The fractured Left of New Zealand Politics by underground

Donning t-shirts emblazoned with ‘Free-Palestine’ or Che Guevara’s image, they gather in university coffee shops, living rooms and online message boards. They speak of the proletariat and the bourgeois, of worker’s rights and exploitation. On their bookshelves sit The Communist Manifesto, Manufacturing Consent and The Shock Doctrine. They come in all shapes and sizes, from students to pensioners, hippies to punks, Pakeha to Maori. They are passionate, purposeful and persistent. They have formed groups, societies and political parties. They seek reform, sometimes even revolution. They envisage a utopia, a world free from inequality and injustice.

But before they can fight the system, they first must fight each other.

On November 8, New Zealanders will take to polling booths across the country and cast their votes for the party and the candidate they wish to represent them in Parliament. As the big day looms, National are looking evermore likely to claim the Government benches after nine years in opposition, depending on whether they have either the numbers for an outright majority or can cobble together the numbers for a coalition. Labour has faced something of a backlash in the last few years, most notably for the Electoral Finance Act, but it appears most voters who have departed the party believe Labour has had its turn and simply want change for change’s sake. However not all former Labour supporters have moved across the floor to the right of the political spectrum; the Greens have picked up a few extra points in recent polls and many of the disillusioned have moved further left still.

Voters on the Left will find more than just Labour, Greens and the Progressives on the ballot vying for your vote. You can also leave your little orange tick in the box alongside the Alliance, the Resident Action Movement (RAM) and the Workers Party, along with various Leftist independents. But how successful can any of these parties be when there is fairly little separating them as far as policy goes? Why should voters choose one over another? And considering their slight chances at winning a seat or obtaining five per cent of the party vote, what hopes do these parties have of success?

Alliance has had a rough life in the past few years. In 1999 the party’s 10 seats allowed Labour to form a government, ending nine years of National rule. Party leader Jim Anderton was even given the role of Deputy Prime Minister in Helen Clark’s Government. But the wheels started to fall off when a rift emerged between Anderton and party president Matt McCarten. With her coalition on the rocks, Helen Clark called an early election in 2002. Since then the Alliance has not fared very well at all, failing to return to Parliament in 2002 or 2005. Alliance’s Victor Billot says the party is unlikely to get in to Parliament this election and is currently rebuilding the party’smembership and voter base.

“People were saying the Alliance was dead. The Alliance is not dead,” says Billot. “We are doing much better than we were a few years back.”

Anderton is forthright about the problems within the Alliance that led to his leaving and forming his own party, the Progressive Party.

“The Alliance was more keen to run campaigns with placards than to make serious political decisions.

“You have got to win the battle around here, not beat Helen Clark over the head with a bloody banner.”

Clearly the divisions between the two factions are still present, as Billot derides Jim Anderton and his party as “indistinguishable from Labour” and the Progressives as a “personality cult” centred around its leader.

“He played an important role 20 or so years ago but he has had his day.”

Alliance believes the free market capitalist system is an impediment to a just and equal society. The party campaigns to improve job security, full employment, free education, public ownership of electricity and accessibility to affordable housing. Billot acknowledges the similarities between the other Leftist parties and the Alliance.

“We have been trying to differentiate ourselves from other parties.”

He says the party is not very different from the Greens, except the Alliance is dedicated to social issues whereas the Greens’ focus is environmental. Billot says the Workers Party is much further left than the Alliance.

“I’m not having a go at them, but they are basically a communist party. We are not looking to revolution for change, more like reform. Alliance is a social democrat party.”

As for RAM, Billot is unsure why it is even running in the election.

“Why reinvent the wheel?” he says. “They seem to have borrowed all our policies.”

Number one on RAM’s party list is Auckland Central candidate Oliver Woods. The aspiring young politician agrees the party is “quite similar to Alliance”, although he believes there are some significant differences.

“Alliance is very backward looking; RAM is looking to the future.”

