OPINION: The left will keep losing winnable fights until Labour rustles up the courage to name the underlying causes of social problems, writes Justine Sachs.
The fight for a Capital Gains Tax (CGT) was one which could have been won by the left. It was lost not because it was horribly unpopular but because Labour refused to make a cogent argument for it. And it is precisely because the CGT was a bare-minimum policy proposal that Labour’s outright rejection of it is all the more infuriating.
From the moment it formed a Government, the Labour Party has capitulated to the right by treating tax reform as political poison. The Government’s pledge not to introduce new taxes in their first term along with its Budget Responsibility Rules have severely constrained its ability to adequately fund our struggling public services. There is broad agreement the health and education sectors in this country are underfunded - where, exactly, does Labour propose funding comes from if not tax?
The abandonment of a Capital Gains Tax is the latest in a string of defeats for the New Zealand left, and speaks to a broader political crisis within that political space. We keep losing entirely winnable political struggles, despite the fact we desperately need progressive policy reforms.
It is a crisis of political confidence but also of willingness. Labour appears unwilling to acknowledge the myriad social ailments we face today - the housing crisis, or the fact too many families without enough to live on - have a cause. That cause is decades of rampant corporate greed, precipitated by deregulation of business, and the break-up of the once strong trade union movement, resulting in the upward transfer of wealth and power to the top tiers of New Zealand society. The rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer. It may be a long-time catch cry of the left, but it’s also an empirical fact. Labour, caught in a double-bind of trying to appeal to both their working-class constituency and business, refuses to name the problem.
It’s a cowardly move at a time when politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez show politicians who dare to are increasingly popular. Their bold and transformational campaigns have successfully shifted the political paradigm to the left in the United States. What’s compelling about candidates like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez is they don’t shy away from a popular politics - and they name the problem. Their political narrative is persuasive because, like all good narratives, it has an antagonist (the billionaire class) and a protagonist (the exploited working-class). Class-based politics resonates with working people in a way vague platitudes about kindness and wellbeing cannot.
Property investors, the National party and business owners aggressively attacked the tax, ludicrously painting it as an “assault on the Kiwi way of life”, while the Labour-led Government stayed largely silent, unwilling to take a strong position. What a wasted opportunity when the rationale for a CGT is entirely convincing and reasonable. Wage-earners’ incomes are taxed, so why shouldn’t property investors’ incomes be taxed as well? Why is it acceptable that a select and wealthy few are benefiting from the housing crisis, while a majority of New Zealanders are worse off? And how do we fund essential public services if the wealthy refuse to pay their fair share? That was the public debate that needed to be had. We are worse off as a country because we did not.
These fights are winnable and the stakes are high. Millions of New Zealanders need and want transformative change, sooner rather than later. It is high time Labour remembered which side their bread is buttered on, and started putting up the fight we need.
Justine Sachs is a community organiser and Masters student in Sociology based in Tāmaki Makaurau. She is the external communications organiser for the socialist group Organise Aotearoa.