Jacinda Ardern – no Friend to Workers and Oppressed

No to Labour, Yes to Euthanasia and Cannabis Reforms

11 October 2020

Jacinda Ardern goes into the 2020 election a star on the world stage and immensely popular in New Zealand. Three years ago, her sudden ascension to the head of the party brought Labour from irrelevance to an unexpected win against the incumbent National Party, establishing a “centre-left” governing coalition with the Greens and New Zealand First. But this time, as she once again faces the voters, the pretence of transformation is gone, devoured by the “fiscal responsibility” mantra that characterises austerity governments worldwide.

Ardern’s initial appeal was enough to sway not just the middle ground of the voting public, but also New Zealand’s opportunist left. In 2017, the IBT was one of the few left voices not to call for a Labour vote – on the grounds that nothing in the party’s campaign suggested an inclination towards independent working-class politics or defending workers’ interests (see “Labour’s Bid to Run New Zealand Capitalism”).

The International Socialist Organisation (ISO) thought otherwise, publishing a cheerful subscription to Jacindamania that asserted: “the new mood is one that can be tapped by revolutionaries as well as the Labour reformists … The immediate task for the ISO is to participate in the election and share in the effort to get a Labour-led government using our ‘Kick National Out’ material. We have to earn the right to be listened to” (“Kick National Out! Build a Socialist Alternative”, 22 July 2017). With Labour’s victory, Ardern got three years to implement the legislation promised in her soaring speeches. The ISO got three years to demonstrate what they could do with the “right to be listened to” for which they had traded their principles. Now, with no visible increase in class consciousness or independent left politics, they are considerably more subdued. Their lukewarm echo of the same position, “Vote Labour, but Build a Socialist Alternative”, declares that New Zealand workers need to “go through the experience of Labour in power” (as if that wasn’t how we’ve spent the last three years), but they can’t seem to summon up much enthusiasm.

Austerity with a Human Face

As the drunken fog of Jacindamania begins to clear from the left’s collective brain, it is time for a sober assessment of the results and prospects of three years under Ardern. The balance sheet is not promising.

Labour pledged to increase the minimum wage by $4.25 to $20 an hour, but in yearly increments extending beyond the parliamentary term into 2021. These increases are further diminished by rising living costs, meaning a minimum-wage worker is only slightly better off, especially as Labour reneged on abolishing the “starting-out wage” that legalises paying younger workers even less than the minimum.

Casualisation and the gig economy also threaten these modest gains. Labour’s record here is uninspiring. It pledged to fight casualisation and scrap zero-hour contracts but replaced them with a meagre four-hour contract. Despite some new legal protections, agency workers still cannot unionise in their regular places of work. The party campaigned on reversing National’s brutalisation of screen industry workers at the behest of director Peter Jackson, whose much lauded Weta Workshop has made headlines for its endemic and toxic culture of bullying and sexual harassment, but little was done. Filmworkers remain contractors without the right to strike and face the threat of immediate dismissal if they complain.

Fair Pay Agreements – a major campaign pledge – have been pushed out to after the 2020 election, and even that is not a promise. The hated 90-day trial, which lets bosses fire new workers on a whim, remains in force for small businesses – and therefore hangs over the heads of almost 30 percent of workers. The government ignored pleas from its own Welfare Expert Advisory Group to raise New Zealand’s appallingly meagre benefits, meaning jobless workers remain essentially destitute. Labour pledged little in the fight for workers’ rights; it has done even less.

‘Compassionate’ Government in Action

A similar pattern underpins other government promises, such as changes to New Zealand’s abysmal tenancy laws, which offer renters worse rights than in most other rich economies. It finally produced a set of reforms so tepid that international observers are baffled at the landlord lobby’s response of apoplectic fury. The logic of these pseudo-reforms is a pragmatic notion that a balance needs to be struck between renters’ and landlords’ interests, which under capitalism means protection of the owner’s investment at the expense of decent living conditions for the unfortunates who must live in it.

