Saturday, January 26, 2013

NZ Labour Party: Changing the Guard?


David Shearer looks right, David Cunliffe looks left

The global capitalist crisis and NZs perilous economic situation has activated a class war inside the Labour Party such as not seen since the late 1980s over Rogernomics. The onset of crisis in 2007 and Labour’s defeat by a right-moving National -ACT-Maori Party Coalition in 2008 and 2011 has thrown the party into an internal crisis. The ‘old guard’ continue to ‘oppose’ the NACTs by competing for the same middle ground, while a ‘new guard’ has emerged dedicated to return Labour to its traditional parliamentary socialism. The scene is set for Labour to split between the ‘right’ and the ‘left’. We examine the significance of this impending split for the development of class struggle in Aotearoa/NZ.

Labour faces a right-left split

The split came into the open in the defeat of 2011. The party held contest for a new leader as Goff proposed to stand down. The ‘old guard’ never repudiated Rogernomics, still dominate the Labour Party caucus, and selected a relative newcomer to parliament, David Shearer, as candidate. The membership overwhelmingly rejected Shearer for David Cunliffe who was committed to returning Labour to its traditional values. They saw Cunliffe as the champion of a ‘new guard’ that would move left, repudiate Rogernomics, and raise policies benefitting the working class constituency. Nevertheless the old guard Caucus majority voted Shearer as Leader against the will of the big majority of LP activists.

Those activists then got major democratic changes adopted at the recent Conference that would allow more membership control of the MPs, the selection of Leader and in policy making. They got the resolution condemning Rogernomics. They got more control over policy. But most threatening to the ‘old guard’ was the new provision for a leadership challenge by 40% of Caucus that would see Caucus having only 40% of the vote for Leader, while the members had 40% and the unions 20%. This could come as early as February 2013. The ‘old guard’ could see a rerun of the previous leadership contest where Caucus could not overrule the membership and affiliates.

The Blairite ‘old guard’ immediately sprang into action. Having lost the vote to resist the changes to the Constitution, they rallied around Shearer and launched a pre-emptive strike to prevent a February leadership contest. Shearer demanded loyalty in a caucus vote or risk demotion. Despite 100% endorsement Shearer demoted David Cunliffe, then ranked No 5, to the backbench on the grounds that he was behind a leadership coup at the Conference. This was not the case as Cunliffe constantly stated his support for Shearer as leader. However because he would not guarantee his support in a February contest, Shearer took this to be disloyalty.

The ‘old guard’, aka the ABC (Anyone but Cunliffe) cabal, think that they have won the loyalty of Cunliffe’s supporters in Caucus so that he will not get the 13 MPs  he needs (including himself) to trigger a leadership contest. This may be true as the ‘old guard’ controls the parliamentary wing and can pressure, bully and bribe to get the 22 MPs Shearer needs to avoid a contest. Second, Shearer can probably manipulate the 20% union vote through control of the top officials in the Council of Trade Unions (CTU). Shearer has the support of Andrew Little, ex CTU President, and has promoted him to replace Cunliffe as economic development spokesperson. Helen Kelly, current CTU President, has publicly taken a position in support of Shearer, clearly advocating for the 20% CTU vote for him over Cunliffe. Third, the ‘old guard’ has the machinery to use Parliamentary Services to put pressure on the local LECs so that pro-Shearer resolutions are passed and delegates mandated to vote for Shearer. Some MPs, some union officials and many party members however are prepared to fight to challenge Shearer in February. It remains to be seen if these MPs, unionists and members allow the ‘old guard’ party machine to walk all over the new rules voted at Conference.

For Marxists this impending split in the Labour Party is a classic illustration of the fact that the it like all Social Democratic parties in the Western capitalist countries function to suppress a class contradiction in their internal organisation. They are led by a professional labour bureaucracy of union officials and MPs to impose a bourgeois program dressed up as parliamentary socialism onto a working class constituency. The classic line of the Labour Party leadership is that they are committed to ‘unity’ – a dead giveaway for the subordination of the working class constituency to the bourgeois program. Such parties all arose historically to divert the militant labour movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries away from industrial action onto the parliamentary road to socialism.

