Not voting versus lesser-evilism and dressing up reformist politics

Voting-231x300by Philip Ferguson

Over the past few weeks a position has crystallised at Redline in terms of not voting in the 2014 election and advocating that others make a positive decision not to vote. This position is shared by a layer of comrades in AWSM (Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement) and a layer of independent left and liberal people such as Richard Jackson of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Otago University.

The alternative put forward by the ostensibly far left groups seems to be getting involved in reformist parties, like Mana / InternetMana, although gratifyingly there seems to be a serious debate within one of these three groups, namely the International Socialist Organisation, about the contradiction between espousing class politics and endorsing the Internet/Mana lash-up.

A big problem with far left endorsement of reformist parties is that it virtually always leads to prettifying the politics of such parties as if they are somehow on the same road as us. To give two recent instances. There is an interview with Miriam Pierard in the latest issue of Fightback, which is largely liberal, personalised gush – one Redline contributor described it as being like a “puff piece in an in-flight magazine” – and there is no challenge by the interviewer to the views Ms Pierard puts forward.  For instance, about how supposedly awesome a Labour/Greens/InternetMana government would be or a comment such as “how special New Zealand is and how important it is to take back our proud history of leading the world in progressive change”.

Her blurb on the Internet Party site describes her as a
Her blurb on the Internet Party site describes her as a “national treasure” but, before being hired by Kim Dotcom, Laila Harre oversaw hundreds and hundreds of council workers in the greater Auckland area being made redundant

Ms Pierard also talks about how Laila Harre is a particular hero of hers, citing Harre’s role in extending paid parental leave and fighting against NZ military intervention in Afghanistan. But John Key’s government has also extended paid parental leave and Laila, as an Alliance MP, voted for the government motion supporting the invasion of Afghanistan.  It was the revolt by the rank-and-file that forced Alliance MPs to change their minds on that one.

Another article in the same issue refers to “veteran unionist Laila Harre”. But this, too, is at best misleading and at worst a disingenuous cover. Laila was head of the nurses’ union for a few years, but she was never a rank-and-file member let alone a delegate; she walked into the position from her parliamentary career after she lost her seat. Later, she was for four years leader of the National Distribution Union, a position which she stood for in an election but without ever having been in the ranks or having been a delegate or even organiser in the union. By no stretch of the imagination is she a “veteran unionist”; she was an MP, and has been a businesswoman, at least as long as being a top union figure.

And, of course, before being hired by Kim Dotcom to become leader of the Internet Party (Laila doesn’t do rank-and-file), she went off to take a management job at the Auckland Transition Authority, where she oversaw mass redundancies and was extremely well-rewarded financially for doing so. This management role no doubt helped her build her CV for a job at the ILO in Fiji – she could show she had been an advocate for workers and held a management job overseeing hundreds upon hundreds of workers being made redundant. Why is Harre’s political record being airbrushed?

Once upon a time, young radicals used to have as heroes people like Che Guevara, Leila Khaled, Bernadette Devlin, Amilcar Cabral and so on – people who were real fighters for the emancipation of humanity and who put their lives on the line, people who would never vote in bourgeois parliaments for imperialist invasions or go for jobs in which they helped oversee massive redundancies.  Social-democratic princesses certainly had no appeal to radicalising young activists of the sixties and early seventies.

Another article in the same issue of Fightback obscures the fact that Mana/Internet Mana are clearly not supportive of Open Borders and tries to make out they have a position approximating Open Borders when this is patently not true.  Indeed, the point at which I knew for sure I wouldn’t be voting Mana was the sorry spectacle of John Minto, someone I admire, declaring on a TV3 The Nation debate that immigrants were at least partly to blame for housing problems in Auckland.

This kind of approach by Fightback – prettifying the politics of reformist parties – is not new. It has been repeated over and over again, here and internationally, without any lessons being learned by many of those who participated in this kind of political work.  When one such project collapses they simply move on to the next next one.  Most recently it has been pursued in  relation to left-reformist currents emerging out of the collapse of the old CPs and social democracy in Europe. (See, for instance, the critical review article by veteran Australian Marxist John Percy on the ‘broad party’ strategy, here.)

