New Zealand: Labour goes back to “core values”

The recent national conference of the New Zealand Labour Party – held after their recent defeat in the elections – produced some interesting controversy around the question of what Labour should do if it gets back into office. The ideas of Marxism were present in the debate.

Over 500 delegates attended the recently held 93rd, two-day annual, Labour Party conference in Rotorua. This was a large turnout for a Labour Party that was defeated at last year’s general election. In fact it was a larger conference than the recent National Party “victory” conference!

The start of the conference on the Friday evening was a flat affair, and the leadership of the Labour Party were, to say the least, uninspiring and lacked any perspective of what needs to be done.

The “highlight” of the evening was Jim Anderton, leader of the Progressive Party (PP). He outlined the fact that his party members can re-join the Labour Party, as well as, having PP membership. This was the end of a disastrous “left split” and the welcoming back of comrades. Jim Anderton said “I last spoke to the Labour Party conference 21 years ago. Have I missed anything”? He then proceeded to explain Labour's defeat and the need to examine why workers didn't vote in sufficient numbers to return a Labour government. At least he gave a limited perspective, albeit reformist in nature, and he was well received by delegates.

On the Saturday the mood of the conference changed. Socialist Appeal supporters intervened in the “economic workshop” putting forward Marxist arguments and taking on the bureaucracy in a fraternal manner. The bureaucracy, in fact, uses the process to get what it wants. This is achieved by splitting the delegates up into a series of “controllable” workshops all held at the same time and using positive affirmation to get the statements accepted.

The debates revolved around the following issues:

  • In whose interest is the economy being run?
  • Arguing against the independence of the Reserve Bank and the need for an incoming Labour government to actually control monetary policy.
  • The need to abandon the market model of State Owned Enterprises for the electricity industry and for it to be run in the interests of the consumers. In other words, the re-introduction of a state capitalist model (which we would critically support).
  • The need to introduce binding legislation and enshrine the minimum wage at ⅔ of the national average wage.
  • And arguing against increases in indirect taxation/costs on workers through the adoption of the Emissions Trading Scheme and the defence of progressive taxation.

Our intervention on these issues gave delegates the confidence to come in and argue against the policy statements. Noticeably trade union delegates were to the fore in the debate. David Cunliffe MP, leading the workshop, referred to the $10 billion of spending commitments already agreed to in a joking manner. We would like to remind the Parliamentary Labour Caucus of the first point of the debate, in whose interest will you be running the economy, Capital or Labour. It isn't a joking matter! Given the heated debate at the conference on these questions, Radio New Zealand National reported that “sparks were flying in the economic debate”.

On Saturday afternoon the leader of the CTU, Helen Kelly, spoke about the need to defend workers and fight the bosses’ offensive that is taking place, and the need for policies that enshrine national collective bargaining across all industrial sectors etc. The CTU conference in October will be passing a policy to fight for such demands and workers’ rights. The Labour leader, Phil Goff, argued for the Labour Party and CTU to work together as the unions gave birth to the party, which was warmly received by the conference.

Phil Goff, in his leadership speech spoke about the need to go back to core values and the need for a future Labour government that delivers for workers and does not get distracted by single issues that lead to Labour's defeat. However, whilst this is a welcome departure from the past, the speech was very vague on how these core values are to be realised.

The New Zealand Labour Party is starting to move to the left, as is the CTU which is under pressure, as they are having to come out fighting as the anger and frustrations of the workers are beginning to materialise. DWU members at a Waikato cheese factory are embroiled in a bitter dispute with Open Country Dairy for the 'crime' of unionising the workplace. EMPU members at Telecom are still out [$1100 were collected for them at conference]. Auckland bus drivers have rejected a second offer of a 10.5% three-year deal by an overwhelming ballot of the members who earn $14-16/hour, through the “Combined Unions”, notably the Tram-workers and the NDU, after beating back a bosses’ lock-out. Added to this is the National government's austerity measures and the sacking of civil servants.

The above examples are the very early symptoms of the crises of capitalism unfolding here in New Zealand, which at some point in the future will lead to a generalised workers’ movement.

The Labour Party still has the support of workers generally and its roots are in the working class. This is in spite of the present leadership and the lack of grass-roots democracy within the party. It has six affiliated unions covering the major industrial sectors of the economy, unions such as EMPU, DWU, SFWU, MUNZ, to name some of them.

Socialist Appeal-NZ supporters spoke to many of the union delegates and sold several magazines. In fact, after our intervention delegates made a point of coming up to discuss with us.

The interesting point about the conference is this. The Labour leadership – now in opposition – have presented the idea that they can grant meaningful reforms on the basis of capitalism. This is pure wishful thinking. If they refuse to tackle the question of who owns the means of production, in the present conditions of a long drawn out crisis of capitalism, meaningful reforms will not be possible. Only the socialist transformation of New Zealand society, and internationally, can the “core values” be achieved. The New Zealand workers are beginning to re-learn the lessons of the past and will certainly test out the present leadership and will in time replace them if they are found wanting.