The ISO is campaigning in this election around the slogan: “Kick National Out! Build a Socialist Alternative!” Our general position is given in this paper here. In this contribution, ISO member Brian Roper gives his view of how this slogan should be applied, arguing for a party vote Green.
This article addresses some important questions: Is it worth voting in Election 2017? Is it worth voting left? If you are voting left, then should you party vote Labour or Green?
Of course, I’m sure that if you are reading this article then you will have been doing your own thinking about the election, drawing upon your own experiences, knowledge and analysis. Those of us on the left have lots of value to learn from each other. No individual, party or organisation has all of the answers.
In writing this article I’ve drawn upon insights gleaned from conversations with people from across the political spectrum, but especially others on the left. This is a socialist contribution to a conversation I think the left should be having about voting in Election 2017. In a nutshell, I will be arguing that if you think we need to kick National out, then you should vote and vote left. If voting left, then you should party vote Green combined with a tactical electorate vote for either the Greens or the Labour candidate. But vote left without holding any illusions that a Labour-Green coalition government will eliminate major problems such as unemployment, inequality, poverty, and rising carbon emissions.
We want see to see National kicked out, and we acknowledge that a Labour-Green government would most likely make a small but significant positive difference in areas such as health, education, housing, welfare, employment relations, and environmental policy. But such a government will also remain committed to managing capitalism and will retain the overall neoliberal policy framework that has made the rich, richer, and everyone else worse off since it was introduced by Labour and National governments from 1984 to 1999.
The 2017 Election Campaign – Vibe, Stardust and Own Goals
The 2017 general election has involved a remarkable degree of political volatility. As a result of disastrously low polling, Andrew Little, one of the least charismatic political leaders in New Zealand’s political history, resigned as leader of the Labour Party and was replaced by Jacinda Ardern.
Green Party co-leader, Metiria Turei, took a courageous and principled stand against the scandalous plight of welfare beneficiaries and the fact that over 200,000 New Zealand children live in poverty because of inadequate levels of income support. She admitted, when launching the Green’s welfare policy on July 16th, that she had made ends meet by accepting rent from a flatmate while on a benefit without informing WINZ. The important point, that she only did this because benefits had been savagely cut by National in 1991 and were far too low, was lost as the corporate media and right-wing bloggers rushed to condemn her as a ‘welfare fraudster’. Her real crime was advocating welfare reform whereby core benefits would be raised by 20 per cent, and tax changes would lower the bottom tax rate to 9 per cent while all those earning more than $150,000 would pay 40 per cent tax. As a result of this right-wing backlash, and the Greens resulting fall in the polls, Metiria Turei resigned as co-leader on the 9th of August.
Jacinda Ardern’s rise to the leadership of the Labour Party was viewed favourably by much of the media, particularly by Patrick Gower of TV3 Newshub, who accurately stated that in her first press conference she was ‘powerful, composed, eloquent – and actually quite funny’. Whereas previous Labour leaders David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little were mediocre orators, weak debaters, and as charismatic as blocks of wood, Jacinda Ardern clearly has the ‘X’ factor- a powerful speaker, strong debater, intelligent political operator, a politician with a genuine sense of humour, and, perhaps most important of all, not a smug rich white man.
Almost immediately Labour started to gain ground in the polls. A flicker of hope that National could be kicked out turned into a flame. It was, therefore, tremendously disappointing that Jacinda Ardern failed to defend Metiria Turei when she was under attack from the right. Tragically, an opportunity was missed to build solidarity between the two centre-left parties and to refuse to be diverted from focusing on the real issue – the grinding poverty and often desperate circumstances of welfare beneficiaries. The result was that Labour grabbed over half of the Green vote but at the cost of generating ill-will between the parties and potentially losing valuable parliamentary support from a reliable coalition partner.
National has tried to make tax, law and order, the need for more punitive sanctions on welfare beneficiaries, economic management and immigration central issues of the campaign. Labour’s focus has been the housing crisis, investing in light rail in Auckland, a water tax to fund improvements in reducing pollution of waterways, a capital gains tax without committing itself to specifics, child poverty, homelessness, and climate change.
