Third Way

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
We Cannot Escape the Tide of History — Nor Should We Want To: A Class Analysis of the 2017 New Zealand General Election

We Cannot Escape the Tide of History — Nor Should We Want To: A Class Analysis of the 2017 New Zealand General Election

Part 1 of 2

By Elliot Crossan

The world is currently experiencing its greatest moment of political upheaval since the 1980s.  The presidency of Donald Trump is normalising authoritarianism and white supremacy in the United States to an alarming extent.  Worse still, ideological fascists are on the rise across Europe.  This year, Marine Le Pen of France’s extreme nationalist party, Front National, received double the number of votes her father managed at the party’s high point in 2002.  Austria is now ruled by a coalition between hardline conservatives and the far-right.  Most chillingly of all, given historical events within living memory, Alternative für Deutschland, a neo-Nazi party, is now the third largest faction in the German parliament.

Fortunately, the polar opposite of fascist politics is resurgent too, growing in a way we have not seen in the developed world for decades.  Socialists agitating for a confrontation with “the greed and reckless behaviour of the billionaire class”, and a world that works “for the many, not the few”, are also on the rise.  They are campaigning to expand worker’s rights, the welfare state, and environmental protections, while fighting racism and authoritarianism.  From Britain’s socialist Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to American left-wing presidential candidate Bernie Sanders; from France’s left populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon to Spain’s anti-austerity movement Podemos to Greece’s governing party SYRIZA, class politics and socialist reforms are fast becoming mainstream and popular again.  A bold message of hope and genuine change is charging back onto the field of political contention.

Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, Spain’s Pablo Iglesias, France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon and America’s Bernie Sanders: the generation of leftists bringing socialism back into fashion.

Calm Waters Surrounded by Titanic Storms?

On the other hand, New Zealand’s recent general election produced a result that will leave society and politics almost entirely unchanged.  This fact is confusing given the context of international events.  The National Party’s level of support remained astoundingly high for a party in an MMP system, particularly given their nine years of office, and the fact that they had presided over and made worse an economic paradigm that works against the interests of the majority of the people.

Winston Peters may be an anti-immigration populist, but he is tame and mostly harmless compared to Donald Trump, let alone the fascist insurgents in Europe.  He is not unfamiliar to our political scene; he has dominated the headlines in New Zealand media for decades.  New Zealand First did not receive a large share of the vote, and the party has been in governments before — held them to ransom before, even — without very much effect.  His role in the new government is not demonstrative of New Zealand succumbing to international upheaval.

The social context of the election is that inequality, especially its most severe consequences in child poverty and homelessness, is at utterly unacceptable heights.  The housing crisis, precarious and low paid employment, underfunded public services, and a shockingly skimpy welfare system are making life worse for so many working class people in Aotearoa.  Mental health problems are worsening and suicide rates are escalating.  Our environment is being polluted in ways that may be beyond repair, with our rivers poisoned and our seas drilled for oil, while New Zealand’s net greenhouse emissions continue to increase.

These social and ecological crises are not just the result of National’s nine years in government — though National did make them worse.  These crises are features of the economic system we live under, and typical of international trends over the last 30-40 years of worsening inequality and environmental destruction — trends largely unaffected by whichever political party holds power.  In New Zealand, these problems have been exacerbated by the policies pursued by every government in the last 33 years — they are not nine years old.

Aotearoa’s inequality crisis is decades old — every government since 1984 is complicit. Image credit: Inequality: A New Zealand Conversation.

Do not believe their rhetoric for a second: the Labour government is committed to managing our current system as conservatively and unimaginatively as possible, and as a result we will see little to none of the change we so desperately need.

Those who have a vested interest in the status quo will celebrate the conservatism of the new government, overjoyed that they are not being confronted with political anger in ways their overseas counterparts are currently facing.  And yet they are fools if they believe that this rigged economic system can last forever.  If they do not believe that unrest will arrive on our shores, and sooner rather than later, they are sorely mistaken.  It will happen here, whether any of us like it or not.  The consequences of the storm we will surely experience shall be decided by whether a vision of hope or hatred can prevail.  Those of us who wish to see a better world must be ready to fight as hard as we can.

To understand what is happening around the world, why it will happen here, what is at stake, and what vision we must advocate, we must first explore the most recent era of world history: the neoliberal era.

The End of History

In 1992, political scientist Francis Fukuyama published ‘The End of History and the Last Man’.  The book argued that, with the advent of neoliberalism and the fall of the USSR, free market capitalism had finally triumphed over all other economic systems, and that humanity’s social evolution was at an end.  Fukuyama’s case was that the Washington Consensus of free trade and free markets was the final stage of history, and that future politics would simply revolve around the expansion of and minor adjustments to this political settlement.  Until 2008, it seemed that Fukuyama might just be right.

In the 1980s, conservative politicians around the world had aggressively implemented the free market reforms of the Washington Consensus.  US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were the leading  exponents of this agenda.  Their aim was to dismantle the postwar economic order, known as Keynesianism, which had dominated the capitalist world from 1945 until the economic crisis of the 1970s, and replace it with a new economic paradigm, neoliberalism.  Keynesianism had involved:

  • a generous welfare state paid for by high taxes on the rich;
  • extensive state involvement in the economy, with a mix of public ownership and heavy regulation, especially of finance;
  • strong trade unions which were able to campaign in the workplace for better wages and conditions, and in the political sphere for the continuation and expansion of worker-friendly policies.

The neoliberals dismantled Keynesianism through:

This assault on the institutions and power of the working class was arguably the most thorough and successful class war in history.

Breaking the trade unions was the most important pillar of the neoliberal project. Image credit: New Zealand Council of Trade Unions.

A Class Project

Many attempts have been made to explore the intentions of the neoliberals.  Reagan and Thatcher have been presented as moralistic true believers, who saw the government as inherently totalitarian, counterposed with capitalism, which they viewed as the ultimate expression of freedom.  They are attributed noble intentions as champions of their individualistic worldview.  Thatcher went as far as to claim that “there is no such thing as society”.  Their stated aims were to destroy socialist principles of collective struggle and provision, and to create the conditions for high economic growth, and therefore greater prosperity for everybody.

Neoliberals may or may not actually believe the narrative they espouse — it doesn’t really matter.  Whatever these people believe, their stated aims are proven to be either incorrect or flatly disingenuous by the actual results.  Neoliberal policies have, in practise, dramatically increased the wealth of the privileged few in society at the expense of the vast majority of people.  Everywhere neoliberalism has been tried, it has been unsuccessful in boosting economic growthas even the International Monetary Fund admits — and in growing the living standards of working class people.  It has not improved society by any measure that matters in people’s lives.  Neoliberalism has not smashed the state, but rather used the state as a tool for redistributing wealth upwards; it has not ended collective struggle, but instead acted to advance the collective interests of elites rather than the interests of the working class.  The only success of neoliberalism has been to further stratify society; inequality has increased in every country that has taken this route.  As a result, we have seen increasing poverty for the working class, while the capitalists have thrived.

