You can‘t vote for communism

by JOJO KLICK

Over the last couple of years, we have seen leftist activists throwing themselves into electoral movements – Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and more recently the movement for Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and for Bernie Sanders in the US[1]. To some extent, enthusiasm about these popular campaigns is certainly understandable after decades of only defensive or unsuccessful left wing struggles which were not able to achieve structural change. However, there is also a lot of confusion about what to actually expect from an electoral strategy, since these movements often talk the language of radical change (e.g. Sander’s “political revolution”) and socialism, but in fact only have a social democratic program for regulating capitalism. I would argue that for radical leftists, it makes sense to figure out where we actually want to get – let’s call it communism – in order to figure out how to get there and what our practice should look like. (Spoiler alert: electoralism is not such a practice.)

What is communism?

In The German Ideology, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels write that communism is not “a state of affairs which is to be established”, but the “real movement which abolishes the present state of things”. However, they still make some points about how this “state of affairs” that will be reached through the abolition of the present state of things might look. For example, in the Communist Manifesto, they write that communism is an “association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”, and in the Critique of the Gotha Programme Marx names “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” as the principle of the highest form of communism.

This means that wage labour, as well as the commodity form and thus money and private property, would be abolished. People would get what they need without having to give anything (like money) for it in exchange. People would manage re/production[2] in a self-organized way and distribute the goods that are produced either freely (in case of abundance) or to those who need them most (in case of scarcity). This should not be misunderstood as an ethical utopia where people have to be inherently “good”. Rather, communism is a societal structure where the inclusion of others is functional. Since people do not produce in isolation from each other, but within networks of free cooperation, they have to take into account the needs of those with whom they cooperate – if they cannot force them to cooperate through wage labour (which is a form of coercion) or a state apparatus, like today.

The problem with state socialism

This goal of communism has generally been shared by most Marxists (as well as anarcho-Communists), even if they may not have explicitly thought about the organization of a communist society in detail. Where they diverge from faction to faction, however, is the question of how to get there.

Traditionally, many Marxists have focused on gaining state power first to establish a transitional society. They can refer to Marx’ Critique of the Gotha program here, where Marx named “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” as the principle of the highest form of communism, which was in his opinion only possible when the productive forces were sufficiently developed. Until then, he suggested a model where people would not receive according to their needs but according to how much they worked, and where the state would not be abolished, but led by workers. Vladimir Lenin later called this transitional stage “socialism” to distinguish it from the ultimate goal of communism. I will call it state socialism here, since socialism is often used in a much broader sense.

The problem with state socialism is that it leaves fundamental capitalist relations intact. The difference between it and capitalism is that production is not organized by the market where capitalists compete to try to increase profits, but by the state that tries to centrally plan the production. This leads to the question of how this central plan is enforced. This can happen either through brute force, or – which is much easier – through wage labour. Private property is not abolished, but people only get access to it when they work according to the plan. The commodity form, and thus the contradiction between use value and exchange value, remains intact. People might be motivated to produce good use values, but they have to orient themselves towards exchange value in order to make a living. The state as economic planner is interested in good, yet cheap products, while the production units are interested in minimizing their effort while getting more money (or other equivalents) from the state. Thus, they still need to externalize costs and increase exploitation, almost like in capitalism. The lack of market competition takes removes some of the pressure to produce exchange value, but also leads to crappier products.

While there are many problems inherent in state socialism, the biggest question is probably how this transitional stage is supposed to move forward towards a much freer communist society which would include the withering away of the state. For most Marxists, gaining state power in order to establish socialism became the priority; the question of how to reach communism became secondary at best. Historically, state socialist countries have all either developed brutal, totalitarian bureaucracies, collapsed altogether, or moved towards free market capitalism. Nowhere has there been a development towards communism.

This did not, however change the goal of many state socialists of gaining state power. They share this goal with reformist social democrats like Corbyn and Sanders. In fact, it seems to have become so much of a priority for them that they actually forget what they wanted to get state power for in the first place – which is why they throw themselves into electoral movements for moderate social democrats, just because they speak a seemingly radical language of “socialism”.

The problem with reformism

These reformist, social democratic electoral movements have not questioned capitalism – far from it. In fact, Sanders has explicitly said multiple times that when he refers to democratic socialism, he means a welfare state like in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries – regulated capitalism, so to speak. While it would of course be a life-saving improvement to have Medicare for all, it is also necessary to consider the limitations of such a social democratic programme.