Up until the time of writing, with two weeks to go, the relative fortunes of Labour and National have been driven by Jacinda Ardern’s surprisingly strong performance, by her positive ‘vibe’ and ‘stardust’, versus Bill English’s smug and robotic style, and a series of campaign blunders by National.
Steven Joyce’s claim that there was a $11.7 billion dollar ‘fiscal hole’ was so obviously false then even right-wing corporate economists confirmed that Joyce was wrong. This ended up being an ‘own goal’ for National, allowing Labour to launch a highly effective counter-attack challenging English’s trustworthiness.
National’s biggest own goal came when Bill English stated in the third leaders’ debate: “Now the stardust has settled, you’re starting to see the policy … as an alternative to a successful New Zealand, you’re being asked to vote for a committee.” Ardern immediately bit back at English’s comment in a retort that is quickly becoming her unofficial campaign slogan. “This stardust won’t settle, because none of us should settle. None of us should settle. Christchurch shouldn’t settle. New Zealand shouldn’t settle for anything less than taking on head-on the challenges that we face this election.”
Ardern’s star dust has proven, thus far at least, to be pretty powerful in the context of the election campaign. All of the polls have traced an astonishing surge in Labour’s ratings, at the expense of the Greens (support down from a peak of 15% in July to 4-6% in late August and early September), and to a lesser extent NZ First. According to the Colmar Brunton poll, released 16 days out from the election, “Labour is sitting on 43 percent, with National dropping down to 39 percent. NZ First rises to 9 percent, the Greens are steady on 5 percent (right on the threshold), while the Maori Party and the Opportunities Party are both on 2 percent.”
In Dirty Politics, Nicky Hager points out that National’s negative campaigning, of which the attacks on Metiria Turei are merely the most recent example, is aimed at lowering voter turnout, which ‘favours the right more than the left as the right continues to turnout, and drives away the independents’ (p.18). In the 2014 election, only 77.9% of those registered to vote bothered voting. Since many who are eligible don’t even bother to register on the electoral roll, total votes cast (2,446,297) was only 57.64 percent of those who were eligible to enrol and vote (4,244,355). In other words, only 57.64 percent of the adult population who are potentially entitled to vote did so.
There are some on the left who are untroubled by such a low level of participation in elections since they correctly think that parliamentary elections do not actually enable the majority of people to exercise effective control over the decision-making and policy-making of government. Clearly low voter turnout reflects a high level of alienation from the electoral process and mainstream politics, often due to the accurate perception that there isn’t that much difference between Labour and National governments. It reflects widespread political passivity and despair – a pervasive sense of powerlessness – amongst poor and relatively deprived members of the working class who form a large minority of New Zealand’s population.
In contrast, when there was a high level of working class struggle, and struggle by Maori, women and students, from 1968 to 1979, the was a higher rate of participation in voting. Low voter turnout thus is indicative of working class weakness not strength. It benefits the National Party and increases ruling class influence over the electoral process. Socialists should be arguing with people who say they can’t be bothered to vote about why it is important that they do so. Politics matters, as the ruling class, its lobbyists (Business NZ, Federated Farmers, NZ Initiative, and so forth), bloggers, and political lackeys realise.
Some on the left, including anarchists, syndicalists, autonomist Marxists, and sectarian socialists, argue against voting because they think it contributes to maintaining the illusion that real change can only come through parliament. There is a basis for this view in Marxist theory.
The Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, provided an important insight when he highlighted the centrality of parliamentary democracy to the maintenance of capitalist rule and ideological dominance over the working class. His key point is ‘the peculiarity of the historical consent won from the masses within modern capitalist social formations’ is due to the fact that ‘it takes the fundamental form of a belief by the masses that they exercise an ultimate self-determination within the existing social order. … For it is the freedom of bourgeois democracy alone that appears to establish the limits of what is socially possible for the collective will of a people, and thereby can render the bounds of its impotence tolerable’ (Anderson, 1976-77, p.30). In other words, because parliamentary elections allow people to vote for whichever party they like, the rule of parties committed to maintaining the capitalist status quo appears legitimate, despite the obvious existence of socio-economic inequality, unemployment, poverty, and so forth.