The Birth and Death of Labourism

The NZLP was formed in 1916 as part of a reactionary wave against the militant unions of the time. The Red Fed formed in 1908 built a militant union movement in the coal mines, railways, ships, timber and flax industries. Militant strike action culminated in the 1913 General Strike which was defeated when the military was mobilised. The war began soon afterwards. Industrial defeat and wartime jingoism saw a reactionary anti-militant sentiment sweep over the country creating the conditions for a Labour Party to be formed by moderate workers to steer socialists and syndicalists into parliament. Many militant union leaders of the prewar period became NZLP leaders.

The NZ economy was stagnant during the twenties and then plunged into depression in the 1930s. Growing support for the NZLP among workers, unemployed and poor farmers saw it elected in 1935 and stay in power until 1949. The myth of Social Democracy, or Labourism, in NZ, is based on this First Labour Government that claimed to have regulated and tamed the worst aspects of boom/bust capitalism. Coming out of the depression and war into the post-war boom entrenched this myth. In reality, Labour served to pacify the rising labour movement by taking over the management of the economy, particularly the war effort in support of British and US imperialism. Without Labour (and a tame Stalinist Communist Party) in power workers would have become much more of a threat to the social order.

Internationally the depression created widespread radicalism in the labour movement that failed to challenge capitalism only because the Social Democratic and Stalinist parties tied their supporters to popular front ‘unity’ with the ‘democratic bourgeoisie’. The embryonic socialist movement was too weak to break workers from the popular front. The war itself produced powerful partisan forces that could have taken power when the war ended without military occupations and the treachery of the Stalinist parties in Europe and the colonies were the imperialist powers continued the war to smash the partisans. Finally, the postwar boom that followed was not a progressive result of Social Democratic policies but the revival of capitalism as the result of the mass destruction of plant and machinery, and repression of the workers in war and in industry.

In other words capitalism survived WW2 not because of any victory for ‘democracy’, but because SD and Stalinism tied workers to the imperialist ruling classes. Instead of ‘uniting’ as one international working class to smash their own ruling classes, workers fought each other to defend their ruling classes, and when they finally broke free to fight for class power, they were divided and repressed by their capitalist masters.

Thus the mythology of Labourism in NZ prevailed in the post-war period until the Fourth Labour Government elected in 1984 undermined the foundations of the myth by deregulating and opening up the economy with neo-liberal economics -Rogernomics. Such was the working class anger towards Labour around a third of its membership split to form the New Labour Party (NLP) in 1989. This was a major tactical error since it removed the sharp point of the contradiction within Labour and left the Lange centrists and right Rogernomes in charge of the party. Most of Labour’s defectors returned by 1993 and even the NLP stalwarts (then in the Alliance) entered into coalition with Labour in 1999. The net effect was that the Fifth Labour Government under Helen Clark failed to repudiate its Rogernomic history and made only minor changes to reverse the social inequalities of the 1980s and 1990s.  The Clark Labour Government became widely seen as a ‘Blairite’ government that continued the neo-liberal (more market) policies dressed up as a new form of social democracy. The ‘old guard’ that has survived around Goff, Mallard, King etc are the survivors of the 1980s and the hard core of Labour’s Blairite legacy.