A better explanation is needed for why neoliberalism has spread across the world so successfully.  David Harvey argues in ‘A Brief History of Neoliberalism’ that rather than being a utopian ideology of the supremacy of the market, neoliberalism is a class project by economic elites to restore and enhance their power.  Harvey demonstrates that in every instance where the supposed principles of market supremacy have come into conflict with the interests of the capitalist class, the latter have always prevailed.  As Harvey states, you can infer intent from probable outcomes.  Tax cuts for the rich alongside attacks on public spending and the unions are highly likely to redistribute wealth from working class people to the owners of capital.  Therefore, upwards wealth redistribution must have been the aim of the neoliberal project.

The rise in inequality is not local to Aotearoa, it is global — it is the product of a class project by the international economic elite.

The Disenchantment of Politics by Economics

The public posturing of neoliberals, with their protestations about the market, freedom and “personal responsibility”, need to be seen for what they are: a thin veil for an endeavour by the top 1% to increase their own wealth and power.  However, it is vital that we pay attention to the effects of market fundamentalism on democracy.  Here, Will Davies’ definition of neoliberalism is the most accurate: “the disenchantment of politics by economics”.  He is arguing that the neoliberals seek to depoliticise the very political process itself, to reduce democratic debate to nothing but political parties campaigning on marginally different ways of managing neoliberal capitalism.

Politics is about collective decision making.  Already, we encounter a problem for neoliberals; collective decision making goes against both the ideology of individualism, and against a policy agenda which benefits only a wealthy minority.  This is why since the birth of neoliberal ideology, its principal role has been, by necessity, to try to pretend that its ideas are not an ideology at all, but in fact that capitalism is the only way society can possibly be run.  Another of Thatcher’s common refrains was “there is no alternative!”  Neoliberalism can only ever succeed if people believe there is no other conceivable way to run society.

To succeed, neoliberals must depoliticise everything and everybody, remove all silly ideas about solidarity and the collective strength of a united class from the consciousness of society, and fundamentally stop democracy in its tracks.  Recent international events represent the return of democracy — a prospect that can only spell trouble for neoliberalism.

Social Democracy: An Impossible Dream?

If neoliberalism relies on tricking the majority of people into participating in a system rigged against their own interests, how on earth did it succeed in disenchanting politics?  The neoliberals had to destroy all opposition to their ideas and to their power, by convincing the opposition to vote for leaders who agree, on either an ideological or a practical basis, with neoliberal ideology — leaders who themselves believe deeply that there is no alternative.  Neoliberalism cannot succeed without subsuming social democratic parties in their entirety.  Conversely, the left cannot succeed without breaking fully and absolutely with neoliberal leaders of social democratic parties.

The Third Way is the tendency in centre-left politics to which the leaderships of nearly every social democratic party in the world subscribed from the 1990s until very recently.  Social democracy’s leaders, who once would have campaigned for the welfare state and represented the interests of the trade unions, now accepted that with the End of History had dawned the end of their political tradition, and that they should embrace neoliberalism themselves.  Third Way means social democracy accepting low government spending and a politically powerless working class.

Third Way politicians are often called ‘Blairites’ after Tony Blair, British Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007.  In an interview with Rupert Murdoch’s UK-based tabloid, the Sun, weeks before winning the 1997 general election, Blair reassured Sun readers that once Labour took power the UK would “still have the most restrictive union laws in the Western world.”  Blair defended this statement in the Guardian: “People on the Left have got to understand the realities of the economic world. You will do more to prevent people being treated as commodities by giving them the best educational skills and opportunities, and by having an employment service that is dynamic, than you will by trying to protect the workforce with over-restrictive union legislation. Again, we are under massive attack from the Conservatives in relation to the things we are offering.”  His response touches on another crucial point — that neoliberals in conservative parties must pretend that not only do Blairites represent the most change society can ever hope for, but that the ideas Third Way politicians represent are dangerous, radical, economically damaging, and a threat to the people.  They must do this not only to preserve the illusion that there is no alternative, but to justify the mere fact that Third Way and conservative politicians operate within separate parties!

Pivotal figures who helped cement neoliberalism around the world: economist Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Tony Blair, and David Cameron.

Elections in the neoliberal era are no more than contests of personalities.  That is a major reason why we have seen the archetypal politician in the last few decades change from the image of an elderly statesman to being young, charismatic, and attractive.  Politics?  Who cares?  Our leaders have become smiling, slick and polished for a very good reason: to hide from sight what is missing.  Trudeau, Macron, Blair, Cameron, Clinton, Obama, Turnbull, Key: they all seem so similar because they are.  They all represent the same style-over-substance approach, and exemplify the same neoliberal conceptions about the world.

Hillary Clinton’s recent book ‘What Happened?’ describes how she managed to lose an election to Donald Trump.  She used the book to blame everything but her utterly uninspiring campaign for this loss, particularly targeting Bernie Sanders.  In the book, she quotes a Facebook post which she believes demonstrates the dynamic in which she and Sanders were caught in their primary contest.

‘Bernie: “I think America should get a pony.”
Hillary: “How will you pay for the pony? Where will the pony come from? How will you get Congress to agree to the pony?”
Bernie: “Hillary thinks America doesn’t deserve a pony.”
Bernie Supporters: “Hillary hates ponies!”
Hillary: “Actually, I love ponies.”
Bernie Supporters: “She changed her position on ponies! #WhichHillary#WitchHillary”
Headline: Hillary Refuses To Give Every American a Pony.
Debate Moderator: “Hillary, how do you feel when people say you lie about ponies?”’

Bernie Sanders vs. Hillary Clinton: a primary which polarised the Democratic Party.  Image credit: Daily Dot.

In reality, all Clinton’s witty post demonstrates is the mentality of Third Way politicians.  They believe that a society run, even slightly, in the interests of the majority of people, is laughably unrealistic.  Being challenged by socialists proposing mild reforms confuses them to the point of incredulity.  They believe so strongly that there is no alternative that they mock the millions of people crying out for one.  Perhaps that is how she managed to lose to Trump.

