The Dark Lord takes the North Land – Peters’ win no victory for the working class

Posted: March 29, 2015 by Admin in Class Matters, Labour Party NZ, National Party NZ, New Zealand politics, Political & economic power, Poverty & Inequality, Unemployment
Northland has a chunk of the poorest housing in the country

After having National Party MPs for 50 years, Northland has a chunk of the poorest housing in the country

by Phil Duncan

From the moment Winston Peters announced his intention to stand for Northland, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.  Indeed, it baffled me that mainstream political commentators didn’t see it until poll after poll, week after week, finally shone a bunch of lights in their eyes simply too bright to ignore.

The by-election was brought about by the resignation of National MP Mike Sabin, currently the subject of a police investigation.

There were two reasons I thought Peters would win.  One is that he’s the past master of populism, able to appear as anti-establishment and opposed to right-wing economics while being thoroughly enmeshed in capitalist politics.  The other is that Northland electing a National MP for the past 50 years hasn’t helped the majority of people there and this was a chance to “send a message” to National without changing the government.

The socio-economic situation there was described by progressive blogger Dave Kennedy at Local Bodies a few days ago:

“Poverty can be seen everywhere in Northland, it is evident in the housing, the health statistics and stories from local doctors like Lance O’Sullivan.

“Schools struggle to meet the diverse needs of the mainly Maori communities and while there seems to be ample money to support elite private schools, Northland schools get ignored and bullied instead. Many of the successes in education in the region are due to communities doing what they can despite the Government.  Kerikeri High School has lifted Maori achievement by supporting a successful programme that has had its funding cut. Much special education support, under the current system, is not directed to where there is greatest need and the likes of Kings College have greater access to services instead.

“Northland has amongst the worst health statistics in the country and this is most obvious in the area of child health. Diseases most closely related to poverty are common in Northland children. Hospital admissions for: Bronchiolitis, pneumonia, bronchiectasis, pertussis, meningococcal, tuberculosis and serious skin admissions are significantly higher than the New Zealand rate. Rheumatic fever is common and tamariki Maori have a 1 in 200 chance of a damaged heart by the end of school. The KidsCan charity had to step in to ensure that Northland children got necessary prescriptions because families struggled to pay the $5 dollar charges.

“Rheumatic fever in children is often related to poor and overcrowded housing and the shocking state of many Northland houses is very visible when traveling around. Many houses reflect what you would expect in third world countries, not an affluent nation like ours. While the attention is on the housing shortage in Auckland there is little being done to help upgrade the poor homes in the far north. It has since been revealed that poor maintenance has reduced the availability of state housing and this has obviously been an issue in Northland too.

“Maori, in particular, have greater difficulties than most to access funding for housing and even building on their own land and this is well documented.”

And, as Don Franks noted on this blog,  “it’s one of the most shit-poor parts of New Zealand. In 2013, Northland was assessed as having the lowest electorate proportion of wage and salary earners. Earning stuff all, Northland was also assessed as having the second lowest median family income – just $51,400.”

Moreover, unemployment remains consistently higher than the national average, almost a quarter of the constituency’s population aged 15 and over have no educational qualifications (compared to just 6.8% in Epsom).  Less than 60% of the electorate population have internet access, about 60% of the schools are in deciles 1-3, while none are in deciles 9 or 10.  The labour force participation rate also appears to be quite low – only 56%, compared to the national rate of just under 70%.

Is it any wonder that a marginalised part of the country voted for a maverick politician?

The only thing that surprised me was that he won by 4,000 votes – I thought his victory would be greater.

After the count, Peters had 15,349 votes, while National’s Mark Osborne took 11,347.  In the general election last September, National’s Mike Sabin had taken 18,269 and National had won 17,412.  New Zealand First hadn’t even run a candidate, but had taken 4,546 party votes, putting them third behind National and Labour in terms of party votes in the seat.

In the by-election, the Greens didn’t run and Labour, although still running a candidate, suggested their supporters vote tactically for Peters to take the seat off National.  In September, 2014 the Greens had gotten 3,855 party votes and Labour had taken 5,913.  Labour candidate Willow-Jean Prime had won 8,969 votes, while in the by-election she won 1,315.

Peters’ vote was the equivalent of the NZF party vote, the Green Party vote and the difference between Prime’s 2014 and by-election votes.  Osborne’s vote was down 7,000 on Sabin’s and 6,000 on National’s party vote.  The total vote was 28,468, compared to 35,056 in the general election.  That difference is roughly the equivalent of the difference between National’s 2014 party vote and Osborne’s total.

Another factor is that NZ First is, in many ways, similar to the old Social Credit party and Northland was a centre of Social Credit strength.  In 1966 SC leader Vernon Cracknell won what was then the Hobson seat off National, having already pushed Labour into third place in 1960 and 1963.  Cracknell took 49% of the vote in 1966.  In addition, when the Northland seat had earlier been the Bay of Islands seat it was held for most of the 1920s and 1930s by the Country Party, an outfit infuenced by social credit ideas.  Winston slots into something of a tradition in Northland therefore,  And, of course, he comes from Northland.

The outcome of the by-election, in which it may be that thousands of National voters stayed away from the polls because of the Sabin affair – which Key must have known about before the general election – has dented his previous apparent invulnerability.  Nothing much had stuck to Key before, but he (and National’s campaign manager and government minister Steven Joyce) have taken a big hit with this one.  Key’s smarmy ‘charm’ may have run its course and the third term may be one in which National goes into decline.

