• Is Democracy Too Left-Wing?

    There is never any shortage of advice to political parties who seek to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy that to do so would be to court electoral disaster. Any indication of a wish to move away from the status quo will, they are told, be seen as a dangerous “move to the left”.

    It was Mrs Thatcher who assured voters that “there is no alternative” and we see in New Zealand today the same insistence that the current orthodoxy is the only option. Yet if they accepted the advice they are given, parties who want to offer an alternative set of policies could no longer do so, but would be reduced to gesture politics and smiling sweetly.

    The democratic process would thereby be denied its real purpose and – in the absence of an effective challenge through the ballot box – the grip on power of already dominant interests will be further strengthened.

    It is, after all, only through the democratic process that the powerful can be restrained. All societies inevitably demonstrate that power, left unchallenged, will concentrate increasingly in a few hands. That power will be used to entrench the position of those who hold it, to protect it from challenge and to increase their advantage over their fellow-citizens.

    The whole point of democracy was to enable the political power and democratic legitimacy of an elected government to offset and protect ordinary people against the otherwise overwhelming economic power of those who dominate the so-called “free market”.

    That inevitable tendency towards the ever-increasing concentration of power has been graphically confirmed in an important book recently published but the French economist Thomas Piketty. He analyses data over a period of more than two centuries to show that, with one brief exception, economic power has increasingly passed to a few at the expense of the many.

    The exception is significant. In the two or three decades after the Second World War, power moved back to ordinary people and away from the powerful; this reflected the determination of ordinary people whose efforts had won the war to ensure that there was no return to the “bad old days” that had produced war and Depression.

    They used the power of democratic government to strike a better balance between the rich and powerful on the one hand and ordinary people on the other. If they were told – even by Winston Churchill – that this would mean a dangerous “move to the left”, they paid him no attention.

    Since that time, however, the rich and powerful have found ways to reclaim, and now increase, their advantages, and to restore the normal condition of widening inequality in our society; indeed, Piketty predicts that that process is gathering pace. And there is no message more congenial to the powerful than that this is how it has to be.

    Yet we can do something about it, if we have the courage to use the power that our forefathers who fought for democracy have bequeathed us. The whole point of democracy is that it allows us to challenge existing power structures – and that challenge is not automatically “left-wing”.

    Is the Labour Party’s proposal to use a universal savings scheme as an alternative to ever-rising interest rates left-wing? Or is it just a sensible and better alternative to a failing policy? Is the Greens’ proposal for a carbon tax left-wing? Or will it do the job of reducing climate change more effectively and provide a tax-break for ordinary people into the bargain? Is the refusal to accept that businessmen always know best left-wing or just a re-assertion of the democratic principle?

    We should take heart from the fact that most New Zealanders will affirm, if asked, their continued belief in the values of fairness, compassion, tolerance, concern for others. But those values have become submerged under the tidal wave of “free-market” propaganda; democratic politicians need to find effective ways of bringing them back to the surface and to a central position in our lives.

    Most people do not think about politics in any systematic way; they are perfectly capable of nodding in agreement to contradictory propositions offered from every part of the political spectrum. What determines the way they vote is which of those contradictory values is closest to the tops of their minds on polling day.

    The rich and powerful are expert at using their dominance of the media to raise the salience in the popular mind of values that suit their interests. The task facing politicians who want to resist the further concentration of power is to remind New Zealand voters at every opportunity of the values they continue to hold – values that built this country and that continue to define a healthy and integrated society.

    The advice that this should not be attempted for fear of seeming “left-wing” could hardly be more suited to serve the interests who have everything to gain from protecting the status quo. If our democracy is to prosper, we must remember what it is for – to resist the concentration of power and to ensure that the interests of the great majority are properly taken into account.

    Bryan Gould

    5 June 2014

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 10 June 2014