There are token phrases that slip easily from the mouths of politicians; the usual odes to housing, education, health and employment – and all the reasons we can’t have them: “fiscal responsibility”, “working within our means”, “until we open the coffers”, “the last government’s overspending”, “the law says we can’t”.
Somehow many voters get hooked. Every three years, those who consider themselves on the left vote for parties that have no intention of fundamentally dealing with the inequalities of homelessness, poor physical and mental health, unemployment, under-employment and multiple minimum-wage jobs. And these are just the basics of survival. The things that make for rich and fulfilling lives – lifelong learning, music, concerts, art, sports, books, theatre, holidays, travel, restaurants, access to the outdoors, with clean air and water – seldom feature in politicians’ plans for ordinary people.
New Zealand is governed by alternating very similar centre-left and centre-right administrations and, although many parties are on offer, voters are essentially called on to choose which they consider the lesser evil of the two likely coalitions. On the whole, like bourgeois politics everywhere, this choice has little impact on the living conditions of the broad masses of the people. Far more significant are international economic forces and the actions of the unelected ruling class made in pursuit of profit.
For too long we have been led to believe that as workers we can only have political expression through parliamentary politics. And those politics have betrayed the working class again and again. No wonder polls show the majority of New Zealanders feel resignation, disenchantment, and disillusionment with the politics which “takes care of the rich and powerful instead of them” (stuff.co.uk).
At first the build up to 23 September’s parliamentary elections was very boring – an aberration in a recent international pattern in which alienated layers unexpectedly elected Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron on the right, and gave huge support to Jeremy Corbyn on the left.
At the end of July, Labour’s polls slid down to a catastrophic 26 percent and unexpectedly the dour, middle-aged, former trade-union bureaucrat, Andrew Little, was replaced with a new leader – the cheerful, articulate, younger Jacinda Ardern. Supposedly on the left wing of the party, her affinities are with the state bureaucracy and academic policy wonks who have nurtured her from adolescence in the political wing of the labour bureaucracy. She was once president of the International Union of Socialist Youth, but admits now with an embarrassed laugh, “I’m a democratic socialist, but I don’t see that as a meaningful term in New Zealand”. She calls herself “a pragmatic idealist” (Morning Report, 2 August 2017). With Ardern facing a tired nine-year-old centre-right National Party-led government under a Prime Minister with a charisma bypass, Labour immediately shot up in the polls.
The Labour Party is the historic party of the working class. At the time of its birth in 1916, it was identified with the struggle for socialism and later, under the first Labour Government in the 1930s, with the establishment of the welfare state. But it is also associated with the drastic neo-liberal market reforms of the Fourth Labour Government in the 1980s, which began dismantling the welfare state and reversed so many of the hard-won gains of workers’ struggle. It’s a bourgeois workers party, a contradictory formation that organises a working-class base around a capitalist programme. Many in the working class have got wise to this and do not trust Labour but, in the absence of any genuine alternative, continue mostly to vote for it.
It would be foolish and dangerous to expect the reformist Labour Party to act like a revolutionary party and do what is necessary, building strike committees and solidarity actions, mobilising the working class to action, organising workers councils and laying the basis for a real workers’ government. But it would be a significant step forward if Labour declared that it stands for the interests of the working class against the interests of the bourgeoisie – if it promoted a revival in class struggle and identified itself as “socialist”, provoking a debate about what socialism actually is.
Do not expect even this from Jacinda Ardern – “pragmatic idealism” simply means her ideals are for sale. The current Labour Party sees its job as containing, rather than leading, class struggle.
New Zealand’s proportional representation voting system makes it unlikely that the largest incoming party will get sufficient seats to form a government without combining with other forces. Labour’s main coalition options are the Greens, with whom they have a Memorandum of Understanding, and the populist New Zealand First, led by Winston Peters.
