The Mana By-Election experiment

Note that this article does not necessarily represent the views of the whole party.

Don Franks

Below the big beaming blue and red billboards it was vacuous capitalist personality politics as usual.

Labour’s candidate claiming to be “working for Mana’ was Labour Party leader Phil Goff’s press secretary.

The best National’s Hekia Parata could produce for a slogan was a bastardisation of her own name – Vote Parata- “Heck yeah!”.

In the end Labour’s Kris Faafoi won the seat with 10,397 votes to  Parata’s 9317.

National came within 1080 votes of snatching a safe Labour seat  while their party is in government. Parata shattered Labour’s previous 6000-plus majority, turning Mana from the ninth safest seat in the country and one of Labour’s strongest bastions to a marginal one for the 2011 elections.

Faafoi had been the favourite to win the seat vacated when Winnie Laban left parliament for a post at Victoria University. In the end, he was only saved by a massive desperate effort from Labour’s electoral party machine. On the final day, even Phil Goff was out frantically knocking doors.

Despite all the hype voter turn out was low, around 50% .

While the big parties cared only for grabbing numbers, late entry candidate Matt McCarten stood out by raising some working class demands, like raising the minimum wage  to $15 an hour and an end to GST.

The Workers Party supported  Matt as a genuine working class fighter with hands-on experience promoting workers’ rights.

Since kick-starting Unite union in 2003 Matt has been a prominent and committed figure campaigning for low paid casualised workers.

It was also a plus having a high profile candidate to the left of Labour because in the Workers Party view, that  helps to highlight how similar National and Labour are. (>)

Matt McCarten’s campaign team put in long hours of hard work  focusing on three points: increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour; making job creation the goal of economic policy; and replacing GST with a 1 per cent financial transaction tax.

These policies were made into a petition and taken to 12,000 homes.

This large-scale exercise brought campaign staff into discussion of some basic social issues with a mass of employed and unemployed workers. Half of the people door knocked signed the petition.

This encouraging petition support did not, however, translate into votes. While the Unite leader had expected to get “over 5% and hopefully closer to 10%”, in the end his 816 votes amounted to 3.6% of the vote.

In socialist terms, the Unite leader’s election effort had a built in political weakness.

Although standing against them from the left, Matt’s attitude to Labour was basically like that of a caring man to his erring but recoverable sibling.

For instance, his central election statement said, “I’ve been supportive of Labour’s long overdue realisation that the new right agenda implemented by their party and carried on by National has been a disaster for New Zealand. But I have been disappointed at their timidity over what the alternatives could be.”

The day before the vote he wrote, “I hope my message to Labour got through – that they can’t take their supporters for granted and must stand for something that isn’t National-lite.  “If it did,” said Matt, “then taking three weeks being a carpetbagger in Mana was worth it.”

This view of Labour as a party which, with a few hard  kicks in the arse, might be made to serve workers’ best interests was repeated by key campaign officials like Joe Carolan, who insisted:

“Labour are too soft, and are bereft of any tangible policies that make a difference to the working class”.

The Workers Party doesn’t share those views of the Labour Party.

Far from being too soft, Labour has at times been the favourite party of big business and very capable of slashing workers’ rights and living standards as we saw in the 1980s.

Today Labour is a socially liberal capitalist party where middle class professionals outnumber workers 10 to one. While the party was founded in 1916 on a section of the union movement it was never a revolutionary party despite some socialist rhetoric in the early days. In government Labour has never even remotely undermined the rule of capital. In fact Labour governing in the last decade enabled the rich to grow richer far more dramatically than the previous decade under a National government. (See The Truth About Labour for  the Rich list figures on wealth in NZ).

When the system is booming Labour will deliver some crumbs to the workers – as will National – and when it goes into its usual bust cycle they – like National – will attempt to shore it up at the expense of workers’ rights and living standards.  Attempting to lobby Labour in a leftward direction, therefore, simply doesn’t work.  All it does is, at best, confuse the workers to whom the message is presumably directed or, at worst, create illusions in Labour – illusions which will lead only to demoralisation further down the track.

Labour has few links to the working class these days, although pockets of pacific Island working class suburbs like Porirua and Mangere have maintained almost blind loyalty to Labour. Most of the working class no longer consistently votes Labour; many workers don’t vote at all , and just as many vote for other parties.

