Coronavirus

Can Labour Really Govern For All?

Can Labour Really Govern For All?

By Elliot Crossan

“We will be a party that governs for every New Zealander!”

This was Jacinda Ardern’s triumphant declaration on the night she was reelected Prime Minister, with a landslide so huge that she has become New Zealand’s first leader to win an outright majority under our proportional representation system, whilst Labour became the first party to win over 50% of the vote since 1951 — the first time Labour themselves have done so since 1946. It was certainly a night to celebrate for Ardern and her supporters.

She has been well rewarded for her swift and decisive leadership in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, and working class New Zealanders are justifiably proud that we came together, as few other countries have, and successfully stopped the spread of the virus within our island nation.

The vote share won by the centre-left bloc (Labour, the Greens and the Māori Party) in the 2020 general election is unprecedented since Aotearoa introduced MMP in 1996. Data from the Electoral Commission.

This election result stands in stark contrast to the chaos unfurling in the United States, where racist right-wing President Donald Trump has failed utterly to deal with the virus, instead prioritising the needs of the economy over people’s lives while encouraging anti-lockdown and anti-mask sentiments amongst his fanatical supporters. Nearly a quarter of a million Americans have died, and the closeness of the election result indicates both a more polarised nation than at any time since the 1960s, and a complete failure by the corporate-backed Democratic elite to resist Trumpism.

But with historic levels of support among both workers and the middle class, can Ardern truly live up to her stated ambition of “governing for all”?

A Question of Class

The Covid-19 crisis was a fairly unique issue on which the medium-to-long-term interests of the capitalist class aligned with the short-term interests of the workers. Some of the business community did prefer the right-wing response of trying to keep the economy as “open” as possible, as advocated by National Party leader at the time Simon Bridges, and as seen in countries such as the US, UK and Ireland, which have conservative governments and have been ravaged by the virus as a result. However, Ardern’s approach, summarised in the slogan “go hard, go early, stamp it out,” was actually the most intelligent and effective strategy for properly reopening the economy and returning to “normal” as quickly as possible — and, crucially, not having to then retreat again six months later. Smarter business leaders saw what Ardern was attempting to do and supported her, and are now being rewarded by a much less harsh economic crisis than other OECD countries are experiencing.

However, the Covid-19 crisis also created other issues of contention where Labour had to make snap decisions on the basis of class. Ardern and her Finance Minister Grant Robertson — now elevated to the position of Deputy Prime Minister thanks to the crushing defeat of Labour’s former coalition partner, racist minor party New Zealand First, who can no longer be used as Ardern’s excuse for inaction on social issues — acted immediately to pour billions of dollars into propping up business during the lockdown period.

Grant Robertson, long-term friend and ally of Jacinda Ardern, is now in the powerful position of being both Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.

The government also initiated a six month “mortgage holiday” for homeowners affected by the crisis — a welcome move for the middle class and for older and better-off sections of the working class, to be sure. But all the help there was for the ever-growing number of New Zealand households who rent their homes — which in the last thirty years has grown to more than a third of the population — was a cap on increases in rent between March and September. Where was the payment holiday for the hundreds of thousands of renters, who are far more likely to be in severe financial stress thanks to the lockdown and the recession?

These decisions were merely a continuation of Labour’s abject failure to deal with the housing crisis. The government built just 2,726 state houses between June 2018 and March 2020, despite the country having over 40,000 people homeless. A rent freeze lasting years could have alleviated some of the pressure on the workers struggling week in, week out to keep up with the demands of their landlords. However, it was those landlords who Labour chose to back, rather than renters.

Meanwhile, Labour implemented a divide-and-rule policy on benefits — giving workers laid off due to Covid-19 $490 per week to live on, while existing beneficiaries continue to live on the poverty rate of $200-250 per week.

Labour also firmly ruled out the Greens’ election policy of taxing millionaires’ wealth at a rate of 1%, and multi-millionaires at 2%, to pay for a guaranteed minimum income of $325 per week — even though that in itself is, adjusted for inflation, less than the recommendations of the Labour-Green government’s own Welfare Expert Advisory Group. Yet the issue Ardern has personally taken ministerial responsibility for is child poverty reduction!

