Almost the entire left in New Zealand has been giving electoral support to the Mana Party in recent years (and by ‘the left’ I mean groups and individuals who speak for the interests of the working class, rather than the broader and more amorphous layer of people who dislike the National Party government.) The reasons for this are not difficult to see.
The first reason is the proven character of Mana’s leadership. Many of the central leaders of Mana are individuals with a long track record of support to political campaigns in the interests of the working class. John Minto is best known as a leader of the anti-apartheid campaign of the 1980s, the leader who more than any other brought the power of mass action to bear in that campaign. More recently, he has campaigned in defence of free quality public education for all, and in support of Palestinian rights. Michael Treen played a central role in organising solidarity with the Bastion Point land occupation in the 1970s, in coalitions against the Iraq wars, and is currently a leader of the Unite union which has led some spirited campaigns to organise fast-food restaurant and casino workers. Sue Bradford has campaigned on behalf of unemployed workers and state beneficiaries and for women’s rights over many years.
Hone Harawira, the central leader around whom the Mana Party coalesced in 2011, has a decades-long record of fighting in support of Maori self-determination, and more recently, opposing government moves to abolish subsidised state housing for workers.
Mana’s programme reflects these struggles to some degree. In an election pamphlet, it calls for, among other things, a $15 per hour minimum wage, for government measures to ensure full employment, starting with the construction of 20,000 new state houses, for free education for all, for upholding te Tiriti o Waitangi and ensuring the protection of te Reo Maori. These are all policies working people should support.
The Mana leaders are not just commentators. In most cases they have been and remain active organisers. They have devoted their lives to the cause, with all the consequences that follow from that. They know what the inside of a police cell looks like. One may disagree with some of their political opinions and strategies (as I do), but there is no doubting their sincerity or their integrity. They have earned the confidence of their supporters in a way that few other party leaders can claim to have done.
The second reason is equally important: the Mana Party has a voice in Parliament. Hone Harawira entered Parliament as a member of the Maori Party in 2005, and split with that party in 2011 when it entered a government coalition with the National Party. It was around Harawira’s newly ‘independent’ presence in Parliament that Mana formed, out of people who had up to that moment held disparate views on electoral strategies. The existing fact of Hone Harawira’s seat in Parliament was no small part of Mana’s appeal.
This circumstance cast Mana firmly in the tradition of bourgeois electoralism from the very outset. One of the foundations of bourgeois rule in New Zealand is the widely-held illusion that political change comes through Parliament, and its corollary, that in order to have any influence over the course of politics, you must be represented in Parliament.
This illusion asserts a particularly strong hold in times of working class retreat and disorientation – such as the present – when workers lack confidence in their ability to effect change by exerting their economic power through their union. There have been some instances in New Zealand in recent years where workers have changed the course of politics by relying on their strength in union – the defensive battles by the Maritime Union and Meat Workers come to mind – but these have been few and far between. In between such fights, the parliamentary illusions reassert their grip. Even most union-led campaigns in recent years, such as the ‘Living Wage’ campaign, largely depend on ‘political pressure’ as a substitute for mobilising the power of the union ranks.
If there was ever any doubt about the electoralist character of the Mana Party, that doubt has been dispelled by Mana’s steps towards an alliance with Kim Dotcom and the Internet Party. Kim Dotcom, his new party and his entire political history, is about as remote from the working class as it is possible to get while remaining on the same planet.
Mana leaders angrily deny the accusation that Mana’s motivation in seeking the alliance with the Internet Party is the desire to get their hands on some of Kim Dotcom’s millions. I take their denial at face value. However, it changes little, because the alliance is driven by something equally squalid: the scramble for voting percentage.
The fact that almost the entire leadership and membership of the Mana Party (Sue Bradford being the exception) is willing to put aside whatever misgivings they might have and pursue this alliance is proof of how deeply the party is rooted in bourgeois electoralism. In the framework of electoralism, the alliance makes sense. The logic of electoralism demands it. Such sordid negotiations are the price of a seat in the bourgeois parliament.
