Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? Labour and MANA

Article – Ian Anderson

Early in July this year, Labour Party leader David Cunliffe made headlines by apologising for being a man. Stoked by capitalist media sensation, Prime Minister John Key responded that not all men abuse women.

Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? The Labour Party and MANA

by Ian Anderson
July 24, 2014

Early in July this year, Labour Party leader David Cunliffe made headlines by apologising for being a man. Stoked by capitalist media sensation, Prime Minister John Key responded that “not all men” abuse women.

For abuse survivors and their supporters however, Cunliffe sentiments were not entirely off the mark. Cunliffe’s original comment occurred at a Women’s Refuge event, with a pledge to invest $60 million more into family violence services. His apology reflected widespread normalisation and acceptance of male violence, the fact that men perpetrate most abuse, (even most violence against men is inflicted by other men) and the lack of support for survivors of all genders.

Fightback, as a socialist-feminist organisation, can unite with the demand for increased survivor support. However, there is a deeper problem associated with the call for social spending. At the end of April this year, the government allocated $10 million more for sexual violence support services, after pressure from the women’s movement, represented in parliament by Green MP Jan Logie. Even in the wake of this allocation, Christchurch Rape Crisis recently closed down due to underfunding, in the context of a 40% rise in reported sexual assaults since 2010.

2014 is the 30th anniversary of the election of the Fourth Labour Government. The Fourth Labour Government introduced neoliberalism – the dominant form of transnational capitalism defined by privatisation and cutbacks – to Aotearoa/NZ. No government has restored the level of social spending prior to the Fourth Labour Government.

While Labour’s leadership may reallocate some spending if they are elected, they show no interest in healing the deep cuts of the last 30 years. This is a grim historical irony for women’s organisations like Refuge and Rape Crisis, which achieved state recognition over a period of retreating social spending.

Labour’s leadership have pledged to raise the retirement age, a policy not even National supports. While they pledge to raise the minimum wage to a mere $15, they also indicate that they will maintain National’s welfare attacks. This is a zero-sum game. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

Labour’s limitations are not solely a matter of uninspiring local policy or leaders, but of a transnational political-economic paradigm. The world’s richest man, Carlos Slim, recently called for a three-day working week to improve quality of life. Undercutting the apparently progressive headlines though, Slim asserted that retirement ages are too low and should be raised to 70 or 75. Slim’s reasoning, that a shorter working week could be necessary for a longer working life, seems slim comfort for those facing the prospect of menial labour into their 70s.

Generally, the already grim promised trade-offs; a nickel for your weekend, a dollar for your soul; are unreliable. Despite right-wing claims to grow the pie instead of sharing it equally, the pie seems to be getting smaller. Despite Slim’s recommendation, capitalist governments are overwhelmingly more likely to raise the retirement age than decrease the working week.

As superstar philosopher Slavoj Zizek recently observed, secretly negotiated trade agreements, such as the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) and Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), set the economic agenda more than elections:

“The key decisions concerning our economy are negotiated and enforced in secret, and set the coordinates for the unencumbered rule of capital. In this way, the space for decision-making by the democratically elected politicians is severely limited, and the political process deals predominantly with issues towards which capital is indifferent.”

Labour’s leadership initiated the TPPA negotiations, and show no interest in reversing them, despite the wishes of their membership.

Ultimately, Labour’s leadership is firmly committed to managing neoliberalism. Labour’s base is in the public and community sector; civil servants, union bureaucrats, teachers. In fact, because they know the public sector better, Labour are in some ways better equipped to manage an austerity-lite program. While National’s policies are often driven by cronyism, (SkyCity) or seem ideological and arbitrary, (charter schools, asset sales) Labour seek to manage the public sector professionally and, where, possible, equitably.

Public debt has increased under National, due to both international borrowing and tax cuts for the rich. If Labour were to increase taxation and attempt to slash pensions, (currently the biggest slice of social spending) this may balance the books more smartly than National, but it would also undermine what support Labour has.

To give another example, the Labour Party knows the tertiary education sector well, and have been instrumental in restructuring it along market lines. The Fourth Labour government got rid of the universal allowance and introduced student loans, the Fifth Labour government introduced the Performance-Based Research Fund (which treats universities not as places of learning, but producers of marketable research). Even Labour’s apparently pro-student policies, like interest-free student loans, maintain a market model. By contrast, National appears to have no plan, making cuts such as getting rid of the student allowance for post-grad students – apparently undermining the continued emphasis on research, and without any significant government saving.

Ultimately, both major parties are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Everybody knows the boat is leaking, everybody knows the captain lied. It’s no wonder that the 2011 General Election saw the lowest turnout since women won the right to vote.

Socialists argue for the socialisation of property, the unlocking of wealth which could allow for a more fulfilling social existence, for self-determination and kaitiakitanga(guardianship) over resources. Right now, as the zero-sum game rages globally, the possibility of liberation seems remote. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

While social transformation seems unlikely, it’s the only realistic possibility if humans are to survive and flourish. This poses the question of where to start, how to organise, how to build from what we have. Fightback argues that in the long term, progressives must chart a course independent of the Labour Party. There are areas where we can unite with Labour Party members on campaigns, but ultimately we’re heading in a different direction from the leadership.

