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Reply to the Alliance comrades.

Andy Newman

I was unhappy with the response by Len Richards and Victor Billot to the interviews we carried with New Zealand Activists, as I thought they sailed very close to crossing our submission guidelines, by placing less emphasis on the political issues of the debate and by indulging in ping-pong point scoring.

Both Mike Treen and the Socialist Worker (New Zealand) were given the opportunity to reply to Richards and Billot, but did not feel it would be constructive to do so. However, as the Socialist Unity Network published the response by Richards and Billot, I feel that the issues they raised should not go unanswered. Naturally it would be quite wrong for anyone in Britain to intervene in a debate of the New Zealand left based upon limited knowledge. However, the reason we have sought to publish material about the debates in Australia and New Zealand has been so that we in Britain can learn from their mature efforts at left regroupment and unity. The following comments are therefore offered in the spirit of clarification of the issues for a British audience.

There has been an implicit but entirely wrong assumption in the English speaking left that wisdom flows outwards from Britain to the colonies, especially via the various London based "Pom-interns." In fact, the experiences of New Zealand and the debates in that country are very instructive. For example, the current debate in Rifondazione in Italy about whether to enter a centre-left coalition government, is an experience that the Alliance party have already gone through. The debate in the English left about how George Galloway will be accountable to structures within Respect is an experience that the New Zealanders have already had with Jim Anderton of the Alliance (with an outcome that we can avoid). The experience of building political representation out of militant community based campaigns has already been put to the test in the Residents Action Movement (RAM) in Auckland; and even the debates about Respect's relationship with Moslems, has an echo in the work of the NZ left with t!
he Maori Party.

Having acknowledged the limitations of commenting on events on NZ from afar, that does not mean we are completely unqualified to offer comment. After all, I have never been to Antarctica, but I know it is cold, and there are penguins but no Polar Bears.

In particular, the criticism of the Unite union from Len Richards was very dismissive of what seems to be an inspiring example of class struggle trade unionism. Over the last few weeks 1000 Auckland restaurant workers from McDonalds (500), KFC (300), Starbucks (90) and Pizza Hut (80) have joined Unite, who are campaigning for decent pay and working conditions. Unite also organises 300 Burger King workers and are pushing hard for collective agreements in the fast food industries. 

Len Richards claims that Unite's successes are partially based upon poaching from other unions: this is an area where without detailed knowledge it is impossible to comment. However we do know from our experience in the UK, that not all trade union agreements are the same. Some unions have been prepared to gain union recognition on the basis of a sweetheart relationship with the employers. Trade unionism based upon "social partnership" erodes the base of the union, as it does not encourage shop floor organisation that can only be built in day-to-day opposition to management. For example, the OILC union in the North Sea could be accused by Amicus of seeking to "poach" members, but OILC works on the basis of independent working class organisation on the oil-rigs, whereas Amicus does little for its members, which is reflected in its low offshore membership, despite having sole negotiating rights.

With regard to the relationship with the Maori Party, Daphne Lawless made a very interesting argument in last December's Socialist Worker Monthly Review: "The real choice facing the Left isn't between running in elections and grassroots campaigning. As the success of RAM in Auckland has shown, the two can go well together. It's more to do with whether the Left looks inward or outward - whether we concentrate on re-organising those already involved in radical politics, or whether we attempt to strike out to widen our base. A renewed left will only be created through the actions of thousands of ordinary people, as they involve themselves in political struggle. It won't happen through coalitions among existing groups, or getting the policy or structure of one group just right. Socialists and other radicals have an important role to play in this process-as we have seen in RAM, in the organising of the Unite union, in the foreshore and seabed hikois and in the Maori Party. For th!
at reason, we think that Matt McCarten and his supporters were right to try to reach out to the Maori Party." Daphne also carried out an interesting interview with Matt McCarten, former leader of the Alliance, that we reproduce (below) from December's Socialist Worker Monthly Review. Matt has some important and interesting things to say about the relationship between electoral and community politics, and about the difference between mass politics and sect politics.

The most unfortunate part of Len Richard's approach is when he says: "We have over 500 members and are standing a significant slate of candidates in the election this year. The non-sectarians in the other left groupings should throw their support behind our efforts in the election if they want to advance the socialist cause."
Firstly there may be some question over the membership figure quoted, which is the necessary minimum under NZ electoral law: so some at least of the members may have only a nominal commitment to the Alliance. But much more problematic is the announcement that everyone should throw themselves behind the Alliance, or they are by definition a sectarian. This ultimata-ism never works, and particularly does not recognise that the Alliance is a project that, however much we may regret it, has been so badly compromised, that it is hard to see how it can recover - to either act as the vehicle for left regroupment, or as a launch pad for a wider radical project.


The INTERVIEW (from Socialist Worker Monthly Review (NZ); December 2004):

MATT MCCARTEN is resigning as leader of the Alliance and from the party itself. He spoke to DAPHNE LAWLESS about why, and about his views on the future of the Left.

