paula-bennett-and-bill-english-nzh-and-gettyby Phil Duncan

We are only in the early days of the English-Bennett government, but it still feels we are living under the Key-English government.  Nothing has changed and nor is there likely to be dramatic change.  When Key and National won the 2008 election we were among the very, very few people on the left to make a correct assessment of the incoming regime.

While most of the left continued their pre-election scaremongering that Key was some kind of ideologically-committed new right politician who would pick up where Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson left off, we pointed to the fact that NZ capitalism needed more ‘new right’ economics like it needed a hole in the head, that the Key-English government would be a middle-of-the-road one, and that most of the left were making themselves look both stupid and hysterical with their idiotic denunciations of Key.

As the first term of Key-English drew to a close, with nary a ‘new right’ policy in sight, the crank elements of the left shifted gear and said Key was just trying to lull us all and the attacks would come in the second Key term.  Well, the second Key term came and went too, with nary a glimpse of ‘new right’ economic policy in sight.  For some, the penny began to drop.  Part-way through the third term of Key-English,  Mike Treen, something of a weathervane in terms of the wider non-contemplative left, did actually admit that Key was far from the new right devil he had been painted as.  In fact, as Mike pointed out, some of Key’s policies – borrow and spend during recession – were far more Keynesian than ‘new right’.

Bourgeois economists and political commentators, so often a few steps ahead of ‘the left’, had already noted years before that Key was a highly pragmatic, middle-of-the-road politician.

We, meanwhile, had not only noted that Key-English were not ‘new right’, but that that whole era in NZ had climaxed and petered out years and years ago.  And, as Marxists, we didn’t merely describe – we explained why.

While much of the left has, belatedly, come round to our view, the miserabilism and petty-sectarianism which dominates so much of their behaviour has prevented any of these folks from noting that we got it right or trying to find out why (we applied Marxism, instead of anti-National kneejerkism).  However, at least, the egg on their faces over Key has meant they have been a lot less hysterical in denouncing the English-Bennett regime that has succeeded Key-English.

English-Bennett to continue broad strokes of Key-English 

English has indicated that the broad strokes of Key-era government economic policy will continue.  And, reflecting the fact that National is an urban liberal party, English has even changed his views on gay marriage.  While he still seems more at home at a sheep-shearing contest than at the Big Gay Out, English now says that if the parliamentary vote on gay marriage vote was being held today, he’d vote in favour.

Meanwhile, to return to economic policy, New Zealand capitalism remains in a fairly weak state.  It is dependent on dairying and tourism and the state of the Chinese economy.  The saving graces for NZ capitalism are connected to the small size of this country.  Because NZ capitalism only needs a certain level of GDP, employment etc to maintain stability, it can achieve these through finding niches in the global economy; there will always be just enough people abroad who want dairy products, there will always be enough people with enough money to come as tourists to NZ and even a notable decline in the Chinese economy won’t shut off their desire for milk and tourism products from here.  While the basis of the NZ economy is quite narrow, this is an imperialist country getting good prices for its exports, not a poor Third World country struggling to get by on low export prices and super-exploitation by the First World.

This, then, is the context for the English-Bennett government.  A weak economy but one that can still get by at enough of a level to keep enough people happy enough not to make trouble.  Although Bennett couldn’t be described by any stretch of the imagination as one of the sharper knives in the drawer – she seems to be more one of National’s affirmative action promotions  – she and English, and most certainly English and the other key players, are well aware that with budget surpluses predicted for the next decade, they can easily afford to bestow some of the largesse on the working class.

Key-English raised social welfare benefits for the first time in 43 years, passed legislation which substantially cut away at zero-hours contracts, and kept the retirement age at 65 – all things which put them well to the left of Labour.  National has also consistently raised the minimum wage.  Blue-collar workers understood all this and voted for National in larger numbers than they voted for Labour  in 2014.  Such workers simply didn’t share the continuing illusions chunks of the left have in Labour nor the widespread left prejudices about National.  Even if only at a fairly visceral level, many workers understand that Labour is not some kind of workers party that stands to the left of National.  Indeed, Labour and National are the sibling parties of the NZ ruling class.