As Rosa Luxemburg noted over 100 years ago, the thing about reformism is not that it shares ideas with revolutionary politics but just has a different view of how to get from here to socialism; the thing about reformism is that it is traveling in a different direction to a different destination.

One of the single comments that has most struck me in the past month is one made by Richard Jackson in the debate at Otago University over voting and not voting. He made the point that parliament is “not fit for purpose” in terms of any issues of real significance in the world today.  Don Franks’ article about parliament (see here) also made me think a lot about the historical specificity of parliament and just how much wider social and political conditions have changed since a more-or-less full bourgeois democracy was established (ie with adult suffrage).

As a Marxist, I’ve never supported the parliamentary road to socialism but I have probably been slow in recognising just how useless parliament is for virtually any progressive purpose.  We need to analyse this in more depth and show just how narrow bourgeois democracy, exemplified by the parliamentary circus, is now in the twenty-first century.  And, while the lack of motion in the working class inevitably gives a certain utopian colouring to any alternatives the genuinely anti-capitalist left may suggest, we still need to discuss and promote alternatives and look for ways of experimenting with them.


  1. While I understand the view of Laila expressed in this article I have a less critical view of her. She has remained a solid left-social democrat all her life, and while she has had leadership roles and a parliamentary career, she has always been willing to campaign on issues outside of parliament. Whether it’s marching, or leafleting on street corners etc, she’s not shy of doing that sort of hands-on work. People on the far left have tended to expect her to be more radical than she is, possibly because she has been supportive of some revolutionary movements. However, I entirely agree with the critique here of the practice of the far-left to airbrush in order to present social democratic politics as something it is not.

  2. I put in the comment about “left social-democratic princesses” originally as an after-thought. I thought about it last night and almost reached the point of thinking I should take it out, so I see your point.

    There were two reasons I left it in. One was my sheer disgust at her taking on a management job overseeing hundreds and hundreds of workers being made redundant, something that has been well and truly swept under the carpet (the first I even heard of it was when the debate about InternetMana broke out in ISO, so it’s thanks to the ISO comrades that I even know about it). The other reason wasn’t so much to do with her as with the way she seems to have been turned into some kind of left hero.

    Heroes are always problematic – and the very idea of heroes is somewhat fraught – but whatever happened to having people like Che, Fanon, Cabral, Khaled and so on as heroes? These were people who risked everything for the cause of liberation.

    The fact that Laila Harre took that particular job indicates that she either has no sense of class lines in politics (whereas left social-democrats generally do) or that she does but decided to cross the class line anyway (because her and her career are more important than mere class lines). Plus the vote in parliament re Afghanistan.

    It’s interesting that of the two most prominent figures associated with left social-democratic politics in recent decades – Laila H and Matt McC – one crossed over to the Labour Party as Cunliffe’s chief-of-staff and one helped sack hundreds of workers and then hired herself out to a pirate capitalist as his party chief. In the end, neither of them had an alternative to Labourism; even 25 years after having broken organisationally with Labour they have been politically revealed as Labourites at heart.


    • A MANA candidate declared Che their political hero on Radio NZ National on Sunday morning 😉

      The ‘princesses’ line is fraught with problems in my opinion in the same way that Bill Logan referring to MANA as ‘courtesans’ had some problems.

      Not heaps to say on Laila, still forming views based on what is being discussed around the left. Seems like a contradictory figure. Personally I have found her rhetoric with Internet Party as tainted by being in a certain age group (no offence to Redline comrades who are a bit older than me). But this reverence for the Internet as a emancipatory tool is overstated, much more so by older generations than those of us who have lived with social media all our adult, and some of our adolescant lives.

      • Well, you won’t find Redliners having reverence for the internet. In fact, we have run several things debunking the inflated claims around the internet, especially in relation to political organising.


