The 2005 general election has polarised voters and split parliament into two finely-balanced blocs. It is likely that if Labour’s majority survives the counting of special votes Helen Clark will try to form a minority coalition government with the Greens supported by the Maori Party on supply and confidence. It is unlikely that United Future or New Zealand First will support Labour formally with the Greens in government. On the other hand, the massive party vote for Labour in the Maori seats will cause a split in the Maori Party if Turia tries to reject Labour and make a deal with National. In this article we analyse the election and offer a socialist approach to the new political situation it has created.
Workers Reject Brash
Some commentators have mistakenly called the election ‘a swing to the right’. In fact, National managed to increase its vote at the expense of the minor right-wing parties, not at the expense of Labour. Overall, the election shows what every vote since 1993 has shown - that a majority of New Zealanders want a centre-left government that keeps some independence from the United States and intervenes in the economy to redistribute income.
Don Brash ran an aggressively right-wing campaign, calling for cuts to social spending, big tax breaks for the rich, and closer ties with the United States. Senior National leaders like John Key and Lockwood Smith enjoy very close ties to the ruling class of the United States, and a National victory would have meant the further Americanization of the economy, the swift resumption of nuclear ship visits, and more New Zealand contributions to George Bush’s War of Terror. But despite a lavish and cynical advertising campaign from National and a biased media, workers rejected Brash’s agenda.
The election also shows that Labour is still a ‘bourgeois workers party’ – a party with its roots in the working class despite its capitalist program. Labour was unable to rely on the support that the Business Round Table and American billionaires gave to National. Instead, it had to use the trade unions to do much of its campaigning work. Trade union delegates and organisers spent thousands of hours criss—crossing the working class suburbs of the major centres, knocking on doors and distributing propaganda for Labour. Unions used their access to big worksites to hold mass election meetings with their members. The Council of Trade Unions ran an advertising campaign for Labour, and a number of unions made large donations to the party.
But the weakness of the union movement and Labour’s failure to restore confidence in public services like health and education meant that Don Brash was able temporarily to tempt a section of the working class away from Labour with the promise of tax cuts, and with populist attacks on Maori, gays and ‘political correctness’. Keen to shore up its support amongst its core voters, Labour moved slightly to the left during the election campaign, promising a write-off of interest for student loans and aggressively attacking Brash’s support for the invasion of Iraq and support for the privatisation of health and education.
On election night, National’s big early lead was turned around as the votes of the ‘big battalions’ of the working class in the major centres swung in behind Labour. Labour’s support was particularly strong in the working class heartland of South Auckland, where the party took over 50% in many electorates and an incredible 71.6% of the vote in Mangere. A map of election results published in the Sunday Star-Times brought out the polarisation, showing a sea of National blue surrounding patches of Labour red covering the working class electorates in the big cities.
Greens fail to woo workers
The Green Party’s 5% share of the vote represents a failure. The party had gone into the election hoping to expand its base of support by filling the vacuum left by the Alliance’s implosion in 2002, and by Labour’s drift to the right in government. The Greens tried to add a slice of the working class to their traditional voting base of the radical petty bourgeoisie, liberal professionals, and students.
In an attempt to appeal to trade unionists, the Greens developed a new industrial relations policy which was well to the left of what Labour offered workers on the campaign trail. They touted other progressive policies for workers, like the abolition of youth rates and the raising of the minimum wage to $12 an hour. Partly as a result of these policies, a number of unions endorsed the Greens as the 'second-best option' for voters who could not support Labour.
The Greens attempted to appeal to the overwhelmingly working class Maori vote by forming a close relationship with the Maori Party and echoing the Maori Party line on issues like the seabed and foreshore. Near the end of the campaign they even received the 'second-best option' endorsement of Tariana Turia. But the Greens' attempt to expand their base looks to have been a failure. Their vote dropped from its 2002 level, and they performed poorly in both the Maori electorates and in working class strongholds like South Auckland.
