Northland: No Win for Workers

The preliminary election result excluding special votes yet to be counted give Winston Peters a commanding win: 15, 359 votes (54% of the vote) over National’s Mark Osborne’s 11, 347 (39.9%). Labour’s Willow-Jean Prime received 1, 315 votes (just 4.6% of the vote), and no other candidate scored more than 107 votes.

Northland and its predecessor electorate has been won by National in every election from 1943 until this election and has been thought of as a safe seat. At last year’s general election Mike Sabin had 53% of the vote and a near 10,000 vote majority over Labour. New Zealand First has not put up a candidate here since 2005 when Jim Peters, brother of Winston, came fourth with only 8% of the poll.

What are we to make of Winston Peters’ astonishing victory? For one thing it shows just how fragile National’s support is. John Key’s victories in 2011 and 2014 were as much due to the Labour opposition’s inability to rally people behind it rather than positive support for National’s policies. It is true that Sabin’s disgrace and Peters’ celebrity out-classing National’s nonentity candidate were always going to be factors in the contest, but they do not explain the scale of National’s crushing defeat.

When all is said and done, what have National governments done for the people of Northland since 2008? The electorate may have a few wealthy landowners, but overwhelmingly Northland’s townspeople and rural communities have found making a living hard going. For thirty years we have been ruled under the doctrine that the private sector is the answer and the state must withdraw from intervention in the economy. This has been disastrous for rural areas, where only social policies of the state results in infrastructure being installed and regional development.

The election result caps off a bad start to Key’s third term. Only time will tell if the Northland electors’ rebuff of National has presaged a rocky road ahead. Key’s governments have got away with it before when they should have been dead and buried. What has been missing is workers’ action – strikes essentially – to give form to the widespread discontent that exists below the surface calm. The central question is whether the discontent will be channelled into action. If it does, the shine will finally come off John Key.

Andrew Little backed Peters in this election. That, I am arguing, was a mistake. Looked at in the narrowest parliamentary arithmetic the election defeat has weakened National’s position. With National down from 60 to 59 seats they and ACT are one short of a majority. However, Peter Dunne and the Maori Party have made confidence and supply agreements with National that ensures the government will continue. The marginal difference now is that Dunne and the Maori Party, if they work in concert, can soften the hard-right aspects of government Bills. That was Little’s rationale for torpedoing Willow-Jean Prime’s campaign. The price for this marginal parliamentary gain is far too high. Labour has ceded ground to the populist anti-foreigner New Zealand First, boosting Peters’ claims to be an opposition spokesperson. This tactical voting by the Left could be habit forming, but it is rarely reciprocated in the Left’s favour. In the general election Prime came second with 26%. This time she is down to third with 4.6%. It looks a long way back for Labour to recover its position. This is a bad day for the Labour movement. Northland should not be seen as a no hope electorate for Labour. As mentioned, Northland was National from 1943. It should be remembered that from 1938-43 Labour held this seat. When Labour was delivering real reforms it won small towns and rural areas. Andrew Little and Labour should have fought for Northland with radical policies and damned the arithmetic.

Between the National hack and the New Zealand First nag, the working class had no horse in this race. Winston Peters only stood a chance in Northland because he is, like the electorate’s voting base, a Tory. He has spent decades peddling a mixture of old-fashioned Muldoonism and unpleasant and reactionary anti-Asian racism. His party is made of unsavoury small business characters and backwater charlatans, like the Islamophobic buffoon Richard Prosser. Peters’ natural home is amongst the anti-union and nationalist Right.

But, for all this, because of NZ First’s nationalist opposition to the TPPA, some on the left and in the unions have been excited by the prospect of his win. This shows up the dire state of political clarity on our side currently. We need to start not with the horse-trading and speculation over numbers and deals in Parliament, but from the standpoint of the needs of the working class. What will this mean for workers? Will his win advance the consciousness and combativeness of working people?

It’s obvious that the answer to all of these questions is no.