The political left has been experiencing something of a resurgence in recent times. Outside of electoral politics and parliament there has been a growth of interest and activity amongst activists, academics, and intellectuals that is creating more interest in radical and anti-Establishment politics. Some of this has filtered through to Parliament, but much of it has been on the streets, the campuses, and within the union movement. At the moment this resurgence is still inchoate rather than united and coherent. And there's a tension between "class politics" and "identity politics", which is ongoing.
Social movements and a leftwing think tank
Today sees the launch of potentially the most important leftwing project for many years - Sue Bradford's think tank, "Economic and Social Research Aotearoa" (ESRA). You can see Bradford's announcement here: New left think tank ESRA launches Friday: Wellington. See the ESRA website, and in particular Introducing ESRA. Bradford also spoke this morning on RNZ - listen here: Thinktank will challenge neoliberal capitalism.
This is the first real leftwing think tank in New Zealand, and it has the intention of carrying out research and disseminating issues to the wider public. The project has been a long time in the making, and arises partly out of Bradford's recent PhD thesis - which you can read online: A major left wing think tank in Aotearoa: an impossible dream or a call to action?. What also distinguishes Bradford's new project is a renewed focus on issues of economics and social class - which has been de-emphasized in social movements for some time in New Zealand.
Bradford's ESRA is being launched on the back of one of the biggest conferences of the political left for decades - the Social Movements, Resistance and Social Change conference at Victoria University of Wellington, which opened yesterday. This is actually the third annual conference of this type, but the conference has doubled in size since last year, with 400 registered activists and academics, and more than 100 turned away.
The three-day conference is hosted by Victoria University of Wellington and sponsored by groups such as Council of Trade Unions and the Public Service Association. Researchers are giving talks on diverse subjects, from "Building an oral history of lesbian activism" to "Has protest decreased in Aotearoa since the 1970s?" - you can read the conference programme and abstracts.
Connected with this think tank and conference is a new academic journal, Counterfutures, which is described as a publication of "Left thought and practice". The reason for the journal is explained in its first editorial, Beginnings.
And you can read other articles such as Toby Boraman's The Independent Left Press and the Rise and Fall of Mass Dissent in Aotearoa since the 1970s, Sue Bradford's Fractured Fightback: Some thoughts on why it's so hard for the left to get its act together on the housing crisis, and Patrick Ongley's Class in New Zealand: Past, present and future.
Revival of radicalism in New Zealand
So is radicalism of the left increasing? Recently I gave a conference paper titled "Class politics vs identity politics in New Zealand". In this I used a variety of data - public opinion surveys, elite surveys, as well as media content analysis - to illustrate arguments that rising interest and concern about issues of inequality has been accompanied by a recent resurgence of both class politics and identity politics. You can see the material I used, which shows a significant increase in the use of words such as Marxism, capitalism, racism, feminism, working class, and sexism- see: Increase in radicalism in New Zealand political/media discourse.
Some of these issues of economics and class, on the one hand, and more socially liberal or "identity politics", on the other, are further discussed in a blog post by Johnny Moore - see: The reemergence of radical politics in Aotearoa New Zealand. He argues that ultimately this new radical left needs to take class and economics more seriously, yet also integrate concerns for questions of gender, ethnicity and sexuality into that movement.
Social issues and politics publishing
The book publishing industry is contributing to critical thinking and radicalism due to the work of Bridget Williams Books, which is putting out numerous "BWB texts" on current issues and thinking. Recent highlights include Shamubeel and Selena Eaqub's Generation Rent, Andrew Dean's Ruth, Roger and Me, Margaret Wilson's Struggle for Sovereignty, Max Rashbrooke's Wealth and New Zealand, and Gavin Ellis' Complacent Nation.
But of particular relevance - considering the state of the social movements and left political thought - earlier this year this publisher brought out Morgan Godfery's edited text, The Interregnum: Rethinking New Zealand. This book puts forward the idea that the old model of New Zealand politics and society has broken down, accompanied by widespread discontent, but there is no new model yet to replace it, hence the title. For positive reviews of the book see Ryan Holder's The Interregnum - review, and James Robins' Love in the time of crisis. A more critical appraisal is put forward by Ben Thomas - see: This new left thinking sounds awfully grandparental - a review of The Interregnum. And you can read an extract from the book by Andrew Dean: The Catton conundrum: What attacks on the novelist say about public debate in NZ.
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Other social movement influences
There are plenty of other pockets of interesting social movement activity at the moment. A number of important NGOs have been established in recent years. Of particular importance are Action Station, Generation Zero, Living Wage, and Just Speak - the latter recently celebrating its birthday - see Stuff's Youth justice group Just Speak celebrates five years.
Other new approaches can be seen in Laila Harre's "Table talk" events at her Ika restaurant, which apparently is now Auckland's first Living Wage restaurant. The latest political event there is reported on this week by Katie Parker and River Lin at the Spinoff - see: Good news! Euthanasia debate settled at Auckland fish restaurant.
In fact, the Spinoff website along with RNZ's The Wireless are both becoming key contributors to the social movements by reporting and analysing various forms of radicalism - especially identity politics activism. Both sites also recently won major media awards. See also, Jeremy Olds' Duncan Greive and the rise of The Spinoff.
And in the mainstream media there are an increasing number of voices challenging the status quo - sometimes in surprising ways. For example, some on the left will be pleasantly surprised at Polly Gillespie's relatively new column in the Herald, in which the popular middle-of-the-road radio broadcaster often espouses radical politics - see for example her column from earlier in the year, Go on, tax me. In this she declared: "something has happened inside my soul, and I'm starting to realise that, as part of society, if I want society to function, I may have to pay more. I may have to pay a LOT more."
The Labour movement
The Labour Party, too, has been obviously influenced by rising radicalism lately. In policies such as the return to free tertiary education, as well as the bold discussion of introducing a universal basic income, we can see some sort of shift to the left.
And much is being made of news this week that Andrew Little's chief of staff, Matt McCarten, is moving to Auckland - see Claire Trevett's Matt McCarten set to move from Andrew Little's chief of staff to Labour's man in Auckland.
McCarten apparently hopes to build a large leftwing activist machine in Auckland for Labour, incorporating the social movements into a campaign to change the government. This will be important for the party's ability to win the fight for the votes of Auckland. But will it be good for the activist left? Incorporating social activists into Labour could be very negative for the wider struggle says Ben Rosamond in his blog post, McCarten in Auckland is good for Labour, but what about for the left?.
What about the unions? There has been a revived influence of unions in the Labour Party's leadership selection - especially with Andrew Little winning in 2014 due to union support - but it's not clear that Labour is, in turn, focused on the union movement in its policy plans. For example, Chris Trotter notes that in Grant Robertson's recent speech to the second Future of Work conference, there was not a single reference to unions - see: Red Shift: Labour Reorients Itself Toward Small Business.
But how important are unions anyhow? David Farrar points this week to the latest Statistics New Zealand information on union rates, and says that the percentage of employees belonging to unions has dropped from 27.6 per cent in 2012 to only about 20 per cent in 2016 - see: Union membership drops.
Finally, there have been some important campaigns and victories by the union movement recently - and the British Guardian newspaper recently reported one of these - see Aditya Chakrabortty's Yes, zero hours work can be banned: New Zealand has just done it.