Labour Party and the Left in crisis

The right wing New Zealand National Party won its third national election in a row. This result is a boost to big business interests. The workers’ movement will continue to be confronted with serious challenges as Prime Minister John Key moves to implement a number of anti-union and anti-poor measures.

As it stands, the National Party gained 48% of the party vote which, combined with their electorate wins, will give them 61 seats in the 120-seat parliament (New Zealand has a ‘mixed-member’ proportional electoral system). Despite having a majority in their own right, National are likely to include other parties - Act, the Maori Party, and United Future - in a new coalition government.

Labour’s vote fell to 24.7%, its lowest vote since 1922, thirteen years before the first Labour government. The Green Party won 10% of the vote, which is also down on the last election. The Internet-MANA lost its one seat which was held by MANA Movement leader, Hone Harawira.

NZ First had a strong result, 9%, which is up on its 6.6% result at the last election. NZ First is socially conservative, nationalistic, and follows a social-democratic economic approach that is at odds with the overall economic approach of the National Party. It will not be part of the government but Prime Minister Key indicated National will work with NZ First throughout its term in office.

Labour’s historic defeat

The historic defeat of Labour has led to increased turmoil in the party, especially on the question of its political positioning and its leadership. Conservative commentators and the right-wing of the Labour Party have been howling that the party needs to stop representing so-called ‘minor’ interest groups and move back to the centre.

What they mean is that Labour should disentangle itself further from its traditional working class base. In reality, Labour’s move away from the working class over the last thirty years and its inability to deal with the changing nature of the class, is what has led to this current slump. They have struggled to connect with casual workers, those affected by the demise of traditional blue collar industries, and the growing working poor.

Labour’s new leadership selection process, which last year gave party members and affiliated unions a say in the leadership election, put David Cunliffe at the head of a party. Cunliffe was from the left of the party. While the right of the party put up a temporary show of party unity, they were essentially more concerned with regaining control of the party, rather than beating National.

Initially, Cunliffe indicated that his campaign would be socially progressive. While some minor announcements were made in this direction, this was never going to be really possible. While Labour relies on the votes of working people they are also tied by a thousand strings to big business. Their attempt to balance these two conflicting interests means that the genuine aspirations of working people can never be met.

The truth is that far from representing the interests of working people, Labour have often been used by big business to ram through policies that benefit them. For example, in the 1980s Labour was one of the first parties in the world to champion neo-liberal reforms. The 1999-2008 Labour government continued this trend.

That said, if a mass party existed that was able to point towards a clear economic alternative to National, articulated in such a way that resonates with the majority of people, it would be able to make gains. The problem is that you cannot win support by portraying Key’s government as representing the rich when that is your aim as well.

For many voters, Labour is regarded as just a weaker version of National. In the absence of clear alternative to Key, many decided to stick with the devil they know rather than the devil they don’t. While Key and National can seem popular now, this will be a temporary phenomenon. As we move into more uncertain economic times, Key will come under increasing pressure to deliver reforms for his big business backers. These reforms will inevitably be at the expense of the working class and poor.

Despite winning 48% of the vote there is no genuine enthusiasm for Key. The mood can quickly turn to anger under the right conditions.

The collapse of parliamentary MANA

With such disappointment in Labour, many progressive people had hoped that the MANA Movement could make a breakthrough in this election. MANA arose out of a split from the right-wing Maori Party. Mana was formed in 2011 and had one seat in the parliament, held by its leader Hone Harawira. The party includes a number of well-respected working class leaders and activists. Prominent figures, like the Maori rights lawyer, Annette Sykes, and social justice activist, John Minto, are amongst the party’s leadership.

While not socialist, MANA has a basic pro-worker and pro-poor programme. It is a party of struggle engaged in many different campaigns.

In the run up to the election, the leadership of the party proposed a coalition agreement with the new Internet Party – a party initiated by internet entrepreneur and multi-millionaire, Kim DotCom. This agreement was confirmed when Laila Harre, a former Alliance Party MP and union leader, was recruited to be the Internet Party leader. She was then selected as number one on the party’s list.

While the Internet Party’s policies had a strong focus on civil liberties, their employment and economic policies were based on New Zealand capitalism gaining a competitive advantage by strengthening the local digital economy. Against the backdrop of increasing hardship for many working people, these ideas were mostly unconvincing.

While their economic policies were weak, the main factor that led to the routing of Internet-MANA was the association with Kim Dotcom. While he did show that he was prepared to mix with ordinary people during the campaign, his association with political conspiracies and white collar criminality, whether real or alleged, was a turn-off for the majority of the public. The media made much of his extravagant mansions and his lavish lifestyle.

In the end, the vast bulk of people saw the Internet-MANA alliance as just another deal with a rich guy. This cost MANA dearly. The loss of Hone Harawira’s seat is a significant blow to the party, as he was widely regarded as an outstanding representative both inside and outside the parliament.

Some, including senior MANA leaders, have sought to blame Labour’s candidate Kelvin Davis for pushing Hone out. While it is true that Labour put a lot of resources into ousting Hone, Davis himself has said that his team sought out Hone’s pressure points and went for them. Chief amongst them was the Kim Dotcom association.

What next?

There is no escaping the fact that one of the biggest problems facing the working class and poor in New Zealand is the lack of genuine political representation. Labour is an out and out party of big business and it cannot be reformed. The task is to build a new party that unashamedly represents the interests of working people.

There will be no short cuts in this process. While Kim Dotcom’s money may have seemed like an offer too good to refuse, by shunning MANA voters showed that what they want a party that is not connected to business interests, in any way.

It is possible for MANA to regroup but the party will only be able to go forward if the correct lessons are drawn. For our part, we think that MANA will only achieve its full potential if it is able to win people to an economic and political alternative. The progressive reforms put forward by MANA during the election campaign are a good start but it would only be really possible to secure them in the long term on the basis of the socialist transformation of society.

In the next period, it will be necessary to resist all attempts by National to wind back our living standards but, at the same time, it is urgent to begin a serious discussion about working class political representation.

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