by Philip Ferguson
On June 23, the DominionPost ran an opinion piece by Jim McAloon titled “Labour needs to remember why it was founded”. McAloon is a senior academic at Victoria University, one of the few academics in this country who writes seriously about class, and is currently working on a book on the 100 years of the NZ Labour Party of which he is a member.
And there’s the rub. As is the case with so many other well-meaning, good liberal people his loyalty to the Labour Party as an institution blinds him to some rather basic historical facts about this party and induces him to adopt, if his opinion piece is anything to go by, a very Pollyannish view of its history. Moreover, one which simply leaves out large parts of that history because they cut across the image of the party that he is attached to, an image which doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance with the actual history of the Labour Party.
Let’s go through his piece, bit-by-bit. His original article is in plain text, my comments are in italics:
Jim McA: In the wake of the Labour Party’s dismal election result last year, and its recent internal review, some commentators are suggesting that Labour’s in terminal decline.
Reports of the party’s death are, however, decidedly premature.
PhilF: This is probably true. Unfortunately.
No political party enjoys going backwards in Opposition, but last year was not the first time this has happened to Labour.
In 1949, the first Labour government was tossed out with 47 per cent of the popular vote. In 1954 Labour’s vote fell to 44 per cent, but the party won government in 1957 with 48 per cent.
Labour also lost ground in the 1960s, with its popular vote falling from 44 per cent to 41 per cent in 1966, the party’s first election with Norman Kirk as leader and after six years in opposition.
Six years later, Norman Kirk was prime minister.
Yes, but Labour has shown no recovery at all since its 2008 defeat. After National’s defeat in 1999, they had a disastrous performance in 2002, and then bounced right back, only being beaten by a whisker in 2005, and romping home in each election since. Labour simply can’t get traction in the polls. People believe that if they are going to have a liberal, middle-of-the-road capitalist government, it may as well be the one they’ve already got rather than the desperate try-hards in opposition.
Moreover, more workers voted National than Labour in 2014 and even more blue-collar workers voted National than Labour. National now has the party vote in a slew of largely working class constituencies.
I am not suggesting that the Labour Party should simply wait for the pendulum to swing.
While that might in due course deliver a spell in government, without a clear vision of why the party exists, there is little point in being in office.
The people who run the Labour Party do have a clear vision of why the Labour Party exists, Jim. It is you who are confused. The LP exists to manage capitalism. Whenever National is exhausted and/or discredited and/or capitalism is up shit creek and lacking paddles, Labour’s job is to take over the reins of government and do the paddling. That’s the big picture vision. There are a few disagreements on how best to do that; on some things National is marginally to the left of Labour, on some things Labour is marginally to the left of National. They are basically two sides of the same coin, two cheeks of the same arse. There are no differences of principle between them.
Because NZ is a highly-developed capitalist country, the ruling class has the resources to have the two biggest parties at its beck-and-call (as well as a string of smaller ones).
One of the British Labour Party’s more successful leaders, Harold Wilson, once observed that ‘this party is a moral crusade, or it is nothing’, and the same applies to New Zealand Labour.
But the main role of the Labour Party of Harold Wilson was to modernise creaky old British industrial capitalism. Hardly a moral crusade. You need a critical historian’s focus here, and not believe political spin from a spinner like Wilson. This regime also began some heavy-duty assaults on the unions – Barbara Castle’s ‘In Place of Strife’ stuff , for instance. For some less Pollyanna-type presentation on the Wilson-era Labourites in government and opposition, see here and here.
The years in Opposition—unwelcome though they are—provide an opportunity to reflect on, and develop, policy. Reflection and development should be consistent with the party’s fundamental values.
It is important for all organisations to recall why they were founded. The Labour Party was formed in 1916 to improve the lives of working people, to defend democracy and to promote international solidarity rather than chauvinistic nationalism.