The Green Party got around 11 percent of the vote in the last couple of elections with supporters who tend to float back and forth to Labour. It is a disparate and fundamentally unstable mix of liberalism, feminism, Marxism and anarchism, alongside certain kinds of conservatism, bureaucratic acumen and capitalist foresight. Many elements of the Green Party are to the left of Labour, but its conversation is entirely within the framework of capitalism, choosing to ignore that this framework cannot find solutions to the problems of the environment and climate change. Green connections to the bourgeois order are overwhelmingly stronger than its ties to any working class or radical base. As a consequence, a coalition between Labour and the Greens is, paradoxically, capable of pushing Labour somewhat leftward on some issues, and at the same time, a guarantee against its movement to the left on anything which would break from the bourgeois order.
The Greens, and in particular Metiria Turei, until recently their co-leader, have sought to engage younger potential voters alienated by the hypocrisy and sheer irrelevance of mainstream politics and by poverty in a world of wealth, for example by calling to increase core social welfare benefits by twenty percent. This approach misfired badly early in August when Turei gave a speech disclosing that twenty-five years earlier as a solo mother she had omitted to tell the authorities about a flatmate in order to increase her accommodation benefit entitlement.
This precipitated a chorus of moral outrage, striking a chord with all that is smug and self-satisfied in middle-New Zealand. Turei’s attempt to start a discussion about poverty was completely overwhelmed. A young single Māori woman with a child, trying to get by at a time of draconian benefit cuts, was given no quarter, while the far more recent deliberate defrauding of the state by a Minister of the Crown (now Prime Minister Bill English) to the tune of at least $32,000, a much larger sum, for his own ministerial accommodation and pecuniary benefit, is treated lightly (thespinoff.co.nz).
Rather rapidly, the pressure on Turei built up. Although the speech had been approved in advance by her Green Party parliamentary colleagues and accepted by the Labour Party tops (stuff.co.nz), Ardern announced that this old “lie” disqualified Turei from a ministerial role in a post-election coalition government. It was a telling moment of political ruthlessness behind the charm and smile – intended to dramatically signal Ardern’s righteousness, maturity and responsibility.
While the Greens said they supported Turei, in truth they acquiesced to Ardern’s outrageous pre-emption of the election, and mobilised no real support. Who on the left would not have wanted to be part of a mass demonstration of beneficiaries and supporters marching with Turei to her meeting with Work and Income authorities to account for the twenty-five-year old infraction? Of course, leading class-struggle action is not in the nature of the bourgeois-liberal Greens. Their lack of action was a monumental failure to intersect hundreds of thousands of mainly younger people for whom the system is not delivering, but it comes as no surprise.
The howling for Turei’s blood grew louder. Two MPs walked out of the Green caucus in protest against her. On 9 August, she resigned and Green support plummeted to a level that could fall below the 5 percent required for seats in parliament. With Labour remorselessly seeking a landslide, Ardern’s rock-star campaign speech ten days later, talking about climate change as “my generation’s nuclear-free moment” and “the challenge that defines my generation” (Channel NewsAsia), was clearly oriented to take even more votes from the Greens.
The next target of Labour’s aspirations to make itself the sole party of the “left” was the Māori Party and the Māori electorates in which it has been based. Kelvin Davis, a hard-hitting Māori from the right-wing of the party, was brought in as Labour’s new deputy leader to lead Māori back into the Labour fold.
Māori, who make up fifteen percent of the population, are concentrated in the working class. They are almost three times more likely to be unemployed than Pākehā, half as likely to have a university degree and likely to die seven years earlier. Over half the prison population is Māori. The core needs of Māori workers and poor are the same as other workers: housing, a sliding scale of hours with no loss of pay, a programme of public works to address unemployment, free vocational training and education with funding for living costs, decriminalisation of drugs and free access to quality medical care.
Since the 1936 meeting between the prophet Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana and Labour Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage, Labour has believed it has a divine right to the Māori seats, which are elected by those of Māori or part-Māori descent who choose to be listed on a separate Māori roll. However, in 1994 there was a massive split to form the Māori Party in response to the Labour Government removing Māori rights over the foreshore and seabed, in breach of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi between the British Crown and the Māori chiefs. Revolutionaries hold that the Treaty, as reasonably understood by Māori at the time, should be binding on the state, though it has no force of law and has been thoroughly dishonoured. The settlement process under the Waitangi Tribunal established in 1975 is a minimal and inadequate attempt to recompense for the losses, but has fostered the development of a bourgeoisified elite based on the chiefly caste.
