Kick National out! –Build a Socialist Alternative, Reject Racism – the Left must welcome immigrants. These are the two slogans our special conference resolved should guide the International Socialist Organisation’s approach to the upcoming election. Over 25 members spent the weekend of 8 – 9 July in Auckland debating our perspectives and approach. Debates covered a range of topics, from the nature of the Labour Party and reformism today to educational meetings on free speech fights, as well as discussing how the ISO can bring socialist ideas to the heightened political period before an election.
We want to see the end of the National government. National has ruled over nine years of increasing inequality and entrenched poverty, and has chipped away – incrementally, cleverly, patiently – at all sorts of rights and protections. While they have avoided direct confrontation with the organised working class, National have whittled away at workers’ rights. Their Employment Relations Act amendments make it harder for unions to organise. Their 90-day trial legislation makes it easier for bosses to intimidate and cow workers. In Christchurch and Auckland especially, but across the country more generally, National’s ‘reforms’ in local government have eroded democratic control.
John Key promised ‘a brighter future’. It looks more like a blighted future. GST has gone up while the rich have had tax cuts. Health and education remain woefully underfunded. Early childhood education has faced constant underfunding – a drop of some $105,000 per centre since 2010, according to the Early Childhood Education Council – while National Standards in primary education narrows the curriculum and undermines the confidence of children that are deemed to be failing. Homelessness has increased. University of Otago figures suggest 1 in 100 New Zealanders are homeless. The almost 1 in 20 who are unemployed, and many part-timers who are underemployed, suffer poverty and wastage of their potential; but bourgeois public opinion considers this state of affairs a social norm now.
The Left must welcome immigrants
Jeremy Corbyn and UK Labour’s stunning success in Britain shows that when a consistent lead is given around fighting class politics, workers can be won to a left-wing programme. Unfortunately, NZ Labour is approaching this election with the same timid, conservative approach that lost it the last two contests. Its slogan is vapid (‘a fresh approach’) and the party remains underwhelming.
Worse still, Labour has been making attacks on immigration the centre of its opposition to National. Labour blames immigration for ‘contributing to the housing crisis’ rather than aiming squarely at the New Zealand speculators, profiteer landlords and capitalists making money from high rents and house price inflation. Labour calls for 20,000–30,000 fewer immigrants to be allowed in each year. And it has encouraged workers to blame immigration for everything from the grotesque (youth suicide) to the state of Auckland’s roads.
None of this has helped Labour’s chances in the election. All they have done is to deflect anger that should be directed at the real culprit – the National government – on to a scapegoat. Labour has allowed National to escape responsibility for the housing crisis and struggling public services. With such weak opposition from Labour it is no wonder that Bill English has managed to sail through scandal after scandal – from Todd Barclay’s bullying antics to the ongoing neglect and mismanagement dogging the Christchurch rebuild – without fatal consequences.
And, more dangerously, Labour’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has helped racist forces. The anti-immigrant climate has emboldened racists to spew casual abuse at Asian people. Winston Peters and New Zealand First will be the gainers from Labour’s seeming endorsement of racist and nationalist politics. It is outrageous that the party identifying itself with labour should be stoking these anti-labour fires of working-class division.
That’s why we say: Reject Racism! The Left must welcome immigrants. The New Zealand working class is ethnically diverse – almost 40% of Auckland’s population, according to the 2013 census, was born overseas. Growing diversity in working-class neighbourhoods and schools means a multicultural society is the lived reality and norm of the future.
Employers exploit the vulnerable status of many new and temporary immigrants to enforce harsh conditions and low pay. This makes it crucial that the Left stands with immigrant workers and agitates in their defence. If the bosses can undermine conditions in one part of the working class now, they will better be able to do the same to others tomorrow. Conversely, if we can win migrant workers to unions and to joint struggle then the whole of the working class wins. Defending migrant workers’ rights – both industrial and political – means strengthening migrants’ identification with the labour movement and with ‘local’ workers. Solidarity works both ways.
Until recently the Greens had been joining in the anti-immigrant push. Co-leader James Shaw sparked widespread disquiet amongst left-wing Greens when he used a TV interview to announce plans to limit migration even more drastically than Labour. Fortunately, concerted pressure from activists within the party forced Shaw to backtrack. In July the Greens explicitly distanced themselves from the from the anti-migrant rhetoric, but their policy still contains the racist demand that migrants ‘demonstrate an awareness of New Zealand’s laws and social norms’. Overall, political pressure has pushed the party in the right direction.
Labour’s and the Greens’ proposed reforms
Working people and a section of the middle class wanting to see the end of National will be voting for Labour and the Greens respectively. And there are proposed reforms from both parties which would make a material difference in workers’ lives: for example, around moves towards equal pay and increased funding for families. Both Labour and the Greens support doubling the quota of refugees brought to New Zealand. The Greens, at their July conference, announced a range of measures around benefits – ending the punitive systems at WINZ and giving social welfare benefits a much-needed increase. Also in July, Labour announced that they would scrap National’s planned tax cuts and will invest $8 billion more in health, $4 billion more in education and provide $5 billion more for families than National allowed for in their May budget. Labour also promises to restore a range of employment and union rights removed by National.
Labour and the Greens are putting up a range of policies to appeal to the working class. However, both parties signed a neoliberal Budget Responsibility Rules pact to reduce public spending to 30 percent of Gross Domestic Product. Both Labour and the Greens are opportunist parties that cannot be trusted to deliver on their promises.
The election of a Labour and Green government would be a step forward, but our tasks remain outside Parliament. Real change comes from mass action from below. We need to rebuild fighting trade unions, support movements of the oppressed and, above all, build a socialist alternative. Collective activity, such as strikes and mass protests, is the way to put pressure on the government of the day, of whatever colour, in defence of workers and the oppressed.
As part of our wider support for migrants and refugees, the ISO calls on voters in Wellington Central to support Gayaal Iddamalgoda, the candidate of the Migrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.
Whatever the stated policies, one thing remains clear: no party standing in the election this year has a comprehensive programme to meet the needs of the working class and justice for the oppressed. All the parties, including the Green Party, support the capitalist system that guarantees ecological catastrophe.
We stand for a revolutionary change to a completely different system. Socialism, the democratic self-management of society by everyone in the interests of everyone, begins with the questions of human need, unlike capitalism driven by the profit motive.
During the pre-election period we will step up the intensity of our activity to advance clear-cut Marxist politics. We will look for opportunities to intervene in election meetings, and will advance socialist ideas through our leaflets, posters, and magazines.
Whatever the outcome in September, our side needs to be prepared to fight the employers and the government. We are for working-class unity, which means fighting the colonial legacy of oppression and poverty for Maori and Pasefika peoples, fighting racism, sexism and homophobia, and welcoming migrant workers. Unity and action are the means to win gains for all, protect the environment and to stop imperialist wars.
Seeing National lose would put a smile on the face of everyone who has suffered under their rule these last nine years. Upsetting the preferred order of our rulers has to be a good thing – it would give our side a modest boost of confidence. Voting for Labour or the Greens in order to kick National out is but one step. The wider project of rebuilding the Left and laying the foundations for a revolutionary party of the working class remains the focus of the International Socialists before and after the election.