Mana and working class consciousness

On April 30 this year, a new political party was formed by former Maori Party MP Hone Harawira – Te Mana Party. It was formed from a left split, as Harawira was expelled for opposing his party’s support for the National Government. Mana immediately drew support from veteran activist and lawyer Annette Sykes and Unite Union leaders John Minto, Mike Treen, and Matt McCarten. It has also received support from CTU vice-president Syd Keepa, Ngati Kahu leader Professor Margaret Mutu and former Green Mps Nandor Tanczos and Sue Bradford. It’s clear from the policies Hone has so far offered that he is determined to broaden his support beyond his te Tai Tokerau electorate by appealing explicitly to the working class.

Mana will be “pro-worker” and for trade unions, anti-neoliberal (going so far as to call for a “planned economy”), and anti-rich (calling for a tax policy that targets the wealthy). Added to these recent statements is Hone’s long record as an activist, the strong stance he has taken in Parliament (including important gestures like his Alice Springs ‘walkabout’ in solidarity with Koori targeted by the Australian governments Northern Territory “intervention”), the support of veteran activists like Annette Sykes and Labour leader Phil Goff ruling out any coalition with Mana. Combined, these suggest Mana’s policy direction will continue towards the left.

Alliance Party

According to one poll, Hone has 75% support in Te Tai Tokerau – a margin most MPs would kill for. This cannot be taken for granted – Labour is hoping in-fighting between the Maori Party and Mana will allow it to slip its candidate into office – but if any seat in NZ can be called safe, it is probably Hone’s. Furthermore, as Mike Treen wrote: “An online poll in the NZ Herald of 30,000 readers had 8% saying they would vote for the Mana Party. What was interesting about the poll was that the 8% stayed steady all day and there was no online campaign among Mana Party supporters to go and vote. If only half that level of support shows up in the national election the new movement will have five or six Mps.”

It’s worth comparing this level of support with the Alliance Party in the early 1990s.

In 1990, New Labour, which had split from Labour eighteen months earlier, polled 5.2%. The new party, led by veteran left Labour MP Jim Anderton and claiming over 4,000 members, called for public ownership, progressive taxation and full employment. The Greens won 6.3%, the Democrats (supported by small farmers, small businessmen and some workers) 1.7%, and the radical Maori-based party, Manu Motuhake, 5.2%. Early electoral success for the Alliance arrived in 1992, when it came within a few hundred votes of victory over the Nationals in the Tamaki parliamentary by-election. Eight months later, the Alliance gained 42% support and control of the regional government in Auckland. Then, in the 1993 general election, it scored an impressive 18.7%, when the very unpopular National Party barely retained power. The FPP electoral system, however, meant that it won only two seats in parliament. (Niall Mulholland, Socialism Today, Sept 2002) In 1999, Alliance, with 7.7% of the vote and 10 Mps, joined Labour in government and in 2002 won only 1.2% of the vote.

The trajectory of the Alliance illustrates the failure of an electoral approach and the limits of MMP. While the party deserves credit for raising the banner of resistance during the dark decade of the 1990s, it invested too heavily in an electoral strategy, creating a party held hostage by its parliamentary leadership. It is significant also to note Bryce Edwards’ point that there was an inverse relationship between Alliance’s electoral funding and its share of the vote.

The most important point though, is that Alliance enjoyed far greater electoral support initially than Mana does now. I would argue that, given the scale of our task – rebuilding the working class as a conscious social force – this is no bad thing. Papering over differences, as New Labour did when it went into coalition with the Social Creditors (Democrats) and the former National Party Liberals, is a recipe for disaster.

The Alliance Party was formed from a backlash to neoliberalism, which despite dominating NZ politics since 1984, has never been endorsed by a majority of the electorate. In the 1990s, the level of anger against Labour and National’s betrayal of their constituents was so high it was possible to form a party purely on that basis. This anger and sense of betrayal was certainly not limited to the working class.

Muldoon had cultivated a right-wing support base for Keynesian policies (state intervention) amongst farmers, small business and the working class. Labour removed farm subsidies and shut down rural post offices, gutting country communities. National followed up with ‘rationalisation’ of rural health services. The primary drivers of neoliberalism were a small minority of big businesspeople, with finance capital disproportionately represented.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, both National and Labour governments were in permanent crisis, economically and electorally. In this climate – with widespread and savage cross-class disenchantment with Labour and National and economic crisis it seemed to Alliance that a straightforward electoral strategy had a good chance of delivering them into government. The disparate parties that formed the Alliance may have been grouped around opposition to neoliberalism but this varied considerably and, while there was plenty of talk about socialism from New Labour activists, the struggle to rebuild working class organisation was always secondary to the struggle to build cross-class appeal to win elections.