The 20-year-old says the party, which is the fastest growing in the country, is more than just a political party.

“We have got one foot in the political sphere, one foot in the grass roots movement.”

The party has been prominent in the movement to remove GST from food, and also campaigns on social issues and workers’ rights. Policies include lifting the minimum wage, establishing free and frequent public transport and restoring workers’ right to strike.

RAM was formed in 2003 and contested the Auckland Regional Council elections in 2004 and the local body elections in 2007. It will contest its first general election this year. Woods says the party is optimistic about its chances this election, but says the focus is on the 2011 general election.

“It’s up to the voters. Of course I hope we get in.”

Woods believes the Left would be much more effective if there was cooperation and unity. “Calling the Left fractured is an understatement. “It is about personality, not policy.”

Woods shares Billot’s cynical view of Anderton’s Progressive Party.

“They’re bloody useless. It’s just a personality cult.”

He is hardly impressed with Labour either, believing the party has failed many New Zealanders in the past nine years.

“If Labour was doing a good job RAM wouldn’t need to exist.”

The Workers Party sits further left on the political continuum than Alliance and RAM. Referred to as “old school Marxist” by RAM’s Woods, Manukau East candidate Daphna Whitmore is adament the party is the only “anti-capitalist” party on the ballot. Although not aligned to any particular union, most of the candidates are members of unions, including Unite, EPMU (Engineers, Printers and Manufacturers Union) and NDU (National Distribution Union), says Whitmore. Policies include securing jobs for all, establishing a shorter working week, scrapping GST (not just on food), removing restrictions on the right to strike and scrapping the Electoral Finance Act and the Terrorism Suppression Act.

An activist for 20 years, Whitmore recognises the party’s chances on November 8 are slim. She says this is because of the five per cent threshold, which she believes prevents the MMP system from being truly proportional.

“My preference is one per cent equals one seat. Why should people have their vote discounted?” So what does Whitmore hope to achieve considering the party’s near non- existent chances of getting to Parliament under the current system?

“Our aim in standing is to put out a message,” she says.

The Green Party’s Keith Locke is not surprised by the array of similar Left wing parties on offer, believing those on the Left focus more on small differences than similarities.

“There is a long tradition among the Left to be divided, some of them have a certain what you might call sect or character, I don’t mean to use that in terms of the extreme sense of the word, but they are very strong on a particular point and spend most the time arguing with the people closest to them.”

Locke points out a candidate from the Communist League, who is not standing as a party in this election, who shouted at Labour’s Phil Goff from the crowd at a foreign affairs debate last month as an example of those on the Left who he says are too fundamentalist on their principals, “a bit like Act and the free market”.

“They basically think that you can’t have any New Zealand troops overseas because they will be inevitably performing in terrorist functions. And when you apply that to somewhere like East Timor, where every single East Timorese, wanted New Zealand to come in 1999, and wanted them to come back a few years ago with provisions and as peacekeeping force, when people want you to be that peacekeeping force, isn’t it a bit imperialist actually to say, ‘well you are getting slaughtered, but we are not going to help’.”

He says many of the parties are aligned to historical occurrences and movements, particular socialist and workers publications, unions and overseas organisations, which make it harder for them to work together.

“The divisions between them are not really divisions in New Zealand primarily, they are the divisions in London and New York. And they can’t really be resolved in New Zealand, as long as that loyalty tie stays in place, between the London and New York based groups, and the New Zealand groups.”

The situation is not exclusive to New Zealand; internationally there is the same promise of a united Left, but there are also the same problems.

Formed in January 2004 on the back of anti-Iraq War sentiment, the United Kingdom’s Respect Party was a coalition of left wing groups, most notably the Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP) and members of the Muslim Association of Britain and the Muslim Council of Britain. The expulsion of George Galloway from the Labour Party for his vocal opposition to the war gave the Party the impetus it needed to get started.