Then there are long-term, systemic crises such as New Zealand’s low-pay economy and the climate crisis. The government have done the absolute bare minimum on these issues.

They’ve raised the minimum wage, yes — to a level that is still 15% ($3.20) below the living wage, which is the lowest level anybody can live on and stay above the poverty line. Unlike the Greens, Labour did not campaign for opt-out union membership, which would be a huge time-saver for union organisers and delegates across the country, allowing them to focus on campaigns and strikes rather than the constant churn of recruiting.

The government has utterly failed when it comes to the long-term issue of the climate crisis, where they want campaigners to be content with the toothless, non-binding Zero Carbon Act, which doesn’t even fully include New Zealand’s biggest polluting sector, agriculture. On this issue the Greens are directly implicated, thanks to centrist party co-leader James Shaw, who continues in his role as Minister for Climate Change for a second term thanks to his party’s bizarre decision to go into a confidence-and-supply arrangement with a majority government instead of properly opposing said government from the left, as is desperately needed.

The Nature of the Labour Party

The reason why Labour, the supposed party of workers, and Ardern, with all her talk of “kindness”, cannot govern for every New Zealander when it comes to such pressing issues as the housing crisis, poverty, low wages and climate change, is because they are a party which seeks to manage the capitalist system, minimise class conflict, and keep the economy growing in perpetuity.

When it came to Covid-19, the medium-term interests of the economy did indeed align temporarily with the interests of workers. But the interests of the capitalist class in the long term are wedded to the neoliberal economic model, in which taxes are kept low for those at the top, wages stay low for workers, any redistribution of the obscene wealth hoarded by the rich is kept minimal, the human right of housing continues to be a commodity to be bought, sold and speculated upon, and therefore inaccessible for an ever-larger number of workers, and all the while exponential economic growth is essential — growth which now, in the light of environmental breakdown, risks to make the very planet we live upon uninhabitable.

Ardern and the current Labour Party are Third Way neoliberals, in the style of Tony Blair in the UK and Bill Clinton in the US. They have given up even on the basic left-wing principles of mid-20th Century social democratic leaders such as Michael Joseph Savage, let alone the original goal of Labour’s socialist founders, who once upon a time sought to end capitalist greed, and the misery it creates for the rest of us, for good.

Michael Joseph Savage was Aotearoa’s first ever Labour Prime Minister, from 1935 until his death in 1940. He is revered as a hero within the Labour Party.

The First Labour Government (1935-1949), led by Savage and later by Peter Fraser, could at least partially claim at the time that they were “governing for all”, as they built the first state houses and created the welfare system to look after workers and the poor while raising taxes on the rich. Even so, they ultimately failed to challenge the long-term power of the capitalist elite in Aotearoa, and thus allowed the system as a whole to continue and eventually reset to the level of extreme inequality we see today.

Ardern can make no such claim; while her government will continue to deliver mild progressive reforms which National wouldn’t have, overall they will not even touch the foundations of neoliberalism in this country.

No, Labour in the 21st Century will not govern for the workers without a serious ideological overhaul.

The Case for Hope

That being said, there is absolutely no reason to despair. While Labour refuses to govern for all, that doesn’t necessarily mean their hand cannot be forced. The First Labour Government did what it did for the working class in the 1930s and 40s because there was a powerful movement of workers and the unemployed in this country. We can and we must rebuild such a movement again today.

The workers’ movement needs to take heart from the absolute drubbing received by the National Party, Winston Peters, and the small conspiratorial far-right parties — the New Conservatives, Advance NZ, et al — and rather than waiting for this Labour Government with its huge mandate to deliver the change we so desperately need, demand it.

