Note that this article does not necessarily represent the views of the whole party.
Labour’s candidate claiming to be “working for Mana’ was Labour Party leader Phil Goff’s press secretary.
The best National’s Hekia Parata could produce for a slogan was a bastardisation of her own name - Vote Parata- “Heck yeah!”.
In the end Labour’s Kris Faafoi won the seat with 10,397 votes to Parata’s 9317.
National came within 1080 votes of snatching a safe Labour seat while their party is in government. Parata shattered Labour’s previous 6000-plus majority, turning Mana from the ninth safest seat in the country and one of Labour’s strongest bastions to a marginal one for the 2011 elections.
Faafoi had been the favourite to win the seat vacated when Winnie Laban left parliament for a post at Victoria University. In the end, he was only saved by a massive desperate effort from Labour’s electoral party machine. On the final day, even Phil Goff was out frantically knocking doors.
Despite all the hype voter turn out was low, around 50% .
While the big parties cared only for grabbing numbers, late entry candidate Matt McCarten stood out by raising some working class demands, like raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and an end to GST.
The Workers Party supported Matt as a genuine working class fighter with hands-on experience promoting workers’ rights.
Since kick-starting Unite union in 2003 Matt has been a prominent and committed figure campaigning for low paid casualised workers.
It was also a plus having a high profile candidate to the left of Labour because in the Workers Party view, that helps to highlight how similar National and Labour are. (http://workerspartynz.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/15-matt.jpg>)
Matt McCarten’s campaign team put in long hours of hard work focusing on three points: increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour; making job creation the goal of economic policy; and replacing GST with a 1 per cent financial transaction tax.
These policies were made into a petition and taken to 12,000 homes.
This large-scale exercise brought campaign staff into discussion of some basic social issues with a mass of employed and unemployed workers. Half of the people door knocked signed the petition.
This encouraging petition support did not, however, translate into votes. While the Unite leader had expected to get “over 5% and hopefully closer to 10%”, in the end his 816 votes amounted to 3.6% of the vote.
In socialist terms, the Unite leader’s election effort had a built in political weakness.
Although standing against them from the left, Matt’s attitude to Labour was basically like that of a caring man to his erring but recoverable sibling.
For instance, his central election statement said, “I’ve been supportive of Labour’s long overdue realisation that the new right agenda implemented by their party and carried on by National has been a disaster for New Zealand. But I have been disappointed at their timidity over what the alternatives could be.”
The day before the vote he wrote, “I hope my message to Labour got through - that they can’t take their supporters for granted and must stand for something that isn’t National-lite. “If it did,” said Matt, “then taking three weeks being a carpetbagger in Mana was worth it.”
This view of Labour as a party which, with a few hard kicks in the arse, might be made to serve workers’ best interests was repeated by key campaign officials like Joe Carolan, who insisted:
“Labour are too soft, and are bereft of any tangible policies that make a difference to the working class”.
The Workers Party doesn’t share those views of the Labour Party.
Far from being too soft, Labour has at times been the favourite party of big business and very capable of slashing workers’ rights and living standards as we saw in the 1980s.
Today Labour is a socially liberal capitalist party where middle class professionals outnumber workers 10 to one. While the party was founded in 1916 on a section of the union movement it was never a revolutionary party despite some socialist rhetoric in the early days. In government Labour has never even remotely undermined the rule of capital. In fact Labour governing in the last decade enabled the rich to grow richer far more dramatically than the previous decade under a National government. (See The Truth About Labour http://workersparty.org.nz/resources/the-truth-about-labour/ for the Rich list figures on wealth in NZ).
When the system is booming Labour will deliver some crumbs to the workers – as will National – and when it goes into its usual bust cycle they – like National – will attempt to shore it up at the expense of workers’ rights and living standards. Attempting to lobby Labour in a leftward direction, therefore, simply doesn’t work. All it does is, at best, confuse the workers to whom the message is presumably directed or, at worst, create illusions in Labour – illusions which will lead only to demoralisation further down the track.
Labour has few links to the working class these days, although pockets of pacific Island working class suburbs like Porirua and Mangere have maintained almost blind loyalty to Labour. Most of the working class no longer consistently votes Labour; many workers don’t vote at all , and just as many vote for other parties.
Another weakness of McCarten’s campaign was lack of internationalism. Matt had initially intended to highlight policy which defended migrant workers’ rights. That policy never made it into the core campaign message. Sticking up for migrant workers may not be an easy vote winner in the short term, but from a socialist point of view its indispensable. A strong movement for workers’ power can only be built on the understanding that we owe more loyalty to our fellow toilers overseas than we have with our own bosses at home.
While Matt McCarten’s Mana campaign was broadly supported by the Workers Party, within the organisation there was debate on how best to engage with it. The majority of members wanted the party to maintain independence as an organisation and saw the risk of simply become foot-soldiers for a social democratic campaign. When some WP members became campaign employees the question of political independence became more complicated. A few argued that the experience of campaigning would in itself be invaluable.
The question of party independence while working on broader campaigns is not a new one. We have grappled with this in the anti-war movement and in trade union work. Inner party struggle is an uncomfortable but positive thing. While the Mana campaign debate generated some heat it also produced deeper understanding.
Matt McCarten’s candidacy in Mana was partly an experimental trial run for his aim of a ‘new left party’. Matt’s modest vote suggests that there is no base of support to launch such a party in New Zealand. Even among Unite union’s membership the political project has gained no traction. There is not space in this article to go further into the problems facing left social democracy - that is for a separate article - but it is very clear that as a movement in New Zealand and internationally it is in worse shape than revolutionary socialist movements which are beginning to win mass support.