Is It Time To Build A Major Leftwing Think Tank And More

- Sue Bradford

I wrote a piece for Foreign Control Watchdog 130 (August 2012; “A Major Leftwing Think Tank In Aotearoa: Call To Action Or Impossible Dream?”,  describing my PhD research into the concept of a possible Leftwing think tank in Aotearoa (Bradford 2012). At the time I was in the middle of the project and hadn’t even started carrying out the interviews I had planned with academics and activists from around the country. In the two years since then I have completed the PhD, and since July 2014 the full thesis has been available online for anyone who would like to read it (Bradford 2014). In this article, I briefly summarise the key findings of the project, including a summary of my research into CAFCA, which formed a small part of the study. I then go on to outline what has happened since July when the thesis became public and I started disseminating its findings.

Research Questions – What Was I Trying To Find Out?

Between 2010 and 2013 I undertook PhD research with Professor Marilyn Waring at Auckland University of Technology’s (AUT) Institute of Public Policy to find out:

  • Why no major Leftwing 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 Leftwing 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?

Definitions Of “Left” And “Think Tank”

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 – and didn’t. Those most dissatisfied with it came from the radical Left, as they saw the definition as not being clearly anti-capitalist/beyond capitalist.

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 Leftwing 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. 

Historical Irony

As I started this research project, I felt keenly the same historical irony that Chris Trotter talked about in an article in 2012: “It is one of the greatest ironies of recent political history that the Right has learned the lessons of effective Leftwing propaganda more thoroughly than the Left itself. Groups like the Business Roundtable and the Maxim Institute have always understood the enormous power of ideas, and how an argument well researched, well presented, and then powerfully and consistently advocated, will almost always shift public opinion in the desired direction” (Trotter 2012)  There have always been people on the Left who have understood this irony too, for example Bruce Jesson* and those around him from the 1970s onwards. Despite that understanding no major cross-sectoral Left wing think tank has ever developed. *Murray Horton’s obituary of Bruce Jesson is in Watchdog 91, August 1999, Ed.

Research Framework

For the interest of those of you who come from an academic background, 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. Political activist ethnography derives from a critical inquiry paradigm; personal values and background are explicit. It is highly reflexive and is part of an emerging family of activist ethnographies. Laura Bisaillon, a Canadian political activist ethnographer, describes it as an ethnography which opens up “possibilities for transforming oppressive social relations and setting a course for using knowledge derived from empirically informed research to inform the social justice and political work of those labouring on behalf of oppressed and marginalised people” (Bisaillon 2012). This was exactly what I sought to achieve with this project. I wanted to use the opportunity of three years of university-backed study to achieve something useful for the New Zealand Left, not just produce a thesis to be filed in the shelves and databases of the AUT Library. *An ethnography is a means to represent in writing the culture of a group. Wikipedia. Ed.

How I Did The Research

I interviewed 51 Left activists and academics from around New Zealand and kept a thesis journal of observation, analysis and reflection for three years. This provided the data which I went on to analyse in order to produce the research findings.

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 Leftwing 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 Leftwing 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). I did this because I have found over the years that many people on the Left here have little idea about Leftwing think tanks overseas, or are even aware they exist at all. These nine organisations are very different from each other and of course exist in other settings than ours, but there are useful things that can be learned from all of them for anyone interested in setting up a Left think tank here.

c) The thesis also looked at seven “nascent” Leftwing 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 research was also influenced by my own sense that the importance of community and union-based Left research outside the universities has never been well acknowledged in Aotearoa. Two of my underpinning goals were to:

  • Bring some activist knowledge into the academic realm through this project.
  • Use the research to support the building of a Leftwing think tank in Aotearoa.

Snapshot Of Findings: CAFCA

CAFCA was one of the seven “nascent” Left think tank-type organisations examined in my thesis. When I interviewed people, I asked them questions around their awareness of CAFCA’s existence and their perceptions of the organisation. Appreciation of the critical part Murray Horton has always played in CAFCA and respect for his work was high. The valuable role played by Foreign Control Watchdog as a regular journal for the New Zealand Left was noted, along with the fact that it was the only substantive, research-based Leftwing print publication still in existence in 2013.

Some people I interviewed saw CAFCA as a think tank in itself, albeit one limited to issues of foreign ownership and control, so not the kind of cross-sectoral think tank upon which my thesis question focused.  CAFCA’s work was seen as effective, although a few people had political issues with its kaupapa of economic nationalism. In thinking about what any new think tank project development group might learn from CAFCA, lessons included the vital role played by a competent core worker with a long term commitment to a group’s kaupapa and a deep knowledge of its area of expertise, alongside the backing of that person by an active, interested and supportive committee.

