The 80% turnout in Saturday?s New Zealand election was the second lowest ever, slightly up on the 77% in 2002. After 20 years of the most vicious assault on their living standards by the neo-liberal policies of Labour in the 1980s and the Nationals in the 1990s, the vast majority of workers and youth are totally disenchanted with capitalist policies.
It seems likely that Prime Minister Helen Clarke will be able to form a new government with the minor parties of Greens, Progressives, Maori Party and United leaning towards her Labour Party. Labour got 50 seats (40.74%) to 49 seats for Nationals (39.63%). However in 2002 Labour won twice as many votes as Nationals.
The swing to Nationals was partially due to their racist attack on affirmative action policies for the Maori and Pacific Island population which led to a rally outside Parliament of 10,000 people. NP leader Don Brashs? calls were firmly aimed at the economic insecurities of ?white? workers. These affirmative action policies, in the main, only benefit a thin layer of Maori middle class state officials and small businessmen, not the vast majority who are amongst the poorest section of NZ society.
The Nationals also stole the hypocritical moralism of the Christian parties and thereby stole their votes too. This is similar to what John Howard did to Pauline Hanson?s One Nation Party in Australia. The collapse in the Christian vote into the National Party was also due to the jailing for 9 years Graham Capill, former Christian Heritage Party leader, for sexual offences against three girls.
The Nationals benefited from US-influenced Moral Majority-style ‘Exclusive Breathren’s’ $500,000 anti-Labour, anti-Green campaign.
The National were heavily backed by a majority of the ruling class, who while happy with Labour?s general policies wanted still more. The huge ‘tax cuts for the rich’ policies of Nationals (which would have cost $3.9 million a year) were strongly supported by the big business lobby group, the Business Round Table.
However the rise in the Nationals vote was, it seems, not enough to unseat Labour. After two decades of attack upon attack on living standards, the Clarke Government benefited from a cyclical economic upturn and undertook some very limited easing of cuts. By getting into massive personal debt (NZ savings rate is minus 10%, the worst in the OECD), some workers managed to stabilize their personal economic situation somewhat. The debt helped overcome the small pay rises of the past year which was below inflation for many workers, especially those in communications and wholesale. The economic upturn has not been effectively used by the unions, in most cases, to drive up wages and conditions, although there has as been a significant rise in class struggle in the past months around wages. Yet there were only 109 disputes nationwide in the first three years of the Clarke government! No wonder from 2000 to 2004 profits rose 11% and wages by only 8.3%.
The economic upturn hid the fact that cuts continued under the last government. Government spending as a proportion of GDP fell under Clarke from 33% to 30%. 29% of children live in poverty. The upturn was overwhelmingly one for the rich. In 2004 the sharemarket reached new heights, increasing in value by NZ$11 billion, with average CEO pay rises at 25%.
Clarke cleverly let hares run on some social policies such as gay rights and prostitution that infuriated the right wing and gave her a superficial image of being progressive. She opposed the Iraq invasion ? but kept NZ armed forces personnel in Afghanistan and Solomon Islands. The Labour Party, like all ex-workers parties from Australia to Brazil to the UK, is now made up of government bureaucrats, union officials, Councillors, MPs and their assistants not of the cream of workers and youth as it once was.
Even though Labour’s campaign promises excluded Industrial Relations promises altogether, workers in general still seemed to hold on to the belief that Labour are the most likely party to support their interests.
None of the minor parties called for any alternative to neo-liberal capitalist policies. The middle class Greens – who supported the last government in parliament – saw their vote drop to 5.07% (6 seats, from 8 in 2002). One of their main election policies was for a Buy New Zealand campaign ? which exposes their economic nationalism. In this era of capitalist globalization, such a campaign would be a disaster for workers as it would lead to retaliation from NZ?s trading partners; a hike in prices as the cost of imports rise and local manufacturers take advantage of less competition; and most importantly is an attempt to export the crises to workers elsewhere.
The Progressives got 1 seat, that of their leader Jim Anderton. When this Labour MP split-off to the Left in 1990 with union leader Matt Macarten to set up New Labour and then the Alliance, there was an optimistic hope amongst big sections of workers that some alternative was on the way. The Alliance got up to 17% in the polls at one stage. Yet they had no socialist alternative of fighting the cuts and job losses with militant action, bringing the major companies into public ownership under workers? control and management ? just vague and mild attempts to cushion workers from the worst effects of the attacks of the Lange government at the time. After some opportunities to show their wares in local government, their vote collapsed. Anderton is a pale shadow of the pale shadow he once was, and the Alliance (which he split from) got a vote of 0.07% nationally (1,503 vote out of 2.83 million voters!).
The newly formed Maori Party won four of the seats put aside for Maori and Pacific Islanders. There was a defensive backlash in these communities to the racism of the Nationals. This party was formed by ex-Labour Party members after Clarke Seabed and Foreshore legislation, an attempt to out-racist the Nationals on undermining the land rights of Maoris and Pacific Islanders. The leaders of this party represent a middle class layer who want more crumbs off the cake for themselves, but not in any way pose an alternative to capitalism.
Other rightwing minor parties ? NZ First (7 seats, 5.8%), United Future NZ (3 seats, 2.7%) and ACT NZ (2 seats, 1.5%) ? will spend the next days selling their wares to both Labour and Nationals in the search for Cabinet positions for their leaders. This will only further disgust the working class, especially amongst youth.
The dilemma for the working class in NZ (as in Australia) is that they have no-one to vote for ? no party that represents their interests and poses any real alternative to the neo-liberal mantra of Labour, National and the little piglets in the minor parties.
Most union leaders called on their members to vote Labour, with one degree of enthusiasm or another. This is a great error. Instead of pumping resources into Labour they should unite with community groups and the vast number of left-leaning individuals to create a new mass workers party in NZ. Within such a formation CWI supporters in NZ would fight for socialist policies and militant campaigning methods. There is no other solution to the problems facing the New Zealand working class.
By Louisa Stewart & Stephen Jolly