While the Labour movement has an existential crisis, what of the radical?

George Elliott


The Labour movement in the UK and its former colonies has transformed dramatically in the past century and has slipt into an identity crisis after gazing back at the neoliberal experiments of the past four decades and, pondering Key’s eight years and Corbyn’s idealism, asking “what have we become and where are we going?”

As our local MP, David Clark, made clear last week, the NZ Labour Party has been behind the “big ideas” of free education, the forty hour week, state housing, the minimum wage, the nuclear-free policy, et cetera.

For the cynics, the disillusioned or the radicals, Labour provides no substantial alternative to conservatism. Both are cut from the same cloth. Cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, says that the neoliberal project initiated by Thatcher, Reagan and the fourth Labour government in New Zealand, is “not likely to be reversed by a mere rotation of the electoral wheel of fortune.”

Featured image: Old Factory – Johannes Ko, 2014 (CC BY-ND 2.0)

An excess of laissez faire, the erosion of the state, an obsession with free trade – all mythologised as the ‘natural and correct’ progression of humanity’s liberal project – have irreversibly transformed the rationalities and the perception of how we do politics (mere management). The radical finds little comfort in the different aesthetics of management that Labour and the Tories offer.

Don’t get me wrong, the worker and the union still play a significant role in the Labour parties, if not in New Zealand, then in the United Kingdom. Many view Jeremy Corbyn’s accession as the start of a post-Blair era for Labour, something Labour activists here in New Zealand are keen to tap into.

However, as the Labour parliamentary party has its existential crisis, workers are more vulnerable to low-pay and underemployment and union membership is dropping. There’s no longer a working-class consciousness to tap into.

While the Labour movement repeatedly looks to the past to figure out what it is and after a search for consolation in the parliamentary system, the radical looks elsewhere. “I don’t think Corbyn represents anything other than a dead end,” local union activist, Malcolm Dean says.

“I’m not interested in reclaiming or reinvigorating these parties in the slightest, or forming a new true workers’ party, or anything like that. The way forward is through working class self-activity, direct action across union boundaries, inside the workplace and in other sites of struggle around our reproduction as workers – housing, the benefits regime, childcare, transport, et cetera.”

Maybe the issues for the working class must now find their battleground again outside of the parliamentary system, outside of the “electoral wheel of fortune.” What of Corbyn? His idealism will probably run into the brick wall that is managerial governance in this new politico-economic reality, but it can still find a place in the realm of on-the-ground everyday activism, solidifying there.


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