Labour leader Andrew Little: a vacuous leader for an empty party

Andrew Little: a vacuous leader for an empty party

by Phil Duncan

Watching Q&A on Sunday morning, I was struck yet again by the apparently limitless capacity so many Labourites have for dissembling and backpedalling.

There was Annette King, with her idea of free dental treatment.


King was minister of health in the last Labour government, a government that was in power for nine years.  Where was free dental care then?  Certainly not on King and that regime’s agenda.

Moreover, King was a Labour MP throughout the fourth Labour government (1984-1990), the outfit that launched the biggest attack on workers’ rights, pay and living conditions of the Great Depression.  King happily went along with it all.

King also said the health system was being run down and there were big waiting lists.


It was Labour which introduced user-pays in the health system.  And King was a Labour MP at the time.  Moreover, does she really think people have forgotten the long waiting lists under the last Labour government?

And there were Robertson (the party #3 and finance spokesperson) and leader Andrew Little, the guy who as head of the EPMU signed off on the Pike River mine, talking about why they had to dump the idea of a capital gains tax – people “didn’t understand” it.  But as the economically right-wing panellist Fran O’Sullivan pointed out, National has since then introduced a tax which is a capital gains tax in all but name.  She criticised Labour for having no guts.  (O’Sullivan is a social liberal, whose brand of right-wing economics allows her to often see the contradiction between capitalist individuals, and often whole sectors, on the one hand and the interests of capital in general on the other hand.)

Little has also been backpedaling on Labour opposition to the TPPA.  Now, apparently, the only part of the TPPA that Labour – well, the people that count anyway, Labour MPs – is against ‘in principle’ is any clause that means governments can’t restrict land sales to ‘foreigners’.


What happened to all their other ‘bottom lines’?  Perhaps out the window since Helen Clark, the leader of the previous Labour government and now a bigwig at the United Nations, made clear her position that NZ has to be part of the TPPA.

Of course, from the standpoint of the material interests of workers in this country, it is immaterial whether people from Canada, Australia, China or this country, own land and houses.  Workers here wouldn’t be any better off if all the land and houses here were owned by ‘kiwi capitalists’.  They would, indeed, be worse off because ‘kiwi nationalism’ would be stronger and class consciousness would be even weaker than it is now.  The TPPA is a false debate in that how capitalists organise trade is always to their benefit, not ours.  We have no stake in either free trade or protectionism; regardless of which is state policy at any time, we need to fight for our independent interests as a class.

Interviewer Corin Dann pressed Little on free tertiary education.  Little preferred, of course, to concentrate on how the last Labour government took interest off student loans and suggested, as Labour politicians frequently do, that this is some kind of step to free tertiary education.


Of course, although Labourites continually lie about this, it was the fourth Labour government that introduced ‘user pays’ in third-level education in the first place.  And taking interest off student loan repayments is not a step towards free tertiary education.  Fees and living costs continue to rise.  Not a single cent was knocked off fees by the fifth Labour government.  All no-interest loans means, especially in the context of rising fees and living costs, is that students will borrow even more money and so the debt rises.  Free tertiary education recedes further and further.

Corin Dann tried to get out of Little just exactly what it is that Labour stands for.   One very specific detail that Little gave was that Labour wanted to get unemployment, currently around 6%, down to 4%.


downloadIt’s certainly true that unemployment fell during the fifth Labour government (see graph).  Here, the word ‘during’ is crucial.  It didn’t fall ‘under’ or ‘due to’ that government.  It fell because the world economy was in a recovery phase from the recessionary period of the 1990s.  Moreover, look at the way unemployment rose under the fourth Labour government (1984-1990), and had begun to rise especially dramatically at the end of that government, continuing to do so in the early years of the fourth National government as they continued Labourite economics but then fell dramatically under National after 1991 (their first year in power).  After an increase in 1997-98, it began to fall again.  It was already going down significantly when the fifth Labour government came into power in 1999.  After 2007 it began to rise sharply again, in the last year of that Labour government and this trend simply continued under National.  This rise was a result of the GFC.

