Tuesday 22 April 2008

In the VAN-guard: Building a broad left alternative in Lower Hutt

by Grant Brookes
VAN activist

A new political force has entered the electoral arena in Lower Hutt. A broad, green-left network embracing socialists, centre-Left supporters and anyone in between. A grassroots coalition of ordinary people, none of whom had ever stood for election before, committed to collective action for social change. Its name is VAN – Valley Action Network.

Lower Hutt, population 98,000, is in many ways a typical, mid-sized New Zealand city. The opportunities and difficulties in establishing a grassroots alternative there, and the debates and experiences of the activists who launched VAN, will be valuable as groups like Auckland's Residents Action Movement (RAM) move towards building a broad left alternative to Labour nationwide.

Building from scratch

The idea of VAN was born in February 2007, at a meeting between myself and RAM organiser Grant Morgan. A discussion was held about activists in the Wellington region standing on a grassroots ticket in the October local body elections.

This idea had been raised before, in the lead-up to the 2004 Wellington City Council elections, by the short-lived Community Action Network. But it foundered on the scale and cost of such a campaign in the capital, the fact a credible left campaign already existed in the Green Party (unlike Green candidates elsewhere, those in Wellington stand independently and not as part of a Labour-led ticket) and internal disagreements about what the Community Action Network should be.

For Socialist Worker members, the idea of a grassroots ticket in the 2007 elections flowed naturally from our organisation's national strategy of building a new, broad left. Despite doubts from some members about building from scratch in a short space of time, the Wellington Socialist Worker branch endorsed the idea in April. Hutt City was selected as the best place to run.

For the previous year, a small group centred around the Socialist Worker branch had succeeded in building up the readership of the Workers Charter newspaper in the greater Wellington region. People on the mailing list in Lower Hutt were canvassed about the idea, and expressed strong support. Workers Charter readers comprised the bulk of the activists who launched the electoral coalition at a meeting on 27 May.

Apart from RAM and the Workers Charter newspaper, the other main source of inspiration was RESPECT, the British political party fronted by anti-war MP George Galloway. Formed just three years earlier, RESPECT had succeeded in making inroads into Labour's local dominance in a cluster of city councils.

RESPECT, in turn, were drawing inspiration from the early days of the British Labour Party. Michael Lavalette, a RESPECT city councillor in Preston, wrote a pamphlet titled, George Lansbury and the Rebel Councillors of Poplar. It told the story of a maverick Labour Party group in the East London borough of Poplar, who defied the party hierarchy to build grassroots movements in their local community in the decade after World War One. The pamphlet was read by VAN activists. It seemed to express our vision of a different kind of local body politics:

"Poplarism [as the movement was known] offers a shining example of what a militant struggle for reform can look like. It showed what elected councillors can do if they are part of a broader movement for change. If they stand with that movement, and embedded within it, then it is possible to deepen and enrich the struggle and fight for the needs of local communities."

Labour's withering roots

But if the sources of the ideas behind VAN reached half way round the world, the conditions which allowed those ideas to become a real force were closer to home. The opportunity to establish VAN came, above all, from the withering roots of the local Labour Party. Labour's decay in Lower Hutt is a local manifestation of a national trend.

Walter Nash first won the Hutt parliamentary electorate for Labour in 1929. The party held the seat continuously until 1977, and has held one or more of its successors through boundary changes up until the present. Today, Hutt South is considered "Labour heartland" and a safe Labour seat for Trevor Mallard. Yet in recent decades, this outward appearance of strength has concealed an increasingly hollow core.

Crucially for us, Labour had been unable to replicate its parliamentary success in local body elections. Since the 1960s, Lower Hutt City Council (later Hutt City Council, after amalgamation with Petone, Eastbourne and Wainuiomata in 1989) has been controlled by Labour only once, from 1977-1980.

In 1995, in a bid to strengthen its local body presence, Labour pulled together the coalition known today as Hutt 2020. But the coalition failed to revive Labour's fortunes. It flopped four times in a row, winning only one or two council positions out of 12 in each election from 1995-2004.

Even as it failed to inspire voters, however, Labour was able for a time to exert hegemony over the left and trade union leaders on the basis of its parliamentary success and the formation of the Labour-Alliance coalition in 1999.

In 2001, Porirua -based Labour MP Winnie Laban was stretching the truth when she described Hutt 2020 as "a coalition of Labour, Alliance and Green supporters working to achieve greater community participation in local body affairs". Nonetheless, there were a few left wing people involved. As late as 2004, Hutt 2020's list of candidates included one Green Party member.

