NZ Labour Party returns to 19th century Liberalism; NZ workers must advance to 21st century Survival Socialism

Jacinda Ardern speaks to the press alongside members of her party after Andrew Little stepped down in Wellington, New Zealand

Jacinda Ardern elected leader of Labour Party backed by senior party supporters (Reuters)

So the centrist ABCs finally took power with Andrew Little as the last surviving notable tie to the unions gone and a Generation Y professional politician now leading the party. Chris Trotter goes into raptures that this can be a ‘revolution’. Not the old fashioned one led by armed Reds, but by hipsters it seems. A gentler, kinder, peaceful, 21st century revolution in the image of Lennon, not Lenin.

But where is the substance to complete this style says Mike Treen. Labour needs a Corbyn who adds substance to this style. Let’s see Jacinda Ardern come up with policies that turn on the missing million workers turned off by elitist, distant, self-serving politicans. But Treen is too late. I agree with his comrade Joe Carolan that Labour is dead and that no amount of prettifying the corpse will do any thing for NZ workers. However, for those who hope labour can return from the dead, I suggest that this is not a zombie movie but a death from which there is no return. Labour has been pronounced dead by the ‘missing million’ as the party that no longer represents workers.

I suggest we look to see what disease Labour died of. When the NZLP was founded in 1916 it it was to divert the labour movement away from industrial struggles that divided the nation and threatened the future of capitalist profitability. It’s purpose was to take control of the majority of workers and split them from the Red Feds, anarchists and socialists who were committed to radical industrial action to negotiate their wages and conditions. Labour promised to win what workers needed through parliamentary reforms. It would impose the 1890s Liberal IC&A Act – that ‘arbitrated’ agreements between workers and bosses that had split the Labour movement and given rise to the Red Fed – and make Arbitration compulsory. Labour therefore was the party of the state controlled unions until compulsory arbitration was repealed by Labour in 1987 and compulsory unionism by the NACTs in 1992, which together broke the back of the unions’ resistance to neo-liberalism, taking workers back to the 1880s.

The NZLP had inflicted a mortal wound on itself. To serve its purpose as the Party that could reconcile workers to capitalism it needed to represent the unions and its membership to have any claim to be a workers party. It had to win a majority based on a working class constituency if it was to be useful to the ruling class. 1984 changed all that because Labour abandoned its founding principle of advancing the interests of workers and instead made workers pay for the capitalist crisis facing NZ by introducing Rogernomics.

Despite this historic betrayal the union bosses fought to keep Labour alive so that when the New Labour split occurred only a few small unions left Labour for NL. The NL split was premature and fizzled out as NL joined forces in an amalgam of Greens, Liberals and Mana Motuhake that became the Alliance. Labour survived by expelling its right wing faction which became ACT but under a succession of new leaders remained a Blairite, Third Way party trying to achieve a classless balance between capitalism and socialism – the notorious ‘middle’ [class]. It has not renounced its neo-liberal turn because getting the state out of business and policing fiscal responsibility is the new normal and Labour cannot serve its purpose unless it reconciles workers to the neo-liberal market and its brutal attacks on workers.

But surviving the near death experience had a cost. Labour lost its working class mojo and could no longer count on a majority from the labour movement. The NACTs continued their anti-worker attacks and drove some workers back to Labour, not because they believed in Labour as ‘their’ party but because it was the lesser evil. Labour had lost its reason to exist. The unions were gutted by the NACTs ECA in 1992 and ceased to be a force capable of sustaining the party. The Labour caucus’ focus on the ‘middle class’ reinforced the ‘neoliberal’ ideology that unions no longer served workers who had to rely on their individual efforts to get ahead.

Labour was in limbo with its traditional role overtaken by the new role of representing a classless utopia of petty bourgeois ‘middle NZ’. Under Helen Clark Labour sold itself as the natural party of the centre-left majority. To sell this it needed to compete openly with the NACTs whose history gave it much greater claim to represent the growling petty bourgeoisie. After all the NACTs originated as a farmers party and with urban petty capitalists very much in tow. Labour’s fate then was to abandon its working class constituency – the missing million – and recreate itself as the bland, Blairite, ‘classless’ party.

To do this it had to present itself as the alternative to the NACTs which has close links to the capitalist ruling class that owns business, including the media; a burgeoning new petty bourgeoisie in the cities and a new rural gentry getting rich off dairying. Every leader who stood up to claim this title was shot down by the caucus of Blairite time-servers until Andrew Little, the last vestige of Labourite ties to the union bosses, was forced to resign. Ardern’s ‘fresh’ style may attract more votes from the middle, but it is the death knell of Labour devoid of substance as the party of workers in Aotearoa/NZ.

Yet, only the death knell, because what will finally kill off Labour in the end is not its failure to advance workers interests, it is its open renunciation of its duty to attempt to do that by joining with the Greens and NZFirst to form a government. Labour parties, and social democracy in general, can always come back from the dead so long as workers live in hope. But by forming a coalition with openly capitalist parties like the Greens and NZ First, as even critics like Mike Treen advocate, sends Labour back to where it began, the Liberals of the 1890s.

The Liberal party was a cross-class party of workers, small farmers and the unemployed. Its philosophy was the reconcilation of classes under the Liberal Democratic state that stood for the self-governing nation within the British Empire. Sometimes referred to as a ‘liberal-labour’ or populist party because it contained an open contradiction between farmers and labourers that was suppressed by the submersion fusion (and diffusion) of class in the nation state; a state once called ‘proto-fascist’ by historian Willis Airey. This reconciliation could not last as the Liberals blew apart when workers rose up against the IC&A Act to form the Red Fed. Farmers split from the labourers and were enrolled as special police – Massey’s Cossacks – to smash the Red Fed, with farmers forming the Reform Party and defeated workers the Labour Party.

Labour has come full circle. It has finally renounced the existence of class politics in Aotearoa and transformed itself into the ‘classless’ populist Liberal Party that is preparing to fuse its program with the Greens and NZFirst who both represent the petty bourgeoisie in NZ. It this government eventuates, it will limit its program to that acceptable to a NZ ruling class facing a global slump in profits and climate crash dooming its future. This can only mean that the working class will again be sacrificed to the holy grail of a property owning democracy about to succumb to imperialist war and near extinction.

Workers now have no alternative but to struggle to take control of their own lives by breaking with the parliamentary farce and the bourgeois nation state, to organise their own independent mass Labour party and a new Red Fed, able to fight the class struggle in the workplace and the streets as part of a global mobilisation of workers, unemployed, poor farmers and oppressed peoples for survival socialism against a dying capitalism and rush to human extinction.