General Election 2002

Spoil your ballot!

Socialism—and an end to the war, destruction, exploitation and oppression that is capitalism—requires before all else the unification of the working class against the parties of capitalism. That’s the starting point for the election policy of socialists.

Elections in themselves decide little of importance about how life is lived under capitalism. But an election campaign can sometimes present limited opportunities for the working class to achieve a higher level of unity than existed before. If significant layers of workers are mobilised behind a political party—albeit a reformist and social-democratic one—that claims to stand for working-class interests against the outright capitalist parties, revolutionaries can call for the working class to vote for that party, while making clear the political limitations of the reformists and their capacity for betrayal. And even if a party has no significant mass base, revolutionaries could consider critical support if its political platform includes some element that advanced the class struggle.

Labour: Rogernomicists in the 21st Century

When former National Prime Minister Jenny Shipley left Parliament recently, she noted in her valedictory speech that the current Government had not undone anything of significance from the era of National rule in the 1990s (and, by implication, from that of the fourth Labour Government). How truly she spoke. Any occasional impulses that the Labour leadership has felt to make connections with the working class, even merely rhetorical ones, have been swamped by their overwhelming need to be seen by the summits of NZ business as responsible administrators of modern capitalism.

Having presided over the demolition of the welfare state in the 1980s, the Labour Party was in 1999 given another chance to show what it’s made of. The current personnel, having happily crewed for Roger Douglas in the 1980s, decided this time not to sail quite so close to the wind of potential working-class resistance. They’ve offered some limited reforms in employment law for example, and a bit more spending here and there. But, as their admirer Jenny Shipley testified, Clark, Cullen, Goff and the rest have nevertheless maintained the same basic Thatcherite course.

If more evidence were needed, the current dispute with high school teachers is the most obvious proof that this Labour-led government is incapable of defending, let alone advancing the interests of workers. Despite overstressed and underpaid teachers now leaving the profession in droves, Mallard and his Government—who claim to be so big on the “knowledge” economy—clearly have no intention of trying to stop this haemorrhaging through offering meaningful investment in education and significant pay hikes to teachers.

Today there’s no significant layer of workers who see a vote to Labour as a vote for their class. Indeed it’s clear to the most minimally class-conscious worker in New Zealand that a vote for Labour is a vote for class collaboration. The call of left groups such as the Communist Workers Group and the Communist League to vote Labour represents merely the latest instance of their “tactic” of perpetual loyalty to the Labour sell-outs.

What’s true for Labour is no less true for “Jim Anderton’s Progressive Coalition Party”. Jim’s history is as a Labour Party bureaucrat, who fell out of favour and went off to build his own mini-bureaucracy, one formally a little to the left of contemporary Labour but tied to the capitalist order by its alliance (or rather, its Alliance) with the likes of the small-business Democrats. The Alliance vehicle cut off layer after layer of leftist supporters. Now Jim has come back home as Deputy Prime Minister in the current Labour-dominated government. Today you couldn’t slip a kernel of genetically modified sweetcorn between Jim’s politics and Labour’s.

The Alliance: For GM Capitalism

The most recent batch of Jim Anderton’s discarded leftists is the current Alliance, led by Laila Harre. Having separated from the Liberals some time ago, and recently from both the openly pro-capitalist Democrats and the Blairite Anderton, what’s left of the Alliance is essentially a coalition between two kinds of social democrats: left NZ-nationalist trade-union bureaucrats and left Mâori-nationalist social democrats. Leftist the Alliance is, but only in a very relative sense. There’s not ever the pretence of Marxism, and precious little pretence of socialism. The program of the Alliance is for a genetically modified capitalism (slightly modified).

Although there are times when revolutionaries give critical support to social-democratic parties in elections, Harre and co are not worthy candidates. They do not in any real sense represent the working class, and nor do they try with much enthusiasm to appear to do so—theirs is a particularly liberal brand of social democracy. And they have nothing in their campaign that advances the class struggle—they haven’t even attempted, for example, to give any militant leadership to the teachers’ strike. Their platform is a list of mostly supportable but tame liberal/social-democratic demands, coupled to a tame parliamentary strategy for achieving them. The Alliance has all the programmatic vices of old-fashioned Labour, and none of the mass base that was its only virtue.

Greens: A Dead-End for Workers

As the sands of minor-party support shift again under MMP, the Alliance has been eclipsed by the Greens (and by Winston Peters’ utterly reactionary NZ First). There’s no doubt that among radical youth the Greens are popular. Many hundreds of activist youth have been drawn into the environmentalist movement through their legitimate disenchantment with capitalism’s ecologically destructive impact and its globalising horror and waste. The rallying point for this movement in the 2002 elections is opposition to genetic engineering.

Marxists must counter the programme of Monsanto with the programme of publicly owned, publicly accountable science, driven by the demands of human progress and human need. We demand the expropriation of all agribusiness and its research components. And naturally we demand that all consumable products carry as much information as possible, regardless of the costs to the businesses that market them.

The prospect of the explosion of corporate profit-driven genetic engineering experiments creating a host of destructive (if unintended) by-products is very real. And the claims of agribusiness PR spin-doctors that their GM programme is primarily designed to increase food production to eliminate hunger is pure cynicism. But a blanket condemnation of all genetic engineering is simply reactionary. The point is not that some technologies are inherently bad—it’s rather that under capitalism all science and its application to industrial production is inherently flawed and misused, for it’s always subordinated to private profit. Capitalism is the central barrier to a better, safer, freer and more rationally organised world—but it’s simply backward to advocate indefinite bans on scientific progress until capitalism is done away with. In any case, the Greens have no intention of doing away with capitalism. There’s also a powerful strain of little-NZ parochialism running through their opposition to genetic engineering, a concern that NZ—and NZ business—could lose its clean, green image.

