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Aotearoa/New Zealand: The tasks before the left and labour movement

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By Mike Treen, Unite Union national director

September 28, 2014 -- Daily Blog -- Anyone on the left would have been disappointed at the result of the September 20 general election. There was an opportunity to win, but that got lost through a combination of factors. There were tactical decisions made by Labour Party, the Greens and Internet-Mana that contributed to the defeat. Each party needs to have a discussion on what those were.

However, the defeat was the product of objective conditions in the first instance.

We had a unified right wing that knew the importance of strategic voting. The ruling National Party got two bonus MPs in Epsom (ACT Party) and Ohariu (United Future) and helped defeat Internet-Mana by urging a Labour vote in Te Tai Tokerau. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key urged a vote for the Labour candidate to defeat Mana Party leader Hone Harawira and so also stopped him bringing in at least one more left MP on the list.

This government was also riding a strong wave of economic growth that followed the initial downturn following the 2008 worldwide financial crisis and subsequent recession. In addition, the National Party government deliberately avoided challenging head on or reversing some of the benefits received by working people under the last Labour government. To illustrate this point, we can compare the previous National Party led government from 1990 to 1999 which increased the minimum wage once (when in coalition with the NZ First party). This government has increased it every year and maintained it at roughly 50% of the average wage.

Many people saw no particular need to change horses when there appeared to be little difference between the major parties. While it is true that Labour was promising some things that were of obvious benefit to workers, like the $2 an hour minimum wage rise, there were other areas where workers were deeply suspicious of Labour’s intentions – such as raising the retirement age.

The parties on the left also appeared deeply divided to the point where it was difficult for many to see how they could form a government that would be able to work together cooperatively. Primary responsibility for that rests with the strategic choices made by the Labour leadership. It rejected the Greens' call for a co-operation agreement before the election and deliberately sought to destroy the challenge on its left posed by Internet-Mana.

The rejection of any notion of strategic voting by Labour also meant that it made it easier for ACT to win Epsom, the Maori Party to win Waiariki (and bring in an extra MP on the list) and defeat the Mana Movement in Te Tai Tokerau.

Labour seems to fear challenges on its left more than it does those on the right. As number two on the Internet-Mana list, Laila Harre should be in parliament today as a strong voice on the left. She also should have stayed in parliament in 2002 except for the fact that the Labour Party (and its EPMU union affiliate in particular) threw huge resources into a campaign that “succeeded” in pushing her into second place behind the Labour candidate and therefore eliminating the Alliance from parliament.

Those on the left of Labour need to regroup and reorganise. In my view we can rebuild a credible left alternative. The challenge remains enormous because we know the lengths that the big business rulers of this country (and their media attack dogs) are willing to go to defeat genuinely progressive changes in the interests of working people. We have seen that is the destruction of the Alliance Party and in attempted destruction of the Mana Movement.

But I think the Mana Movement is a tougher nut to crack than the old Alliance was. The old Alliance was destroyed as much from within with the betrayal of is principles by the leader Jim Anderton and the majority of MPs who supported his decision to back the invasion of Afghanistan.

The Mana Movement was formed to speak for the poor and dispossessed; to speak for workers fighting for a living wage; to speak for Maori defending their land and language; to speak for Pacifica threatened with deportation. That role remains whether we are parliament or not.

We need to amplify that voice through using social media and the old media like our own newspaper. We need to throw ourselves into community organising at the very grass roots of our societies and be ready to stand beside those fighting back – like we have seen in the case of the Housing Corporation tenants in Glenn Innes in Auckland.

Then we will see the opportunities for electoral gains to reflect the gains on the ground re-emerge.

Hone Harawira built his northern bastion at the flax roots before ever standing for parliament. I am sure he is rolling up his sleeves to do battle again around the needs of his community.

The Mana alliance with the Internet Party and its leader Kim Dotcom was a gamble that did not come off. I don’t believe it wasn’t worth the try however. It almost worked. We were polling around 3% just before the final week and the so-called “Moment of Truth”. That vote collapsed following the meeting as many people felt they had been duped by Kim Dotcom by what appeared to be his failure to deliver on his promises to expose John Key. We shall see what truth there is in Kim Dotcom’s claims over that matter in the months and years ahead and I suspect there is a lot more to be discovered about the US media bosses manipulation of the process to get the big man extradited.

What the Internet-Mana alliance did do was help create a left coalition that could appeal to more people than what the “radical Maori” persona of Hone and the Mana movement had been able to do. That is important to creating the possibility of reaching out to disaffected working people from Pakeha, Pacifica and migrant backgrounds. That is a reality we must confront.

In the end the Internet-Mana alliance was overshadowed by the demonisation of Kim Dotcom by the whole establishment – big business, media, and the leaders of all the major parties. But the forces that were mobilised by Internet-Mana this election campaign were young, left and progressive forces that will find their way to create something new and radical to challenge the domination of politics by the interests of big business over the interests of ordinary people and the planet.

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