The vulnerability of CAFCA came from the same source as its strength. Being dependent on one person over a protracted period leaves wide open the question of what might happen if that person was no longer available or willing to continue. On the other hand, people identified a liberating autonomy in its operation as a group which is funded solely from kaupapa-driven sources, and therefore not subject to the donor or contractor requirements of other forms of funding.

State Of The Left

I did not realise when I started my research that questions and findings around the state of the New Zealand Left during the 2010-2013 period would in fact become as important as the questions around a major Leftwing think tank, if not more so. Key conclusions in this area are summarised here. To find out more, and to read the responses from individuals, please feel free to dip into the thesis itself at

Negative factors – summary

  • We’ve lost the struggle against the neo-liberal agenda. This has lead to widespread demoralisation.
  • Much of the community sector is colonised and afraid to speak out politically.
  • Unions are weak.
  • The Left is fractionated, including within te ao Māori.
  • There was much talk of “mindless activism” among some parts of the Left.
  • Parliamentary parties (Labour and the Greens) were seen as shifting to the Centre and the Right.

Implications and impacts of these

  • There has been a reduction in Left confidence.
  • Some noted a lack of courage and risk taking among activists which applied across generations, and did not come from just one generation noting this about another.
  • Organisational fragility
  • Not enough time spent on thinking and strategising
  • People perceived a lack of spaces and opportunities to move beyond the superficial.

Positive factors – summary

  • Good work of nascent Leftwing think tanks.
  • Rise in activism – Occupy, student radicalism, Auckland Action Against Poverty.
  • Mana experiment - surprisingly wide respect for it.
  • Respect across and between generations for each other’s contributions.
  • Radical Left - growing willingness to cooperate and listen to each other across old sectarian and ideological boundaries.

State Of The Left: Building Left Power

From this mix of positive and negative feelings about the state of the Left in 2010-2013, I drew four main conclusions:

  1. There are many people who feel they have no ideological or organisational movement, party or base they can call “home”. This was not an issue for those content with an existing organisation such as Labour, the Greens, Mana or one of the Left sect parties. But for others, the search for something not yet born, a party or movement which fully expresses their dreams, while providing a mechanism for realising those dreams, was one of the strongest themes to emerge from my research.

  2. The second component identified as critical to developing a more effective Left in this country was the need to become braver, more aware that the courage and the will to power are essential attributes of successful and sustainable activist practice. Job insecurity, the corporatised environment within the universities and frequent Left suspicion about those seen as too eager to take up leadership roles were some of the main reasons given for this comparative lack of risk taking among the conscientised Left. There was a strong sense that the more that unions and community based groups can do to provide environments which value internal challenge and debate within clear accountable structures, and which are prepared to break away from the current political and funder constraints, the better equipped we will be to take on the power of the Right.

  3. The third major element of Left weakness – and potential – identified in the research was around the role of theory. Many talked about our lack of theoretical development and a traditional unwillingness to not only debate ideas, but also to discover and play with new ones. The importance of debating and developing our own theories now, relevant to Aotearoa in this time, came through strongly.

  4. A fourth key point to arise from the research was that despite all the good work of many individual academics, activists and organisations, what was urgently needed was simply the creation of more opportunities for the Left to become more thoughtful. We need to 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 more effective ways of organising.

The study became in effect a rare opportunity for the New Zealand Left (or at least some of it) to take a reasonably detailed look at itself at a particular point in history, and a feasibility study in relation to the possible establishment of one or more Leftwing think tanks.

Three Leftwing Think Tanks: Conclusions

Multiple possibilities

All participants supported the idea of a major Leftwing think tank (one or more) – to a greater or lesser extent, some with more qualifications than others. The nascent Leftwing think tanks provide a huge reservoir of knowledge and experience which could be usefully tapped by any think tank implementation project. The desperation and lack of confidence felt by some on the Left may actually spur the creation of a think tank or tanks because of the growing awareness of the need for a more thoughtful Left in the face of Right power and Left weakness.

My conclusion was that 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 will be possible to build one sustainable pan-Left think tank, as the divisions between the radical and the social democratic Left are too fundamental. The three key areas of work which were seen as desirable for a major Left think tank included:

  • Research and policy development, accompanied by widespread effective dissemination of this output.
  • A place to think and debate – going beyond the short term and desperate.
  • Unruly voices – working with culture, peoples’ histories, in touch with reality of peoples’ lives and giving voice to the voiceless.

What Would It Take To Set Up A Major Leftwing Think Tank?