Another weakness of  McCarten’s campaign was lack of internationalism. Matt had initially intended to highlight policy which defended migrant workers’ rights. That policy never made it into the core campaign message. Sticking up for migrant workers may not be an easy vote winner in the short term, but from a socialist point of view its indispensable. A strong movement for workers’ power can only be built on the understanding that we owe more loyalty to our fellow toilers overseas than we have with our own bosses at home.

While Matt McCarten’s Mana campaign was broadly supported by the Workers Party, within the organisation there was debate on how best to engage with it. The majority of members wanted the party to maintain independence as an organisation and saw the risk of simply become foot-soldiers for a social democratic campaign. When some WP members became campaign employees the question of political independence became more complicated. A few argued that the experience of campaigning would in itself be invaluable.

The question of party independence while working on broader campaigns is not a new one. We have grappled with this in the anti-war movement and in trade union work. Inner party struggle is an uncomfortable but  positive thing. While the Mana campaign debate generated some heat it  also produced deeper understanding.

Matt McCarten’s candidacy in Mana was partly an experimental trial run for his aim of a ‘new left party’. Matt’s modest vote suggests that there is no base of support to launch such a party in New Zealand. Even among Unite union’s membership the political project has gained no traction. There is not space in this article to go further into the problems facing left social democracy – that is for a separate article – but it is very clear that as a movement in New Zealand and internationally it is in worse shape than revolutionary socialist movements which are beginning to win mass support.


  1. This article was undemocratically placed here without discussion with those who solicited it. It was solicited for the Spark magazine and as such should have passed through the Spark committee. As such it should only be taken as the view of three people within the organisation who belive they have a right to stand above the party’s processes. Which they do do not.

    There has been a breach of good will in that I had asked one of the party members with a view in opposition to mine to lead the article.

    This nuance meant nothing to him.

    The presentation of the above articel is undemocratic and reflects some of the double-standard practice within the WP.

    Jared Phillips, Spark magazine coordinator (elected).

  2. I’d like to note, as a blog editor, that blog editorship is separate from the Spark committee. So while it may have been a breach of good faith, it’s not undemocratic that this was not passed through the Spark committee – blog posts in general do not pass through the Spark committee.

    Considering the majority of posts on this campaign have been supportive, it’s not undemocratic to put up an article reflecting more critical views. The fact is that there are different lines on this within the party, and the blog content has reflected that.

    • The article was solicited by the production team of The Spark for the December/January issue. It was an article for The Spark, not for the blog and this can be clearly shown to be the case.

      The process for Spark articles is that they are put forward for the consideration of The Spark Production team before publication. This was the case with this article. However, as soon as it was made available to the production team where it would have been edited poltically it was also published on this website.

      The issue of double standards is that here there is an exception to the feedback process for the publication of Spark articles.

      Normally, when there is an odd exception to that process it is due to practical realities such as there being little time between recieving contributions and layout/printing. In such cases there is a particularly harsh treatment for lack of feedback for even non-controversial articles. In particular they have been directed at me.

      However, in this case there is determined relaxation of processes, without there being any deadline pressure or other practical concerns. I believe that this reflects a double standard.

      I am still trying to find out from one comrade why resignation was threatened when on one prior occasion a lengthy yet uncontroversial theoretical Spark article hadn’t been reviewed in the production team, yet this time that same comrade is happy with a lenthgy theoretical Spark article on a controversial matter being published without the production team having a chance to review it.

      Pure and simple, double standards.

  3. Ok, I could have been more carefull with my words.

    This is what I meant: ‘There is usually a harsh treatment of matters when there is no or limited feedback in regard to published material. Often the harsh treatment of these matters fall to me’.

    I am not complaining of a harsh personal treatment of me. The lack of feedback/debate issue is usually treated harshly and it is not so in the case of the publication of this article.

    I recognise that this is primarily an internal debate and it will no doubt reasonably frustrate comrades to see it being carried out here, so with that clarification, my own comments on this issue will cease here.

    • Ian Anderson says:

      I think it reflects positively on the party that this is usually treated seriously. This particular case may have been a mistake, but reflects the rushed nature of the whole campaign.

      And yeah, I’ll be retiring from this thread.

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