Tony Blair made similarly revealing remarks about Jeremy Corbyn during the 2015 Labour leadership election.  “Let me make my position clear: I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform.  Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”

The Return of Politics

History has a funny way of making fools out of arrogant intellectuals who try to proclaim its end.  The War on Terror saw the Washington Consensus begin to fracture and fragment; all was not well in Fukuyama’s paradise.  When the 2008 Global Financial Crisis hit, the hegemony of neoliberalism was ended overnight.  The crisis flipped every claim of neoliberalism on its head.  What was supposed to be the perfect economic system, bound to perpetually grow and create great prosperity for all, immune to boom and bust cycles, had produced the greatest crisis capitalism had seen since the Great Depression 80 years earlier.  After that, it was only a matter of time before the clash of different ideas about how to run society started returning to the world; it became a race to see who could re-enchant politics with their ideas first.

The Global Financial Crisis caused the worst recession since the 1930s, and even the recovery resulted in the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.  No wonder working class people are so angry.  Image credit: Pavlina Tcherneva/Levy Economics Institute.

For the working class, 30 years of stagnating wages, jobs heading offshore, increasingly dilapidated and inadequate public services and infrastructure, skyrocketing house prices, increased indebtedness just to survive, and a lost sense of social cohesion, was more than enough, even before the Financial Crisis.  The giant tax cuts for the rich were revealed for what they were: a simple act of class war.  To add insult to injury, the debt that governments had accrued when they bailed out the banks was passed on to taxpayers in the form of even harsher austerity measures.  This explains why people are so profoundly angry that they are willing to vote for anybody who offers a different approach.Working class people no longer believe that there is no alternative; they want an alternative, no matter what.

Unfortunately, the far-right got a head start.  Paul Mason gave a speech at the 2017 Socialists Together conference, a meeting of social democratic leaders from across Europe.  He quoted Will Davies’ assessment of neoliberalism, adding: “The far-right and the nationalists have re-enchanted politics through nationalism, race, and violent misogyny.”  The void filled by the depoliticisation of society is fast being filled by this terrifying politics, which can only lead to the fascism, racism, totalitarianism and world war of the 1940s.

The left must now offer a more compelling alternative to both neoliberalism and fascism.  The stakes are too high for us not to succeed.  Fortunately, the Corbyn movement is in the process of showing us the perfect example of how to do so.  Mason, a Corbyn supporter and volunteer, went on to say, “what happened is that we got 12 million people to vote for us, because we offered an alternative to neoliberalism, and a narrative of hope.  […] Shortly after we published the manifesto, crowds started to be real, they started to be spontaneous.  You can look at what the manifesto contained — basically, it was a massive fiscal redistribution programme, which said, we will spend money in these blighted towns.”

“Crowds started to be real, they started to be spontaneous.”  Image credit: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images.

The Biggest Threat to the New Zealand Left

In 2014, when I was 16 years old, I paid attention to the New Zealand general election properly for the first time.  When John Key won, I shared the emotions of every other supporter of the left in the country: depression.  National had won and Labour had lost.

Three years later, my politics have evolved somewhat.  I trembled at the election of Jacinda Ardern as deputy Labour leader; I was horrified when Andrew Little resigned and Ardern took over as Leader of the Opposition, and when Winston declared he was going into coalition with Labour and that Ardern would be Prime Minister, I was every bit as depressed as I had been in 2014.  If you’re only just tuning in, er, no, I didn’t become a Young Nat in the intervening period, I, er… maybe you should read this essay from the beginning…

I struggled to write this follow-up to my original essay for three months, because I was trying desperately to work out how I could communicate my reasoning and emotions to those same people who groaned with me in 2014 — those who now celebrate ecstatically the election of a ‘progressive’ government — without alienating anybody who might read my work.  The thousands of words of extensive exposition leading up to the conclusions I am about to draw are my best attempt to communicate my reasons for this rational and emotional disconnect.

For the last year, I have been saying that Jacinda Ardern is the biggest threat to the New Zealand left — to any of us who want real change.  I ask you now, please, don’t celebrate.  Prepare to fight!  This new government is a Third Way coup de grâce.  They are as committed to managing neoliberalism as every other government we have had in the last 33 years.  Ardern represents everything we oppose.  She has moved any chance of systemic change down the agenda, possibly for years, and we do not have that much time to waste.

New Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with her Finance Minister Grant Robertson.  Image credit: Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images.

Style-Over-Substance Politics are Dangerous

Ardern represents a stunning victory for style-over-substance political culture.  Those who view Ardern in a more positive light than Andrew Little, ask yourselves: why?  Because she is more charismatic and therefore more electable?  All that demonstrates is that the new government’s mandate is built on sand.  If the centre-left is going to succeed or fail based on the popularity of its leaders, then as soon as a more charismatic National Party leader comes along, all Labour’s policies will be reversed.  Were we not right to despise the fact that John Key was popular for no reason other than his (inexplicable) personal appeal?  What Key represented could happen again; we have no choice but to reject personality politics and instead offer a substantive vision for society.

Many in the media are celebrating this bright new era, and the great change it will bring, just as they celebrated Blair, Clinton, Macron.  The corporate media exist to perpetuate the interests of the establishment; they cannot believe their luck that Labour are in power while tied to steadfast commitments against systemic change.

There is nothing more terrifying to the media than a genuine left-wing politician.  A study of the UK media’s attitude towards Jeremy Corbyn demonstrates that 75% of coverage in his first two months as Labour leader (usually the honeymoon period) was negative.  Meanwhile, during the US primaries, Trump received twenty-three times more coverage than Sanders, despite the fact that Sanders was consistently far ahead of Trump in head-to-head polling.  If the corporate media are celebrating, that is because neoliberalism has won the day!

Media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn: how the establishment treats threats to its wealth and power.  The fact that Ardern has not been treated in this way demonstrates that the establishment are not scared of the new government.  Image credit: Media Reform Coalition.

Austerity and Xenophobia?  Let’s Not Do This

The Ardern government is embarking on an unambitious political project which amounts to tiny increases to social spending in a broader context of continued austerity and privatisation, alongside xenophobia, and a punitive response to climate change.  It is a Third Way project which buys into every neoliberal narrative about society — and will end up entrenching neoliberalism in a way that National could never get away with.  For the same reasons, under Helen Clark’s Third Way government, the bottom 10% of New Zealanders got poorer, while house prices doubled and emissions rose.  Third Way politics destroy any hope of even the most modest attempt to run the economy in the interests of the majority.