Mana originated in a split from the Maori party in 2011, when the consequences of the Maori Party’s electoralist outlook and lack of a clear programme led it to support policies and parties that were directly opposed to the interests of working class. The Maori Party itself originated in a split from the Labour Party in 2004, when the Labour Party’s commitment to capitalist politics led it to positions directly opposed to working class interests. Both of these splits were positive acts, which pointed in the right direction and raised the hopes of working people. But in both cases, the splitters went only part way. Since they remained wedded to the idea of working through parliament, since they failed to break with not just the political parties but the institutions of bourgeois rule, both splits have quickly led into the very same blind alley.
Parliament is an institution of class rule by the bourgeoisie, an institution much older and more entrenched than universal suffrage. In a thousand different ways, both open and hidden, not just the major parties but parliament itself is bound to the interests of big business – through its ties to the other institutions of bourgeois rule, the permanent state bureaucracy, the judiciary, the educational institutions, the forces of repression, the news media, the very electoral system on which it rests. All of these institutions by their mode of functioning exclude the working class and its organisations. These institutions can’t simply be taken over and used by the working class, they need to be overthrown.
Is it possible to participate in bourgeois elections and bourgeois parliaments without succumbing to the illusions of electoralism? Yes, it is. The Bolshevik party in Russia – one of very few leaderships in the last century that actually led a revolutionary struggle for state power by the working class, won it, and held onto it – took part in elections to the Duma, a largely powerless parliament set up by the czar of Russia in the years before World War I as a concession to revolutionary pressures. The Bolshevik candidates elected took their seats in the Duma, and used the legal protections thus afforded to them to maintain a legal voice for the working class at a time when the Bolsheviks were being driven underground. But as soon as the opportunity came, the Bolsheviks swept away not just the Duma, but also a Constituent Assembly, in favour of the developing institutions of working class rule, the mass councils of workers and peasants delegates known as soviets.
Communists have been participating in bourgeois elections on the same no-confidence basis as the Bolsheviks ever since. But to do this successfully, without getting drawn into the electoralist blind alley, requires greater clarity on the class character of such institutions than either the Mana leadership or their various left supporters have achieved to date.
History proves that this clarity has not been an easy thing to acquire, even under more favourable circumstances.
Just under a hundred years ago, in the midst of an imperialist war, a mass labour party was formed in New Zealand. Unlike the Labour Parties that had been formed in Australia and the United Kingdom in the decades prior, the New Zealand Labour Party was headed by class-struggle fighters, fresh from leading the biggest union battles in New Zealand history, and who were then engaged (some from behind bars) in a mass fight against the conscription of workers to fight in the imperialist war. For a brief time the political trajectory of this party was an open question.
Harry Holland, one of the Labour Party members of Parliament (elected soon after serving a jail sentence for sedition for opposing the war), wrote to one of the unions in June 1918. Holland wrote “…having always held that political Labor to be effective must of necessity be the reflex of Labor industrially organised, I propose making an honest endeavor to translate that theory into practice. In all matters affecting the miners I shall look for guidance to the Miners’ Federation, in all matters affecting the Seamen and Waterside workers, I shall be guided by the Seamen’s Federation and the Waterside Workers Federation….in every case I shall pledge myself to fight on the floor of the House for not less than the organisations stand for on the industrial field…the clear duty of every industrial organisation is to link up with the national political organisation and to constitute a fighting party of working class interests through which industrial Labor will be able to win for itself the things which it is now compelled to beg from Labor’s bitter and determined enemies.”
This was a promising start – an aroused working class movement, fighting for its class interests in the midst of an imperialist war, both inside Parliament and outside in the streets. Yet within about five years the parliamentary Labour Party was hopelessly entangled in an electoralist political framework, Holland included.
Various events and pressures on the new party influenced this outcome, including the Labour leadership’s embracing, and later rejection, of the Russian revolution as a model for their own political course. A major factor was simply the circumstance of a heterogeneous mass party existing in the midst of capitalist society, the daily workings of which constantly reproduce and reinforce bourgeois relations, practices and habits of thought.
The weaknesses of the Labour leadership of a century ago were, however, historically conditioned. The working class was new and still relatively inexperienced, a much smaller proportion of the population than it is today. The class of small farmers into which the working class imperceptibly merged was, for a short while to come, growing and prospering. It was almost inevitable that the first great step of the working class towards political independence from the bourgeoisie would be less than complete.
After the experience of a hundred years of working class struggle, that excuse no longer holds.