Within capitalism, the state is dependent on a growing economy, which generates the jobs and tax money that the state needs in order to actually do anything. When a state establishes high social and ecological standards, such as a high minimum wage or a carbon tax that make production more expensive for companies, they tend to move to other countries where they can produce more cheaply. Historically, social democracy has only been possible under specific circumstances, such as high growth and productivity rates, or the inter-system competition with the Eastern bloc in the post-war era. Social democracy is also inherently limited to a single nation state. To regulate capitalism in a way that makes it socially just and ecologically sustainable without externalizing costs is impossible. This can also be seen in social democracy’s favorite example of Sweden. While that country does have a relatively high carbon tax, this is reduced for those sectors that produce for export and have to compete internationally.

Even if social democratic reformism might attain some improvements, it cannot solve capitalism’s fundamental contradictions, let alone pave the way for communism.

Communism is a movement from below

If the state is not a tool that can be used to establish communism, how do we get there instead? If we do not consider communism a question of who holds state power, but a question of social relations beyond state and market, we can already see it everywhere in embryonic forms. Communism is alive in the commons; both traditional commons where land and other resources are shared and used for people’s needs, as well as modern commons such as open source software. It can even be seen – though in a very restricted way – within the capitalist economy, where self-organization has become a productive force. But most of all, it is alive everywhere where people resist oppression and build relationships of solidarity. In struggle, it is not a question of ethics or charity to include other peoples’ needs, but it is functional: we can only win when we stick together. The role of a communist movement might be to link all those existing communist relations together, to appropriate resources such as land, housing and means of production and organize re/production in a communist way – without the mediations of state and market.

If the state has any role to play in this, it would be to distribute resources to the movement. It is much more likely, however, that communism needs to be fought for against the state. This does not mean that communists should necessarily abstain from voting. Through elections, we have the possibility to vote for our preferred enemy, for conditions under which struggle might be easier. However, we should not put our energy into electoral movements for some boring social democrats who actually have nothing to do with communism at all. You can’t vote for communism; you have to build it from below.


[1] as analyzed and criticized by Daphne Lawless in the latest Fightback issue on electoralism: https://fightback.org.nz/2020/08/25/left-populism-at-the-dead-end-where-to-after-corbyn-and-sanders/

[2] Production and reproduction, which are no longer separate spheres.

Pasifika people and the New Zealand election

Fijian people queuing to vote in their elections
By SALOTE CAMA. From Fightback’s upcoming issue on Electoral Politics. To subscribe, please visit https://fightback.zoob.net/payment.html [1]

As New Zealand prepares to go to the polls in September, the debates will often be about how the government will distribute resources, what gets prioritised in this COVID-19 world, the housing crisis, and the ongoing climate crises. I am an indigenous Fijian, living and working in New Zealand, so my experience of New Zealand politics is coloured. Obviously, there are many differences between New Zealand governance and Fijian governance. Fiji is a republic, New Zealand has an MMP system, Fiji is essentially one massive electorate, and many more to name. However, there are similarities as well. Both governments are heavily invested in maintaining their influence in the region, both countries had a failed push for a change to the Union Jack on our flags in the early 2010s, and both governments are institutions built on the foundation of controlling native land for the British colonial administration.

My understanding of politics is coloured by who I am as an indigenous Fijian person, and this is highly tuned into the politics of land. How land is understood is similar in both iTaukei (indigenous Fijian) and Māori cultures, and this is evidenced in the words used in both languages – vanua in vosa vaka Viti and whenua in te reo Māori. For iTaukei land is not just the physical entity – it is what all aspects of life and society are structured around. It informs education, relationships, status, anxieties, and powers. Fears of land alienation was the reason given for Fiji’s first coup d’état. May 14, 1987 saw Dr Timoci Bavadra removed as Fiji’s Prime Minister. The coup was led by then Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka (currently serving as Fiji’s Leader of the Opposition). Two (or three, or three and a half, depending on your count) more coups have since followed, all somewhat related to these same anxieties.