Some stamp of his own

Following on from Key-English, the new English-Bennett government are likely to continue raising the minimum wage.  They may even raise benefits or introduce some other measures to put more money in the pockets of the poorest sections of society.  It also seems that they will maintain the current retirement age, despite pressure from Treasury, the Retirement Commissioner and various right-wing pundits now that Key has left the prime ministership and will soon be leaving parliament altogether.*

Moreover, English will want to put some sort of stamp of his own on NZ politics, especially after the humiliating drubbing he took as leader of the National Party in the 2002 election.  English has always been on the ‘wet’ end of the National Party in terms of economic policy, so it will be interesting to see what money he throws at the electorate, including the poorest sections of NZ society, in the first budget of his prime ministership.  Especially given that he quite a bit of money to play around with now.  Plus it’s an election year.

Thus in his first statement upon becoming leader, English declared, “This will be a Government supporting economic growth and ensuring the benefits of growth are widely shared.”  He even included trade unions as one of the groups his government would support to achieve “a better job of changing lives”.  Moreover, in relation to beneficiaries: “we will support those who are dependent on Government income. We won’t put them in a worse position, we will work to get them in a better position.”

In short then, expect the economic policies of the Key-English era to continue, with English even being keen to do a bit more redistribution than Key.

Further reading: Key and After Key

* Shortly after this article went up English announced that the retirement age would be raised to 67, but not until. . . . 2040.  So no immediate raise, but one a generation away!  Moreover, his main coalition partners, United Future and the Maori Party, are against raising the retirement age, so English indicated that he may change his mind!  Since he also may need NZ First after this September’s election, and Winston Peters has always been firmly against raising the retirement age, this policy may go by the board.  It looks more like a rather weak attempt to differentiate himself from Key, especially in a situation where a bunch of disgusting liberal journalists, along with the well-heeled Retirement Commissioner and the Treasury bureaucrats, have been pushing on the issue since Key resigned.  So, no immediate or short-term change in the retirement age and 23 years in which the next generations can campaign against any increase.  Meanwhile it is a telling indication of the clapped-out nature of capitalism that, a century after the 40-hour week, capitalism now apparently can’t survive without lengthening our working time.

Check out how the problem is not an ageing population, but capitalism itself.

  1. Alan Scott says:

    Is this Marxist support for the capitalist Nationalist Government?!? What kind of sad sick fantasyland has NZ become when blue-collar workers see it as in their best interests to vote National!! Pick the odd one out here: Roger Douglas, Ruth Richardson, John Key, Bill English. Surprise! John Key was a closet Marxist! Come out, John, come out! BTW, I think you overlooked “foreign investment” as a key foundation of NZ capitalism. But at least you’re calling it what it is, and not “the NZ economy”.

    • Phil says:

      Obviously, we’re *equally* opposed to National and Labour. A big problem is that a lot of the left is essentially anti-National Party rather than anti-capitalist. So we get a lot of super-demonisation of National that simply creates confusion and, wittingly or unwittingly, suggests Labour is better. They are two cheeks of the same rear end. Because of the auto-Labourism of a lot of the left we end up having to spend a chunk of time pointing out that National is no worse than Labour (and Labour is no better than National).

      A further big problem – in fact it is perhaps the biggest problem of all right now – is that the working class has no political voice. Instead they vote for one or other parties of the ruling class. We have consistently pointed out that what is needed is a new political movement: one of, for and by workers.

      Debating who should be in government is 2017 is a distraction. There is no point in replacing National with Labour anymore than there is any point in replacing Labour with National. What serious anti-capitalists need to be discussing is how we contribute to the revival of working class consciousness – preferably a new, and higher, consciousness than last time round – and resistance.

