Will the Alliance bury NZ Labour?


MATT MCCARTEN, secretary of the New Zealand Alliance, recently visited Australia to help launch the New Left Book Club's The Alliance Alternative in Australia. He spoke to Green Left Weekly's DICK NICHOLS about developments in New Zealand, in particular the meaning of the slump of NZ Labour to third place in the polls, behind the National Party government and the Alliance. Question: What is the present state of NZ politics, especially now that multi-member proportional (MMP) representation will form the electoral system at national polls? The National government, seen as pretty stable, is leading the polls at around 40%. Labour now is in third place behind the Alliance for which support is pretty consistent: it was 18% at the last general election in November 1993 and presently support fluctuates between 20% and 25%. Labour, since the elections where it got 35%, has recently slumped to below 20%. There have been a number of splits from the main parties, with both Labour and National losing MPS to set up "centre" parties. All have a common thread — they're there to stop the Alliance, and to offer themselves as potential coalition partners to the conservatives, assumed to be the certain winners of the next election. However, none are registering any sort of following. The most recent, the United Party with seven recycled MPs, hasn't registered in the polls at all. The common view now is that Nationals are the right-wing party, Labour the centre and the Alliance the left. Question: How do you explain the failure of these new parties to make an impact? Does former National MP Winston Peters fall into this category? Peters will probably win a few seats, as he's collared the market in right-wing populism; in his criticisms of the government he often sounds like us. But when it comes to a credible alternative program there's no-one at home. As for the rest, they make the mistake of thinking that you can build a support base by angling for one or other fraction of the middle class and the waverers. But Labour has most of this space. MMP isn't likely to produce the situation its opponents all threatened us with — a gamut of small parties involved in permanent horse-trading. Question: Are we dealing with a deepening crisis of Labour? Is this leading to sharper factional struggles inside Labour? Morale in Labour is very low. The "left" avoids the fight over the program; its all over personalities and image. Former leader Mike Moore, is taking a reactionary line inside Labour, but won't go: he seems to be on a maverick mission to destroy them — which is fine by us. There's the femocrat leadership who have learned the arts of palace politics, but don't have widespread support within the party. The trade union movement is now split, wanting to support us and wishing that Labour and the Alliance would kiss and make up. But Labour won't talk to us, because if they do they'll split: three-quarters of the present caucus are absolutely opposed to any dealings with the Alliance and the other quarter are too scared to take up that fight. Question: So, to reverse its decline, Labour has to have a fight with the Alliance, but the left of Labour doesn't want to? The Labour left wants to let bygones be bygones. They don't attack us, and when the Labour right does the left won't defend us or attack their colleagues. Privately they tell us how appalled they are and ask us not to retaliate — they are paralysed. Question: What is the Alliance position on the unions' call for a Labour-Alliance coalition? They've always conceived this coalition as a deal to be done on the basis of who gets how many votes. What they don't understand is that we simply won't enter into a coalition without an agreement on program. Of course the Labour right don't want to engage with us in policy debate; they say there's no grounds for agreement. The "left" says: "Can't we just agree, and then sort the program out afterwards?". Question: What's the general approach of the Alliance from now until the election? We have 12 policy planks and we're going flat out to win support for these, especially in Labour's working-class constituency. We think our natural constituency is around 60% of the population — the have-nots who have suffered from Labour and National in government. Question: Who is now voting Alliance? In general, the people who've been on the receiving end of the new right experiment in New Zealand — poorer pensioners, students, the unemployed and other beneficiaries, and the unskilled and semi-skilled work force. Over 50% of people on under $15,000 a year, 66% of pensioners, 40% of the unemployed and beneficiaries and 40% of blue collar workers vote Alliance. Question: The Alliance has put forward the proposal for a $10-an-hour minimum wage. What effect has this had? It's all about building our class base. This proposal, and our industrial relations policy as a whole (although it hasn't been formally launched yet), is causing an outrage among Labour and the Tory press. Among workers there has been an enormous amount of interest. We've promised an increase in annual leave from three weeks to four, paid parental leave for 12 weeks, and a number of other strong pro-worker positions, such as collective contracts becoming the order of the day with all those, including non-unionists, having to pay their share of the costs of reaching the agreement, plus a big increase in funds for workers' compensation. Question: In mid-year your alternative budget also came in for a storm of abuse from the establishment media. What political effect did this have? We put forward a budget with a progressive tax scale. No economist said that we hadn't done our sums properly. Their general attitude could be summed up as: "Oh well, if you want to do it that way, then it's technically feasible". Then, the right-wingers amongst them would tear into the underlying assumptions. Frankly, every time they do this it stirs up interest in the Alliance and it means more people will listen to [Alliance leader] Jim Anderton's explanations. Moreover, our support base becomes more solid: people are more conscious that they are supporting a program, not just an image and a politician. This contrasts with support for the Nationals, which is very soft. The polls confirm that an overwhelming percentage of Alliance supporters specify the program as the main reason for their support. Question: But hasn't the Alliance had its own problems. After all, you recently lost control of Auckland local government. True, but, strange as this may sound, this was not a defeat. When we started the election campaign we were at 18%: at the end we won 37%. And this was against the greatest barrage of conservative money and mobilisation I've ever seen. Our opponents, masquerading as "citizens and ratepayers" spent millions of dollars on full page colour ads; Auckland's billboards were taken over for a month by their utterly outrageous lies. For example, the head of the Chamber of Commerce said we were going to sell off Auckland's municipal assets — we who'd not only prevented their sell-off, but liquidated their debt! This campaign was also a salutary lesson for Alliance people who thought that if you did a good and honest job in office people would vote for you again. It was a lesson in the realities of class politics and people are now clearer about what is at stake. Ours was the only program on offer because the opposition contradicted themselves at every turn. Our campaign drew bigger crowds than ever, especially among students, and even high-school students. Question: There are several movements in New Zealand, against French nuclear testing and against fees for education. How is the Alliance relating to these campaigns? We've always wanted to be more than an electoral formation: we don't just want to build another Labour Party and electoral fights have got to be backed up with fights on the ground. In the last few months all the struggles that have taken place outside the electoral arena — peace, against racism and poverty — have had the majority of their leaderships made up of people from the Alliance. It's not that the Alliance directs these movements. Rather, we second resources to them and seek to boost every dispute, march and rally. But it's been a rather spontaneous process. The anti-nuclear sentiment hasn't been much of a boost for us, because the three main parties are anti-nuclear and, even though our policy is sharper and more concrete, PM Jim Bolger is seen as speaking for the national consensus when he criticises France. Question: Jim Anderton has been directly involved in union negotiations. What does that signify? The unions are more and more coming to the Alliance for advice and support. They see the Council of Trade Unions' leadership as under instruction not to rock the boat for Labour. Question: Who else is getting involved in the Alliance? One of the most encouraging trends is the growing involvement of Maori and Pacific Islander people, especially the second generation youth. Maori and Pacific Islanders have always made up a big part of our constituency, but until recently this has been passive. Now, we're not only signing up a lot more Maori and Pacific Islanders as members, their youth leaders, who have their own role in the communities, are becoming Alliance leaders too. Labour's support base in the Maori community is finally crumbling.

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