Aotearoa/New Zealand: Matt McCarten stuns friends and foes, joins Labour Party staff

Matt McCarten and David Cunliffe protest for workers' rights in 2010. Photo / Getty Images

Matt McCarten and Labour Party leader David Cunliffe protest for workers' rights in 2010. Photo: Getty Images.

March 4, 2014 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Long-time New Zealand left stalwart and leader of the militant Unite trade union stunned friends and foes alike with his sudden announcement that he is joining the staff of the New Zealand parliamentary Labour Party leader David Cunliffe.

Below Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal posts McCarten's final weekly column from the NZ Herald on Sunday, as well as a number of reactions from the NZ left.

Matt McCarten: Now for something similar ...

By Matt McCarten

March 2, 2014 -- Herald on Sunday -- I've got a new day job.

Unfortunately it means I have to give up my Sunday morning conversations with you.

The political world was stunned on Wednesday when David Cunliffe announced me as his chief of staffAfter the political establishment collectively got back off the floor, the inevitable political attacks started.

Normally a chief of staff appointment is not particularly newsworthy. Name one from any other party? But everyone knows I'm not being employed to do the leader's filing and correspondence.

For the first 24 hours, my new boss and I front-footed the decision as we knew we must. Now that's done, my job is to get out of the limelight and get to work in the backroom supporting Cunliffe.

This may surprise you but until three weeks ago I had never had a private conversation with Cunliffe.

I briefed him on a campaign to get more people out to vote. Our scheduled meeting turned into a long working lunch where we discussed a whole range of topics.

Given my biting criticisms of him in this column, we were surprised how well we got on. We recognised we had common goals and had complementary skill sets. I'm a happy organiser and campaigner.

One thing led to another and this week, my life has changed in a way none of us could have imagined.

My Christian friends believe God saved me from my cancer for this purpose.

Actually, it's dedicated professionals in the public health system and my partner Amanda who deserve that credit, although I'm happy to join Jesus' campaign for the meek to inherit the earth.

I'm bemused that the Prime Minister calls my appointment in a non-policy-making role a lurch to the left. Some in the unthinking media joined in about my public positions. When did it become so outrageous to call for the hourly minimum wage to be raised to $15, or argue that the breadwinners of a family deserve a living wage for a decent day's work? When does affordable housing for all, a decent job and support for families to support children get a good start in life become so unreasonable?

But I concede we are in parallel universes. Key promotes a man for his Cabinet who doubts Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, or another who thinks incest is just dandy. There's a lurch alright, into nuttiness.

On a personal front, the appointment does come at a cost. I will be based in Wellington while my partner lives in Auckland. I step down from my union that I was intending to continue as my life's work.

But standing on the sidelines would be a dereliction of duty. It's a bold call by Cunliffe to offer me the trust of a central place in his team. It's an honour to accept.

Of course, it isn't appropriate for me to write a column when I officially nail my colours to the fortunes of one political party. For the record, I have only been a member of two political parties - the Labour Party and the NLP/Alliance. But I've always supported democratic causes and initiatives where they align with the interests of ordinary people.

It really has been the greatest privilege to write to you each Sunday. I salute Jonathan Milne, the Herald on Sunday deputy editor, who took a risk hiring me. Thanks to various editors who didn't fire me despite me skating close to the edge at times.

I know sometimes I was overly harsh in my personal criticisms. I regret that and apologise for those I have carelessly insulted. I'm not by nature callous.

To my political opponents, I am glad we live in a civil society where we can contest ideas. I hope I ruined your Sunday breakfast on occasions.

To the people who write and tell me they look forward to my column, I'm humbled.

Now I must go and walk my talk. I will miss you all.

[This is Matt McCarten's last column, after nearly 10 years writing for the Herald on Sunday through good times and bad.]

Mike Treen: The McCarten appointment


By Mike Treen

February 28, 2014 -- The Daily Blog -- The decision by Labour Party leader David Cunliffe to appoint Unite Union leader Matt McCarten as his chief of staff has been a huge surprise on the left of politics.

The decision by Matt McCarten to accept the appointment is also something of a surprise to those who have seen Matt as one of the most prominent critics of the Labour Party’s failure to articulate a genuine and inspirational vision for the left.

If Labour wins the election Cunliffe’s decision will be seen as the inspired choice of a courageous leader. If Labour loses Matt and Cunliffe will probably be looking for a new job.

Why David Cunliffe made the appointment is probably easier to understand and explain than why Matt accepted. If the Labour Party believes it is necessary to mobilise the vote of their core support to win the election then the appointment of this working class fighter to this important role is a clear signal. Matt is also without question the smartest, most talented and most experienced election campaign manager in the country of any political persuasion.

