A major left wing think tank in Aotearoa—an impossible dream or a call to action? - a summary
By: Sue Bradford, 16th July, 2014
In 2010-2013 I undertook PhD research with Professor Marilyn Waring at AUT’s Institute of Public Policy, aiming to find out:
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- Why no major left wing think tank had developed in Aotearoa, despite the existence of right and centre think tanks.
- Whether there was any support from left academics and activists for such an entity (or entities).
- If there was, what was the nature of any think tank they would like to see established?
- What did the state of the activist left in Aotearoa 2010 – 2013 indicate about the possibility or otherwise of establishing of a left wing think tank?
- With such an initiative in mind, what might be learned from the experiences of some of the think tank-like left organisations that had already existed in New Zealand in the period 1990-2013?
Because the research was so bound up in the world of ‘left’ and ‘think tanks’ it was important to provide definitions of these concepts before I started interviewing people.
Left: a commitment to working for a world based on values of fairness, inclusion, participatory democracy, solidarity and equality, and to transforming Aotearoa into a society grounded in economic, social, environmental and Tiriti justice.
This definition was deliberately intended to be as inclusive as possible of the spectrum of ‘left’ from social democracy and the Greens through to the farther reaches of socialism, anarchism and communism, hence it was unlikely to please everyone.
Think tank: A community based not for profit organisation which undertakes detailed research and policy development in order to influence and enhance public policy formation across a broad range of issues, through publications, media work, lobbying, conferences, workshops and other forms of advocacy and education.
I chose not to include think tanks that are totally within universities, polytechnics or wānanga; government and church based think tanks; and transnational bodies. This definition was chosen solely for the purposes of the thesis because I considered the most likely form of major left wing think tank to be created in Aotearoa in the near future is one that is based at least partially in the community and union sector.
Methodology and methods
I used a qualitative methodology called ‘political activist ethnography’ as a way of maintaining academic rigour while carrying out research which had the overt purpose of attempting to help the left activist world from which I come. I interviewed 51 left activists and academics from around New Zealand and kept a thesis journal of observation, analysis and reflection for three years.
a) During the interviews and in my thesis journal I explored what was going on in the left activist world of the time, as well as asking participants what they thought about the state of the left and about the idea of one or more major left wing think tanks. Particular activist developments during the research period included Occupy, Mana, the Living Wage campaign and renewed student, union and welfare activism in some places.
b) I briefly examined nine left wing think tanks overseas, including the Search Foundation, the Australia Institute and the Centre for Policy Development (Australia); the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Canada Without Poverty (Canada); the New Economics Foundation and the Green House Think Tank (UK); the Jimmy Reid Foundation (Scotland); and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (Germany).
c) The thesis also looked at seven ‘nascent’ left wing think tanks in New Zealand, community based organisations that have (or had) think tank-like characteristics: the Alternative Welfare Working Group, the Bruce Jesson Foundation, CAFCA (Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa), the Child Poverty Action Group; the Fabian Society, AUWRC (Auckland Unemployed Workers Rights Centre), and Kotare Trust, Research and Education for Social Change in Aotearoa. A number of other initiatives were also discussed, including the Jobs Research Trust and ARENA (Action, Research and Education Network Aotearoa).
The study became in effect:
- A rare opportunity for the NZ left (or at least some of it) to take a reasonably detailed look at itself at a particular point in history.
- A feasibility study in relation to the possible establishment of one or more left wing think tanks.
(1) State of the left
There was an almost overwhelming sense that the left was on the losing side of a long term struggle against the power of the neoliberal agenda and its political proponents. Left parliamentary parties were seen as edging to the centre and right. Pasifika participants indicated a right wing shift in their communities. Divisions were noted in te ao Māori, with the impact of iwi corporatisation making itself felt. In 2012 the broader community sector was seen as having become almost completely colonised by the values and practices of state and business.
The accompanying sense of loss and despair contributed to what some identified as a reduction in left confidence. Some participants noted a lack of courage & risk taking among activists. Organisational fragility and the negative effect of difficult individuals in groups were also mentioned. Substantial comment was made about the phenomenon of ‘mindless activism’, a lack of sufficient time dedicated to thinking and strategising, of a dearth of spaces and opportunities where activists and their organisations could move beyond the superficial.
At the same time, there were many signs of hope, in the work of groups identified as ‘nascent’ left wing think tanks, in the emergence of activities such as Occupy, renewed student radicalism and the development of welfare activist group Auckland Action Against Poverty. There was surprisingly wide respect for Mana, including from people not affiliated to it in any way.
Among the radical left some organisations were attracting more young people; groups were attempting to abandon alienating jargon; there was increased receptivity to listening to the views of others and debating across traditional sectarian lines; there was growing willingness to cooperate on actions, meetings and campaigns; and I found a healthy respect for other generations than one’s own.