The Greens' failure is a blow to its 'left' faction, which is represented in parliament by left social democrats Keith Locke and Sue Bradford. Locke and Bradford are ex-Marxists who still look toward the working class as the bedrock of left-wing politics. Both have worked hard to identify the Greens with workers' issues. By contrast, the right-wing faction led by Rod Donald finds its natural base in small business and the liberal middle class, sections of the population not usually attracted to policies like the extension of the right to strike and the lifting of the minimum wage. (A third Green faction, comprising members with a more 'fundamentalist' attitude to key environmental issues like genetic engineering, can be identified with Donald's co-leader, Jeneatte Fitzsimmons.)
Donald and his supporters are likely to push for more and more compromises on 'touchy' issues like genetic engineering, the War of Terror, and industrial relations, in an effort to get the Greens into the secure coalition with Labour which they think is necessary for political survival.
Maori Party Stumbles Rightwards
In the aftermath of the great seabed and foreshore hikoi and the by-election victory of Tariana Turia last year, many commentators predicted that the Maori Party would win all seven Maori seats. In the event, it has had to be content with four victories. The disappointment caused by the failure to achieve a clean sweep must be compounded by the low list vote the Maori Party achieved. Labour won more party votes than the Maori Party, even in the electorates that it lost to its new rival. Turia herself noted that the party was born out of a movement of 45,000 people, but a 2% party vote represents just over 40,000 voters.
The Maori Party's underachievement can be put down partly to the strategy that it has pursued since its formation. Despite its origins in the hikoi, the party has consistently counterposed vote-seeking to protest, insisting that the 'hikoi to the ballot box' is the key to advancing Maori interests.
Partly because of Tariana Turia's bitter experiences in government, and partly because of the advice of Matt McCarten, the party has tried to avoid declaring its support for the election of a Labour government, insisting that it is open to political alliances with any party. Even 'radical' candidates like Hone Harawira have insisted that the Maori Party is 'neither left nor right'.
The refusal to rule out some sort of arrangement with the parties of the right was compounded by Turia's disgraceful votes in parliament against Civil Unions and Paid Parental Leave, and the vague, almost evasive quality of much of the party's 'policy', so that many potential voters got the impression that the Maori Party was not interested in the traditional causes of the left. Harawira and co may think that categories like 'left' and 'right' are out of date, but most Maori voters do not agree with them.
Labour was able to seize on the Maori Party's equivocal attitude to National to run a very effective scare campaign in the Maori electorates. Again and again, Labour warned Maori voters that Maori Party MPs could let National into power, and thus bring on the destruction of Maori seats and cuts to funding for institutions like kohanga reo and iwi-administered health clinics. Under pressure, Turia was forced late in the campaign to hose down speculation about a coalition with National, but she continued to refuse to promise to support a Labour government on confidence and supply, even if Labour won more votes than National. Instead, Turia endorsed the Greens, a party with little following in the Maori seats, as the 'next-best option' to the Maori Party.
The Maori Party's blunders mean it will have to be content with the re-election of Turia and the scalps of the mediocre Dover Samuels, the obscure Mita Ririnui, and the discredited John Tamihere. Parekura Horomia's prized East Coast seat has escaped the new party, despite the fact that Horomia was the frontman for Labour's hated seabed and foreshore policy. The 'neither left nor right' strategy has also badly affected the building of the Maori Party, robbing the organisation of support from the trade unions and the Pakeha left, disorientating grassroots party activists, and allowing all manner of right-wingers and opportunists to campaign in the party's name.
The finely balanced result of the election is likely to tempt the Maori Party to try to continue its 'neither left nor right' strategy by attempting to play the two main party blocs off against one another, in an attempt to score some minor policy wins on narrowly 'Maori’ issues. Besides provoking a revolt from the rank and file, such an approach will only increase the uneasiness which the trade union movement, the Pakeha left, and the many Maori who still vote Labour feel towards the new party.
Lost to the left of Labour
Based on programs well to the left of Labour’s, the election campaigns of the Alliance Party and the Anti Capitalist Alliance attracted only tiny numbers of voters. The Anti Capitalists’ most successful candidate attracted only 95 votes, while the Alliance scored only 0.07% of party list votes.