  2. Alan Scott says:

    OK, I got it. You are the real Left – and the “left” is starting to wake up to the fact that the Labour Party is no kind of alternative. Sad to say, the last time they even vaguely looked like one was in 1972 when Norm Kirk was leader. How long ago is that? Nearly 50 years! So what are you going to do? Here’s a thought. get behind this group and try to form a party that gets back to the spirit of ’35:

  3. Mike Treen says:

    Hi Phil,

    Is being a “weathervane in terms of the wider non-contemplative left” a good or a bad thing? Not sure what it means. Just wondering…


  4. Admin says:

    Mike, you might have noticed that we gave you credit back when you came out and said that the Key-English government wasn’t neoliberal – in fact, that they were very NON-neoliberal. Unlike the curmudgeonly left, we’re happy to give credit where it is due.

    For ourselves, we had noted right from the start – right from the formation of that government – that they were not and would not be neoliberal and we explained why. Needless to say, we never got any credit for being right on that – or about a bunch of other things. The self-styled non-sectarian left in this country is extremely mean-spirited. They want to spin their fantasies and when anyone tries to make a calm, clinical, rational analysis, they really don’t like it at all. In fact, they can get quite petty and nasty about it. And when the calm, clinical, Marxist analysis is proven correct, the last thing they are going to do is own up and give us some credit.

    Part of the problem is the lack of critical reflection on the left. And part of it is hostility to using the tools provided by Marxism, rather than just tagging along behind anything that moves.

    We come from the same political beginnings, in the sense of the FI, but my feeling is often that you don’t really reflect very critically on the SAL experience at all. You reflect on the insanity that overcome the SAL at the end, because you were on the receiving end of the nonsense. But I often think you seem to think it was all fine until the late 1980s. In my view, the SAL was wrong on key issues like the Labour Party, the new social movements and Maori self-determination – completely wrong. This led to them making all kinds of disorienting, opportunist errors and left the outfit totally unprepared for the Fourth Labour Government. Less mindless obeisance to the US SWP, less reading of Pathfinder Press titles and more core Marx might have allowed them to understand the state of capital accumulation in NZ and thus what Labour would do if it got into power in 1984. Reading old copies of ‘Socialist Action’ from that year, and what they were saying about Labour, is excruciating. Instead of warning workers about what was to come, they promoted all kinds of illusions in Labour. But it was mainly them that fell victim to their own illusions, as they simply couldn’t deal with the reality of that government and began to decline, until today they are a sad, mini-cult.

    An example of how you act as a weathervane in *not critically reflecting* is things like your position that the left should welcome Matt McCarten going to work for the Labour Party. This struck me as extraordinary at the time. Matt played a progressive role as a militant union leader and now he was going to end that to become a flunkey for a rotten capitalist party. How was that good for the left? When leftists join the NZLP, they *never* – never, never, never – change it; it always changes them. And, sure enough, Matt soon became the enforcer for Labour’s racist dog-whistle campaign about people with “Chinese-sounding surnames”. He was the one assigned to keep the MPs and Labour Youth in line. When I expressed surprise to a political commentator that Matt was prepared to do this, the person laughed and said, “Sure, Matt probably came up with the idea”.

    If I am doing you a disservice and you have thought more deeply about Matt leaving Unite and joining Labour, and reversed your earlier position, let me know. I would be delighted if that had happened. But a lot of the time, I feel you just sail along, not thinking critically about left practice and left theory at all. The fact that you concluded Key-English were very much non-neoliberal was a very welcome exception.

    There was no malice in my “weathervane” comment – I take it as being just the way things are. That the lack of left critical reflection is what we’re stuck with and we need a new left culture in this country. At some point in the not-too-distant future I intend to write something about how we need a living Marxism and a new left here.

    My piece on Che’s little book also deals with some of the problems, problems which Che noted well over 50 years ago dogged the ostensibly Marxist left in the Americas (and in the whole imperialist world).