In reality, parliamentary democracy provides the form and appearance of democracy but not the substance. This is because the rich and powerful can exert far more influence over government than the poor and middling folks who make up a large majority of the population within capitalist society. Business people make large donations (over $4 million in election 2017) to political parties, fund lobby groups and right-wing bloggers, control most of the media, and most importantly actually own and control the bulk of economic resources within society. Within the structure of government, the Treasury and Reserve Bank, the two agencies that have the closest relationships with business, exert far more influence over government policy-making than other departments and ministries. If a centre-left government is elected and tries to implement policies that business doesn’t like, such as progressive tax reform or improving workers’ legal right to strike, then business can undermine that government in all sorts of ways, such as using its influence over the media to discredit it or sending money offshore, creating an exchange rate crisis.
Does this mean that socialists and others on the left shouldn’t vote because voting in elections is part of the problem rather than part of the solution? Shouldn’t socialists be arguing that since the whole system of parliamentary democracy, which Marx called a ‘parliamentary swindle’, is systematically rigged in favour of the rich and powerful, that there is only one solution, that is revolution, and that the working class and the oppressed should kick National out with mass strikes and protests?
Actually, if you are seriously committed to the view that workers can change society, then your starting point needs to be keeping it real, that is, trying to work out what working class people are really thinking politically, particularly those who are most class-conscious. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of workers do not think revolution is possible, therefore they (correctly) don’t see it has providing the solution to their problems in the immediate short-term. Even though they know that electing a Labour-led government won’t make a big difference to their lives, they see this as being the only realistic alternative to the continued rule of an openly pro-business government that has attacked unions and welfare beneficiaries and allowed house prices to skyrocket.
The question for socialists then becomes: How do socialists relate to workers, students, and others, who do believe that the only possibility for change is voting and electing a centre-left government? The short answer to this question is that socialists, especially but not exclusively those in the International Socialist Tradition, argue for a vote for centre left parties, while also highlighting the very limited nature of change that can come through parliament.
At the same time, socialists also echo Lenin’s point that ‘revolutionaries are the best fighters for reform’ because they realise that major reforms favouring the working class and the oppressed will only be achieved if there is mass struggle and organisation, in our workplaces and unions, on our campuses, and in our communities, outside of parliament. In other words, what ultimately determines whether a positive reform is introduced or not is the balance of class forces in the wider society.
This is why socialists say ‘vote left but without illusions that we can simply rely on nice Labour and Green MPs to introduce positive change from above once they are elected to government’. Mass struggle from below is what brings about benevolent reform from above. Really substantial reforms that would benefit workers, women, Maori, Pasifika, the disabled, elderly, and students can only be achieved through mass struggles, involving strikes, occupations, rallies, and protests outside of parliament. The most important waves of reform in New Zealand’s history have been carried on high tides of mass working struggle, such as the reforms introduced by the Liberal Government in the 1890s following the 1890 Maritime Strike, the rise of the Red Federation of Labour from 1908 to 1913 that led to the formation of the Labour Party in 1916 and, eventually, the election of the first Labour Government in 1935 that introduced the welfare state (in the wake of the 1932 Depression Riots). More recently, the highest levels of working class struggle in New Zealand’s history combined with Maori protest movements and the women’s liberation movement to pressure the third Labour Government into introducing major reforms from 1972 to 1975, such as the Domestic Purposes Benefit (Roper, 2005a: 145-149).
Why Vote Left?
Of course, as socialists we don’t just argue that people should vote, we also argue that they should vote left. Not everyone on the socialist and anarchist left agrees. They draw an incorrect conclusion from a correct premise. It is true that all of the major and minor parties in the current NZ parliament are pro-capitalist and accept the continuation of the neoliberal policy framework that has benefitted the rich and been bad for everyone else since 1984. But this doesn’t mean that there are no significant differences between National, on the one side, and Labour on the other.
