Sunday 21 December 2008

Left of Labour, or Bereft of Sense?

Oliver Woods

THE extraordinary success of the Alliance in the 1990s was both a blessing and curse for the New Zealand Left. A blessing, because, by its very existence, the Alliance forced the Labour Party to purge itself of the most dangerous elements of the neo-liberal clique which had seized control of the Parliamentary Labour Party in the 1980s (after which it was able to pressure Helen Clark and her colleagues to return to a more recognizably social-democratic policy course). A curse, because the Alliance’s undoubted (although limited) achievements have convinced individuals and organisations to the left of the Labour Party that the creation of a viable left-wing electoral option to Labour is a viable political project.

A good example of this flawed thinking is contained in this posting by Oliver Woods, the Residents’ Action Movement (RAM) candidate for the seat of Auckland Central in the last election. Joining the debate initiated here by Bryce Edwards, a left-wing political studies lecturer at the University of Otago, and taking strong issue with my response ("You Say You Want A Revolution?" – see below) Oliver writes:

There seems to be a major underlying problem in the post he made. Namely, he has conveniently forgotten his own political background. He omits that he was part of the current of people that quit Labour during the late 1980's because of the party's swing to the extreme libertarian right. He quit Labour because it was no longer a party that helped the working class. Chris was a staunch NewLabour and Alliance Party supporter, remaining true to New Zealand's social democratic tradition.
In a depressingly crude argument, he attacks the Workers Party based on how many votes they received and uses Labour's high votes to illustrate that it is the "true" Workers Party. This is the crass argument of a bully, not Chris' usual intelligent analysis and commentary.
Even more bizarrely for Chris' normally very coherent work, his argument is fundamentally illogical. He manipulates the Alliance into his pro-Labour story. He argues the Alliance's influence on Labour as an argument to prove that Labour is really left wing. Yet he argues that without the Alliance in coalition, Labour would not have followed a pro-worker, left program.
Which leaves me bemused. How can he simultaneously argue that Labour isn't really for the workers, yet really it is?

Well, the first thing to acknowledge is that Oliver is quite correct in identifying the lacunae in my earlier posting. I was wrong to assume so much willing compression of the historical and political narrative concerning Labour and the Alliance on the part of my readers.

Let me remedy that now by making explicit what I mistakenly believed was implicit in the posting: i.e. that the Alliance (and the NLP before it) were born out of, and were, in fact, all about – the Labour Party. What they represented was not a departure from the social-democratic project in New Zealand, but a reaffirmation of its centrality to the nation’s political life.

As I wrote in 2001 (in Ray Miller’s New Zealand Government & Politics):

"With only 8 percent of the 1999 popular vote, the Alliance has made its future utility to Labour highly questionable. If the organisation’s historical task was to act as a transitional vehicle – from the aberration of the 1984-90 Labour Party, to the much more recognisable social democratic force that Helen Clark has fashioned – then surely that task has been accomplished? Its constituent membership notwithstanding, the Alliance’s future may now lie in a more-or-less amicable reabsorption by Labour – the party it devoted so much energy to destroying, and then saved."

There is nothing illogical, therefore, in citing the Alliance as evidence of the futility of attempting to establish an electoral organisation, anchored in the New Zealand working-class, with a programme well to the left of Labour’s. On the contrary, the ultimate fate of the Alliance demonstrates quite conclusively the very real constraints that will inevitably be brought to bear on all those radical social-democrats (not to mention revolutionary socialists) who attempt to extend the boundaries of political praxis beyond what the majority of their own party comrades, their party’s leadership, their coalition partner’s leadership, the capitalist ruling class, and public opinion generally, are willing to tolerate.

The Alliance split over the US invasion of Afghanistan – an issue singularly ill-suited to the purposes of those who wished to boost the Alliance’s dwindling electoral fortunes. And to those who say: "Oh, if it hadn’t been Afghanistan, it would have been something else.", I would only reply: "Well, I wish it had been something else!"

Splitting the Alliance over making the restoration of free tertiary education a non-negotiable element of the 2002 Labour-Alliance coalition agreement, for example, would, at the very least, have offered the prospect of bringing a significant number of the public in behind the radical faction’s demands – thereby applying maximum political pressure to Anderton and Clark.

