The left and the elections – don’t mourn, organise

By   /   July 16, 2017  /   13 Comments

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As the election gets closer, everyone has an opinion on what needs to be done for their party to be successful.

As the election gets closer, everyone has an opinion on what needs to be done for their party to be successful.

We are actually living in a bit of an economic and political bubble. Employment is up. Many people don’t feel too badly off. The economy has done better than those in Europe or the US. Much of this is a consequence of the “wealth effect” from a speculative property boom that benefits property owners at least. This is coming to an end sooner rather than later. The other driver of growth has been population growth through immigration which is also being wound down by the government.

On a world scale, capitalism will enter a new recession over the next year or two which will have unpredictable consequences.

The left gained traction in the UK and elsewhere after periods of capitalist crisis and austerity policies being imposed on working people, often by so-called centre-left parties. This exposed the failure of the traditional left parties that had been pursuing a strategy of capturing the mythical “centre” of politics.

It took a period of social turmoil and polarisation for broad layers of working people to say “enough” with moderation and caution see the need for a radical left alternative that targeted the capitalist system as the source of the problem. In many countries, the radical right also gained traction by blaming immigrants, “politicians”, or “Jewish bankers”. Anyone but the real cause.

We have actually already been through such a similar period in New Zealand in the following the Third Labour Government from 1984-1990. The Alliance Party grew in the polls as a left alternative to Labour. But the leadership of this party around the former Labour MP Jim Anderton remained trapped in social-democratic gradualism and the initial radical impulses were exhausted.

Most of the left-wing Alliance activists have now divided themselves between Labour and the Greens and it is not obvious that they have made any impression on either party’s policy. It is rather sad watching both parties try to be so respectable that they can inspire almost no enthusiasm.

I was not surprised to see Matt McCartten try to get around the abject failure of these parties to inspire anyone by importing a bit of youthful enthusiasm from overseas. However, that was never going to get the traction needed without vision and leadership from one or both of the big parties on the left.

People have tried to argue that Andre Little lacks the charisma needed for leadership. But charisma comes from what you say and do in life.

Jeremy Corbyn is not a particularly “charismatic” figure when you see him. He is not a particularly effective public speaker. He had a certain awkwardness at the beginning of the campaign that could be made fun of. In many ways, Andrew Little is a more effective person and speaker.

But what Jeremy had was principles, a radical vision, and anti-establishment credentials. That led hundreds of thousands of ordinary working people to join the party during the elections for party leadership last year and then millions more to enrol and vote in a general election.

Jeremy is now a rock star of British politics with crowds chanting and cheering his name because he hasn’t changed at all in decades. He isn’t a plastic creature to be moulded by the spin doctors or someone who bow down before the rich and powerful or who runs away in fear at the UK media’s hysterical lies and vitriol.

Andrew has a chance in the next few weeks to capture something of that authenticity and spirit of change that Corbyn represents in the UK. If he does not he will not succeed and Labour will lose the election.

The people deciding Labour’s strategic approach have simply been failures. They should be tossed aside. Capturing the centre is to capture a deflating balloon.

We now have the National Party still around 45% in the polls. They should win. Their problem is that this number is likely to drop a little during the election period and they don’t have any allies with enough support to lift them to a majority.

Labour is between 25% and 30% in the polls and the allied Green Party between 10% and 15%. On a good day, they will need the support of New Zealand First led by Winston Peters. He is polling around 10% and usually does better in the election campaign period.

There is almost no difference between in the policies of Labour, the Greens and NZ First on the big social and economic issues. The three oppose privatisation policies, support stronger welfare provision, want higher minimum wages, and are wary of “free trade” policies.

Even on immigration, despite the rhetoric, none of these parties have proposed a change to the long-term permanent residency numbers being approved each year of around 40,000. This number has been constant for almost two decades – under Labour and National governments, including when Winston Peters was a government minister. It was actually needed simply to replace the loss of New Zealanders overseas (principally Australia) each year which averaged around 30,000 a year.

The numbers actually being debated by all parties are the 250,000 visas being issued each year for work while studying (100,000) or essential skills and other temporary work visas (about 150,000). It is this number that has increased significantly in recent years while at the same time there was an end to the usual net loss of New Zealanders overseas in 2012.

Everyone is actually being dishonest in their presentation of the issue. NZ First gives the impression it’s against immigration but doesn’t give a number.  The Greens gave a number of a 1% population gain each year but then took it back because they didn’t want to be seen as blaming migrants for social problems. But having no number is not honest either. Labour says it will “Cut 30,000 migrants” but doesn’t really explain that that is only a 12% reduction in the temporary visa numbers which increased by much more than that in the last few years.

The current government is even more dishonest. Their proposed changes to the residency rules won’t change the total permanent resident number each year but will lead to a massive drop in temporary work and student visas and places those already here or admitted here under the new rules into an even more vulnerable and therefore more easily exploitable, position.