But by 2007 Winnie Laban's description was no longer the case by any stretch of the imagination. Labour's hegemony over the left, through Hutt 2020, had collapsed. The Alliance had disappeared from public view in the Hutt Valley, while debate had re-opened inside the Greens over relations with Labour in the wake of Rod Donald's death and the government's rightward drift. Despite efforts driven from the Green Party national office, no local members were willing to stand in last year's local body elections on the Hutt 2020 ticket. According to a former parliamentary executive secretary for the party, in 2007 there was no formal connection at all between Hutt 2020 and the Greens.

As the few left-leaning people drifted away, the composition of the Labour-led coalition changed. Hutt 2020 lurched further to the right.

In 2007, Naenae resident Arie Edmonds was working for banking and finance sector union Finsec. As an organiser for a union affiliated to the Labour-aligned Council of Trade Unions, she was shoulder-tapped to work on the Hutt 2020 election campaign. "I went along to one of their meetings", she said. "People were pretty open about the parties they supported. There was a mix of parties – of left and right, including ACT Party people."

As a coalition stretching from Labour to the far right, Hutt 2020 was unable to take a clear, united position on any issue, further alienating it from grassroots people. "There were fundamental differences of opinion at the meeting", said Arie. "You're never quite sure of what they're about. But are Hutt 2020 really left wing? No, they're not." She joined the VAN campaign instead.

Its candidates reflected this, too. All of the people chosen to stand for council for Hutt 2020 were public sector managers, while those running for other positions included the likes of Dave Stonyer, a businessman and prominent local supporter of United Future. None of their candidates could be described as "trade unionists" or "left", much less "grassroots".

This withering of Labour's roots – in the community, in the political left and in the unions – left a huge political vacuum.

Wide sections of the population were unrepresented and effectively disenfranchised. Turnout in local body elections in Hutt City sank. In 2004, just 39 percent of eligible electors cast a vote – the third lowest urban turnout in the country. The reason was clear. For ordinary people, there was no-one worth voting for. The older, wealthier and more conservative minority who did vote ensured that the council was dominated by a cabal of business representatives, Christian conservatives and people with links to fringe parties to the right of National.

This would emerge as the single biggest obstacle to establishing a grassroots electoral alternative. With the council firmly in the hands of a far right, pro-business cabal, and no credible alternative on offer in recent memory, many grassroots people had simply "switched off" from local body elections entirely.

A stirring at the grassroots

But low turnouts in local body elections didn't mean that ordinary people in Lower Hutt had become "apathetic" or "apolitical". It was simply that mainstream council politics was so distant from ordinary people that resistance, when it exploded onto the scene, was expressed through other channels.

In late 2006 and early 2007 a local grassroots revolt erupted in the south of the city, which sparked a crisis for the council large enough to overshadow the election. The immediate issue was a plan to abolish the city's three elected community boards, in the leafy suburb of Eastbourne, the mixed community of Petone and the working class enclave of Wainuiomata. But anger was fueled by many other issues, too, like the cosy relationship between council and big property developers which allowed free-for-all high rises and threatened heritage buildings and green spaces. Council services in Petone, including libraries and swimming pools, also faced the axe.

A new group called Eastbourne Rights sprang up to spearhead opposition. The public meetings it called – the biggest in Hutt City in a generation – seethed with anger at the council. Hutt 2020, predictably, was split over the movement. Its elected representatives on the Petone Community Board drove forward a huge petition campaign against the council, while the Hutt 2020 regional councillors attacked the campaign. Lacking a connection to a stable political party and winning a few quick back-downs from the council, the movement subsided as quickly as it had risen. But the simmering grassroots resentment remained.

At the same time, other Petone residents were organising through the Exide Pollution Action Group over the council's failure to protect people from toxic lead emissions from the Exide battery recycling plant.

Public concern was also growing over council inaction on Petone's polluted streams and on climate change. Three other councils in the Wellington region had signed up to a group called Communities for Climate Protection – New Zealand. Although group membership carried no obligatory targets for actual greenhouse gas reductions, Hutt City Council ignored calls to take even this small step. A new Carbon Reduction Action Group sprang into existence.

And largely away from public view, the biggest and richest multinational corporation in the valley, mall operator Westfield, was pushing for an extension of its three-year, $3 million rates holiday.