After successive betrayals by both Labour and National governments, the MANA Movement formed around Hone Harawira, and other leaders with a proven radical history. Iwi networks, such as Ngāpuhi, provide the organised backbone of the MANA Movement – for example, mobilising the nationwide hikoi against asset sales.

The difference between Labour and MANA is not simply a spectrum from ‘far left’ to ‘centre left.’ It’s not even a matter of MANA’s leadership being consistently progressive – the MANA Movement held Harawira to account on same-sex marriage rights. In fact where Labour MPs treated marriage rights as a conscience issue, MANA owned the issue as a movement.

Labour’s leadership seeks to manage neoliberalism equitably, MANA seeksrangatiratanga (leadership) for te pani me te rawakore (the poor and dispossessed), what Harawira calls “the largest tribe.” This means building a democratic mass movement for justice and self-determination. MANA supports building 10,000 state houses, taking back assets, free education. To support this policy program, MANA calls for taxes on the rich (alongside scrapping GST).

For MANA’s Māori leadership this means building alliances, where possible, with sympathetic Pākeha and tau iwi – on the basis that “what’s good for Māori is good for everyone.” In 2011, MANA stood leftist Pākeha candidates including John Minto and Sue Bradford in General Electorate seats, to campaign for the party vote. This didn’t significantly expand MANA’s base beyond its stronghold in Harawira’s Te Tai Tokerau.

In the lead-up to the 2014 General Election, MANA has formed a tactical alliance with the Internet Party, founded by German millionaire Kim Dotcom. MANA was widely criticised for cutting a deal with Dotcom, even by parties which habitually take donations from big business. Fightback also raised initial concerns about Dotcom’s trustworthiness, although we have reaffirmed our support for the MANA Movement.

Traditionally no friend of the working class, Dotcom was forced into a corner by his experience of state repression. At the 2014 MANA AGM, Waiariki candidate Annette Sykes stated that policies and principles must be a bottom line in any deal. At a recent speech on the Internet MANA road trip, Sykes observed how Dotcom’s encounter with state repression resonated, in terms recalling the Urewera raids under the last Labour government:

“Families are destroyed when the cops come into your house with their guns. That’s what happened to Kim Dotcom. I must say that was the only thing about him, I don’t care about his money, that was the only thing that I really admired him for. Because when it happened he stood up for him and his kids and his family.”

In contrast to Labour and National’s imperialist consensus, Dotcom opposes the TPPA, the Five Eyes, and the GCSB. Dotcom’s opposition to surveillance and secret trade agreements, key parts of the transnational imperialist apparatus, formed the initial basis of his tactical alliance with the left.

The Internet Party itself, still in formation, is shaping out to be a progressive organisation. MANA underlined changing the government as a further bottom line for the alliance. With veteran unionist Laila Harre stepping in as Internet Party leader, and crucially MANA retaining independence to pursue its own policy program, the deal at this stage appears to be shaping out well for MANA. Internet Mana aims to mobilise non-voters; overwhelmingly young people, Maori, the marginalised and dispossessed; and is currently polling at 2.3%, enough to get Harawira, Harre, and Sykes in on a progressive policy platform. Reportedly at the 2014 National Party conference, Attorney General Chris Finlayson stated his concern about the Internet MANA alliance:

“The fragmentation on the left hasn’t made the hydra weaker, only more unstable if it can force its way into power again.”

Finlayson pays Internet Mana a disarming compliment here. Internet Mana is strong, but unstable. Hone Harawira is an unstable partner, because he was unwilling to sacrifice the foreshore and seabed for crumbs from the table. Contrary to portrayals of Laila Harre as a pawn, Harre also has an unstable record, having walked from the Fifth Labour government over the occupation of Afghanistan. Instability may seem self-defeating in the short term, but it’s necessary in the long term.

For transformative politics, parliamentary representation is one tool in a wider strategy, not the main goal. Transformation is not just a matter of changing the government. It’s not even a matter of electing proven movement leaders to opposition. Transformation requires sustained independent struggle in every sector, an inclusive movement for economic and political sovereignty.

Under the Fifth Labour government, victories such as the $12 minimum wage and the abolition of youth rates were won through struggle by independent community groups and fighting unions. Democratic organisations of the people are necessary both for survival, and for the possibility of greater victories.

By entering a capitalist government, MANA would risk sacrificing this fighting independence for a seat at the table. Labour continues to rule out working with MANA, undermining their own limited shot at forming a government, because they recognise the threat Harawira and MANA represent to business as usual. In keeping with his democratic approach, Harawira has stated that any post-election deal would have to be approved by the membership.

As phrased by socialist commentator Giovanni Tiso, “wanting to kick the Tories out of government is one of the noblest of human feelings, and saying that it isn’t nearly enough, the most banal of statements. In the end we’re still left to face those different evils.”

For those who accept that a Labour-led government isn’t nearly enough, it’s a question of building people’s organisations and movements for the long haul. Fightback seeks to play a part in weaving the people into a new radical democratic body, which can chart a course beyond the two-party cycle that keeps us locked into capitalism.


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