The Mana Party in the blind alley of electoralism

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

Hone Harawira

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.

Kim Dotcom

Kim Dotcom

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.

Sue Bradford

Sue Bradford

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.

Bolshevik leader Gregory Zinoviev favoured participating in Czarist Duma

Bolshevik leader Gregory Zinoviev favoured participating in Czarist Duma

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.

Matvei Muranov,  Bolshevik deputy in czarist Duma

Matvei Muranov, Bolshevik deputy in czarist Duma

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

Harry Holland

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.









12 responses to “The Mana Party in the blind alley of electoralism

  1. According to the Mana flyer I have they advocate an $18.40 minimum wage, not $15.
    I don’t have a strong opinion on this topic but it does interest me, and this is a well argued position.

  2. I agree with Tim. Well argued. In my Facebook Posts on ‘Standing for Mana’ I have been arguing FOR the use and development of the internet and digital technology by Mana BUT for wariness with KIm Dotcom and the long arm of the American law as well as the ideology of the Internet Party. The Left could well spend time, I think, in finding ways to use the internet and digital technology without being caught up in a situation of the Right. I have also been arguing for the development of an arts policy…

  3. James, I was put on to your blog by Dougal, and like him I am glad to have discovered it. I will declare myself as a member of the ISO and an old ‘trot’ from the UK.

    This is good and timely statement on electoralism. You are absolutely right to link the contemporary lack of self-confidence of the working class with reliance on electoral politics and hand-me-downs such as the Living Wage.

    Parliamentary politics is deeply ingrained. For that reason Marxists cannot ignore it. Unless we have some relationship with the working class, even if only with a small layer, we are nothing but sectaries. We have to work through the parliamentary illusions with the class, performing that delicate task of joining the electoral fight against National and demanding a Labour-led government without, however, concealing our belief that workers must use their own power. I cannot imagine a revolutionary process commencing in New Zealand without a stage of Labour in government.

    A minor point; you mention Hone Harawira splitting with the Maori party after the 2011 when it entered a coalition with National. True, but the Maori Party, with Harawira as one of its 5 MPs, supported a National government from the 2008 election. Sharples and Turia were Ministers in that government.

  4. Thanks for the correction on Hone Harawira’s history in the Maori Party, Martin.
    In response to your third paragraph: Certainly the working class can be expected to go through various experiences and stages of development on the road to revolution, including some experiences with electoral politics in the framework of capitalist rule. I agree in principle with the idea that Marxists should go through these experiences with the class. However, I guess it comes down to exactly how you ‘work through the parliamentary illusions with the class.’ This formulation implies (to me, anyway) adopting – or pretending to adopt – these same electoral illusions in order to ‘draw the lessons’ later. This is dishonest and confusing. The first obligation of Marxists is to tell the truth.
    In the concrete case discussed here – the electoral support most left groups are giving to Mana – what is actually involved is the left adapting to Mana’s electoralism. It is based not on any mass working class movement towards Mana, but rather on wishful thinking about the character of Mana and its possible future development, and on electoralist confusion and illusions within the left currents themselves.
    The formation of the Labour Party in 1916 was a historic step forward for working class political independence, and any Marxist worthy of the name back then would have certainly been inside the party, building electoral support for the party while fighting against the rising tide of electoralist illusions and mode of functioning. Even after the party fell into the electoralist rut, Marxists would have fought inside the party and called for a vote for it, for decades to follow. That is no longer the case today. Just as the Russian revolution was a historic step forward for the working class, but nothing remains of it today, in the same way, nothing remains of the Labour Party of 1916. It has been transformed into an ordinary bourgeois party. The electoral support it still enjoys among workers (rapidly eroding, but still there) is akin to the support the Democratic Party enjoys from workers in the US – nothing but the bourgeoisie using the union bureaucracy to impose its political framework on workers. Since John Key stole its programme when he took over leadership of the National Party, Labour now attacks National from the *right* on many central questions, like immigration, raising the age of eligibility for the pension!!, its intransigent opposition to Maori demands, among others. The most pervasive expression of electoralist illusions today is the ‘anyone but Key’ idea. To ‘join the electoral fight against National and demand a Labour-led government,’ whatever caveats you might add about workers relying on their own strength, would only feed the ‘anyone but Key’ idea and unwittingly strengthen those illusions.
    That’s my take on this vexed question, anyway…

  5. But James, you spent 25 years running round telling people that Labour was a “workers party” and urging workers to vote for it. Even at the height of “Rogernomics”! When you say, “The first obligation of Marxists is to tell the truth”, surely that begins at home.

    Where is the critique of how/why you and the SAL/CL did that?

    I agree with you about Mana, but it’s also important to settle scores with one’s own mistakes as well. Otherwise, there is a credibility problem.


