Rearranging the Deckchairs

Race & class in the New Zealand election

1 October 2023

Every six to nine years, the small imperialist state of Aotearoa New Zealand replaces its centre-left governing coalition with a centre-right coalition, or vice-versa. The bell now tolls for the current Labour–Green government, an alliance between a party of the union bureaucracy that long ago traded in its social-democratic programme for more “centrist” bourgeois appeal, and a party of “progressive” small capitalists, urban intellectuals and liberal NGOs. Poised to replace them are the conservative National Party and, to its right, the smaller ACT, which once had libertarian pretensions but now paints itself as the party of Pākehā-chauvinist “law and order”.

Over the last electoral cycle a new force has arrived on the scene: a radical right conspiracist current, still marginal but steadily growing. Drawing from white supremacists, fundamentalist Christians, rural anti-environmentalists, anti-vaxxers and militant transphobes, this current has significant representation in ACT and the minor right-populist New Zealand First party. Meanwhile its independent formations and their influence are growing outside the parliamentary sphere.

Labour’s Long-Covid Hangover

Labour’s cross-class coalition has now governed for six years within a political framework established by ex-PM Jacinda Ardern (see “Killing with Kindness: The rise and fall of Jacinda Ardern”). Elected in 2017 on vague promises of “transformative government”, Ardern was for a time able to stand as a symbol of “progressive values”, national unity and stability in the face of global crisis. She remains a darling of the international liberal media, but leaves a legacy of broken promises and worsening conditions for poor and working people.

The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the fundamental problem with the Ardern government’s attempt to balance the interests of capital and labour. Managing a decrepit health system with little crisis capacity, her government was able to justify to business, unions and the public a programme of lockdowns, mandates and border controls that was extraordinarily strict by international standards—and largely successful in containing the spread of the virus until most of the population was vaccinated, thus boosting Ardern’s image of sensitive competence and management for the universal good. Despite the fact that her “all in this together” strategy of class compromise precluded any possibility of pro-worker policies, Labour was propelled into an absolute majority at the 2020 election, unheard of under New Zealand’s proportional representation system.

But cracks were already beginning to show. Big business was comfortable enough with a short, hard lockdown to prevent more serious disruption, but as fears grew that the cure might be worse for profits than the disease, support dissipated. Meanwhile many workers were deprived of any significant support, with many businesses simply pocketing the billions of government funding channeled to them for “wage relief”. Anti-lockdown sentiment spread from the top to the bottom of society. Ardern’s daily livestream talk of the collective solidarity of a “team of five million” rang hollow in the ears of those experiencing the intensifying hardships of lockdown in working-class conditions. And then, when lockdowns were ditched in favour of a no-jab no-job “passport” system, vaccine scepticism gathered strength in the working class, especially among women and Māori. Predictably, significant layers of the most oppressed were mobilised by a menagerie of grifters, anti-restriction capitalists and the hard right.

By early 2021, antagonism to Ardern, state bossiness and vaccines had crystallised into a social movement, and a coalition of anti-mandate, conspiracist and far-right groups launched an occupation of Parliament’s front lawn. The crowd included a small Action Zealandia fascist contingent, enjoying their first significant recruitment opportunity since before the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings. The occupation, which concluded with a violent confrontation with police, was extremely successful in achieving its goals. Within weeks the government announced that most restrictions would be lifted and opening of the borders would be accelerated. Labour’s popularity fell below National’s in the aftermath of the occupation, and has stayed there ever since.

The government had no answer to the upsurge of grievances emerging from its subordination of workers’ interests to capitalist profits during the pandemic, and Ardern’s failed attempt at simply brazening out the burgeoning anti-vax movement was the nail in her coffin. With the party’s credibility badly damaged, hospitals overwhelmed and the death-toll climbing, it was clear that Labour had to start putting this historical episode behind it—along with the presiding prime minister. Attempting to distance himself from the legacy of failed promises of transformation, Ardern’s successor, Chris Hipkins, has carefully avoided making promises of any kind, leaving little but a few means-tested breadcrumbs for the working class and firm opposition to a capital-gains tax.

