Marika Pratley, Wellington branch of Workers Party
Workers Power 2011, the national conference of Workers Party was held over Queen’s Birthday weekend (June 3-6) at Hamilton’s Trade Union Centre. Over 45 people registered for what was the first socialist conference to be held in Hamilton for some decades. The conference featured a wide range of presentations delivered by speakers belonging to the Workers Party, by members of other left organizations, and by others who have participated in substantial struggles against the state and the injustices of capitalism.
The opening night featured a debate between Jared Phillips (WP) and Sue Moroney (Labour Party MP). Phillips’ case defined Labour as no longer even claiming the centre-left, quoting EPMU and leading LP figure Andrew Little’s reference to Labour and National “managing the centre”. He listed examples of active attacks that Labour has carried out against the working class and progressive forces including Operation 8 and restricting the right to strike. He outlined reasons as to why ‘lesser evilism’ was not a justifiable reason to support Labour. Moroney embraced the term ‘lesser evilism’ and said she would rather have ‘small pragmatic changes’ than a ‘glorious defeat’ by National. In reality, the speakers were clearly talking at cross-purposes.
This was followed by a presentation and lengthy discussion led by Marxist academic David Neilson who has been published in Capital and Class and Journal of Radical Economics. In summary, he outlined the need for a deeper appreciation of the shift of emphasis from the reserve army of labour to the relative population that is surplus to the requirements of capitalism. He related this to the burgeoning slum-dwelling class in under-developed countries as well as to the second tier of peripheral workers which is ever-increasing in proportion to core workers in advanced capitalist countries. In summary, he argued that this led to the current ‘workers of the world compete’ scenario rather than a ‘workers of the world unite’ scenario, and that the left had to take this into account in attempts to redefine a strategy.
The first panel, on international struggle, was lead by Paul Hopkinson (WP) who focused on the PFLP Solidarity Campaign, Mike Treen (Global Peace and Justice Auckland - GPJA) who gave an overview of working class and progressive activity in Europe and Latin America, and Josh Glue (WP) who discussed North Africa and the Middle East with a particular emphasis on Egypt and Libya.
This was followed by a panel on “30 years since the Springbok tour” which featured highly entertaining presentations by local men Karl Crook, Ross Crook, and Ian Grant who recounted events on the day the game was stopped at Hamilton’s Rugby Park. Whilst entertaining, these recounts also made obvious the highly serious nature of the struggle with stories of serious physical injury (including that done to speaker Ian Grant) and serious death threats, including from workmates in industrial jobs. John Minto gave an account of the neo-liberal changes made by the ANC since it came to power and since the end of apartheid. He emphasized that the economic policy of the ANC shifted right, that sections of the ANC had been bought off one by one and that the issue of class oppression has become central. He gave an interesting account of the how the ‘black empowerment’ economic policy operates in practice, with small capitalists bidding for jobs – for example to paint a school – and delivering a poor service whilst paying extremely low wages to the workers.
In the following panel, WP national organiser Bex Broad gave an analysis of capitalist exploitation which was followed by WP member Mike Kay analysing the finance sector-based crisis and its impacts on New Zealand. This was followed by Ross Crook - a militant Unite delegate working at the Waikato Hospital - who assessed the weakening of the trade union movement and pointed to the strategy and tactics of Unite Union as a way forward.
Anthony Main (Socialist Party Australia) and Paul Benedek (Socialist Alliance) concluded Saturday’s activites by discussing campaigns in Australia. Both highlighted the struggle for the release of refugees from detention centres. Main went on talk about local community work the SP is involved in, giving the example of work around provision of needle exchanges. Benedek gave an outline of the role that Socialist Alliance is playing in the campaign against climate change.
The first panel was comprised of Ian Anderson (WP), prominent Maori justice activist and lawyer Annette Sykes, who is involved with the leadership of Te Mana Party, and Bernie Hornfeck, a long-time Socialist and current member of Socialist Worker with deep links amongst Maori. They contributed their experiences of Maori and working class struggles, and Maori-led working class struggles, which led to discussion on class struggle and Maori liberation, the foreshore and seabed, Iwi corporatism, and the antagonisms which led to both the formation of the Maori Party in 2008 and then the recent split that created Te Mana Party.
The concluding panel of the conference, ‘Strategies and Tactics for rebuilding the left’, featured Derwin Smith (ISO), Joe Carolan (Socialist Aotearoa), Joel Cosgrove (Workers Party), Paul Benedek (Socialist Alliance – Australia) and Anthony Main (Socialist Party Australia). The focus was not just on rebuilding working class organisations such as unions, but also how to go about rebuilding the confidence of the working class. There was a good indication from all tendencies that the far-left needs to engage with Te Mana Party. These presentations helped to highlight common ground as well as some differences but it would require a whole article to touch on these presentations and the subsequent discussion.
Internal meeting of WP
At the internal meetings of the WP on June 6 a majority of participating members passed i) a finance resolution adopting members’ guidelines for regular contributions to the WP, ii) a resolution to formalise the role of the organisation’s Disputes Committee, and iii) a political resolution in relation to Te Mana Party, stating that ‘We welcome the formation of a Maori-led class-based party and intend to engage with it in a constructive manner’. A further resolution outlining WP membership criteria was held over for further refinement over the next four weeks.
We would like to sincerely thank all conference participants, particularly guest speakers and those – including members – who paid to travel from afar to participate. We found the event to be a useful centralisation of various experiences in class struggle and a good opportunity to discuss issues of unity and ongoing debate amongst far-left activists. We can also announce that we raised between $700-$750 through our raffle and social fundraiser which is approximately double the cost of conference promotion and venue hire. The winner of the raffle for the Koru wall-feature was Wellington branch organiser Kassie Hartendorp. We had made a tactical decision to hold conference in Hamilton to lift the profile of our organisation (and far-left politics in general) in that city. In many respects this has paid off.