Dying in a ditch for the Taleban never did strike me as the radical Left’s best way of convincing the Alliance’s 200,000 voters that it was anything other than a collection of self-indulgent, terrorist-appeasing, twits.

I fear Oliver will again accuse me of adopting a bullying tone, but really, what does the radical Left expect? Its blunt refusal to face political realities is not something it is in any left-leaning individual’s interest to ignore. Take Oliver’s own "party" – RAM – as a case in point. Earlier in the year a critic of RAM’s decision to contest the 2008 General Election wrote:

Any attempt by RAM to break into the national political scene will, therefore, almost certainly end in failure. Thousands of person hours, and tens-of-thousands of dollars, will be expended for what, when all the votes have been counted, is likely to be a tally well short of one percent of the Party Vote. Not only will this outcome prove profoundly demoralising for those candidates/activists who participated in the election campaign, but it will also constitute a significant opportunity cost for the Left as a whole – and for the Far Left in particular.

The history of New Zealand elections is studded with examples of Far-Left groups who put their policies to the democratic test and were aggressively rebuffed by the electorate. The consequences of these repeated rejections have been very damaging in at least two important respects.

First: the derisory election results powerfully reinforced the entrenched Centre-Left belief that Far-Left parties have no genuine constituency of any size among the New Zealand population. Centre-Leftists were, therefore, further encouraged to write-off ‘revolutionary’ political aspirants as Quixotic – at best, or dangerous nutcases – at worst.

Second: among the revolutionaries themselves, poor election results powerfully reinforced the argument that the ‘masses’ were suffering from ‘false consciousness’. They – the ‘Genuine Left’ – had seen the issues all-too-clearly, but, up against the lies of the news media, the schools and universities, and the ‘treacherous mis-leaders of the working-class’ the ‘truth’ was unable gain a hearing. This self-pitying attitude only served to widen the distance between the Far- and Centre-Left, and the electorate as a whole.

Sadly, these predictions have all been borne out – practically to the letter. Oliver, in spite of the investment of hundreds of hours, and the expenditure of huge amounts of emotional energy (and, I suspect, a not inconsiderable amount of his own cash) attracted just 132 votes, a figure which, to his credit, was eight times higher than the number of Party Votes cast for RAM in Auckland Central. (Indeed, across the country, RAM managed the extraordinary feat of actually attracting fewer Party Votes (435) than the 500 members required to register it as a political party!)

Oliver, a young comrade of enormous political potential, would be far better engaged in the vital process of building up the growing strength of the progressive forces within the Labour Party. Joining with new MPs like Grant Robertson, Clare Curran and Phil Twyford to develop practical solutions to crucial issues like child poverty, the strengthening of the trade unions, the introduction of a universal student allowance, and the revitalisation of our public broadcasting services.

Men and women of Oliver’s intelligence, erudition and commitment are rare enough in New Zealand politics, without pissing their energies into the wind by cynically involving them in attempts to establish electoral options for the working-class to the left of Labour – a project as bereft of sense as it is lacking in even the remotest possibility of success.


Anonymous said...

So new MPs Robertson, Curran and Twyford represent the "growing strength of the progressive forces within the Labour Party" do they Chris? Given that neither of these individuals have any rank-and-file union credentials whatsoever, and have pursued careers as professional bureacrats, spin doctors and NGO executives I think some people might struggle to see how this fits in with your claim that Labour is still a thoroughly "proletarian" party...

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

"So new MPs Robertson, Curran and Twyford represent the "growing strength of the progressive forces within the Labour Party" do they Chris? Given that neither of these individuals have any rank-and-file union credentials whatsoever, and have pursued careers as professional bureacrats, spin doctors and NGO executives I think some people might struggle to see how this fits in with your claim that Labour is still a thoroughly "proletarian" party..."

- You're not left-wing enough, no you're not left-wing enough. You don't have an authentic background, no you don't have an authentic background.


P.S Nice post Chris. The only way new parties can come into being in our democratic system is by splitting off from a main party. No examples of anything else in NZ. End of story.

Anonymous said...

Seriously? These posts are getting pretty childish. They read like a "he said, she said" two children arguing to a parent.

For people who claim to be "left" you seem to be more concerned with who's not left enough, than the fact that we've got National for the next 3 years.

To the far leftists out there, Labour is the closest you're going to get to the left in power, work with it, ffs stop fighting it.

And Chris, surely you've got better things to write about than digs at the far left?

Meanwhile we've got the National Party in power, just incase you all forgot. The left needs to be a united front because if we're pre-occupied shoving each others idelogy down each others throats, National will do whatever it likes without resistance.

Seriously, get over it.

Anonymous said...

While the Alliance split was before my time, I do think that we should no longer fight in the Afghan war. Maybe we started out with good intentions, if that's possible in war, but now we just serve to prop up a theocracy, little better than what preceeded it. In a country where people can and are put in prison for getting information about women's rights and criticisms of Islam off the internet. Indeed, a journalist was sentenced to death for distributing information that "violated the tenents of islam". So our troops are putting their lives at risk for an oppresive virtual theocracy, which violates human rights and along side America who also violates human rights killing scores of innocent civilians. And after seven years of fighting the taleban is still present in 72% of the country and the situation is getting worse not better. What's the point in that war? We wouldn't fight to help Iran or Syria why should we fight to help the Afghan government? The government is not only theocratic, but it is corrupt with loads of emmbezzled reconstruction money.

Oliver Woods said...

Hi Chris,

Just to notify you I've responded here at

To disagree with an earlier commenter, I think our debate is actually a very good one that is very mature. Such debates far too rarely occur in NZ politics between the pro-Labour and anti-Labour sections of the Left, and I am finding this entire discussion very interesting.

"The only way new parties can come into being in our democratic system is by splitting off from a main party. No examples of anything else in NZ. End of story."

Hello Anonymous Idiot. While your 'End of Story' shut down was mildly humorous, I can think of some parties that didn't split from anyone. They're pretty insignificant parties that you might not have heard about: Labour, National, Social Credit, Values, the Greens and Christian Heritage.

All of those non-splitter parties bar Values (which received 2% of the national vote in 1972 and around 5% in 75) and Christian Heritage (at its high point in 1996 nearly entering Parliament)have had multiple Parliamentary representatives. So yeah, you can't form a successful party without splitting away from anyone else, can you?

Anonymous said...

Hello Oliver,

Labour was established from SDP and ULP representatives already in parliament who came together to fight the looming National party coalition (and were pushed on by pro-worker and anti-conscription forces)

National was established from Reform and Liberals already in parliament.

I think Social Credit is the only one with a genuine base outside parliament that built up to a level where it could achieve representative strength. Christian Heritage didn’t achieve representation.

You could argue that the Greens only achieved parliamentary representation after first getting elected through the Alliance vehicle (formed with Green support in 1991) which had split from Labour. Thanks to that leg-up, they now have lasting representation.

I guess you could say the only way of achieving parliamentary representation, in the last 100 years in NZ, is to form a party from pre-existing parties (Labour and National) or come in on a vehicle achieved from a split (everyone else expect SC).

Mana Motuhake, Alliance (nee New Labour Party), Maori Party, Pacific Party, Peter Dunne’s various vehicles, ACT – all from Labour.

NZ First, Right of Centre Party, New Zealand Liberal Party, United New Zealand – all National splits.

I just don’t see an electoral equation that allows a left party to be established which then goes on to achieve parliamentary representation. There is not enough room on the voter spectrum. The last one was the Alliance, and that occurred only because the Labour Party was taken over by neo-liberal ideologues that turned the entire country on its head.

So yeah, I agree, it isn’t going to happen.

Commie Mutant Traitor said...

The 5% threshold makes it pretty much impossible for a new party (or a fallen party like the Alliance) to gain support - no matter how many people support the party in principle, most aren't going to believe enough _other_ people will get on board to make it worthwhile. Dump the threshold, it's the only democratic option.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

You certainly paint a depressing picture for those of us in parties to the left of Labour. I'll be very blunt. I think you are wrong.

I believe it is essential that we have parties to the left of Labour, even if we never get into parliament. If nothing else, we define the parameters of the left side of the left/ right divide. We remind Labour and the voters of NZ what the left should look like. We also offer voters a viable alternative to the policies of National and Labour which serve mainly the multinational corporates and the wealthy. Who know, one day New Zealanders may decide they decide they want to turn their backs on all that and it is important that there is another option. That surely is what democracy is all about.