Britain’s political landscape is much vaster than our own, with many more regionally focused, nationalist parties, and single-issue parties. The Left is splintered and under the first past the post system few parties have any chance of winning a constituency. Respect had limited success in elections, with only Galloway representing the party in Parliament, winning the seat of Bethnal Green and Bow for the party in 2005.

In an incident reminiscent of Alliance in 2002, the UK’s Respect Party imploded in November 2007, seeing the promising party veer off into two separate Respect entities; the SWP and its leader went one way, forming Left List, and Galloway and his supporters went the other with the Respect Renewal.

The animosity between the Respect factions makes Matt McCarten and Jim Anderton’s conflict look tame. Signalling his split from the SWP faction of the party, Galloway and his supporters announced a second National Convention to be held on the same day as the official Respect National Convention in a different part of London. Whilst it was widely believed to have been Galloway that deserted the party, Galloway and his supporters claimed control of Respect’s national headquarters in Tower Hamlets, changed the locks to the building and forced their rival faction to set up their headquarters in the front room of a private house. Tensions mounted and a war of words erupted; the Guardian reported that Galloway told his SWP opponents to “fuck off, the lot of you”. The essence of the rift was the strain between strong personalities and differing focuses for the party, with Galloway aligned with Iraq War opponents and Muslim leaders and the SWP concerned more with workers rights and civil liberties.

Those on the German Left will be hoping the same fate does not await Die Linke. The German Left unity party formed in 2007 as a merger between Die Linke.PDS and WASG. The parties had worked together in 2005 with an agreement not to stand in the same seats, which made sense for the parties as WASG is based in the west of German and Die Linke.PDS is from the east. WASG, or Labour and Social Justice – The Electoral Alternative, was only formed in 2005, as a refuge for those on the Left disenchanted with the Social Democratic/Greens government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

In the 2005 German Federal Election, Die Linke.PDS, or “The Left Party”, obtained 8.7 per cent of the vote, which translated in 54 seats out of the Bundestag’s 614. The party has strong Left wing credentials; it was previously known as the Party of Democratic Socialism, or PDS, which was the successor of the Socialist Unity Party, the governing party of the communist German Democratic Republic until 1990. Because of the party’s Marxist leanings, Die Linke.PDS was shunned by Schroeder and the SPD, who had the option of forming a governing coalition with the Greens and Die Linke.PDS after the 2005 election stalemate. Instead Schroeder opted for what was seen as the less caustic option; a grand coalition with the conservative Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union, handing over the chancellor role to the CDU’s Angela Merkel. In the 2009 Federal election Die Linke.PDS and WASG will campaign together known simply as Die Linke, or “The Left”.

Having seen its popularity wane in Germany following the end of the Cold War, Marxist theory is making a comeback. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fear of the “reds under the beds” has subsided and the impetus no longer exists for widespread anti-communist sentiment. And as the economic recession takes effect we may even be seeing the tide turning on capitalism as people question the success of the prevailing economic system.

German publishers are noting a heightened demand for Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, with sales increasing as much as 300 per cent in the past year. Die Linke’s Oskar Lafontaine was once slated in the German media as a “mad Leftie” who had “lost the plot” when he said he would apply Marxist theory in the party’s manifesto, but now even Peer Steinbruck, the country’s finance minister told Der Spiegel that “overall, we have to conclude that certain elements of Marxist theory are not all that incorrect”.

The economy will likely be the defining issue of the New Zealand General Election. It remains to be seen where New Zealanders will place their trust to handle this crisis. If Kiwi voters are not content with the capitalist model, with which left-wing party will they place their support? With the Left so fractured, the electoral chances of each of the parties left of Labour diminish. The Green Party has successfully kept above the five per cent threshold in three elections running, but parties focusing solely on social issues have found their votes dwindling. In the 2005 election, Alliance only obtained 1,641 votes, or 0.07 per cent of the vote. But there is the potential for greater electoral success for a unified party left of Labour in this country.