He has run a dozen or more campaigns for New Labour, the Alliance, Maori Party and Mana since he left the Labour Party with Jim Anderton in 1990. Many of those campaigns were successful beyond what many considered possible given the resources he had at hand. He had an exceptional ability to inspire and motivate a volunteer army to go out and do what was needed. He also has a creative spark that was able to distill complex issues to understandable and popular themes. Matt also has a good relationship with players in both the Greens and Mana parties whose votes will be needed to form a left of centre government.

Cunliffe will get all that and more. Matt is the sort of creative genius that is working 24 hours a day seven days a week because if the job needs doing it just needs doing. Matt is also incredibly loyal to the principles that have motivated him throughout his political life and loyal to the leaders of the parties that he has helped organise. While Matt gets the blame from Jim Anderton for the split and demise of the Alliance Party Matt actually remained a loyal President for Anderton until the day he was presented with a demand to support an undemocratic coup against the entire Alliance Party by a small clique around Jim Anderton. It was only at that point that Matt as President of that party had no alternative but to say no.

What was surprising to me was not that David would want Matt but that he had the courage to appoint him in the face of what would have been formidable opposition within his own caucus. Many of the current crop of Labour MPs have been on the receiving end of Matt’s political campaigning and probably still hurt. Jim Anderton is clearly one of those. In my view Cunliffe deserves significant credit for the move.

Neither Matt or David had had a significant discussion together until a few weeks ago. As I understand what happened Matt had gone to see David about his ideas for a trade union-based campaign to enrol workers and get out the vote for the general election. What was going to be a 30-minute chat turned into a three-hour discussion and the rest is history. Matt said there was an immediate chemistry and I take him at his word on that issue. I am sure David convinced Matt that he was genuine about making a difference for working people if he gets to be leading the next government and Matt knew he had something to offer David to help make that happen.

Personally I have my doubts on the first part of the equation but am happy to be proved wrong.

The Labour Party in government has failed to challenge the fundamental inequalities that exist in this society. Economic and political power remains in the hands of a small, rich but powerful elite. They dictate the limits of change. Labour as a party that wants to simply manage the system inevitably ends up serving that system.

I want a party of working people that is willing to challenge the system. I want a party that seeks to replace the existing capitalist society with a democratic, cooperative socialist society. I think that the future of the planet as a living organism also needs that sort of society. Tinkering with the system won’t be enough. Labour and the Greens are tinkerers not challengers. That is why I support the Mana Movement. Mana is based on Maori and working class fighters who are trying to show all working people the way forward. The problem is that working class people who are white or asian don’t see that need yet and it may take some time – and more importantly real struggles – before that happens. But Mana remain the beacon of hope for the future that we must do everything we can to nurture and promote.

I said to Matt that I wouldn’t accept the position as Labour chief of staff if it was offered to me. He made the obvious point back that the job would never be offered to me!

Matt and I have fought together as comrades for the last decade as co-leaders of Unite. What made Matt different from many union leaders was that he has complete confidence in the working class’s ability to get off its knees and fight for a better world. Unlike many leaders of the labour movement (political or industrial) he has no fear of workers standing up and fighting. He didn’t see his role as an industrial firefighter putting the flames of struggle out. He knew that whatever strength we had a union negotiators was only as much as the army behind us. And that army had to be fighting fit to be much of a threat to anyone to make concessions.

I have enjoyed our time together in the struggle to build Unite immensely. Matt is always the big vision man. He was never the most “radical” politically in the union but he often saw further and clearer than the most radical. His plans for the future were always ambitious. Even when both our credit cards were maxed out during the SupersizeMyPay campaign in the fast food industry in 2005-6 he remained calm and confident we would win. But Matt was always a “reformist” in the most meaningful way – not in the way the self-styled “revolutionary” middle-class kid can use the term as an epithet whilst on their temporary sojourn in the working-class struggle as a young socialist activist. I have seen too may of those come and go in my life.

Matt was a reformist in that he genuinely believes we must fight for reforms here and now in the interests of working people. He knows that it makes a difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of working people and their families what the minimum wage is. He knows unions are more effective if the access laws give us a chance to talk to and recruit workers. He knows the unemployed need a decent benefit to survive the ups and downs of the business cycle.

Capitalist politics depends to a degree on there being a genuine difference between two major parties of the left and right who can alternate running the system between them. Logic dictates one must of the centre-right and the other of the centre-left. This is true where traditional social democratic parties exist as well as countries like the USA where the reality is that the Democrat and Republican parties division is more like the right and left of the National Party. Working people often get reduced to voting for the “lesser evil” as they see it.

MMP [New Zealand's proportional representation electoral system] changes that to a degree by giving the possibility of a broader range of parties to the right or left of the major parties. In most cases these parties will not necessarily be “system change” parties but simply want more radical reforms of the existing system.