Land alienation is something indigenous peoples around the world have had to grapple with, and this is definitely true when it comes to New Zealand. Fiji, some consider, to be an anomaly. iTaukei, in this case, own roughly 90% of land. This coupled with the fact that, apart from tourism, the Fiji economy is held up by land-intensive industries like agriculture, timber, and sugar. This could indicate that there is a legacy of the British colonial administration, and their “benevolence”. This benevolence is a myth. iTaukei Fijians own the land, but do not control it. They own the land as part of land-owning units called mataqali – a colonial administrative creation. This control is held in an institution called the iTaukei Land Trust Board (TLTB). The TLTB is the current iteration of the administrative process that determines what is done to iTaukei land, and has done so, on behalf of the colonial government, and in turn the Fijian state, since the turn of the twentieth century.

The colonial project in Viti, in Aotearoa, and in the Pacific was – and is – a series of power plays that seek to gain position and influence for the colonial powers. It is interested only in its own protection and its own authority. Our lands were no longer extensions of who we are, but instead a means of production – a means of gaining wealth to prop up colonialism and capitalism. Our lands were also used to take advantage, to sow distrust, to disenfranchise, and to break collectives.

Land is not immediately at the forefront of the current crop of questions that voters are supposedly asking during the New Zealand election campaign. The economy, COVID-19 recovery, the housing crisis, the climate crises: these are what the hoardings dotting fences on busy streets are centred on. Peel back these questions, and you can see that essentially voters are asking what are we prioritising? The New Zealand Labour Party is going into these elections with a wave of political capital, and generally high polling numbers. Its leader, Jacinda Ardern, is the face of a globally recognised “kindness” brand of politics. Its opposition, the New Zealand National Party, is marred by recent bouts of in-fighting, scandals, low polling numbers and a controversial leader in Judith Collins. Some of the strongest Labour seats in the last election are Pasifika strongholds: there is a strong affiliation between Pasifika communities and the Labour Party. The official Labour campaign launch at Auckland’s Town Hall saw a single announcement of policy from the Labour Party – a regurgitation of National Party policy from 2012, albeit with more funding (this funding will be from the unspent wage subsidy funding). What does this mean for Fijian, and Pasifika, voters in New Zealand? Loyalty to a party, flush with political capital, who has given us just one piece of centrist policy with just over a month to the elections.

The traumas of the colonial project in the Pacific are not only being actively ignored, but are being added to. From the military-industrial complex that is demanding war games in the middle of a pandemic in Hawai’i, to Judith Collins dismissing the goals of mana whenua to protect Ihumātao as “nonsense,” to the loud silence of the New Zealand government in the face of the continued oppression of West Papua by the Indonesian government, and the current refusal to support the West Papua Decolonisation Committee at the United Nations – these traumas are painful, complex, and have ever-changing faces.

Maybe the question of what this (election) means for Fijian, and Pasifika, voters in New Zealand is not necessarily a fair, or good question. Pasifika communities in New Zealand are not just invested in the results of the New Zealand elections. We are too diverse and invested to have a solidly satisfying monolithic answer.  Perhaps I am asking too much of a system that sees whenua as just another means that can further entrench capitalism, another means to further promote colonialism. And because it cannot see the whenua as what it really is, it cannot see us as wholly who we are – because the vanua is inherently a part of our being. Our survival as a culture is predicated on the protection of whenua, of fonua, of vanua. This is not a “proper” election issue, nor is it a Labour Party specific issue, and Pasifika people will most likely remain loyal to the Labour Party through the upcoming elections. But in the immortal words of Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi “withdrawal or non-participation is an option open to idealists and cynics… we owe it to … ourselves to deal with the consequences as they are, not as we would like them to be.”


[1] Editor’s note on style: Salote uses the term Pasifika in this article to refer to the various peoples of the Pacific Islands. Elsewhere in this issue we have used the alternative spelling Pasefika (which is from the Samoan language) or simply referred to “Pacific peoples”.

The crowded mess on NZ’s populist Right

New Zealand’s New Conservatives promote conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 virus being bacteriological warfare by the Chinese Communist Party; Facebook attaches a warning label.
By BYRON CLARK. From Fightback‘s upcoming issue on Electoral Politics. To subscribe, please visit https://fightback.zoob.net/payment.html

The 2020 election has shown that New Zealand is not immune to the wave of right-wing populism that we’ve seen overseas. In June Fightback covered the entry of various far-right ideas and individuals into the New Conservative Party.[1] Newshub picked up the story in July.[2] Right Minds founder Dieuwe de Boer, who has described his movement as having overlapping goals with the content of the Christchurch shooters manifesto is standing for the party in the Botany electorate.[3] Deputy leader Elliot Ikilei talks about the superiority of Western culture, and has repeatedly denied that the shooter was a white supremacist.[4] (Leader Leighton Baker usually appears more moderate.)