Red-line issues we should campaign on include:

  • Making the minimum wage a living wage
  • Guaranteeing a proper universal minimum income of at least $500 per week to New Zealanders, alongside universal, free basic services such as university and dental care
  • Building 100,000 state houses and freezing rent increases for the long term
  • Giving amnesty to migrant workers, both offshore and onshore, who have lived in insecure conditions, often with visas tied to their bosses, for far too long
  • Creating a Green New Deal to move our economy away from pollution-intensive agriculture and fossil fuels in the next ten years, creating hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs

Another question needs to be broached by the left in the unions and social movements — the question of whether or not we are ready to build a new left-wing party to bring these demands together and provide real opposition to the now-hegemonic Labour government.

The Greens showed us they cannot be properly trusted to represent the left when they elected ex-corporate consultant James Shaw as their co-leader, and they have shown as much again with 85% of party members taking Labour’s bait and supporting the government instead of going independent and becoming a left-wing opposition party. This is in spite of the elections of new left-wing MPs Ricardo Menéndez March, Teanau Tuiono and Elizabeth Kerekere, who are allies of left-wing co-leader Marama Davidson — we should welcome these new MPs and work with them wherever they are willing to stand with the movements in the streets, even if on the whole we cannot rely on half of a parliamentary party to represent the left.

All three newly elected Green MPs — Elizabeth Kerekere, Teanau Tuiono and Ricardo Menéndez March — are supported by the left-wing faction within the Green Party.

A new left-wing party, which would bring together fighting trade unionists, the left of the social movements and Māori radicals, needs to be built in time for the 2023 election. Such a party would provide a real, independent voice for workers in the struggle against neoliberal capitalism and all the social and environmental crises it creates.

There is no point in one group in alone as an isolated group of revolutionaries — what is needed is a united front bringing together those who tried to build the Mana Movement last decade, and those on the reformist left who are inspired by popular figures such as Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Evo Morales. A coalition of the broad left will be necessary to build a party which will succeed, rather than a small group left to flounder on its own.

But before, during and after the formation of such a party, the struggle for workers’ rights, environmental protection, social change and Tino Rangatiratanga must continue to be strengthened. Without unions and social movements, we will get nowhere. The struggle must go on!



This article has been republished. You can read the original here.

Elliot Crossan is a socialist writer and activist.

Posted by Elliot Crossan in 2020 New Zealand general election, Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, New Zealand Labour Party, New Zealand National Party, New Zealand politics, 0 comments
Do Labour Deserve a Second Term — and Will They Finally Deliver?

Do Labour Deserve a Second Term — and Will They Finally Deliver?

By Elliot Crossan

Jacinda Ardern is headed for a landslide victory in the 2020 New Zealand general election.  The Labour Party are currently polling around 47-50% — down from the stratospheric high of 60.9% seen in July, but still on course for easily their best election result since 1987, and still in with some chance of forming the first majority government since proportional representation was introduced in 1996.

Do Ardern and Labour deserve this remarkable popularity?  By some measures, yes.  From a health perspective, Ardern has shown unwavering commitment to the government’s Zero Covid strategy.  This strategy has succeeded, despite August’s hiccup, and continues to be one of the few genuinely good international examples of how to stamp out this virus.  While so many fellow OECD nations saw hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths as a result of the first wave, and are now being hit by a second wave which in some countries, including the UK, looks to be even worse, the government under Ardern’s leadership have done a brilliant job in keeping New Zealanders safe.

Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

However, as huge a threat as Covid-19 continues to pose to us, the pandemic is far from the only crisis facing Aotearoa.  The housing crisis, a result of 30 years of free market economics, is still in full swing.  Labour have categorically failed to build enough houses, and they’ve failed to keep prices and rents under control.  Their flagship Kiwibuild policy is rightly derided, even though National could not be more hypocritical in their attacks, given their appalling track record in office from 2008 to 2017.  A new approach to housing is needed, one which involves building new, high quality state houses to be provided at affordable rates — and rent increases urgently need to be restricted.  Working class people are fed up with housing unaffordability, and with the fact that Aotearoa has the highest homelessness rate in the OECD.

Labour has also failed to tackle the chronic issue of low wages — teachers, nurses and thousands of other public sector workers had to go on strike against the government to get better deals after being offered pay rises barely above inflation!  Meanwhile, the government’s minimum wage increases have been better than nothing, but still do not constitute a living wage.

