Tiny, ferocious creatures: the far left and the 2008 election
An acquaintance of mine who is a sort of burnt-out sixties radical once told me that the far left groups in New Zealand reminded him of 'tiny ferocious creatures fighting each other to the death in a drop of water'. I must admit that I remembered his phrase when I looked through the election results in the Sunday paper and saw that RAM and Workers Party candidates had fought over two hundred votes in Wellington Central, and that the Workers Party and the Communist League had divided sixty votes in the Manukau East constituency.
Did the extraparliamentary left need to be so divided? It's true that there are differences between the Workers Party, RAM, and the Alliance. RAM is a small coalition founded by veterans of Marxist organisations. These activists tend to play down their hard left heritage, and instead focus on populist issues like the price of food. The Alliance Party wants to replace capitalism with socialism, but believes in gradual, incremental change, not revolution. With its talk of Lenin, Marx, and revolution the Workers Party sits to the left of both RAM and the Alliance.
These ideological differences may be real enough, but I wonder whether members of any of the three groups ever tried explaining them to an interested voter not acquainted with the isms and schisms of the far left? I tried, a couple of times, and I found that my explanations were quickly interrupted by laughter. One of my interlocutors compared the disagreements about which party had the best programme with the jibes that rappers trade about who has the biggest penis or the longest limo. I myself hadn't thought of the question in those terms before.
I admit that I find the minutae of the arguments of the far left interesting, but then I'm a geek who wrote a PhD (partly) about the subject, rather than a relatively normal person. I really think it's worth considering whether an electoral United Front based on a few key issues of interest to left-leaning workers wouldn't have been possible between the Alliance, the Workers Party, and RAM. Each party could still have been free to express the unique features of its worldview in its own paper and pamphlets.
From the outside, it looked like each group's campaign had some positive aspects. Alliance members seemed to have plenty of experience and a good grasp of the details surroundings policy debates in areas like social welfare. The Workers Party seemed to have youth and energy on its side, and was able to put its message across clearly in its posters and press releases. RAM helped make the call for the removal of GST on food a minor election issue. Getting time to discuss GST in the mass media and getting the Maori Party to adopt the demand to drop GST on food were achievements.
If the parties had united they would surely have done much better, but they would still have struggled to do really well, simply because the class they want to represent continues to support and vote for the Labour Party in large numbers.
Each far left group seems to be rationalising its election result in a different way. The Alliance is claiming it did well because it got a few more votes than last time, ignoring the fact that party leaders originally called the 2005 result very disappointing. RAM appears to be blaming a swing to the right for its dismal performance, but during its election campaign the group foolishly characterised the 'Labnats' as an undifferentiated right-wing bloc. How can there be a swing from the right to the right, comrades?
The Workers Party admits it didn't get many votes, but seems to be girding itself for some epic journey through the wilderness of slow solitary party-building. The party seems to have decided that workers still suffer from the same levels of apathy that characterised the '90s, and that they'll remain in this fallen state until they are recruited in ones and twos into a revolutionary party.
I think that all three groups are missing the fact that most left-leaning workers are firmly wedded to Labour, and are not prepared to vote for a party that doesn't have a chance of at least acting as a partner for Labour in parliament. After looking like it might go under in the '90s, Labour has reconstituted itself as a social democratic party over the nine years it has been in government. The welfare state has been patched up a little with Kiwisaver and Working for Families. Market rents have gone from state houses and the part-privatisation of education and health has been reversed. Kiwibank is thriving and the railways and Air New Zealand have been renationalised. There has been an impressive expansion of spending on the arts industry which has won Labour the fierce loyalty of people working in that sector.
The unions are growing again with the small but crucial openings that the Employment Relations Act gave them, and they show no sign of withdrawing political support from Labour, even though new union leaders like McCarten and Harre are far to the left of '90s bosses like the terrible duo of Ken Douglas and Angela Foulkes. Labour's own party organisation is far stronger than it was in the '90s.
We on the far left know about the bad stuff Labour has been involved in (the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Ruatoki, the seabed and foreshore legislation, the anti-beneficiary 'jobs jolt') but we are in danger of patronising workers if we don't accept that they have voted for Labour in large numbers in recent elections (even last Saturday's vote was respectable) because Labour rule has been better for them than the era of the Nats. Indeed, Key only won last Saturday by pretending to adopt most of Labour's policies.
Of course, the best things that have been won under Labour have come largely through the efforts of grassroots campaigning and the influence of parties to the left of Clark and Cullen (consider the nurses' new pay regime, which was the result of a superb union campaign, paid parental leave, which was pushed hard by the Alliance when it was still in parliament, and Maori TV, which was the result of many years of campaigning by activists).