The Budget Responsibility Rules, a set of goals for the new government’s budgeting process which include running surpluses, reducing debt, and limiting new government spending, serve the role of solidifying the neoliberal narrative.  The most significant of these rules states that Labour will not spend more than an arbitrary target of 30% of GDP, meaning that small government is a permanent fixture of New Zealand’s economy which not just National, but Labour as well, are committed to.  So committed is new Finance Minister Grant Robertson to this austerity framework, that he has already announced that there may have to be spending cuts in order to make room for the small increases in spending in health and education that the government intends to make.

Buying into the idea that governments can either pursue this spending programme or that programme, but not both, because it would be too expensive, is just an excuse for Robertson to reassure the capitalist class that the government will not even dream of breaking with neoliberal orthodoxy and, say, raise taxes on the rich to increase spending and deal with our social, economic and environmental crises.

But it gets worse.  Robertson has also signalled that the government is prepared to pursue public-private partnerships in order to meet its social targets.  This is privatisation by stealth.  Public-private partnerships have long been used to partially privatise state assets, and to bankrupt areas of the public service so that neoliberal governments, whether Third Way or conservative, have an excuse to sell them off.

Ardern demonstrated how eager she was to shy away from even the most modest of tax rises on the rich when she ruled out raising the top tax rate near the beginning of her short election campaign.  Ardern and Robertson could not be clearer if they tried: they believe, as Blair, Clinton and Clark did before them, that there is no alternative to a neoliberal approach.  Meanwhile, if you are wondering how the National Party are trying to differentiate themselves from a neoliberal Labour government, how they are trying to not only make Third Way politics look separate from conservative politics, but portray this Blairite administration as dangerous and radical, look no further than the brave champion of the people, David Bennett.  In his speech decrying the evils of Ardern’s programme, he used the word “socialism” 26 times.  Comrade Bennett, as a socialist myself, how I wish this government was giving us even the most moderate social democratic reforms!

Another example of this government’s neoliberalism is the Auckland regional fuel tax.  It is a punitive response to climate change.  Rather than taxing large corporations, or stopping new mining, fracking and oil drilling projects, the government is going to tax working class Aucklanders to pay for a transition away from fossil fuels.  This is one of the great concerns of the climate justice movement, a concern championed by the trade unions’ Just Transition campaign — that neoliberal politicians will act to save us from climate change, but will pass the cost onto working class people rather than the wealthy in the process.  It is a climate policy for the few.  Workers are right to oppose the fuel tax, and the left of the environmentalist movement, and of the Green Party, should stand with trade unions in demanding a Just Transition away from fossil fuels.

“System change not climate change”, the demand of the union-led Just Transition movement, is not being lived up to by the government’s climate policies, which push the costs of pollution onto the poor instead of the rich.  Image credit: Sentro.

Finally, the government’s immigration policies are simply unacceptable.  The goal of cutting net migration by 20,000-30,000 is scapegoating migrants of colour for our social problems.  Make no mistake — when people hear “migrants,” they think “people of colour”.  I know I do, and I moved here from England when I was four.  This puts people of colour in danger.  By inferring that migrants are to blame for low wages and the strain on housing and public infrastructure, and then pursuing policies that supposedly deal with these problems by stopping people coming to Aotearoa, the government gives license to xenophobes to spread anti-migrant hate.  After Britain voted to leave the European Union, a vote seen as a protest against high levels of immigration, hate crimes against minorities surged by 29%, the highest increase on record.  The same xenophobia could take root here.

The left must be loud and clear.  Migrants are not to blame for our problems, capitalism is.  Low wages, a housing crisis, strained public services?  These are the direct result of the implementation of neoliberal policy, and of the greed of bosses and landlords.  Austerity has undermined our living standards.  Shifting the blame for falling living standards from the rich to people of colour not only puts ethnic minorities in serious danger, it allows the wealthy and their allies in government and the media to get away with what they have done!  We must oppose the government’s xenophobic immigration policies, and say loudly and clearly, as Corbyn and Sanders have consistently done: do not give in to racism, do not blame some of the most targeted and vulnerable people in society for our problems.  Blame the greed and reckless behaviour of the capitalist class, and strive to build a society that works for everybody, regardless of ethnicity, migration status, and all other factors.

It is not the National Party that stops any chance of real change in Aotearoa.  It is both National and Labour — as well as New Zealand First, ACT and elements within the Greens, for that matter.  There is no question that if we want to change society, we have to first dismantle these organs of capitalist politics and build an alternative for the many, not the few.  We have to destroy the Third Way narrative, and to do so we have to oppose Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party.  So, to misappropriate Tony Blair’s attack on Corbyn: “let me make my position clear.  I wouldn’t want to win on a Third Way neoliberal platform.  Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”  Incidentally, now that the majority of people are desperate for an alternative to the crushing weight of the status quo, class politics and socialist reforms are more popular than neoliberalism and are more likely to win.  When presented with an alternative, working class voters will turn out!



Author’s note: I ended part one of this series by posing questions which I have not fully answered: “What, then, is to be done?  What can the left do now to beat National and marginalise the racist voice of Winston Peters in the next general election, in 2020?  Was Metiria’s sacrifice for nothing?”  After events changed and my thinking developed — after the special votes, the conclusion many drew on election night that we were in for a National-NZ First coalition suddenly became less likely, and indeed, Labour-NZ First took power with support from the Greens — I had to revise my concept for part two significantly. This essay is the result.

Elliot Crossan is a socialist writer and activist. At time of writing, he was Co-Convenor of the Young Greens of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Posted by Elliot Crossan in 2017 New Zealand general election, Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, New Zealand Labour Party, New Zealand National Party, New Zealand politics, 0 comments
What Happened? A Class Analysis of the 2017 New Zealand General Election

What Happened? A Class Analysis of the 2017 New Zealand General Election

Part 1 of 2

By Elliot Crossan

Once again, and for the fourth time in nine years, in the wake of New Zealand’s general election, the aftermath for the left is despondency and despair.  The National Party has again won a percentage of party votes that should be impossible under MMP; a racist and slightly mad populist holds the balance of power despite only receiving 7.5% of the vote; and the Green Party has lost half its MPs.  While it is understandable, much of the reaction thus far involves negativity towards voters and non-voters alike — largely consisting of accusations that the electorate are inherently either selfish or apathetic.  This analysis does not feel right to me at all.

We are allowed to weep, and we are allowed to lash out.  To be emotional in this time is inevitable.  My instinctive response is to try to avoid my emotions and rationalise everything, hence this essay!  But it is counterproductive and, in my view, quite unfair to attack the voters.  We need to analyse why people voted the way they did, what went so badly wrong that National could all but win a fourth term, and what needs to happen in 2020.  Don’t mourn, organise!

