The Labour Party and popular participation
The Labour Party and popular participation
By Ian Anderson
February 27, 2014
Mainstream media coverage in the lead-up to the General Election tends to focus on fluctuations in polling, most recently an apparent growth in support for National. Left-wing critics of mainstream electoral polling sometimes note that polling relies on landlines, while many poor & disenfranchised people do not have landlines.
That said, many of the same people least likely to have landlines are also least likely to participate in elections. Broadly speaking tangata whenua, young people, poor people,and recent migrants are the least likely to vote (and have landlines). This effectively means that low turnout is bad for the electoral 'left.'
The 2011 General Election saw the lowest voter turnout (by percentage) since the 19thcentury, when women first won the right to vote in this country. Voter turnout in general has declined over the last half-century.
Statistics New Zealand have surveyed non-voters' stated reasons for not voting. In 2011, 43% of non-voters felt disengaged from the whole process (“not interested,” “didn't think it was worth voting,” “makes no difference”), while 30% of non-voters cited perceived practical barriers (“overseas,” “couldn't get to a polling both”). The largest proportion were simply “not interested.”
For those of us who want to see a truly democratic society, one based on popular participation and self-determination, this all raises a question of strategy. Should we 'rebuild' the Labour Party? Should we weave together new organisations? Should we ignore elections entirely?
In 2013 during the contest for the Labour leadership, pro-Labour commentator Martyn Bradbury described the three major candidates as “to the right of Marx – just.” Winner David Cunliffe was particularly touted as representing a “true red” Labour Party. Now some see Cunliffe's appointment of Matt McCarten, former Unite Union General Secretary, as a confirmation of this move leftwards.
Matt McCarten has a formidable record. Aswell as playing key roles in the Alliance, the Maori Party and the MANA Movement – McCarten also helped build Unite Union into a fighting force that has waged successful campaigns to raise the minimum wage, end youth rates (a reform since snatched back), and militantly organise the growing casualised sectors that the established union movement had neglected.
Party leader Cunliffe's record is less flash. Cunliffe was a vocal advocate of public-private partnerships in the fifth Labour government. As Minister of Immigration, he oversaw the unjust detention of several Iranian men, fought through a hunger strike and protest campaign. Cunliffe did not oppose sending troops to Iraq or Afghtanistan.
So what does this pairing of Cunliffe and McCarten mean for the party? Is Cunliffe radicalising? Is McCarten moving right? What could it mean for a future government? John Key and others described McCarten's appointment as a lurch to the 'far-left.' As with accusations that Obama is a socialist, radical socialists can only respond 'f only.'
Pro-Labour commentator Chris Trotter has noted that as Chief of Staff, McCarten will not be mainly involved in formulating policy. Rather, McCarten will act as a “direct and unequivocal promoter of the party’s already agreed goals.”
Pro-Labour commentators argue McCarten's strength lies partly in his potential to forge unity behind a future Labour-led coalition government. Trotter notes:
“McCarten’s history with the Greens (once part of his old party, the Alliance), the Maori Party and Mana will be of enormous value to Labour should they find themselves in a position to forge a governing coalition.”
Martyn Bradbury also suggests McCarten could extend an olive branch to potential supporters of a Labour-led coalition:
“What Matt can do is reach across to other progressive parties and seriously discuss using MMP tactically so that the entire Left are united in fighting the Government come election day... If you are a MANA voter, vote MANA tactically. If you are a Green voter, vote Green tactically and if you are a Labour voter, vote Labour tactically.”
Fightback will back the MANA Movement in the upcoming General Elections. With a stated mission of bringing rangatiratanga to the poor and powerless, MANA represents the most progressive section of the working and oppressed majority. MANA maintains the link between indigenous sovereignty and the wider struggle for an egalitarian society.
MANA has not ruled out entering a government with the Labour Party. There is a spectrum of opinion within MANA on entering a government, whether through a coalition or confidence-and-supply agreement.
McCarten for a long time has advocated a strategy of pushing Labour leftwards. Whether this meant building organisations outside the Labour Party, or directly entering a Labour Party government, the orientation was always towards pressuring Labour, with no horizons beyond the two-party system. Taking a job as Chief of Staff within the Labour Party is a continuation of this strategy. This begs the question of whether pushing Labour left, from inside a government, is a viable strategy.
The Labour Party remains a pro-capitalist party. They have some mild differences with National over how to manage capitalism; more socially liberal, more experienced with the public sector, former union bureaucrats rather than former currency traders. However, big business remains the largest donor to Labour; cut the head off the hydra, and another will spring up in its place.
Both Labour and National governments presided over a three-decade decline in real wages. The Labour Party initiated this project of robbing the working majority; neoliberalism, or 'Rogernomics.' It's no wonder that poor, young and marginal people are simply not interested in voting.
Chris Trotter argues that “radical constitutional reforms” in the Labour Party over 2012 and 2013 will keep the party leadership honest. These reforms require new policies to fit with the party's long-established “Policy Platform.”
However, signs at the Labour Party conference in November 2013 were not promising. Moves for transparency on the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) were defeated. The Labour Party also maintains the policy of a $15/hr minimum wage, as a major flagship policy.
In 2009, Unite Union campaigned for a $15/hr minimum wage immediately. In 2009, a $15 minimum wage would have been a step forward for working people. However, inflation quickly wipes out short-term rises in wages. Real wages (wages adjusted for prices and inflation) have declined over the past 30 years.
Unite also demanded that the minimum wage be set to 2/3 of the average wage in future. The Campaign for a Living Wage, backed by the Service and Food Workers' Union, also argues for a living wage tied to 2/3 of the average wage. Labour has not taken up the policy of tying the minimum wage to the average wage.
Now, five years after Unite's campaign for a $15 minimum wage, the demand is a lot more conservative. With the minimum wage recently raised to $14.75/hr by the National government, a wage raise of 25 cents (without any tie to the average wage) would do nothing to reverse the trend of declining real wages. Politicians are often accused of over-promising and under-delivering, but even this promise is woefully inadequate.
Sue Bradford, of MANA and formerly the Greens, holds the record for most successful Private Members' Bills while outside a coalition government. Many of these necessary reforms, such as raising the minimum wage and abolishing youth rates, were backed by community movements. Workers can win the reforms we need, without entering government and sacrificing our independence.
A popular meme says that "if voting changed anything, they would make it illegal." This is a half-truth. Democracy is a product of struggle; including for example women's struggle for universal suffrage. When electoral work, combined with popular struggle, has challenged capitalism and imperialism - 'they' have done their best to make it illegal (Chile's coup in 1973, Venezuela's attempted coup in 2002). Elections can work as important sites of class struggle, but most of the time, the ruling class is winning.
Fightback has no illusions that socialism can simply be voted in. Our participation in capitalist elections is oppositional. Even when radicals such as MANA's Hone Harawira win seats, their role is to support the wider community movement, not to go into coalition with pro-capitalists.
We need transformative strategies, not strategies that simply reproduce the system that got us here. We need to weave together new organisations that can move beyond the existing political structure, from the scraps we currently have.
The Council of Trade Unions remains the largest formally democratic organisation in the country. Although the CTU is currently unwilling to take risks, unions of workers are a necessary part of forging the new movement we need.
Organisations of the people cannot rely on big business, or parliament. We need our own finances, our own democracy, our own structures organised in opposition to the capitalist system. Support for the Labour Party undermines the possibility of liberation for the working and oppressed majority.