The party is a rebranding of the old Conservative Party led by Colin Craig, which in 2014 came close to getting representation in parliament with 4% of the vote. In 2017 though, without Craig’s leadership -and without his substantial financial backing, their vote plummeted to 0.2%, just over 6,000 votes. In the intervening years, however, they have built a sizable following on social media, especially Facebook, and typically poll at around 1%.

While their zero net migration policy dates back to the Craig era, New Conservative courted a particularly xenophobic base through their involvement in the campaign against the UN Migration Compact which had been started by far-right groups in Europe.[5] That campaign had been worryingly successful, with mainstream right-wing parties adopting opposition to the compact as policy. When the man who carried out the mass shooting in Christchurch was revealed to have had “here’s your migration compact!” written on one of his guns, National and ACT backtracked on their opposition. This resulted in a minor scandal after National removed a petition against the compact from their website in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, claimed it had been removed weeks earlier, and when that was shown to be false, scapegoated a former press secretary who then leader Simon Bridges described as an “emotional junior staffer”.[6] The New Conservatives however have dug in their heels on the issue.

The party has fomented a panic about transgender “ideology” being taught in schools,[7] and has a policy to put solo mothers in “residential accommodation with a suitably trained/experienced couple as hosts.”[8] Despite their ideal New Zealand sounding like The Republic of Gilead from Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, the New Conservatives avoid referring to themselves as an explicitly Christian party.

In March 2019 Ikilei told The Spinoff that “Despite not being a Christian party, we are the only party who has universal values that Christians hold to.”[9] However, as Ikilei gave that interview, Destiny Church, the evangelical ministry led by Brian Tamaki, was also launching a party. They had done so before, with the Destiny Party gaining 0.6% of the vote in 2005. The new party, today called Vision New Zealand after the electoral commission rejected the name ‘Coalition New Zealand’, is led by Hannah Tamaki (wife of Brian).

Vision has come out with numerous alt-right friendly statements, with Tamaki calling for a 97% cut to immigration numbers,[10] suggesting that rather than accepting refugees New Zealand should pay them not to come here[11] and vowing to ban the construction of new “mosques, temples and other foreign buildings of worship” if elected.[12] Her husband Brian had previously claimed that broadcasting the Islamic call to prayer across the country during a remembrance service in for the Christchurch mosque shooting would turn New Zealand into an Islamic state,[13] and in a sponsored Facebook post stated “we can not accept the proliferation of Islam in our country”.

Despite Vision’s obvious links to Destiny Church, Tamaki, much like the leaders of New Conservative, has claimed that her political vehicle is not a Christian party. This makes it possible for the newly registered ONE party to somewhat accurately make the claim that they are the only Christian Party running in the 2020 election.

ONE offers, according to their website, “a fresh wave of political forerunners who uphold not only the Christian values, but the Christ that we value”.[14] To hammer the point home, the party launched at the site of the first Christian service held in New Zealand.[15]

On immigration, ONE stops short of the dramatic cuts proposed by Vision and the New Conservatives (though they would slash the annual refugee intake from 1500 to just 350). Aspects of the policy appear to have been written with Muslim immigrants in mind, appealing to those concerned about potential ‘Sharia law’ with the position that “Immigrants entering New Zealand cannot advocate or practice alternative law courts contrary to New Zealand law courts”.[16]

Surprisingly for a party their size, one of their ten policies is on Israel (there is no detailed policy on relations with any other country).[17] ONE would like to see New Zealand establish an embassy in Jerusalem and apologise to Israel for New Zealand’s sponsoring of UN Resolution 2334, which states that Israel’s settlement activity in the occupied territories constitutes a “flagrant violation” of international law. These views are shared by the New Conservatives, who list New Zealand–Israel relations as one of their eight policy pillars.[18] Presumably in both cases the policy and the priority given to it results from the influence of Christian Zionism in these groups.[19]