Politics primarily comes down to two things: the material conditions of the voters, and which political force is articulating the most coherent and convincing story about why the status quo is the way it is and what to do to change the to improve conditions for people in a just way.  In this essay I will try to analyse why the status quo continues to prevail despite an economic system that is granting benefits of growth to the already wealthy instead of to the majority of people.

Bill English celebrates National’s unexpectedly strong showing.  Image credit: Newshub.

National’s Support Holds Strong

The main reason the left feels so disorientated by this result is that National’s large, solid support base has once again not budged.  In moments of anguish, we see this fact as proof that a majority of New Zealanders are selfish and do not care about poverty, inequality, and climate change, as these issues do not affect them.  I believe this attitude is defeatist, simplistic and wrong.

Why has National received 45-47% of the vote in every election since 2008?  To understand we first must adjust that for turnout.  National has in fact received 35-36% in the last four elections, with turnout fairly steady at between 74% and 79%.  In short, the 35-36% of New Zealanders who vote National largely benefit from economic growth driven by rising house prices and low wages, and from the income tax cuts granted by a National government in surplus.  It can be argued that these people — the older, conservative, comfortable middle-and-upper classes — are morally condemnable for not caring about poverty, inequality and climate change.  To argue thus does not help us in any way, even if it is true.  People vote for their living standards and are mostly unaware of what is going on outside of their own personal bubbles.  This applies to the left as well as the right.  This is not going to change.  The problem is that, while 35% of people vote for National, we are not able to either articulate a more coherent narrative about society than the right’s vision of neoliberal individualism and therefore win over some of their voters, or muster at least 40% of potential voters to outvote and defeat the comfortable middle classes.

The only way National will lose their support base and cease to continuously win elections under the current political climate would be a severe recession caused by the global economy tanking and/or the collapse of the housing market.  This would be a catastrophe for all of us, hitting the poorest the hardest, as it would result in mass unemployment, massive cuts in government spending from whichever neoliberal government was in power, and in a ‘lost generation.’  This is precisely what happened in Ireland, Greece and Spain, and to a lesser extent in many other European countries.  We simply cannot let it happen here.  We need to defeat National, diffuse the housing market bomb, make our economy more resilient to international conditions, and rebuild the welfare state — before it is too late.

‘Jacindamania’ Falls Flat

But Jacinda Ardern increased the Labour vote by 10.7%?  Once again, it is not as simple as that.  In 2014, Labour and the Greens fell to a nadir, with a combined total of 35.8% of the vote, while National received 47%, an unprecedented result for any party in an MMP system, and especially a scandal-ridden government going into its third term.  This result looks even better when you realise that Colin Craig’s Conservative Party all but stole 4% from National — if it had not been for the Conservatives, Key would likely have scored an outright majority, utterly unheard of under MMP.

The collapse of Craig’s party thereafter masked the polling trends over the next three years.  National suffered a small amount of third term attrition, but that drop in the polls was stymied by pretty much all of the former Conservative voters returning to the Nats or New Zealand First.  The polls did not change much when John Key resigned and National transitioned with once again remarkable skill to Bill English.  Between the resignations of John Key and Andrew Little, the Labour-Green bloc polled consistently within a range of 37.1% and 44%, while National’s range was 43%-49%.  With the election result of Labour-Green 41.6%, National 46%, these poll results were strikingly similar to what happened.

What, then, was ‘Jacindamania’ all about?  Firstly, she realigned the existing centre-left.  The Greens were polling between 9% and 14.5% before hitting an all-time high in Colmar Brunton polling of 15% after Metiria Turei’s admission of benefit fraud and attempt to start a conversation about poverty.  In the chaos that followed, with Kennedy Graham and David Clendon sabotaging the Greens, Ardern becoming Labour leader, and Metiria herself resigning, the Greens collapsed from 9-15% down to their worst election result since 2005, 5.9%.  Labour, meanwhile, increased their vote by 10.7%.  This is roughly equivalent to the 4.8% of voters Labour took from the Greens, plus the 4% they had already taken from National while Little was still leader, plus a couple more percentage points from Winston Peters.  NZ First polled between 7.5% and 13% while Little was leader, and ended up on 7.5%, at the bottom of that range.  It is likely Ardern took 2-3% from NZF, but no more.  All ‘Jacindamania’ resulted in was Green voters jumping from their burning ship to Labour, plus a small number of NZF voters also returning to Labour.  Ardern is acting like this was some kind of triumph, and from her narrow, tribally Labour perspective, 13 new MPs is a victory.  To not manage to overturn a three term government, despite the massive media hype she generated, is a cataclysmic defeat.

Jacinda Ardern should not be celebrating victory over anyone but the more progressive Greens.  Image credit: RTE.

Secondly, during her seven-week campaign, Ardern did, for a time, start to win over National voters.  The combined Labour-Green polling under her leadership ranged from 41.3% to 51%.  The National vote ranged from 39% to 47.3%.  Why, then, did the election result end up at the very lowest estimate for the centre-left, and the very highest estimate for the right?

There are two most likely reasons for this.  The first is that people did not turn out for Labour and the Greens.  The second is that ‘Jacindamania’ ground to a halt because of Labour’s utter weakness on tax.  This second explanation requires some historical context.

The Third Way

Since the 1990s, social democratic parties across the developed world, such as Labour, have been predominantly run by ‘centrist’ leaders who are not prepared to challenge the neoliberal status quo of small government and low taxes on the rich.  This movement in social democracy, named the Third Way, was spearheaded by Bill Clinton in the US and Tony Blair in the UK, who, after the right-wing revolutions of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 80s, argued that voters were fundamentally happy with this new norm of stratified, unequal societies, and that the centre-left should not alter neoliberalism once in power.  The success of Third Way politics in hijacking social democratic parties across the western world has meant that elections since the 80s and 90s have been fought on this premise: under conditions of economic growth, the right, if they win, will deliver tax cuts, and if the centre-left win, they will deliver a small increase in public spending.  However, the centre-left will not raise taxes much if at all, and will not counter any of the systemic changes made in the 80s that saw dramatic rises in inequality across the world.  If there is a recession, both parties will cut government spending, increasing inequality even more.  The neoliberal project could not have been successful without the victory of Third Way politics within formerly left-wing parties, parties which would traditionally have opposed and implemented policies to counter these shocking levels of inequality.

Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 and the world’s most iconic political champion of free market, union busting neoliberal economics, was once asked what her greatest achievement was, and her answer was New Labour.  New Labour was the rebranded UK Labour Party after the election of Tony Blair as leader in 1994.  This was either high praise or a damning indictment of Blair’s legacy, depending on what side of the political spectrum you fall on — for whether or not you agree with free market economics, what is clear is that the founder of neoliberalism in the UK saw the final victory of her political and economic project as the coming to power of a Labour leader, and from 1997 to 2007 a Labour Prime Minister, who believed that Thatcherism as an ideology and a set of policies was both necessary and justified.  An example of New Labour cementing neoliberalism into place in Britain was the Chancellor of the Exchequer (UK equivalent of the Finance Minister), in Blair’s government, Gordon Brown’s approach to the size of government.  After 18 years of a hard right Conservative government aggressively shrinking the size of the welfare state, with fire sale privatisations, major cuts to public services, and huge tax cuts for the rich, Brown came into office as Chancellor promising to commit for the first two years of the New Labour administration to the same austerity spending plans as the outgoing Conservatives.  He also pledged Labour to a Fiscal Golden Rule of only ever borrowing money for investment purposes.  As a package these fiscal policies meant keeping the size of the state low, to Thatcher’s delight.  Left-wing critics, such as socialist Labour MPs Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, called for an increase in social spending and in taxes for the rich to close the inequality gap Thatcher had created, and were ignored.  Brown was later to be Prime Minister from 2007-2010, and implemented cuts to government spending in response to the Global Financial Crisis before being voted out at the 2010 election, only for the Conservatives to increase the harshness of the cuts.  New Labour represented, as was always the intention of the neoliberals in the UK, the full adoption of free market economics by the major social democratic party alongside the major right-wing party which introduced the ideology in the first place.

Tony Blair, Prime Minister of the UK 1997-2007, and Bill Clinton, US President 1993-2001, the Third Way ideologues.  Image credit: BBC.

Left-wing critics of Third Way politics opposed Blairism, but were even more hostile to 1993-2001 US President Bill Clinton of the Democratic Party.  President Clinton not only cemented neoliberalism as New Labour did, but aggressively expanded it.  He was responsible for, among other policies: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which locked in low wages, labour and environmental standards across the continent; the repeal of the Wall Street regulation Glass Steagal which separated investment banking from commercial banking, contributing directly to the Financial Crisis; and savage cuts to welfare in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.  In the State of the Union address in which he announced these welfare cuts, Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over.”  This aptly summarises the Third Way approach to the economy: the free market is here to stay.

Third Way Politics In New Zealand

In New Zealand, Helen Clark’s Fifth Labour Government conformed directly to this formula of Third Way politics.  Under Clark’s watch, inequality continued to rise, until the implementation of Working For Families, when it fell back to roughly the same level it had been before Labour came into power, under the market fundamentalist Fourth National Government.  Labour raised the top rate of income tax from 33% to 39%, which was significantly lower than the 66% top rate under National Prime Minister Robert Muldoon (1975-1984).  But the bottom 10% of New Zealanders got poorer under the Clark government, because Labour refused to extend Working For Families to beneficiaries.  This is consistent with Third Way ideology, which allows for a very moderate redistribution of wealth to working families in times of economic growth, but only conditionally.  If the economy stops growing, advocates of Third Way politics believe that such redistribution cannot be afforded.  Meanwhile, this redistribution is not granted at all to those who are not in work, whom Third Way politicians condemn to poverty, starvation, poor health, and decreased life expectancy.  This is the result of refusing to break with the fundamental structures of neoliberal economics.  Meanwhile, under Clark, our fresh water quality was degradednet carbon emissions rose, and house prices doubled.

Inequality in New Zealand over time — Helen Clark’s government never intended to restore inequality levels to what they were before the 1984-1993 neoliberal revolution.  Image credit: Closer Together.

Jacinda Ardern is a Third Way politician, as are most Labour MPs, and some in the Greens (disgraced former Green MPs Kennedy Graham and David Clendon would probably fit this description, but not social justice activists such as Metiria Turei).  In March this year, Labour and the Greens, who had agreed in a Memorandum of Understanding in mid-2016 stating that they would work together to change the government in the 2017 election campaign, signed up to Budget Responsibility Rules (BRR) which committed the parties, in a future coalition government, to tight fiscal parameters.  These parameters were directly modelled on New Labour’s fiscal Golden Rule policy and its commitment to austerity-era spending plans.  Labour leader at the time, Andrew Little, echoed the words of Bill Clinton at the launch of BRR; “We’ll be a smart government, not necessarily a big government,” he declared.  The key aims of the BRR were to keep core crown spending to an average of 30% of GDP over a three year cycle, or roughly 1% of GDP higher than National intended to spend, while running surpluses and reducing debt to 20% of GDP.  This is while international interest rates are the lowest they have been in decades and while New Zealand has a debt level so low that it is the envy of the world.  This initiative came, not from the blatantly Third Way and ‘centrist’ Labour Party, but from Greens Finance spokesperson and current sole co-leader James Shaw, arguably a Third Way politician himself — certainly on the right of his party.  The BRR was a direct signal to the media and business establishment that a Labour-Green government would not deliver any structural changes to New Zealand’s economy — changes which would challenge the status quo of low public spending, low taxes on the rich, high inequality, high poverty, ridiculous house prices, toxic rivers, and rising emissions.

The signing of the Budget Responsibility Rules.  Left-to-right: now-former Green MP Barry Coates, Labour’s deputy leader at the time Jacinda Ardern, Green co-leader and finance spokesperson James Shaw, Labour leader at the time Andrew Little, business adviser Matt Pritchard, now-former Green co-leader Metiria Turei, Labour finance spokesperson Grant Robertson, and lawyer Hayden Wilson.  Image credit: Kensington Swan LinkedIn.

Little’s resignation and Ardern’s dramatic rise to the Labour leadership saw her double down on this Third Way political positioning.  Soon after coming into office in 2008, the Key government cut the top tax rate from 39% back down to 33%.  While Clark had been weak by historical standards for only raising the top tax rate to 39% when it had once been 66% and higher, and while David Cunliffe, Labour leader during the disastrous 2014 election, was even weaker for only promising a 36% top tax rate, Ardern ruled out any increase in the top tax rate at all — she could not even propose raising taxes on the highest income earners by 1%!  In an interview with Guyon Espiner, in which Ardern controversially stated that neoliberalism had failed, she also ruled out any changes to the structures created by the 1984-1993 New Right governments which originally embedded small government and free market economics in New Zealand: altering the Reserve Bank Act, reversing asset sales, and bringing back inheritance tax were all off the table.  She may not publicly identify as a neoliberal, yet her policies dispute her claims: she re-committed to the Budget Responsibility Rules which had been signed when she was deputy Labour leader, and said she was open to a renegotiation of the TPPA.  Meanwhile, what didn’t she refuse to rule out?  New mining, fracking, or deep sea oil and gas drilling projects.  Ardern was a staffer to Tony Blair in 2006 and is committed to Third Way neoliberal politics, just as he was.

