The limitations of NZ electoral democracy and the need for a political alternative

Posted: March 21, 2016 by Admin in Alienation, Capitalist ideology, Class Matters, Community organising, Democracy movements, Economics, Internationalism, Political & economic power, Politics in general, Women's rights & women's liberation, Workers' rights

In New Zealand we can vote on the design of an imperialist flag but not whether NZ imperialism goes to war

by Philip Ferguson

The beginnings of democracy in this country lay in pre-conquest Maori society.  Without a systematic surplus-product large enough to create a privileged ruling class, living off an oppressed producing class, a key feature of Maori society was a rough egalitarianism.  It wasn’t a halcyon golden era of complete equality – indeed, life was often short and hard – but it was a rough equality based essentially on subsistence.  Without society being divided into classes where a ruling class expropriates political as well as economic power, there was also a level of decision-making more democratic than what existed in capitalist society before the working class wrested reforms from the ruling class.

When Britain took over these islands, using a combination of trickery (the Treaty of Waitangi) and coercion (warfare and repression), it did not produce forms of rule similar to what it did in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.  Rather, as a colonial-settler state, the most advanced forms of British capitalist society were established here.  An independent parliament and government were established very quickly, essentially in the 1850s, just a decade-and-a-half after the Treaty of Waitangi.

British bourgeois democracy 

British democracy was itself the product of centuries of struggle, going back to popular rebellions of the Middle Ages such as the Peasants’ Revolt, the English Civil War of the 1640s, in which the king’s head was removed from the king’s shoulders and a republic was established for 11 years (1649-1660), the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, in which the  second son of the headless king was removed and then the emergence in the early 1800s of a mass working class democratic movement (the Chartists).  In addition revolutions in what became the United States and also France toppled arbitrary rule and, especially in the French case, established ideas of liberty, equality and human solidarity.  These events, along with the Chartist movement, frightened the British ruling class into granting some democratic reforms, including around the franchise.

These democratic reforms were implanted in New Zealand with each shipload of colonists from Britain.  This country became a more-or-less complete bourgeois democracy with the granting of votes to women in 1893.

The working class and politics

While the working class had the vote it lacked its own political movement.  It largely voted for the Liberal Party, a capitalist political formation that sought to unite workers, small farmers and industrialists, subordinating the producing classes to the exploiting bourgeoisie  The enemy was seen as big landowners and other particularly parasitic layers of exploiters, rather than regular ‘good’ capitalist exploiters as a class.  In the early 1900s, with the power of the landed gentry largely eroded, the divisions between proletariat and bourgeoisie developed in society and the cross-class Liberal alliance began to break up.

A section of advanced workers were drawn to syndicalism as a militant working class response to conditions of exploitation, especially where the exploitation was most brutal and yet the workers performed tasks that gave them substantial potential clout – mining and other key industries and transport, for instance.  Small left-wing political groups also began to emerge, including elements of Marxism, anarchism and state capitalism (reformist ‘socialism’).  In 1913 the more militant industrial sections were defeated in the biggest industrial dispute in this country’s history.

Nevertheless there was significant political opposition in this country to the first great imperialist world conflagration (World War 1).  The Reform-Liberal coalition government imposed strict censorship, imprisoned dissidents and clamped down on the working class.

The result of the 1913 defeat of militant workers and then the entry into World War 1 was that a sizable section of syndicalists moved away from syndicalism and towards parliamentary politics, merging with more conservative ‘socialist’ (ie state capitalist) elements to form the Labour Party in 1916.  While this party’s early rhetoric reflected to some extent the background of its formerly syndicalist elements, the party as a whole quickly evolved rightwards with its focus being on winning a parliamentary majority and forming a government which would manage capitalism more effectively (and, supposedly, humanely) than the traditional capitalist parties.  This project depended on the defeat of forces to its left.  As remaining militant working class forces were defeated in the early 1920s and afterwards, the thoroughly safe Labour Party was able to spread its tentacles more widely across the working class.

Labour sucks in and batters the working class

In 1935, as the Great Depression was actually ending, Labour swept into power, overtaking both the Reform party and the United party (the name the Liberals took in the late 1920s).  Reform and United then merged to form the National Party.  (Leftists often forget the Liberals’ input into National, an input which goes some way to explaining why the National Party was somewhat different from parties like the British Conservatives and contained a strand that was more socially liberal than much of the Labour Party.  Thus, for instance, while Labour maintained and defended an upper house, National abolished it!  Its thanks to National that we have a single-house parliament rather than a lower and upper house.)