    • The formation of the Labour Party as a political voice for the working class, independent of the capitalist parties, was a historic advance, as I noted in a comment above. The rotting out of that party took place in an uneven way, over a period of time. It had fallen firmly into the electoralist rut within a few short years, however it remained a mass party of the working class for many years after that, with living ties to the organised labour movement, and with the most of the politically advanced workers actively involved. For that reason, it was a different animal from the ordinary bourgeois parties, and calling a vote for it was a correct tactic for communists trying to link up with the workers in its ranks. Over the years, the party was increasingly consolidated around a capitalist and national-chauvinist programme, the ties to the unions were progressively weakened and finally cut (as the unions themselves fell deeper into the trap of class collaboration and weakened), the party membership and especially its parliamentary representatives became almost exclusively middle-class professionals, and the working class was reduced to the role of passive voters. I think it is fairly clear that today the party is indistinguishable from any other capitalist party. When exactly quantity turned into quality, and the transformation into an ordinary capitalist party was finally complete, is difficult to say. Was it a mistake for communists still to be calling the Labour Party a workers’ party and calling on workers to vote for it in the 1980s? Perhaps – at any rate, I wouldn’t rule that out. But I don’t think this retrospective judgement on a historic question is critical for a working class orientation today.

  6. Otherwise, btw, I agree with you James about Mana. We’ve been saying much the same thing over on Redline.

    “Drawing the lessons later” is a really bad habit on the left in this country. It means they go up every cul-de-sac possible as part of “going through the experience” and the lessons are never really learned/reviewed because, by that time, a new cul-de-sac presents itself and much of the left is far too busy dashing up that dead-end to sit down and draw the lessons of the last dead end.

    And the folks who demur from wasting time and energy up every possible cul-de-sac have to play bad fairy and get labelled ‘ultraleft’, ‘sectarian’ and so on. If we agreed to make the same mistakes over and over with the cul-de-sac left, we’d be quite popular with them!

    In my view, we need an entirely new left in New Zealand, one based on arguing for what workers need rather than being based on accepting lowered horizons, dumbed-down politics and some kind of fixation about rushing up every cul-de-sac. I don’t know where it will come from, but it is desperately needed.

    Unfortunately, until the working class moves – and there’s really not much sign of that – a new, authentically revolutionary left is not very likely.

    Until then we’ll have a left which defends state capitalism, gives ground to New Zealand nationalism, promotes illusions about the Labour Party and Labour leaders, and throws itself into cul-de-sacs such as Mana.

    Next week I’m giving a commemorative talk on James Connolly at the Workers Educational Association building in Christchurch and I’m planning to look at Connolly’s revolutionary *spirit* and ideas, including what influence they might have had here, and how we need a 21st century version of Connolly’s *revolutionary* perspective on the left and in the unions here today. (See


  7. I have a dissident position within my group on its involvement with Mana. Where we differ is on our attitude to Labour in the coming general election. Despite everything, Labour can still be described as a bourgeois workers’ party. It is supported by the unions, whether by direct affiliation or covertly. It still enjoys electoral support from the working class. There are clear differences between Labour and National, even though Labour’s positions on the state pension is worse.

    The question we should ask ourselves is what electoral result will take the class struggle forward? Another term of National will be a setback and will mean greater entrenchment of Labour’s politics within the class. Putting Labour under the test of government could open up possibilities for building a socialist alternative.

    • Martin, I’m afraid your comment gives me an impression of wishful thinking, or clutching at straws. The support ‘the unions’ give to the Labour Party is no different from the support ‘unions’ give to the Democratic Party in the US (which I’m sure you will agree is a capitalist party pure and simple). That is to say, it’s not so much the union *membership* supporting the party, as the union *bureaucracy* together with the party foisting a capitalist political framework on workers’ thinking. There is nothing at all progressive or supportable in this. There is so little programmatic difference between National and Labour that, by way of substitute, *most* bourgeois political debate today consists of the kind of contemptible scandal-mongering and trading of accusations of corruption that has been dominating the news recently – the ‘get Collins’ campaign, the accusations in both directions about fundraising methods, immigration favours etc.
      “Another term of National will be a setback” to what, exactly? It would mean a continuation of capitalist rule, nothing more – as would the election of Labour. In recent decades – if you want to apply your own criterion of ‘what election result would take the class struggle forward’ – the election of Labour governments has usually been associated with a further demobilisation of what little motion there was in the unions, with the union leaders arguing against workers doing anything that would upset the Labour Government and ‘give National an opening.’ I think we will have to agree to differ on this question.

    • Martin, I hope you come across this post. I can’t find an email address for you anywhere, but I wanted to let you know that the critical piece you wrote re ISO and Mana Internet Party has gone up on Redline. We were about to write a piece ourselves, but you made all the points we would have made. If there was a facility on the ISO site for comments, we probably wouldn’t have put up your piece, but since there is no such facility on the ISO site whereas there is on Redline, we ran it to try to get some wider discussion. You can see it here:

      We’re not an organisation, nor are we trying to build an organisation. Redline is an independent blog devoted to Marxist analysis and discussion. We also run material from a range of sources, including quite a lot of stuff from Socialist Alternative in Australia, a group I like quite a lot.

      In relation to the Labour Party, take a look at:

      Philip Ferguson

  8. Pingback: The Internet-Mana Party steps boldly into the swamp | A communist at large·

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