Thomas Berger: What are the chances for a broad left party in New Zealand at the moment as well as in the future? Grant Brookes: The chances for a broad left party in New Zealand today are huge. Many of the reasons for this will be familiar to German readers - the rightward shift of the formerly social democratic Labour Party to embrace a social liberalism barely distinguishable from politics of the Tory National Party; a modest recovery in trade union membership and strength; a growing political convergence between the once-radical Green Party and the rightwards-moving Labour Party; and an emerging economic crisis which is shattering the stability of the 'business-as-usual' political consensus. On top of this, there is also another factor specific to New Zealand – the emergence and consolidation of the Maori Party. From the election of the First Labour Government in 1935 up until recently, the minority of New Zealanders with Maori ancestry had been an unshakeable part of Labour's core constituency. In the last four years, a majority of these Maori people registered to vote in the seven dedicated Maori electorates have abandoned Labour for the Maori Party, who have acted as an independent grassroots voice in Parliament. This has represented an important, partial break with Labourism in New Zealand - highlighting the opportunities for a more complete break among the broader population. The current situation was seen in a recent opinion poll, where a third of voters were either "undecided" on who to vote for, or were "likely to change their vote" before election day. Whether RAM, as a very new and relatively small political force, will be able relate to this situation at the upcoming general election is an open question. In the longer term, however, I believe RAM's chances are very good. TB: Is RAM a really new beginning or just a kind of rebirth of the once for a limited time successful Alliance Party? What has been learned from the problems and setbacks of the past? GB: The Alliance was very successful for a time - even outpolling Labour in the early 1990s, leading some commentators to speculate about the demise of the 80-year old Labour Party. The Alliance shot to prominence through a combination of electoral campaigns and grassroots campaigns - especially a huge community campaign against the privatisation of the Ports of Auckland in 1992. But the core and leadership of the Alliance came from the New Labour Party - a group of former Labour Party members who split away in 1989 in protest at Labour's capitulation to neo-liberalism. The baggage they brought into the Alliance included a tendency to view politics as the business of Parliament, rather than on the streets as well. Even more importantly, the Alliance emerged at a time when grassroots people were being hammered by a neo-liberal assault from a vicious National Party government. Wages and benefits fell, social services were cut, unemployment rocketed, and trade unions were decimated (with membership falling from 60 percent of the workforce at the end of the 1980s to under 20 percent, ten years later). Confidence and expectations at the grassroots collapsed. The combination of demoralisation at the grassroots and an overly parliamentary focus at the top of the Alliance led that party to abandon grassroots campaigning and look increasingly to joining a Labour-led coalition government as the 1990s wore on. When the Alliance had shifted sufficiently to the right to finally join a Labour-led coalition in 1999, the writing was on the wall. It was led to vote for the policies it had earlier campaigned against - policies of neo-liberalism and war. It suffered a similar fate to all those European left parties who have taken the same road - most recently, and most spectacularly, seen in the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista in Italy. After voting to support the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, the Alliance split and both of the resulting factions were abandoned by voters. (This will clearly be a crucial lesson for Germany's Left Party, Die Linkspartei, as it grows in strength and popularity). Given this potted history, RAM is not in any way a re-birth of the Alliance. Firstly, our core and leadership are made up of grassroots campaigners, not Parliamentarians. And secondly, even more important than that, RAM is emerging at a time when grassroots confidence and strength is recovering after a 20 year nightmare. TB: What are the most important left bastions in the country? GB: To some extent, this is unknown. What can be said is that the Green Party, in its more radical, campaigning orientation of past years, built up geographical bastions among inner-city urban dwellers, particularly in Auckland and Wellington. There is also the "ethnic bastion" of Maori voters who have opted to register on the Maori electoral roll, now held by the Maori Party. Our perception, developed through grassroots campaigning over recent times, is that other ethnic minorities traditionally wedded to Labour (like other Polynesian peoples with Samoan, Tongan or other Pacific Island ancestry) are also in the process of breaking with Labourism. Finally, in local body elections to city councils which RAM has contested in 2004 and 2007, our strongest electoral base has been built in South Auckland - a very large, predominantly working class area where a majority of the population is from Maori, or from Pacific Island and other immigrant groups. TB: Are there chances for RAM, Maori Party, Greens and the Progressives to find common ground as a broad alliance to build up left pressure on Helen Clark and Labour for a social policy? GB: We certainly hope so. Prior to Auckland local body elections in 2004 and 2007, RAM made formal approaches to the local Green Party organisation for talks on possible cooperation agreements. Sadly, we received no formal reply. The Auckland Greens chose instead to join with Labour-led local body candidate groups and spurned our grassroots campaign for free and frequent public transport. Earlier this year, we wrote to the Alliance (which still exists, in a much diminished capacity, in some parts of the South Island) with a similar request. We did receive a reply, but it was hostile. Since then, however, RAM has rapidly emerged as the largest and most active grassroots party of the left, and we are optimistic that cooperation with some in the Greens and Alliance will be more likely after the election. The highlight of broad left cooperation, however, has been the cooperation between RAM and the Maori Party around a combined campaign to remove GST tax (a sales tax currently set at 12.5 percent) from food. We believe that cooperation with the Maori Party will broaden and deepen next year, and serve as a shining example to others. TB: What do you think of the new immigration debate? GB: Unlike the 2005 general election, when immigration was made a key election issue by the right wing, anti-immigrant New Zealand First Party, it has scarcely featured this time round. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, the incorporation of the NZ First leader into the Labour-led government (as foreign minister of all things, where attacking immigrants from New Zealand's major trading and defence partners is clearly impossible). And secondly, it's harder to whip up anti-immigrant racism when New Zealand has experienced several years of the lowest unemployment in two decades (under 4 percent, the lowest in the OECD). This second factor, of course, will change as the economic crisis bites. RAM will prioritise campaigns for immigrant rights under these circumstances. TB: Is there a right swing, with National ahead in some polls and the special campaigns of ACT (law and order) and NZ First (renewal of the anti-immigration debate)? GB: No. Despite the National Party lead in the polls, there is no major rightward swing at the grassroots towards support for neo-liberal and reactionary policies. Disaffection with the ruling Labour Party is the major driver of the polls. Part of National's success has come from shifting towards the centre on most major questions and embracing Labour Party policies. NZ First, which has very recently revived its anti-immigration rhetoric in a much-attenuated form, could well be wiped out at the election. ACT is polling at very low levels of support, too. There has been much speculation, some of it probably accurate, about a National Party "secret agenda". If they win the election as currently expected, it is likely that they will unveil some more right wing policies which they are currently keeping in hiding. We believe any such move is likely to be met with grassroots resistance, precisely because there hasn't been a shift to the right among people which would allow them to get away with it.
Friday, 1 February 2008
Grant Brookes, co-leader of RAM's candidates group, was recently interviewed by Thomas Berger, a freelance journalist with Germany's two left-wing daily newspapers, "Junge Welt" (Young World) and "Neues Deutschland" (New Germany).