NZ Labour not dead

Submitted by AWL on 21 September, 2005 - 11:08

I’m not sure that Mike Kyriazopoulos was right when he wrote (Solidarity 3/79) that “from a working-class point of view, there remains nothing to choose between Labour and the opposition National Party” in New Zealand.

He is right that the NZ Labour Party is thoroughly pro-capitalist. In government it has continued the free-marketist policies of the 1984-90 Labour and 1990s National Party governments, with only marginal concessions.

However, many worker-based parties throughout the world have had pro-capitalist leaderships and, in office, carried out pro-capitalist policies, while still being something different in structure and base from the straight bourgeois parties. That has been true even of the Workers’ Party in Brazil - which was a democratic and radical party only a few years ago - and has been true of the British Labour Party ever since its foundation over 100 years ago.

The New Zealand Labour Party has similar origins to the British Labour Party. In the 1980s it looked as if it was transforming itself qualitatively.

The 1984-90 Labour government of David Lange and Roger Douglas (while banning nuclear-armed ships from NZ ports, and withdrawing from the ANZUS military alliance) pushed through drastic privatisation, deregulation, marketisation, and welfare cuts.

Several unions disaffiliated, and a large chunk of Labour activists split off to form a “New” (then meaning, more worker-oriented) Labour Party.

Since then, however, the New Labour Party has disappeared. It merged into a party called the Alliance, and the Alliance has bit-by-bit dwindled into a tiny soft-left group which won just 0.7% of the vote in NZ’s 17 September general election.

The Labour Party, without ceasing to be pro-capitalist, has openly disavowed the Lange-Douglas record and tried to rebuild its base. Facing no adequate working-class political alternative, it may have done that. It may have carried out an operation similar to that done by the French Socialist Party and the German Social Democratic Party in the early 1970s: a “bourgeois workers’ party” moving very far away from its working-class base, but then, in the absence of an adequate active alternative, partially reconnecting.

(There is a lesson here for Marxists in Britain. Even though there are no signs of it at present, it is not ruled out that (after Blair and Brown, maybe) “New Labour” could do an about-turn and partially rebuild its connections with the working class. But such a development might testify more to the weakness and failure of the genuine left than to our success. The Marxist policy is not to strive towards “New Labour” becoming more like “old Labour”, but to maximise the contradictions in “New Labour”).

In NZ, the disaffiliated unions have not reaffiliated, but the Labour Party still has unions affiliated to it - the EPMU (NZ’s biggest union), the Service and Food Workers’ Union, and the Dairy Workers’ Union (DWU).

According to the co-thinkers of Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party, always eager to see social-democracy as already dead and “new mass workers’ parties” as sprouting: “In NZ there appears to be no immediate prospect of left-wing trade unions transferring their political allegiances elsewhere [than Labour]”.

New Zealand’s Council of Trade Unions - a shadow of its former self, with only 300,000 affiliated trade unionists, but still the country’s trade-union centre - is clearly aligned with Labour. “The CTU is proud to have led a successful union movement campaign in the most important election in our generation”, said CTU president Ross Wilson after the poll.

"Union volunteer activists have been working for months to enrol workers and to inform them of the issues in this vital election.

"There is no doubt that the high worker turnout in city seats, particularly South Auckland, has won the election for the centre-left."

In 1999 Labour - then in coalition with the Alliance - repealed NZ’s anti-union laws, passed by a National Party government in 1991 (though it retained many anti-strike provisions). The National Party came to the general election with a clearly harder-edged right-wing policy than Labour’s.

Even if NZ Labour were much more left-wing, and had much stronger trade-union roots, that would not rule out Marxists running against it in elections, as the NZ Anti-Capitalist Alliance did. However, the ACA’s politics (mostly slightly-reconstructed Maoist) and base (0.2% of the vote in the general election) mean it is still a long way off being the start of a real class-struggle workers’ party.

Martin Thomas, Islington

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