John A.Z. Moore: Woke and “bread and butter” politics

John A.Z. Moore: Woke and “bread and butter” politics

New Zealand’s new prime minister Chris Hipkins has declared that ordinary Kiwis want the government to focus on “bread and butter” issues. This apparently means that Labour is dropping its so-called woke middle class policies and is now embracing working class concerns. In this opinion piece, John A.Z. Moore discusses the clash between identity and class.

Jacinda Ardern’s government promised transformation in the economic and social spheres. But after failing to deliver on key material/economic concerns, such as with the housing crisis and increasing levels of inequality, Labour quietly shifted its focus to what political scientists call post-material politics. And a middle-class and elite version of this has been termed “woke politics”.

Labour policies that have been labelled as “woke” include the promotion of iwi and state co-governance, transgender rights, decolonialisation, promoting businesswomen, hate speech legislation and moves such as banning gay conversion therapy. What defined such initiatives as postmaterial is that these are social policies not seen as being directly related to material or economic advancement. Those who label such social policies as woke argue that such political concerns are those of a privileged middle class and university-educated elite. That is, such policies around areas of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and tino rangatiratanga (or Māori sovereignty) are bunched together as elite concerns of social-liberals, however, this is a contested point of view that needs more nuanced analysis.

Out with the middle-class woke

Labour has decided that its collapse in support and all likelihood of losing power in the next election called for a drastic shift in focus. With the increasingly unpopular Jacinda Ardern falling on her sword, new party leader and prime minister Chris Hipkins has positioned himself as a champion of ordinary working people. The emphasis of this government will now ostensibly at least be on economic policies that deliver on cost-of-living concerns, labelled by the new PM as “bread and butter” issues. Key social policies will be dropped or at least reassessed. In other words, it’s out with the woke and in with traditional left-wing, class-based economic policies. Or so the new Labour leadership would have us believe.

The problem for Chris Hipkins is that the electorate has been down this path with his party before. Jacinda Ardern led a new regime that also promised to deliver on “bread and butter” concerns. However, the Ardern-led Labour Party used rather grandiose language and promoted loftier goals, with its commitment to a transformational government that would fix the housing crisis, raise wages in real terms through empowering trade unions, tackle child poverty and push back against the general problems of increasing levels of poverty and inequality. With regard to Māori issues, Labour under Ardern promised to deliver universal economic policies that would act to lift up economically and socially disadvantaged tangata whenua.

But Labour’s dilemma is that it just hasn’t been able to deliver in the area of economic justice. And a few progressive social initiatives such as decriminalising abortion and pushing forward with transgender equality have only emboldened Labour’s critics who argue the party has been all about woke middle class policies, as opposed to delivering on its transformational economic promises.

Labour under a new leadership will continue to fail to deliver on bread and butter issues. But Hipkins is aware that his party needs to be seen to be addressing the economic concerns of working people of all identities. After all, perception is everything to the post-ideological politician. Therefore, we will see a continuation of minor bread and butter reforms such as the recently announced rise in the minimum wage, a rise that barely covers the official seven percent inflation rate, and certainly fails to address food inflation which currently stands at eleven percent.

Labour’s contradictions

Why does Labour promise to deliver for working people and all those faring hardship, and then fail the very part of the electorate that put them in power? Largely, this comes from the contradictory nature of the party itself. Labour has always presented itself as a party of economic and social justice. In its early days it was a party of the trade unions. Over time, it extended its social base to include disaffected Māori, women struggling for equality and all those championing progressive social reforms such as homosexual law reform and anti-racism initiatives.

However, since at least the late 1930s, it has also been an establishment party that is committed not only to maintaining but also to expanding New Zealand’s capitalist economy. Being both a party of social and economic justice, while also supporting New Zealand’s deeply exploitative and unequal economic system means that the party is often economically conservative, especially when in power. Jacinda Ardern’s transformation for workers and the poor therefore resulted in more inequality and a cost-of-living crisis. A commitment to bread and butter politics will only bring about some minor reforms that won’t make any substantial difference to people’s situations of material uncertainty.

Real transformation needed

The “woking class” – the middle class liberal elite – are generally supportive of the legacy of the Jacinda Ardern government. She was able to deliver on their concerns over issues of gender, sexuality and Māori issues and package it all as a politics of kindness. Yet for many of those who belong to oppressed groups, including Māori and LGBTQI+, their lived reality is one of both social oppression and economic hardship due to their class position. To people in this group, the politics of being kind just comes across as a bad joke. Moderate social reforms and a lack of economic transformation don’t really cut it for those who are both socially and materially oppressed. Take for example the case of left-wing trans activists who highlight this government’s superficial addressing of transgender concerns. Labour’s cautious support for self-identity is really just virtue signalling when what is needed is full, free and fast trans healthcare now.

For fans of a bread and butter focus, i.e. those who see the need for more of a focus on class and economics, there’s a new enthusiasm for this Labour regime. But talk is cheap, and Labour has already failed the first time round in delivering on a programme of economic transformation. Economic politics under the Hipkins-led Labour government will continue to be just as uninspiring as its liberal-lite social programme has been.

A new radical politics that combines economic and social concerns into a programme of radical transformation is desperately needed. But it won’t be found in the corridors of Parliament where empty platitudes are the order of the day.

John A.Z. Moore is a writer for the Democracy Project and a precarious worker in the provinces.