With the surge to Labour, or not?

Kick National Out! Build a socialist alternative! These are the slogans the ISO is campaigning around in this election. But what should they mean as we see this wave of enthusiasm for Labour? Martin Gregory offers his view:

In this election campaign the Labour Party is reaping a tidal wave of enthusiasm from the working class, including the student youth. All opinion polls, meeting reports and general observation point in this direction. Support for Labour is motivating advance voting at near double the rate of 2014. Let’s remind ourselves: opinion polls taken at the end of July had Labour on only 23-24 percent. September’s polls have Labour at 38-45 per cent. If the “youth quake” materialises who knows how many votes Labour will gain by the close of play on 23 September? I would not rule out Labour’s percentage being in the upper 40s.

Labour’s campaign is unlocking the dissatisfaction in society that was previously being held in check by demoralisation. The party’s reform programme is stimulating the public’s mood for change. We are witnessing a swing to the left by working people en masse, and in that I rejoice. Sure, Labour’s is not a socialist programme, nor even radical by historical standards, but the Labour campaign is raising the expectations of the working class for better things in a manner not seen since 1999. The class vote for Labour is a step in the right direction.

Starting in the 1980s, the neoliberal assault has been taken further in Aotearoa than in most developed countries. The working class here has suffered considerable setbacks over three decades, which were only partly relieved by the Clark governments of 1999-2008. As a measure of this downturn, union membership shrunk from 683,006 in 1985 to 306,687 in 1998. There was a slight recovery until 2009 when union membership stood at 387,959, but from then to 2016 membership slipped back gradually to 357,120, and union density slipped to just 15.2 percent. In recent years there have only been a handful of strikes annually and many of them have been limited to one-day demonstrations. When you consider the defeats and demoralisation that the Aotearoa working class has endured over a long period of time, any step forward must be cherished.

Yet the attitudes to the election of many on the far left shows that they are missing the point entirely. These socialists are failing to see the election in terms of the balance of class forces. They are not putting themselves alongside workers and students in the leftward surge to Labour, and to that extent they are in danger of cutting themselves off from exerting a socialist influence.

Not one of the small groups that constitute the revolutionary socialist left have come out for a Labour vote. Instead, we have every variety of sectarianism, including calls for boycott and abstentionist indifference. I regret to say that even the non-sectarian ISO, at its July conference, rejected ‘Vote Labour’ and opted for the non-committal slogan ‘Kick National Out’. Worse, just when there is an unprecedented tide of support for the party associated with working class, there are comrades in the ISO that would have the organisation call for a vote for the petit-bourgeois Green Party.

Comrade Brian Roper, who advocates party vote Green, largely justifies his position on his interpretation of the class nature of the Labour and Green parties and on the parties’ policies. In an article published on this website Brian Roper states, “There is no clear and convincing evidence that the Green Party’s electoral support and membership is overwhelmingly ‘middle class and professional’.” To disprove Brian’s claim it is only necessary to look at the 2014 party vote results. Take my Mana electorate as an example. The polling places in the solidly working-class Cannons Creek recorded 1,057 votes for Labour and only 72 for the Green Party. It was in the bourgeois, National-supporting suburbs where the Greens did best. In Plimmerton and Paremata combined Labour got 345 votes to the Green’s 271. In Wellington’s highly bourgeois suburb of Khandallah National’s party vote was 1,905, Labour’s 576 and the Green’s 451. Everywhere you find the same correlation between working-class areas and Labour. On the other hand, it is the middle-class, National-voting areas where the Greens get their best results and rival Labour’s.

On policy, comrade Roper has drilled down in the Green Party’s website to find that in their workplace relations policy there is a good line on the right to strike. He makes great play on this to support his contention that the Green Party is to the left of Labour. The fact is that some of the Greens formal policies are to the left of Labour’s, and some of Labour’s are to the left of the Green’s, but how relevant is scriptural analysis of policies? All opportunist parties make extravagant claims that they do not abide by in government. It is easy for a minor party like the Greens to adopt radical policies on paper when they know that they will not have the responsibility of implementing their programme in government. The Greens have repeatedly said on public platforms that they have three priorities: a carbon tax, clean rivers and ending poverty. The Greens are not campaigning on the right to strike and will not make it a condition for joining a Labour government.

When hundreds of thousands of workers and students are moving left to vote Labour, socialists should be whole-heartedly with this trend, all the better to warn against illusions in a Labour-led government and beginning the patient task of convincing pro-Labour individuals of the need for building a socialist alternative. For revolutionaries, the relationship to reformism is key. For socialists to stand on the sidelines, either abstaining completely or waving a vote Green flag, is to remain aloof from the broad mass and to keep a distance from a leftward movement.

I believe the ISO was incorrect to turn down a vote Labour slogan which would have put us in the strongest position to demonstrate solidarity with the most class-conscious workers and students. This slogan would have given us the best chance of influencing leftward-moving people. My belief is redoubled, in hindsight, in the light of the tidal surge to Labour. However, I consider the ‘Kick National Out’ slogan to be workable, if not ideal. Either way, these slogans attempt to relate to the election in ways that connect socialists with a leftwing audience. If we get a Labour-led government, the ISO will have shared in a worker’s victory: only a limited victory so far as reforms are delivered. The participation of the ISO in this effort by the working class to chuck out a National government will give it credibility in the struggles ahead – against, without doubt, a pro-capitalist government.