After the fall of the Fifth Labour Government in 2008, the Māori Party became a significant component in the National-led replacement, eventually fracturing along class lines. The left wing formed Mana, which established an opportunist alliance in the 2015 election campaign with the shady multi-millionaire Kim Dotcom before burning out (see “Kim Dotcom’s ‘Mana’ from Heaven”).
Although most of the chiefly caste still find it pays to pursue their political aspirations through Labour, what remains of the Māori Party has come to represent the interests of wealthy Treaty-settlement strata and currently takes its place in a government alongside other parties that openly represent privilege. While the late Māori Queen never made party-political comments, her son King Tuheitia makes no secret of his support to the Māori Party. But this is a battle the King will lose: as Māori capitalist power increases, the informal authority of chiefs and aristocrats diminishes.
Currently the Māori Party, in response to challenges by workers and the poor, is indicating openness to a switch from its present coalition with National to alliance with Labour. Labour is certainly not too proud or too principled to countenance such a coalition if necessary to obtain governmental office, but there is likely to be little left of the Māori Party when the votes are counted.
Beyond National and Labour, the likely largest of the small parties will be the populist New Zealand First led by the wily, smooth, fearmongering old xenophobe, Winston Peters. He is clearly concerned that the new Prime Minister may not need to purchase his support with regular sessions over one of her cheaper pure malt scotches, with perhaps the Ministry of Foreign Affairs thrown in. On 23 August he tweeted “Every election is different but this one is shaping up for catastrophic consequences.” Unfortunately for him, the electorate does not see much difference between a Labour government with a coalition partner and Labour governing on its own.
On the face of it, Labour appears to offer marginally better policies than National on housing, health and education, but nowhere near what is required to deal with growing crises in these sectors: free housing, free healthcare and free state secular education from infancy to tertiary level. Labour does not stand for the decriminalisation of drugs so that addiction can be treated as a health issue. While it gives lip service to the needs of migrant workers it does not say it will grant all migrants full citizenship rights. It remains silent on US military provocations aimed at North Korea and on New Zealand involvement in imperialist wars.
A vote for Labour would only contribute to the development of class consciousness if it represented the need to fight, even in a limited fashion, for the interests of workers against the bourgeoisie and its order. Labour in no sense seeks to stand against the parties of capitalism; it has been very clear that its intention is to lead whatever small bourgeois parties it needs into a coalition government.
Most of the New Zealand far left is interested in the same – getting rid of National at any price. The most significant ostensibly revolutionary formation is the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), allied with Socialist Alternative in Australia and the ISO in the USA. Initially calling for a cross-class Labour and Green government as a “step forward” (iso.org.nz), the ISO have focused their enthusiasm on Labour as the Greens’ fortunes have faded and Ardern’s star has risen:
“Jacindamania is an expression of working-class hope and is to be welcomed by all socialists. People want National out; we want National out. People want the reforms Labour are offering; we want them too. The new mood is one that can be tapped by revolutionaries as well as the Labour reformists”
For partisans of the working class, a vote for Labour is entirely without justification. Labour has no orientation to or interest in the development of working-class struggle and consciousness. “Pragmatic idealism” has no interest in challenging the status quo. If Labour was willing to fight against laws that interfere with the right of workers to strike, if it was not beholden to the bourgeois parties it seeks to govern with and if it were to assert itself as a party of the workers, then it could be possible to vote Labour as a basic expression of class consciousness. None of this is the case today, no matter how much the ISO wishes it were so. The working class has nostalgic historical and emotional connections to the Labour Party but as long as it has an automatic claim to workers’ votes, nothing will fundamentally change. Instead of permanent Labour loyalism, we need to build a movement capable of launching a revolutionary working-class party that can overthrow capitalism. Only then can we build an equitable, sustainable and habitable world for future generations.