In 1993, the newly formed Alliance, which consisted of the Labour Party defectors NewLabour, the Democrats (formerly Social Credit), the Greens and Mana Motuhake, gained 18.2 per cent of the vote. Part of this success may have been due to voters casting protest votes against the two main parties, but the remarkable result should not be scoffed at. Unfortunately, this election was under First Past the Post, meaning the party only obtained two seats. Three years later the party won 12 seats with 10.10 per cent of the vote under MMP. For this reason Woods hopes the Left can once again unite.

“The Alliance was amazing [in the 1990s],” he says. “We could do that again, but everyone needs to be cooperative.”

On November 9, the parties of the fractured Left will evaluate their campaigns, contemplate the present and look to the future. The battle for representation will be arduous and long if fought alone. Perhaps united together, success could be achieved sooner rather than later.


4 Comments so far
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An interesting piece. Was it published somewhere before it appeared on this blog? I analysed the far left’s election results last week:

Keith Locke talks about opposition to deployment in East Timor as a sign of the supposed derangement of parts of the far left. He claims that not one single Timorese was opposed to deployment in 1999. This is a claim that is probably widely believed NZers, and Keith might believe it to be true without researching it. It is not true, though – Fretilin, the leading East Timorese resistance group, actually split over the issue of the UN coming in, and a substantial splinter organisation spread around the country. I’ve blogegd about this at:
Sorry about all the self-advertisement!

Comment by Scott


The above article was an assignment for my graduate diploma of journalism I have recently completed. I didn’t get it published in the media, so put it here so at least it will get read. My writing it was more for my interest anyway, as I am fascinated by how self-destructive the Left is.

I enjoyed your summary of the Left’s election results on your blog. I share the same sentiments with you on many points.

As for Locke, he was referring to a Communist League candidate who attacked Goff during the foreign affairs debate earlier that night. It is interesting that many did oppose intervention, but it is not surprising because a country will of course have people of differing opinions and interests. What Locke was conveying is that many on the far-left are as ideological as Act, opposing any military intervention as imperialistic, for example, regardless of whether the assistance is asked for or warranted. This point I agree with, as there are certainly times in history when military action was necessary. It was interesting to hear Locke say this, as I consider him to be on the left of the Greens, and at times perhaps are little ideological himself.

What I did enjoy about writing the story was the passion of those I spoke to; from Anderton to Whitmore. Each has something to contribute to New Zealand’s political conversation and ideas to make this country a better place. We just need them all to start getting along!

Comment by underground

The right bullies everyone into following the leaders, and the left pretends to try being leaders together but inevitably only a few actually lead.
The thing is that the ‘group’ is too large. How can a few hundred people lead and administer over 4 million people equably? Of course not, only those who can afford to be heard and who can afford to support the leaders, will ever get heard.
I say divide the people but make them strong in small communities governing themselves… which is what humans used to do fairly happily and cheaply for several million years.

As for The East Timor argument, you seem to have ignored what Scott said plus paid no attention to NZs involvement before they were ‘asked’ to come and help. It’s reminds me of the SAS, sent in to slaughter Viet Cong villagers then leave and go back in with medical uniforms on to ‘help’.

Comment by e


The above article is not an opinion piece, like almost all blog posts, but a magazine style feature that I posted here as I didn’t get it published in full elsewhere. It was published in part here: http://www.tewahanui.info/wordpress2/?p=1080

Locke’s comments are in response to me asking him why the Left is fragmented. Those are his words not mine. Whilst I agree with the gist of what he is saying, I do not know enough about East Timor to say whether his details are correct, but I appreciate Scott’s comments.

Of course there have been times in the past when NZ has intervened when they shouldn’t have, Vietnam is certainly a case in point. However in WW2, for example, I am glad we did get involved. Opposing all military action regardless of the situation, which is what Locke was accusing the Communist League guy of doing, is, in my opinion, counterproductive and irrational. Whether he was wrong about Timor or not is irrelevant to his point, although it does mean he did not convey it well! :-)

Comment by underground

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