In order to work out the relationship of a political party to the various classes in society, you need to investigate: the class basis of electoral support, the class composition of party membership, the class backgrounds of party activists, class origins of party leaderships, formal and informal links to class-based interest groups, and the sources of party funding. Unfortunately, reliable factual information is often missing with respect to these things but, nonetheless, it is clear that in virtually all these respects Labour remains a party solidly based in the working class while National’s core support base is composed of capitalists, farmers, and members of the so-called ‘high professions’ (doctors, lawyers, dentists, and so forth).
These class differences between the National and Labour parties generates important ideological, political, and policy differences between the Labour and National parties. Although National generally presents itself as ruling in everyone’s interests, not just the interests of business, it does so by arguing that what is good for business is good for everyone. It is an openly pro-business party. While preparing his first budget as Minister of Finance in 2009, Bill English stated that the Government aims ‘to create a more business-friendly environment in New Zealand’ (Budget Policy Statement 2009, p.8). In contrast, the Labour Party has to make arguments and develop policies that reflect, often in an extremely weak and ineffectual manner, working class experiences and concerns. Although both Labour and National are committed to capitalism and neoliberalism, Labour is more likely than National to make small but significant policy changes of benefit to the working class.
Of course, the problem with reformist parties like the Labour Party is that once elected, because they are committed to managing the capitalist system and maintaining neoliberalism, they generally disappoint their supporters. This then provides an opportunity for socialists to highlight the problems with reformism – the idea that real change can only come through parliament – as a political strategy for improving the lives of the poor and middling folk within capitalist societies.
But, more concretely, we want people to vote left in order to kick National out because in the current historical context, with high levels of political volatility prevailing at global and national levels, kicking National out may help to raise the confidence of workers and the oppressed and foster the belief that they can struggle and win. It is hard to be sure about this because sometimes the election of a centre-left government can have the opposite effect, as it did in New Zealand in the years following the election of the Labour-Alliance government in 1999. But with hopes and expectations raised by National’s defeat, people may be more prepared to participate in the strikes, campaigns and protests that are absolutely necessary to advance the interests of workers, students, women, Maori and Pasifika in areas such as pay and conditions, poverty, welfare, health, housing, education and environment policy.
Why Vote Green?
Recent polls suggest that support for the Greens is hovering around the 5% threshold for getting MPs into parliament. Judging by the articles focusing on election 2017 published so far on this website, the prospect of the Greens losing a presence in the next parliament appears to be viewed with little concern. After all, whereas Labour, despite all of the party’s obvious failings, is a working class party, the Green Party is a party of ‘the middle class and professionals’. If true, doesn’t this mean that the Green Party is even less likely than Labour to act in ways favourable to the working class if it is elected to government? And if this is true, then shouldn’t socialists and others on the left vote Labour rather than Green?
For several important reasons, socialists and others on the left should be concerned about the absence of the Greens from the 2017 parliament. In my view, everyone who is to the left of Labour should be party voting Green and urging others to do so.
Firstly, the depiction of the Labour Party as being a working class party and the Green Party being a party of the middle class and professionals is overly simplistic and in some respects factually wrong. There is a high level of middle class support for, and involvement within, both the Labour and Green parties. Hence neither party is exclusively a working class party- it is rather a question of the relative weight of working class support and involvement relative to that of the middle class within these parties. There is no clear and convincing evidence that the Green Party’s electoral support and membership is overwhelmingly ‘middle class and professional’. Indeed, you could only sustain this claim by adopting a non-Marxist conception of the working class which excludes teachers, nurses, public servants, local government employees, and other skilled white-collar workers.
Although it is true that blue-collar working class voters are more likely to vote Labour than Green, the balance of the available evidence suggests that the majority of Green voters, and a substantial proportion of its members, are best categorised as being in skilled, well-educated and relatively highly paid strata within the working class. In the context of a prolonged downturn in working class struggle since 1992, with historically low levels of strike activity and declining union membership in the private sector, these white-collar workers are more likely to be unionised and to have participated in struggle during the past decade than blue-collar workers. In other words, some of the most politically aware and class-conscious workers in New Zealand vote Green, not Labour.
