By Sean Malloy
There is widespread dissatisfaction in New Zealand with both the governing National Party and the Labour Party, which, in its previous term in government, introduced many of the right-wing projects now being completed by the Nationals. But building a viable alternative to the two parties is anything but an easy or automatic process.
Matt McCarten is president of the NewLabour Party, the left breakaway from Labour which has now succeeded in putting together a broad electoral Alliance comprising NewLabour, the Maori party Mana Motuhake, the Greens, the Democratic Party and the Liberal Party. During McCarten's visit here in July, Green Left Weekly spoke to him about his views on building the NLP, the Alliance and the progressive movements.
"We haven't got any guide to how things might be done", McCarten said, "because it is a unique situation in NZ, with a break to the left of the main Social Democratic party, which has actually taken on a life of its own in a mass way, amongst working-class people.
"The thing that enabled this to happen is we had the best of the labour activists", he added.
Those on the left who remained in the Labour Party said that the NLP would never survive.
"Always their line has been 'You can't do it in a mass way on the left of Labour', 'You've got to stay in Labour, that's where workers see it, electoral politics that's where people see it, that's mainstream politics'," said McCarten.
"Every time that we've tried to do anything,
they said 'You can't do it'. They said we couldn't go out of the Labour party and survive, but we did.
"We had disparate left forces; they said we could never work with them, but we did. Then they said we couldn't get the other parties in, and we did. Then they said we would never get a policy together, but we did. Then they said we would never hold the Alliance accountable, but we have and we've sacked people when they haven't behaved accountably.
McCarten says that an important part of the NLP's and the Alliance's approach to politics is accountability.
"When we ran earlier on in the formation of the Alliance, the Greens took the position, supported by the Democrats, that we've got to be accountable to the electorate, we shouldn't be accountable to the party and that we should support independents. My personal view on it was that if you want to be an independent, then see you later.
"It is a contrary thing where someone wants to be an independent, but they want a machine to do it for them, and when they're elected they do what they like."
The Alliance insists on the right to sack any of its elected members who fail to support Alliance policy. But it's also important, says McCarten, for all members to demonstrate the same sense of responsibility.
"What we have to develop is a culture of accountability. We have the structure of accountability, which is pretty rigid, but it is as good as any structure you're going to get. It's a mechanical structure, which will give a mechanical accountability.
"We have a stupidity that if someone is an MP, somehow they are an elite, they're
different. What we've got to have, and we say it in our party and we do it, is that accountability is for everybody, not just an elite.
"When a majority position is reached, everyone is accountable.
"The working class in the party, the rank-and-
file people who didn't have the confidence to challenge those things in the beginning, feel this power now. The elected representatives also feel this accountability. They don't have this attitude of: because I'm an MP I'm allowed to get away with things."
McCarten cited setbacks suffered by the unemployed movement to show how things can go wrong when there is a lack of accountability in movements and a lack of patience in explaining issues.
"What started off as a movement with mass support has now fallen back to a small group of activists because they just turned people off. There used to be a time when 5000-10,000 people marched in Auckland in support of unemployed; the last march they had was less than 200."
Movement leaders didn't feel accountable to demonstrators, McCarten explained. "Every time they march, they pull a stunt, like a confrontation with the cops, an occupation, smoke bombs in McDonald's or a barricade of the social welfare department. A few people are arrested and they think it is wonderful but all it does is piss people off, because they did not agree to come and do that; it wasn't democratic.
"They don't understand that you need to build consciously and increase mass support. It means being patient, it means explaining and winning people over, not just mad stunts."