I stood down from the leadership for a number of reasons. The more obvious one is my role with the Maori Party. There shouldn't be any conflict, in my view, between that and working for the Alliance. But in the view of many in the Alliance, there is. That does make it difficult.

I thought about going to the Alliance conference. I'd have gone if I thought that people were interested in coming to a common position. There are two clear positions for me: either the Alliance becomes part of a mass movement to the left of Labour, or it is in danger of becoming an irrelevant sect.

When we had our regional meetings around the country, the membership was clearly split on the electoral agenda. There was also an element in the discussion of the Maori Party which people would deny-racism dressed up as politics.

I couldn't see a way forward which could unite the party. And the media would have a field day. Why put the party though that? Let those who want to run the Alliance do it. I have a lot of respect for them; it's not for me to try to split the party from under them.

My position is that building a mass movement on the left of Labour is what's important. You're not going to do that by seeing your main priority as running in parliamentary elections, from a small base.

In any case, there's nothing in Alliance policies at the moment which the Greens don't already support. The Green MPs are doing what the Alliance would be doing. I'm not sure why the Alliance want to run a list when the Greens' positions are very similar on a policy basis.

A weakness of the Alliance was that it never built a mass base in the community-it just fed on opposition to the new right. When the Labour Party moved away from hard neo-liberalism, it took away the reason for the Alliance to be.

That's a problem with the Left in general. We have to reach out, build a broad base in the community. Running in elections is a means, not an end in itself.
For the left to succeed in NZ, we should concentrate on what unites us, not what divides us.

I always think, "What would Lenin's position be in the modern-day world?" It wouldn't be a small group that just talks to itself.

The Alliance and the rest of the Left must debate openly, without aggression: What is the "new left"? What is the way of becoming relevant to workers' lives?
The Left needs to engage with the working-class, and that's not white. Most of the Left things I go to are very white. It's a liberal Left, not a working-class Left. The current trade union movement is middle-class.

The Left has to have a strategy of becoming part of the migrant communities, the Maori communities, Polynesian communities. We need to accept things like race and culture as facts of people's lives. People do identify with their cultures-the left cannot have a monolithic view.

The working-class "under the radar"-the part of the community who work 60 hrs for $9-is in desperate straits. Anyone who is involved in working alongside such people knows that that's true. Therefore, I think that although parliamentary politics is important, more important is building a mass community base around issues which are of interest to those at the bottom.

The work of RAM around the free buses campaign is the kind of model around which a new Left can be built-struggles round real issues, not some phoney discussion club about our differences, but doing real things that affect real people's lives.

The free buses campaign makes sense-it would make a real difference for working people, and it's environmentally responsible. It addresses the contradictions of capitalism: if buses can be made free, people can see that the market isn't always the bottom line. Then, people start to be won to groups and parties advocating those objections.

In the electoral field, it's important to support any party left of Labour, because the Left will never be built under the Labour Party's hegemony-it must be independent.
The Alliance should be part of this regroupment on the Left. It should be very proud of its record, but unless it makes a conscious move towards others in the "new left", it will eventually become like something like the old Social Credit party, endlessly reliving its electoral glory days.

The next election will be a choice between a Labour/NZ First/United Future coalition and a Labour/Green/Maori Party coalition. The latter is obviously better. It will create an environment where workers will be more confident.

Traditional union structures aren't working after five years of Labour government. The union leaderships are well-meaning, but they're using old models. By-and-large they're divorced from workers' day-to-day lives.

The Maori Party is an exciting development for the Left, for all those who believe in self-determination.

I'm disappointed with how much of the Left has been patronising and arrogant towards Maori-saying that they "want to see if their policies are left enough" is like making them jump through hoops.

You've got to take a movement with all its contradictions. Maori are no different from non-Maori, there'll be reactionaries, opportunists, vested interests, egotists. Point me to any mass movement which don't have that.

But it's a genuine force for representation. There are seven thousand members in the Maori Party and growing. I'd put money of it that over 80% are working-class. To not engage with them is an abdication from the Left, a betrayal, even.

The white Left are threatened, and find it a challenge, they're not sure where they fit. The Maori Party calls for support, while the Left hems and haws. It's a symptom of the lack of courage of many of the Left. It's not familiar to them-they're more comfortable with having discussions of European ideas and history than Pacific ideas.

I believe that a new non-sectarian left is the way forward. We must engage in a broad, new, tolerant Left, which can accommodate different views. It shouldn't be top-down; it has to be based in the working-class, with a significant base and support and membership among a Maori, Pasifika and migrant communities.

It probably needs to be built around a discussion paper. Socialist Worker Monthly Review does well, but we need something broader than that. It would be not so much a regrouping, but a responsibility to have a Left relevant to working-class and exploited sections of society.


June 2005

This is a response to
Which in turn was a response to our interview with
Mike Treen of the Unite union

Also of interest might be our interview with Dave Colyer of Socialist Worker (NZ)


New Zealand- Redrawing the political map by Kathy Newnam


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