You may think that today's Labour Party is a party of the left party. Well all I can say is I can't see it. Here are just a few examples to illustrate why:

The lowest paid workers in NZ these days are careworkers. This is an absolute scandal because all funding for the work that they do, in both the disability and elderly sectors, comes from the government. Labour deliberately created a contracting process without specifying any conditions regarding workers pay or working conditions and proceeded to award contracts at rates that, even for non profit organizations, did not allow for reasonable wages and working conditions. They have belatedly made some feeble attempts to rectify this a little bit but it is far too late. The not for profit organization I work for in the disability sector was, just a few years ago, told by a high ranking government official that we could not have an increase in funding because we would only give a pay rise to our staff! At that stage we hadn't had an increase in funding for about 10 years. We are currently funded at a level that is about 25% less than we were being funded when Jenny Shipley was in charge of our funding - unbelievable as that may seem.

University fees have skyrocketed under Labour. The criteria for eligibility for student allowances have only been slightly widened in the last couple of years and the maximum amount of the allowance has not altered. $150 a week is a joke when rent for a room can frequently be $100 and hostel fees start about $200

Beneficiaries were excluded from the working for families tax credits and benefits deliberately kept low because Labour, like National, believes that if we have liveable benefits people will have no incentive to work. I have personally heard Labour MP's say this.

I could get into things like free trade agreements that rip off both NZ and overseas workers but I think you get my drift.

The reality as I see it from my perspective as a worker not an academic, is that Labour lost the election because people felt there was no real difference between National and Labour and Labour was perceived as having become arrogant and petty. This was particularly reflected in the culture of the big government departments such as MSD and MOH and organizations like ACC which impact on the lives of huge numbers of New Zealanders. Had Labour had a viable ordinary people friendly party to the left the result may have been very different. We may have seen a much more people friendly Labour in government with supply and confidence agreements with the Greens, the Maori Party and a party of the left keeping them honest. Over the election campaign many people expressed this wish to me but Labour has been, unfortunately, hell bent on exterminating any other left wing parties. The results reflect that it did this, if nothing else, very effectively.

I take the opposite view to you. I contend that Labour desperately needs at least one other party to the left whether it wants one or not. It has effectively no party it can rely on to support it at the moment. Even the Greens don't automatically offer a guarantee on the basic issues of confidence and supply. To win the next election, as it stands Labour may have to win an outright majority. The New Zealand voters are unlikely to give Labour that sort of mandate. Whereas National is working hard to make sure it has several parties it can rely on.

I disagree too that you can radically change an organization from within, Roger Douglas et al notwithstanding I guess. I note people of the calibre of Sonja Davies failed to have much impact. I personally can't see Clare Curran for example, lovely person that she is, succeeding where Sonja failed.

It also seems very arrogant to join an existing organization with the express purpose of changing it by stealth to suit your particular beliefs. It makes a mockery of democracy I feel. Much more honest to join (or form) an organization whose beliefs you actually agree with and work with it to help it grow. I say all power to Oliver Woods, Bryce Edwards and to my colleagues in the Alliance who are prepared to do just that. These are people of integrity and a deep committment to their beliefs and their vision for New Zealand. No one is under illusion that getting anywhere near parliament it is going to be easy, or even possible. But, to paraphrase Jim Flynn, we do know if we don't make the attempt, it definitely won't happen.

Labour is the author of its own misfortune. It's demise is not a reason for the rest of the Left wing parties to disestablish ourselves in some sort of gesture of solidarity and sympathy. In any case. I don't think the Gestalt principle applies here. The whole is not going to be greater than the sum of its parts. If people don't like us as small independent parties I don't think they will like us anymore if we all disband and join Labour -and it may make them like Labour even less.

Thanks for the opportunity to respond and best wishes for the Festive season.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I need a party that reflects my deeply held principles. As an Alliance member for about 12 years, I have witnessed the highs and lows of support but I have never felt we should disband just because our views are not currently in vogue. Our challenge is to find ways to communicate the message to people who swallow the "TINA" rubbish from the Nats and are happy to take the tax cuts without making the link that it is going to be a lot harder for their aged relative to get that hip replacement and their school 'donation' will probably go up etc. My feeling is that these things go in cycles and as the totalitarian, pass under urgency, cut Government expenditure, privatise, user pays machine begins to bite, people will start to wish and to look for a viable and true alternative and we will see a swing to the left again.

Oliver Woods said...