Under pressure from activists, Labour promised to improve the conditions of migrant workers (aggressively exploited by New Zealand businesses, particularly in the dominant primary sector) and it increased the annual refugee intake from 750 places to a still measly 1,500. However, angling for favour from the xenophobic New Zealand First to launch a coalition government, Labour had spent the campaign attacking National from the right on immigration, whipping up anti-Chinese hysteria and pinning New Zealand’s housing crisis on offshore property speculators. The implications of this Janus-faced approach became clear in the new government’s first days, when Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens announced a “shared view” that immigration was to blame for New Zealand’s dilapidated infrastructure, and agreed to cut net migration by almost half. The overall result is that fewer immigrants can claim residency than under National, while conditions have deteriorated for the visa-dependent workers routinely used and discarded by whole sectors of the New Zealand economy. Tens of thousands of migrant workers trapped in New Zealand by Covid-19 spent months legally unable to receive benefits or look for jobs.

After the Christchurch mosque shootings, Ardern won near-universal praise for her empathetic response towards the victims, the survivors and the wider Muslim community. But Labour used the crisis to push through gun control legislation, its justification shifting rapidly to law-and-order pablum about gang violence, targeting not fascists but poor, mostly Māori, proletarians (see “After Christchurch: Fascism, Anti-Fascism & Multiculturalism”). This example of how quickly bourgeois anti-fascist legislation turns on fascism’s intended victims should be noted in regard to the proposed laws against hate-speech. It is naive to think the state will obligingly censor the likes of Action Zealandia without turning these laws on those they see as an even greater threat to the status quo: the revolutionary left. Marxists oppose any extension of police powers – instead, we must organise workers for our own self-defence as the only sure method of defeating fascism.

In many other areas, this government has fallen far short of its promises – the partial, inadequate restoration of prisoner suffrage, the glacial pace in improving mental health provisions and a chasm between Labour’s climate rhetoric and its actions. The housing crisis and the KiwiBuild debacle provide a stern lesson that public-private “partnerships” are great for lining capitalists’ pockets with tax money, but not for delivering public goods.

Reforms and Referenda

Labour did carry out its campaign pledge to decriminalise abortion, and we welcome this reform, but again the measures were insufficient. If more than 20 weeks into a pregnancy, women must still convince two doctors that they are in distress to access this basic medical procedure, disadvantaging poor, rural and young women in particular – another compromise accepted by Ardern in silence.

Going into the polling booth in 2020, the New Zealand voter will be faced with referenda on two similar sets of reforms dealing with individual rights – decriminalisation of euthanasia and cannabis. The choices on offer are circumscribed and deficient. The euthanasia bill only permits the right to die in circumstances where a doctor believes the patient has less than six months to live (meaning those who suffer from unendurable pain or mental deterioration over a longer period have little choice but to keep suffering), while the cannabis bill is hedged about with puritanical restrictions on where, when and how a person can grow, obtain and use cannabis. Much of the government’s justification for decriminalising cannabis centres around sales taxes and freeing up police time, rather than any social benefits – hardly a sign of sincere concern for public wellbeing.

Marxists support both drug decriminalisation and the right of an individual to die on their own terms at their own time – so despite these limitations we call for a critical yes vote in each referendum. While the limits of the bourgeois order mean basic rights can never be fully achieved under capitalism, we nevertheless have a duty to fight for them even in limited form. But here the ISO has flinched – although the organisation has not taken an official stance on either referendum, it has given prominent place to an article expressing the views of individual members that euthanasia is too dangerous a right to be given to the working class under the restrictions imposed by capitalism.

Rather than putting off human rights until after the revolution, we seek to expose the deficiencies of these reforms, inevitable due to the inability of capitalism to provide workers and the oppressed with even basic needs. In doing so, we link the struggles for full realisation of these rights with the necessity of socialist revolution.