It’s the same story when it comes to tax — Labour wants us to be content with the absolute bare minimum.  Their policy is to introduce a new top income tax bracket at 39% for those earning over $180,000 per year.  One of the first policies of Helen Clark’s government was to raise the top tax rate for those earning over $60,000 a year ($91,400 in today’s money) to 39% in April 2000.  Labour’s current election proposal is better than the Ardern government’s first term policy of zero tax increases on wealthier New Zealanders, but it is still not good enough at all.  All other tax increases on the rich have been ruled out, even the capital gains tax recommended by the government’s own Tax Working Group.  Also off the table are reductions in regressive taxes such as Goods and Services Tax (GST), which disproportionately take money from workers and the poor.  Such unequal taxes should have been scrapped years ago!

Jacinda Ardern is without a doubt a better candidate for Prime Minister than hardcore conservative Judith Collins.  Collins coming to power would likely mean the most right-wing government New Zealand has had since 1993, even if it wasn’t in coalition with the fanatical ACT Party.  Collins and National Party finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith are planning extreme austerity measures, while ACT wants to freeze the minimum wage for three years, slashing the earnings of those at the bottom relative to inflation.  Thankfully, National and ACT are very unlikely to end up with a majority this election.

There is no question therefore as to whether or not a Labour victory is preferable to the bleak alternative.  But there is also no question that a second-term Labour government, freed from the excuse of Winston Peters and his obstruction, needs to finally deliver for workers.  Ardern’s strategy appears at the moment to be to coast to a landslide reelection based solely on her Covid record and her personal popularity, while promising the bare minimum in terms of progressive policy.  This means that the only scenario in which Labour will truly challenge the crises facing Aotearoa is if a huge movement of working class people rises up and forces them to do so.

Party Vote Green — But Get Ready to Build a New Party

The incumbent Green Party caucus.

Labour are not the only left-of-centre party contesting this election, of course.  The Green Party are once again hovering just above the 5% threshold required to return to parliament, while the Māori Party have made a sharp left turn in response to losing both of their electorate seats in 2017 after their disgraceful role in propping up John Key and Bill English’s government.  The Māori Party may have ruled out going into coalition with National this time, but the question of broken trust must surely remain.  Also worrying is that the nationalist undercurrent lying beneath their mostly progressive, sometimes radical policy platform is belied by a xenophobic commitment to “curb all immigration,” supposedly to deal with the housing crisis.

The Greens are clearly the most left-wing party this election.  Their Poverty Action Plan, which would give $325 per week as a guaranteed minimum income to all those in need, is a smarter way of packaging Metiria Turei’s brave but heavily scapegoated 2017 policy of increasing benefits and removing all Work and Income sanctions.  The party’s tax plan, released alongside the Poverty Action Plan — a 1% tax on all wealth over $1 million, a 2% tax on wealth over $2 million; two new top income tax brackets, 37% on income over $100,000 per year, and 42% on income over $150,000 per year; and a crackdown on tax avoidance and loopholes — is significantly more progressive than the Greens’ tax policies from previous elections, and should be common sense in a time of crisis like this.  They have emphasised that these policies will only affect the richest 7% of New Zealanders, who can surely afford to pay more to help everybody else right now.  Labour’s complete political cowardice is exposed in contrast, with the Greens stepping up.

The Greens have also made decent commitments on housing and workers’ rights.  They plan to build 5,000 new houses per year, in order to clear the public housing waiting list in five years, and to stop Labour’s privatisation-by-stealth of public land by scrapping the policy of building new state houses on 30% of the land previously used, while selling off the other 70%.  The party has also promised to restore the right to solidarity strikes and political strikes, and to make union membership default when starting a new job, moving from opt-in to opt-out.  These changes if implemented would have huge effects in building the strength of the workers’ movement.

If anything, their environmental policies are the Greens’ weakness this election.  The party’s male co-leader, James Shaw, is the current government’s Climate Minister, and responsible for the passage of the toothless Zero Carbon Act (ZCA), which was watered down in an attempt to be “cross-partisan” by getting support from Labour, National and NZ First — only for National, inevitably enough, to commit to gutting the ZCA if elected.  Shaw’s climate plan is heavily reliant on “green investment” into private businesses.  Shaw refuses to understand that the market cannot solve a crisis caused by capitalism’s need for constant economic growth.