Get on the VAN

None of these grassroots concerns were being taken up and expressed by any existing political force. This was the immediate factor that impelled a wide range of people to get active in VAN.

"My biggest bugbear", said Arie Edmonds, "was there didn't seem to be a party that had the things I felt were important – what do we do for needy families, for 'problem areas' like Naenae, and so on". James Cross, an IT specialist who describes himself as "centre-left", had gotten involved in local issues through the community group advising council on the clean-up of the Waiwhetu Stream. His decision to join VAN was based on "an interest in what was happening in the local area, and lack of faith in the existing options".

Juanita McKenzie, a home-maker from an affluent suburb on the Western Hills, became politically involved in the peace movement after the invasion of Iraq. "Following that", she said, "I started to feel a clearer understanding that while our problems are political, economic and social, the underlying issue is one of spirituality – a collective spirituality of 'me first'. Profit is our god.

"I got involved with VAN", she added, "because it was a local political movement that was covering environmental issues, and represented the unrepresented members of society. It enabled grassroots issues to be given a voice."

Michelle Ducat, a primary teacher and NZEI union rep for her school, would go on to become one of our council candidates. "I hadn't been politically active before", she said. "I'd been intimidated about being public about what I believed in. But it was about the issues, not the individuals. These issues were not going to be talked about in the election unless we did it."

Foreman Foto had moved to the Hutt Valley from Zimbabwe, where he was involved in the Movement for Democratic Change. "The MDC is a broad-based organisation", he explained, "mainly driven by labour and non-government organisations. I was their parliamentary affairs coordinator."

"I got involved with VAN because first, you were quite interested in the Zimbabwean situation. You came along to show solidarity. VAN was also an opportunity for refugees and new migrants to have a say in public affairs. Your perspective as well on climate and environment. It was very important to ensure there's a voice around these issues."

Our first meeting unanimously endorsed the six popular issues we would campaign on:

Grassroots democracy – Community boards for all, with extra powers
A Human City – Putting people before big business interests
Free Council Services – Not just protected but extended
A Green City – Action on climate change. Zero tolerance for polluters
Free and frequent public transport – It makes climate sense and serves the people
Rates justice – Reductions based on need. Residents before greedy corporations

But as the British RESPECT pamphlet about the rebel councillors of Poplar explained, "While what they did was crucially important, there was a relationship between this and their focus on the big ideological questions of the day. It was the combination of improving peoples' material situation together with a focus on debates about the nature of society, defence of the Russian Revolution, and support for the trade union struggles, that kept councillors and their supporters engaged and focussed on the big picture."

Without a connection between immediate issues and the bigger picture, it's easy for a local body campaign to get sucked into "parish pump" politics – to be drawn into minute details about inconsequential matters. So as well as specific campaign issues, VAN also produced a statement organically linking them to a vision for a different kind of politics and a different kind of society:

We stand for social justice.

For the majority of Hutt City residents the status quo is not enough. Corporate interests cannot continue to run rampant. We need social change, from the ground up so the social and political interests of our multi-cultural communities are empowered and represented.

We stand for the environment.

Council leniency towards polluters must end. Rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions threaten the current generation of Hutt residents, and our children. Serious action, starting at the council level, is needed to tackle human-induced climate change.

We stand for democracy.

We do not believe that decision making, affecting the lives of Hutt City residents, should be monopolised by a few, or confined within the walls of council chambers. We know that too often, elected representatives are captured by the system and lose touch with those who voted them in. We pledge to promote full council accountability to the grassroots.

Our goals are far-reaching.

Our goals are far-reaching but we do not promise what cannot be delivered. Achieving these goals will take the active involvement of many Hutt City residents. With our eyes on the prize, together we can re-shape our future. We understand that social and environmental forces affecting Hutt City residents are often shaped at the regional, national and global level. We will seek to link up with authorities and grassroots campaigners in other places to tackle these forces.
We put residents first.

If elected, we will use our positions on council to give voice to community campaigns for social justice and environmental sanity. We will encourage residents to come together to discuss solutions and take action with us.

Although we were united on campaign issues and on a bigger vision, it would be wrong to believe there were no debates inside our broad group. There were, and they reflected wider trends in grassroots political movements. Two debates stand out.

Why stand?

In contrast to all the other electoral tickets in Hutt City, VAN was not made up of would-be career politicians and their hangers-on. We are a coalition of grassroots activists, with a wealth of experience in community campaigns, socialist organisations, unions and social movements.

