New Zealand: We need a new workers’ party

The recent decision by the New Zealand government to offer covert military support for a US-led assault on Iraq has provided the final confirmation of what many people in this country have known for a long time – that the Labour Party, far from being a party that represents ordinary workers’ interests, has become completely subservient to the needs of big business and global capitalism.

We are very pleased to post an article on the need for a new alternative to the bosses’ parties in New Zealand from the first edition of a journal produced by Socialist Alternative, the newly established CWI in New Zealand.

The journal also includes articles on the potential war with Iraq, the crisis in Venezuela and on the recent student protests in East Timor.

CWI Online, 8 January 2003

Of course it is true that within the Labour Party there have always been elements – particularly among the parliamentary leadership – who were willing to go along with the wishes of the capitalists. But in the past these elements were held in check by the grassroots membership, who were overwhelmingly working class and based in the trade unions. In fact, it was the union movement, in the form of the United Federation of Labour (the ’Red Feds’), who took the initiative in setting up the Labour Party in 1916 so that the working class could have its own independent political voice. In subsequent years this had the effect of ensuring that however much the parliamentary leadership might desire to reach an accommodation with the capitalists, the need to appear accountable to their working class membership would mean that they were constrained in how far they could actually go in this direction.

1980s – right wing take Labour

This situation continued pretty much unaltered right up until the end of the 1970s, when the failure of the Muldoon National Party government [the National Party were the traditional party of big business] to break with the Keynesian policies of state intervention in the economy and full employment in the face of a severe economic crisis led a substantial section of the capitalists to abandon their traditional home in the National Party and transfer their allegiance to Labour. At the same time the number of people from non-working class backgrounds occupying key positions within the Labour Party increased dramatically – as did the level of corporate donations flooding in to fill the party’s electoral coffers. These developments were crucial in allowing the right-wing pro-capitalist elements within Labour – led by Roger Douglas – to establish and consolidate their own power base independent of the mass membership. As a result, when Labour finally took power in 1984 they were able to pursue neo liberal policies designed to restore profitability at the expense of workers’ interests – especially since they were vastly less dependent on the trade unions either for votes or for financial support. This fundamental shift in Labour’s support base was most powerfully expressed in the 1987 general election, when the party came close to winning the ’blue-ribbon’ seat of Fendalton, one of the wealthiest constituencies in the entire country.

Alliance – a false alternative

Meanwhile, workers were leaving the party in droves – many of them flocking to join Jim Anderton’s New Labour Party, which included within its ranks all of the best fighting elements drawn from Old Labour. When New Labour combined forces with the Greens, Manu Motuhake and the Democrats to form the Alliance in 1991 many people were optimistic that it could become a force for real change. However, despite polling 18.7% in the 1993 general election and finishing a close third behind Labour it failed to put forward a clear socialist alternative to the free market policies of the two main parties and consequently ended up losing much of its support. The Alliance tried to appeal to all classes and sections of society but only succeeded in alienating working class voters, who saw little point in voting for a party that could not make up its mind whose interests to represent.

In 2002 the Alliance suffered defeat at the ballot box and is no longer represented in parliament. Labour is continuing with its rightward evolution into an openly pro-capitalist party, attempting to introduce privatisation through the back door in the form of the PPP (Public-Private Partnership) scheme, under which the community puts up the money to pay for the cost of building new infrastructure such as water services and roads and then hands it all over to the private sector to run at a profit. Labour has also revealed its complete hypocrisy by condemning Winston Peters’ attacks on immigrants while itself introducing racist new laws aimed at making it harder for people from non-English speaking backgrounds to gain entry into New Zealand.

Unite the working class militants

What is really needed now is a new mass workers’ party that can unite working class militants and Maori and radical youth around a fighting anti-capitalist programme and provide a genuine alternative to the two main bosses’ parties. As the only party standing to the left of Labour, the Greens might seem like the obvious candidate to fulfil this role. However, despite their radical stance on issues like genetic modification and the coming war with Iraq, the Greens are primarily a middle class electoral party and as such they cannot be relied upon to represent the interests of ordinary working people.

A new workers’ party must be able to take an independent class-based position on issues like immigration, explaining that neo liberal policies – not immigrants – are to blame for the problems affecting working class communities, such as low wages, unemployment and a rising incidence of violent crime. In order to be successful a new workers’ party must also be open and democratic, capable of attracting a wide range of organisations including trade unions, the unemployed and community groups.

The CWI in New Zealand, Socialist Alternative, calls for a new mass party of the working class. Of course we also are prepared to join other genuine alliances of the Left in anticipation of this development. Once a new mass workers’ party emerges we in Socialist Alternative would immediately join and be among the most active promoters of the project, while continuing to argue from within its ranks for the ideas of radical socialism and militant mass action at a grassroots level to bring about a fundamental change in society. That is why we would encourage anyone who is serious about fighting capitalism to join us and help build the forces of genuine working class unity.

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January 2003