This highlights the central contradiction in the Green Party — a large portion of the membership honestly believes they should have a politically “balanced” co-leadership: a female co-leader, Marama Davidson, who has been a staunch left-wing activist and Tino Rangatiratanga campaigner all her life, alongside a male co-leader, James Shaw, who used to work as a consultant at multinational corporations PricewaterhouseCooper and HSBC, and whose entire political project is emissions trading and green capitalism.  Shaw stated in his 2014 maiden speech in parliament that he is “a huge fan of the market” — and therein lies the problem. He also made the provocative statement that “Thatcher was right” about climate change; he knew what he was doing when he said that.

Green Party male co-leader James Shaw is an advocate of “regulated” capitalism.

The Greens’ political strategy is to play to the left at the same time as trying to court middle class centrist voters, and the politically naïve membership is somehow able to constantly ignore the internal ideological struggle this supposedly “balanced” leadership structure constantly creates.  It is clear that the left of the party has written the transformative social policies, policies which won’t be taken up by Labour unless forced, whilst the right of the party has used its government power to advocate neoliberal market-based environmental policies which the centrists in charge of the Labour Party are quite happy to implement.

What this demonstrates is the urgent need for a new left-wing party based on the power of the working class.  Obviously it is too late this election cycle, but the left must get its act together for the 2023 election.  We can’t keep relying on the very mixed bag that is the Green Party, with its constant compromises, capitulations, and capitalist non-solutions to the huge threat that is the climate crisis.  The left in the unions and social movements of Aotearoa need to stop reeling from the defeat of Mana — which by 2023 will be nine years ago — and form a coalition against neoliberal capitalism which will unequivocally stand for people before profit.

We have three years to gear up for next time.  Until then, the Green Party is clearly the best choice for the left to vote for, despite the blight on the party that is Shaw’s co-leadership.  Moreover, a good result this election for the Greens could well get several left-wing MPs into parliament — as well as current radical MPs Marama Davidson and Jan Logie, the candidates occupying positions 8 to 11 on the party list are:

Left-wing Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson.

Those four candidates need the Greens to receive roughly 8.5-8.8% of the party vote to be guaranteed seats in parliament.  Therefore, voting Green could get six staunch left-wingers elected, and in the absence of a unapologetic left-wing party, those six left MPs will certainly be better than none — especially given one of the new male candidates could be well positioned to challenge Shaw’s co-leadership after the election!

Those who fear that a vote for the Greens could be wasted needn’t fear: proportional representation ensures that, as long as the Greens get at least 5% of the vote, they will stay in parliament.  In fact, MMP means that the centre-left bloc would actually be weakened by voters moving from the Greens to Labour, not the other way around — and though this may turn out to be the first election in many years in which Labour won’t require Green MPs to support the government, as Labour are almost certain to have a bigger share of the party vote than National and ACT combined, there is always a small chance that the Greens falling below 5% could let the Tories in through the back door.

But if we are to take the Greens’ election slogan as advice, the NZ left needs to “think ahead,” and start preparing to build a new left-wing party in time for 2023.  The Greens, progressive though some of their candidates may be, cannot as a whole be relied on to represent the left in parliament.  Therefore my advice to voters is:

  • Party vote Green
  • Electorate vote Green, Labour or left-wing independents, depending on the strength of your local candidates
  • Vote yes to the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill — the War on Drugs needs to end!
  • Vote yes to the End of Life Choice Bill — while this referendum is less clear cut, we believe that everybody has the right to die with dignity
  • Prepare to form a new left-wing party for next election!
Capitalism isn’t working — another world is possible.



This article has been republished. You can read the original here.

Elliot Crossan is a socialist writer and activist.

Posted by Elliot Crossan in 2020 New Zealand general election, Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, New Zealand Labour Party, New Zealand National Party, New Zealand politics, 0 comments