A shift to the left

At last, the National Party is running scared.

We in the International Socialists often noted during the three terms of John Key-Bill English government that National’s strategy has been to wage the class war in piecemeal fashion and avoid confrontation when resistance threatened. For example, the government backed down to the teachers’ unions over schools’ funding. Another example: back in 2010, mass resistance grew to National’s proposal to allow mining in the national parks. After a march of 40,000 in Auckland the government caved. Typical of John Key was the approach to slashing employment rights. Instead of one head-on attack the government changed employment law incrementally. Slowly and continuously public services have been squeezed. John Key was a master of judging when to push capitalism’s agenda forward and when to make concessions.

Perhaps Key’s most brazen act of class war was in 2010 when National gifted the rich by dropping the top rate of tax from 38 percent to 33 percent and shifted the tax burden on to the working class by raising GST from 12.5 to 15 percent. Nasty that this attack was, if this was one of the worst it shows that we have not had three terms of rabidly rightwing but of moderately rightwing government.

But, over time, the slow and steady advance of capitalism’s agenda has had very real effects. The housing crisis is the prime example, but the issue that has come to the fore during the current election campaign is the state that the health system is in, and particularly the shocking lack of mental health services. National are now copping criticism for negligence and complacency. It has taken a while, but National’s chickens are coming home to roost.

Labour’s rise in opinion polls during the month of August, its rallies and donations indicate that a psychological shift is taking place amongst the working class. In the 2014 general election a lot of working-class electorates duly voted in a Labour MP, but they gave their party vote to National. Now, party vote intentions are coming back to Labour. This is a shift to the left, but one that has come about strangely. For one thing, it has not come off the back of struggle, industrial or political. For another, the upwelling of support for Labour is not a response to leftwing leadership, as we saw in Britain with Corbyn. The catalyst was only the switch in leadership of the Labour Party without any associated change of political direction. The critical thing was that the capitalist media had treated Jacinda Ardern favourably while she was deputy leader.

So what we witnessed last month was not a shift to the left based on independent activity by the working class, but on workers following the lead of the media to take a positive attitude to Jacinda Ardern. Isn’t this a weak basis for a shift to the left? If the media can raise up Jacinda Ardern, can they not take her and the Labour Party down just as easily? Actually, I do not subscribe to the theory that the populace is politically manipulated by the media to anything like the extent these questions suggest. Of course, the media is influential on public opinion, but so is workers’ real-world experience of the health service, the struggle to make ends meet, and so on. The simmering dissatisfaction was combustible material that the ‘Jacinda effect’ has ignited.