You are pulling our leg here, Jim. Labour, far from promoting genuine international solidarity, promoted chauvinistic nationalism against the Chinese. Are you not aware of the intense anti-Chinese racism of the early Labour Party? It competed with Reform and the Liberals as to who could be more anti-Chinese in the period from the end of World War 1 to the 1920 Immigration Restriction Act, which essentially shut the door firmly on Chinese workers coming here. Have you not read the speeches of Labour MPs during the parliamentary debate on the 1920 legislation? Have you not read the report of the committee set up by the 1919 Labour Party conference on immigration, which reported back the following year? Are you not aware that the head of ‘Massey’s Cossacks’ was the special guest at Labour’s 1920 conference – invited along because he and Labour were interested in working together to “keep New Zealand white”?
Btw, the extent to which current-day Labourites will go to cover up these simple historical facts is interesting. I was recently banned from The Standard blog for raising Labour’s involvement in the White New Zealand (anti-Chinese) policy-making of that era. I was accused of “bullshit allegations” and “making it up”. (A political commentator friend of mine did inform me, however, that he never bothers with The Standard because it has a reputation for censorship and banning.)
Improving the lives of working people—of the majority—meant some redistribution of wealth. It meant care for the vulnerable. It meant well-resourced public services, particularly in education and health. It meant decent housing. It also meant sustainable economic development, based on an intelligent analysis of New Zealand’s economic situation.
Above all it meant creating a climate of solidarity, where people understand that everyone is diminished by living in an unjust and unequal society.
Defending democracy meant challenging a government’s heavy-handed security policing. It meant ensuring that all could speak their mind and participate as freely as they wished in their communities and their nation.
Why only “some” wealth redistribution? It is, after all, workers’ labour-power that creates surplus-value. It’s the work that the working class as a class does that produces all the goods and services that make the world go round. And, in any case, at the end of the first Labour government, a government supported by the richest individual in the country (Ernest Davis), the wealthy had a higher percentage of the national income than they did before and the rate of exploitation of the working class had actually increased. See: here.
And, of course, Labour in power has continued to run the secret police apparatus essentially the same way National did. Additionally, Labour’s Urewera raids were a pure form of “heavy-handed security policing”. Surely you recall those Jim?
World War 2, meanwhile, saw an intense crackdown by Labour, taking away people’s ability to speak their mind and participate freely in their communities.
Promoting international solidarity meant challenging New Zealand’s participation in imperialist war. It meant asserting New Zealand’s independent voice. It meant advocating for the peaceful resolution of international disputes. It meant active compassion for those struggling against poverty and oppression overseas.
But Labour led New Zealand into imperialist war in 1939 and then imposed peacetime conscription in 1949, while in the late 1950s the second Labour government ran NZ military intervention against a people’s revolution in Malaya. That government also supported sporting links with South Africa and condoned the exclusion of Maori players from any All Black team going to South Africa. See, here.
And, of course, the Lange government stepped up NZ military intervention in the Pacific to levels not seen since the Second World War. The Clark government helped invade Afghanistan and sent a NZ Army force to Iraq just before the deadline closed on bids by private companies for ‘reconstruction’ projects. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
We could also talk, of course, about Labour deregistering the Auckland carpenters Union in 1949. The assault on the Carpenters Union, in collusion with the bosses, was part of Labour’s post-WW2 attacks on the working class in general, leading up to its “neutral” position on the 1951 waterfront lockout.
Or how about the third Labour government (1972-75) deregistering the Kawerau boilermakers and launching the biggest attack on workers’ rights and living standards since 1951 before the fourth Labour government went one better and launched the biggest attacks on workers’ rights and living standards since the Depression-era Forbes-Coates regime? (See here and here.) The third Labour government also opposed legalising abortion and homosexuality and clamped down on civil liberties with its notorious Unlawful Assembly legislation. This was also the government which launched the dawn raids on Pacific Islanders – moreover, Labour Party members routinely lie about this and pretend it started with Muldoon just like they pretend ‘new right’ economics was a National Party thing or the early Labour Party wasn’t intensely racist against the Chinese.
And isn’t it quite a comment on the NZLP that social welfare benefits were raised for the first time in 43 years, not by Labour but by National. Labour is so utterly committed to the interests of the NZ ruling class, and to proving its reliability to the ruling class, that they couldn’t even raise the incomes of the poorest section of society.
