by Phil Duncan
The latest Colmar Brunton poll, taken in the first week of this month and issued earlier this week, shows yet another fall in support for Labour, now down to just 26%, with National steady on 48% and the Greens and NZ First rising to 13% and 11% respectively. Given that National is now almost two-thirds of the way through its third term, one might expect the shine to have gone off the Key-led government and Labour to be ahead in the polls instead of so far behind. Moreover, Andrew Little is the fourth Labour leader since the party, then led by Helen Clark, lost the 2008 election. Plus, it’s not as if there aren’t some serious issues which National has been very clearly unable to get sorted – in particular rising house prices, especially in Auckland.
So why can’t Labour get traction? Is the Labour Party in terminal decline? Should serious leftists be at all concerned?
At the heart of Labour’s electoral woes is the fact that the NZ ruling class likes to have two large parties to do its bidding. Around them are clustered lesser parties that will enable moderate multi-party governments to be formed, thus guaranteeing political stability. These are the best political conditions for the capitalist class – they can go about the business of exploiting the working class without having to worry about social, economic and political conflict disturbing the peace.
The two main parties of the capitalist class are, of course, Labour and National.
Capital’s two main horses
When National is exhausted, the ruling class as a whole – a bigger group than simply the capitalists – swing behind Labour and when Labour is exhausted the ruling class swing behind National. Labour’s most immediate problem is that National is far from exhausted. The size of their recent election victories has meant they have been continually reinvigorated with new MPs. Their alliance with the Maori Party has extended their reach into Maoridom. On top of this, the National Party embraced ‘diversity’ some years ago. They began to understand that to be the ‘natural party of government’ in 21st century Aotearoa they needed to move well beyond their old support base. Thus National now has more Maori MPs than Labour, a situation almost unimaginable a few decades ago; they have Asian MPs; they have assiduously promoted women MPs; and they even have out gay MPs.
In the last election, they also garnered more blue-collar working class votes than Labour.
The simple fact is that, over the past decade, National has become more representative of the wider New Zealand population, most particularly in its support base, than Labour. This is nowhere clearer than if you look at the number of classically Labour seats in which National now holds the party vote – and that’s on top of the several traditionally working class Labour seats that National has captured, such as Christchurch Central.
In terms of its social composition, Labour is now the party of the liberal professional middle class and a section of Pacific Island working class voters in a few places such as South Auckland. Look at the Labour Party list and you’ll see professional middle class person after professional middle class person – academics, lawyers, managers – where once there was trade union official after trade union official. And, if anything, these people are bigger snobs than many of the business people in the National Party.
Moreover, on a string of issues Labour is clearly to the right of National. Labour is more racist than National, especially when it comes to Asians and Asian immigration, they are to the right of National on social welfare and they are to the right of National on the retirement age. Because their links to elements in the trade union movement are one of the few remaining connections to anything even vaguely working class, Labour tends to be very marginally to the left of National on issues to do with limited union power – so they favour right-of-entry legislation for union organisers.
However, even in terms of “union issues” they are barely to the left of National. After all, National MPs voted for the legislation to “end” zero-hours contracts – I say “end” because, typically of bills introduced by Labour, it didn’t really do what it purported to do. (Unfortunately, some people on the left who really should know better talked up the reform of zero-hours contracts as a big win, when these contracts have not actually been abolished.) Moreover, Labour is opposed to workers’ right to withdraw our labour, whether over immediate economic issues or wider political concerns, and have indicated they are unlikely to repeal National’s 30-day legislation.
Labour’s years of attacks on the working class and their years of activity trying to smother any sign of self-activity on the part of the class – not to mention their general strategy of lowering the horizons of workers to get us to accept the very limited goods on offer these days by clapped-out capitalism – have come back to bite their arse.
For a new workers’ movement
Today, much of the working class rightly sense that parliamentary politics does not represent their interests. They simply don’t waste their time voting. This is especially true of Maori workers and even more so of Maori youth – a big majority, maybe 4 in 5, of young Maori (overwhelmingly working class) decided not to vote in 2014.
While these workers haven’t advanced beyond abstaining from the circus to realising that they need to build their own movement rather than leave it up to some bunch of middle class chancers to (mis)represent them, not being part of the circus is a small step forward.
Other workers vote NZ First, which is a kind of Old Labour (even Winston’s anti-Asian politics are very much traditional Labour) and National. A section of young workers probably vote Green.
The decline of the Labour Party, an institution of the ruling class for the suffocation of working class self-activity and the house-training of all movements for progressive social change, is to be welcomed by everyone who wants to see the working class advance its own interests. The decline may well be terminal. But that does not, unfortunately, mean a quick death. Labour plays such a valuable role for the ruling class, it is unlikely that the ruling class will simply let Labour die. They will get some kind of lifeline.
So, while we can celebrate the ongoing decline of this wretched party of pro-capitalist hacks, the thing that will finally kill it off will be the advance of the working class on the economic, social and political fronts. As we have said again and again on this blog, what we really need is a new movement – a movement of workers, by workers, for workers.
A movement that is equally opposed to all the political parties and institutions of the ruling class.
A movement that aims to put capitalism out of its misery, along with the whole set of alien institutions it imposes on our class.
A movement that aims for nothing less than the liberation of humanity.
Further reading: Redline on the Labour Party