Another element of Greenism that is attractive to militant youth is the Greens’ partial opposition to the NZ Government signing up to George Bush’s “war on terrorism”. While the then-leadership of the Alliance, along with the other parties, went along with the devastating attacks on Afghanistan, Green parliamentarians like Keith Locke went on record as opposing NZ involvement. But like every other party, the Greens stopped short of the necessary call for defence of Afghanistan against the US/UK-led onslaught, and never dreamed of calling for the defeat of the imperialists. By contrast, class-conscious militants call for the defeat of all those imperialists—big or little—who participated in this campaign to bolster imperialism’s power around the world, including the defeat of the New Zealand SAS troops.

Although they include an ex-Maoist and an ex-“Trotskyist” among their MPs, there’s no class struggle hiding in the greenery. They are an alliance between disparate class factions that can be maintained only by the suppression of class struggle. Consequently the Greens present not a road to social progress, but a roadblock. The great irony is that Green politics tend to maintain the capitalist system, which, if not dismantled, threatens ultimately to destroy the environment.

Consequently giving critical support to the Greens would point away from class struggle, not towards it. And yet the Socialist Workers Organisation (SWO) does just this. It advocates a vote for the Greens despite the fact that they are a petty-bourgeois political party, because “[t]hey’ve become the focus for people looking to the left of the Labour government” (Socialist Worker, 5 July). The SWO vote for the Greens is best explained not by what is right with the Greens but what is wrong with the SWO. For one thing the SWO have enthusiastically backed the simple-minded, blanket anti-GE campaign. For another, the SWO paralleled the Greens in stating their opposition to the war on Afghanistan, but crucially refrained from calling for Afghanistan’s defence and for the defeat of all the imperialist forces. Their call for a vote to the Greens shows that, for the SWO, the class line that separates organisations of the working class from those of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie is of no political importance if it gets in the way of “smart” tactics.

The Communist League: Routine Pro-Castro, Pro-Labour Reformism

Outside the parliamentary players, there are a variety of smaller and more leftist campaigns around the country. But none of these campaigns contain any political ideas that could advance the class struggle and that could justify revolutionaries extending critical support, despite the absence of any mass support for these campaigns.

The Communist League (once the “Socialist Action League”) is maintaining its longstanding electoral routine. As always this has two parts. First, they are standing several candidates in electorates (this year in Maungakiekie in Auckland and in Christchurch Central) around a lukewarm programme of social-democratic demands, coupled with the usual follow-Cuba glorification of Fidel Castro and his fellow Stalinist rulers in Havana. Second, they call for workers to vote for the Labour Party in all the other electorates and for the party vote. They insist that a vote for Labour—a party of class betrayal—is a “class vote”.

The Communist League are familiar around election time. But there are also a couple of new campaigns this time. Nick Kelly has broken from the Labour Party to stand in the Rimutaka electorate in the Hutt Valley. Kelly has broken in an apparently leftist but unspecific direction.

The “Anti-Capitalist Alliance”

And then there’s the “Anti-Capitalist Alliance”, which is standing four candidates on a minimum-maximum programme of a few reforms (like “Jobs for all with a living wage and shorter work week” and “For the fullest democratic rights for workers and poor with no restrictions on their freedom of speech and political activity”), plus a “working people’s republic”. Of course it’s easy to agree on immediate demands. It’s also easy to agree abstractly that we need socialism and a workers’ republic. But the ACA avoids the key issue: how to get from the immediate demands for the immediate situation to the struggle for socialism. How do you get from what we need now, to the struggle for state power?

What’s necessary is a programme of demands that can bridge the gap between necessary immediate reforms and fighting for state power. Marxists must present a transitional programme that includes, for example, the demand for four days’ week for five days’ pay—that is, a shorter work week with no loss of pay—as a means of combating the bosses’ mass unemployment and of pointing the way to a society organised on rational socialist lines.

A transitional programme would also demand an end to business secrecy, for opening the books as a necessary step towards rational economic planning. It would call for rank-and-file strike committees and militant picket-lines in the context of struggles like the teachers’ strike, and for defence groups against racist anti-immigrant and other rightist violence. The programme would show how these can point the way to new forms of workers’ self-organisation—to a system of elected workers’ councils that could be the basis of a new working-class state power.

The Anti-Capitalist Alliance has not got such a programme, and is entirely unable to say how the objective of socialism might be achieved. And more than that, the ACA does not have a sufficient agreement within itself to have any prospect of making a continuing contribution towards socialism. It is in fact a combination between two incompatible elements. The first is the Workers Party of New Zealand, Stalinists from that period (the early 1930s) when Stalinists saw in the social democrats such an enemy that an alliance to prevent Hitler coming to power was precluded. And the second element is the very sophisticated milieu around the Christchurch journal revolution—a milieu so undogmatic that it’s difficult to discover whether they see themselves as Leninists or Trotskyists, or indeed what they believe … except that they’re clearly not Stalinists. These two elements not do not have a common future.

Spoil your Ballot on 27 July!

The IBT would support any candidates who stood for a political programme that addressed the real historical needs of the working class. We would also support any campaign that represented a mass of workers in some actual or proposed struggle against the capitalist class. We would even support them if they had only the potential to trigger class-struggle action—even if that action would be on an insufficient programme. But none of the contenders today represent any mass of workers in struggle, and none have the potential of triggering significant struggle.

Revolutionaries are not anti-electoralists. Elections can offer an opportunity for them to put their politics forward. But today there are no candidates worth supporting. While there are many goods on display, there’s nothing worth buying. We urge you to spoil your ballot as a protest vote.

Posted: 25 July 2002