Too Lttle, Too Late

Too Lttle, Too Late

By Mike Treen, National Director of Unite Union

(Reprinted from The Daily Blog)

I have avoided having a crack at Andrew Little and the Labour Party’s campaign strategy until now as I thought he deserved the right to have a bit of time to establish himself and chart his own course. Too often the left-wing critics of the major parties sound like sloganeers rather than reasoned voices and I wanted to avoid that.

Labour Party leader Andrew Little

However, in the past few weeks, it has become abundantly clear that the strategic options being pursued by the Labour Party are not going to dig the party out of the hole it is in.

Those of us active in unions want a change in government. The formal political programmes of all the opposition parties are, on paper at least, an improvement on the staus-quo. Labour, the Greens and NZ First have all supported significant increases in the minimum wage for instance. The members of Unite Union in the fast food industry will welcome that change with some enthusiasm.The challenge for the leadership of a moderate social-democratic party is to appear as a meaningful alternative for its own natural supporters, generally working people, while not upsetting the wealthy owners of big business. I think that is a mistake. Having a bob each way often leads to the risk of being insincere and untrustworthy bullshit artists. That seemed to be the fate of 

The challenge for the leadership of a moderate social-democratic party is to appear as a meaningful alternative for its own natural supporters, generally working people, while not upsetting the wealthy owners of big business. I think that is a mistake. Having a bob each way often leads to the risk of being insincere and untrustworthy bullshit artists. That seemed to be the fate of an earlier announcement around 90-day trials.

Labour won the 1999 election by ending its war against the left-wing Alliance Party and adopting key policy issues that made it appear they would make some significant changes in the interests of working people when they became the government.

In government, however, Labour’s reforming zeal was exhausted pretty early on. It focused on being a safe pair of hands for managing capitalism. With a continuously growing economy and falling unemployment over the next nine years they held onto office but without generating any particular enthusiasm from their core support base.

Once the National Party had got rid of the loony-right leadership of Don Brash that the Business Roundtable tried to impose on them, they simply had to wait for their turn in office which came in the wake of the 2008 recession.

Helen Clark’s retirement and Labour’s selection of the notoriously right-wing Phil Goff as leader ensured the loss of the 2011 election. Continuous leadership changes and an inability to project the image of an alternative government in waiting meant continuing decline in 2014. There had been an improvement in the policies of the party but no-one took it very seriously. There was a certain incoherence about the policies as well. Progressive policies in support of a minimum wage rise were combined with reactionary ones to increase the pension age.

There is one aspect of liberal policies I particularly detest which is they way the well-paid leaders of liberal-left parties argue for the need to increase taxes in order to pay for progressive policies without emphasising that the increased taxation will be on the rich not working people. In fact, taxes on working people should be radically reduced.

Workers in New Zealand are taxed at a regressive punitive rate that should be ended. We pay income tax on average of about 20% every penny we earn. We pay another 15% on every penny we spend. We pay more taxes on petrol, alcohol, and cigarettes. Then there are extortionate charges on every kind of government service we receive. We are taxed to death and we hate it. We don’t even get a decent return on what we pay. At least in some Scandanavian countries, they pay high income taxes but the return from society in the form of free education and heath care, as well as widespread access to childcare, is so good most people don’t mind.

In New Zealand, after paying savage taxes, working people still have to pay charges for education from school “donations to university fees. We have high fees for accessing doctors and waiting lists for important operations in public hospitals.

I remember watching a televised debate in despair between John Key and David Cunliffe in the 2014 election where Key baited Cunliffe over wanting to increase taxes and the then Labour Party leader David Cunliffe had no answer. I wanted to scream at the TV screen. “Just tell the people you will reduce taxes on ordinary kiwis and hit the rich who pay little or no tax today. Tell the people that John Key is a liar because he increased taxes and charges on most people when he had run on a promise to reduce taxes for everyone. The only people to actually get a tax cut were his rich mates.”

We usually don’t hear those sort of simple messages because the Labour Party leaders seem to have a compulsive fear of offending big business and their bought and paid for scribes in the media.

Progressive policies like the one Little announced last week to provide three years of free tertiary education was qualified by so many caveats that it was almost meaningless. Rather than three years free education in the small print we discover that we get one year free in the first term, another year in the second term (if we re-elect Labour) and a third year in the third term. We actually have to wait until 2025 for any current school student to get it. To be honest, I thought the media gave Andrew Little a free pass on that one, but when the limitations of the policy sinks in the disappointment will be obvious.

Fully funded, the three years free tertiary education policy is estimated to cost $1.2 billion a year. There is no reason that couldn’t have been done immediately. Current government expenditure is $95 billion a year. A 1.26% increase in spending from making the rich parasites pay their full share would deliver more than enough. That also leave aside the possible reallocation from prisons, the military and other less useful expenditure.

The problem with being so “careful” not to offend the orchestrated “consensus” in the media and the commentariat to be “fiscally responsible” as Andrew Little explained on one interview is that Labour appears scared to promise anything of substance. There is nothing much on offer to get particularly excited about. And if this is how they treat a flagship policy in the education sector then we can be sure very little will be being offered that actually has significant costs associated with it.

Andrew Little came across as simply being dishonest when he announced that Labour would be “opposing” the TPPA – but would vote for the enabling legislation and would not repeal it if passed!

The National leadership has cultivated a down to earth persona that tries to portray itself as straight shooters. To a degree, it has been successful. But Labour’s inability to speak honestly and directly to people, let alone inspire them with a vision for something significantly different and better, will be its death knell unless reversed.

The only thing going for Labour at the moment is the high likelihood that we will have a deep recession before the next election. National’s self-cultivated image of being competent economic managers will be dealt a significant blow. Whether it is enough to see them defeated is another question.

For that to happen Labour needs to significantly lift its game. We need less of Andrew Little the shifty lawyer and more of the Andrew Little I remember when he was a union leader speaking to mass rallies of workers with force, directness, clarity and vision. I assume he is still there somewhere.