‘The Team of Five Million’

Ardern’s main sales pitch in the 2020 election is her record of competency in dealing with Covid-19. While the country’s remoteness and the protection of the Pacific Ocean played a role, Ardern’s rhetorical skills were key in convincing New Zealanders to accept restrictions in the name of public health. Her Facebook livestreams have drawn comparisons to Roosevelt’s fireside chats during the Depression – with the internet-age bonus that New Zealanders tuning in can respond to Ardern via the comments section, and she to them. This symbiosis of social media and personal politics has boosted Ardern’s image; the carefully-scripted messages of “be kind, save lives” and the “team of five million” did much to sell Labour’s lockdown measures to the public.

Behind the rhetoric, however, there is little compassion in the economic response to the pandemic. Despite the “team of five million” slogan, workers have borne the most risk in the Covid crisis. Nurses, cleaners, supermarket clerks, delivery drivers, fruit-pickers, dock workers, teachers and many more continued to work through lockdown at risk of exposure, yet have seen no rewards, while businesses are lavished with subsidies and interest-free loans. Few of these “loans” will ever be repaid, effectively creating a massive funnel of wealth into capitalists’ pockets. Labour has borrowed immensely to fund this bank robbery, and it will fall to workers to repay it.

Meanwhile, to prevent likely voters from feeling the impact of job loss too keenly, the government has created a special benefit rate for those out of work due to Covid. This rate is nearly twice the pathetic normal benefit rate and (unlike standard benefits) is not reduced by one’s partner’s income, creating what Auckland Action Against Poverty advocate Brooke Fiafia called “two-tiers of unemployed – those deserving of liveable incomes and those who do not” (NZ Herald, 25 May 2020). Access to this new rate expires in mid-November – after the election, but before the government’s predictions of peak unemployment. The cynical calculations are obvious.

The Covid-19 crisis posed starkly the need to transform New Zealand society and make life better for the oppressed. Instead, Ardern has downplayed prospects of change, so much so that some on the right now hail her as a model conservative. “Labour is handed a healthy balance sheet and the biggest economic crisis since the great depression,” gushes Liam Hehir, “and … the response is a budget so conservative that Bill English [National’s previous Finance Minister] could have delivered it” (The Spinoff, 6 August 2020).

In opting for massive bailouts that pour billions down the throat of business, while leaving workers to their fate, Labour has revealed no serious desire to address soaring income inequality, protect workers against job losses, or do anything to improve the plight of Māori, Pasifika, migrant workers, the disabled or the unemployed.

Dispossessing the Māori Working Class

Labour’s last election victory relied in part on appealing to and re-absorbing the Māori vote, which it once took for granted but which has been lost in recent decades to the Mana Party (claiming to speak for poor Māori) and the Māori Party (representing the Māori bourgeoisie). With both now out of parliament and on the wane, Labour has benefitted – but only insofar as it can keep both sides of the Māori class divide happy. The Māori and Pasifika working class are particularly vulnerable to Labour’s failures to provide improvements in living standards and employment rights for all workers, but the government has also been rocked by two major scandals concerning the ongoing dispossession of Māori in particular – despite Ardern’s plea a few months after she was elected for Māori to hold her to account.

In May 2019, Oranga Tamariki, successor organisation to the notorious Child, Youth and Family department, was the subject of a harrowing media exposé over its practice of “uplifting” (ie, kidnapping) Māori and Pasifika children as young as newborns from their families without even providing notice, let alone an opportunity for families to consult or defend themselves. This child-theft regime, backed by aggressive intervention from the police, is so obviously and systematically racist that commentators have compared it to Australia’s “Stolen Generation” of Aboriginal children. The further each investigation digs, the more abuse it uncovers, yet none of the leadership has been held accountable. Ardern’s role in this has been to deflect blame, defend the agency’s high-ups and deny responsibility.