Like in previous elections Winston Peters has refused to say who he prefers to form a government with. This gives him more power when bargaining for his policy, or position in the government. He can play both major parties against each other. He has formed a government with both Labour and National in the past. But his coalition with National was disastrous and short-lived whereas he has governed with Labour more amicably.

Unlike in previous elections, Winston has not ruled out forming a coalition with the Greens. He has however with the Maori Party.

He probably has no choice given that Labour polling is so poor that they have had to indicate for the first time that the Greens are their first preference for forming a government. This is a formal acknowledgement by Labour of their own weakness rather than a sign of confidence.

Whatever happens this election we can bet that Winston Peters will be in government and at least the Deputy Prime Minister.

What that means is that the incoming government will be much like the governments that have run the country since 1999 – centrist (with a lean to the right for National-led one and a lean to the left for a Labour-led one), with little hope of significant advances for working people being made without a struggle.

That means the most important thing to do this election is to prepare for the struggles that will come after it.

We can make progress if we fight whether it is Labour or National in government. We made progress in lifting the minimum wage from one-third to 50% of the average wage under the 1999-2008 Labour-led government and the then Prime Minister Helen Clark said she was comfortable with that level continuing. Under this government, it has actually crept up to 54% of the average wage.

This government has also given a significant pay equity settlement this year and banned zero hour contracts in the face of huge public support for Unite Union’s campaign against them in 2015.

This government has not run a severe austerity regime like has been seen in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. But they have kept spending tight and needed improvements are being blocked in health and education. And we can expect the austerity regime to return with a downward turn in the economic conditions.

However, National have also privatised state assets against huge opposition and are extending that into state housing which is a real danger. They have maintained a nightmarish regime at WINZ designed to deny people their welfare entitlements.

Labour has promised to lift the minimum wage to $16.50 an hour next year and then in steps to two-thirds of the average wage, which is the living wage rate in this country, “as economic conditions permit”. Labour and the Greens are also promising further real, if very modest, improvements in access to welfare and education. Most working people will vote for them for these reasons, even if without a great deal of enthusiasm.

I don’t actually have a party I feel I can join at the moment. My hopes in the Mana Movement being able to break through as a genuine left-wing alternative have been proved wrong. The call by the party leader Hone Harawira for the execution of Chinese drug dealers (and his refusal to accept party discipline over his behaviour) was the last straw. The primary responsibility for the failure of the project, however, wasn’t Hone’s. It was the product of the deeper failure of a working class left movement to gain traction in society at this time. If I had a vote in TeTai Tokerau I’d probably vote for Hone to have a strong pro-Maori voice in Parliament to hold the bastards to account.

When I became part of the Alliance Party project in the 1990s there was an optimism and hope that we would be part of a project whose goals were transformational rather than incremental in terms of social change. That was destroyed when the party leadership, including a majority of their Members of Parliament, voted to support sending NZ troops to the Afghanistan War against the wishes of the vast majority of the party membership. The leadership preferred to destroy the party rather than stick to the party’s antiwar principles. There was also a desperation to have the “baubles of office” as Winston Peters once called it – ministerial positions in a government.

I have never understood why a minority left-wing party cannot simply support progressive policies in parliament while remaining outside the government and preparing for a broader and more radical transformation that is actually needed. It is inevitable that as part of a government the voice of the genuine left will be lost. A radical left party will want to have enough support to be the government one day. That is the goal of all parties. But it should only be as part of a government seeking a socialist transformation of society, not simply the amelioration of the worst aspects of it. Amelioration as a goal inevitably get circumscribed bit by bit until there is nothing left of the original radicalism.

It is very hard forming an anti-establishment left-wing force capable of transforming society. The ruling class know every trick in the book to flatter, corrupt and blackmail people into playing their game. They can always get the police and spies to do their dirty work. If necessary, they will create authoritarian social and political movements to smash working class organisations and if that is not enough they have the military as a final backstop to stage a coup.

But left-wing parties are making breakthroughs the world over. Capitalism has exhausted its role as a progressive force for humanity in terms of radically increasing the forces of production because those forces are now becoming forces destruction for workers, indigenous peoples and the planet.

The fight starts by fighting for workers, indigenous peoples and the planet. Fighting for the protection of housing rights, welfare access, decent education, and our living standards.

If we do that without compromise, by any means necessary, working people will bring find new leaders able to take their struggles forward through unions, community groups and political parties.

We don’t need to wait for anyone to start that job.

 

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About the author

Mike Treen

National Director of Unite Union

13 Comments

  1. WILD KATIPO says:

    … ” Fighting for the protection of housing rights, welfare access, decent education, and our living standards ” …

    Yep , – and these basics are always the core issues. When a party starts to deviate from them two things happen , the first is a loss of support from the voters, the second , is simply becoming irrelevant to those voters.