Mana: working class, Maori, and proud

But most importantly I want us to be a movement to rebuild the MANA of our people. MANA tamariki, MANA wahine, MANA tangata, and the MANA of our kaumatua and kuia. The MANA of beneficiaries who are treated like a blight on society. The MANA of workers who have been reduced to near slavery. The MANA of our Pacific cousins who continue to be used as cheap labour and exported home every season, and the MANA of our people, worn down by decades of deceit and dishonest dealings by the Crown, and governments who would reduce us to being no more than another ethnic minority, in our own land. And that is our greatest challenge – the restoration of MANA in a way that lifts every heart, and every soul, and challenges us to accept that only the best will do for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren … (Hone Harawira)

Mana does not have the luxury of cross-class appeal. For a start, there is racism. Hone is Maori. In a society where half the prison population is Maori, this limits his cross-class appeal. It is not impossible for a Maori to win cross-class, Pakeha support, as Winston Peters has shown, but it does make it impossible to fight for Maori rights.

This illustrates a deeper point – the inextricable links between Maori and the working class. On the left and in Maori nationalism, there is a tendency to treat Maori issues as theoretically separate from class politics. While this is an advance on the assimilationist policies of Labour in the past, which aspired to create an egalitarian little Britain in the South Pacific by systematically suppressing Maori identity, it is unscientific. There is no such thing as “pure” class struggle or “pure” tino rangatiratanga. Classes are formed in the same way as individuals, from the inherited traditions of the past, the pressures of the present and aspirations for the future.

Inherited traditions

The inherited traditions of the past can be both positive and negative. Insofar as the traditional goal of the workers movement was building an egalitarian little Britain, that tradition is negative. Insofar as the workers movement here draws on the traditions of class war and anti-imperialism inherited from Britain and Ireland (which it did throughout the post-war period) it was positive. Similarly the tino rangatiratanga movement can draw on traditions of solidarity and anti-imperialist struggle or on negative traditions of inter-tribal warfare and aristocratic elitism.

Objectively, from a working class point of view, these rival traditions are not equally valid. If it weren’t for intertribal rivalry, the colonisation of New Zealand would have been impossible. Similarly, some tribal leaders are drawing on aristocratic ideas to justify their increasing integration into the capitalist elite, as has already happened in Tonga. Tukuroirangi Morgan’s crass statement that “mana is money” is the extreme version of this. On the Pakeha side, ignoring the colonial dimension of capitalism in these islands meant our side was continually blindsided. The state from the earliest times has taken Maori communal land (by fair and foul means), chopped it up and distributed it among the Pakeha working class to ease tensions between Pakeha workers and bosses – especially after the World Wars. Similarly, insofar as the Pakeha working class ignored colonisation, it was unprepared for the rapid influx of Maori and then Pacific Island labour into the cities in the 1960s and 70s. This was ignorance was skilfully exploited by the Labour government and the National Prime Minister Rob “Piggy” Muldoon, with his dawn raids and 81 Springbok Tour.

Pressures of the present

After battlefield defeat and near-death in the 19th century, Maori have been resurgent through much of the 20th century, in the face of systematic racism in schools, at work, from landlords and from the police – from all the institutions of the state. Maori, who make up about 14% of the population, have also become the most confident section of the working class. Labour’s betrayal shattered the confidence of the unions and many labour activists were demoralised by the fall of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe. Paltry though the real gains of the Treaty of Waitangi may have been, the ideological concessions the state has made have been great. Maori identity is validated in a way it never has been before. At the same time, of course, the real living standards of the majority of Maori have fallen. In the present, there is enormous pressure on Maori leaders from below and from above. This is an explosive contradiction. The split in the Maori Party is a reflection and expression of that contradiction. Hone Harawira represents one of the poorest electorates in the country and he, and other leaders of Mana like Annette, have lived through the battles of the 70s and 80s that are now part of the best traditions of the working class – and Maori.

Aspirations for the future

As revolutionary socialists, as Leninists, we see class struggle as not only essential to understanding the world, but the development of that struggle as something we play a part in through consciously identifying with the working class. At the moment in New Zealand, the working class has an objective reality – its existence can be measured – but no subjective reality. Very few workers see themselves as part of the working class. Developing that class consciousness is one of the tasks of revolutionary socialists.

That means creating a class history, a collective memory based on the best traditions of the past, reacting to the pressures, the attacks of the present, and articulating a vision for the future. Let’s be clear – these tasks are beyond the strength of the small groups of activists who at present identify as socialists. It’s not something that we do on our own neither. The development of an indigenous working class voice will emerge from mass struggle. At present, the clearest speech is coming from Te Tai Tokerau. The right has argued that Hone has to decide whether Mana will be a working class party or a “racist” (ie Maori nationalist) party. This is a false choice. Right now, the clearest working class voice is a Maori voice.

This voice will certainly alienate cross-class support. For the purpose of working class consciousness, this is no bad thing at all.