assumed that the fabled ‘Left’ land of politics is accessible only by ‘lurching’, ‘veering’, ‘swerving’, ‘jumping’ or performing some other equally risky or chaotic manoeuvre.
Fascinating choice of words.
All are near-synonyms and the inference they invite is obvious.
If a political party were a car these words all suggest that some lunatic or drunk person has just pushed the driver out of the way, grabbed hold of the wheel and given it a massive spin leaving the car heading – inexplicably to onlookers – in the wrong direction.
Yes, the lurching rhetoric just screams ‘Look! Completely out of control!‘
Which I guess is the intention.
No ‘mainstream’ political party or person is presumed capable, anymore, of determinedly and steadfastly progressing to, and arriving at, the left. Today, heading leftward only seems explicable in terms of its inexplicableness. Some desperate and, almost by definition, irrational motive must be at work.
It wasn’t always the case … but that’s just an allusion to a galaxy far, far away and, by now, way down the collective memory hole.
Or is it?
In fact, the necessity for reckless, irrational spasms to arrive anywhere near ‘Left-land’ is so much taken for granted today that, back in October last year, journalist Tracy Watkins felt no need to attribute her source for the quoted phrase “lurch to the left” when describing Cunliffe’s address to the Council of Trade Unions:
The new Labour leader is visibly embracing the left and the union movement in a way that his more recent predecessors have not.
There is a reason for that, of course – it may not be entirely thanks to the union movement that Cunliffe won the recent leadership contest, but it certainly helped having them on his side.
Whether that all adds up to a “lurch to the Left” is a different story, however.
As I said, the synonyms for this jerky procession leftward have become quite creative following McCarten’s appointment. Our own Prime Minister was quick off the block with his own variation on the general theme:
Prime Minister John Key believes Labour will go “careering off to the left” after David Cunliffe’s announcement that Matt McCarten is his new chief of staff.
“The reality is that Matt McCarten comes from the hard left, he’s been deeply involved with the Unite Union, so the tone from Labour will be much more aligned with what we see from the Greens,” Mr Key says.
“Careering”. There’s that out-of-control motoring metaphor again.
And it’s interesting to note that on the Prime Minister’s road map, at least, ‘the Greens’ are permanent inhabitants of this weird but – apparently, for Key – definitely not wonderful world of ‘hard left’ jaunts in crazy jalopies.
John Key, and other commentators, however, might want to be a bit careful with their transport metaphors. First, their picture of Labour’s motion is – despite its pejorative intent – quite dynamic and just might have an eccentric appeal for many people who generally respond to politics with attacks of narcolepsy.
Second, accusations in politics have a habit of ‘back-firing’. If Labour is ‘lurching’, ‘veering’ and ‘careering’ what might National be doing? How about a government ‘asleep at the wheel’, taking long detours on a mapless and random Sunday drive to a brighter future – but fortuitously with tanks full to overflowing with milk powder, and the road itself throwing them forward on the welcome crest of a seismic wave?
It was left to Vernon Small to show a bit of moderation and call McCarten’s appointment pretty much what it was:
But there is work to be done and Mr McCarten’s appointment sends a number of signals there too.
It lets the rank and file know that the leftward signal Cunliffe sent when he took the leadership is still in place.
It tells the unions likewise.
And it warns the Cunliffe-sceptics and the Right of the caucus yet again that things have changed; When the unions and the membership installed him over their heads it did not mean business as usual.
A “leftward signal” sounds a lot more composed and considered than the panic connoted in ‘lurching’, ‘veering’ and ‘careering’. More a case of flicking your indicator light on for all to see – and in plenty of time – before you execute a perfectly legal turning manoeuvre.
Enough of the word games. What’s this accusation of a ‘leftward lurch’ really all about? And does it make any sense?
There’s two lines of criticism behind the accusations.
The first concerns Matt McCarten and his ‘career’ in politics. The PM may well prefer to use the verb (‘careering’) but however else it might be characterised, there’s been a clear and consistent commitment in that career which goes beyond simple political party partisanship.