Building left power - ways forward
One of the things I was keenest to discover through the research was whether the left in Aotearoa offered fertile ground for the development of one or more major left wing think tanks, or not. I was also interested in the broader question of what other strategies might be critical to developing counter hegemonic power more effectually than we had done in the past. I identified four significant factors critical to building a more robust left counter force to neoliberal capitalism in Aotearoa post-2013.
A shared dream – an ideological home. For some on the left, there was a sense that there was no place, no party or movement where they felt completely at home ideologically. Existing parties and movements provided this for some people, but for others the sense of yearning for something that did not yet exist was palpable.
Courage and the will to power. A second theme to emerge was the need for more of us on the left to become braver, more aware that courage and the will to power are core attributes of successful and sustainable activist practice. This applied to those in the academy too, with respect paid to those within wānanga, universities and polytechnics who continue to demonstrate that an overt commitment to left kaupapa can accompany a productive academic career.
Theory matters. It became clear through the research process that many on the left recognised the importance of theories and theoretical debate as one aspect of strengthening the intellectual and practical capacity of left organisations and movements.
A thoughtful left is a potent left. Despite the sterling efforts of many groups and individuals, there was an urgent need for more opportunities for the left to become more thoughtful. It was seen as imperative that we develop the spaces and free up the time to talk deeply together, confront and provoke each other (respectfully), undertake research and education, and explore new and effective ways of organising.
State of the left: summary
The left in Aotearoa 2010-2013 did provide potentially fertile ground for a think tank project. All those I interviewed supported the idea, in some shape or form and despite a number of specific reservations. The experiences of the nascent left wing think tanks demonstrate a reservoir of experience and knowledge that has barely been tapped, should any implementation groups choose to learn from some or all of their stories. While there was a wide sense of desperation and loss of confidence, that in itself may actually spur on the creation of a think tank, as this fits so closely with the consciousness of the need to move beyond ‘mindless activism’.
The lack of a party or movement to call ‘home’ is a big gap for many on the left. For some of us, there is an urgent need for an organisation capable of mobilising and inspiring a far wider range of people than any existing organisation had been able to achieve by mid-2013.
(2) Left wing think tanks
There are many permutations possible, but there could be a place in Aotearoa for at least three major left think thinks: social democratic, green and left radical. The question of what might work for the Māori left and for Pasifika and other migrant peoples is of course up to those involved, but with the right ground work it is possible they could be an integral part of any or all of these initiatives – or independent option(s) may well be preferred.
I doubt very much that it would be possible to build one sustainable pan-left think tank, as the divisions between the radical and the social democratic left are too fundamental.
What would it take to set up a major left wing think tank?
- Money is an issue, especially at the radical end of the spectrum. However, there are many ideas about how resourcing might be established, and international examples to consider.
- An important first step is to make the concept visible and viable.
- Such viability will depend on the coming together of a group of skilled, dedicated people with a clearly defined and agreed kaupapa.
- It is important that it not align with any one political party.
- Maori involvement and/or good relationships between any initiative and allied rōpū are critical.
- High quality research and policy work are essential.
- Any think tank initiative(s) would be an opportunity to build stronger links between the academic and activist left, to the benefit of all.
Research participants offered a stimulating breadth of ideas about potential think tank activities, kaupapa and structures. These are listed in the thesis and will be a resource of interest to any future implementation project(s). I deliberately chose not to develop a blueprint or template for the creation of a think tank, as in line with sound community development practice, any sustainable and left-consistent initiative will need to be a collective rather than individual effort.
Four recommendations for action:
In my experience, it is never a good idea for anyone on the left to presume to tell others what to do. However, in the spirit in which this research was carried out – as a piece of work which may help to inform the development of a stronger left counter hegemony in Aotearoa – I offer these four recommendations for action.
1 One or more think tank initiatives will be possible if some individuals decide to form a committed group to make a project happen, and have the fortitude to dedicate themselves to such a difficult, long haul enterprise. If more than one project develops, that should be an occasion for rejoicing, not rivalry. My personal interest is in the possibility of developing a think tank on the transformational left.
2 Union and community activists need to keep sustaining and developing effective, relevant and creative unions and organisations. Without that, a think tank – at least on the radical left - will not have the support to flourish anyway.
3 The left in Aotearoa is more powerful than any of us realise. One thing that was revealed very clearly during the research was that there are many more of ‘us’ than any of us realise. We need to find each other and be a whole lot more proactive about making this part of our activist and academic lives.
4 We need to nourish courage and the will to power across and among generations. We will be collectively stronger if we build organisations we truly believe in rather than simply accepting the limitations of existing options.