And now they’re using racist dog whistle politics to (once again) scapegoat the Chinese – or people with “Chinese surnames” – for capitalism’s inability to build the houses people need. And it’s not like the last Labour government embarked on an emergency building programme for cheap, good quality public housing, is it?
And now Andrew Little is busy back-pedaling on the 90-day issue.
Plenty can be said about how the world has changed since 1916, 1935, 1972 or even 1984.
What hasn’t changed is that when Labour has been most successful, it is because it has been able to persuade many people beyond its hard core to its way of thinking.
I think you mean “hoodwink” rather than “persuade”. In any case, it is most successful when the ruling class have lost faith in National and want their B team to have a go.
To persuade others of anything, you first have to believe it yourself and then you have to make your case in ways that resonate with the audience.
The arts of political communication are many and include consistency, coherence and emphasising big issues rather than sideshows. Effective communication is about integrity, which means an evident commitment to the good of the organisation as a whole—or, more bluntly, loyalty. Effective communication also means not allowing your opponents to define your own position or the ground on which you campaign.
The Labour Party is far from finished.
Yes, sadly, Labour is far from finished. They’ll be there, knifing the working class in the back, right up until the capitalist system is finally pushed into the dustbin of history. And, no matter what they do, there will be a bunch of people apologising for them, covering up for them and spinning and fibbing for them. Don’t be one of those people, Jim.
If it really was about “integrity”, however, the Labour Party would have been finished a long time ago. But Labour is far too valuable an institution to the capitalist class. They may not need it to run the show now, but the inability of Key-English to really lift the New Zealand economy will mean they will eventually turn back to the B team, so Labour can be expected to be their favourite, possibly in 2020.
Its premature obituarists forget that even last year’s dismal result represented a significantly larger share of the vote than National received in 2002.
Yes, but you need to compare like-with-like, Jim. After two terms of Labour, National essentially bounced back and nearly won. After two terms of National, Labour last November had another dire result. And, as I said above, more workers voted National than Labour.
Labour’s interest will not be served by simply waiting for the wheels to fall off the Key government (which may or may not happen in 2017—Labour underestimates John Key at its peril). To fulfil its purpose, Labour has to lift its share of the vote well above 35 per cent.
Aiming high, eh? Over 35%! More importantly, though, you refer to Labour’s purpose. But it’s purpose is to provide New Zealand capital with a fall-back team that takes over and does the business when the A team is temporarily munted.
Non-voters are one target. Parts of National’s ‘soft’ vote are another.
Where do you think these non-voters come from? They’re predominantly in the low-income section of this society. And they’re there for good reason. Why would any working class person on low wages or low benefits vote for any of the parliamentary parties, especially Labour and National? The poorer section of the working class may not have developed a political alternative or publicly articulated – or had the opportunity to articulate – their view of the Labour Party, but their refusal to vote for it indicates that, at least at a gut level, they have a more profound understanding of what the Labour Party is than a senior academic like yourself.
National’s “soft vote”, meanwhile, is also Labour’s “soft vote”. They swing back and forth on the basis of who seems to be capable of most successfully running capitalism at any point in time. Since 1990 they have tended to go in cycles of about a decade for each party, but at present it looks like they may stick with National as long as the ruling class does, which may well be until 2020, unless National really screws it up and/or there is really serious economic slump.
Rather than the sometimes facile suggestions that Labour’s current troubles are the consequence of being either excessively or insufficiently Left-wing, increasing the vote means convincing enough people that the party’s fundamental values are meaningful to them today and in the future.
There are no “fundamental values” involved. Really, Jim, after all this time, how can you be so naive? Moreover, hardly anyone really believes that Labour has “fundamental values”. Even most Labour spoofers don’t really believe their own spoof. You need to get out of the ivory tower a bit more, Jim, hang out with people who live in the real world where Labour has systematically driven down living standards, restricted workers’ rights and done whatever is necessary to prove its value as a management team to the ruling class in this country.