Nationalism and the left: A reflection on Winston Peters and the Northland by-election

2003 NZF billboards

2003 NZF billboards

Submitted to Fightback by David Comrade.

In the run up to the Northland by-election I found myself at first surprised, then increasingly depressed, at the support given to Winston Peters by socialist friends on Facebook. While much of the support was grudging, along the lines of ‘I hate like Winston, but I hate National more’, some of it was whole-hearted. Following Peter’s victory, there were many more expressions of varying degrees of support, and only a couple of other people expressing any criticism of Peters and his party.

I posted a status saying that while I could understand people being happy that National had suffered a defeat, ‘I think it is just as likely to mark a (very negative) turning point for the radical left, and especially for Mana.’

Happily, this set of a pretty stimulating debate. Unhappily I moved into a house with no internet before the debate had run its course. So I am very pleased to be asked by Fightback to write this article.

Problems with politics
The main reason leftists celebrated Peters’s win was that it was a defeat for National. And right now many on the left are desperate to see National defeated. This feeling isn’t confined to activists. “The worst government we’ve ever had” is how one family friend described Team Key, and that was several months before National’s impressive election victory. To me, this seemed a weird comment coming from someone who protested against the tyranny Muldoon only to be blind-sided by the betrayal of Rogernomics.

It is obvious that most New Zealanders don’t share this desperate hatred for National, because National keeps winning elections. I think frustration with Key’s continuing popularity has blinded some leftists to the reality that National has not been the neoliberal terror they were expecting.

Despite coming into government in the mist of the Global Financial Crisis, National didn’t launch the massive austerity (cost cutting) drive. Following the Christchurch earthquakes there were predictions from many on the left that National would unleash the kind of neo-liberal ‘disaster capitalism’ described in Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine. But instead of privatising anything still standing and letting the free market dominate the rebuild, National opted for central planning and massive public investment. It’s the City Council, led by former leftwing union official and Labour MP Lianne Dalziel that is now planning the assets sell off.

Both National and Labour share a common commitment to maintaining the fundamentals established by the neoliberal reforms of the 80s and 90s, while being prepared to use extensive state planning and intervention if they think it is needed. Three decades after the neoliberal lightening war, I think most people accept this mix as the new normal.

As I see it, socialists and other radical leftists should be trying to break free from this post-neoliberal consensus and point the way to a positive alternative. Instead, by focusing solely on how bad National is, we end up endorsing a Labour-led government as the only alternative, even though we (and most everyone else) know that Labour is no alternative at all.

The threat of NZ First
With so many leftists uncritically cheering for Winston, there is a risk that NZ First will become a major focus of those who are fed up with both National and Labour. This is a problem partly because what is most distinctive about NZ First’s politics is reactionary, racist nationalism, which not closes down rather than opens up space for thinking about more radical change.

The potential rise of NZ First is a particular threat to Mana, because NZ First competes with Mana in three significant areas. Firstly, both parties hope to appeal to those who have no faith in National or Labour over the past 30 years. Secondly both have significant support among Maori. And thirdly, both now have a base in Northland.

It is also the differences between the two parties that make NZ First a threat to Mana. Whereas Mana emerged from the long term movement building of tino rangatiratanga activists who have repeatedly challenged the Crown’s racism and sought to put power in the hands of grass roots Maori, Winston Peters has always opposed this. He represents the most conservative side of Maori politics, committed to the institutions established by colonialism, rubbishing the very idea of tino rangatiratanga, and actively promoting racism. The more influence Peters gains, particularly in Northland, the more difficult it will be for Mana to rebuild.

Members of NZ First deny that their party is racist. And some others are confused about whether Peters is personally hates Asian people or not. But although individual prejudice is often the most obvious form of racism, it’s not the only aspect. Racism describes both systems of oppression and the ideas that justify them. Racism is also used to divert blame for social problems away from The System and divide proletarians of different races against one another.

Whether or not Peters and the other MPs who echo his rhetoric really do feel threatened by a growing Asian population isn’t the point. They know that racism is a way of making NZ First stand out from other parties, and they know that while it will turn some voters off, many will overlook it, and some will agree.

Seen like this, NZ First’s racism is a political ploy. For those already deeply cynical about politics, it may be an indication of Peters’s skill at playing the political game. But ‘playing the race card’ also has an impact on the lives of real people, outside the parliamentary play pen. It tells people who are personally racist that it’s OK to hate on Asian people, because they really are a threat, not just to the individual, but to the nation.

Beyond this, the politics of blame are an important part of how people respond to social problems. One of the reasons why there is so little protest around bread-and-butter issues like youth unemployment, income inequality and housing affordability is that many people accept there is very little that governments can or should do about these things. They accept that market forces are outside government’s control, that people on benefits or low wages should take responsibility for themselves. And if they’ve been listening to Winston Peters for the past 20 years that Asian immigration is to blame for these problems anyway. The first two points are classic neoliberalism – this is what we’re getting from National, and to a lesser extent Labour, for the past 30 years, but blaming immigrants and foreigners fits right in.

An alternative
For some of the participants in the Facebook debate, any concerns about NZ First were over-ridden by a desire to see National defeated, and the hope that this would see at least some changes in policy, a little less environmental destruction, a little more support for the poor.

The attitude seemed to be (and I apologise if I am misrepresenting comrades here) that things were so desperate that these immediate needs overrode long term goals, like building a left-wing alternative to Labour.

This raises a question. Is there a way we, socialists and other radical left activists, can make a real difference in people’s lives right now, while opening up the possibility for big changes in the system?

I think there is, but it will involve a return to and a revaluation of basic principles of the radical left, like the 1960s slogan Power to the People, or the 1870s classic, “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”.

In practical terms it means that our emphasis should be on organizing ourselves and other working class people to fight for and win what we need to survive and live a good life. It means seeing poor people not as victims in need of charity, but as potentially powerful agents who can change their own conditions and change the system if we stand together.

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