Crisis of Social Democracy

The onset of crisis and defeat in 2008 by a right moving NACT regime, has opened up a growing split in the Labour Party between the 'old' and 'new' guard. Laabour lost the 2008 and 2011 elections under the leadership of the ‘old guard’ steering the Party towards the centre or ‘middle class’, abandoning its traditional working class constituency. In 2011 over 800,000 voters in strong working class Labour seats did not vote bringing a massive defeat for Labour in both constituency and party votes. The ‘new guard’ in the party arose out of these defeats drew the conclusion that the party needed to to return to its core constituency, the working class. The only way to do this was for the members to take control of the party from the 'old guard' that was firmly oriented to the 'middle class'. The defeat of Cunliffe at the hands of the ‘old guard’ means that despite the NACTs facing a worsening global crisis and rising unemployment, the Labour Party will lose again in 2014 since competing with the NACTs for the ‘middle ground’ will mean continuing to ignore its mass power base among the workers who are paying the price of the global crisis.

What is at stake in the fight for the Labour leadership is not just the future of the party but of the working class itself. Under the 'old guard' Labour will continue to suck workers into ‘unity’ with the capitalist class and they will not be able to organise on an independent working class program. Many of the 'new guard' will opt for Mana or the Greens but these parties also subordinate workers to alien class agendas and the parliamentary system. The Greens are a middle class (or petty bourgeois) party committed to Green Capitalism. They promote social equality but also the utopia that capitalism can make this possible. Mana has not overcome the historic difference between pakeha and Maori workers. They won’t do it while championing for Maori in parliament alone. Mana, as we have said before, needs to fight outside parliament uniting Maori and non-Maori workers in struggle to prove that it is capable of becoming a mass workers party.

As the crisis deepens so will the resistance of the working class. Inevitably it will come into violent collision with the bourgeois austerity program and the capitalist state. Either workers in the Labour Party will kick out the ‘old guard’ and rebuild the party as a real Labour Party representing the workers who are suffering, or workers will split from the NZLP to form a new party alongside those who are frustrated by the Greens and Mana programs. There are big debates taking place around the world over the form and structure of such a broad working class party. The ructions in the NZLP signal the arrival of that crucial debate in Aotearoa.

Labour’s parting gift

The Labour Party will play a role in death that reverses that of if birth in 1916. In 1916 Labour was formed to divert workers from strikes and industrial actions into parliament. The global crisis of capitalism threatens no only the death of capitalism but of the planet. This potentially terminal crisis, combined with the looming climate catastrophe, means that we need a new Labour Party that unites workers and oppressed people in a struggle to overthrow capitalism. The Labour Party has exhausted its historical mission. It took settler capitalism from colonial farming and modernised it behind protective barriers in the name of economic nationalism and social democracy. It then betrayed that mission and deregulated the economy when global capitalism in crisis imposed its neo-liberal solution. Today it has exhausted its historic mission for capitalism. The 'old guard' who trap workers inside a neo-liberal Blairite party are under challenge from the 'new guard' and responding with typical bureaucratic repression. This means that the struggle for democracy in the party must result in a split that frees workers to form a genuine party of the working class that breaks with the bourgeois program and fights for socialist revolution. 

We can see Labour’s future already in the collapse of European Social Democracy, the most dramatic being that of PASOK in Greece. Driven to the right and rejected by growing numbers of workers, PASOK is now a rightwing rump that shares power with other centre and far-right parties. The workers who left it moved to join a new left party Syriza that is a fusion of old socialists from the Communist Party, Greens, feminists and other left parties. It came within a few votes of winning the last election. Syriza is not a party with a program to expropriate capitalism but it has been forced to take a stand against the neoliberal austerity measures because of its mass working class base. Once in power it will prove impotent against powerful German, French and British imperialism, and that experience will destroy any remaining illusions that Greek workers have in bourgeois politics. I
t will open the way for a mass revolutionary movement to put a Workers Government in power.

A similar scenario will pan out in Aotearoa. Labour left supporters will force a split from the right wing leadership. The Labour Left will form a Coalition with Greens and Mana to try to deal with the global crisis and climate catastrophe. In the process it will mobilise a powerful working class movement that realises that socialism is on the agenda and only a Workers Government in power, aligned to Workers’ Governments in other countries can avoid the collapse of the global economy and the risk of the extinction of humanity.

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