For parties on the left that is becoming much more difficult. Capitalism appears less and less able to countenance even modest reforms in the interests of working people. Radical left parties that have joined governments of the centre usually get wiped out relatively quickly. That is why I believe we need a movement whose goal is to radically challenge and replace the system that exists.

Until now Matt also though it was more useful to build a political movement to the left of Labour – even if the goal was in part “to keep the bastards honest”.

Matt has now been offered a position at the heart of the leadership group in a party that has the possibility of leading the next government. Anyone who knows Matt will realise he could never turn that down. Not because he is a opportunist who has been bought off but because he believes he can and will make a difference. Big business will be concerned about this appointment for the same reasons and we can expect the attack dogs on the right in the media to start their campaign to undermine David and Matt for this decision. Prime Minister John Key denounced Matt as “hard left” and said the appointment reflected unions “getting a tighter grip on the direction of the Labour Party.”

The left should welcome this appointment. It does mean there will be more opportunity for a united, collaborative campaign of the broader left to get rid of this government. It can make us a little more optimistic that the new government may make decisions a bit more favourable to working people and a little less favourable to big business. For Matt that will be a victory worth fighting for.

I continue to believe that we need to build a movement to the left of Labour, but not just to “keep the bastards (including Matt McCarten) honest” . For the longer term struggle to actually replace this hideous society of inequality, racism, sexism, dispossession and war we need a movement of working people whose goal is a complete system change. That will be a movement worth fighting for.

[Mike Treen is national director of the Unites union.]

Mana party: McCarten move signals unity to change the government

February 26, 2014 -- Mana -- “On behalf of the MANA Movement, I’d like to congratulate Matt McCarten on his appointment as David Cunliffe’s Chief of Staff”, said Annette Sykes, MANA president.

“It’s great having someone we know is committed to the same broad goals as us leading Labour’s election strategy.

“Matt is a committed campaigner for justice and human rights and, as part of that, he helped in the establishment of MANA as our inaugural president.

“Through the positive relationship he already has with us and the Greens, and now with Labour, we have no doubt his appointment will help build a strong and united coalition of the left to change the government."

“This is great news”, concluded Ms Sykes.

Fightback: The Labour Party and popular participation

By Ian Anderson

February 27, 2014 -- Fightback! -- Mainstream media coverage in the lead-up to the general election tends to focus on fluctuations in polling, most recently an apparent growth in support for National. Left-wing critics of mainstream electoral polling sometimes note that polling relies on landlines, while many poor and disenfranchised people do not have landlines.

That said, many of the same people least likely to have landlines are also least likely to participate in elections. Broadly speaking tangata whenua, young people, poor people, and recent migrants are the least likely to vote (and have landlines). This effectively means that low turnout is bad for the electoral "left".

The 2011 general election saw the lowest voter turnout (by percentage) since the 19th century, when women first won the right to vote in this country. Voter turnout in general has declined over the last half-century.

Statistics New Zealand have surveyed non-voters’ stated reasons for not voting. In 2011, 43% of non-voters felt disengaged from the whole process (“not interested”, “didn’t think it was worth voting”, “makes no difference”), while 30% of non-voters cited perceived practical barriers (“overseas”, “couldn’t get to a polling both”). The largest proportion were simply “not interested”.

For those of us who want to see a truly democratic society, one based on popular participation and self-determination, this all raises a question of strategy. Should we "rebuild" the Labour Party? Should we weave together new organisations? Should we ignore elections entirely?

In 2013 during the contest for the Labour Party leadership, pro-Labour commentator Martyn Bradbury described the three major candidates as “to the right of Marx – just”. Winner David Cunliffe was particularly touted as representing a “true red” Labour Party. Now some see Cunliffe’s appointment of Matt McCarten, former Unite Union general secretary, as a confirmation of this move leftwards.

Matt McCarten has a formidable record. As well as playing key roles in the Alliance, the Maori Party and the MANA Movement – McCarten also helped build Unite Union into a fighting force that has waged successful campaigns to raise the minimum wage, end youth rates (a reform since snatched back), and militantly organise the growing casualised sectors that the established union movement had neglected.

Labour Party leader Cunliffe’s record is less flash. Cunliffe was a vocal advocate of public-private partnerships in the fifth Labour government. As minister of immigration, he oversaw the unjust detention of several Iranian men, fought through a hunger strike and protest campaign. Cunliffe did not oppose sending troops to Iraq or Afghtanistan.

So what does this pairing of Cunliffe and McCarten mean for the party? Is Cunliffe radicalising? Is McCarten moving right? What could it mean for a future government? New Zealand PM John Key and others described McCarten’s appointment as a lurch to the"far-left". As with accusations that Obama is a socialist, radical socialists can only respond "if only".

Pro-Labour commentator Chris Trotter has noted that as chief of staff, McCarten will not be mainly involved in formulating policy. Rather, McCarten will act as a “direct and unequivocal promoter of the party’s already agreed goals”.

