This piece was submitted to Fightback by Ben Peterson (Mana Otautahi) and represents his personal opinion. Fightback publishes it for discussion rather than endorsement.
For those on the left last years election result was bitterly disappointing. Not only was John Key and the National Party returned to power with an increased majority, but the Mana Party lost its sole MP Hone Harawira. In the wake of this let down it is important that those on the left takes serious and sober lessons from the InternetMANA experiment. But while we need to reflect, it is important to not let our disappointment cloud our judgement.
The false consensus
Since the election there is an analysis of the InternetMANA experiment that is shared (with some variation) by most political actors. From those on the right to members and organisation of the radical left, the narrative is essentially the same. This popular consensus goes as follows: Hone Harawira and the Mana movement had built a relatively successful organisation and kaupapa around fighting for the rights of maori, the poor and dispossessed. Enter Kim Dotcom. Seeing the opportunity for Dotcom’s millions, Hone rammed through an opportunistic political alliance, which watered down and distorted Mana’s kaupapa. Now discredited, InternetMANA was unable to generate any momentum, and its support dwindled to the point where Hone lost his seat in Tai Tokerau. The lesson being that it was a mistake for Mana to make such an opportunistic deal, and they were punished for it.
This consensus is wrong. It is entirely factually inaccurate.
While it is predominantly driven by mainstream commentators and the media, it also dominates discussions on the election by those on the left. This false narrative distorts discussion for leftists, and thus limits the the lessons the left can take from this experience. We need to peel back the myths, and start from reality.
Myth- Kim Dotcom cost MANA support
The central point of the false consensus is that ‘deal with Dotcom’ cost Mana supporters. This is demonstratively false.
Most obviously- the vote for InternetMANA increase by roughly 50% from 2011 to 2014. From 24,168 in 2011 to 34,094 votes in 2014, an increase of just slightly under 10,000 votes. This total would have been enough to bring in a second MP, had Hone held Te Tai Tokerau. Given that, and that the entire motivation for the InternetMana campaign was to strengthen their voice in parliament, it would seem that the party vote campaign was actually successful.
The second, and more nuanced, version the same argument is that while the vote increased in the general population, it wasn’t enough to counteract a loss of support amongst Mana’s base in Maori seats. Again- this is disproven when looking at the election results.
In 2011 the MANA vote in the Maori electorates in total was 25,889. In 2014, this had significantly increased to a total of 29,207. The Mana vote increase in 4 of the 7 maori seats, and only slightly dropped where it didn’t improve.
Interestingly and importantly, even though Hone Harawira failed to carry Te Tai Tokerau, it was not because the Internet deal cut into his base. Hone’s vote in the north actually increased from 8,121 in 2011 to 8,969 in 2014. Ultimately what defeated Mana in Te Tai Tokerau was the forces againstMana, not being abandoned by supporters.
Some will argue that we will never know what would have happened had Mana never made the deal with Dotcom, and that Mana’s vote may have been even higher. While on a certain level this is true (we will never know what could have happened), there is no indication that this is the case. In particular, looking at opinion polling before the Internet alliance showed Mana receiving less than 1% of the vote. After the alliance was announced, and during the early parts of the election campaign, this increased, briefly reaching 3.5% before dropping to between 1-2% of the vote. While opinion polls are not 100% accurate it strongly suggests that Mana’s vote increased with the collaboration between it and the Internet party.
At the end of the day, the assertion that the deal with the Internet Party cost Mana support is not supported by any available statistical evidence. While there is plenty of anecdotes of people not voting Mana to avoid Dotcom, all statistical evidence strongly suggests the opposite.
Myth two- The sell out
Even though there is no evidence that the Internet Party alliance cost Mana support (and evidence suggests the opposite), some may still argue that the deal was a breach of the political kaupapa of the Mana movement.
Some argue that making an alliance with a party established by a billionaire was incompatible with the spirit of Mana as a fighting movement, so even if its support was not immediately affected, the organisation has changed and ceased to be a vehicle for change.
For this to be the case at least one of the following needs to be shown:
- A clear rightward change in Mana policies and platform.
- A clear change in strategic direction of the Mana movement (away from a movement of activists)/The alliance being formed on a totally unprincipled basis (sharing no common kaupapa, membership and support being fundamentally opposed)
A step to the right?
There is no compelling evidence of Mana turning to the right or becoming conservative during the election campaign. Arguably, Mana was more clearly left in 2014 than in 2011. In 2011 Mana was ambiguous on equal marriage rights, and Hone’s personal position was opposed. Through internal campaigning, Mana was won to a positive position.
Mana has key members who have some religious affinities with the state of Israel, however during the election campaign central leaders came out strongly in support of Palestine- hardly the actions of a group trying to placate a new coalition partner.
Policy announcements during the campaign showed no sign of a clear move to the right. Some critics voiced concern over the full employment policy, which pledged to use a portion of ACC (state insurance) reserves to fund a massive full employment scheme aimed at providing money to small community based groups and enterprises. The critique centers on two points: one, that the ACC reserves should be invested back into providing better sickness benefits and coverage, and two, that this is a right wing policy in that it pledges to give money to small businesses. These arguments are not compelling.
In the first instance, critics have identified a contradiction in some policy, rather than a rightward slide. While there was a conflict between the stated ACC policy of Mana, and the new employment policy that used ACC reserves to spur employment- this wasn’t accompanied by walking away from any of Mana’s other policy platforms (drastically expanding health care, increasing tax on the rich and corporations etc).
The second instance unnecessarily injects negative meaning into the ambiguities in the policy. The policy does talk of ‘entrepreneurs’, social enterprise and self startups. It does not however define what these are. Whatever these are, and however imperfect the language used, it is clear from this policy that it would result in a massive pouring of wealth into poor communities where unemployment is rife. While it is imperfect, and the left can and should critique and push for this policy to go further, it is clear that the practical implication of such a policy would be a massive transfer of wealth into working class communities.