The second concerns the New Zealand electorate or, more specifically, the political ‘centre’ of the electorate. Current mythology has it that New Zealand has ‘moved on’ from what Espiner calls the “extreme Left and Right”:
The problem for both men [McCarten and Richard Prebble, 'newly' appointed campaign manager for ACT], however, is that the tide has gone out on both the extreme Left and Right. And sitting pretty in the middle is Key, doing the pelvic thrust for all he’s worth [I'm not sure whether or not that's meant to be an admiring picture of the Prime Minister.]
To the first criticism …
McCarten has had a (recently) well-publicised career in the world of politics. (Interestingly, the Wikipedia page for Matt McCarten was modified on 28 February, 2014 – I have no idea what modifications were made at that time.)
He began his political life in the Labour Party. In the wake of Roger Douglas’ more or less successful efforts – intentional or otherwise – to mortally wound the Labour Party McCarten went, with Jim Anderton, to form the NewLabour Party (and be its President). He then moved on to the Alliance when NewLabour coalesced with a range of other parties. He became the Alliance President.
Since leaving the Alliance, McCarten has been involved with the Maori Party, the Unite Union and the Mana Party.
Does this career represent a clear case of the pursuit of a ‘hard left’ agenda, as John Key implies?
Let’s take those party associations one by one to find out.
The pre-1984 Labour Party that McCarten joined is not usually referred to as ‘hard left’. But irrespective of how it is described now, it certainly was not unacceptable to the electorate at the time, receiving more electorate votes than the National Party in both 1981 and 1978.
McCarten then moved to help form the NewLabour Party. That party, too, could hardly be called ‘far left’ or out of step with the contemporary electorate, if electoral appeal is anything to go by. By November 1991 (two years after its formation and during the period where an ‘Alliance’ of third parties was nascent), the following was reported:
According to a recently published New Zealand National Business Review Insight poll, the Alliance of third parties, of which the NewLabour Party is a leading component, leads the National Party government in voter popularity.
Matt McCarten, the president of the NewLabour Party, speaking to Green Left Weekly from Auckland, explained that those surveyed were asked which of the parties they would support in the next elections: the National Party, the old Labour Party or the Alliance of third parties. The results were the old Labour party 40%, the Alliance 31% and the National Party 28%.
In the 1990 election (pre-MMP), NewLabour received 5.2% of the vote (the Greens drew 6.8%). By 1993, once the Alliance had been formally constituted, it achieved 18.2% of the popular vote (still under First Past the Post – FPP).
In the first MMP election in 1996, the Alliance polled 10.1% of the party vote and 11.3% of the electorate vote. By 1999, that vote slipped to 7.7% of the party vote and 6.9% of the electorate vote at a time that the Labour Party had signalled a shift leftwards after the ‘Rogernomics’ era (and, hence, recolonised part of the left-leaning constituency then occupied by the Alliance). In keeping with this ‘jump/lurch/careering to the left’, Labour signalled its willingness to go into coalition with the Alliance via Helen Clark attending the Alliance conference in 1998.
The Maori Party may have been seen as ‘radical’ when it began but it’s a remarkable fact of recent New Zealand political history that John Key has given a great big, National bear hug to that party twice in a row, following the 2008 and 2011 elections. There aren’t many extant political commentators who, at the time, called – or now would call – National’s strategy in allying with the Maori Party a ‘lurch to the left’, so we’re probably safe in assuming that they wouldn’t see the Maori Party as ‘hard left’ or ‘extreme left’ despite McCarten’s association with them.
Apparently, McCarten’s involvement with the Mana Party is uncertain:
In April 2011, McCarten was appointed “interim” chair of Hone Harawira’s new ‘Mana Party’. However, it appears that McCarten’s role is more akin to an advisor than a “Chair” in the ordinary sense of the word.
But, whatever the role, the Mana Party has enough support to have twice won an electorate seat and to poll at around the level that the Maori Party has achieved. The most prominent policy position taken by the Mana Party has been ‘food in schools’.
Radio Rhema (hardly a mouthpiece for the ‘hard left’) reported the following level of support for the ‘Feed the Kids’ bill as it made its way through Parliament last year:
A wide range of community organisations have launched a campaign for government-funded food programmes in low-decile schools.