Whether unemployment goes up or down under the next Labour government won’t have anything much to do with the Labourites but will be the result of the boom-and-bust global capitalist economy, the New Zealand section of which Labour is totally committed to managing.

This is why Labour these days never talks about its jobs goal being full employment.  Capitalist profits come before workers’ rights to jobs.  Globally, the days of full employment in a capitalist society are gone.  The quarter century of the post-WW2 boom, when something like full employment existed here and in other First World countries, is long gone.  Capitalism today depends on instilling low expectations into each new generation of workers, something in which Labour parties play a vital role.

One result of this is that under the last Labour government the number of days lost in industrial struggles fell dramatically (see graph below), to an all-time low, even though workers’ pay was being held down.

The last Labour government kept pay and work stoppages down

The last Labour government kept pay and work stoppages down

National has been able to build on this and get industrial action down to even lower levels.

nbr-rich-list-graphDann also mentioned inequality and added that Labour couldn’t get back into power by being National-lite.  Little agreed.


Look at the speeded up rate at which the rich got richer under the last Labour government compared with the previous National government.

Income inequality scarcely altered under the last Labour government. Source for graph: HES, cited in Child Poverty Monitor

Income inequality scarcely altered under the last Labour government. Source for graph: HES, cited in Child Poverty Monitor

In terms of the ‘lite issue’, of course Labour can get back into power – eventually – by being National-lite.  You know, just like National got back into power in 2008 by being Labour-lite.

Indeed, what has happened is that current National government policy is largely Labourite.  They’re a bit to the right of the previous Labour government on trade union legislation and a bit to the left of the last Labour government on free health care for kids and on social welfare benefits.

The current low benchmark was set by the Helen Clark government.  After its defeat in 1999 and then the massive defeat of 2002, National increasingly became Labour-lite and then simply hung in there until, after three terms, that government was exhausted and people got sick of being treated like children by posh head girl Clark.  Now all Labour has to do is hang in there, being National-lite-cum-Labour-lite, and eventually the shine will wear off Key and the National government will become old and tired-looking and people will switch back to Labour.  And so the circus wheel goes round and round.

The Dann interview showed just show superficial Little is – no wonder one of the panelists, Otago University’s Bryce Edwards, suggested that Little’s nickname might change from ‘Angry Andy’ to ‘Empty Andy!  Meanwhile, the naive – or perhaps disingenuous is more apt – Labour middle-tier and the ever-gullible and delusional ranks lapped up Little’s conference performance.  Willow-Jean Prime, who was slaughtered in the Northland by-election by Winston Peters, told us that the ranks of Labour would be taking the party message out into the communities across the country and that “We have a lot of activists” to do so.  She used words like “confident”, “heartened”, “positive” and “We know what our values are”.


Does Labour have any message other than the unspoken one of “Support us because we’re every bit as vacuous and totally committed to managing capitalism as John Key.  In fact, we can manage the system that exploits the working class even better!”

All the confidence and positivity certainly gushed like a convention of happy-clappy Christian fundamentalists.  But there’s no real substance to it.  They said the same thing about David Shearer.  Then he had to go.  Then they said the same thing about David Cunliffe.  Then he had to go.  Until, or unless, Key stuffs up big-time it seems unlikely that Andrew Little will get Labour up much in the polls.

And as for all those “activists”, Ms Prime has clearly been drinking the kool-aid.  Labour lost the bulk of its activists back in 1989 during the split that set up the left social-democratic NewLabour Party and has never recovered from that split.  They’ve recruited some more academics, lawyers and managerial staff and the odd ex-radical, but Labour is still a shell of a party.  It survives primarily because the capitalist class like to have options and the working class follows the capitalists’ political lead at present; the working class desperately needs, but totally lacks, its own independent class political movement.  So the class still suffers the parasitic excretion that is the Labour Party.

While National is currently the capitalists’ A team and Labour merely the ‘Eh?’ team, by 2020 National in power will be politically decrepit again and the bourgeoisie will fall in behind Labour like they did in 1984 and 1999.

