Labour’s Victory: a Confirmation, and an Opportunity

This was a win on an historic scale. You have to go back almost eighty years, to the First Labour Government’s victories in 1938 and 1946, to find suitable comparisons for Labour shares of the popular vote so commanding, and so clear. This was Labour’s best result since MMP was introduced, and the Greens’ third best, trumped only by their runs in 2011 and 2014, both in the context of a then listless and demoralized Labour run; the parliamentary left has a decisive majority. No wonder pro-capitalist commentators are scrambling now, without evidence, to claim Labour’s win was due to tactical voting against the Greens or strategic moves by National supporters. There’s an embarrassing fact to explain away: National’s result was their second-worst in the party’s history. Special votes, once counted, are likely to make these facts all the more stark.

So we should start by savouring a moment’s victory. There have been signs over the last three years that society is shifting leftwards, and parliament’s composition now is an index of that shift. The moves left in Aotearoa have been less dramatic than some of the big confrontations overseas, to be sure, but they are noticeable: a modest rise in strikes and workplace confidence, in particular the big nurses’ and teachers’ strikes; an increase in union membership; huge turnouts for the School Strikes for Climate; and widespread popular support for the land protectors at Ihumātao. Molecular changes in attitude, confidence and outlook at the level of the workplace, classroom, family and flat express themselves now in a popular vote for parties positioning themselves on the left. That popular vote can, in turn, give further confidence to workers, students and the poor. The enormity of the result can help left-wing people feel, for a change, that they are moving with the popular stream: Labour topped the party vote in all the seats in the South Island. National was beaten into third place in Wellington Central, Rongotai, Mt Albert. Over half the votes cast at Victoria University went to the Greens, with another 30% for Labour. The swing from National to Labour across Auckland was over 30%. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: this was a result for the left, and on voter turnout at levels unseen in 21 years.

The comparison with Labour’s last such win – in the context of a world war and the introduction of the welfare state – draws out some of the political issues involved in Labour’s response to COVID-19. Much of the talk from National and its pet commentators has talked this up as ‘the COVID election’, as if this explains away the result as an anomaly.

But responses to COVID reveal political priorities. The lockdown from March, going hard, going early, could not have succeeded without mass social solidarity – it’s not something, as we see from overseas, that can be imposed on unwilling or unconvinced communities. Iwi and hapū locked down to protect families; communities organised together, and we saved lives. Ardern’s decision, against constant pressure from capitalist forces, to follow through with a decisive lockdown saved lives, and people remember that. They also remember who opposed her: if tourism bosses, the Vice Chancellors of the universities, hospitality bosses and others had been listened to and the restrictions relaxed too early then how many more would have died? How many of our elders and our vulnerable are worth sacrificing at the altar of the economy? National promoted these lines as it sought to undermine the collective effort, and people remember that also. John Key announced that there was no health crisis but an economic crisis; people remember. If this was a COVID election it is all the more political for that fact.

But here are layers of the ironies of reformism, and of struggles around social reproduction under capitalism. If Ardern saved lives, she may well also have saved New Zealand capitalism in ways National, a party more closely wedded to individual blocs of capital than the Labour Party, could not have managed. Labour’s message that protecting health meant protecting the economy is right, but it is right on capitalist terms. Their bailouts – the wage subsidy scheme most notably, taken up by the Warehouse only for the company later to sack workers – were for bosses’ profits, not primarily workers’ wellbeing. COVID is now being used as an excuse to trim various sails on the reformist ship.

If the results point to a class moving left, they also confirm Labour in the centre. Gone, on the campaign trail, was much talk of the ‘transformational’ government we heard about in 2017. Gone the commitments to extending fees-free tertiary study. The idea that Labour will now be free of the shackles of New Zealand First and able to push leftwards is so much wishful thinking: the party pitched itself to the right, ruling out wealth taxes and stressing its compatibility with those who admired Key and English in years past, and emphasized Ardern’s leadership over much in the way of substantial new promises in its campaign material. On election night both Ardern and Robertson spoke of ruling for ‘all’ New Zealanders, political code to reassure the bosses that they had no plans to move left. Let’s keep moving, the slogan ran, but the road we’re on is without a clear direction.

This tension will be a key thread running through the next three years. Labour in power, and facing a recession, may well disappoint their supporters in precisely the areas where action so urgently needs to be taken: housing, inequality, poverty, climate disasters. We should not exaggerate the speed with which that disappointment will come; the last three years, after all, saw real, if modest, reforms, and a solidification of Ardern’s popularity. And we should not assume it will flow in left-wing directions. But those are the challenges for the extra-parliamentary left: not to let Labour tell us to wait, and to mute our criticisms lest they benefit the right, but rather to build social movements, in the streets, workplaces, and campuses, that can push for real change and pressure the government on its commitments. And this confidence can also open an audience for socialist ideas further left still.

That’s why the Greens’ result matters. All the contradictions within the Greens remain, as we have analysed elsewhere before: they are an unstable balance of younger left-wing white-collar workers and middle-class professionals and businesspeople, a grouping of those who both want to renew a greened capitalism and those who are looking for a leftwing, activist party. But this election saw them build their vote, unheard of for a junior coalition partner in recent New Zealand history, and through a campaign that had them tilt left. The Greens campaigned on a wealth tax, on better employment laws, on student issues: classic reformist demands. Their new crop of MPs includes two seasoned veterans of social movements, Teanau Tuiono and Ricardo Menéndez March, emphasising the party’s activist wing. Sitting outside government, the Greens may be in a position to open a space for a left-wing opposition to some of Labour’s compromise and inertia.

The Māori Party pitched left this election too, its disastrous anti-migrant position to one side. Rawiri Waititi’s win in Waiariki shows the promise of discontent with Labour and the limits of incrementalism drawing out other possibilities. Ardern’s inaction over the ongoing injustice at Ihumātao has been a long-standing rebuke to those, in te Ao Māori and without, who support her against the right but hope for more for Māori from a government so dependent on Māori votes for its success. Without the excuse of New Zealand First and Winston Peters it will be much harder for Labour and Ardern to continue their approach of strategic ambiguity on Māori questions and Māori demands. There is new space now for movements outside Parliament to exert real pressure.

Reconfiguration on the right introduces the unexpected to politics, too. National’s defeat leaves their most socially reactionary MPs, secure in safe seats, stronger in the caucus, the so-called ‘liberal’ wing much diminished. The passions that motivate these figures – culture wars, scepticism towards climate change, evangelical Christian hostility towards gender diversity, bodily autonomy and Palestinian freedoms – are out of step with the mainstream values of New Zealand capitalism, let alone those of workers and society more generally. National thus faces a bind: the emotions that will motivate those around this core to regroup are repulsive to the mainstream but, without affect and feeling, what kind of motivations can drive people in a political project to rebuild? ACT, meanwhile, with its best result ever, has brought in a slew of gun lobbyists and ‘free speech’ warriors. Collins, however long she remains, will continue her toxicity. Opposition is likely to remain ugly, vindictive and, on cultural and social questions, dangerously unpredictable.

Labour’s decisive victory, though, sets the terrain for the coming months and year. It will have given confidence to workers and the oppressed and dismayed the forces of the right. More far-sighted capitalists will know, of course, that they have in Ardern and Robertson a reliable pair they can do business with, however reluctantly. The challenge for the socialist left now is to turn the glow of the encouragement and confidence the election has given into self-activity and action for workers’ fights, Māori land struggles, genuine transformation and, as part of this, the rebuilding of a truly anti-capitalist current within the workers’ movement and politics more broadly.