We should continue to criticise Labour for the bad things it has done, and point out why the ultimate solution to the problems created by capitalism can't come from social democracy, but we should join with trade unionists and others at the grassroots when they organise to protect the positive things they have won over the past nine years. We can't do that if we deny that anything at all has been won over the last nine years.
The influence of Act and the right wing of the National Party and the oncoming recession make it likely that the Key government will try to inflict government spending cuts and anti-union legislation on New Zealand, in a futile attempt to restart the economic cycle by holding down inflation and wages (what the economy needs is stimulation, not deflation). Many of the hundreds of thousands who believed Key's promises that he would run a 'Labour lite' administration will already be worried by the sight of Rodney Hide and Roger Douglas calling for a government 'razor gang' to cut social spending. In the medium term, at least, a swing against the new government seems very likely. Will this movement towards the left benefit Labour, or has the party's defeat opened a space for its rivals on the left? Like National, the Greens ran an election campaign which valued style over substance. The party's billboards were attractive and vacuous, with their pictures of pretty children and the planet and their apolitical slogan 'Vote for me'. The billboards were a common sight in the wealthier and trendier suburbs of the big cities, but they were rare in South and West Auckland, and in the small towns of the provincial heartland.
Although they have a more left-wing policy programme than Labour and they have attracted the support of some left-wing trade unionists, the Greens fare little better than Act in working class electorates. They got their highest number of party votes in Wellington Central, one of the wealthiest electorates in the country, and also did very well in Ohariu-Blemont and Auckland Central. In Manukau East, by contrast, the party won a pathetic four hundred and fifty party votes. The Greens scored four times as many party votes in trendy, wealthier North Dunedin than in depressed working class South Dunedin.
The Greens struggle to attract a big share of the working class vote partly because they project an image which seems alien to many members of that class. The party is divided between flaky centrists with little interest in workers' issues and honourable left-wing social democrats like Keith Locke and Sue Bradford. The party's election campaign showed that the centrist faction is in the driving seat. Punters in places like Manukau East or Dunedin South are more worried about the global economic crisis than global warming, and more interested in the price of food than in organic food. Until the Greens devote real attention and resources to working class issues and electorates they will struggle to expand their vote. Can Labour recover the voters it has lost on the back of discontent with the new government, or has a space opened up which the far left can occupy? Can we disregard the short to medium-term prospects of a party which has been cast into the wilderness after nine years in power? To answer these questions, we should look at recent history across the Tasman. In Australia a couple of years ago, John Howard tried to smash the unions with a set of very repressive laws which were part of his wider campaign to inflict Rogernomics-style policies on the Aussies. The unions and the left mobilised to stop him; even though they couldn't prevent the passage of his laws, they did ensure that union membership rose, rather than declined.
At the same time, the Aussie Labor Party grew considerably, as workers who saw it as their historic party flocked to its ranks. Thanks to this wave of new activists, Labour won a series of electoral victories, culminating in the defeat of Howard. While this process was unfolding, the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), the largest far left group in Aussie, was insisting that the Labor Party had ceased to have significant working class support and suggesting that the way was open for a new mass workers' party. While Labor stormed back into power with massive workers support the DSP ended up imploding. We should hope that members of RAM, who have lately been saying that Labour is finished and their outfit is becoming a new mass party, will learn a lesson from the fate of the DSP.
Ironically, Labour would be in much greater danger if it had won the recent election and had to deal with an economic tsunami. Clark and Cullen probably would have felt it necessary to cut social spending and hold down wages and this would have angered parts of their union base. A small space might even have opened for groups to the left of Labour and the Greens. In opposition, though, Labour can move to the left and criticise National and Act, freed of the responsibility of having to run the economy. If the Maori Party is foolish enough to get in to bed with National then Labour will probably win the Maori vote back, too, as Pita and co relive the experiences of New Zealand First's Maori 'tight five' in 1996-98.
No one can predict the future with anything resembling certainty, but I wouldn't be surprised if workers move back to Labour as they wake up to the nature of the new National government. The far left needs to acknowledge the continued hold of Labour over much of the working class, instead of trying to wish this reality away, or dismissing every supporter of the party as some sort of class enemy.
I'm a regular protester at the Labour Party's conferences, and at the 2007 bash I heard a Workers Party member shouting 'If there were any decent people in Labour they left long ago'. A Labour Party trade unionist shouted back that anyone who didn't support Labour was some sort of traitor. There is a sensible position somewhere between those two sectarian extremes.