Secondly, there are important links between the union movement and the Green Party. Although there are currently no unions formally affiliated to the Green Party, unions, including those affiliated to the Labour Party, have made substantial donations to the Green Party in recent elections. For example, in 2014 the Service and Food Workers Union (SFWU) donated $22,000 to the Labour Party and $6000 to the Greens. This followed the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union’s $60,000 donation to the Labour Party and $15,000 to the Greens. For the 2017 election, E Tu (previously the EPMU and the Service and Food Workers unions) has donated $120,000 to Labour and $30,000 to the Greens.
Green MP, Denise Roche, who is spokesperson on industrial relations, worked as a union organiser for 16 years. Within the Green Party there is a Greens Union network which ‘is a group for Green Party members who are union members, organisers or activists’. It advocates a pro-union legislative agenda which ‘it works to support by networking and strengthening the links between unions and the Green Party. We also aim to share union organising and campaigning skills within the Party’. Around 10% of the Green Party candidates in election 2017 have backgrounds in the union movement, less than Labour, but still significant.
Third, the Green Party has been much more effective as a political force opposing the Fifth National Government within and outside parliament than Labour, especially with respect to having a substantial active membership that has played an important role in organising protests against the Government. For example, many Green Party members are good activists who have played important roles in organising protests against mining in national parks, the GCSB legislation, state asset sales, fracking, the TPP, and inadequate governmental responses to rising carbon emissions. In contrast, the Labour Party, which appears to have an active membership that is smaller than the Greens, has been conspicuous by its absence, apart from speeches given by its MPs at rallies organised by the Greens, socialists, and others on the left.
Fourth, the electoral success, ideology and politics of the Green Party can only be adequately understood if it is appreciated that green politics in New Zealand forms one strand of a wider unravelling of social democratic reformism in the context of a prolonged economic crisis.
New Zealand went from trailing the rest of the advanced capitalist countries with respect to the adoption of the neoliberal Washington consensus from 1975 to 1984 to being at the forefront from 1984 to 1999, with the Fourth Labour Government rapidly and comprehensively implementing neoliberal policies from 1984 to 1990 and the Fourth National Government doing likewise from 1990 to 1999 (Kelsey, 1997; Roper, 2005: 175-193). Although hailed by the right internationally as a necessary, courageous, and exemplary implementation of the neoliberal policies it favoured, domestically these policies were extremely unpopular. Labour Party membership fell from around 85,000 in 1984 to around 11,000 in 1989 when the left, encompassing around 5,000 members, departed to form the left social democratic New Labour Party (Roper, 2005: 180).
The New Labour and the Green parties combined to form the Alliance in 1991 before the Greens left to stand in their own right in the 1999 election. There is a long story to be told here, but the upshot is the Green Party captured a share of the disillusioned Labour electoral support base and this has remained a key element of its electoral constituency since then.
At least in part, this has been a factor in the electoral success of the Greens. The Party’s need to position itself to the left of the Labour Party for electoral purposes has also acted as factor constraining the ideological and political trajectory of the Green Party since 1999, despite the fact that a substantial proportion of the Party membership is composed of people with backgrounds in business and the higher professions (Dann, 1999: 312-319; Bale and Wilson, 2006: 394-396; Wilson, 2010: 499-501).
Fifth, Green Party policy is well to the left of Labour on crucially important class issues including the right to strike, union organising and bargaining rights, progressive taxation including the introduction capital gains and financial transaction taxes, increasing the tax rate on income over $150k to 40 percent, raising benefit rates by 20% and scrapping the punitive sanctions regime, universal student allowances, fee free tertiary education, developing a more progressive repayment regime for student loans, and so forth.
Of course, it is important not to place too much weight on party policy since reformist parties like Labour and the Greens typically talk left while in opposition but then act right when in government. But it is also important not to assume that party policy matters little, an assumption that appears to underpin some recent articles published on this website focusing on the election campaign that provide no more than a few sentences focusing on policy.
Policy matters because when social democratic parties like Labour adopt and implement neoliberal policies this often involves attacks on their working class supporters, such as the tax policies of the fourth Labour Government in the 1980s which increased tax paid by working people (through making low income taxable and introducing GST) while at the same time the rich enjoyed big cuts to taxes on high incomes and corporate profits.
