The Socialist Unity Network

Socialist Unity wants to hear from you.
Got a comment?

Why not email us with your thoughts?

Interview with David Colyer, International Secretary of Socialist Worker in New Zealand

There are some very interesting developments in New Zealand left politics that are of general interest. The hard left Alliance party that had representation in parliament disintegrated under the pressures arising from joining a coalition Labour government. But there other areas of work are yielding results, in particular the progress of the Maori Party, the UNITE union and the Resident Action Movement. Socialist Worker in New Zealand are seeking to launch a broad left paper, as a prelude to a new broad workers' party.

Socialist Unity Network spoke to Dave Colyer of Socialist Worker (below), and Mike Treen of the Unite union.


Socialist Unity Network: > Can you briefly explain your own political background?

David Colyer: > I joined Socialist Worker (then the Socialist Workers Organisation) in 1997, my first year of university. I’d been a Marxist, in theory, for several years before that. The comrades, none of whom were students of the  university, encouraged me help build a movement against student fees. In 1999, sit-ins or occupations swept the Universities. Thousands of students were involved. From 2000, 2001 and 2002, I was editor of our fortnightly paper Socialist Worker, this included the first three issues once it became Socialist Worker Monthly Review.


SUN: > I understand that there has been a very serious decline in union membership and workplace organisation in New Zealand over the last decade. What are the causes of this, and what are the consequences?

DC: > In New Zealand, as in Britain, the social radicalism of the ‘60s and ‘70s was mirrored by trade union militancy. When the fourth Labour government came to power in 1984, union membership was around 60% of the workforce. Ten years later this had fallen to less than 20%. From 1984, first Labour and National (Tory) governments unleashed a free market “blitzkrieg”, leading to privatisation, mass redundancies, rising unemployment.


But the success of these attacks was heightened by the fact that the Labour Party which had 100,000 members in 1984, and had swept to victory on the back of a massive anti-nuclear movement initiated them, and Council of Trade Unions (CTU) leaders went along with them. National won the 1990 election and continued the free market / neo-liberal programme. The CTU leaders also refused to fight National’s anti-union Employment Contracts Act (ECA). There was no organised resistance as employers used the ECA and the deep recession of the early 1990s to smash the union movement.


Only now, 14 years later, are we seeing the workers’ across different industries fighting back. This historic defeat for New Zealand workers has meant a huge expansion of poverty and growth in inequality. By 1998, 80% of people were worse off as a result of the reforms. Today, average wages are around one quarter less than in Australia. One outcome has been epidemics of meningitis and other diseases of overcrowding. Another is that current and former tertiary students own the government more than $NZ 6 billion, borrowed to pay student fees and living costs. On a physiological level, most working class New Zealanders have very little faith in the ability of people like them to do anything that can make a real difference in the world.


SUN: > You have had a Labour government for some years now. Has this resulted in any gains for working people, or have they pursued an out-and-out neo-liberal agenda?

DC: > Labour returned in 1999. There have been some gains for workers since then. But, overall, and despite six years of economic growth and six years of Labour government, real wages and living standards for workers have continued to decline. Nevertheless, Labour has managed to keep its popularity in the 40% to 60% range for most of its time in government. At the same time we know that most people are well to the left of Labour on many issues. And significant numbers have been willing to break from Labour.


For example, the Green Party grew to around 3,000 members largely as a result of its role in the movement against genetic engineering. It got around 8% in the last two elections. The Maori Party is now this country’s biggest political party, with around 13,000 members. It was formed less than a year ago, after tens of thousands of Maori (New Zealand’s indigenous people) protested against a law reducing their rights over the foreshore and seabed. Recent polls predict it will win at least five of the seven Maori seats in parliament.


SUN: > Do you think the nature of the Labour Party has changed?

DC: > Lenin’s “capitalist workers party” concept is the best for understanding the nature of the New Zealand Labour Party today. The party has changed a great deal since its founding in 1916 or when it formed its first government in 1935. But the party’s links with and hold over the workers’ movement have not yet been broken.


SUN: > Is there still an organised left in the Labour party?

DC: > I don’t think so. If there is, it’s doesn’t operate outside of the party. At the same time there is no organised left, or independent rank and file organisation in the trade union movement.


SUN: > What happened to the Alliance?

DC: > The Alliance was a permanent coalition of “third parties” formed in the early 1990s, just as the union movement was collapsing. Its two most significant parties were the New Labour Party (a left social democratic split from the Labour Party) and the Green Party (who left the Alliance in 1998). The Alliance was soon the largest party in terms of membership and at times out-polled Labour. But it devoted itself to the parliamentary arena and neglected grassroots activism. In doing so the Alliance gave up its major advantage over Labour. And at the end of nine years of Tory government, Labour was back as the main party of “centre-left” opposition to the Tories.