They include Plunket, the GPs Association, Principals Federation, Women’s Refuge, Maori Women’s Welfare League and a raft of Church organisations.
Unicef’s Barbara Lambourn says they are pushing for funded breakfasts and lunches in Decile 1 and 2 schools – and are urging all MPs to back the Mana Party’s bill seeking that.
Barnardos Chief Executive, Jeff Sanders, says they are encouraging public discussion about the best way to implement the programme and expressed support for the Mana Party’s ‘Feed the Kids’ Bill that goes to Select Committee early next month.
Feeding the ‘kids’ may be scary stuff for some, but not everyone, it seems, is so fearful
The Unite Union is, by definition, on the left given that it is a trade union. Yet, what they achieved under McCarten’s period as General Secretary – initial unionisation, growth in membership and an agreement with Restaurant Brands to eliminate youth rates – was neither ‘revolutionary’ nor extremist. In fact, it was perfectly legal and achieved under policy conditions for labour relations that were anything but ‘left-leaning’.
Even more surprisingly perhaps, it was achieved in a remarkably constructive manner, according to both parties:
Unite National Secretary Matt McCarten welcomed Restaurant Brands’ decision to remove youth rates entirely from the agreements.
“The company foreshadowed this change two years ago when it brought youth rates up to 90% of the adult rate and we congratulate the company in taking this next step to eliminate youth rates entirely,” he said.
“This is a reward for Unite’s three-year “Supersizemypay campaign” both in an industrial and political sense. In addition Restaurant Brands has made significant steps to reward union members who have achieved higher qualifications and who are experienced and longer serving staff.”
Restaurant Brands chief executive Russel Creedy also welcomed the settlement that was achieved in a positive process that reflected the progress in the relationship between the parties over the past two years.
“We have been able to work together constructively over the past two years to overcome the disruption that had occurred with the previous collective agreement negotiations,” he said.
“We are pleased with the positive attitudes that Unite and its delegates brought to the process. While changes to the agreements do bring additional cost, we are happy with the nature of the settlement and look forward to ratification by union members.”
Unless a large multinational corporation is now also to be deemed ‘hard left’, all that Matt McCarten and the Unite Union appear to have achieved here is major improvements in the pay and conditions of some of the most casualised and low paid people in the New Zealand workforce, and in a manner that was to both parties apparent satisfaction.
There is, of course, one further aspect of Matt McCarten’s political career – his role of commentator, on television and in ‘print’ (and online).
It may well be that some consider the New Zealand Herald to be a hot bed of ‘hard left’ foment, but it isn’t the impression I’ve gained from viewing its website over several years.
If we shift from considering electoral (and other) popularity to focusing on the policies advocated by the parties in which McCarten was active, a similar degree of ‘acceptability’ can be seen.
The Alliance and Maori parties have been the only parties with which McCarten has been involved – since he had initially left Labour – that have managed to have a direct influence over policy as part of government (between 1999 and 2002).
Policies that became law during the Alliance’s term in government and which were championed or strongly supported by the Alliance included an immediate increase in the minimum wage, the introduction of paid parental leave in 2002, the establishment of Kiwibank (part of the coalition deal with Labour), the establishment of the Ministry of Economic Development (headed by the Alliance leader, Jim Anderton), abolition of market rents for state house tenants and passage of the Local Government Act (2002) by Sandra Lee (Deputy Leader of the Alliance).
[As an aside, despite the Alliance now having been cast to the wilderness regions of the far left in public commentary, their current website lists some policy preferences that hardly sound like the revolutionary path to the overthrow of capitalism - 'free education', 'quality health care', 'public ownership of electricity' - i.e., opposition to privatisation of energy assets as also is supported by a majority of New Zealanders - , 'good housing', 'protecting our environment', 'real democracy', etc..]
These policies and developments may not be to everyone’s liking – especially that of the wealthier amongst us – but they hardly represent the enactment of ‘far left’ policies. Some of them, in fact, have been highly popular.
Which brings us to the second, related, criticism – that the ‘centre’ is wary, even ‘scared’, of such ‘hard left’ inclinations.