Within these wider milieu, however, there is a school of thought which views elections with suspicion or outright hostility. According to this view, participating in the stunted democracy of council or parliamentary elections is at best a distraction from the real struggle, or at worst a route to co-option and betrayal of grassroots people.

Even in VAN, which was formed for the purpose of contesting the 2007 Hutt City elections, this viewpoint found an echo. Since we had this new group, why couldn't we just focus on grassroots campaigning? Along with our lack of experience and confidence in electoral politics, this created our biggest practical challenge in building a broad grassroots alternative – finding people willing to stand as candidates.

But fundamentally, however broad the range of issues taken up initially by a grassroots movement today, it will ultimately tend to become trapped within the confines of single-issue politics. And the weakness of single-issue movements is the way that their concern can be taken in isolation, incorporated into the agenda of a mainstream political party and neutralised. This was even seen in the Hutt elections. A closet National Party member standing for regional council took up the demands of the Exide Pollution Action Group to stop toxic emissions, even as he promoted other kinds of pollution with a strong pro-roads agenda.

Standing in elections allows grassroots activists to break out of single-issue politics and present comprehensive solutions to inter-linked issues. As Victoria University student Anna Potts put it, "I had been active in a number of causes – some environmental, some anti-war, a lot of workers' rights issues. But VAN gave me the opportunity of drawing those things together, and looking at how to put them into practice."

At this stage, organs of grassroots power capable of transforming society across the board do not exist in this country. So standing in elections is currently an essential part of challenging the system as a whole. Most ordinary people, who must collectively comprise the motor of any fundamental social change, instinctively realise this. Standing in elections also allows an emerging broad left alternative to relate to these people, draw them into common activity and grow.

Joe Kelly, a member of public sector union NUPE, became the public face of VAN's election campaign as the "poster boy" on our billboards. He explained "you need to give those people who are not activists a chance to feel they can connect with you and make a difference, Standing in elections helps them to make that first step."

Anna concurs. "There definitely is a danger in standing, but on the other hand, for a lot of people politics is electoral and this is a way to engage with them. Community campaigning is important, but both can happen side by side."

In fact, standing in elections gives a stronger mandate for community campaigning. People can see that you're willing to put your money where your mouth is.

Propaganda or practical policy?

Related to the debate over whether to stand for election is a second – how to campaign, and to what end? According to one school of thought, the main goal for radical groups standing in elections should be to use the platform this provides to publicise their ideas and attract a few new recruits. Because the campaign focus is on the radical ideas of the group, rather than the diverse concerns of ordinary people in the community, this is a route to building a small, narrow radical party – not a broad coalition.

Although this "narrow party" trend is negligible in New Zealand politics as a whole, it does have some influence on the socialist left, where some VAN activists hail from. Specifically, it was expressed in 2007 in local body election campaigns by the Workers Party in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Since the main goal of the Workers Party was to spread socialist ideas without seriously trying to get elected, they chose to run for the highest profile position in each city – mayor.

At the very first VAN meeting, the question was raised. Was our goal to get elected, or simply to spread propaganda? We agreed unanimously. Our campaign would be about popular grassroots issues, not socialist propaganda, with the goal of winning positions to practically advance these issues further. We chose to stand not for mayor, but for more winnable seats on council and community board. For this, VAN was denounced by Workers Party members in internet forums like Indymedia.

But as Joe Kelly argues, "By standing and not trying to win, you're commencing a campaign by handing over some of your credibility. It's seen as a token gesture. What's worse, you're sending the message that your issues can never win. By not talking realistically about what you would do if you win, you're not valuing the people who are voting for you."

"I don't believe that long-term change is going to come from electoral bodies", adds Anna Potts, "but that doesn't mean they can't have some impact. Even if you're just going at it for publicity purposes, you're going to get a lot more publicity if you're elected."

The election campaign

At the start of June, four months out from the election, VAN had policies, a vision, $50 in the bank and 14 people on our mailing list. Our election campaign was going to be run on a shoe-string.

"The way we ran our election campaign made sense", said Joe Kelly. "One of its strengths was that we attempted to connect with people quite broadly – visually, personally, and through the media."

VAN candidates and activists spoke to hundreds of people on the doorstep and at meetings. We leafleted events and letterboxes. We issued a stream of press releases, which were well reported in local papers. But learning from RAM's 2004 campaign in Auckland, the main thrust of our election campaign was based around billboards.

