A week after the general election results I feel wrung out emotionally, having been through the disappointment, depression and anger of seeing another right wing government elected overwhelmingly by winning support from the parts of NZ that will never benefit from their policies. Here are the topmost thoughts from a week of reflection.
For most of the election campaign I refused to criticise Labour, saying those outside the tent (like me) had no right to comment on their strategy. But now I’m just so disappointed and pissed off. The left relied on Labour and it failed and no matter how strong the ‘minor’ parties are and how well the Greens have fronted up as an opposition party, they cannot be expected to fill the void left while Labour runs about like a moody teenager trying on new looks.
The decision is simply this: Is Labour the neo-liberal grandkid of Rogernomics or a Socialist party that grew from the sweat and organisation of the workers movement? If the former, fine, but stop saying one thing while doing another and lose the name Labour as it is no longer deserved. If the latter, great, then purge from the party those who are not aligned with social democratic values, start some policy development from scratch with input from the rank and file (to ensure that they know this is not a stunt, but that real change is underway) and start listening to the voice of workers who ought to be voting for you, but aren’t. Get some bold ‘new blood’ who are real workers and lose the professional career-politicians who have no credibility with Joe ordinary.
I am equally angry at the media and hope desperately that one day we will have a pro-democracy government who will make the creation of genuinely non-commercial, state-funded media a priority, with no strings attached (allowing it to be critical and unbiased, as media should be). Unfortunately such an idea will not see the light of day for years to come. The media has let us down, but this is not something the left can easily change. The labour party problem is.
My final (though milder) anger goes to the 29% or so of NZ who could have voted but didn’t. However, the left needs to stop assuming why people don’t vote and actually have the conversations to find out why before we can begin to repair this. And if the answer is that there are a third of people with no confidence in the system, then anger should go to the system (and efforts going to fix it) rather than blaming individual people for being apathetic.
I have heard much criticism this week about the ‘expensive failure’ of InternetMana and believe that the criticism isn’t entirely deserved. In the short time since the party’s inception, issues of sovereignty, the right to privacy and the fact of this government’s corruption were being discussed by a part of society who was not involved in politics before. Suddenly politics looked fun and fresh again. Even free tertiary education was back on the table (Labour, where are you on this?). Despite not meeting the threshold of our MMP system, each of the thousands who voted for IMP belong to families, communities and workplaces and have hopefully had new ideas awakened in them that will be discussed and spread. The spreading of ideas takes time.
IMP may have failed in the sense that the party vote was low, but so far it has been the most creative idea for engaging the disengaged that has emerged from the left in a very long time. In my view, it is the sort of experimentation and imagination that the left has to start showing as it tries to find its way in a modern world. If it must be called a failure then it is better we try new ideas and fail then continue the same old ideas into irrelevancy.
Having Dotcom involved was always going to be a problem and I was among those who were turned off the party because of his involvement. Dotcom can’t claim a grass-roots state-house NZ background with the unthreatening kiwi slur of Key. Instead, he will always pull scepticism as a ‘foreigner’, a profiteer of the free market and a figure the media loves to hate. Having said that, there is an obvious logic to the strange coalition. The saddest thing about our capitalist democratic system is that to participate in party politics one must be a millionaire or have millions to spend. This means we are not a true participatory democracy at all but a system in which only some (an elite) get to participate. Why would the non-voters choose to participate when the choice can be between one rich person or another and no one resembles them? This was always going to be difficult for IMP. While attempting on the one hand to start forums and discussion that encouraged the disenfranchised to participate, it also reinforced the message that politics is a millionaire’s game and is not for us.
The only thing that the left has ever had is its ability to organise. We can’t rely on fighting with capital and we have never had power except that of people: our collective strength. Every person on the left must now undertake to have 1000 and more discussions with people. There is nothing earthshattering or new about this- it is business as usual for the left and it’s time to go back to basics. Some of those discussions will be with others in the left, to build a base of support on the areas where all left organisations have common ground, such as the creation of sustainable industry and fair wages. The left needs to agree on the aims and then leave each other to the tactics. The same issue can be progressed if you have money through a court, if you are in parliament through submitting Bills, if you have members through the workplace, if you have no other means, through other direct action. We need to stop criticising others in the left on the basis of their preferred tactics, but understand that the goals align and each will do what they can, within their means, to progress it.
But most of our conversations need to be with people who do not agree with us and this is the challenge for us: the Hamilton panel beater who voted National despite a working class background and struggling to make ends meet. Or the thousands who didn’t bother to go to the booths. We organise ourselves internally and we draw back in, through one on one discussions, those who should be with the left. It will work because our conversations are genuine and are the stories of real people in NZ. Pulling our base back one conversation at a time is a slow process but we are good at it. And we start it now.
P Campbell is a Union insider.