This shift towards neoliberalism has been part of a global trend. The social democratic Keynesian approach that governments around the world used to manage economies and make policy from 1945 to the mid-1970s was rejected by the world’s ruling classes, and the governments that manage the capitalist system in their interests, during the second half of the 1970s and early 1980s. Since then neoliberal policy regimes have been implemented by both conservative and social democratic governments such as the Hawke-Keating Government (1983-1996) in Australia, New Labour in Britain (1997-2010), centre-left governments dominated by the Socialist Party in France (1981-86, 1988-93, 1997-2002, 2012-2017), the SPD and Green coalition in Germany (1998-2005), the Fourth Labour Government in New Zealand (1984-1990), PSOE governments in Spain (1982-1996, 2004-2011), and SAP governments in Sweden (1982-91, 1994-2006). Neoliberal policies are inherently pro-business and anti-working class. The result of social democratic governments implementing these policies has been declining party membership and electoral support, as Australian Marxist Ashley Lavelle shows in an excellent book on social democratic parties in Australia, Britain, Germany and Sweden (The Death of Social Democracy).
This is one reason why Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the British Labour Party has had such a big impact, not just within Britain but internationally. The lengthy election manifesto, entitled For the Many, Not the Few, that he ensured was developed prior to the election sets out a left social democratic political programme that rejects neoliberalism and promises to, among other things, nationalise key industries and public service providers, increase taxes on the rich, reduce taxes paid by the poor, eliminate tuition fees and introduce adequate living allowances for students, and so forth.
For an entire generation aged between 18 and 35 this was something that they had never encountered before. Throughout their lives government had merely alternated between the neoliberal Conservatives and neoliberal Labour led by Tony Blair. Inspired by Corbyn’s leadership and Labour’s manifesto, several hundred thousand young people joined the Labour Party and got involved in the election campaign. The British Labour Party now has a membership of more than 700,000 people and is the largest political party in Europe. This is the kind of difference that good left-wing pro-working class policy, presented to the public by an articulate, principled and honest political leader, can make.
The near victory of Labour led by Corbyn constituted a major political defeat, not just of the Conservative Government but equally importantly of the neoliberal Blairite right-wing within the Labour Party. Unfortunately, Jacinda Ardern’s leadership does not represent a turn towards the kind of policies advocated by Corbyn. The Green’s policies are substantially closer to those of Corbyn than the New Zealand Labour Party, but they are still to the right of Corbyn. Having said this, some of the Green Party’s policies are very good and well worth fighting for.
I’ve mentioned some of these policies above, but one of the most important is worth emphasising. The Green Party recognises ‘workplace democracy and collective organisation are essential to address the inherent potential for inequality of power between employers and employees’ (Green Party, 2014c: 1). Accordingly it advocates improving employment rights for casual, seasonal and fixed term workers, changing or scrapping the Employment Relations Act to encourage collective bargaining and allow multi-employer bargaining, protecting union members, activists and officials against employer discrimination, improving union access to workplaces, increasing penalties for employers who breach employment law, and strengthening the ability of unions to prevent employers from undermining union membership by passing on the terms and conditions of collective agreements to their non-unionised workers. Importantly, the Greens support ‘the right of workers and their unions to campaign for political, environmental, social and work-related industrial issues, including the right to strike in support of these’ (2014c: 4).
In contrast, Labour is not even promising to restore workers’ right to strike while a contract is in force or over wider ‘political, environmental, social and work-related issues’.
For socialists, the Green Party’s promise to fully restore the right to strike is very important and should be applauded. We know that in reality the right to strike is only ever going to be won back if workers are prepared to campaign, protest and strike in order to force a government to introduce the legislative reform it would require, and to counter the vigorous opposition of business groups to this kind of reform. But the Green’s commitment to restore the right to strike can be used by union activists and socialists campaigning for the restoration of the right to strike by an incoming Labour-led government.
How much change can we expect from a Labour-led government?
The answer to this question is disappointingly little, especially if Labour forms a coalition with NZ First that excludes the Greens, and if levels of struggle amongst workers, students, and Maori remain historically low. Small but significant change is possible but even that is worth fighting for and celebrating after nine years of rule by National.