That’s certainly what many on the left are hoping for – a swathe of them even supported Peters.  Indeed, it’s a sign of the abysmal lack of political clarity, and just basic class/political consciousness, that swathes of people who consider themselves on the left and socialists were champing at the bit for Peters to win.  Veteran activist Penny Bright, who has fought many the good fight over the years, had this to say when the votes were counted:

“At last – ‘the left’ has practiced strategic voting in Northland, and Winston Peters has taken Northland off National.

“This is historic and unprecedented.

“The most significant development in my view, is how this Northland buy-election has destroyed the years of carefully crafted spin-doctored imagery of ex-Wall Street banker John Key as some sort of ‘okey blokey’ genuine Kiwi joker.

“Winston Peters has NAILED it.

“National have taken a HAMMERING.

“Glad to have helped.”

So the victory of someone who has carved out a political career for himself post-National by being the number one advocate of racist immigration controls, and who has continually scapegoated Asians as the cause of every problem from hospital waiting lists to Auckland house prices, is to be welcomed and Penny is “glad to have helped”.

While the lack of political clarity and inability to draw (and keep to) clear class lines was a feature of three main far-left groups during the InternetMana fiasco, the Peters’ campaign has indicated the political weakness of the non-revolutionary left elements, including quite militant people like Penny.

Does this mean there is nothing positive to take from the Northland result?

Well, I think there is one thing.  It showed that big money doesn’t always win out.  National, after assuming they would walk it, realised this was not the case and threw everything they could into their effort.  Rob Salmond, over at Polity blog, summed it up on March 25: “National has poured massive, massive resources into Northland, most of which won’t show up in the financial returns. Polling, focus-grouping, canvassing, MP visits, Ministerial cars, taxpayer bribes, flying squads to drive people to the polls. All of it is off the by-election books. I have heard rumours that National’s total outlay is close to $250,000, not to mention the bill the taxpayer will carry.”  (Bizarrely, just three days out from the election, he still thought National would win.)

Moreover, a province which has been largely ignored by successive National (and Labour) governments suddenly found itself being promised fast broadband and big roading and bridging improvements, government spending now apparently no problem at all.

Indeed, it appeared more like a buy-election than a by-election.

But people clearly didn’t go for the attempted bribes.

And perhaps some of them didn’t like being handed Mark Osborne as a candidate. After claiming he had come up with the idea to improve no less than ten bridges in Northland, he couldn’t name a single one. National’s power people had so little faith in him that he was continually minded by the ‘big boys’. He refused to debate Peters in a TV studio and when the debate was organised with Peters in the studio and Osborne up in a room in Northland, the hapless Tory had to admit that Steven Joyce was in the room with him, off-camera.  When National had so little faith in him, many voters must have asked why they should put any in him.

Of course, this is common across the two main parties and helps point up the sham of parliamentary politics, even in terms of bourgeois democracy.  Both National and Labour elect enough ‘smart people’ to form a government, have a few replacements in case anything goes wrong and one or two have to depart, and then a layer of people who are essentially what used to be called ‘place-men’.  They sit there, don’t speak, don’t have ideas, simply vote for government bills and do what they’re told.  Their reward is safe seats and a sinecure for life.  Northland voters decided to reject that.

They were pissed off with having been marginalised for years, being taken for granted, and having Osborne as the Nats’ candidate was possibly the final straw. A marginalised region took its revenge and voted for a politician at the margins.

That, however, is pretty small a positive and pales in relation to the problems thrown up by the by-election.

As readers of this blog will know, we do not believe in parliamentary politics as offering any kind of solution to the problems facing workers and we didn’t think any party was worth voting for in 2014.  At the same time, we are not total abstentionists.  It can be useful to take advantage of the heightened discussions around politics to make arguments for anti-capitalist politics by running for parliament.  However, no-one did this in Northland.  That includes the Mana Movement.

Moreover, Mana garnered only 55 votes.  This was 33 fewer votes than the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party candidate.  Where was the Mana leadership in all this?  Where was the Hone factor?

Given that Northland includes a lot of the territory covered by the Te Tai Tokerau constituency, Hone Harawira and Mana’s major base, and that a significant chunk of Northland voters are Maori – 28,000 Maori live in the electorate – and also poor pakeha, the vote for Mana was abysmal.  (In the general election InternetMana had taken 601 party votes, while not running a candidate.)   The by-election result must throw into question the viability of the Mana project, as it is predominantly a parliamentarist one, despite what some of its more naive left members may believe.  (For an analysis of the InternetMana fiasco, see here.)

For Labour, the news is not great either.  Although Labour activists are delighted that National has taken a beating, the fact that the party had to sacrifice its own position and allow Peters essentially a free run doesn’t help Labour credibility as the “the opposition”.  Of course, there’s a sense of justice in that.  Labour are, after all, an integral part of the  capitalist system and its parliamentary sideshow, not any kind of opposition anyway.

More broadly, the Peters’ win is a testament to the weakness of any serious left politics in this country.  We have an anti-National Party left, but not an anti-capitalist left (outside a tiny handful); we have a kiwi-nationalist left, but not an anti-capitalist left.

And on an even broader plane, we have a working class that seems fairly obstinately determined not to resist its own worsening conditions but to leave it up to others – and not be overly fussy about who those others are.

The anti-capitalist left simply cannot advance without some real motion within the class – and we can’t substitute for that lack of motion by hyper-activism.  But what we can do is create a small pole of attraction for people who are seeing through the existing socio-economic-political system and educate ourselves and others in the need for developing a class line in politics instead of the mish-mash of populism, reformism, petty nationalism, anti-National Party demagogy and so on that passes for left politics at present.

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