During the Second World War, Labour clamped down on pacifists and leftists, imposing rigid censorship, imprisoning political opponents and making workers make sacrifices for the bosses’ imperialist war and profits (and profiteering).  In other words, they did what Reform and the Liberals did in World War 1.   Indeed, they went one better – one of the last actions of the first Labour government was to impose peacetime conscription on the country.

As depression and world war gave way to the postwar economic boom, from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, there was a political consensus on the welfare state.  Both National and Labour pursued Keynesian economic policies and maintained a welfare state that was very effective in reproducing healthy labour-power for the capitalist economy.  Indeed, the similarities in fundamental politics between National and Labour meant that, even in the narrow terms of capitalist parliamentary democracy, people were not offered much choice.   Whether you voted for National or Labour what you got was pretty much the same.  This lack of democracy was, however, disguised by the economic boom.  Most people were becoming better off and so they tended to feel grateful and participated in the parliamentary circus, joining in the pretence that it mattered which of NZ Capitalism Ltd’s sibling political offsprings – Labour or National – were in power.

The impact of the end of the postwar boom 

As capitalism’s inherent tendency to crisis brought the long postwar boom to an end and ushered in a new era of recession, short partial recovery, more recession, more partial recovery, more recession and on and on over the past 40-odd years, voter participation went into decline.

Consensus politics continued but now it wasn’t around the promise of better lives which had been possible during the long boom but consensus around lowered horizons in which workers were expected to work harder, faster and longer for stagnant or even worsening living standards, while members of the ruling class continued amassing fortunes of far more money than they could ever spend.  And while capitalist firms made substantial profits which they refused to reinvest in expanding production, hiring more workers and paying them more.

In 1984, the incoming fourth Labour government unleashed the biggest attack on the rights and living standards of the working class since the Great Depression.  People who had voted to end the bullish social conservatism personified by Robert Muldoon, the National Party prime minister from 1975-84, found they were saddled with something worse: a socially more liberal but economically far more right-wing Labour government.  National then moved slightly further left, opposing some of Labour’s most extreme right-wing eocnomic reforms; they also promised to restore the supposedly ‘decent society’ whose fabric had been torn apart by Labour.  However, when Labour was routed in 1990, and National swept back into power, they continued and even deepened Labour’s assault on the working class.

The result of this period of assault on the working class – 1984-93 – was splits in Labour and National by the sections of those parties which supported Keynesian economics and the politics of the postwar consensus.  Namely, the NewLabour Party (and the NLP-led Alliance Party) and New Zealand First.  Significant sections of support sapped away from National and Labour to these parties.  In 1993, they won over 27% of the vote.


The other thing that happened was the growth of opposition to the FPP (First Past the Post) electoral system which delivered policies that most people did not vote for.  Proportional Representation, in the form of Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), won substantial support and passed in a referendum in 1993, with 1996 becoming the first election run under MMP.

MMP has certainly led to a more diverse parliament in terms of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation.  But it has not led to more diverse politics.  Quite the contrary – all the parties revolve around the centre, a very crowded centre.  Indeed, New Zealand is an exceptional example of what social critic and writer Tariq Ali has dubbed ‘the tyranny of the centre’.  In New Zealand today, the centre is like a huge magnet which draws everything – certainly political parties – towards itself.  But whereas magnets are metallic, the centre in New Zealand is a great mushy, marshy wasteland.  A cemetery for souls, and certainly for strongly-held beliefs and basic principles, whether of a left or right persuasion.

Tyranny of the empty centre

Why is this mushy, principle-free centre so dominant?

There are a number of inter-related factors but the key one, surely, is the material exhaustion of capitalism and its peculiar twin, the lack of belief in an alternative to capitalism.  Today, capitalism survives not because of its own strength or dynamism – it has clearly shown itself incapable of delivering another massive, sustained boom period comparable to the long post-WW2 economic expansion – but because there doesn’t appear to be an alternative.

Political parties are all about managing the system – or, more specifically, managing the malaise.  There’s not much room for difference when the system they are dedicated to is so limited in terms of what it can possibly deliver.  Even most of the ostensibly anti-capitalist left joins in the limiting of political choice and options – the way the left has adopted classical economic nationalist positions around the TPPA is the most striking recent example.  They don’t even seem much bothered that they’re making the same arguments as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, albeit from NZ nationalist ideology while Clinton and Trump make them from US nationalist perspectives.