Hey Conor,

Thanks for your comment. You are unfortunately distorting what our Anonymous Commenter Friend said. They claimed that "The only way new parties can come into being in our democratic system is by splitting off from a main party".

Labour and National did not 'split' from the parties that formed them. Quite the contrary, Labour and National - like the Alliance - were formed from agglomerations of parties.

Arguing that the parties which made up the parties which formed these agglomerations were from splits is taking a different argument to the one that the poster initially claimed.

Parties joining together to me appears to be the diametric opposite of parties "splitting off".

Your argument that the Greens only achieved representation because of involvement with the Alliance is tenuous.

They received 5% of the vote in the 1990 elections before the Alliance was even being talked about, and with such a percentage of the vote despite a very limited campaign and in a difficult FPP environment, it is unfair to argue that they would not have had a high chance of gaining representation in the 1996 MMP Parliament.

If the Greens and Social Credit can build up extra-Parliamentary support bases that transfer them into Parliament, I don't see why you are writing off the chance of a new party to the left of Labour.

There is clear evidence that there is a large potential base of support for a well-organised and half-decently funded broad left political party in a similar vein to the Alliance.

The New Zealand Election Study reveals a sizable constituency for social democratic ideas, ideas which neither Labour nor National follow, and which the Greens seem to sometimes follow, and sometimes not. Declining political participation in both elections and in membership of the Labour Party has meant that significantly sized sections if its historic supporters are no longer passionately committed to the party.

I agree with virtually everything Kay Murray has said above, particularly her important references to not allowing the most sacred parts of social democratic thought to be compromised. This is not an inflexibility as Labour's Third Way political elites claim, but it's actually a commitment to very straightforward traditional Kiwi principles that has forced many of us from the Labour Party.

Merry Christmas everyone, and enjoy your holidays if you are lucky enough to be in the position in New Zealand's unequal society to be getting a decent one.

Kindest regards,
Oliver Woods

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

I think that you are possibly gazing at the wider thematic issues ("centre-left" vs "far left")so much when you explain the failure of various parties that you overlook the specific situations that led to wide results.

I was in the Alliance when it chose to ditch Jim A, and everyone knew what the damage would be (although I don't think a lot of us realised the burn-out effects it would have on other experienced members). The war in Afghanistan was the rather large log that broke the camel's back - the main issue was our great leader's habit of announcing key policies and party positions without bothering to ask whether anybody else in the party agreed. I'm not now and certainly wasn't then a major player in the Alliance, just a member and occasional delegate, but the gist of what I heard at the time was that it was another example of announcement before a party decision. Yes, most of the party was anti-war, but the real point was parliamentary support given to a controversial position without the slightest consultation with the party MPs supposedly represented.

Labour didn't lose because of any major shift in NZ, Labour lost because their campaign was intensely unimaginative and by-the-numbers. Polls denial notwithstanding, I knew they were stuffed when HC said "you don't change a horse halfway through the race" (or similar).

Back to the left - because Labour is middle-of-the-road.

Whichever flavour of left-wing party conglomerates (and I think one will, out of the several), it still might not get 5%. Big deal. I didn't join National because everyone thought it would win and I might be able to change it from the inside. I won't join Labour because it's stuck with one foot on each side of the fence, and pulling it too the left will only make the "centrists" pull harder to the right.

In a democracy, sooner or later you might find your principles are unpopular. Fair enough. These things are cyclical, and I think that a National government is the best shot for left wing parties there can be. Sooner or later the spectrum will slide back to the left, and there needs to be someone there - whoever that might be - for it to slide towards.

That might be a while, but I won't vote for policies I don't believe in simply because I want "my voice" in parliament. If I did, it wouldn't be singing my tune (to shamelessly torture the metaphor).

Cheers anyway

cbmilne33 said...

I do think that both the Alliance and RAM Parties who both straddle the Bolshevik/Menshevik divides could have a few chats about getting together in contesting the Council/DHB/Parliamentary elections.For the 2009 Auckland Energy Consumer and Waipa Networks etc Trusts what are our immediate plans regards standing for those and other bodies?

Anonymous said...

A contribution to the debate at

Thanks, Victor Billot

Anonymous said...

And yet Oliver the self-styled Che Guevara of Newmarket was a member of the Labour Party.

A branch chair, at least until he was able to get hold of the membership records. Then he left.