Every election sees a sea of barely distinguishable billboards colonise plots of public land. On the door-knock, we quickly found that residents resented their neighbourhoods being taken over, without their permission, by these "billboard farms".

As with our policies and our vision, our billboard campaign would be outside the mainstream and with the grassroots. Unlike all the other billboards, our eye-catching designs would highlight the issues, not the individual personality of the candidate. Our billboards would not contribute to the visual pollution. They would only go on fences, along main roads for visibility, where residents gave their permission.

With around $4,000, raised entirely from donations by ordinary people, we got billboards up on fences across the Harbour and Eastern ward. Our eye-catching signs contrasted strongly with everyone else's and looked great. It wasn't just us who thought so. Two weeks before the election, I got a phone call out of the blue from MORE FM breakfast host Nick Tansley. He said that VAN had won the radio station's "Most Attractive Billboard" award. (Sadly, he added, there was no prize money attached).

One anecdote from the billboard campaign stands out. At one property, tenants had given permission for VAN to put billboards on the fence. But the landlord took exception, pulled them down and phoned me to take them away. I told him that my understanding of the law was that tenants had the legal right to quiet enjoyment of the property without interruption by the landlord. However, not wanting to put the tenant in a difficult position, I agreed to his request. On arriving at the house, however, I saw our signs still up on the fence. I knocked on the door. "Fuck the landlord", said the tenant (a union delegate at WINZ, as it transpired), "the billboards are staying up. Besides, you can't take them down, even if you want to. I've put them back up with hundreds of nails in each one."

Other VAN activists have their own stories. "I really liked that our billboards didn't get vandalised", said Paul Kennett. "All the other billboards, with glossy faces created by some wanky design company, got vandalised to hell. Their formula was – picture, name, tick. Utterly vacuous. They had low faith in the voters. Ours had real messages."

Doing politics differently – "Stop the Cross Valley Link" campaign

Midway through the election campaign, a new issue arose – one that gave us the chance to walk the talk about "encouraging residents to come together to discuss solutions and take action with us". At a mayoral forum, all the candidates expressed strong support for a new $80 million, heavy traffic bypass – the Cross Valley Link road – to be funded by rate-payers. VAN swung into action against the road, and for the public transport alternative.

"We'd been talking about ways of generating public awareness of VAN", said Michelle Ducat. "This was an obvious point of difference for us. We'd learned from the campaign against the inner-city Wellington bypass. They had walks along the proposed route, talking to residents. Having a petition was a great way to focus discussion on the doorstep."

Taking our petition against the Cross Valley Link to the residents caught the attention of the Hutt News. Under the headline, "Road spending pointless – VAN", reporter Simon Edwards rattled off arguments against it: "So many times roads are upgraded, only to shift the bottleneck a little further down the highway. It makes far more sense to invest heavily in public transport, VAN says. 'It's an idea and way of thinking that's time has come'."

It also allowed us to gather contact details, both for our election campaign and for a future public meeting, if and when the council goes ahead with the road. It was an example of how to combine grassroots campaigning and building electoral support.

"It was time-consuming", said Michelle. "But it was great to talk to people about the issues and where we're coming from. The overwhelming response we got says that people ARE interested in local issues. It's about finding a way to get them involved."

Paul Kennett added, "It allowed us to engage on an issue that wasn't being represented by anyone else. It was taken as common sense by the others that everybody would agree with a new road. The amazing thing was, most people were against it."

Going door-to-door along the route of the Cross Valley Link road highlighted one of the surprises of the election for us. Not only were residents opposed to a new bypass, they also supported the alternative of Free and Frequent Public Transport.

The same response was found elsewhere. "I leafleted at the Saturday morning market and round Naenae", said Arie Edmonds. "The response I got was that we're being sensible. A lot of people thought that free transport was a good idea."

Socialist Worker and the broad coalition

Shortly after VAN was publicly launched, a long-standing member of the Hutt South Labour Party emailed us to say that other members of the Labour branch were labeling VAN, "a front for the Socialist Workers Party". This label was an attempt to marginalise and discredit our embryonic campaign. It was based on the fact that I, the organiser and public face of VAN, was indeed a member of Socialist Worker.