Paid parental leave was – and presumably still is – strongly supported by the public, as this report from the Families Commission details:
The Department of Labour’s large-scale evaluation of parental leave found that New Zealand families, while indicating strong support for paid parental leave, also thought there was room for improvement in several areas of the scheme:
>> the length of paid parental leave
>> the rate of payment
>> leave entitlements for fathers and partners
>> the employment requirements affecting workers’ access to parental leave
>> flexibility in the way that leave may be taken
(Department of Labour, 2007).
And, not only has a pre-McCarten Labour put forward a bill and recently announced – presumably with the backing of even those on the right of Labour’s caucus – that it intends to increase paid parental leave to 26 weeks but also the supposedly ‘centrist’ National itself has claimed it has in train an initiative to increase the paid parental leave entitlement:
Prime Minister John Key indicated there will be an increase in the May Budget, but it will not match the Labour proposal.
“We’re working our way through it, in terms of Budget bids. Twenty-six weeks is not affordable, but we do think some extension might be.”
New Zealand’s paid parental leave is among the lowest in the OECD [the OECD countries are not usually termed 'hard left', btw], and is similar to entitlements in nations such as Algeria and Malta.
Other awards won by Kiwibank include: Bank of the Year – New Zealand, The Banker, 2009, 2010
Sunday Star-Times’ Bank of the Year, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012
New Zealand’s Most Trusted Bank, Reader’s Digest Trusted Brand Awards, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012
It was also, of course, one of the infamous ‘dead rats’ that, back in 2008, Lockwood Smith said had to be swallowed if National were to form a government. They ‘had to swallow’ them because
National is going along with popularLabour [in the case of Kiwibank, 'Alliance'] policies because it doesn’t want to rock the boat and risk dislodging some voters before the election.
If National were worried about dislodging some voters from their own support, that suggests that Kiwibank was – and presumably still is – popular with the mythical ‘centre’.
On the policy of raising the minimum wage, the latest One News Colmar Brunton political poll had this to report – under a mischievously misleading headline and article intro – about the electorate’s views on this policy:
The first ONE News Colmar Brunton poll this year asked New Zealanders whether they support increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Forty-six percent said “yes”, 23% supported more than $15 an hour and 16% support a rise of less than $15.
That’s fully 69% of those polled supporting a rise significantly more than that proposed by the current government. In terms of public opinion, that is, the more ‘extreme’ position is the one occupied by the current government and a minority of, presumably, its supporters.
‘Hard left’? ‘Extreme left’?
What all of this indicates is two things:
- Irrespective of what crazy, ideological ‘hard left’ beliefs purportedly inhabit Matt McCarten’s head, his career has been one of supporting and often leading parties that were popular either with the general electorate or with their targeted constituency and of supporting policies that have themselves often been – and in many cases, still are – extremely popular. In practical terms, that is, he has managed throughout his career in politics to operate in a way that has popular currency and popularity. No mean feat given the ‘lurching’ changes that began in the 1980s.
- The supposed New Zealand ‘centre’ is not where most commentators seem to claim it is. While support for National and John Key remains dominant, that appears to have little to do with policies (whether ‘left’, ‘right’ or ‘centrist’ – whatever ad hoc and often inconsistent mishmash the latter may signify to different individuals) and more to do with a general perception of the current government as ‘moderate’ and ‘ok’ and of John Key as ‘one of them’, or something equally ineffable.
When Herald political journalist John Armstrong wrote about Matt McCarten’s appointment as letting the fox into the Labour Party henhouse he had it just about exactly wrong.
Taking a more sober view, it may be more of a case of letting some hens back into the henhouse and frog-marching the foxes out; hardly a cause for general public alarm.
Whatever, it seems clear to me that while some commentators and politicians are trying their best to ‘rattle the ghoulish chains‘ of some ‘radical’, ‘extreme’, ‘hard left lurch’ it is likely that, given half a chance, many electors may well discover – quite surprisingly – that their own inclinations are surprisingly ‘hard left’.
Either that, or they might realise that the only thing they really have to fear is fear-mongering itself.
And what of a time warp?
Personally, I’ve found that fairness rarely goes out of fashion. And I’ve found that to be true whether for those on the ‘right’, the ‘left’ or even in that truly fabled land – the political ‘centre’.