      • Was listening to a good lecture recently (on the internet, so you know, lots of good uses for it too) about how the bourgeois description of the Arab Spring/ Occupy as an ‘internet revolution’ was massively flawed. The internet provided a platform/way of spreading information quickly. But revolutions are, and always will be, about people and about physical space.

        One good thing about the internet, though, is it is an example where reproduction of goods is basically free – and at that point capitalism kind of shits itself. Hence the massive attempt to clampdown on peer to peer file sharing, torrenting, etc. etc. Technology of capitalism sometimes outstrips the social relations of capitalism – the Internet is a very very good example of this.

        When it comes to organising I prefer receiving an email to a phone call. A wee bit curious since I work as a telephonist, yet I find phonecalls unpleasant. And there’s a vague aesthetic opposition to it, phones are like someone thumping on a desk saying SPEAK TO ME NOW until you answer it.

        Social media, however, as an organising tool or a tool for debate is really mixed. But I understand that Redline do take a fairly balanced approach to the internet – if you were total skeptics I doubt you’d keep track of website traffic

  3. Laila was probably negotiating redundancy packages, looking for other employment for workers, maybe training. If you can encourage enough left wingers not to vote you will get unmoderated TPPA: “Inverted totalitarianism” in the words of Sheldon Wollin (Wiki). Like all the new car TV ads that viewers are caught by, everyone will start to live in the imagination as only 5% get a current new model car, isn’t it? Good health will become more in the imagination as the Investor State Dispute Clauses frighten the govts off trying to hold to environmental standards. My thoughts about human activity is that recreation is going to be a lot more important. Gardening happened to be number 2 recreation after walking and way above most sports. I hope for biodiversity stewardship linked to gardening. Dignity should not have to be tied to fighting to keep humdrum environmentally destructive jobs.

  4. “Social media, however, as an organising tool or a tool for debate is really mixed.”

    One blessing of the internet is that, without it, we’d have to produce a magazine instead of Redline. The hassle of producing and distributing a hard-copy publication would far outweigh the benefits and certainly wouldn’t have the reach, although back in the days of *revolution* magazine about a third of its subscribers were outside NZ. But that mag was a huge undertaking in terms of production work, not to mention research and writing.

    Redline’s readership has built up steadily, although it’s often surprising what people most read. As with Fightback, by far our most read stuff is on the 1981 tour and protests, presumably high school students working on projects. But, for instance, it’s been pleasing to see the amount of hits on the material on dialectics.

    But the monthly readership of Redline is about 60-70 times bigger than the monthly readership of *revolution*, for far less effort.


  5. The most striking feature of attempting to engage with people politically at election time is the abject poverty of thought, logic and scepticism I usually encounter. Via crappy education and a diet of uncritical mainstream media and internet noise it seems that when it comes to politics people are incapable of the most basic critical observation and discussion. A dichotomy exists whereby otherwise intelligent people can hold the most irrational ideas as sacrosanct and beyond debate.
    The core elements of history and human-centered social change are nowhere to be seen.
    We can conceive of and build a Large Hadron Collider, on the one hand, and yet, on the other, believe that tax breaks and cannabis are fundamental issues of human society.

    • One of the interesting things about our emerging Don’t Vote position is that, since starting to elaborate it, we have come across a whole little layer of people who aren’t voting and are making a conscious political decision not to vote in 2014.

      It’s unfortunate that we didn’t start to elaborate this position earlier or we could have had a useful little campaign on the issue.

      However, there is always 2017. . .


  6. “We can conceive of and build a Large Hadron Collider, on the one hand, and yet, on the other, believe that tax breaks and cannabis are fundamental issues of human society.” Tax is the part of your money which is running in other entities. It’s difficult. Cannabis is what some smoke in the lunch break at the Dreamliner B787 factory. No problem.