Racism & the Resurgent Right

Two years after the Parliament occupation, Covid has vanished from the political calculus. Instead, the far right has now picked up the second great polarising issue of New Zealand’s political establishment: the question of Māori rights. Over two terms of Ardern’s carefully controlled “biculturalism”, Labour’s Māori caucus was able to acquire some influence in parliament, gathered around influential foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta. Mahuta embodies the contradictions of her caucus and the social strata it draws from. In 2004 near the start of her political career, she was one of the few Māori Labour MPs to speak against the Labour government’s elimination of Māori foreshore and seabed rights. But in time she discovered that she could in fact stomach her party’s chauvinism, so long as it allowed iwi (tribal) leadership and Māori business interests some presence in parliament, however constrained by Labour leaderships.

Under Ardern, Mahuta’s Māori caucus was vital in pushing the Three Waters Reform, a modest project for doing away with municipal management of water and entrenching public ownership of water assets under the direction of representatives of central government, local government and iwi. It quickly became a symbol for the aspirations of the small but rising Māori bourgeoisie to a share in the administration of New Zealand capitalism.

But Hipkins’ new cautious Labour leadership caved in under attack from right wing parties, conspiracists and Māori-bashers of all kinds. The focus of Three Waters was shifted away from iwi and towards possible private enterprise. The once-powerful Māori caucus has now been sidelined.

Assorted racists have taken this as licence to declare open season on any and all aspects of the liberal biculturalist project and the modest gains Māori have achieved under its auspices in recent years. Parliamentary rightists portray themselves as the opponents of “racial discrimination”, “separate systems” and “co-governance of public services” or, in NZ First’s case, against “ideological mumbo jumbo” from “the new fascists”. ACT’s David Seymour has tested the boundaries with inflammatory talk about a referendum on the Treaty of Waitangi and joking about bombing the Ministry for Pacific Peoples. Meanwhile Julian Batchelor’s “Stop Co-Governance Tour” continues across the country—a series of thinly veiled white-supremacist meetings mobilising race hatred.

Years of reactionary fear-mongering have laid the ground for this election to deliver a ruling coalition of the right. ACT, although much smaller than National, is poised to be the real winner, running on a programme of racism and conspiracism to transform itself from a client of National to an independent contender for a leading role on the New Zealand right.

Te Pāti Māori: a New-Found Radicalism?

Meanwhile, an independent left competitor to Labour’s Māori caucus has emerged: Te Pāti Māori (TPM), which represents a similar base but is unconstrained by the vicissitudes of Labour leadership. Politically it is led by a petty-bourgeois layer of rangatira (chiefs), iwi board members and enterprise managers thrust up by the Treaty settlement process, initially orientating itself to a much larger population of urban working-class Māori, who have never benefited much from the Treaty settlements and are often disillusioned with upper iwi politics and governance structures. TPM channeled that base’s concerns into a bourgeois ethos of bootstrap-pulling represented by the party’s right-wing president John Tamihere—only to find itself discredited when this policy led it into an alliance with the National Party, and consequential ejection from parliament in 2017.

TPM has now reinvented itself as a left-progressive party, sidelining Tamihere and selecting as co-leaders Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi, liberal iwi leaders focused on cultural nationalism, involvement of iwi bureaucrats in the management of public services and anti-big business economics. They have repudiated the old alliance with National to seek support from petty-bourgeois and professional supporters of the Greens and Labour, releasing a new suite of progressive-tinged policies from taxation reform to the establishment of a Māori parliament, to (most recently) formal commitment to prison abolition. It seems likely that the rising tide of racist hate and paranoia, together with Hipkins’ sidelining of the Māori caucus, will allow TPM to win increased support from the left.

Marxists agree that Māori have a right to wring as much out of the crown as possible in response to nearly two centuries of oppression, even if under capitalism Treaty payouts have resulted in the formation of a petty-bourgeois stratum to administer them. But a bourgeois electoral party, utterly disconnected from the working class and incapable of orienting towards the unions, is not the means by which significant gains for Māori can be achieved. TPM has no answer to the potentially violent radical right movement that has sprung up to defend Pākehā supremacy from the spectre of co-governance and Treaty claims, and no capacity to engage the broad layers of the Māori (or Pākehā) working class who could be capable of building a movement to defend Māori from the racist tide.