Pro-Labour commentators argue McCarten’s strength lies partly in his potential to forge unity behind a future Labour-led coalition government. Trotter notes:

McCarten’s history with the Greens (once part of his old party, the Alliance), the Maori Party and Mana will be of enormous value to Labour should they find themselves in a position to forge a governing coalition.

Martyn Bradbury also suggests McCarten could extend an olive branch to potential supporters of a Labour-led coalition:

What Matt can do is reach across to other progressive parties and seriously discuss using MMP tactically so that the entire Left are united in fighting the Government come election day… If you are a MANA voter, vote MANA tactically. If you are a Green voter, vote Green tactically and if you are a Labour voter, vote Labour tactically.

Fightback will back the MANA Movement in the upcoming general elections. With a stated mission of bringing rangatiratanga to the poor and powerless, MANA represents the most progressive section of the working and oppressed majority. MANA maintains the link between indigenous sovereignty and the wider struggle for an egalitarian society.

MANA has not ruled out entering a government with the Labour Party. There is a spectrum of opinion within MANA on entering a government, whether through a coalition or confidence-and-supply agreement.

McCarten for a long time has advocated a strategy of pushing Labour leftwards. Whether this meant building organisations outside the Labour Party, or directly entering a Labour Party government, the orientation was always towards pressuring Labour, with no horizons beyond the two-party system. Taking a job as chief of staff within the Labour Party is a continuation of this strategy. This begs the question of whether pushing Labour left, from inside a government, is a viable strategy.

The Labour Party remains a pro-capitalist party. They have some mild differences with the ruling National Party over how to manage capitalism; more socially liberal, more experienced with the public sector, former union bureaucrats rather than former currency traders. However, big business remains the largest donor to Labour; cut the head off the hydra, and another will spring up in its place.

Both Labour and National governments presided over a three-decade decline in real wages. The Labour Party initiated this project of robbing the working majority; neoliberalism, or "Rogernomics". It’s no wonder that poor, young and marginal people are simply not interested in voting.

Chris Trotter argues that “radical constitutional reforms” in the Labour Party over 2012 and 2013 will keep the party leadership honest. These reforms require new policies to fit with the party’s long-established “Policy Platform”.

However, signs at the Labour Party conference in November 2013 were not promising. Moves for transparency on the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) were defeated. The Labour Party also maintains the policy of a $15/hr minimum wage, as a major flagship policy.

In 2009, Unite Union campaigned for a $15/hr minimum wage immediately. In 2009, a $15 minimum wage would have been a step forward for working people. However, inflation quickly wipes out short-term rises in wages. Real wages (wages adjusted for prices and inflation) have declined over the past 30 years.

Unite also demanded that the minimum wage be set to 2/3 of the average wage in future. Labour has not taken up the policy of tying the minimum wage to the average wage. The Campaign for a Living Wage, backed by the Service and Food Workers’ Union, argues for a living wage of $18.80/hr.

Now, five years after Unite’s campaign for a $15 minimum wage, the demand is a lot more conservative. With the minimum wage recently raised to $14.25/hr by the National government, a wage raise of 75 cents (without any tie to the average wage) would do nothing to reverse the trend of declining real wages. Politicians are often accused of over-promising and under-delivering, but even this promise is woefully inadequate.

A popular meme says that “if voting changed anything, they would make it illegal”. This is a half-truth. Democracy is a product of struggle; including for example women’s struggle for suffrage. When electoral work, combined with popular struggle, has challenged capitalism and imperialism – "they" have done their best to make it illegal (Chile’s coup in 1973, Venezuela’s attempted coup in 2002). Elections can work as important sites of class struggle, but most of the time, the ruling class is winning.

Fightback has no illusions that socialism can simply be voted in. Our participation in capitalist elections is oppositional. Even when radicals such as MANA’s Hone Harawira win seats, their role is to support the wider community movement, not to go into coalition with pro-capitalists.

Sue Bradford, of MANA and formerly the Greens, holds the record for most successful private members’ bills while outside a coalition government. Many of these necessary reforms, such as raising the minimum wage and abolishing youth rates, were backed by community movements. Workers can win the reforms we need, without entering government and sacrificing our independence.

We need transformative strategies, not strategies that simply reproduce the system that got us here. We need to weave together new organisations that can move beyond the existing political structure, from the scraps we currently have.

The Council of Trade Unions remains the largest formally democratic organisation Although the CTU is currently unwilling to take risks, unions of workers are a necessary part of forging the new movement we need.

Organisations of the people cannot rely on big business, or parliament. We need our own finances, our own democracy, our own structures organised in opposition to the capitalist system. Support for the Labour Party undermines the possibility of liberation for the working and oppressed majority.