Arguing about elections
By contrast, I was glued to the screen throughout the three US Presidential debates. I hope I haven't drunken the kool-aid and become an Obamaniac - the man's rhetoric and mannerisms seems a little too close to those of Tony Blair circa 1997 for my liking - but I do admit to finding something obscurely reassuring about the prospect of the White House hosting a man who doesn't have to ask his Daddy what a neo-con is, and who knows the difference between Zapatero and the Zapatistas.
It's also nice to watch the paranoid right (is there any other kind?) whip itself into a frenzy over the looming triumph of a 'communist Islamofascist mulatto terrorist' who, besides everything else, is 'just too skinny to be President'. I'll be watching Fox News tonight with a beer in my hand and a smile on my face when Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity pronounce the fateful words 'Obama victory'.
There has been a series of debates about the Kiwi election over at indymedia, with members of various far left groups arguing over whether Labour and/or the Greens are worth supporting, and about whether the electoral challenges by the extra-parliametary left - you can choose between the Workers Party, the Residents Action Movement, and the Alliance - are worth supporting.
An Iraqi friend of mine once told me that 'it's hard work being a left-wing radical in New Zealand. It was hard in Iraq, too, but in a different way. Over there you could get killed or imprisoned, but people took you seriously. Over here you're not likely to go to jail, but nobody listens. Everyone laughs at you.' Debates amongst the socialist left about election choices tend to get very emotional, and I think this is evidence of a common frustration at our failure to win workers away from support for Labour and toward the banners we hoist. We think that Labour's Blairite economic and social policies, its support for the US's War of Terror in places like Afghanistan, its kneejerk, discriminatory seabed and foreshore legislation, its support for the ludicrous but sinister 'terror raids' of 2007 and a thousand other sins disqualify the party as an agent of left-wing politics in New Zealand. We think that Labour's working class base would be better off supporting a genuine labour party, which took on rather than adapted to free market capitalism and US foreign policy. Unfortunately, the workers don't agree with us.
Contrary to the expectations of both the far left and many in the political mainstream, Labour has managed to satisfy most of its working class support base since being elected back in 1999. The healthy state of the world economy in recent years and the dairying boom in New Zealand have kept government finances in a healthy state, and enabled Labour to pre-empt the opposition of key groups of workers with carrots like the Working for Families and Kiwi Saver schemes. Nurses and other supporters in the public sector have secured pay rises. Clark's government has made no effort to overturn the fundamental changes made to the Kiwi economy during the neo-liberal era of 1984-99, but they have been able to make the system function in a manner more agreeable to many Kiwis.
Using the same sort of strategy, Clark has also maintained New Zealand's pro-American foreign policy, but softened it a little to placate public opinion. Labour's continued anti-nuclear policy and its refusal to join the invasion of Iraq have obscured the role of Kiwi troops in helping implement US foreign policy Afghanistan, East Timor and the Solomons. Critics of the Kiwi role in the War of Terror have found themselves isolated from the mass of the population.
Kiwi socialists tend to agree that a big obstacle to creating a new mass organisation that really represents the interests of workers is continued electoral support for Labour by so many workers. Where we disagree is over how to get workers away from Labour. Senior New Zealand Marxist Dave Bedggood has called for critical support to be given to Labour in the coming election, arguing that workers have to see the party exposed in practice. Dave would probably point to the 1984-90 period, when Labour was split and New Labour/the Alliance was born, and the early noughties in Germany, when the Social Democrats sold out their supporters and suffered a major split which led to the creation of the Left Party, in defence of the tactic that he advocates. Dave's argument has annoyed members of the Workers Party, who think that nine years of Labour is long enough, and believe that only uncompromising electoral opposition to Clark's government will win workers away from her party.
For his part, that indefatigable social democrat Matt McCarten has pointed out that the Workers Party, the Residents Action Movement, and the Alliance are all rather unlikely to pass the magic 5% threshold on Saturday, and suggested that votes for them will therefore be wasted. Matt reckons it's far more sensible to back the Greens. McCarten's advice has annoyed a lot of people at indymedia, but I think he is expressing a view that a lot of ordinary left-leaning workers take when they vote. They think that if a party can't make it to parliament, then there's no point in supporting it.
Back in 2002 the Alliance split, and its vote collapsed, because it looked like the party couldn't make it back to parliament. If Alliance leader Laila Harre had held her seat at the 2002 election, then the party probably would have survived. Today, there are probably tens of thousands of people who would vote for the Alliance, if only they thought their vote wouldn't be disregarded. The Residents Action Movement and the Workers Party don't have the same brand recognition as the Alliance, but there are probably still thousands of voters who would support either party, if only they thought their votes wouldn't be wasted. (If they knew what was good for them, then the smaller parties inside and outside of parliament would campaign for the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation to be abolished. If tens of thousands of people choose a party, why should they be disenfranchised by an arbitrary barrier like the 5% threshold? If a party gets even 1% of the vote it deserves a seat, under the logic of MMP.)
Because of the importance Kiwis give to voting, and the very way pragmatic way they go about voting, I suspect that a sizeable new left-wing formation will only emerge when a sitting MP or two defects from their old party, and thus establishes a parliamentary base around which dissident members of parties like the Greens and Labour and also dissident unions, single issue campaigning groups, far left groupuscles, and so on can gather. We saw something like this happen in 1989, when Jim Anderton left Labour. Unfortunately Anderton's iron will prevailed over the grassroots forces that flocked to his banner and the new party ended up looking a bit like the old one. The 2004 split in Labour which produced the Maori Party may still turn out to a boon for the left, if the views of pro-union Maori Party leaders like Hone Harawira and Syd Keepa prevail over those of much more conservative, pro-business figures like Tariana Turia and Tuku Morgan.
As things stand, the only emotion that will stir me to vote on Saturday is a sort of creeping fear - fear of a National-Act government that revives quaint 1990s neo-liberal practices like evicting old men from their kidney dialysis machines, making the tenants of state houses pay market rates, and logging rainforests on the West Coast. I suspect that a few of you feel the same way. It would be nice to be motivated by enthusiasm, rather than dread, wouldn't it?