With respect to the election, it is worth party voting Green to ensure that the Green Party remains in parliament. We would much rather see Labour form a coalition with a party to its left, than form a coalition with a party to its right. This is not, however, the preference of the bulk of Labour MPs whatever they may currently be saying publicly about post-election coalition arrangements. Unlike the British Labour Party, the NZ Labour Party does not have a mass membership, extensive links to a still powerful trade union movement, and a strong left-wing with an inspiring leader. Most MPs would rather go into coalition with NZ First than be pulled left by the Greens because they fear, wrongly, that a coalition with the Greens would ‘alienate the centre’. The real danger is that a Labour-NZ First coalition government would be little more than ‘National-lite’ – maintaining the neoliberal policy regime under a gloss of left leaning rhetoric. This is what is most likely to return Labour to polling below 30 percent and contribute to Labour losing the election after this to National.
Why we need to build a socialist alternative
During the course of this election campaign, there has been much fine sounding rhetoric from Labour and the Greens about the social, economic and environmental problems that have grown worse under the National Government. These problems include the growth of homelessness, the poverty of beneficiaries, unemployment, the housing crisis, the lack of decent public transport in Auckland, the pollution of rivers, and rising carbon emissions. Mention has been made of the unacceptably high costs of tertiary education for students, the stripping away of workers’ rights, the need to increase the minimum wage, the exploitation of migrant workers, the gender pay gap, and over 200,000 children living in poverty.
The problem is that a Labour-Green coalition government is not going to eliminate these problems. It is not even going to do much to seriously alleviate them unless it is pressured to do so by mass struggles and campaigns organised in our unions, on our campuses and in our communities.
This is because both Labour and the Greens are committed to using neoliberalism to manage capitalism. But it is capitalism that generates inequality, mass unemployment, the huge gap between rich and poor nations, military conflict over resources, markets and territory, and environmental devastation. It is entirely unrealistic to think that capitalism can be reformed into a genuinely egalitarian, democratic and environmentally sustainable system.
Capitalism is a system based on the pursuit of profit and the accumulation of wealth, on corporate greed rather than human need, on the essentially undemocratic rule from the top down by political, bureaucratic and corporate elites, and on the reckless use of the world’s natural resources to maximise the profits and wealth of a tiny minority of the world’s population. The reality is that the only way to create a better world, a world that is egalitarian, democratic and environmentally sustainable is to get rid of capitalism altogether and replace it with a better way of organising society.
For this reason, if you want to channel your energy into a political organisation, then you should channel that energy into the ISO — an organisation that recognises that capitalism is a system of exploitation that generates inequality, and that only very limited change can come through parliament.
Of course, members of the Greens, for example, will disagree. They are likely to argue as follows: “We admit that, as part of a coalition government, we will not be able to eliminate poverty, unemployment, sexism or racism, but we can introduce policies in the ‘here and now’ that will ease these problems and forms of oppression. Surely, it is better to do something here and now than it is to wait around for a revolution that may never come. After all, as the social democratic economist Keynes said, “in the long-term we’re all dead.”
It is on this point that the Green’s reformist argument superficially appears at its strongest, but is in reality very weak. Reformists always respond to criticisms from revolutionary socialists by claiming that we are only for revolutionary change in the long-term, and consequently that we are unable to contribute to current struggles to change society.
The truth is that ‘revolutionaries are the best fighters for reform’. As socialists, we try to build every struggle in the short-term. We do not sit around on our hands passively awaiting ‘the revolution’. This why I haven’t argued that the best way to resist the political right (ACT, National, NZ First) is simply to vote for parties of the left. Vote left, party vote Green, but only do so on the understanding that what really matters is what is happening outside of parliament. As revolutionary socialists, we in the ISO argue for mass militant protest action and active involvement in our unions, aimed at achieving changes through our own actions, rather than relying upon politicians to improve things for us after the next election.
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Bale, T. and Wilson, J. (2006). ‘The Green Party.’ In R. Miller (ed), New Zealand Government and Politics. 4rd edn., Auckland: Oxford University Press, pp.392-404.
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