Labour’s Tax Bombshell

In the 1992 UK general election, Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s hopes of defeating a three-term right-wing government were shattered.  The indirect predecessor to Tony Blair had spent nine years moving his party to the right, ditching any hint of policies that would offer radical change, such as taxing the rich.  Alongside that, Kinnock had ditched any hint of class analysis from the rhetoric of the Labour Party.  Everybody thought Kinnock would lead Labour to its first victory since 1974, but instead they were given another five years in opposition, to only win government in 1997 after the complete implosion of the Conservative government — which oversaw economic catastrophe, was soaked in endless scandal, and succumbed to internal civil war.  Why did Kinnock lose?  Because he tried to dodge the issue of how he was going to pay for the moderate increases in public spending he was promising.  The Conservatives ran now famous posters entitled “Labour’s tax bombshell,” which implied that every Briton would have higher taxes under Labour due to a weak economy and a larger government.  These posters had a devastating effect and destroyed Kinnock’s campaign.

This devastating Conservative attack ad from 1992 bears close parallels to the 2017 National Party campaign which stopped Jacindamania in its tracks.  Image credit: Pleece & Co.

One of the main reasons why Ardern’s flame faltered and failed was National’s very effective campaign against New Zealand Labour’s ‘tax bombshell.’  Ardern made a vague promise of a tax working group if she was elected to “assess how to make the tax system more progressive” after the election.  This was a hubristic move and cost her campaign dearly.  Voters whose living standards are already eroding do not want vague statements regarding who is going to be taxed and how much they are going to be taxed, they want clarity — and the National campaign knew this.  National went after the tax working group proposal hard — and it hurt Labour enough that Ardern had to perform a humiliating u-turn and announce that the results of the tax working group would not be implemented until 2021, after the next election.  This tax screw-up followed by the u-turn saw Labour drop from 44% to 37% in Colmar Brunton polling in the final week of the campaign.

‘Jacindamania’ had been taking votes from National, and then fell flat.  But was there an alternative?  Undoubtedly.  

Ye Are Many — They Are Few!

Jeremy Corbyn was the first major British politician in 32 years to break with neoliberal politics.  He came from the diminished but determined socialist tradition in the UK Labour Party associated with opposition to capitalism, war, nuclear weapons, and the European Union.  Corbyn was given 200-1 odds of becoming Labour leader when he declared his candidacy, barely received enough nominations to get on the ballot, and then a couple of months later won the leadership with the biggest mandate of any leader in history, 59.5%.  From day one, the establishment was against him — 74% of media coverage of Corbyn was negative, 80% of the (predominantly Third Way, Blairite) MPs in his own party filed a no-confidence motion against him not even a year into his leadership, and he generally struggled to gain any traction for his political project.  He was 19.5% behind in the polls in April this year when Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May called a surprise general election.  She set a campaign period of just seven weeks and refused to take part in any televised debates with other party leaders.  Everybody was predicting a landslide victory for the Conservatives and that Corbyn would have to resign, defeated, a symbol of the electoral oblivion inevitably inflicted upon those who try and contest elections from the left.

Corbyn ran his supposedly doomed campaign on the slogan “For the Many, Not the Few.”  His manifesto promised £48bn of new government spending in order to drastically reduce the gap between the rich and the poor and restore a measure of equality to Britain.  He promised to raise taxes by an astonishing £52bn to pay for this.  By all conventional political wisdom, this was suicide.  Imagine the campaign the Conservatives could run against a Labour Party promising to raise taxes by many times what Kinnock had proposed in 1992 — it would be Labour’s tax bombshell, multiplied.

Jeremy Corbyn passionate as he launches the 2017 Labour manifesto: ‘For the Many, Not the Few!’  Image credit: EveshamJournal.

Except for one absolutely crucial detail.  Corbyn promised to only raise this £52bn of taxes on the top 5% of Britons.  He was running a radical campaign based on the accurate premise that the rich have hoarded all the wealth in society, and that by dramatically raising their taxes and then spending that money in the interests of everybody, the gap between the rich and the poor could close.  It worked.  This is because it was an injection of radical, class-based politics into a previously neoliberal political atmosphere — Corbyn’s campaign provided the electorate with a sense of powerful perspective which resonated strongly with millions of people.

Corbyn went from 25% in the polls seven weeks out from the election to 30%, 35%, and finally won 40% on voting day — the highest percentage UK Labour had received since Tony Blair’s 2001 election victory; when adjusted for turnout, Corbyn’s result was higher than 2001.  It was in fact Labour’s second biggest share of the vote since 1979, second only to Blair’s 1997 landslide.  The Labour vote went up by 9.6%, their biggest increase in votes between elections since 1945.  While Labour did not win, Corbyn’s electrifying campaign did stop the Conservatives from securing a majority in parliament, when everybody from the media to the Conservatives to the Third Way majority within the Labour Party had been convinced that the Conservatives were on course for an historic landslide.  Corbyn did not win these votes from other left-wing parties, as Jacinda Ardern did.  The surge in support for UK Labour and Corbyn’s political project came from gaining older, conservative voters from the collapsing far-right United Kingdom Independence Party, voters commentators were sure would go to the Conservative Party; it came from taking votes directly from the Conservatives; and, most importantly, it came from an absolutely remarkable surge in turnout from young, working class, and black and minority ethnic voters, with turnout among 18-24 year olds increasing by a staggering 16%.

Jeremy Corbyn increased the Labour vote share by more than any Labour leader since 1945 — and he didn’t do it by cannibalising rival left-wing parties.  Image credit: SRF.

Corbyn proved that to succeed, a left-wing party in the age of populism needs to run on a platform to clearly position itself as a party for the working class and against the wealthy elite; For the Many, Not the Few.  Young people are sick and tired of establishment politics and establishment economics; we yearn for something which actually resonates with our lives, which involve high house prices, ridiculous rental costs, low wages, debt, and a general feeling that our future living standards will not be as good as the living standards our parents have enjoyed.  We yearn for a movement in politics to challenge the status quo, and to state the obvious: the wealthy and the powerful around the world have rigged the economy in their favour, and it is hurting ordinary people like us.  Corbyn also proved that young, working class and ethnically diverse people will turn out to vote for social democratic parties, but only when they believe that genuine change is possible.

At Glastonbury after the election, Corbyn once again did something which defied conventional wisdom.  Amidst the roaring of the crowd gathered to listen to him speak, he read 19th Century poetry to young people primarily there to attend a music festival!  The words he read out demonstrate perfectly the approach the left in Aotearoa desperately needs to use to counter right-wing political narratives, and to change the world.

Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many — they are few!

From The Masque of Anarchy
Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Few Outvote the Many

There were two main reasons why ‘Jacindamania’ did not materialise.  One was the weakness at the core of her Third Way politics; she refused to campaign on a platform of raising taxes on the rich, and was decimated on that crucial issue as a result.  The other reason was that young people; the working class; Māori, Pasifika, and other ethnic minorities; the disenfranchised; the people who are actually affected by neoliberal policies, did not turn out to vote for her.  This was despite the advantage she had that Corbyn did not have, of both the establishment media and the Third Way forces within her own party being exceedingly sympathetic to her political project.  Where Corbyn’s dramatic surge came from young former non-voters, UKIP voters, and Conservative converts, all Ardern was able to manage was to convert Green votes, while the overall centre-left didn’t progress at all.

The narrative that those who do not vote do not care needs to be smashed — it is patronising and ignorant.  The reason why low voter turnout is concentrated among the disenfranchised is that these people are disenfranchised and know from experience that establishment politics have not helped them in their lives.  Non-voters know that whether the government is centre-left or centre-right, red or blue, and whatever the minor parties in the governing coalition are, the election result will not significantly improve their living standards.  They have been betrayed again and again by political leaders and their cynicism is both understandable and justified.

Voter turnout has been steadily declining since the beginning of neoliberal policies: it was only up on 2014 by 0.9% in this year’s election.  Image credit: Te Ara.

Turnout of eligible voters in the last four elections has been: 79.5%; 74.2%; 77.9%; 78.8%; factoring in non-eligible voters, it was lower than those figures.  Jacinda Ardern utterly failed to expand the electorate.  That is why the 35% of New Zealanders who benefit from the gains of economic growth going to the asset-rich can continue voting in National governments to protect their wealth and essentially give themselves tax cuts.  It is because the disenfranchised will not turn out for bland, boring, ‘centrist’ Third Way politics.  Non-voters knew that Ardern was not delivering a break from these politics, the politics that have kept them and their whānau in poverty.  They do not vote because nobody represents them.  In order to win, the left desperately needs those non-voters.

What Happened To the Greens?

I would argue that the Green Party’s election campaign saw both the rise and fall of a chance for New Zealand to have its own Corbyn moment.  What Metiria Turei did was braver even than Corbyn, who has stood with oppressed people for decades and been arrested doing so; Metiria put her own personal story of living in poverty on the line and was torn down for it.  Metiria confessed to the cardinal sin in our beneficiary-bashing neoliberal society: she had lied to Work and Income to get more money when on the benefit because she was not receiving enough money to live on.

Metiria Turei confesses to benefit fraud at the Green Party AGM, unleashing a storm that comes to define the election.  Image credit: Newshub.

Once again, historical context shows a much more illuminating story than the media and mainstream political parties are prepared to accept.  In the 1991 ‘Mother of All Budgets,’ National’s Finance Minister Ruth Richardson heartlessly and methodically slashed all benefits to well below the poverty line.  She commissioned researchers at Otago University to conduct a report into how much money it would cost to survive in New Zealand and took the very lowest of their estimates, despite warnings that this amount of income could only last people a few weeks before they started developing health problems from malnutrition.  Richardson then reduced that already-too-low number by 20%, and set the result as the new level of core benefits.  There is no denying the brutality and callousness of her actions.  She did it in order to counter rising levels of government debt, believing that cutting benefits for the poorest New Zealanders was a better way to solve the debt crisis than raising taxes on the wealthy, just as inequality was shooting off the charts; she did it because her neoliberal ideology dictated that those who are not in work deserve to suffer in poverty.  The 1991 benefit cuts were one of the cruellest acts of state violence in Aotearoa’s cruel, colonial history.

“The people who are responsible are the politicians.  Politicians decide if we have poverty in this country; politicians decide if we end it.  That is the point of my story.”

Metiria Turei

Metiria told her story in order to raise awareness of the fact that the welfare system does not provide enough money for recipients to live on.  With one of the highest child poverty rates in the OECD, with the highest rate of homelessness in the developed world and people in this country living in cars or on the streets; with the top 10% of New Zealanders owning four times as much wealth as the bottom half of the population, something has to change.  Metiria’s story is a vital piece of a broader conversation that we need to have about this inequality crisis.  Telling her story cost Metiria dearly, so much so that media harassment of her family forced her into resigning as Green Party co-leader.  Her stand was the most courageous political act I have seen in my (relatively short, 19-year-long) lifetime.  Green MP Jan Logie, who has somewhat more wisdom and life experience than me, said the same thing on the night Metiria resigned.  This movement to challenge poverty and inequality in Aotearoa is long overdue.

Just one of the statistics that demonstrates Aotearoa’s inequality crisis: we have by far the worst homelessness in the developed world.  Image credit: The Daily Blog.

Metiria telling her story directly challenged the neoliberal status quo which deliberately keeps people in poverty.  That could not be tolerated by the establishment who benefits from neoliberalism.  The right screamed from the heavens; the corporate media bayed for her blood; and, perhaps most disgracefully of all, Jacinda Ardern refused to stand with Metiria, saying “you cannot condone lawbreaking”, and ruling her out of any cabinet role in a Labour-Green government.  When two Third Way Green MPs, Kennedy Graham and David Clendon, resigned in protest against Metiria and her admission of lying, and Metiria was forced to resign herself, the Green Party election campaign was thrown into disarray, with the party in some polls falling below the 5% threshold to get into parliament.  While the election did bring the Greens over the threshold, its MPs are down from 14 to 7, seriously eroding any bargaining power the Greens might otherwise have had in a potential Labour-Green-NZ First government.

What, then, is to be done?  What can the left do now to beat National and marginalise the racist voice of Winston Peters in the next general election, in 2020?  Was Metiria’s sacrifice for nothing?  I shall endeavour to answer these questions in the rest of this essay series!



Author’s note: you can read part two of this series here.  Please note that the election results as stated in this essay were subject to minor changes on October 7 when the results of the special votes were released. Those changes had major consequences however — Labour and the Greens gained one seat each from National, making a coalition with New Zealand First far more viable than it appeared at the time of writing, which ended up putting the Labour-NZ First coalition into government with the Greens supporting in a confidence-and-supply agreement.

Elliot Crossan is a socialist writer and activist. At time of writing, he was Co-Convenor of the Young Greens of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Posted by Elliot Crossan in 2017 New Zealand general election, Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, New Zealand Labour Party, New Zealand National Party, New Zealand politics, 0 comments