Keep National Out, and Build a Socialist Alternative

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What a contrast between the politics we need and the politics on offer this election! The world is being ravaged by forest fires and devastating floods, and yet all the parliamentary parties’ plans for climate change are so slow, and so timid. They will not confront the vested interests – in farming, roading and building etc. – that are major polluters. The cost of living is hurting workers, students and the poor, and yet Labour have ruled out a capital gains tax and any taxes on wealth. Landlords continue to rake it in from their housing ‘investment’. Poverty, alienation and despair fuel crime, and yet now Labour is echoing National and ACT’s ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric. The parties of the right, meanwhile, are pushing messages of open class-war, selfishness, and environmental devastation: tax cuts for the rich, road building, oil exploration and savage cuts to public services for the rest of us. It’s a bleak picture.

So we need to start by recognising that no one is coming to save us. We need to build a fighting left. This slogan can sound trite, but that doesn’t stop it being true. To get real pay rises that sustain our living standards we need to be organised to go on strike. To get any action over the climate we need a mass movement prepared to disrupt the status quo. The climate question shows also why we need clear politics: think of the inspiration of the School Strikes 4 Climate movement of a few years ago petering out as its leaders were absorbed by reformism. Over the years it has been sustained, mass action from below that has helped shift debate and win change. Think of the nurses’ strikes and demonstrations back in 2018 and the teachers’ strikes this year. Think of the struggle at Ihumātao. COVID disrupted a lot of that, but class struggles continue to emerge. Workers’ self-activity is what counts.

How long ago Ardern’s promise of “transformational” government seems! On core questions Labour has drifted to the right over the past year. On the cost of living, the central issue for workers in the day to day, it has let the Reserve Bank continue with pro-business anti-worker measures. Hiking interest rates to try and engineer a recession so unemployment can get back to healthy level (healthy for them, misery for us) is class war against workers. On climate change, the existential question facing our future, Labour’s half-steps don’t even begin to face the challenge. And they are back-sliding to business on everything from deep-sea trawling to offshore exploration. The Greens speak left from time to time but, tied in to the Labour government, they’re nowhere near a campaigning party. As a force within the School Strikes 4 Climate they have pulled activists towards parliamentarism away from the on-the-streets activism we need. GST off fruit and vegetables is better than nothing, sure, and GST is a regressive tax that hits you harder the lower your income, but this is small-scale stuff compared to the cost of living increases we are facing.

Disappointing though the Labour government has been, a win for National and ACT would be a step back for our side. This matters. Would our side be more confident to fight under National? Better organised? Hardly. What is National campaigning on? Tax cuts for the rich, a return to easier eviction of tenants, scrapping Fair Pay Agreements, scaremongering about Māori “co-governance”. We are not indifferent about the outcome of this election. We don’t want a right-wing government.  It is clear from their funding, and from the messages coming through the bourgeois media, that the ruling class wants a National/ACT win this time. For the bosses Labour has served its purpose and they are pushing much more openly, and much harder, for a National/ACT win on an explicitly anti-worker, anti-Māori, anti-environment campaign. We want to keep National and ACT out of power.

But no party in Parliament has anything like a programme close to what workers and the oppressed need. Labour and the Greens record in government has been gradual, too little, and too late. Te Pāti Māori are talking left currently, but it spent nine years overseeing austerity with National from 2008 to 2017. Their president, John Tamihere, talks radical now but, as candidate for mayor of Auckland, he was running on the right.

It is noticeable, and welcome, that the Greens and Te Pāti Māori have pitched left to the left and that their polling has held up or increased. Both are talking about taxing the rich, both are talking about things like unaffordable dental care, and making polluters pay for climate change. The Greens are raising left-wing demands around tax, calling for tax relief for the poorest and actual taxes on the wealthiest. Their MPs have been seen supporting strikes and protests, particularly around education. Their support has held up through all this. That might sound like faint praise, but it’s not: this is unprecedented in the history of minor parties connected to government through MMP since 1996. So it tells us something important. There’s a space to the left of Labour and the Greens are representing this space.

Polarisation is happening on the right, too. The Parliament Grounds occupation and anti-mandate movement in 2022 brought out into the open dangerous strains of conspiracy theories, racism and misogyny. Winston Peters and New Zealand First have brought themselves back into contention by flirting with this movement. ACT is running on openly reactionary lines; its three headline policies being punitive law and order, cuts in public services and ending “race-based” policies. They too have seen their support hold up. There is a harder edge to the rhetoric, programmes and demands of the mainstream right this year than there has been for many years. They are running on a militant right agenda.

What next? The rich and the powerful would see a National/ACT victory as a win for them. We should not give them that satisfaction. Keeping National out will boost the confidence of workers to keep struggling. And as socialists we need to insist that, on its own, a National win is a setback that need not be a defeat. To make wins for their side they will need to be able to get their policies through. Resistance – from unions and in the streets – means that is not inevitable.

And if Labour and the Greens, or Labour, Greens and Te Pāti Māori, are returned, we are going to still need that struggle too. It took strikes by primary and secondary teachers to get the pay settlements they achieved. University students have had to protest against the cuts carried out under Labour. All the Greens’ fine policies will mean nothing if, after the election, Labour, media and ruling-class resistance to change isn’t met with a counter-force for change from workers and the oppressed. Either way, struggle is our future. The question is will our side be clear about the politics it needs and the enemy it faces. That brings up the old challenge of building a Marxist current prepared to argue for class-struggle politics and a clear-cut socialist approach to the bosses, the state, and the potential of our power acting for ourselves.

Labour is giving off signs of exhaustion, and its promises of “transformation” are now years old. The cost of living is hurting now, and yet policies aimed at workers are thin on the ground in an election cycle dominated by right-wing points on tax cuts, more roads and law-and-order. It’s understandable, in this context, that disengagement, demoralisation and cynicism become the response of many to mainstream politics. They want us disengaged and disenchanted. And Labour, by assuming it can take its working-class support base for granted, and then ruling to show its loyalty to New Zealand capitalism, promotes a disengagement that makes its own defeat more likely.

The Labour government, with the Green Party as a cooperation partner, has been holding down pay below inflation and letting public services become run down. In this election socialists are in a bind where they have no choice but to vote for the “left” bloc: Labour, Green or Te Pāti Māori. It is a negative vote to keep the right out, not an endorsement.

The only way out of this bind is the long, patient task of building an alternative party of the working class. Such a party must be equipped theoretically from the international history of class struggle. It must stand for socialism “from below”, recognising that liberation from capitalism can only come through the self-activity of the working class. The new party can be forged in the class struggles of workers and the oppressed. The mission of the International Socialist Organisation is to contribute to that formation. Come and join us.