To break this cycle, we need a new political movement based on class politics – a workers’ movement: a movement of, for and by the working class.

Follow-up reading

Labour: a bosses party  

Labour’s racist roots

A stain that won’t wash off: Labour’s racist campaign against those with “Chinese surnames”

Why do otherwise sane, well-meaning people choose to delude themselves about the Labour Party and make up rosy nonsense about its past

Chris Trotter’s false recovered memory syndrome

Anti-working class to its core: the third Labour government

Workers, unions and Labour: unravelling the myths

For a campaign for union disaffiliation from Labour

What are anti-capitalist politics?

  1. Barrie says:

    I saw the programme youve written about and the interview with the aptly named Little. One of the very first things he said was “Labour is a free-market party”. He then spent the whole time qualifying every statement he made, lest he ran the risk of sounding too naughty or irresponsible. The impression was one of a machine politician who doesn’t stand for much beyond the odd tweak here and there. Given that he has spent his whole life on the smooth trajectory from student politician, lawyer, party bureaucrat and unelected/list MP thats hardly surprising. I once saw him make a firery speech in parliament. When he sat down an obscure National backbencher very quietly pointed out the contrast with Little’s very co-operative and mild mannered working attitude when they were members of the same parliamentary committee. Deflated him nicely and said a lot about the realities of the A-team/eh team state of ruling politics.When asked in the tv interview you reviewed about Corbyn and the possibility of some similar change here, Little said National hadn’t engaged in the same severe austerity measures as the Tories so the two situations are different. Then as you pointed out the watered down TPPA positions have left them defending ‘national sovereignty’. Couple that with the xenophobic stance on home ownership and landsales and it puts them more as NZ First-lite than anything else.

    After a hundred years its about time this senile organization accepted its letter from the Queen for services rendered and put itself out of its misery.

  2. Admin says:

    I think he said they’re a free trade party (but, of course, you’re also right in that they are a free-market party too).

    The thing about the fiery speech in parliament is hilarious. Often, on a purely personal level, National Party MPs are less odious – they don’t put on a stage show quite so much as the Labour fakers.

    It’s also amusing – although depressing too – how many people are taken in by these little displays of fake fiery leftism. You really don’t need to do much to trick the average Labour rank-and-filer. Generally, they actually *want* to be tricked. There are a lot of people in this country who prefer being lied to than having to confront reality.

    I think it would be really good to start planning some stuff for next year around the LP’s 100th anniversary. A kind of counter-celebration that this wretched outfit has lasted this long, and detailing its 100 years of treachery.

    Actually it called be called something like “Labour’s century of treachery”, with events around the country to provide a counter to their rewriting of history.


  3. Peter says:

    Excellent article, really highlights the hypocrisy and inherently vacuous nature of the modern Labour Party (not that the historical Labour Party was necessarily loads better, but it did seem to stand for something, namely social democratic stabilisation of the the capitalist system).

    I do dispute the notion that free trade/protectionism are irrelevant to radical change. I certainly have an internationalist view, in that the working class must unite across borders, rather than according to dubious national interests. That, however, is a long term project and the defence of hard-won gains in social reconstruction might be jeopardised by indulging in ‘free’ trade or borders open to the free movement of capital. Protectionism can be a legitimate argument; not on the basis of protecting national interests, but for defending class gains within a nation that might be threatened from external interests.

    • daphna says:

      For oppressed nations it makes sense to oppose imperialist trade agreements because they hinder the development and independence of those countries. But an imperialist country like New Zealand is independent and choses various forms of protectionist or liberal trade agreements to suit the capitalist class. I don’t see how protectionism in an imperialist country is progressive. And once we start arguing about protecting gains within a nation that invariably means shutting out workers from other countries.

  4. Admin says:


    Marx actually had a preference for free trade to protectionism, but only because it speeded up the end of capitalism.

    Protectionism today, in the imperialist world, is part of the ideology that keeps workers chained to their own exploiters.