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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Trump, Brexit, Syria… and conservative leftism

By DAPHNE LAWLESS

poorpenny

Penny Bright, perennial Auckland mayoral candidate and conservative leftist, proudly promotes the Assad regime and Russian-backed conspiracy theories on the streets of Auckland. Photograph by Daphne Lawless.

In the 10 months since I introduced the concept of “Conservative Leftism” to the NZ Left, only one argument has been raised against it that seemed to take the idea seriously and be worthy of taking seriously in return. This argument – which has been raised by more than one sincere socialist, at greatest length by Ben Peterson at leftwin.org – is that Conservative Leftism is an “amalgam” which doesn’t really exist, that there is no necessary connection between the conservative strands of thought I identified in the contemporary activist movement.

Ben argued:

While “Conservative leftism” is a thought provoking concept, it doesn’t measure up in reality as a coherent ideological perspective.

“Against Conservative Leftism” lists a range of examples of political positions that derive from its ideological perspective. These including but are not limited to opposition to local council amalgamations, opposition to intensive housing developments, legal crank such as ‘freemen’ theories, backing the Assad dictatorship, anti-Semitism, homeownership and opposition to the NZ flag referendum.

This just doesn’t fit together. It doesn’t make sense to suggest that a person who opposes intensive housing developments is more likely to be an anti-Semite or conspiracy theorist. It doesn’t make sense to put leftist homeowners, and the not very often homeowning ‘freemen’ into the same ideological tendency just doesn’t make sense.

One way of responding to Ben’s argument using Marxist jargon would be to say: “there is a contradiction, but the contradiction is in reality.” I strongly believe that the evidence has in fact become clearer over the course of 2016, that the strands of reactionary opinion among self-identified “Leftists” that I have identified do, in actual reality, go together as a set of propositions which support each other, if not necessarily logically “coherent”.

For the record, I identified three conservative reactions on the self-identified “Left” to neoliberal globalisation:

  • opposition to globalisation in and of itself (nationalism, xenophobia, obsession with “sovereignty”, one-sided opposition to Western imperialism in particular aka campism);
  • opposition to the social changes which have happened in the neoliberal/globalised era (opposition to cosmopolitan urbanisation, anti-immigration, idealisation of “traditional” rural/small-town/working class life, scepticism of newer identities around gender/race which are smeared as “identity politics”);
  • one-sidedly deep scepticism of neoliberal media/academic narratives, reflected in an embrace of conspiracy theory, traditional “common sense” and health quackery.

We might use the following shorthands:

  1. CONSERVATIVE ANTI-IMPERIALISM;
  2. CONSERVATIVE POPULISM;
  3. ANTI-RATIONALISM (or perhaps “intellectual populism”).

The original article – and Ben’s response – was written before what a radical internationalist Left viewpoint would see as the massive catastrophes for people and planet of 2016: the Trump victory; the victory of British exit from the European Union (Brexit) which has led to an explosion of racist violence; the growing strides of neo-fascist movements across the world, from the French Front National to the online lynch-mobs known as the “alt-right”; and the ongoing genocidal destruction of Syria by its own government backed up by Russian imperialism.

It is my contention that this series of disasters has vindicated the Conservative Left idea, in that New Zealand leftists who were expressing Conservative Left ideas at the beginning of the year have either welcomed these developments, or at least seen them as potentially positive developments. To give a few examples from the New Zealand Left in particular:

  • Mike Lee, the Auckland Council member on whom I focussed in my article on the Auckland local body elections as the chief local promoter of conservative-left ideas, issued a Facebook message after the election which expressed thankfulness for the Trump victory, seemingly based on the idea (assiduously promoted by both Trumpist and Russian sources) that Hillary Clinton would start World War 3.
  • Prominent veteran NZ leftist writer Chris Trotter – who was, indeed, one of our major models when we elaborated the idea – announced that “I proudly count myself” as a conservative leftist. Most of this post either ignored the substance of my article, or was an apologia for the Russian-backed Syrian regime destruction of Aleppo, which can be quickly debunked by a quick flick through the resources on any Syrian Solidarity website or Facebook page.
  • Daily Blog proprietor “Bomber” Bradbury, who previously promoted Mike Lee’s anti-intensification and anti-youth politics, has now come out with an explicit anti-immigration screed. He even characterizes pro-immigration policy as an “elite cosmopolitan” viewpoint – a snarl-phrase which could be taken directly from a Stalinist or fascist rant.
  • Bradbury’s co-thinker on Auckland local body politics, perennial mayoral candidate Penny Bright, has been counter-protesting Syrian solidarity demonstrations supporting the Assad regime’s “sovereignty” (see image), and is reported to be sharing links on social media from David Icke, doyen of “Lizard People” conspiracy theory.

From where I sit, this is convincing data. In general, the sections of the New Zealand left whom I had in mind as either “conservative leftist” or heavily influenced by that ideology have been unanimous in – even if not outright supporting Assad/Putin, Trump and Brexit – arguing that these phenomena are not in fact that bad, that they can be seen as expressions of resistance to imperialism and neo-liberalism. This insight has been reproduced by British radical academic Priyamvada Gopal, who said recently on Facebook:

This cleavage in left circles that has arisen over the last six months is a pretty neat and sharp one, with only a few zigzags and crossovers and that generally only around Brexit. How do we read it? On one side:

  • Anti-Assad/Anti Putin/Anti-Massacres
  • Anti-Trump
  • Anti-Brexit

On the other side:

  • Assad Apologetics/Anti-Western Imperialism Only
  • Trump is No Worse than Hillary
  • Lexit

Priyamada’s schema snugly fits two out of the three points of my schema. The Assadist “Left” are clearly conservative anti-imperialists, taking the “campist” position that the main leaders of opposition to neoliberal globalisation are the leaderships of various states, who range from authoritarian to totalitarian in their internal regimes – thus excluding any role for mass action in changing the world, and indeed smearing the Arab Spring uprisings as CIA-sponsored attempted coups. Meanwhile, conservative-left reactions to the Trump debacle have ranged from welcoming it as a blow to neoliberal globalisation (ludicrous, given the identity of the various plutocrats whom Trump is naming to his cabinet), to the less wild-eyed interpretation that a “revolt of the white working class” defeated Hillary Clinton. This latter interpretation conveniently lends itself to calls for a more “traditional” left politics targeting “ordinary” (read: white, male) workers, and throwing not only the feminist movement but oppressed queer, ethnic and religious minority workers under the bus.

Meanwhile, the “Left Brexit” (Lexit) phenomenon showed a combination of both these tendencies. On one hand, it “whitewashed” (we can use the term in full irony) the Brexit movement led by reactionary tabloids and the Trump-like UKIP, seeing it as a working-class revolt rather than a reactionary populist uprising. On the other, it one-sidedly attacked the EU’s neoliberal institutions, trying to put a “left” face on British nationalist isolationism, and ignoring the fact that freedom of movement for workers between EU countries is a vital progressive gain for migrant workers. The consequences of this position were that Lexiters had to argue away the rise in racist abuse and violence after the referendum, either as “exaggerated”, something that was happening anyway, or even outright fabricated by the mainstream media[1]. This rhetorical move was a precursor to the breath-taking denials of reality we have become used to from supporters of the Putin/Assad axis in Syria.

The Morning Star, the daily newspaper traditionally associated with the Communist Party of Britain, has shamefully led the conservative-leftist charge on both these issues, both cheerleading the ongoing massacre in Aleppo as “liberation” and opposing freedom of movement for workers. Some have taken this to mean that conservative leftism is really a reappearance of Stalinism – and certainly there are similarities to the old Western Communist backing of Russian tanks and Eastern Bloc nationalism. However, it is also vital to note that the leadership of the British Stop the War Coalition – who have shamefully refused to promote the cause of Free Syria – are dominated by people who came from the anti-Stalinist revolutionary tradition, mainly former leaders of the British Socialist Workers Party. If the problem was originally a Stalinist one, then the rot has spread.

Where then is the “third leg” of the tripod, anti-rationalism/intellectual populism? Whether someone on the conservative left believes in traditional conspiracy theories, health quackery or other kinds of crank thought or not, the common move in both conservative anti-imperialism and conservative populism is to reflexively reject “mainstream”, “elite” or “establishment” viewpoints, and yet be willing to believe any alternative promoted as “alternative”. This might – for example – lead from an accurate perception that capitalist banking helps increase the gap between rich and poor and makes capitalist crisis more intense, to an advocacy of a fantasy alternative based on a misunderstanding of the real problem such as Social Credit or Positive Money.

In particular, the use of the terms “elite” and “establishment” is a sign of intellectual surrender to Right-wing populism (see Bradbury, above). These are totally empty signifiers which the listener can apply to whichever bogey-group they think are really running things. While a sincere leftist might envision the capitalist oligarchy as “the elites”, a Right-populist will think of liberal academics or gay/female/ethnic minority professionals whom they blame for “keeping them down”; others will think of the “cultural Marxists”, the Elders of Zion, the Illuminati, or hostile UFOs.

Recent analyses have suggested that the intelligence services of the Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin are engaged in actively promoting this kind of “radical scepticism”. They argue that Russian propaganda does not aim to promote its own narrative, but simply to undermine the consensus narratives of Western-aligned media and academia. By a staggering coincidence, this is also how conspiracy theories such as “9/11 Truth” also work – not by attempting to prove their own point of view, but by picking at threads in the “establishment” narrative, so as to imply that their own is equally valid. This strategy has also been used in the attempt by Christian fundamentalists to get anti-evolution pseudo-science taught in public schools.

Being prepared to dismiss out of hand any report appearing on the BBC website, yet unquestioningly forwarding videos from the RT website, is essentially little different from the health crank’s high-powered scepticism of “Big Pharma”, combined with a willingness to believe anything presented by alternative-medicine profiteers (what rationalists sometimes call “Big Placebo”). The argument here is not a conspiracy theory that conservative leftism is some kind of Russian plot. The argument is merely that Russian intelligence has deftly exploited the growth of populist anti-elitism in Western countries to promote themselves as the good guys -in the same way that traditional Nazis have exploited the meme culture of 4chan and similar online forums to produce the “alt-right”.

It seems clearer as time goes on that these three strands of conservative anti-imperialism, conservative populism and anti-rationalism/intellectual populism go together, that holding one of these viewpoints is a very good predictor of holding the others. There is thus a clear cleavage between the Conservative Left which rejects globalisation per se and refuses to engage with the new social forces thrown up by it; and the radical international Left which wants ANOTHER kind of globalisation, a workers’ and oppressed people’s globalisation. The latter sees the new proletarian forces and oppressed communities thrown up by existing globalisation as the vanguard agents of change, just as Karl Marx saw the industrial workers as the gravediggers of capitalism, rather than wanting to send them back to the farms. I only wish I had a better word for this necessary alternative tendency than “radical internationalist Left”. Suggestions are welcomed.

[1] Personal experience from Facebook discussions.

Editorial: Electoral Politics Issue

Welcome to the summer 2016 issue of Fightback magazine. This year we have moved from a bi-monthly schedule to a quarterly schedule, focusing on planning themed issues rather than churning content out. We have grown our modest subscriber base to just over 100. If you would like to subscribe, please click here.

We are proud to say that two out of this year’s four issues; the Youth Issue (coordinated by Kassie Hartendorp) and the Pasifika Issue (coordinated by Leilani Viseisio); were contributor-led, with paid contributors from the wider community.

In contrast, this final issue for 2016 is mainly written by volunteer Fightback members, focused on Electoral Politics and Socialist Strategy. Many of the articles in the following pages may seem bleak. We argue that since the collapse of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, mainstream political discourse internationally has polarised between neoliberalism and a renewed xenophobic, right-wing populism.

This xenophobic current has finally found electoral expression in 2016. Keeping only to the Anglosphere; Brexit in the UK, Trump in the US, and One Nation in Australia all offer racism as a kind of security in uncertain conditions. Meanwhile in India, the ‘world’s largest democracy’, President Narendra’s anti-Muslim “communalist” movement thrives.

Conversely, left-reformist campaigns have also emerged internationally – Bernie Sanders’ campaign in the USA, Jeremy Corbyn’s successful leadership bid in the UK.

However, these popular left campaigns currently have no equivalent in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Instead, NZ’s Labour and Greens have both given expression to the international xenophobic trend, making it harder than ever to sustain a case for ‘lesser evil’ politics.

In principle, electoral tactics can be a legitimate part of left strategy. However, in Aotearoa/New Zealand today, there is little left of the left in this sphere.

We support independent initiatives by leftists, particularly in local body elections, where there appears to be some room to maneuvre: on an optimistic note, Bronwen Beechey covers successful campaigns by socialists in Australian local body politics. These campaigns are anti-racist, pro-worker and actively empower communities. These principles must come before the ‘quick fix’ of lowest-common-denominator politics, which increasingly panders to racism.

Ian Anderson, Coordinating Editor

Contents

  1. Trump and the ‘Populist International’

  2. Australia: One Nation legitimises fascist ideas – The time to stop Hansonism is now!

  3. Socialists retain seats in Australian local body elections

  4. Green vomit and statistical nonsense: The lies you hear about immigration and the Auckland housing crisis

  5. Auckland’s No-Choice Elections: Blue-Greens and conservative leftists

  6. NZ Labour, the housing crisis and the scapegoating of ‘foreigners’

  7. Resolutions for 2017 Fightback summer conference

Socialists retain seats in Australian local body elections

sue-bolton-free-the-refugees

Moreland councillor Sue Bolton speaks at rally against racism.

Article by Bronwen Beechey.

Local body politics has been traditionally regarded as being about roads, rubbish and rates. However, empowering communities is an important factor in building resistance to neo-liberal capitalism. In Australia, a number of socialist councillors have been standing up for the rights of those usually ignored by local bodies.

In Victoria, recent local council elections saw two socialists re-elected. The Socialist Alliance’s candidate Sue Bolton, standing in the North-East Ward of Moreland City Council, was re-elected with the second-highest primary vote in the ward. In Yarra City Council, socialist Stephen Jolly came first in the Landridge Ward and was re-elected to a fourth term on council.

Bolton faced a tough battle, with 20 candidates (seven Labor, three Greens and four right-wing independents) standing for four positions. The elections were based on compulsory preferential voting, with other candidates swapping preferences and none directing preferences to Bolton. In the end, second preferences from mostly Green and Labor voters were the deciding factor in Bolton’s re-election. Her primary vote was 13.3 per cent, compared to the 9.5 per cent she won when first elected in 2012.

Bolton also faced a campaign against her by the conservative right, local traders and the Herald-Sun newspaper over her opposition to racism. In May this year, she initiated a rally against racism in the ethnically diverse suburb of Coburg, calling for an end to the closure of aboriginal communities, a treaty between the government and aboriginal people, allowing refugees held in detention to settle in Australia and an end to Islamophobia. While the rally successfully attracted several hundred people, media attention focused on a smaller confrontation between racist groups and anti-racist activists which occurred nearby. The Murdoch-owned Herald Sun took the lead in blaming Bolton for the violence, although she had neither organised nor endorsed the action. A number of local traders also blamed her for loss of business due to the police closing off the Coburg mall. During the election campaign, a number of Bolton’s election posters were defaced.

On her Facebook page, following her victory, Bolton commented:

“The racists and the Herald Sun don’t win all of the time. The racists wanted to make me pay for organising a rally against racism by campaigning to vote me off council. They systematically defaced and ripped down my posters around the centre of Coburg. But they didn’t win. I make no apology for standing up against racism. We need to make a stand against racism wherever we are.”

Bolton’s election campaign was run on a tiny budget and relied on street stalls and door-knocking to get the message out. She commented:

“There were so many different parts of the community who were involved in helping my re-election campaign – Socialist Alliance members, independent socialists, trade unionists, anti-development activists, residents networks, First Nations activists, the Muslim community, Urdu communities, the Nepalese community, the Kurdish community, environmentalists, pensioner groups, parents of children with disabilities, the Itiki sports club and many others.”

As well as her stand against racism, Bolton’s achievements on council include reinstatement of after-hours respite care for parents of children with disabilities which the council had cut, reinstatement of the council’s climate budget, preventing the sale of a significant Aboriginal site, and opposing the sale of land to private developers rather than being used for public housing. She also helped found a local campaign against the East-West link, a proposed freeway with tunnels that would have cut through parkland and caused increased traffic congestion in Moreland and surrounding areas. Along with other public transport groups, the campaign was successful in stopping the proposed link. Bolton also held regular ward meetings and gained a reputation as an honest councilor who “got things done”.

In a video for her campaign, Bolton said that the best part of her role on council was “being able to work with residents to create community campaigns, so that residents get treated seriously by council. People get bureaucratically dismissed as not having genuine or realistic concerns, so people often feel very powerless or disenchanted. As an activist councilor you can help people get organized, and also raise residents’ issues within the council, and often get victories, which actually helps the residents’ campaign to move forward and win their demand.”

Stephen Jolly was first elected to the Yarra Council in 2008, and has been re-elected twice. He has stated that he wants the area to be a communitywhere families and those on low incomes can afford to live and more easily access services, like child care”. Like Bolton, Jolly has been active in campaigning against the East-West Link, against the privatisation of services like rubbish collection, and for more public housing . He has also been active in campaigning against racism, and has been subjected to harassment and death threats by racist organizations. Jolly was a long-time member of the Socialist Party (a Trotskyist group affiliated to the Committee for a Workers International) but resigned earlier this year along with a number of other members, over allegations that the organisation had covered up allegations of abuse of a female member.

The six other socialist candidates who ran on the same ticket as Jolly also received a high level of support, although not enough to be elected to council. Four Green members were also elected, meaning that with Jolly’s support they could form a majority on the 9-person council. Jolly told Green Left Weekly that he is keen to work with the Greens and called for public discussions on a common program.

Socialist Alliance also has another local councillor, Sam Wainwright, who was elected to the Fremantle City Council in Western Australia in 2009, and re-elected in 2013 with an outright majority of 58.33% in his Hilton ward. Wainwright has been involved in campaigning against a number of proposed freeway projects and for expanded public transport services, telling Green Left Weekly in 2014: “What is called transport planning in this country is mostly endless subsidies to the road transport, road construction and fossil fuel industries – at literally any cost to the public purse, environment, urban form and human health. Stopping endless freeway construction is not some NIMBY thing, it’s about creating people-friendly cities.”

Wainwright also campaigned for better conditions for council workers, and was successful in getting the council to adopt a policy that recognised union rights and permanent work instead of contracts.

Earlier this year, Wainwright successfully moved that Fremantle council support protests for refugee rights, call for the end of the offshore mandatory detention regime and boat “turnbacks”, and boycott any companies who are contracted to run detention centres.

The success of the socialist councillors is due to a number of factors. All are long-time activists with a history of living in and involvement in their local communities. They have all been uncompromising in defending those communities from cuts to services, inappropriate developments, gentrification and racism, and in standing up to attacks from right wing groups and media. At a time when many on the left are feeling demoralised and isolated, their success shows that it is possible to gain support for openly socialist politics among ordinary working people and in diverse communities.

For more information on the socialist councillors:

Sue Bolton: https://www.facebook.com/SueBoltonForMoreland/

Stephen Jolly: https://www.facebook.com/stephen.jolly1

Sam Wainwright: https://www.facebook.com/FreoReport/?fref=ts

Auckland’s no-choice elections: blue-greens and conservative leftists

ponsonby-auckland

By Daphne Lawless

The election of former Labour Party leader Phil Goff as mayor of Auckland on October 9, by a margin of 75,000 votes over his nearest challenger, will at best have provoked “half a cheer” from people who want a sustainable, equal, democratic and liveable future for Auckland.

The mayoral election was probably a foregone conclusion once the Auckland right wing failed to agree on a challenger and ran three separate campaigns for Mayor. But even if you added all the votes together for business figures Victoria Crone and John Palino and career National Party hack Mark Thomas, Goff still came out with a clear majority.

Phil Goff was one of the eminences grises of the neo-liberal takeover of the Labour Party in the 1980s. As Minister of Education he was the first to impose tertiary tuition fees. He spent 30 years as a reliable but inoffensive member of the right wing of the Labour Party caucus and caused the National Government no problems during his single election as Opposition Leader in 2011.

Goff’s campaign to succeed the centre-leftist Len Brown as Mayor of Auckland was similarly marked by carefully avoiding taking any stands. In Labour-leaning areas of Auckland, his campaign signs carried slogans like “Let’s sort out transport”. In the National-leaning zones, they said “Let’s get council spending under control”. Goff’s honestly described his campaign strategy to the NZ Herald on September 9, distancing himself from the sex scandal which dogged Len Brown’s second term:

“I’ve slept with one woman for 45 years – that’s all,” he declares when Sainsbury asks him about potential scandal. “Why am I so boring?” should be the question, he suggests.

The sole element of interest in the mayoral election was the late run of 22-year-old Chloë Swarbrick. A qualified lawyer running on a left-liberal platform which took clear stances where Goff fudged, she was initially ignored by the mainstream media for whom her age was considered an obvious disqualifying factor. Nonetheless, a groundswell on social media eventually propelled her to 3rd place in the election, beating two of the mainstream conservative candidates. The Wireless website reported on 9 October:

Chlöe doesn’t own a home, she takes public transport and she’s in $43,000 of student loan debt. “I’m not just some rich kid from Epsom. I’ve had no financial support since I was 17,” she says.

As @tiredsounds put it on Twitter: “Swarbrick shows that soft-left but sensible ideas, if not attached to someone with a rap sheet that makes NZers hate them, can feasibly contest elections.”

Auckland’s growth: UP or Out?

Leftists and socialists might have wished for more candidates like Chloë Swarbrick in the elections for the Council Governing Body and Auckland’s 21 local boards. Not only because of her appealing personal qualities, but because her youth-focussed campaign drew attention to the fault-lines in Auckland caused by the ongoing housing crisis. As Simon Collins reported in the Herald on April 14:

Young people in their early twenties are now the most likely age group to be living in overcrowded conditions, as Auckland’s unaffordable housing crisis bites hardest for young adults. A quarter (25.2 per cent) of all young people aged 20 to 24 in Auckland are now officially considered to be in “overcrowded” housing in the 2013 Census, up from 23.6 per cent in the previous Census in 2006.

One reason for the overall dullness of the election might be that the most controversial and important issue for Auckland’s future – the Unitary Plan – was endorsed by the Governing Body before the election. There has been a lot of misinformation circulated about Auckland’s Unitary Plan on both sides of the political spectrum, so it’s probably worth setting out some facts.

The purpose of the Unitary Plan was to replace the jumble of old zoning schemes and development plans left over from the previous Auckland city, district and regional councils into a single “rulebook for Auckland development”. That is, the Unitary Plan was never going to build a single house – it was solely a question of setting rules on what houses and other buildings and infrastructure could be built, where. As urban design student Niko Elsen explained on The Spinoff:

The Unitary Plan lifts up and loosens that web of rules so more homes are allowed to be built. It doesn’t actually build homes – that’s for architects, developers and the Government, but it’s a super important step to let them get on with it.

Unfortunately, given New Zealand’s centralised political system, radical measures which could actually reduce housing costs – such as the 50% “crash” in house prices proposed by Green Party leader Metiria Turei, or a massive build of State housing for rental and not for speculation – were not among the options for the Auckland Council. The question that the Unitary Plan was to solve was more a question of urban form. Given Auckland’s continued exponential growth, to the point where it now embodies something like 1/3 of the population of Aotearoa/New Zealand, the Unitary Plan could have decisive influence on what kind of city it will become. Would it continue its current growth pattern of low-rise urban sprawl, with single-dwelling houses on “traditional Kiwi” lots spreading out north and south over productive farmland? Or would “high-density” living – apartments and townhouses – become more widespread?

In a previous Fightback article, I made an argument that urban intensification and an end to sprawl is not only the pro-worker solution, but the pro-environment solution. Energy-efficient housing close to reliable public transport routes not only requires less infrastructure but has a much lower “carbon footprint” than Auckland’s traditional housing model – or would do so, given proper planning and design. This analysis was matched by lobby groups in the election such as Generation Zero and Greater Auckland, the latter being the advocacy group behind the popular Transportblog.

Left-Right bloc against intensification

As I said in the article referenced above, it is to be expected for the traditional Auckland right to oppose intensification – both because of the downward pressure on their property values, and because of the influx it might cause of “undesirables” into the “leafy suburbs” which they traditionally monopolise. And certainly this was the position of such traditional-Right councillors such as George Wood (North Shore), Cameron Brewer (representing the Remuera and Kohimarama areas) and Dick Quax (Howick).

It might be surprising, then – if you don’t follow Auckland politics – to know that, in the Council debates and in the election that followed, the spectrum of opinion generally considered “centre-left” ranged from deep suspicion about the Unitary Plan to outright opposition. Daily Blog supremo Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury called the UP a “scam”; perennial mayoral candidate Penny Bright described it as the “Lunatic Plan” and accused Generation Zero of being “the youth wing of the Property Council”.

More seriously, left-leaning politicians representing the central suburbs – in particularly those attached to the City Vision ticket – were in the forefront of those opposing the Unitary Plan’s vision for a more intensified, compact Auckland in its planning stages. City Vision councillors Mike Lee and Cathy Casey both voted for the Council to withdraw its initial submission to the Independent Hearings Panel calling for more intensification. While Cathy Casey eventually supported the UP at the final vote – saying she wanted her children to be able to grow up and live in her local area – Mike Lee kept up his opposition to the last, voting against more aspects of the UP than any other councillor. This UP-critical stance was supported by other City Vision candidates in the election, like Casey’s running mate Peter Haynes. In contrast, Labour-aligned councillors in western and southern Auckland were generally supportive of the UP.

Mike Lee – the King Canute of the Auckland Left

So what exactly was City Vision’s problem with the UP? For a lot of traditional, older leftists, the answer was simply a personal preference for the low-rise sprawl which characterises today’s Auckland. In one Facebook discussion I had with an opponent of the UP, their position eventually summed up to “I don’t like those apartments downtown”. Clearly, radical urbanists need to work harder to promote the ecosocialist case for high-density housing against the arguments of what I have previously described as “the conservative left”.1

But is personal preference for things the way they’ve traditionally been really the reason for the anger against the UP on the central Auckland centre-Left? Let’s examine closely a few of Mike Lee’s posts on his own blog, reprinted in the glossy freebie Ponsonby News. From February:

The council’s massive un-notified change to zonings is essentially another example of business deregulation, which would make Auckland even more of a free-for-all for the development lobby. Interestingly some young ‘climate change’ activists lined up with big business to support the changes. ‘Generation Zero’ argues that the all-out assault on the historic garden suburbs of Auckland is a good for young people, taking as an article of faith vague promises from the developers of ‘affordable housing’ close to the desirable city centre. They also believe a further round of intensification will force more people to use public transport. Sadly they have bought into the endless growth ideology and are not too bothered about the wider environmental impacts of overcrowding (sewage disposal for instance) nor indeed, as they freely admit, about the loss of people’s democratic rights and due process.

Lee goes on to criticise “the weird assumption that unsustainable growth and urban overcrowding is the formula for quality of life and better public transport”. In the second article from May, which concerns his opposition to a Government Special Housing Area (SHA) in the suburb of Herne Bay, Lee argues:

In regard to Auckland’s housing problem, government policies stoking up immigration into Auckland (demand) and its reluctance to build state houses (supply) are also contributing factors…

While population-driven pressure on the property market is a feature of cities in other countries – the difference is that in New Zealand a disproportionate amount of growth is loaded onto one city – Auckland. And Auckland ratepayers are expected to pay for more and more for increasingly expensive infrastructure.

While I support intensification over suburban sprawl (subject of course to the availability of adequate infrastructure) the current debate assumes that Auckland must continue to grow disproportionately. …

With State Highways and motorways increasingly congested on the suburban fringes and sewerage capacity under pressure in places like the historic western bays, such growth is neither environmentally sustainable – nor in the end affordable. An intelligent government-led balanced population and development policy for the whole of New Zealand is what is needed.

There are several issues that need unpacking here. Firstly, Lee makes some nods in the direction of being opposed to “deregulation” and “property developers” – phrases which would evoke an instant knee-jerk response as Bad Things among traditional leftists. We might wonder firstly how “property developer” got the same emotional loading as “drug dealer”, why this particular sector of the capitalist economy is being stigmatised, especially when housing is the number one issue facing us. (Penny Bright’s jibes at Generation Zero show the same scapegoating move.)

But let’s look more closely about what is being deregulated here. Lee claims to be defending the “property rights” of his constituents. But he’s not. Rezoning under the UP actually gives property owners more rights about what to do with their own property. What Lee is defending is restrictions on what can be built and where. These restrictions on property rights act to maintain property values – and the personal preferences of Lee’s mega-wealthy constituents.

Herne Bay is probably the most “exclusive” suburb in the central Auckland region, with an average house price now at a whopping $2 million. The expensive suburbs are that way because that’s where people most want to live – central, with good public transport, with views of the sea and in walking distance of cultural and work opportunities. It is precisely in these areas where people want to live the most, that intensified housing is most needed! The argument that “leafy” suburbs must be defended by restricting them to existing residents and property owners is nothing but a defence of unearned privilege. The benefits of such suburbs should be available to all social classes.

Similarly, Lee’s argument against the Herne Bay SHA is ostensibly based on the inadequacy of wastewater facilities for fitting any significant amount of new homes in the Herne Bay region. But infrastructure can be built and improved, given sufficient funding and political will. As one US Twitter commentator put it: “Something’s fishy when people oppose new homes within walking distance of jobs and transit on environmental grounds.” Lee takes great offence at being accused of being a NIMBY (someone who wants development “not in my back yard”). But the question arises – if intensification is not to happen in Herne Bay, then where?

It’s true that, absent other interventions, intensified housing in the most desirable suburbs would still be unaffordable for most working people. But as mentioned above, the affordability issue cannot be solved at the level of the UP, which only controls types of development. If the UP were to leave the “leafy suburbs” alone, then any intensified housing would have to be concentrated in existing working class/affordable suburbs. This would of course replicate the phenomenon of British “estates”, French “banlieues” and US “projects” – all of which have become bywords for terrible slums. The socialist approach should surely be one which breaks down social apartheid – as the original NZ State Housing project of the 1930s did by “pepper-potting” affordable housing rather than concentrating it in single areas.

Lee’s final and most basic argument – to which his special pleading on behalf of his super-wealthy constituents takes second place – is an argument against “Auckland’s disproportionate growth”. That is, that the problem would not exist if Auckland were not growing so quickly. To show that this is not just one individual talking, this concept was endorsed by another elected official from City Vision – Albert-Eden Local Board member Graeme Easte – in a comment on a Transportblog post:

I advocate a national population strategy to share growth more evenly throughout NZ. …The so-called ‘zombie towns’ are very real, as I have personally discussed with the despairing mayors of a number of them. I fully realize how difficult it will be to incentivize more business activity (jobs) in the provinces but this is the only realistic way to persuade more people, especially the young, to remain in or relocate to the smaller centres. I have been attacked on this blog for previously suggesting such policies but remain firmly of the view that this would be a win-win for all concerned … Auckland would be better able to address growth if there were just a bit less of it while the rest of New Zealand would actually have some growth.

There is room for argument as to whether Auckland-centric urbanisation is preferable from an ecosocialist point of view than encouraging similar intensified urban living elsewhere in the country. But the more immediate question is – exactly what do Lee or Easte think can be done about this at local body level? The problem of population growth will not go away if Council simply refuses to allow intensified housing. At best, we would end up like San Francisco – where no-one who works in the central city can afford to live there, with available housing monopolised by privileged tech-workers who commute 2 hours down the road to Silicon Valley. In this respect, Lee and Easte are like the ancient English King Canute, said to have attempted to order the rising tide to turn back.

Kill your children

Peter Nunns on Transportblog has convincingly demonstrated that “local governments do not represent the young, except occasionally by accident or in a mood of generosity.” This is certainly borne out in both turnout figures and the ages of candidates in Auckland’s recent elections – which is why Chloë Swarbrick’s quixotic tilt at the mayoralty was such a hopeful sign. But it became increasingly important as the young became one of the major targets for the wrath of conservatives from both Left and Right railing against Auckland’s urbanisation.

One disturbing manifestation of the anti-Unitary Plan movement, noted by several commentators, has been its outright ageism – older, asset-rich people expressing their contempt for younger people who complain that traditional urban patterns in Auckland would lead to them not being able to afford to live in their own city. At a hotly contested hearing on the UP in February this year, which was packed out with older anti-UP protestors from the “leafy suburbs”:

Flora Apulu from the council’s Youth Advisory Panel told the council she and her colleague Alex Johnston were “probably the only young people in this room”.

Oh, poor things,” called out someone at the back.

But this anti-youth attitude doesn’t just come from the traditionally selfish Right. On the conservative left wing, Penny Bright described Generation Zero as “wolf cubs” and “the youth wing of the Property Council”, while Martyn Bradbury railed against “blue green millennials” and elsewhere repeated the argument that Millennials are lost to the left as a generation as they have only ever growing up knowing neoliberal values.

Our old friend Mike Lee, writing on The Daily Blog, continued in this vein:

It is rather sad and unfair that the generation of Aucklanders who bought run-down villas and bungalows in Grey Lynn, Ponsonby and Westmere etc., and lovingly did them up, often with their own hands, are now meant to feel guilty.

Of course, the “generation” he speaks of were beneficiaries of racially-biased gentrification. Grey Lynn and Ponsonby were heavily Polynesian working-class suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s. They were pushed out of the area in the 1980s, as industrial jobs shifted to the outer suburbs such as Mangere or Ōtara, and young, “hipster”, Pākehā took advantage to buy up cheaper housing in what were then insalubrious but culturally rich suburbs. This generation subsequently benefitted from the massive neoliberal housing boom. They may have “done up” their Ponsonby villas, but no amount of “doing up” can justify a 2000% increase in capital value over 30 years.

Gentrification of previously working-class suburbs can be seen as an act of violence against their inhabitants – a modern echo of the colonial dispossession of the indigenous people of Tāmaki Makarau (whose rights are, sadly, still not recognized in the final Unitary Plan). Lee’s statement shows a lack of awareness of his and his constituents’ privilege which should disqualify him from being considered part of the “left”, if we consider that to be the political movement for social equality.

Immigration: the conservative left’s dirty secret

We saw above that young people were one of the scapegoats of both traditional Right and conservative Left for the changes in the face of Auckland they are resisting. We saw Mike Lee above put forward what we might call a “populationist” argument, that if Auckland’s growth threatens his constituents’ privileges, then growth should be slowed or stopped. But, almost as an afterthought in his blog spots, he touches on another scapegoat – immigration.

This is the traditional domain of the conservative right. An organisation called the Public Transport Users Association has combined advocacy for reform of Auckland’s mass transit system with arguments from its leading figures that Auckland’s issues can be solved by cutting immigration – which is what you would expect from people associated with the NZ First party.2

But let’s return to one of Mike Lee’s blog posts already mentioned above, this time with emphasis added:

In regard to Auckland’s housing problem, government policies stoking up immigration into Auckland (demand) and its reluctance to build state houses (supply) are also contributing factors.

If Lee were a consistent opponent of Auckland’s “overpopulation” (which, as Transportblog has consistently argued, is a natural consequence of its pre-eminent position in the current New Zealand economy), he might find out that natural increase – simply put, people having babies – is a larger component of Auckland’s population growth than all migration from overseas and from elsewhere in New Zealand put together. Therefore, if Lee (or Graeme Easte) were really worried about Auckland’s population growth, they might more fruitfully consider putting contraceptives in the drinking water.

Sadly, this goes along with the reprehensible recent embrace of immigration-control rhetoric by both the Labour and Green Parties. Phil Goff himself decided to pander to anti-immigrant sentiment as part of his all-things-to-all-constituencies campaign. But every socialist and social progressive must draw a hard line against any such scapegoating of immigrants or immigration as a problem. Lee might well argue that by “immigration” he meant all migration to Auckland, including that from other parts of the country, such as the exodus from rural areas which worries Easte. But whether a migrant is from Tehran or Tokoroa, freedom of movement is a basic human right. A left-wing politics which makes sense in the globalised future must argue strongly that all migrants are welcome here, especially in our most multicultural city. Rebuilding our cities to sustainably welcome those who want to live here will surely be cheaper than building a Donald Trump-style wall along the Bombay Hills.

It seems only fitting, finally, that the population/anti-migrant stance of the conservative Left is mirrored by an open or tacit reliance on emigration to maintain the status quo. Like Ireland, New Zealand has historically encouraged its young, ambitious troublemakers to go overseas to make their fortune and express their creativity – only returning here to retire, or perhaps to bring up their children in a carefully insulated environment. But the radical Left has an interest in making Auckland, and all of Aotearoa, a place fit for young people to live and work – and build a better tomorrow.

Whose Left is it anyway?

This article has concentrated on Mike Lee’s blog posts and public statements because he’s the loudest and most prominent promoter of anti-urbanist ideas on the Auckland centre-left. Of course, as his defenders at The Daily Blog loudly proclaim, he has a good track record in Auckland local body politics, defending public assets and promoting public transport (though Transportblog have argued that he has also pushed through some blunders)3.

Marxists have a saying that “being determines consciousness” – simply put, that how you live your life determines how you think. Mike Lee’s main achievements for the Left were as chair of the Auckland Regional Council, when he was elected by all the people of the old Auckland City, from Avondale to Remuera to Otahuhu. His anti-Unitary Plan stance, however, has been as the councillor for the Waitemata/Gulf ward – including the central city but dominated by the gentrified, superwealthy suburbs of Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Herne Bay et al. The other City Vision councillors are elected from either that ward or the less-gentrified but still well-off Mt Albert/Mt Eden/Mt Roskill area. One does not need to be a Marxist to point out that a good elected politician promotes the interests of their constituents.

Lee’s “grumpy old man” stance on the UP provoked the liberal, pro-urbanist blog The Spinoff to endorse his main rival in the election – former broadcaster and traditional Tory Bill Ralston. Ralston’s stance on the UP – expressed in a tweet as “Pass the Plan and move on guys” – was the only thing to recommend him, and third candidate Rob Thomas would have been a much better choice for progressive voters in the Chloë Swarbrick mode. This endorsement led to a predictable storm of condemnations by Martyn Bradbury, Chris Trotter and other older leftists on The Daily Blog. This went as far as “shill-baiting” – accusations that The Spinoff and Transportblog had actually been paid off to take their position.4

The outrage that any progressives might pose a threat to their existing social and institutional circles is a recurring feature of what I call the “conservative left”. Similar anger was raised among supporters of Phil Goff at the Swarbrick campaign, arguing that “a vote for Chloë is a vote for Victoria Crone”. But in the case of Bradbury, Trotter, Lee et al., we seem to see simple anger and incomprehension of a challenge by a younger generation to their prejudices, and their old mates. Those who jumped to Mike Lee’s defence should have remembered that when an “old Leftie” defends the rights of the wealthy and privileged, that doesn’t make it a left-wing position.

A Left which writes off the next generation, which distrusts the ways it wants to live, work and shape its future, is simply doomed. 30 years of globalised neoliberalism have ended the optimism of the baby-boomer generation that their children would have a better future than they did. Now it is an asset-rich generation which, ironically, has itself internalised the tenets of neoliberalism – in particular, that of ignoring the future in the interests of defending current privilege.

Is this the future?

One amusing point in the campaign was where Bradbury smeared Generation Zero and Transportblog as privileged “blue-greens”, even though he himself had argued two years ago that there was no such thing. However, one notable feature of the election might have been precisely the emergence of a blue-green constituency – that is, economically privileged voters supporting the concepts of sustainable urbanism. Rightist mayoral candidate Victoria Crone uncovered this when, at a candidate’s meeting on the solidly blue North Shore, she argued that Auckland desperately needed a new car tunnel under the Waitemata Harbour. To her apparent surprise, this didn’t go down well. Under Len Brown’s carefully centrist promotion of public transport and intensification, North Shore voters seem to have been won to the need for prioritising a cross-harbour rail connection. This was borne out by the North Shore ward giving both its Council seats to liberal pro-urbanist candidates Chris Darby and Richard Mills.

The very close result on the North Shore may have tipped the balance on the Council. It seems that the incoming council will have a similar 11-9 split between progressives and conservatives on the interrelated issues of housing and transport. Two of the most negative right-wing councillors have gone (Wood and Brewer), while Mike Lee beat Bill Ralston back by a small but comfortable margin, Rob Thomas coming a creditable third. Of course, the previous council was marked by the sometimes erratic but generally progressive leadership of Len Brown. Whether the beige man Phil Goff will carry on this tradition, or skew towards the conservatives, can’t be predicted right now.

So – to raise the inevitable socialist question – what is to be done? The most important task of radicals in reactionary times is to swim against the stream – to continue promoting unpopular ideas until such time as the tide turns. To call Generation Zero, Transportblog and The Spinoff “blue-green” is a slander, but neither are they red-green ecosocialists. Discussions on Transportblog of placing tolls on motorway driving, for example, have shown a blindspot as to how road pricing would hit the most vulnerable in our society – such as cleaners who have to travel from the outer suburbs to the CBD. What is needed is for socialists to engage with the “New Urbanists” who congregate around such organisations, to challenge these blindspots and to make sure that an environmentally sustainable Auckland is also socially just – while rejecting the conservative leftists who, in The Spinoff’s memorable phrase, are “intent on trapping Auckland in a 1950s time prison”.

Ideally, by the time of the next local body elections in 2019 – or even for the general election of 2020! – we might hope for a new, radical political vehicle which would stand on something like this, as suggested by @tiredsounds on Twitter:

1) open borders, with full legal protection for migrant workers, encourage unions to work with migrants and the unemployed to ensure labour is not undersold;

2) intensification of cities – higher density housing, light rail and forms of electric based mass transit.

To this, we might simply add a new programme of public housing – intensified, environmentally sustainable, located in the desirable parts of the urban area rather than new ghettos, built for occupation not speculation. Such a simple project would at once challenge the conservative left to stop their grumpy scapegoating of young people and migrants, while challenging the “blue-greens” to take issues of social justice seriously. Could it be that the people who supported Chloë Swarbrick and Rob Thomas are keen to take such a challenge on?

1 I developed the concept of “conservative leftism” in a previous article. It refers to the trend for activists from the traditional left to take up reactionary positions in opposition to neoliberalism, which include the anti-urbanist and populationist/anti-immigration positions discussed in this article.

2 PTUA leader Jon Reeves was a NZ First candidate at the last election. Anti-immigration comments from PTUA members can be found regularly on posts on Transportblog.

3 Chief among these would be the tourist tram loop at Wynyard Quarter and the siting of the future Parnell railway station – see comments on this post for more.

4 See Trotter in previous note on The Spinoff, and Bradbury on Transportblog. It was reported that Mike Lee had made similar accusations about The Spinoff on Twitter, but we can’t find references for that.

The politics, not the dirt is the problem.

Annette Sykes, MANA Waiariki/list candidate, bones up on Nicky Hager's election-season bestseller.

Annette Sykes, MANA Waiariki/list candidate, bones up on Nicky Hager’s election-season bestseller.

By Ben Peterson (Fightback Ōtautahi/Christchurch)

Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics just blew up the election. The material comes largely from Cameron Slater’s leaked emails, but it covers much more than his personal activity. It outlines the activities of central National Party figures, up to and including Prime Minister John Key himself.

But the real importance of the book is not revealing the dirty tactics that John Key and company will resort to. More importantly, it outlines the anti-democratic and big money interests that drive the National Party. It is not that just these are sleazy politicians. These people (John Key, Judith ‘Crusher’ Collins and more) use attack politics to hide their real agendas.

Dirty Politics is significant because it outlines the political project that the National Party believes in, but only talks about behind closed doors. John Key and the National Party have cultivated an image of themselves as the responsible moderates. The reality is that he leads a highly ideological government that is committed to furthering business interests. Part of this crusade is actively supporting the Whale Oil blog and its politics.

The politics of Whale Oil
Dirty Politics shows that members of members of Key’s staff have actively assisted Slater and Whale Oil. Key himself has admitted to being in regular personal contact with Slater. Key may claim a degree of separation from Whale Oil, but this is disingenuous. John Key is many things but he is not stupid. Key and his staff know full well what Whale Oil stands for, but have maintained links with the blog.

Hager’s book outlines the political project of Whale Oil. The Whale Oilers actively and consciously seek to undermine democracy. Slater and his mates led the campaign against MMP (proportional representation) to try and limit space in electoral politics for progressive voices. The leaked emails show the group has actively sought to create an atmosphere that discourages people from voting. If candidates that aren’t to their liking do win an election, the Whale Oil crew will attempt to blackmail or publicly shame them into resignation.

Slater and Whale Oil seek to undermine democracy so they can magnify the voices of the big businesses that bankroll their activities. Companies that pay for Slater to ‘consult’ for them get the use of his blog and also his contacts in government. Not content with undermining the democratic process and giving voice to corporations, Whale Oil is also an enthusiastic participant in attempts to ‘smash’ unions. Unions are an important institution for working people to express their interests. Working people don’t have thousands of dollars each month to sponsor their own attack blogger.

The happy marriage of John and Cam
Whale Oil and John Key’s office work together hand in glove. Whale Oil runs campaigns that National supports, but can’t be seen to do for fear of a backlash. This degree of separation has meant that John Key has been able to viciously attack his enemies and facilitate corporate interests, while maintaining a cleaner image.

John Key presents himself as a reasonable moderate, who is popular with regular people and share their interests. This is a deliberate untruth.

This National government wants to increase the power of corporate interests and undermine the position of everyone else. However, they recognise that the policies they want to implement (like further asset sales or cutbacks to health and education) are deeply unpopular. They are constrained by the potential democratic power of the public.

Thus, to implement their policies, this potential democratic power must be marginalised and silenced. Participation in elections must be undermined. MMP, which creates space for alternatives to be articulated, should be attacked where possible. Any political opponents, whether it be Len Brown, Kim Dotcom or the unions, must be destroyed. All real or potential alternatives to the neoliberal agenda must be neutralised.

The reality of this agenda is important to recognise because it also shows us how these politics can be beaten.

How to beat them
These right-wing policies are deeply unpopular – John Key knows that. That’s why he is desperate to be seen as a nice guy who likes the rugby and avoids debate. National fears a backlash if their true agenda is understood. Dirty Politics exposes that agenda.

Hager finishes the book by calling for more resources and greater ethics for journalism. This would be an important improvement for public debate, but journalism is not what scares John Key or the right-wing bloggers.

They’re terrified of democracy.

Dirty Politics shows how National have actively tried to eliminate any potential alternatives to their political project. The election on September 20 will be an important opportunity to demonstrate how they have failed to do so. In particular, they are terrified of the MANA Movement and the Internet Party and the alternative they represent.

These attacks on democracy will not end with Key out of office. Democracy can only function for ordinary people when ordinary people are actively involved. New political movements, independent media and resurgent unions are necessary to provide a counter voice to the corporate interests and their seat warmers, online and in government..

Interview: Sue Bolton, Socialist Councillor for Moreland (Australia)

sue bolton

Sue Bolton is a longtime socialist activist and the Victorian convenor of Socialist Alliance. She was elected to the Moreland Council, which covers the inner northern suburbs of Melbourne, in 2012. She will be a featured speaker at the Fightback conference in Wellington in May. She was interviewed for Fightback by Bronwen Beechey.

Fightback:There is a debate in the socialist movement about whether socialists should participate in “bourgeois” elections. Obviously you think they should, why do you think it’s a good idea?

SB: I think it is important for socialists to stand for election for several reasons: it gives you a forum for putting a socialist viewpoint on a wide range of issues, not just issues where there are campaigns. In Australia at the moment, campaigns tend to focus on moral issues such as human rights or environmental issues but there are few campaigns around economic issues. Elections give an opportunity to socialists to put an alternative to neoliberalism.

Elections are also a good discipline for socialists because you have to translate your general socialist slogans into concrete policies

It is a good way of building the party and also a socialist or socialist-leaning milieu or base in an area.

Fightback: Do you think that your election was due to the issues that you campaigned around, or your profile as a long-time activist in the area, or both?

SB: I think it was both. There are people who know me from the union movement, including picket lines, the refugee rights movement, the Middle East Solidarity group and the climate movement.

Some of the residents who didn’t know me or Socialist Alliance voted for me because we campaigned to put community need first, not developer greed.

Fightback: What were the issues you campaigned around?

SB: We took up a mix of local and broader issues. A central issue we campaigned on was opposition to developer greed, for developers to bear the cost of providing amenities, for mandatory height limits and more green spaces.

We called for a campaigning council that would campaign for more public transport, against the sell -off of public housing and for ethical investment.

We campaigned for expanded bike paths, solar power and against gas-fired power generation.

We campaigned for a council that helps its residents with cost of living pressures, including that residents not be pushed out of their home because they can’t afford rates and that rates shouldn’t be increased above the level of inflation. This is because rates are not an equitable means of funding local government services. A pensioner or an unemployed person could be living in a house which has risen in value because of gentrification, but they can’t afford massive rates even though their house has risen in value.

We also campaigned for regular ward accountability meetings.

Fightback: What has been your experience working in the council? Is it a hostile environment, or do you have supporters there? Have you any formal or informal links with other socialist or left councillors?

SB: The council is very conservative with a Liberal Party councillor, a Democratic Labor Party councillor, two Greens councillors, six ALP councillors and me. Then there is the council bureaucracy which is also very conservative.

The council meetings aren’t necessarily hostile. It’s more that the council bureaucracy and the other councillors are trying to take you on the same path as them, which is a neoliberal path. The problem is more one of co-option rather than direct hostility, although that exists as well.

Due to the pressure of campaigns, we haven’t been collaborating as closely as we would like to. I get more opportunities to collaborate with Sam Wainwright [from the Fremantle, WA Council] because he is also a member of Socialist Alliance. I am also involved in a campaign that involves a number of members of [Socialist Party member  and Yarra Council councillor] Steve Jolly’s party, the campaign against the East West Link  [a proposed 18 kilometre tolled freeway system including two 12-metre tunnels, running through Melbourne’s inner suburbs .]

Fightback: How has the Abbott government affected Australian politics at a national and a local level, particularly its impact on working people, the poor and oppressed groups?

SB: The worst aspect is the Abbott government’s use of sharp racism, in particular against refugees, to hide its attacks on working class living standards. The government is appealing to the more conservative section of the working class in order to rule.

At the same time, it is attacking unions by attacking corruption in unions. Unfortunately, a couple of real examples of corruption have been uncovered. These have undermined workers’ confidence in unions, which in turn has made the unions more scared about responding with industrial action. Most industrial action is illegal, so the only way of responding to the attacks is with “illegal” industrial action. It is necessary to take industrial action regardless of whether it is legal or not, but most unions are avoiding taking any industrial action that might be deemed “illegal”. It’s also the case that if unionists or unions refuse to pay fines for taking industrial action, the law allows the government to sequester the fine from individual’s or union’s bank accounts.

The government has succeeded in demoralising people because people can’t see a fightback coming yet.

Fightback: Do you think the recent “Marches in March” against the Abbott government represent a new phase of opposition to neoliberal policies?

SB: The marches were fantastic, especially given that the union movement hasn’t mobilised its members against the Abbott government yet. The size and number of marches undercuts the government’s argument that it has a mandate for its cuts. Around 100,000 people marched against the government at March in March. The dominant issue that people brought homemade placards about was the government’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, followed by climate/environment issues, then many other issues.

Fightback: Some on the left argue that the best strategy to beat right-wing governments is to vote for Labour parties as the “lesser evil,” or that Labour can be transformed from within. What is your response to those arguments?

SB: The left has tried to reform Labor from within ever since the ALP was formed. It’s never worked. The only times that Labor governments have ever carried out any progressive reforms are when there has been a strong communist/left movement outside the ALP. In fact, I would argue that the ALP doesn’t just play a reactionary role when in government; it also has a damaging effect on unions. The ALP is always influencing unions to not put forward their interests strongly; it is influencing unions not to take industrial action. Unions’ affiliation with the ALP is a vehicle for the capitalists to influence the unions. Unions have very little ability to influence the ALP to adopt pro-worker policies, despite their affiliation.

Fightback: As a member of Socialist Alliance, what is your perception of the recent breakdown of unity talks between SA and Socialist Alternative? Do you think there are still possibilities for greater unity on the Left?

SB: I think there were different conceptions of what sort of organisation we each wanted to build. There were some differences which would have needed to be explored before unity could have been possible, but there was never an opportunity to do that before the unity talks broke down.

However, there’s always another struggle and another day. There will be opportunities in the future for left unity but these opportunities will probably arise as a result of new political developments.

Fightback: As a long-time feminist, do you think that there are still difficulties for women participating in mainstream political bodies such as councils? Have you experienced sexism from other council members, or from the community?

SB: There have definitely been sexist attitudes exhibited by a couple of male councillors. On Moreland council six of the eleven councillors are women. I might have experienced more sexist attitudes if the numbers were different. The problem is more that the council and councillors are good on women’s rights issues on paper but in practice they only pay lip-service.

The real issues of sexism come about at a much earlier stage and are more to do with women’s ability to participate in society because they face family violence, are living in poverty on single parents pension or a low paid job as a single parent, don’t have the money to access expensive childcare or other services, or have low self-esteem.

You can also see a certain sexist approach with the murder of a local Brunswick woman by a male stranger on the street towards the end of 2012, which resulted in a big Reclaim the Night march of several thousand people. The council turned this issue into a law and order issue, rather than dealing with it as an issue of violence against women. The biggest source of violence against women is from intimate partners in the home.

Fightback: Some left-wing councillors and former councillors have commented that the relatively privileged role of a councillor (getting free passes to events, socialising with business people, etc) can influence progressive councillors and distance them from their constituents. How do you stay accountable to the community?

SB: That can certainly happen. You have to be very conscious about what you’re on the council for. Unlike state and federal government, councils are portrayed as being a “team” where party politics and an oppositional approach don’t apply. This is all part of trying to recruit all councillors to “respectable” neoliberal politics.

It’s important to be aware of the fact that many of the councillors and council officers regard residents as pests, and use language to cover up the pro-business outlook such as talking about all the “stakeholders” as having equal interests. This is a way of legitimising giving more say to businesses and developers than to residents.

The accountability is mainly via reportbacks on council activities on Facebook and the blog site (http://www.suesmorelandreport.org). In addition to this, I report back to Socialist Alliance meetings and we initiated Moreland Socialists for anyone who is left-wing and wants to support our council position. We have organised some ward meetings, but we want to get more regular with these.

Video: Relevance of Socialism in Seattle, Kshama Sawant

Presentation by Kshama Sawant, Socialist Alternative Candidate for Seattle City Council.

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USA: Election breakthrough for a Seattle socialist

kshama sawant

Chris Mobley reports from Seattle where a revolutionary socialist challenger for a seat on the City Council has surged into a narrow lead. Reprinted from SocialistWorker.org

SOCIALIST ALTERNATIVE candidate Kshama Sawant had a narrow lead over four-term incumbent Democrat Richard Conlin in an election for a seat on the Seattle City Council, as of November 13–a stunning result for a revolutionary socialist and a powerful symbol of the discontent with the political status quo.

Washington state votes by mail, and a majority of ballots typically come in after Election Day, since votes are accepted as long as they were postmarked by that day. As of the end of Wednesday, Sawant was ahead by 402 votes, with some 13,000 ballots still to be counted, according to the latest announcement from election officials.

The results could still turn against Sawant, but momentum is on her side–she has had the edge in each round of counting in the days since Election Day on November 5, helping her to overcome what appeared to be a narrow defeat based on where the vote count stood on election night.

Even while trailing on election night, however, it was clear that Sawant and Socialist Alternative candidate Ty Moore, who lost by just 229 votes in an election for city council in Minneapolis, have scored breakthroughs. Well before Election Day, Danny Westneat, a columnist for the mainstream Seattle Times daily newspaper, summed up the electrifying impact of these campaigns: “The election isn’t for 10 days, but we can already declare the big winner in Seattle. It’s the socialist.”

Westneat pointed out that Sawant was responsible for Democrats like Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and his victorious challenger in last week’s election, Ed Murray, suddenly declaring their support for left-wing initiatives such as the Fight for 15 organizing drive for low-wage workers. As Westneat concluded:

You can’t look at the stagnant pay, declining benefits and third-world levels of income disparity in recent years and conclude this system is working. For Millennials as a group, it has been a disaster. Out of the wreckage, left-wing or socialist economic ideas, such as the “livable wage” movement in which government would seek to mandate a form of economic security, are flowering.

Sawant’s edge in the late-arriving ballots is another indicator of the grassroots energy that made her campaign stand out, as David Goldstein, writing in The Stranger, an alternative weekly newspaper, explained:

Part of [the reason Sawant is winning in each day of counting after Election Day has] to do with demographics; younger voters tend to vote late and more lefty. Part of it has to do with hard work; Sawant’s impressive grassroots campaign had a couple hundred volunteers calling voters and knocking on doors to get out her vote, while Conlin had little ground game at all. And part of it has to do with momentum; voter preferences shift over time, and her surprisingly strong campaign clearly moved support in Sawant’s favor.

The final vote totals are scheduled to be certified on November 26, but the uncertainty could go on longer with the possibility of a recount if the margin of victory remains closer than 0.5 percent and 2,000 votes.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE SUCCESS of the Socialist Alternative campaigns is directly connected to their roots in grassroots struggles.

In Minneapolis, Ty Moore made the Occupy MN Homes movement–with its call for a moratorium on foreclosures and a ban on police carrying out evictions–central to his campaign for a city council seat representing an area under assault by gentrification.

In Seattle, Sawant, an economics professor and respected activist, focused on several key issues to galvanize support from working people and the left. Building on the energy of the national Fight for 15 campaign to organize low-wage workers in restaurant and retail, Sawant positioned herself as the candidate who supported a living wage for all.

The popularity of the Fight for 15 demand was dramatized in SeaTac, a Seattle suburb where the regional airport is located. A union-backed ballot measure–bitterly opposed by business interests–that would mandate a $15-an-hour minimum wage for airport and hotel workers was winning as of November 13, though by only 19 votes at the latest count.

Sawant also focused on proposals for rent control in a city where rents have risen by 6 percent in just the last year alone, on top of increases year after year, according to Reis, which compiles and sells data to the commercial real-estate industry.

She also advocated for a tax on millionaires, in a state with no income tax, to fund mass transit and other infrastructure improvements. This call is especially timely with the local public transit agency, King County Metro, planning to cut bus service by as much as 20 percent next year.

Gaining the endorsements of several unions and social justice organizations, as well support from prominent local activists, the campaign was able to mobilize several hundred volunteers, who covered the city with distinctive “Vote Sawant” posters. Though far outspent by her opponent, Sawant did raise more than $100,000, mainly from small contributions.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

SAWANT AND those who worked for her ran an effective campaign, but her success is the result of tapping into voter discontent with the political status quo, particularly in a liberal city like Seattle.

According a recent Gallup poll, Democrats and Republicans have reached an all-time low in public opinion–only 26 percent of Americans believe the two mainstream parties do “an adequate job of representing the American people.” Some 60 percent said there was a need for a third major party.

In Seattle, where the Democrats predominate, this discontent translated into heavy press interest in Sawant. She won an endorsement from The Stranger before her strong showing in the August primary election–the alt-weekly wrote in an article headlined “The Case for Kshama Sawant”: “Sawant offers voters a detailed policy agenda, backed up by a coherent economic critique and a sound strategy for moving the political debate in a leftward direction.”

After coming in a close second in August, Sawant continued to pick up broad support, including a small group of “Democrats for Sawant”–a stark symbol of the bitterness with the incumbent Conlin, who has a long record of pandering to business interests. Sawant won backing from local hip-hop artists and several prominent local activists, notably left-wing journalist Geov Parrish. Sawant also got support from immigrant political organizations, including the Somali American Public Affairs Council. In the final weeks of the campaign, volunteers made a push to hold “100 rallies for Sawant.”

As a socialist challenger in a liberal city against a Democratic opponent, Sawant was able to avoid one of the key difficulties that third party candidates typically face: the so-called “spoiler effect.” Without a Republican in the election, the Democrat Conlin wasn’t able to browbeat his party’s much more liberal base into supporting him as a “lesser evil.”

Now, Sawant stands a good chance of taking a seat for four years on the nine-member City Council. This will open up a new opportunity for the left–both Sawant and Moore pledged that they would use the resources of their offices to assist grassroots struggles involving workers, the oppressed, immigrants and the community.

There will be more days of vote-counting to come, but the Sawant campaign has already accomplished an enormous amount by proving that there is a thirst for an alternative to the status quo–and that socialists can confidently put forward a different vision for society, knowing it will connect with the aspirations of more and more people.

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The roots of Labour’s leadership crisis

robertson cunliffe jones

This article, by Fightback member Jared Phillips, was originally written for The Socialist, the monthly magazine of The Socialist Party (Australia).

In late August David Shearer resigned as leader of the opposition New Zealand Labour Party. Labour has suffered from poor poll results since it lost the 2008 election. Since then Shearer has been the second opposition leader to resign.

Much of the commentary of late has referred to a leadership crisis in Labour and pointed to this as the main reason for the poor poll results. This is true enough but very few people have explained the roots of this crisis.

Labour’s woes are deeply political. They have besieged the party since the 1980s when it began to carry out sweeping neo-liberal counter reforms. To this day Labour remains deeply wedded to maintaining the capitalist system. This forces the party to adopt policies that are at odds with its working class voter base.

During the post war boom this contradiction was somewhat papered over but now in the era of economic crisis it is much harder hide.

The vote for a new leader is split between Labour’s five affiliated unions (20%), Labour’s MPs (40%) and the party membership (40%). The affiliate unions are using this mechanism to encourage their members to vote for one of the three contenders. They hope that in mobilising members to vote for a candidate it will logically follow that these members will be more encouraged to vote Labour at the election. [Read more…]