There is now a whole generation – in fact, we’re into the early years of the second generation – that has grown up in this situation.  So it’s no wonder that 57% of non-voters are under 35.  Moreover, most under-35s who are politically active have internalised the low horizons attendant on the long malaise of the economic system.  So, as noted above, they simply choose the ‘lesser evil’ of capitalist options rather than adopting truly anti-capitalist perspectives.

What’s left? 

Indeed, scratch most of today’s NZ ‘anti-capitalists’ and you’ll find they are no such thing.  A quick scratch will reveal that they are economic and political nationalists rather than internationalists (again, the TPPA protests have revealed this particularly sharply), that they want a Labour-led government rather than wanting to fight and expose Labour as a key capitalist institution, that they take up populist issues rather than the long, hard slog of dealing with questions the working class has to get right if it is ever to act as an independent political force.

Indeed, much of the left is so preoccupied upholding one capitalist option against another capitalist option that they think the ruling elite are happy enough with low voter turnout and the road forward involves getting more people, especially young people, taking part in the parliamentary circus.  The reality, however, is that the ruling class in this country view low voter turn out as a problem and put considerable effort into getting more people enrolled and more people voting.

I’ve been around for a fairly long time and I certainly can’t recall being confronted, cajoled, guilt-tripped etc by so many exhortations to vote than in the 2014 election (after the low turnout of 2011).  You couldn’t turn on state-owned TV1 and TV2 or privately-owned TV3 without being told to enrol and vote.  You couldn’t walk down a central city seat without being exhorted to vote.  Even Lorde and Tiki Taane were telling us we must vote.

Don’t be a compliant prisoner

But vote for what?  In these circumstances, British comedian Russell Brand was right: voting was merely “an act of compliance” in which the voter acts “like an obedient little prisoner”.

In New Zealand, one of the very best critiques of voting these days was made by Richard Jackson, a senior academic and deputy-head of Otago University’s National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.  Jackson argued, essentially, that voting in 2014 could only serve to hinder rather than help genuine, meaningful political debate and social change.  It is worth summarising the arguments he made during a debate in which he and Otago politics lecturer Bryce Edwards took on two Labour hacks.

Voting, said Jackson, in NZ parliamentary elections is “no longer fit for purpose”; it simply can’t generate the kind of profound changes we need.  Indeed, he suggested, electoral politics “has largely lost its democratic content”.  The most important reason for this, he said, is that all significant parties accept the economic status quo.  While he, mistakenly in my view, called this status quo “neo-liberalism”, I’d call it simply capitalism.  Another point he made, and it’s an absolutely crucial one, is that it isn’t parliament which rules anyway – it’s capital.  This is a fundamental point that the ostensibly Marxist left often states in articles but largely ignores in practice.

In the debate with the Labour apologists for capitalism, Jackson suggested “voting is bad for you” for a number of reasons:

  • It legitimises the status quo and “will function to reinforce the current status quo”, something which is actually harmful
  • You can’t even signal which issues you are voting on
  • Voting assimilates and pacifies citizens
  • Voting in parliamentary elections is disempowering because it is antithetical to real democracy, which is about people exercising autonomy and control over their own lives and communities
  • It creates atomised subjects – we vote on the basis of individual self-interest
  • It substitutes the form of democracy for the substance of democracy

I think Jackson was spot on with all these points and, while he isn’t a Marxist, is clearer, in practice, on these questions that most of our ostensibly Marxist friends.

What about voting and protest building?

Some radicals will, of course, say, “Well vote and build movements that challenge the system.”  I  think, however, we now have more than enough experience of how ‘radical’ parties adapt to the status quo to realise that these two activities are more often contradictory than complementary.  You see, voting helps establish and reinforce the notion that the possibilities for society, for humanity, are very limited.

In the last election, most of the organised Marxist left tagged along behind Mana and Mana tagged along with pirate capitalist Kim Dotcom and behind Labour.  Mana’s horizon was to be part of a Labour-led government – ie a capitalist government.  So the electoral process in 2014, certainly in terms of options, reinforced low horizons.  It reinforced a general atmosphere in which it is harder, not easier, to develop mass radical movements outside parliament not simply demanding radical change but actually bringing it about through developing alternatives to the essentially anti-democratic institution of capitalist parliaments, ie parliaments that manage the affairs of capitalism and, of necessity, exclude the fundamental interests of the working class.