I phoned the Labour Party member straight away. I explained that neither in our composition, nor our candidates, nor our policies were we a socialist-dominated organisation. We were a genuine coalition, united on policies we could all accept, even though they didn't express the complete views of any one person or group. There would be no subterfuge, no "front", I added. As a VAN candidate, I told her, I would publicly declare my political affiliation as a socialist – unlike the candidates of every other electoral ticket who keep their party links under wraps. She accepted this assurance, and became a key ally for VAN.

My explanations were all true. The relationship between the socialist minority in VAN and those coming from other political perspectives was one of working together openly as equals. Decisions were made by consensus where possible, and majority vote where necessary. The different viewpoints were respected and valued. Benefits flowed both ways.

"It was a good team of people to work with", reflected Socialist Worker member Anna Potts. "A lot of them were from different backgrounds than I was used to working with. You had to engage with that, which wasn't a bad thing at all."

Joe Kelly, another member, saw it the same way. "In general, the situation was win-win, for us and for others. For us, it was a good opportunity to avoid the navel-gazing that small groups can indulge in. It made us engage in other people's issues. We extended our contacts and learned lessons about campaigning. For other people, it showed them who Socialist Worker is and what we care about."

Seeing Socialist Worker up close, the other VAN activists valued our contribution. "You were better organisers", commented Michelle Ducat, "I assume because of your previous political activist involvement. You knew how to get momentum, so something actually happened."

This did not come about by accident. For Socialist Worker members, it grew from a particular way of working inside the broad left movement. "How did we operate?", asked Joe. "I don't feel we operated as a bloc. We shared our political standpoint, then went to work with everyone else. Perhaps the one thing we did [as socialists] was to push a social agenda, whereas some of the other activists were more interested in the environment."

Paul Kennett concluded, "VAN's campaign was something that reflected the people involved, and those in the community, Decisions were consensus-based, not ideology-based. This meant our choices were more democratic. It's a credit to you, Grant, that as VAN organiser you were willing to facilitate the consensus of the group and follow that."

Yet the experience of the broad coalition also confirmed the need for Socialist Worker to retain an independent existence, too. Two days after voting closed in the local body elections, on October 15, 300 police smashed their way into houses across the country to arrest so-called "terrorists". Unlike RAM in Auckland, a majority in VAN did not support involvement in the growing civil rights protests. "It was good to be part of a broad movement, allowing for diversity of opinions", said Anna. "But the October 15th raids showed the need to keep our analysis and be prepared to be step ahead, or to the left of, the broad left movement."


Postal votes closed on October 13 and the counting began. The result saw the democratic deficit in Hutt City worsen.

Turnout was virtually unchanged on the low level of 2004. The unpopular right wing mayor, target of huge grassroots anger throughout the year and even abandoned by many of his erstwhile allies, was returned to office. Just 11 percent of eligible electors had voted for him, but on the poor turnout this was enough for him to win.

Among the minority of people who did vote, there was a swing to the right. The Labour-led coalition, Hutt 2020, lost their sole councillor and control of their stronghold, the Petone Community Board.

VAN's electoral success was always going to depend on motivating some of the non-voting majority to tick the box for us. But most people had "turned off" so thoroughly that our new group was unable to reach them on its first attempt.

As our post-election statement put it, "The legacy of past betrayals by politicians was too great for VAN's hopeful alternative to make much of a difference... But the ordinary people too disillusioned with official channels to vote will, sooner or later, find other ways to express their needs. VAN will now turn towards grassroots campaigns to connect with these people, build on our achievements, and grow our support base for future elections."

Difficulty finding people willing to be candidates meant that VAN only stood in two wards out of six. Even so, for a group formed from scratch just five months out from the election, we won a respectable total of 2,150 votes (comparable to winning around 30,000 votes in a city the size of Greater Auckland). Our results ranged from 25 percent of the vote needed to get elected, to 68 percent. Our best result was for the Petone Community Board, where we polled 844 votes – less than 400 shy of the number needed to win a seat.

But while it matters how many votes we win, other, less tangible results of VAN's campaign are also important. "We raised awareness of issues in the valley, and presented another option", said James Cross. "We weren't just an unknown. The vote we got was a huge achievement, starting as late as we did."

Without even winning a seat, the awareness we raised around our six policy points is influencing council decisions. The mayor who wanted to abolish the three existing community boards 18 months ago now publicly wants two new ones and "community boards for all". Council officers are recommending they get "extra powers".