Under Hipkins, Labour has barely even bothered to register a position on Māori rights, responding to the naked racism of its opponents with unconvincing appeals to unity. Such “unity” is a transparent lie under capitalism, which is inherently divided by class. For precisely this reason, capitalism relies on non-class divisions such as race to undermine working-class unity and create a false sense of solidarity across different classes. While right-wing parties may be more comfortable spouting overt racism, all New Zealand’s parliamentary parties have resorted to it often enough, from Labour’s 2015 “Chinese names”, to the Greens’ 2016 immigration dog whistling and TPM’s recently reversed anti-immigration rhetoric. But racism is only one particularly noxious expression of an essential aspect of all of their programmes: to diffuse any independent mobilisation of the working class that would threaten the interests of the businesses, labour bureaucrats and iwi leaders upon whom these “progressive” parties rely. None of them can apply the only tool able to effectively counter the racist speaking tours and the growing conspiracist right—a multiracial trade-union-led movement against racial division and violence, under the leadership of a party that represents the true interests of workers.

Greens: Sustainable Stagnation

While other parties have suffered upsets and turns this electoral cycle, the Green Party has stuck to its well-established role in New Zealand politics, with a slightly increased vote share thanks to the Labour Party’s cast-offs. Like Greens elsewhere, the NZ party broadened from an early focus on environmental activism to a more general petty-bourgeois programme around “four pillars”of environmentalism, social progressivism, democracy and pacifism. During the early “transformational” phase of the Ardern administration, the Greens’ interpretation of these fine liberal values was to impose strict “budget responsibility rules” on any suggestion of reform. During the last three years under Labour’s absolute majority, independent Green values of any kind have been thoroughly subsumed to keeping their ministerial chairs, from which they act as passive liberal-left cover for Labour. Their flagship policy “win” in this period—the market-based Emissions Trading Scheme—excludes agriculture (one of the main emitters) and mostly serves to hide climate inaction and government subsidies to big emitters. According to the independent climate action tracker, if every country pursued something like New Zealand’s current climate policy and targets, the world would face catastrophic warming (four degrees Celsius by the end of the century).

The Green Party also plays an important social role as a graveyard of New Zealand radicalism. Every generation, it absorbs talented leftists into its petty-bourgeois activist wing of radical-liberal MPs and campaign organisers. This “left” wing wins the Greens credibility in socially progressive circles, yet is absolutely passive in the face of the business-friendly right, which maintains the party’s funding, position in parliament and its reputation with more conservative “progressives” through a cheerful commitment to compromise every policy the lefts can dream up. In a recent display of the Green lefts’ radicalism pushed to its extreme, their base ran a vote of no-confidence against corporate wheeler co-leader James Shaw—only for none of their own leaders to step up to run against him.

Equally harmful is the effect of the Greens on the broader left, which all too often treats the securing of a (usually hopeless) Green parliamentary bill as the ultimate goal, rather than independent mobilising of the working class and other oppressed layers in society.

Voting for the ‘Lesser Evil?’

In the absence of a workers’ party with any kind of class-struggle programme, many leftists, such as the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), support the Labour-Green coalition in every election, with small variations of emphasis. This “common-sense” approach, in New Zealand and around the world, involves calling for votes to any available bourgeois-labour party regardless of its programme or, failing that, any bourgeois liberal party like the Greens or US Democrats—with the sole objective of keeping their more conservative opponents out.

Reformist socialists are often well aware of the shortcomings in the parties they endorse and the ISO, like much of the NZ left, recognises that voting Labour-Green doesn’t necessarily result in victories for the working class, but can also lead to significant losses. Their election statement “Keep National Out, and Build a Socialist Alternative” describes Labour’s financial and tax policy accurately as “class war against workers” and identifies the Greens’ role in the sphere of climate politics as “[pulling] activists towards parliamentarism away from the on-the-streets activism we need.” So, how does this align with a call for a popular-frontist Labour-Green vote?

Sophisticated reformists often paint their strategy as an application of the Marxist critical support tactic, arguing, as the ISO did in 2020 at the height of Ardern’s cult of personality, that “by going through the experience of Labour in power, and its disappointments” workers could “draw the conclusions that voting Labour into office is not enough and that they must take action for themselves collectively” (“Vote Labour, but Build a Socialist Alternative”). They claim to follow the tactic advocated by Lenin (in some situations) of critically “supporting” a reformist party’s electoral efforts the way “a rope supports a hanged man”. But in the absence of any significant class-struggle current highlighting the contradictions within Labour, or of anything resembling a programme of reforms, it does not seem to occur to the ISO that their one-vote-fits-all approach only serves to sow the same illusions they claim to dispel. How impactful is it to hang the same man every three years?