The Alliance’s electoralist strategy was put to a final test after the 1999 election, when 9 (I think) Alliance MPs negotiated a coalition with Labour (More than 50 MPs). Jim Anderton the Alliance leader was deputy prime minister, but the Alliance MPs ended up providing little more than a few extra votes for Labour. The crunch came when Labour agreed to join the war on Afghanistan. The Alliance MPs supported the move and the party split. The Alliance lost all its MPs in the 2002 election.


Leadership within the party passed to left-wingers, including some that described themselves socialists and Marxists. In 2003 the party adopted a manifesto based on that of the Scottish Socialist Party. However, further divisions emerged within this new socialist leadership. Some welcomed, supported and helped establish new developments, such as the Unite Workers Union, the Maori Party and Residence Action Movement. Others were hostile to these developments. Late last year most of this first group, including party leader Matt McCartten walked out of the Alliance. Since then, McCartten and others have worked together with Socialist Worker to develop ideas such as a broad left publication and new workers party.


SUN: > The Residents Action Movement (RAM) in Auckland seems to have evolved from a grassroots community campaign into a political organisation contesting elections. How did that come about?

DC: > In 2003 the Auckland Regional Council, gave a massive rates cuts to business, combined with a huge rates rise for homeowners. Tens of thousands of homeowners refused to pay the increase. This “rates revolt” was spontaneous. Socialist Worker got involved and argued that the revolt needed to be organised.


This led to RAM and its campaign in the local body elections, which were held in November 2004.

RAM’s attack on “corporate politicians”, its call for “rates justice”, decent public transport and grassroots democracy earned it many hundreds of active supporters, close to 90,000 votes and one elected councillor. Another two or three would have been elected in RAM’s core working class constituency of South Auckland had the Labour Party not funded a competing ticket. Since the election RAM has continued to campaign and organise, mostly around a petition calling for “free and frequent busses”. Having an elected councillor has helped increase the profile of this popular campaign. And the success of the on-going activism has given RAM’s councillor (a first-time politician) the confidence to stand up to the rest of the council.


SUN: > There is an initiative to launch a broad left paper. What are your models for this paper, do you see it as similar to Green Left Weekly, or the SSP’s Socialist Voice.

DC: > We don’t have any models. We think it’s important that what happens here in terms of both a paper and a new left party evolve according to local conditions, not from trying to fit a pre-conceived model. At this stage we don’t know when a broad left paper will happen (I guess we’re hoping for this year or next). Nor do we know exactly who will be involved or what they will all want from the paper.

Some ideas of format and regularity were discussed at Socialist Worker’s national conference in mid-February. The discussion included a number of other leftists. Of these, my preference is for a weekly of eight A4 pages. That would need at least two people working full time, which will take some serious support.

I have never seen Scottish Socialist Voice. Green Left Weekly is a good paper, but, like the British Socialist Worker, it is clearly the paper of a revolutionary socialist group, rather than a broad left paper. Even without the difference in resources, I imagine a broad left paper here will look quite different.


SUN: > Do you see the paper as a first step towards a permanent broad socialist organisation to replace Labour?

DC: > That’s the general idea. We want to replace the Labour Party with a new mass workers’ party, one in which non-sectarian Marxists participate fully. However, neither a broad paper nor a party arising from it are likely to be exclusively “socialist”. Nor is the paper necessarily the first step. In response to the recent pay campaign by unions, Socialist Worker has been issuing thousands of leaflets, in these we have been raising the idea of a Workers Charter. If this gets off the ground it will likely be the step from which a paper and a party follow.


SUN: > How do you see the relationship between the SW as a Leninist revolutionary organisation, and the tasks of building a broad socialist party?

DC: > I assume it will be similar to the relationship between Socialist Worker (SW) and any larger, broader movement or organisation we are involved in. SW members will act to build the broad party, while also maintaining and building SW. SW would aim to be actively involved in all areas of the party. We would also maintain our independence as a Marxist group, including putting out our own publications, which will have to be reshaped once a broad left paper is established.

SUN: > Will Socialist Worker be replaced by the broad left paper, or will you be selling both publications?

DC: > Our monthly magazine is now called Unity / Kotahitanga (unity in Maori) it was previously Socialist Worker Monthly Review. Before then, until September 2002, it was a fortnightly called Socialist Worker.

We changed to a monthly as part of a shift to producing more leaflets, which we felt was the only way to get our message out to the wider audience that was opening up. This has had its up and downs, but has picked up again in response to stirrings in the union movement. At present, the leaflets and magazine all carry the Unity or Kotahitanga mastheads.

Being involved in a broad left paper will take a lot of resources. This will have a big impact on the kind of socialist publication we can produce and how much time we can devote to selling it. A broad left paper, which will include contributions from SW, may well become the most important vehicle for spreading socialist ideas. But we are still going to need some kind of SW publication, around which to organise a Marxist current within the workers’ movement.


May 2005

New Zealand: Redrawing the political map
Socialist Worker (NZ)
The Unite union

For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism