Racial populism and the 2017 New Zealand General Election

winston peters immigration

By Ani White.

It’s understandable that many leftists are celebrating. After 9 years of Tory brutality, a change of government can feel like a breath of fresh air. However, the morning after the celebrations, we must take stock and critically evaluate the makeup of the next government, so we know what battles await us in the coming years. Laurie Penny described voting as choosing which enemies you prefer – this is a valid tactic, so long as we know our enemies.

It’s unfortunate that the next Labour government will feature Winston Peters in such a prominent role. Anecdotally, some claim that Winston’s anti-immigrant scapegoating is a thing of the past. However, simply searching Winston Peters’ twitter page for the keyword ‘immigration’ reveals a long series of negative tweets (see picture). When the New Zealand Herald published an article saying that Asian immigration numbers have been overstated, Peters responded by pointing out the Asian heritage of the journalists. Reducing immigration was a bottom line in his post-election negotiations. Perhaps Peters’ attacks on migrants are no longer noticed because they are so predictable.

Others who admit Peters’ racism argue that compromise is necessary for the parliamentary ‘left’, with Winston holding the cards. It would be easier to sympathise with this dilemma if anti-migrant populism wasn’t already a common ground between Labour and New Zealand First. Compromise is more of a genuine dilemma for the Greens. The party dropped James Shaw’s 1% immigration cap policy after criticism from the membership, had the best refugee policy of any party, introduced the first MP of refugee background to parliament, and generally stood on the most progressive platform of any parliamentary party. For those of us who voted Green in the hope that they would offer a more progressive coalition partner than New Zealand First, this coalition deal is something of a Pyrrhic victory.

Peters is a racial populist, both his in long-standing tendency to blame immigrants for all social problems and his opposition to ‘special rights’ for Māori (although thankfully, his opposition to Māori seats has not been adopted). Although certain elements of New Zealand First policy can be mistaken for left-wing – particularly the economic nationalism – both his economic and social policy seek to wind back the clock 50 years. Coming originally from National, Peters essentially advocates something like the National Party of the 1960s-1980s, during the heyday of both social democracy and conservative assimilationism. This is far from a forward-thinking programme for liberation today.

Ironically rural Māori are a significant section of Winston’s voter base. This reflects an international trend where isolated rural regions, with few migrants, tend to be more anti-migrant. Additionally, many Māori likely support his economic policies. Conversely, support in the Māori seats dropped from 12-14% in 2014 to 7-9% in 2017, likely due to Winston campaigning against Māori seats.

Racial populism often adopts egalitarian rhetoric.  The coupling of racism with economic populism is in some ways even more insidious than neoliberalism, as Indian Marxist Jairus Banaji explained in a commentary on India’s Hindu chauvinist ‘communalist’ movement:

Neo-liberalism disarms the working class economically, destroying its cohesion in an industrial, economic sense. Racism, communalism and nationalism… do the same in more insidious ways, destroying the possibility of the working class ever acquiring a sense of its own solidarity and of what it really is.

Racial populism diverts attention from the capitalist class who control resources, towards racialised targets.

A recent Spinoff article on New Zealand First’s national conference noted that much of the membership consider themselves anti-neoliberal, not consciously racist. Bluntly, those who support New Zealand First for economic rather than cultural reasons are being led down a dangerous blind alley. A Jacobin article by the same author asserted that a surge for New Zealand First would be a “significant realignment.” However, New Zealand First’s support has dropped since reaching up to 18% in the 1990s, so their popularity is nothing new.

The party’s determining role in New Zealand politics is less a sign of the times than a continuation of Winston Peters’ long-standing manipulation of MMP, with a similar scenario playing out as far back as 1996 (where the formation of the government took seven weeks). Whereas the similar-sized Greens clearly orientate themselves towards Labour, Peters makes a point of not deciding until one of the major parties offers him a good deal, clearly enjoying the prestige that comes with this role.

Although Winston’s manipulative ‘kingmaker’ game is nothing new for New Zealand politics, it’s particularly important that leftists give New Zealand First no quarter in the age of Trump. Left softness on racist right-wing populists is an example of Conservative Leftism, a tendency which throws oppressed people under the bus for the sake of simplistic anti-neoliberalism (see Daphne Lawless’ Against Conservative Leftism).

You cannot challenge capitalism while excusing racism. Capitalism is racialised; the dispossession of Māori was necessary to establishing capitalism in Aotearoa, and attacks on new (brown) migrants undermine working class unity. Winston Peters’ populism undermines the internationalist alliances needed for a truly liberating politics.

Labour ran on cutting immigration in the tens of thousands. This policy was nonsensical – Labour proposed to cut students and ‘low-skilled’ workers, citing strains on infrastructure – yet students and poor workers are unlikely to use motorways or buy houses. Most likely the policy was less motivated by rational policy considerations than a pathetic attempt to chase the anti-migrant vote, which New Zealand First already has on lockdown.

Policies of cutting immigration face opposition from business, which is unfortunately more influential than opposition from migrant workers and their advocates. Business leaders oppose immigration cuts for the wrong reasons – hoping to access cheap labour – whereas we say that migrants must have the rights of any worker, including the right to union representation.

Even if these nonsensical poll-chasing policies are not implemented, they widen the ‘Overton window’ – the range of acceptable political discourse. They make attacks on migrants more socially acceptable, and pro-migrant reforms less likely.

Labour’s capitulation to xenophobia follows an unfortunate international trend. The UK’s Jeremy Corbyn may have more Social Democratic substance than Jacinda Ardern, but he has unfortunately pandered to anti-immigrant politics (see Daphne Lawless’ article here).

After Labour’s sudden leadership shakeup, Jacinda Ardern’s campaign did not depart in substance from Andrew Little’s rather conservative campaign. She stuck to the policy of cutting immigration, and failed to stand with Metiria Turei against beneficiary-bashing. Despite superficially criticising ‘neoliberalism’, she did not commit to departing from neoliberal fundamentals when challenged. Similarly she talked up the threat of climate change but made no significant commitments to address it.

However, a relatively young, rhetorically sophisticated woman in the leadership was a welcome relief from the pale, stale male brigade that has dominated the Labour leadership for nearly a decade, attracting young liberals to the party. Conversely, Bill English lacked the personality appeal of John Key, leading National to defeat for the second time in his life.

A Labour government is usually slightly better than a National government. Except for the Fourth Labour government, Labour tends to spend more on social services than National, and work more closely with unions, among other social concessions. While this difference is marginal at a macro-level, we can’t totally deny any difference that results in fewer deaths by economic violence. For the anti-capitalist left however, no deaths by economic violence are acceptable, so a Labour-led government is not our horizon of possibility. Even the Greens remain limited to that horizon. Additionally, with Winston in the government, we can expect renewed attacks on migrants.

Ultimately, the parliamentary parties are all committed to managing capitalism. The left cliché that only collective direct action can stop the racist, capitalist juggernaut remains true. How to put this truth into practice in a principled, effective way remains the question.

Fightback’s election activity: Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign

Fightback did not endorse any political party in 2017, instead supporting the Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign (MARRC) alongside other groups.

MARRC ran an independent candidate in Wellington Central: Gayaal Iddamalgoda, a Legal Organiser for FIRST Union. Gayaal ran on the platform that “what’s best for migrants and refugees is best for everyone.”

Gayaal’s campaign offered a relatively mainstream platform to challenge electoral scapegoating of migrants and refugees. The campaign regularly cranked out press releases (see marrc.org.nz/blog), criticising every party, and receiving coverage in mainstream newspapers.

Candidates’ meetings offered an opportunity to publicly challenge the major parties. In an electorate with Green Party leader James Shaw and high-ranking Labour MP Grant Robertson standing, we were able to challenge Labour and the Greens from the left.

One Labour MP, Hutt South’s Chris Hipkins, criticised his party’s policy when challenged by a member of the campaign at a candidates’ meeting.

The Rainbow Forum was the liveliest, with the audience asking challenging questions, shutting down the Conservative and ACT candidates without mercy, and wildly applauded Gayaal for outlining the intersection of queer and migrant rights.

The infamous Aro Valley candidates’ forum was also energetic, as children sprayed candidates with water pistols. Gayaal in the words of the Dominion Post “won cheers from the inner-city crowd with his message of welcoming migrants and ending capitalism.”

MARRC also organised a Migrant and Refugee Rights Forum with Gayaal speaking alongside other candidates. Around 100 attended. Emcee Murdoch Stephens (of the Double the Quota campaign) challenged candidates on the refugee quota, on proposed immigration cuts, and on a Living Wage for migrant workers.

Sponsored Facebook posts received significant interactions, including a campaign video that was viewed over 3,600 times. Unfortunately, the Facebook page also received waves of racist comments, which admins did not tolerate.

Gayaal passed 150 votes, beating the other independents and the ACT Party candidate, a modest victory in a campaign more intended for propaganda than parliamentary purposes. Victoria University’s polling booth had the most votes for Gayaal, confirming international poll results that show youth tend to be more pro-migrant.

We are in discussions about how to carry the Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign through to 2018. If you would like to be involved or updated, please email us at marrc.aotearoa@gmail.com

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