A serious alternative

So there is an alternative after all.  It involves regrouping opponents of capitalism around the goal of building a new left, a left centred in the working class (both blue- and white-collar) and strategically oriented towards building the kind of alternative institutions that the mass of humanity needs if we are to achieve a truly worthwhile goal: a world of freedom and material abundance.

These alternative institutions are radical workplace and community organisations, organisations that fight for what workers need rather than what capitalism and its political managers, like the Labour Party, find acceptable.  They’re class-based movements of the oppressed sections of society, such as a working class women’s movement.  And they are part and parcel of, or certainly cosely linked to, the primary formal political organisation of the working class – a revolutionary workers’ party – that seeks to educate, agitate and organise across the class as a whole, encourages the formation of workplace and community organisations and then leads these bodies to take power.  Power that replaces the limited, superficial democracy of capitalism with genuine mass democracy.  Power that replaces capitalist social relations with real relations between people, based on human solidarity and producing what people need rather than the alienated production of profits for a tiny minority at the expense of humanity, as is the case under capitalism.

A future article will look at the limitations of – and on – democracy in NZ in other realms.


  1. Barrie says:

    It really isn’t logical for people to expect fundamental change when the only role the public are given is to choose which manager of the current system they prefer. Meanwhile, altering the real power of who controls the economy remains off limits and always will. Why keep playing a game which answers the wrong questions?

    • Phil F says:


      We have to move beyond this.

      I also think this is true of the kind of campaigning most of the left does. It isn’t anti-capitalist; it’s all within a thoroughly capitalist paradigm. Most of the left has done this for a long, long time and not engaged in serious critical reflection about it, even though you might think that the present parlous state ofthe left should call for a great deal of critical reflection.

      I spent years doing the same politics, but eventually reality confronted me – in Britain and Ireland, actually – and I had to rethink what had been my political outlook in my teens and twenties. The SAL, and me as part of it, had gotten it wrong. Very wrong. (Although the SAL did teach me a couple of things that were dead right – that NZ is imperialist and so NZ nationalism is reactionary, through and through, including economic nationalism; and the priority of political questions over a few bucks more in the pay packet.)

      But for most leftists, going round and round in ever-diminishing circles has the perverse effect of making them cling to their mistaken politics ever more tightly. It’s like a comfort blanket.

      This is a reason I have become more and more convinced we need a whole new left. People who have been around for decades without ever doing any critical reflection or admitting any mistakes are simply not the human material out of which a revolutionary movement can be built.

      They’re the human material out of which ‘feel good’ therapy/support circles and liberal single-issue campaigns are created and not much more.

      Phil F

  2. Barrie says:

    Agreed, self-reflection is vital. I suspect a lot of the ostensible left in their heart of hearts just don’t really believe their own politics will succeed and become self-sabotaging by their choice of what they do. Among the younger generation this often takes the form of ‘activism’. This looks really busy and makes you feel like you’re doing something but results in burning out, selling out and/or getting used as foot troops by liberals or Greenies who end up taking the cream. Among older ones I sense they become ‘sensible’ and accept that a few reforms here and there might just be all that’s possible.

    The mistake is expecting to get an I.O.U. when you embark on involvement in politics. As if the only reason for doing it is NOT that a viewpoint/theory (which should underpin any subsequent activism) makes sense to you, but that the end vision must somehow be achievable right now, soon or at least in your own lifetime. Unfortunately it just doesn’t work that way. Sure, its nice to get successes along the way, nobody wants to feel they’ve joined a completely hopeless cause. However, it makes more sense to me to do the right thing in the right way for the right reason regardless of the outcome or cheap IOU of success in the short term. In the longer term, its the only outlook that is more likely (again, no guarantees im afraid) bring the deeper change required. But hey, I’m an extremist, what would I know?!

  3. vomitingdiamonds says:

    I like the ‘the tyranny of the centre’ analysis – it really needs to be made in NZ. Also the points about the banal, mushy politics. Out of interest, can you please provide a link to the discussion between Richard Jackson and Edwards vs Labour Party people? Was it online or on TV or something? I missed it and would like to read it. Thx

  4. Admin says:

    It was organised by the National Centre that Richard Jackson is deputy-director of at Otago. If you go to the following url which has their podcasts, scroll down to July 2014 and it’s there:

    Richard and Bryce’s presentations were both really good.

    Phil F