A third grouping to the left of Labour, Matt McCarten’s ‘Workers Charter movement’ sat on the election sidelines, but announced its intention of becoming ‘a mass party sooner rather than later’.
Both the Anti Capitalist Alliance and McCarten claim that Labour is no longer a party with a working class base, but the election result proves otherwise. Workers were not interested in throwing away their votes when faced by the threat of the return of nuclear ships and 90s-style scorched earth neo-liberal economic policies.
The Next Step for Socialists
The unity the working class against showed Brash proves the correctness of our call for a critical vote for Labour. Critical support was necessary to keep out Brash and keep Labour in power, so that workers can learn from experience that Labour cannot serve their interests, and that a new, extra-parliamentary force capable of taking state power for the working class is necessary.
In the context of a likely Labour-led government and a weak union movement, what are the best tactics to advance the cause of workers?
We need to get the unions and working class voters that support the Labour Party to challenge the party’s policies. Labour is only in power because of the campaigning of trade unionists and the votes of workers, yet it pays more attention to the voices of business and of the US government than it does to the needs of the working class. For instance, Labour has already told its trade union supporters that its third term will not see any major change to New Zealand’s restrictive, anti-strike industrial relations legislation. The party is much more interesting in courting business and in pursuing a free trade deal with the US.
The Action Program we published a month ago is the sort of program we need to fight for in the unions to put pressure on Labour. However, the likely presence of minor parties with no base in the unions in and around a Labour-led government complicates this tactic. Labour can try to use deals with these parties as alibis to hold back on worker-friendly policies.
We have to fight to make Labour act for workers and to reject any alibi that says Labour can't act on behalf of workers because of its agreements with minor parties. Labour has to be held responsible for its betrayals, not its partners. There is plenty of common ground with the Greens and with the Maori Party that we can use to put pressure on Labour.
While the Greens don't have an official base in organised labour, they are now getting regular endorsements from the unions. Let's make them deliver to the unions rather than to small business! Like all petty bourgeois parties they should back labour if they think it is stronger than the right. If they won't then their ability to con workers is that much less. The Maori Party has a working class base, so we should force the party to listen to that base. If it doesn’t it will split along class lines sooner or later.
All of the demands below (and any others that become obvious) should be concretised and advanced in the union movement to pressure Labour and appeal to the best supporters of the Maori Party and the Greens.
A WORKERS’ ACTION PROGRAMME
- Jobs for all on a living wage – for 35 hour week and a 24 hour free child care!
- Tax the Rich; Tax Capital Gains!
- No ‘free’ trade deal with the United States!
- Open the borders to worker migrants!
All the centre-left parties claim they want skilled worker migrants. The Maori Party’s worker base will be sympathetic if their jobs are not threatened by migration. Full employment based on reduced hours would reduce job competition. Nationalisation of key sectors of the economy under workers control would extend naturally to workers control over worker immigration.
- Re-nationalise Rail, Telecom etc. with no compensation and under workers’ control!
1) major export players like Fonterra and Carter Holt Harvey need to be nationalised. Investing the Cullen find in forests is a step in the right direction. But Carter Holt Harvey should not be compensated. Both of these core primary industries have been hugely subsidised by generations of past labour, workers and working farmers. Fonterra's producer ownership needs to be protected by public ownership like the old Dairy Board.
2) vital energy resources such as the oil refinery at Marsden Point must be nationalised. Especially in the light of the price gauging of the oil companies. We should call for bilateral trade in oil and agriculture with Venezuela!
3) the Kiwibank should be a state bank, not a State Owned Enterprise, so that the combination of state subsidy of Kiwibank and regulation of the big Australian banks can remove their stranglehold over the economy.
- Troops out of Afghanistan!
This is a concrete example of the general demand that Kiwi troops not be used in any US, NATO or UN sponsored war. The Greens and the Maori Party could be pressured by their rank and file into standing up to Labour over Afghanistan, exposing Anderton and Labour as only slightly less blatant supporters of US imperialism than Brash.
- For a Workers·’ Government!
From Class Struggle 63 Sept/Oct 2005