    This is what happened to so many ‘ left’ party’s when they plunged into identity politics to overcompensate for not taking care of the basics.

    The people left them in droves and most of them are now paying the price for that and trying to climb their way back.

    30 – 40 years ago – Jeremy Corbyn would have been just another social democrat. Its a testament to how far down the neo liberal track we have come that some view him as some sort of radical.

  2. CLEANGREEN says:

    WHAT IS CLEAR NOW MIKE IS THAT AN ARMY OF DOOR KNOCKERS IS NEEDED TO SPREAD THE WORD LIKE WHAT GOT LABOUR INTO ALMOST POWER IN UK AND SAME HAPPENED IN USA WITH DONALD TRUMP CAMPAIGN.

    THEY USED A GROUNDSWELL OF LOCALS TO KNOCK ON DOORS AS PEOPLE FEEL IGNORED IF NO ONE APPROACHES THEM DURING ELECTION TIME.

    CANADA ELECTION ALSO HAD AN ARMY OF DOOR KNOCKERS SO IT DOES WORK.

    • garibaldi says:

      Good item Mike. One thing which I think you have underestimated is the imminent “roaring success” of NZF. Peters is very capable at connecting with, shall we say, the “basic instincts” of populism and mass hysteria on certain issues. I think his Party is going to do far better than 11% because of the disaffected Nat voters in the Provinces.
      Not that I could vote for him… can’t trust him to go Left.

  3. fatty says:

    We on the left need to admit that the opportunity this election gave us has gone.
    Sure, Labour might form the next government, but that is a change of government and more of the same third-way / neoliberalism. It’s not change.
    Little might get over the line with an increase in middle class welfare, but that is not a solution.
    The Left need to start thinking about where we go from here. It’s time to take over Labour. The Left needs to be ready to take back Labour immediately after the election.

  4. Olwyn says:

    “This government has not run a severe austerity regime like has been seen in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.”

    While I broadly agree with the thrust of your post, I do not agree with this claim. It is true that the government has not used the term “austerity” and has made sure that policies of the austere kind do not impact on the middle class. However, ours is the country that has most eagerly followed the US and UK down the neoliberal rabbit hole. This shows up in the indices like child poverty, growing homelessness, high levels of imprisonment, youth suicide etc, where we mostly find ourselves at the bad end of the scale, in roughly the same ballpark as them.

    If chucking people off benefits when they have no other means of support, and out of state houses when they have nowhere else to live are not forms of austerity, then I don’t know what is.

  5. mosa says:

    Good post Mike.

    I would be prepared to stomach three or less years of this National government if it means the NZLP returned to its original aims and ideas and articulated that fiercely and loudly to the electorate and was in a position with a strong mandate to lead a ” changed ” government.

    Winston claims to be the only one who is going to take on the neo liberal monster but i doubt that , he will still use the very system he is railing against to win the votes of people who are its victims to sit in government and support the parties who still are slaves to the free market and won’t take the system head on to force change, he never has before when being in a position to bring pressure to change it.

    You will get people to organise when they have a party and policies worth organising for.

    What Labour does after the election will determine if the party survives or a new movement takes its place and forces change.

    The alternative is here right now and it’s unacceptable.

  6. RosieLee says:

    The union people need to be more proactive about getting their workers to join a union and also to actually join the Labour party and become more actively involved in the grassroots bread and butter work of phoning, doorknocking and pamphlet delivery.

    • mosa says:

      There will only be a surge and support at grassroot level when Labour has the leader and the people around him or her that want to represent working people and those who are the victims of this system and are advocating to change it

      Labour had a proud history and was respected as the workers party with policies that delivered and protected its constituency from the very same National party we have now.

      Let’s get back to that and as Corbyn promised recently ” For the many not the few “could not be more important than right now in this country.

  7. Francesca says:

    Mike , it is so heartening to read your post.
    You are one of the very few to remain staunch on the anti war message
    I’m already resigned to the fact our politicians on the left are apologetic timid centrists who are not going to get in , now or ever with their lame gutless policies
    Maybe we have to suffer a whole lot more before we start demanding better, but I think you’re right, regardless of who gets in, a movement needs to be built

  8. The Weatherman says:

    “I have never understood why a minority left-wing party cannot simply support progressive policies in parliament while remaining outside the government and preparing for a broader and more radical transformation that is actually needed.”

    too true, too true

  9. Tiger Mountain says:

    Good summary Mike

    the hegemony of neo liberal thought and structures is the political plague of our age, a return to basic activist politics among the people is what is needed-“For the many not the few” indeed

    Join your union-the pay equity settlement is a good organising aid surely, get involved with others on an issue, what about a politicised squatting movement to house the homeless in Auckland’s 33,000 plus empty dwellings?