Labour: Understanding Reformism

Labour Parties pose a great puzzle and a challenge for revolutionary socialists in New Zealand, Australia, and Britain. Labour is the oldest political party in New Zealand, and continues to command the ‘support’ (however grudging) of much of the working class. The party is remarkably resilient. After overseeing massive attacks on the working class in the 1980s (Rogernomics) the party went into serious decline, suffering a serious split in 1989 (with Jim Anderton’s New Labour party taking perhaps as much as one-third of the membership) and winning only 28% of the vote, under Helen Clark, in 1996. But then the 2000s saw the party recover, winning 41% of the vote in 2002 and 2005 and rebuilding its activist base. The John Key years saw another long trough, with David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little all failing to make much of an impact. Now, under Jacinda Ardern’s articulate and energetic leadership, the party seems to be reviving. The chance of a change in government has become a real prospect. This is exciting for everyone who has suffered under National’s ‘nine long years’, and makes the theoretical questions around Labour’s nature freshly relevant again. In Britain the party’s fortunes have veered even more wildly, from the hollowing out of the party structure under Tony Blair’s leadership to the astonishing revival of the left under Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour is a special challenge for us because it is a party that is both (1) committed to managing the capitalist system in the interests of capitalism and (2) an institution that draws its support from the working class and is shaped by the trade union bureaucracy. If we want to build a mass workers revolutionary party this will involve breaking workers illusions in Labour. That’s a challenge.

Labour is a special puzzle for revolutionary socialists because it has existed in this unstable compound for a long time – a century, in fact. It has managed capitalism in the interests of the bosses and against its working class supporters, sometimes relatively mildly (1957-1960), sometimes savagely indeed (1984-1990). It has betrayed struggle after struggle. It subordinates class interests to the ‘national’ (really the capitalist) interest, and has been involved in attacks on democratic rights and workers’ abilities to organise. Why then does it continue to command working-class support? Why hasn’t it collapsed? Why haven’t workers rejected Labour’s betrayals in order to turn to socialism?

The excitement of this current election offers a good position to reflect on the revolutionary socialist attitude to the Labour Party. This, for us, is a question of analysis and strategy, not of principles: our aim is to build a revolutionary socialist alternative. But an alternative to what? In some advanced capitalist countries (the United States most importantly) there is not and has never been a mass reformist party with organic links to the trade union bureaucracy. So workers’ organisations try to appeal to one of the capitalist parties (usually, but not always, the Democrats), just as workers in New Zealand and Britain once pinned their hopes on getting a hearing from the Liberals. In other countries (India’s various Communist parties, for example, or Japan) there are the remnants of mass Communist Parties with very different histories: Japan’s, for example, gets millions of votes, has a daily newspaper and a mass membership, but has never been near government. So we need a concrete analysis of the situation we find ourselves in with regards to particular social formations. If New Zealand Labour is no longer a reformist party that has implications for how we relate to left-leaning workers and students. Is a vote for Labour a sign, no matter how elementary, of class consciousness? Or is it no different from voting for National? Are Labour a challenge within our movement, or are they a force wholly outside of it?

Clearing the field: this is not about ‘lesser evilism’

The term ‘lesser evilism’ has crept in to debates in Aotearoa from US contexts online. I don’t think it’s helpful.

Political parties are the distillation of class struggle in society more widely, and they reflect and shape this struggle. So some parties (the Greens, for instance) draw on (and then reflect back) a middle-class and professional support base. Others, like National, are the traditional parties of farmers and business. Labour grew out of, and is still shaped by, the trade union movement.

Parties’ formation, then, shape how they in turn respond to and can confront class struggle, but it doesn’t determine how they will to this. That depends on the wider balance of class forces: how strong the unions and social movements are; the state of the economy; the international situation; etc. So we can’t know how ‘evil’ a government will be in advance. Sometimes reformist governments have managed to be much more evil than openly bourgeois ones, precisely because they’ve been able to use their connections with the union movement to dampen down resistance to neoliberal reforms. This is what happened in Australia (Labor 1983 – 1996) and New Zealand (1984 – 1990). Sometimes Tory governments have been too weak to do much evil in the industrial front because our side has been strong enough to beat them back. The Tories in Britain in the early 1970s are an example of this. Sometimes, in periods of relative economic health, Labour governments have combined minor reforms for workers with reforms beneficial to the capitalist class. This is what Helen Clark managed: real reforms (interest off student loans; Working for Families, etc) alongside industrial relations reform making it harder to strike.

So asking what will be the ‘lesser evil’ is confusing. What matters is what parties represent socially, and how this then impacts the wider class struggle.

Policies aren’t the most important thing either

It might seem odd, but policies on their own shouldn’t shape our views too much either. Talk is cheap and, as workers discovered to their costs in 1984 (Labour) and 1990 (National), parties can campaign on policies and then implement the exact opposite once they are in power. In the days before mass reformist parties working-class voters used to be courted by policies from the two major capitalist parties in Britain (Tory and Liberal). We’ve reverted back to those days to some degree with oddball vanity projects like the TOP Party (Gareth Morgan) and the Internet Party (Kim Dotcom).

Frederick Engels offers a different approach. In a letter to an American correspondent in 1886 he wrote:

The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organisation of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party. And this step has been taken, far more rapidly than we had a right to hope, and that is the main thing. That the first programme of this party is still confused and highly deficient, that it has set up the banner of Henry George, these are inevitable evils but also only transitory ones. The masses must have time and opportunity to develop and they can only have the opportunity when they have their own movement–no matter in what form so long as it is only their own movement–in which they are driven further by their own mistakes and   learn wisdom by hurting themselves.