This year, with morale so collapsed by “going through the experience of Labour in power” that it has pushed many workers towards a resurgent far right, it is all too clear, even to the ISO, that the working class have no illusions in Labour to dispel. So to justify retaining their permanent strategy they slightly change tack, simply stating that National promises “tax cuts for the rich, a return to easier eviction of tenants, scrapping Fair Pay Agreements, scaremongering about Māori ‘co-governance’”. They conclude: “We are not indifferent about the outcome of this election. We don’t want a right-wing government.” This boils down to nothing more than the view that “progressive” governments are a lesser evil.

Of course, there are programmatic differences between the major parties, even if ultimately they all uphold the dictatorship of the same class. It is even true that a Labour-Green government might occasionally pursue reforms, or defend social services. Māori, women and queer people are justifiably afraid of the threats currently emerging from potential partners in a right-wing coalition. Why then do Marxists reject “lesser-evil” arguments?

It’s a question that could be answered with many others: What has been achieved from decades of calls to vote for “left” parties with bourgeois programmes? Is it not time for workers to draw conclusions from their experience? What is our message to the best elements of the working class who have learnt from past Labourite betrayals and are loath to vote for a repeat performance? Should workers not be encouraged to use their triennial moment of political involvement to condemn the contemptible? And what about the effect on the left itself—what happens to the politics of a group that is forever defending traitors?

The “better” bourgeois programme may prevent this or that particular travesty. But only for a few years. Every Labour-led government will fail the working class. It will fail to provide housing. It will fail to address the climate crisis. It will fail to reduce racism, sexism and transphobia. Insofar as it does address these issues, this will be in proportion to the pressure the workers’ movement is able to apply through strikes, protests and other independent action. Gains won from Labour are often administered in a way judged to conservatise the class—such as Fair Pay Agreements, which allow a framework for improvements in wages and conditions in many sectors but channel the recent upturn in strike action into legalistic negotiations by officials within a framework where strikes are banned. Labour’s legacy is not only one of broken promises and continued austerity, but also of class struggle subdued.

Labour’s failures and disappointments fuel the unerringly predictable six or nine year cycle. Support for Labour today means votes for National tomorrow, as disillusioned workers find the so-called left offers them no real alternative. Worse still, many fall prey to the growing populist and conspiracist substrate that has fed the recent growth of the hard right.

As we noted in “Killing with Kindness: The Rise and Fall of Jacinda Ardern”:

“In fact it is exactly this demoralisation, stemming from failure to deliver any meaningful improvement to workers’ lives in the face of growing social crises at home and abroad, that has been Ardernism’s downfall. New Zealand’s swing towards the populist right and its attendant symptoms—from the crushing defeat of centre-left candidates in last year’s local elections to the spread of reactionary and conspiratorial ideas through the poorest sections of the working class—are born out of disillusionment with the gap between Labour’s promises and its results.”

Labour will always betray the interests of the working class, because it is committed to defending the interests of the capitalist class. At present it does not even conceal this. Viewed in this context, support for the Labour Party is not some “lesser evil” but endorsement of an open programme of capitalist assault on workers, and a pathway that leads workers away from class consciousness and backwards to reaction. It is crucial that the working class develops consciousness of itself as a class, and becomes aware of its historic mission to replace capitalism with socialism.

Opposition to electoral lesser-evilism does not mean indifference to improving workers’ lives before the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Indeed, building revolutionary consciousness requires workers’ struggling for their interests now. Voting simply “against” the centre right on a permanent basis betrays the long-term necessity of breaking out of the intractable cycle. This requires a party to fight against class-collaboration and advance the organisational and political independence of the working class—a million times more important than winning this or that crumb from the master’s table.

So in this election we call on voters to spoil their ballots. This is neither abstention nor political apathy. When there is no party programme defending working-class interests in even the most deformed manner, a spoiled ballot is clearly not a failure to participate but a strong political message. Building a movement of active mass rejection of both potential governing coalitions has the potential to create a much more fertile ground for socialist ideas than the non-strategy of “critical”-but-unconditional support.

No votes for bourgeois programmes! Spoil your ballots!
Reject the racist tide! Multiracial trade-union defence guards!
For workers’ power! Build a revolutionary party!

Related articles:
Marxism & Bourgeois Elections: Principles & tactics (1917 No.42)
Killing with Kindness: The rise and fall of Jacinda Ardern (1917 No.47)