Meanwhile the ongoing conflict over Ihumātao, a historic Māori site where largely working-class Māori activists have been facing off against an alliance of construction conglomerates and Māori elites standing to profit from the land sale has unmasked deep class divisions among Māori that many commentators try to ignore (see “Class & Mana at Ihumātao”). Labour has walked a fine line. Despite bitter opposition from New Zealand First, which firmly opposes cutting deals with the protesters, it has not ruled out intervening to protect the site, but Ardern has yet to visit Ihumātao or give any firm sign of stepping in. If Winston Peters’ populists are no longer necessary to build a coalition, then a carefully-managed settlement may be coming after the election – but this will not keep a lid on the unfolding Māori class struggle for long.

Coalitions and Class

In theory, New Zealand’s MMP electoral system supports a wide range of parties and political views. In practice, most parties struggle to get into parliament at all – either by way of securing a local seat or getting over the 5 percent national threshold for party list seats, and the number of parties in parliament has shrunk over the years. Alternatives on the social-democratic left such as New Labour and the Alliance disappeared long ago. United Future died last election, Mana the one prior. As we predicted, the Māori Party was ejected from the Māori seats and thus from parliament in 2017. Unlike the others, it clings to life and is contending the election again this year, although it is unlikely to go far.

It seems New Zealand First is heading the same way. We described Peters in 2017 as a “wily, smooth, fearmongering old xenophobe”. A right-wing nationalist party founded on anti-Chinese racism, New Zealand First has often played the role of “kingmaker” in choosing to ally itself with either National or Labour to form the governing coalition. In 2017 it chose to anoint Labour, with the Greens joining the governing coalition in what Marxists call a popular front – an ostensible workers’ party in alliance with unambiguous capitalist parties. Whatever pretensions Labour had to stand for the working class were limited by their bourgeois partners. New Zealand First served its role well, withdrawing support to scupper a number of Ardern’s promises, such as implementing a capital gains tax and repealing the “three-strike law” of maximum penalties for violent offenders, thus giving Labour an excuse not to go “too far” and threaten the operation of capitalism.

Popular enthusiasm for Labour has been riding high. Having peaked at around 60 percent in July, polling in late September showed a slump in support to around 47-50 percent - with National polling at 30-33 percent, these numbers still suggest easy victory for Ardern. The most likely outcome is a coalition in which Labour partners with the Greens, who will fulfil the role they previously shared with New Zealand First of a convenient safety valve vetoing problematic measures. Green co-leader James Shaw has called on his supporters to vote Green to “ensure Jacinda continues as prime minister” (RNZ, 26 September 2020).

Greens: Partners in Crime

Originally an eclectic mix of left-liberals, more far-sighted capitalists, feminists, self-described socialists, anarchists and progressively-minded bureaucrats, the Greens have been shifting rightward over time, and under Shaw they have fully embraced capitalism and market-based solutions to climate change. In some respects, however, they present as left of Labour, with a stated platform that promises progressive tax changes, rental reform, sweeping overhaul of the struggling public education system and even restoring the right to strike. Their left-leaning promises serve to capture radical voters for the “centre-left” coalition with no prospect that they will actually be in a position to fulfil them.

Shaw has recently come under fire for pledging $11.7m to expand a private school with a green ethos and a heavy dosage of New-Age mysticism on the curriculum, despite the party’s traditional opposition to private schooling. This shines a light on the Greens’ two faces and two bases: one of activist youth, students and radicals, and another of progressive-leaning middle-class urban professionals, business owners and bureaucrats. On election day, the Green vote comes more from the latter and policy gyrates accordingly. While the Greens are in a limited sense capable of pushing Labour leftwards, their politics operate wholly within a capitalist framework, and they act ultimately as a bulwark against a move to the left that might threaten normal capitalist relations.