At the very least, such ambiguities are not a departure from existing the existing Mana policy platform, which included market mechanisms in other policies.
A strategic shift?
So while there was no rightward change in the policy platform, that does not automatically exclude a change in strategic direction. Since its inception, Mana had consciously built itself around being a party of activists, with a radical vision for society. I do not believe that there is any evidence of a break with Mana’s existing strategic approach. Rather the reaching out to the Internet Party was consistent with the existing kaupapa and practice of the movement.
If the primary reasoning behind the outreach to the Internet Party purely to access Kim Dotcom’s millions, then this would be a serious departure from Mana’s practice. While there were certainly Mana members who were keen to get their hands on these ‘rivers of gold’, this was not the motivation put forward by the central leadership of the movement.
Both before and after the internet deal, Hone Harawira outlined how he came to think about the Internet Party. When talking to some youth up north, one of the younger Mana members asked him if it was ok to step down from Mana and join the Internet Party. After some initial discomfort, and some investigation, Harawira came to the conclusion that it was worth investigating if collaboration is possible with the Internet Party.
It was not the attraction of money, but the prospects of reaching out and involving young people who were attracted to alternative politics that was of interest to the Mana leadership.
This is consistent with the strategic vision of the Mana movement since its founding. It has always undertook to explore ways build out from its base in the maori world and link up with people fighting for systemic change, such as Sue Bradford, Mike Treen, John Minto and the socialist left. The attractiveness of the Internet Party was reinforced by the political evolution of Kim Dotcom in response to the police raids on his mansion. While still hardly a socialist, Dotcom’s vocal criticism of the surveillance state had and has a certain resonance with potentially radicalising young people.
Finally, the Mana movement did not just accept the Internet party as it presented itself, but actively contributed to its formation, playing a decisive role in getting Laila Harre appointed as leader of the party, and other prominent leftists on its list.
Linking up with the Internet Party was not a departure from established practice, but a continuation of it. Exactly the same impulses that lead to Mana working with the socialist left, led it to seek to work with the Internet Party. Mana has always sought out allies to develop its kaupapa and fight for a fairer society. This was just another attempt to do so.
So then what went wrong?
So far this piece has outlined how the vote for Mana actually increased, and that there was no break from existing policy or strategic direction. If this is the case, then why and how does Mana find itself without a voice in parliament?
Mana lost the election less because of the decisions of its leadership. It lost due to the decisions of its opponents- namely the Labour Party. Despite Mana being committed to a change of government, the Labour party pulled out all stops into smashing Mana. Instead of putting resources into defeating sitting national members, or articulating an alternative message for the voting public, the labour party did all it could to smash an alternative to its left.
In Te Tai Tokerau this meant that all parties (except the Greens), had explicitly endorsed the Labour candidate Kelvin Davis (NZ First, Maori Party, National, Labour and others). Despite Mana increasing its vote, this wasn’t enough to counteract the resources, media attention and backing of the entire political establishment.
There is an argument that Kim Dotcom played some role in catalysing and energising this opposition to Hone. However, there is no evidence to suggest that this was decisive. For example, if there was a big turnout to just beat Mana in Te Tai Tokerau, you could reasonably expect that there would be more candidate votes than party votes, as people would have been instructed to just vote Kelvin Davis, and do what they will with the party vote. The opposite is the case. About 800 voted party vote, but not for a candidate. This was actually more than similar Maori electorates. This suggests that the ‘Kill Dotcom’ factor was not decisive.
Ultimately, rather than shooting ourselves in the foot with a poorly thought through alliance with Kim Dotcom, all indications point to Mana being politically defeated on the day. Rather than crashing on the rocks of Kim Dotcom and seeing its own support evaporate, it was the combined powers of the entire political establishment that held off the challenge that Internet Mana presented.
Why does this matter?
I think this is important for leftists to be clear on. This is not just an exercise in setting the record straight. As important as it is to have a clear view of the past, it is much important to be looking to the future. Nor is this an attempt to say that nothing has changed post election for the Mana movement. Losing its seat in parliament will have an obvious impact on the state of the movement, and time will tell if Mana finds new ways forward (I for one am hoping for the best).
As it stands the prevailing myth on the left is that Mana failed because it made a dodgy deal with Dotcom, and paid the price. It would be a colossal error to let those myths stand because they would have real impacts on the future.
The implication of blaming the deal would be that it was a mistake to attempt to reach out to new organisations and formations. Therefore, in the future, leftists should stick by their established organisations, and not try to work towards change with other organisations, lest the kaupapa be wounded and support be lost.
Building towards radical change will take finding and building on these alliances. In Venezuelan revolutionary change was led by a former military officer, Hugo Chavez. If the left had failed to link up with his group in the military then his political evolution would probably not have been as effective, and the revolutionary changes in Venezuela may never have happened.
Failure to be able to make these links can leave the established left isolated. In both Spain and Greece establish left parties (the United Left and the KKE) have been left sidelined and weaker as their support melts into new radical projects (Podemos and Syriza). This separation of old and new leave both weaker, as the resources and experience of former struggles are isolated from the new movement for revolutionary change.
The challenge for leftists today is not to retreat into ideas or lament the election, but to build greater and stronger organisation, movements and political clarity. The election process showed that our potential audience is expanding (the vote increased), but that our political instruments (organisation and ideas) has to be stronger to defeat challenges when they arise.
The rulers of today want the left to remain small and isolated. The want a left thats pure and impotent, and that can’t link up with people are they begin to struggle. Smashing the post-election consensus is an important part of building a left that is ready for fights in the future.