After no action on toxic emissions from the Exide plant for a decade, the Greater Wellington Regional Council announced during the last days of the election that they were finally taking the US multinational to the Environment Court. Council officials said the decision reflected the level of community concern – surely amplified by VAN's billboard message of "zero tolerance for polluters" on fences all over the neighbourhood, backed up by press releases calling for "prosecution to the full extent of the law".

A review of Hutt City Council's District Plan is promised, limiting the freedom of big property developers. And the biggest public backer of rates cuts for big business, Ray Wallace, has suddenly discovered "rates justice". He is now calling for rate cuts for householders in the poorest suburbs.

"We made them sit up and notice", believes Arie Edmonds. "We didn't get anyone elected, but we never went out and said we were going to. The new council has adopted some of our policies. To have made even this much difference is brilliant."

The council is paying attention because they know that the grassroots popularity of VAN's ideas and policies is greater than the election results suggest.

"We showed that normal people, everyday people can make a difference", said Arie. "That was the biggest thing. Talking to people on the street, we made them understand that we're just like them. And people responded. A lot of people recognise there's a difference between people who have money and people who don't, and wonder why can't we make it fairer."

This subterranean response is laying the foundation for the most significant result of all to come out of VAN. By creating a new political pole of attraction, independent of the Labour Party, which resonates with grassroots people, VAN is helping to foster a realignment on the left. Local Greens, environmentalists and trade unionists who previously had to hold their nose and look to Labour now have another option.

"VAN has been positive for other groups that are working for the same causes", believes Juanita. "I was at a Transition Towns meeting last week [mid-February], and a woman from the Carbon Reduction Action Group was talking about how wonderful it was to have VAN. We enabled other groups to get their issues heard."

Or as the simple email message from a Green Party councillor in Wellington put it, "Congratulations for putting up the real alternatives. Look forward to working with you."

Even some people very close to Labour are attracted by what VAN is doing. The long-standing party member who contacted us about Socialist Worker's role in VAN is one. Another is the Hutt 2020 candidate who succeeded in getting elected, then emailed us to say, "Your vote recorded for the Petone Community Board under-represents the amount of support there is in a community for the demands advanced. Thank you for standing and for putting forward a left programme."

The support is not just verbal. During the election, sizeable individual donations flowed in from office holders in the Green Party and in local and national trade union bodies.

Cohering a new, broad left opposed to Labour's social liberalism and all that flows from it – oil wars, sham environmentalism, hollowed out democracy and entrenched social injustice – is an historic task for grassroots activists in Aotearoa.

The Maori Party has already led a breakaway of one section of Labour's traditional support base. By going nationwide this year, Auckland's RAM is attempting to pull a broader section of Labour's base. In this, they are part of a global trend. From Respect Renewal in Britain, to the German Left Party and the Venezuelan PSUV, new broad left parties are rising.

VAN activists are watching these developments with interest and looking forward. Whatever shape the new broad left takes in Aotearoa, Juanita McKenzie sums up the key lesson from VAN: "We've just got to keep on doing more of the same – building the community grassroots movement. We'll definitely take more and more people along with us next time."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

VAN takes a break for RAM's general election campaign

Valley Action Network has decided to take a break for the rest of the year, to allow a majority of our activists to devote their energies to RAM – Residents Action Movement (www.ram.org.nz).

VAN members will also continue to build up the Transition Town model (www.transitiontowns.org.nz), strengthening Hutt communities to cope with the end of abundant, cheap oil.

RAM began in Auckland in 2004, as a grassroots movement standing in local body elections. RAM polled 87,000 votes in the 2004 elections for the Auckland Regional Council. It launched community campaigns for free and frequent public transport and then against racism targeting Muslims. (See:

RAM was one of the main inspirations for VAN here in Lower Hutt. (See:

After winning over 100,000 votes in Auckland local body elections last October, RAM has decided to go nationwide, with a high-profile petition to remove GST from food. They will be standing in this year's general election.

Since most VAN activists have joined RAM, a meeting on 24 May, 2008 resolved to put VAN in recess until after the general election. The VAN email address will not be checked and public campaigning will go on hold. This statement will also be posted on VAN's website.

We thank all our supporters for backing VAN's vision of social justice, grassroots democracy and environmental sense for Hutt City. The causes of a human city, free and frequent public transport, rates justice, a green city, extended free council services and community boards for all are yet to be won. They will remain close to all our hearts in our new campaigns, and we will be taking them up again.

A decision on VAN's future will be made after the general election.

Grant Brookes
Former VAN organiser
(027) 203 3534