Why does anyone ever discuss NZ First as a part of the centre-left? That fact the question even needs asked shows what a sorry state we’re in. And yet it keeps coming up. The mainstream political commentators routinely speculate on Labour-NZ First deals. But more worrying is the way this association has crept into the union movement more widely and the activist left. NZ First was a presence at the anti-TPPA rallies over the last few years, and has been welcomed as part of that campaign’s generally nationalist colouring. The party is capable of giving left colouring to itself from time to time, and Andrea Martin in Education is often more coherent and compelling than Labour. But we need to clear – this party is no force for the working class. NZ First is a classic example of right-wing populism, appealing to the unorganised and disenfranchised in the working class, the rural working class in particular, but taking as its base the petty bourgeois. Its programme – anti-immigrant rhetoric and nationalism in the service of local business – is toxic.
We need to start not from the calculations of parliament but from the needs of the working class. What clarifies our side’s sense of its strength? What gives us a greater understanding of the social forces at work in politics? What encourages workers independent activity? Being soft of NZ First’s rancid nationalism contributes no useful answers to any of these questions. The assumption here is that somehow local capitalists represented by NZ First are better than foreign capitalists, but both must adhere to the laws of capitalism – both exploit their workforce, neither necessarily reintroduce their profits into the economy and both degrade and destroy their environment in the pursuit of profit. A cursory glance at the housing market shows this, where it is not migrants but overwhelmingly New Zealand capitalists owning more than one home. NZ First has no place on the left.
The party is full of cranks and reactionary bigots from the worst parts of small time capitalist life. During the Leave campaign in Britain earlier this year Winston Peters publicly associated himself with Nigel Farage, then leader of the right-wing UKIP, and later in New Zealand associated the Leave vote – in which the British ‘exhibited the same character they showed when they confronted Hitler’, Peters claimed – with NZ First’s programme. Peters has been whipping up anti-Asian sentiment for years: in 1996 he used a speech attacking rows of “ostentatious houses” in Howick to target Asians, while in 1999 he blamed Auckland’s housing on migrants. Now he wants to stop Indian students working while they are here.
NZ First has a viciously Islamophobic edge. Peters in 2005 warned about Islam’s alleged “militant underbelly”, while MP Richard Prosser, once a columnist in the Christian culture-wars Investigate magazine, publicly called for Muslim men to be banned from flights and railed against the “the West” is under threat from “evil urban liberalism”.
Its class base, too, is firmly in small business. This is the kind of worried, individualistic world – caught between the frightening big power of proper capital and resentful of the collective potential of organised labour – that grows the worst kinds of prejudice and outlook. Ron Mark and Darroch Ball have army backgrounds. Fletcher Tabuteau and Clayton Mitchell both ran small business. NZ First is a classically petit-bourgeois party. Its members and MPs all present themselves as central to the ‘community’, a place somehow outside of the class struggle of capital and labour. The reality, of course, is that the ‘community values’ they espouse fit comfortably with business and have no real place for workers in struggle. Let alone migrants and newly arrived members of the working class!
Winston Peters’ great skill – and he is a master of it – is in seeming an outsider and a truth teller all the while he has, for decades now, been a comfortable member of the political class. Muldoon’s old protégé can offer nothing for the working class.