The re-election of Labour in October as a majority government seals its fate as an open bourgeois party. In 2017 we said that Labour was at the point of becoming a new Liberal party that no longer pretended to represent the interest of workers. When Andrew Little, former head of the CTU, stepped down to let Jacinda Ardern take the leadership just weeks out from the election, the trajectory of the Labour Party as a bourgeois workers party – founded in 1916 by the unions to get workers off the streets into parliament, replacing the bullets of the general strike of 1913 with the ballot box every few years – was set to revert to the original bourgeois Lib/Lab Party of the 1890-1914. In just over a century Labour has come full circle to revert to its roots in the original Liberal Party. Not the same old Liberal Party. The conditions that led to the breakdown of the Liberals in 1914, revolution, counter-revolution and war, are now much more destructive and pose the stark alternative of an end to human civilisation, or the rise of revolutionary socialism and end to bourgeois class rule.
The Liberal Party
The Liberal party was labelled Lib-Lab because it attempted to reconcile workers with the petty bourgeois. Its objective was to colonize the country by settling landless workers on the land. Lenin’s view of the Liberal Party was informed by his view that the Australian Labor party was really a Liberal party representing non-socialist unions. This was also the character of the NZ Liberal Party recognised at the time with the label Lib/Lab party.
It’s task in the new colony, as well as dispossessing Maori of land for white settlement, was to integrated newly unionized workers into the class system passively via state legislation to reconcile the conflicting interests of labour and capital expressed in the great Maritime strike of 1890. The Industrial, Conciliation and Arbitration Act (IC&A Act) o 1894 was the result, locking unions into a state arbitration court.
It took another 20 years for those working for wages in extractive, processing, and transport industries, and influenced by syndicalist and socialist ideology, to break from Labour’s ‘leg-iron’, state arbitration, to form the ‘Red Federation’ of Labour. The result was five years of growing agitation and strikes culminating in the general strike of 1913, the complete breakdown of this Lib/Lab settlement, and the farmer and business lobby to put the Reform party into power.
The Labour Party
“When the NZLP was founded in 1916 it was to divert the labour movement away from industrial struggles that divided the nation and threatened the future of capitalist profitability. Its purpose was to take control of the majority of workers and split them from the Red Feds, anarchists and socialists who were committed to radical industrial action to negotiate their wages and conditions.
Labour promised to win what workers needed through parliamentary reforms. It would impose the 1890s Liberal IC&A Act – that ‘arbitrated’ agreements between workers and bosses that had split the Labour movement and given rise to the Red Fed – and make Arbitration compulsory. Labour therefore was the party of the state-controlled unions until compulsory arbitration was repealed by Labour in 1987 and compulsory unionism by the NACTs in 1992, which together broke the back of the unions’ resistance to neo-liberalism, taking workers back to the 1880s.
The NZLP had inflicted a mortal wound on itself. To serve its purpose as the Party that could reconcile workers to capitalism it needed to represent the unions and its membership to have any claim to be a workers’ party. It had to win a majority based on a working-class constituency if it was to be useful to the ruling class.
1984 changed all that because Labour abandoned its founding pretence of advancing the interests of workers and instead made workers’ pay for the capitalist crisis facing NZ by introducing Rogernomics. Then PM Lange called this the “pain before the gain”.
Despite this historic betrayal, the union bosses fought to keep Labour alive so that when the New Labour split occurred only a few small unions left Labour for NL. The NL split was premature and fizzled out as NL joined forces in an amalgam of Greens, Liberals and Mana Motuhake that became the Alliance. Labour survived by expelling its right- wing faction which became ACT but under a succession of new leaders remained a Blairite, Third Way party trying to achieve a classless balance between capitalism and socialism – represented by the notorious ‘middle’ [class].
It has not renounced its neo-liberal turn because getting the state out of business and policing fiscal responsibility is the new normal and Labour cannot serve its purpose unless it reconciles workers to the neo-liberal market and its brutal attacks on workers.
But surviving the near-death experience had a cost. Labour lost its working-class mojo and could no longer count on a majority from the labour movement. The NACTs continued their anti-worker attacks and drove some workers back to Labour, not because they believed in Labour as ‘their’ party but because it was the lesser evil.
Labour had lost its reason to exist. The unions were gutted by the NACTs ECA in 1992 and ceased to be a force capable of sustaining the party. The Labour caucus’ focus on the ‘middle class’ reinforced the ‘neoliberal’ ideology that unions no longer served workers who had to rely on their individual efforts to get ahead.
Labour was in limbo with its traditional role overtaken by the new role of representing a classless utopia of petty bourgeois ‘middle NZ’. Under Helen Clark Labour sold itself as the natural party of the centre-left majority.
To sell this it needed to compete openly with the NACTs whose history gave it much greater claim to represent the grasping petty bourgeoisie. After all the NACTs originated as a farmers’ party with urban petty capitalists very much in tow. Labour’s fate then was to abandon its working-class constituency – the “missing million” – and recreate itself as the bland, Blairite, ‘classless’ party.
