Reflecting on 2015

A session of the annual conference (27-29 November) of the International Socialist Organisation of Aotearoa/New Zealand was devoted to a discussion of the national political situation. The following is an abridged version of the introduction given by Martin Gregory.

Let’s start with the economy. In recent times, in terms of Gross Domestic Product, the economy has been jogging along modestly overall. After coming out of recession at the beginning of 2010 the economy was on a rising trend until the end of 2014, but has trended downwards a bit this year.

To put the New Zealand economy in context, growth has lagged a little behind the USA and UK, but has been a ahead of Canada, the Euro area, Japan and recently Australia. This middling performance has been largely due to demand from China for primary products. A closer look at the fluctuation in growth rates shows that the New Zealand economy is disproportionally dependent on the international price of just one item – milk. The reality is a far cry from the claimed “rock star economy”.

Despite the underlying fragility, the economy has performed well enough not to be a cause of any social crisis to worry the ruling capitalist class. For those in work, pay rates have increased a little ahead of price inflation. However, the economy has not been strong enough to reduce unemployment, which has risen to 6%, partly due to the end of emigration now that the Australian economy has weakened.

Currently the economy is trending downwards, but it is too early to say whether this will continue. Thus far the economy has been a factor contributing to the stability of the current government.

Under John Key the government’s strategy has been one of steady as she goes. National’s popularity rating has been remarkably stable ever since the 2014 general election. We are not seeing spectacular attacks on the working class, but a war of attrition. Employment rights are whittled away bit by bit. Gradually, work becomes precarious for more and more people. There is creeping privatisation. Public services are squeezed by cutbacks. The government is slowly pushing forward the neo-liberal agenda all the time and it is not meeting any major resistance.

Union membership has been in decline. Density dropped to under 20% in 2013. The bureaucratic response has been mergers: SFWO and EPMU to form E tū and the absorption of the Southern Local Government Officers Union into the PSA.

The non-bureaucratic response to decline would be an increase of union activity, but there is no evidence of that. Industrial action is still at a very low level. There were only 6 stoppages in 2013. In 2014 there were 13, which is still minute. The increase from 6 to 13 is not significant. We are in a period of historically low levels of industrial action. This a reflection of the political and industrial setbacks suffered by the working class at the hands of the neo-liberal onslaught since the 1980s. To date the working class has not recovered its confidence to take on the employers.

The Labour Party promises the working class reforms, but its politics are fundamentally capitalist. Under David Cuncliffe there was a half-hearted shift to the left. Under Andrew Little the party has pulled back to the right. For example, at its recent conference it dropped the capital gains tax policy. The Party continues to target the foreign bogeyman in its housing policy.

There is no movement around the Labour Party. No left-wing trends have emerged and there are little signs of life amongst the membership. The Labour Party has hovered around the 30% mark in opinion polls all year.

The largest political movement this year has been the protests over the TPPA. These have had patchy support from the bureaucracy of trade unions. The character of these protests has been similar to the asset sales protests of previous years. In both cases the influence of reformism has dominated. Progressive anti-neoliberalism is mixed up with left, and not so left, nationalism.

All told, the state of the working class movement is one of unchanged passivity.

Among points of note, one of the most positive is that the Living Wage campaign has struck a chord around the Wellington area with several groups becoming established. The LW campaign is an attempt to deal with low pay by political action. Its reach is effectively limited to elected bodies that are vulnerable to political campaigning – basically local councils.

A negative point of note is that in the Northland by-election back in March the Labour Party abandoned its candidate and called for a tactical vote for New Zealand First. Consequently Winston Peters won to take a seat that had been held by National since 1943. This has set a dangerous precedent. Under tactical voting the left and the middle gang up against the right. Mostly this means the left voting middle. The middle supporters rarely return the compliment, so tactical voting becomes a one-way street rightwards. New Zealand First are portrayed wrongly in the media as on the left. They are a populist reactionary party and the Labour Party was stupidly wrong to cede ground to them at Northland.

The left of Labour is tiny and, on the whole, in decline. We, the ISO, have bucked this trend. We seem to be the last group left that does regular public sales of a socialist magazine. We are nevertheless a very small group that cannot yet fill the gaping void to the left of Labour on a national basis. We can, however, promote a socialist alternative on university campuses in the cities where we exist.

In conclusion, the political situation is one of no change from the steady tightening of the neo-liberal screw by the ruling class, and the continuing inaction and lack of confidence by the working class. This is a sober assessment, but hard reality must be faced in order for a small group to orientate itself correctly.