  7. The Boeing puzzle is on Al Jazeera TV (Al Jazeera Investigates) just after midnight I think. Interesting study of a certain type of economics taking the building of the B787 planes from a Union wanting to do a good job to another city, a unionless workforce with no pride in their product. Air New Zealand has just obtained the first of the B787-9. Don’t know if it is made in the former or the newer factory. Some people may not be concerned about aircraft but some may have the mind focused a bit by them. Can New Zealand be thought of like a Large Hadron Collider, or B787 scenario?

  8. “Well, you won’t find Redliners having reverence for the internet. In fact, we have run several things debunking the inflated claims around the internet, especially in relation to political organising.


    Do you have a vision, Phil?

    • Pretty sure there are good passages in Marx about how workers are robbed of any ~responsibility~ because they are robbed of their freedom. And that freedom necessarily comes with responsibilities. So as Marxists I’d suspect Redline wouldn’t disagree with that.

  9. And in some ways, National is a lesser-evil than Labour. They have maintained the retirement age at 65, extended paid parental leave longer than Labour did, extended free doctors’ visits for children longer than Labour did (and Labour didn’t really do it at all, the free doctors’ visits for young children was forced on Labour by NZ First). All kinds of little nooks and crannies in the welfare state have had more money put into them by National.

    As against that, National have eroded some union rights, although where a union is strong they haven’t been much affected at all. And they re-introduced youth rates plus the 90-day thing.

    So they have given and taken away. Overall not much change. And given the ‘global financial crisis’, National has been very moderate indeed.

    A Labour-led government would be a seamless transition. It’s by no means certain they would totally undo National’s industrial legislation, but it’s very likely they will keep their promise to extend our working lives.

    What we need is *independent working class politics*, rather than a left which is *largely* more anti-National than anti-capitalist.


    • Even in the last 30 years of pretty hegemonic policies, Labour has consistently spent more with regards to education, health services, etc. I’m skeptical Labour would have the backing to push through the retirement age legislation, unless National choose to back it.

      It seems unlikely Labour will form the government anyway so most of these questions will probably be delayed three years. Don’t disagree with you about what we need at all Phil, just wonder how many decades that has been said and yet here we still are? Plotting a course out of the cul-de-sac the left seems stuck in must be much easier said than done. At the same time, I think the legacy of Stalinism and those sort of questions are not nearly as pressing for young people coming to anti-capitalist politics, so in some ways the Left should feel somewhat less fettered than it was during the Soviet era.

  10. If National lost the election, Key would be gone. At least a chunk of National would support raising the retirement age, so Labour would very likely get a higher retirement age through. They’re not messing with the idea, or floating it; they are serious about raising it. And, from the standpoint of managing capitalism, it makes sense. When the crisis hit the south of Ireland, there was the southern Irish Labour Party, full on for raising the retirement age, for instance (oh, and for cutting benefits).

    As far as how many decades the points I’m making have been made, the answer is *not many at all* in New Zealand. Rather, the bulk of the far left has always tended very strongly towards reformism. And no lessons have been learned by those types of people. That is in no small part why the far left is as tiny and irrelevant as it is today. They always blew it by being soft on reformism, liberalism and so on, a key element of which was softness on the Labour Party and not grasping the fact that the Labour Party is a capitalist party and that fact should have practical consequences, eg no support for Labour.

    Every time a revolutionary approach is taken it lasts for a period of time and then a chunk, frequently a majority, of those involved turn out to be unable to withstand the surrounding pressures of liberalism and reformism and end up succumbing.

    The CPNZ went through what I thought was a quite promising period in the 1990s; indeed I thought very seriously about joining them when I returned to NZ in 1994. But then they ruined it by prancing off into the orbit of the British SWP and, resultingly, evolving rightwards as SW.

    The SAL, the WCL, the CP/SW: they and their fates should all be warnings. But, apparently, they aren’t. Instead some people are determined to repeat the same mistakes for a fourth time and a fifth time and a sixth time.

    I’m not interested in such people. They’re a waste of time, energy and space.

    I’m only interested in folks who can actually learn from the past and from the experiences of longtime activists who went through it all.


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