To do this it had to present itself as the alternative to the NACTs which has close links to the capitalist ruling class that owns business, including the media; a burgeoning new petty bourgeoisie in the cities and a new rural gentry getting rich off dairying.
Every leader who stood up to claim this title was shot down by the caucus of Blairite time-servers until Andrew Little, the last vestige of Labourite ties to the union bosses, was forced to resign. Ardern’s ‘fresh’ style may attract more votes from the middle, but it is the death knell of Labour devoid of substance as the party of workers in Aotearoa/NZ.
Yet, only the death knell, because what will finally kill off Labour in the end is not its failure to advance workers interests, it is its open renunciation of its duty to attempt to do that by joining with the Greens and NZ First to form a government.
Labour parties, and social democracy in general, can always come back from the dead so long as workers live in hope. But by forming a coalition with openly capitalist parties like the Greens and NZ First, as even critics like Mike Treen advocate, sends Labour back to where it began, the Liberals of the 1890s.
The Liberal party was a cross-class party of workers, small farmers and the unemployed. Its philosophy was the reconciliation of classes under the Liberal Democratic state that stood for the self-governing nation within the British Empire. Sometimes referred to as a ‘liberal-labour’ [lib-lab] or populist party because it contained an open contradiction between farmers and labourers that was suppressed by the submersion fusion (and diffusion) of class in the nation state; a state once called ‘proto-fascist’ by historian Willis Airey.
This reconciliation could not last as the Liberals blew apart when workers rose up against the IC&A Act to form the Red Fed. Farmers split from the labourers and were enrolled as special police – Massey’s Cossacks – to smash the Red Fed, with farmers forming the Reform Party, and the defeated workers the Labour Party.
Labour has come full circle. It has officially renounced the existence of class politics in Aotearoa and transformed itself into the ‘classless’ populist Liberal Party that is preparing to fuse its program with the Greens and NZ First who both represent the petty bourgeoisie in NZ.
If this government eventuates, it will limit its program to that acceptable to a NZ ruling class facing a global slump in profits and climate crash dooming its future. This can only mean that the working class will again be sacrificed to the holy grail of a property-owning democracy dragging us into more imperialist wars and down the road to human extinction.
Workers now have no alternative but to struggle to take control of their own lives by breaking with the parliamentary farce and the bourgeois nation state, to organise their own independent mass Labour party and a new Red Fed, able to fight the class struggle in the workplace and the streets as part of a global mobilisation of workers, unemployed, poor farmers and oppressed peoples for survival socialism against a dying capitalism and rush to human extinction.”
Long live the Revolutionary Labour Party!
As we pointed out in 2017, Labour in coalition with Greens and NZFirst constituted a bourgeois popular front and could no longer be given critical support by revolutionaries. As we predicted, in her first term Ardern used her coalition partners as an excuse not to push forward with her social transformation.
Locked into a coalition with the petty bourgeois parties, Labour was able to blame its coalition partners for failing to deliver on its election promises. There was no ‘transformation’. There was no climate emergency to signify our “nuclear moment”.
Labour won its new mandate in the October election only because of its success with COVID-19. It created a Blairite bubble in the liberal centre based on the denial of class war with the concept of the “team of 5 million”. It could do so by following the science on pandemics and subsidizing business.
But this centrist bubble will not survive the economic crash and climate change. Capitalism is now destroying the ecological conditions for its existence. Facing the global terminal crisis, Labour isn’t following the science which tells us we need a revolution to survive human extinction.
The Labour Party cannot grasp that we face a truly existential crisis. It believes its own hype that it can end the class war with appeals to ‘consensus’ and national unity. The petty bourgeois base of Social Democracy has always put the interests of profits before workers insisting it will decide when workers are ready for parliamentary socialism, thus disarming them in the face of ruling class reaction.
Labour governing alone will attempt to resolve the economic and climate crash at the expense of working people. This will destroy any surviving illusions in social democracy and bourgeois parliament. Workers will then be free to build an independent labour movement with a political party and program for socialism. We have a decade left to do it.
A Revolutionary Labour Party will have a revolutionary program for a workers’ government elected by workers councils, to implement a socialist plan.
It will rebuild the Red Federation and form democratic workers councils, in which oppressed minorities are over-represented, to organise and mobilise the working class, the class that produces the wealth, to fight for workers’ ownership and control of the economy.
- For the socialisation of the land, industry and finance!
- For leasehold tenure as the basis of land use!
- For the return of stolen Maori land!
- For a single state bank to replace private banks, and to advance social capital for agriculture, public works, housing, health and education!
- For a socialist plan based on workers’ democracy as expressed in the workers councils.
Dave Brownz is TDBs guest marxist blogger because every left wing blog needs a Marxist