Labour’s electoral catastrophe in New Zealand –Time to break with Blairism and return to Labour’s socialist roots

General Elections can be an indicator of many things within a country. As Marxists, it is necessary to view the result of any election within the overall balance of forces between the classes. So after the tremendous defeat of the Labour Party and victory of the conservative National Party in New Zealand, what is the situation of the working classes there and where does the Labour Party go from here?

Stunned Mullets

Phil Goff leader of the New Zealand Labour Party - Photo: Agência Brasil-thPhil Goff leader of the New Zealand Labour Party - Photo: Agência BrasilThere was no hiding it on Saturday night as the result of the election became clear. The New Zealand Labour Party was heading for its worst electoral defeat in the history of the party. The various pundits for Labour on the panels on all the various live coverage of the election count sat shocked and awed at the result and were at a total loss to explain what was happening.

So far removed are they from the realities of the general situation that some in the Labour Party believed they were clawing their way back and were even expecting a reasonable result. In fact, one NZ Labour figure said that "it was the best campaign we've run since 1996". Yet it turned out to be the worst result in the Labour Party’s history!

More Blairite than Blair

Phil Goff and the entire leadership of the Labour Party have been utterly exposed as hopelessly out of touch with the support base of the Labour Party. New Zealand has been seriously affected by the worldwide capitalist downturn and is quite exposed to the resulting volatile situation.

So instead of bold policies in favour of the working class from Goff and the Labour Party, we had promises of austerity. In fact, Goff went so far as to suggest that Key was soft compared to Labour as Labour had the “guts” to “make difficult decisions on New Zealand’s future”.

The austerity programme proposed by Labour included raising the retirement age from 65 to 67 years and cuts in expenditure designed to save $NZ 100 Billion over the next 20 years. That’s right; a 20 year austerity programme! Is it any wonder, especially after the experience of the cutbacks of the Helen Clark Labour Government, that there was no enthusiasm to vote Labour?

A Swing to the Right?

Inasmuch as the Bourgeois via their media outlets are crowing about the victory for the National Party, the devil is really in the details. According to the figures cited by the New Zealand Herald, this election had the lowest voter turnout since 1878. Only 74% of those on the rolls bothered to turn out to vote.

Although voting is not compulsory in New Zealand, registering to vote is. However, there has been a decline in those bothering to register, especially amongst the youth. Only 77% of 18-24 year olds are registered. So of the 2.2 million that did vote, over 1 million potential voters did not bother.

The National Party did not massively increase its total number of votes (barely 3%) and where it did increase it was at the expense of smaller parties who have been largely absorbed by the Nationals since the Nationals formed the current conservative coalition 3 years ago. In a number of key seats they won last time, their total number of votes declined.

2 of the 3 parties that were involved in the coalition (the right wing ACT New Zealand and United Future) only won 1 seat each and even this was due to a shonky preference deal in those seats whereby the Nationals advised their supporters to vote for candidates from those parties.

However, the Bourgeois are more than happy to overlook all this and focus only on the percentages of those that did bother to turn up to vote. It’s no wonder. The Nationals are committed to a deep austerity campaign, especially targeting welfare recipients, as well as the privatisation of state assets.

They are committed to a fire sale of electricity assets as well as selling off the national airline, Air New Zealand. This has not been a popular suggestion to the public and polls indicate there is strong opposition to it within the community. So the media spins that the Nationals have emerged “triumphant” over the Labour Party to try and make it seem that John Key and the National Party has a “popular mandate” to carry out these attacks.

In reality this is a collapse of the left and disillusionment overall with the Labour Party and its pro-big business policies. People in the Labour heartland are fed up and simply didn’t bother to turn out to vote.

The Left Flank Exposed

So while the Labour Party tried to outdo the Nationals on matters of the economy, they did try to offer a few minor concessions, such as abolishing the GST (VAT) on fruit and vegetables – ironically a tax it introduced by Labour.

These were hollow and the public saw through this gambit as ultimately it was past Labour governments that started the whole process of privatisations and cutbacks. There was some opposition to the privatisation from Goff, but only on the basis that the assets ‘would fall into the hands of foreigners’.

So with the Labour party shifting even further to the right, this left the Green Party to enter into the vacuum left behind. The Greens massively increased their vote and have gone from 9 seats in Parliament to 13. They also managed to increase their vote to just over 10% of the total vote for the first time ever.

The development of the Greens is going to pose serious problems for the Labour Party as long as they continue to commit themselves to pro-capitalist policies. Unfortunately, since the result of the election, the 3 main candidates jockeying to take over from Phil Goff are not fundamentally different to him and are all part of the same layers that Goff himself emerged from.

The other significant development in electoral terms has been the re-emergence of the New Zealand First party led by Winston Peters. NZ First’s fortunes largely rest on the personal appeal of Winston Peters. His policies are a mixture of right-wing populism and nationalism, but since he is seen as a bit of a ‘maverick’ who is not so closely aligned to the big parties, he is capable of attracting votes based on his personal profile.

Voting With Their Feet

One election issue also worth considering is the large number of New Zealanders leaving the country to move abroad. Australia being the most popular destination target as there is a special agreement between the 2 countries making it quite straight forward for New Zealanders who wish to emigrate. The big attraction is the booming economy in Australia that is providing far better career opportunities for New Zealanders as well as higher salaries.

Over the last 10 years just over 220,000 New Zealanders have shifted across the Tasman never to return. That’s 5% of the current population of New Zealand! This is an enormous drain. On the flip side, it has had the benefit of alleviating some of the seriousness of the crisis in the wake of the downturn since 2008. Since it’s easy enough to go to Australia, the depth of the crisis in New Zealand has been masked somewhat.

However, things are starting to slow down in Australia as well and projections for unemployment to creep up to close to 6% in Australia will undoubtedly impact on this migration trend. With welfare being a prime target for the Nationals, this is only going to increase the social crisis in New Zealand in the coming period.

Which Way Out?

The massive collapse in the vote of the Labour Party is serious. The Labour Party is the traditional party of the working class and the political expression of the trade unions. At a time when New Zealand is suffering more and more under the weight of the global capitalist crisis, this election is going to push the situation of the working class into an even more dire state as they will be expected to bear the brunt of the crisis.

Combined with this, the situation in Australia is becoming increasingly volatile so it won’t be the option that it currently is at the moment.

What is necessary is to completely oppose the privatisation plans of the Nationals. Despite all the triumphalism of the capitalist media, the biggest sector of the potential voting public were not the National Party voters, but the disillusioned non-voters who are utterly fed up and saw nothing worth turning out and voting for in this election.

It is 3 years until the next election. In the meantime the ruling class is planning the biggest cutbacks in New Zealand history. The working class has sustained massive attacks in the past period and are now expected to pay for the crisis. It is now time to turn and fight. The privatisation plans of the Nationals must be fought tooth and nail.

The critical role here has to be played by the Unions. If the unions adopt a strong policy of opposition to the privatisations and austerity measures, backed by possible strike action, the plans of the Nationals can be defeated.

The ruling class has thrown down the gauntlet. It is time to rise and meet the challenge.