When people were asked what they thought it would take to establish a major Leftwing think tank, they responded that:

  • Money is an issue, especially at the radical end of the spectrum. However, there were many ideas about how resourcing might be established. There were also 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.
  • Māori 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 part of the thesis, as in line with sound community development practice, any sustainable and Left-consistent initiative will need to be a collective rather than an individual effort.

Update: Radical Left Think Tank Project

In July 2014 I graduated and my thesis went up online. Since then over 1,300 full copies have been downloaded, and I’ve been contacted by a number of people, including complete strangers, who have read it and are interested in being part of any developments arising. The research has also provoked lively discussion when I’ve presented my findings at a Fabian Society lecture in Auckland, Kotare’s Winter School at Wellsford and at the Social Movements, Resistance and Social Change conference held at Massey University, Palmerston North in late August. The interest and support shown has reconfirmed one of my key conclusions: that in fact the activist and academic Left in Aotearoa is much bigger than any one of us individually realises. While, of course, there are many different ideas about what a Leftwing think tank (or tanks) might look like and how it/they could develop, there is certainly enthusiasm out there to continue the conversation.  Some people have already volunteered to start work with me.

My own interest is in working with others to develop a radical Left think tank which can work cooperatively and purposefully with activists and academics nationally. Building a sustainable organisation of this nature will take time, resources, and a lot of relationship and kaupapa building. For those of us involved at this early stage, our kaupapa starts from a commitment to social, economic and ecological justice grounded in Te Tiriti o Waitangi. In late October I left my fulltime lecturing job at Unitec’s School of Social Practice to start working part time (unpaid) for the Left think tank project, and part time (low paid) for Auckland Action Against Poverty. I realised that unless I put some serious time into championing the project at this early stage, it was unlikely to ever get off the ground. I hope to be able to start working fulltime on the think tank project by the end of February 2015, if not sooner – but this will require raising some money.


A project like this is huge, especially if it is going to be engaging, participatory, relevant – and radical. There is no magical source of funding – no Kim Dotcoms here. Several individuals have already made generous donations and the Hobgoblin network raised money to support a December 2014 tour presenting my research findings around the country. But we will need much more if this initiative is going to build sustainably. A bank account has been set up: “Left Think Tank Project”. If you would like to make a donation by Internet banking, the details are:


7 Waterloo Quay, Wellington

account number 38-9016-0380440-00

An email to me at the e-address below with your contact details would be great so a receipt can be sent and your info added to the growing contact list of supporters. 

Relationship Between Developing A Radical Left Think Tank And Wider Transformational Left Project?

My thesis naturally dived not only into questions around one or more Left think tanks, but also into deeper waters around the state of the New Zealand Left overall during 2010-2013. As discussed above, my major conclusion in this area was that in fact many of us are looking for something that does not currently exist – a movement or project where we would feel ideologically and organisationally at home, crossing traditional boundaries like sectarian background, age and ethnicity.  In talking with many people over the last few months I have found this sense of absence resonating with many. September’s election results have only deepened my belief that what the Left needs urgently is not only space to develop its intellectual armoury (the think tank/s), but also - for some of us - the opportunity to start exploring and building a new “home” together.

Increasingly it seems as though these two propositions – a radical Left think tank and a wider Left movement or project – are interconnected, with the former likely to play a role in helping develop the latter. The Hobgoblin network, based in Christchurch, offered funding and organisational assistance to enable my participation in a number of workshops aimed at discussing these critical issues with interested people in different parts of the country.  I spoke at meetings in Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Palmerston North and Wanganui in December 2014. If you are based in another locality and would like to help put together a meeting or workshop, probably in early 2015, do get in touch. These are difficult but exciting times on the Left in this country. I believe recent experiences point - as ever - to the importance of building our own self-determining institutions outside the Parliamentary environment rather than putting all our energies into the Parliamentary Left.  I look forward to meeting some of you soon for deeper conversation – and possibly more. 

Sue is currently coordinator of welfare activist group Auckland Action Against Poverty and is starting work on a project to establish an activist/academic transformational Left think tank in Aotearoa.   Contact Sue at:


  1. Bisaillon, L. (2012). "An Analytic Glossary To Social Inquiry Using Institutional And Political Activist Ethnography." International Journal of Qualitative Methods 11(5), 607-627.
  2. Bradford, S. (2012). "A Major Leftwing Think Tank In Aotearoa: Call To Action Or Impossible Dream?" Foreign Control Watchdog, 130: 40-45.
  3. Bradford, S. (2014). "A Major Leftwing Think Tank In Aotearoa - An Impossible Dream Or A Call To Action?" Institute of Public Policy. Auckland, New Zealand, Auckland University of Technology. PhD.
  4. Trotter, C. (2012). "National Attacks Unions ... Again.  How Will Labour Respond?" Bowalley Road.


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