This was made abundantly clear shortly before the 2017 election when Shaw (with backing from Ardern) brutally sacrificed his co-leader Metiria Turei for using an example from her past as a solo parent to illustrate that it is often necessary for beneficiaries to break the law in order to survive. Turei’s intention was to spark a national debate about the wretched lives of beneficiaries – instead she found out just how distant the Greens are from class-struggle politics (see “Labour’s Bid to Run New Zealand Capitalism”).

For a Revolutionary Party! No Vote for the Coalition!

Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky all advocated a tactically flexible approach to electoral politics, using parliament as a platform to raise consciousness and build support for a proletarian programme. But they were clear that workers could never come to power through electoral victories; the only path to working-class power is revolution, and parliamentary struggles are only useful as a means towards that end. While our tactics can be flexible, our principles must be firm (see “Marxism & Bourgeois Elections”).

Ardernism is the latest chapter in Labour’s long history of pro-business, pro-austerity, anti-worker politics. In the 1980s, Labour under David Lange responded to economic crisis with mass privatisation and deregulation. Faced with opposition from its working-class base, it declared war on the unions and paved the way for the subsequent National government’s 1991 Employment Contracts Act, imposing some of the harshest anti-strike laws in the world. Labour has worked hand-in-glove with National ever since to maintain austerity, further dispossess Māori and keep effective industrial action illegal. Rather than being a “lesser evil” because of a few more promising reforms, Labour’s “nicer” approach demoralises and impoverishes huge layers of the working class that vote for it and lays the groundwork for further attacks under National in the future.

This is not to say that it is never appropriate to vote for Labour. The party has historic ties to the New Zealand working class and remains a contradictory formation, what Lenin called a bourgeois workers’ party – a working class base with a capitalist programme – originally modelled on the British Labour Party. This contradiction may again come to the fore, as it did in Britain for a while under Jeremy Corbyn, but New Zealand is a long way from that now. Ardern’s pro-business “pragmatic idealism” rejects class independence even in a constrained Corbynist sense.

Voting for a bourgeois workers party is only justified when the party orients itself towards a struggle, even in a limited way, for the interests of workers against the capitalist class and the bourgeois order. Corbyn’s leadership reflected genuine appetite in Labour’s working-class base for a fight against the bosses and the bipartisan austerity regime, although his aim was to contain this struggle within the bounds of social-democratic reformism. We advocated a critical Labour vote in the British elections in 2017 and 2019 as a basic expression of class struggle, while also calling for a break with Labourism as an obstacle on the road to genuine workers’ power (see “Put Labour to the Test! Antisemitism, Smears & Social-Democracy”).

As we noted in “Marxism & Bourgeois Elections”: “The principle of working-class independence is the bedrock of revolutionary electoral tactics. When a reformist party joins or openly advocates an alliance with the bourgeoisie … electoral support will only hinder the efforts of the working class to organize separately in its own interests.” Corbyn rejected power-sharing with the “progressive” bourgeois parties. Ardern, by contrast, has always sought capitalist allies. Be they New Zealand First reactionaries or disingenuous Green left-liberals, joining hands with bourgeois parties robs Labour of any hypothetical value as a tool to advance class consciousness, regardless of its programme.

This remains true in 2020. But even if Labour were to gain enough seats to govern alone, it would not deserve a worker’s vote. Although they provide some cover, Ardern does not need the Greens or New Zealand First to push her into class compromise – these are her instincts to the bone.

It is indefensible for socialists to call for a Labour vote in 2020. Ardern has little to offer workers but smiles and sellouts. As long as Labour can count on workers’ automatic support, nothing will improve. Instead of trying to funnel workers’ votes into Labour, Marxists must strive to build a genuine working-class party capable of achieving the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Against a backdrop of runaway climate change, resurgent fascism and global economic collapse throwing tens of millions into destitution, this need has never been more acute.

Related articles:
Marxism & Bourgeois Elections (1917 No.42)
Class & Mana at Ihumātao (1917 No.42)
Labour’s Bid to Run New Zealand Capitalism (1917 No.40)