This is the key to the puzzle and the challenge of Labour. It still represents in some sense ‘the organisation of the workers as an independent political party’ but, in the century and a quarter since Engels was writing, parties like Labour have subordinated workers’ organisations to the needs of capitalism. So the evils – alas – have been far from transitory! But the key question remains: if Labour is connected, in however tenuous a way, with labour, then they ways socialists approach it will need to be qualitatively different to how we approach other formations.

We should make this judgement based on composition, support, and, finally, programme.


Labour – in New Zealand as well as in Australia and Britain – was not founded as an out-and-out workers party. In fact in all three instances Labour came into being as a product of the defeat of workers’ struggle. Unionists, reeling from defeats in the industrial arena, turned to politics as a more hospitable venue. Defeats in the 1890s led to Labor in Australia; defeats following 1913 to Labour in New Zealand. Former revolutionary socialists like Harry Holland moved from preaching the overthrow of capitalism by way of workers’ insurrection to suggesting capitalism could be overthrown via Parliament.

So Labour was always a contradictory force. In some ways, its formation was an enormous step forward. It was the arrival of trade unionism into politics in one sense, but it was also a retreat from trade unionism in another. It was the working-class arriving as a political actor in one arena (parliament), just as it was the working class being demoralised and defeated in a more important arena (the workforce). Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein put it well when they call Labour ‘the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy’. Labour in Britain was, they write ‘the direct entry of trade unions into political affairs. However it also represented a retreat from trade unionism – from the belief that collective organisation could defend itself.

Is this still the case? There’s been much made of the professionalization of the party in analysis over the last few years, and this does matter. Many MPs (leader Jacinda Ardern is an example) have spent their entire professional lives as political staffers and operatives. But the parliamentary party still reflects the trade union bureaucracy in a way no other party does. The previous leader, Andrew Little, was president of the EPMU, New Zealand’s largest private sector union. 22% of the current caucus have a background as trade union officials.

More importantly, major unions are formally affiliated to the Labour Party. E Tū, the Maritime Union, the Dairy Workers Union, the Meatworkers Union and the Rail and Maritime Union are all affiliated. Informally a proliferation of links connect the Party with the trade union bureaucracy, as anyone who has been on a union training course or attended a union conference will know. The Labour leader is a regular fixture at CTU conferences. The unions in turn have a block vote they can exercise in leadership elections and at Labour conferences.

Does this mean Labour does the unions’ bidding, as right-wingers sometimes claim? Far from it – Labour has happily attacked union rights when in office. But more commonly it has sought to enlist unions in partnership in managing capitalism, as in the Australian Accord. And, as an institution in society, Labour remains bound to the trade union movement: for money, membership, and social mass.


Labour’s vote in 2014 was an historic low of just 25%. But, even in this grim result, the party’s base in the working class became clear. In Mana, a mixed electorate north of Wellington, National won out in the party vote (just) although Labour won the electorate vote. In Cannon’s Creek, however, a low-income and predominantly working-class Pasifika community, Labour won ten times as many party votes as National. In Manukau East Labour won 16 925 party votes to National’s 5 392. In Māngere they won 18 470 to National’s 4 281. In Manurewa Labour won twice National’s party vote. Compare this with the wealthy Epsom (National: 23 904, Labour 5 045), Ilam (National: 20 377, Labour 6 238) and Ōhāriu (National: 18 810, Labour 5 045) and the picture is clear. Labour’s strongest support bases remain in the poorest, most ethnically diverse and most working-class parts of the country. National’s remain in the wealthiest and ‘whitest’.

In the Māori electorates Labour has topped the party vote in every election for the last twenty years. Its support (in party votes) withstood the turmoil of the Foreshore and Seabed protests (a mass movement of Māori against Labour’s attack on land rights in 2004). Labour holds most of the Māori electorates. Fully a third of the caucus are Māori or Pasifika MPs.

Has Labour betrayed and abandoned its working-class, multiracial support base once in office? Of course. Again and again. But the support base remains. And this support base makes it qualitatively different to National. A worker identifying with National and voting for them (as many did in 2008, 2011 and 2014) is less class conscious than one identifying with and voting for Labour. The way we win the latter to socialism (and the fact we start with them rather than their National-voting brother and sister) will accordingly be different.


Finally, Labour remains a reformist party in its policies. It introduced reforms in its last term in office (Working for Families, for example). In the last three years it has – in stupidly xenophobic terms – tried to relate to workers’ concerns over housing affordability. There are hopeful signs Jacinda Ardern has pulled away from this through the campaign so far. The party must try, in however inept a way, to relate to its support base.

But the ability to deliver reforms isn’t at the heart of reformism. Rather, there is a negative significance here: reformist consciousness remains dominant in the class so long as workers don’t feel the confidence themselves to change the world. So they look to others, following the ‘common sense’ of bourgeois ideology and capitalism, to change it for them. Labour continues to fulfil that role and – critically – may well be able to continue to fulfil it until there is a credible alternative to it in the ranks of the workers movement.

Creating that credible alternative is the mammoth task we’ve set ourselves. Understanding the nature of our challenges – within the movement and without – is an important part of being able to fulfil that task. So we need to understand the nature of reformism if we’re to help change the world alongside those still in the grip of its illusions.