For the New Conservatives, this policy upset the anti-Semitic supporters they had picked up by speaking at rallies attended by the far-right. “Jews are a threat to the Goyim, that’s their name for non-Jews, it means ‘Cattle’.” wrote one commenter on the Facebook post announcing the policy.[20] “I was a huge supporter until this. This is your true colours laid bare. Total Ziocon shills.” wrote another.[21]

The Outdoors Party

The Outdoors Party was formed in 2015, so will be contesting their second election this year. In 2017, they won 1,620 votes, just over half of the 3,005 gained by the single issue Ban1080 party. With that party gone, The Outdoors Party has picked up the issue and plans to ride a wave of opposition to the use of “1080” poison for pest control to parliament.[22] (They have yet to register in any polls)

The party also seeks a moratorium on the roll out of fifth generation mobile technology (5G).[23] Fears about the technology, including conspiracy theories linking it to the Covid-19 pandemic, have become widespread, resulting in a number of arson attacks on communications infrastructure.[24] In a statement on the arsons, party co-leader Sue Grey was quoted as saying “The New Zealand Outdoors Party understands the frustrations felt by New Zealanders as unwanted new cell towers have emerged like pimples around New Zealand, without consultation or consent from local residents or councils”.[25] (The mobile towers that have been set alight were not 5G towers.)

The party made headlines in June, but perhaps not for the reasons they would like. At a rally where supporters were encouraged to share thoughts by writing in chalk on the pavement, a woman (not involved with the rally) rubbed out the phrase “it’s okay to be white” a slogan that began as a trolling campaign on 4chan and was soon adopted by white supremacists.[26] An Outdoors Party supporter chased the young woman, who is Asian, yelling “You are racist! You are racist against us New Zealanders, now get out! Look at you rubbing out all of our words – go back to your own country!”[27]

In March the party had absorbed another small right-wing populist group, The Real New Zealand Party, with founder David Moffet being appointed to their board. “When it became apparent that the Real NZ Party was not going to reach the 500 member threshold to form a party, it engaged in discussions with the NZ Outdoors Party. It quickly became evident that they are a great bunch of people with almost identical aspirations to ours.” he said in a press release.[28]

Moffet, a former New Zealand Rugby CEO, had previously been on the board of the New Conservative Party (it’s unclear why he left to form his own party). Stuff reported that he was motivated to get involved in politics by the campaign against the UN Migration Compact. Moffet claimed that the pact would lead to “plane loads” of violent rapists from East Africa arriving in New Zealand and that a “boatload” of 200 Indians was on its way.[29]

“I don’t think they are refugees.” Moffet told Stuff in January 2019:

…immigrants is not the right word. I don’t want to use the word invaders because I don’t want this to be right in everybody’s faces. But they are seeking to land in a welfare country such as New Zealand and they are doing it illegally…what the people smugglers tell them [is] if you get to Australia or New Zealand… they’ll give you a house, they’ll give you medical, free schooling, free everything else.

Moffett’s imagined boatload of Indians never arrived; in fact, no asylum seekers have reached New Zealand by boat. When asylum seekers do arrive in New Zealand by plane, they are not given houses, medical care and schooling. They are detained in prisons. “You know the last 20 years of policy and action on this issue is actually pretty shameful.” Amnesty International’s Anneliese Johnson told The New Zealand Herald in January. “I think a lot of people would be surprised to know that we have asylum seekers currently in our prisons in New Zealand.”[30]

The New Zealand Public Party

A late comer is the New Zealand Public Party, led by Billy Te Kahika Jr, son of a famous blues-rock guitarist and a noted musician himself.[31] Te Kahika started the party after his Facebook live videos claiming that the public wasn’t being given the true facts about the coronavirus gained a large audience. The government’s support for the goals of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, is also a concern for him. “Where this is all going is Jacinda wants to sign us up to the UN programme Agenda 2030 and that’s a complete destruction of Kiwi freedoms and democracy.” he told Waatea News.[32]

These goals, which relate to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice, were agreed upon by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 and are intended to be achieved by the year 2030. Its predecessor, Agenda 21, which came out of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, is a popular target of right-wing conspiracy theorists.

“The demonization of Agenda 21 began among extremist groups like the John Birch Society” reads an article on the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a US based organisation that tracks extremist groups. “The Birch Society and an array of other radical-right groups see Agenda 21 and virtually all other global efforts as part of a nefarious plan on the part of global elites to form a socialistic one-world government, or “New World Order.”“[33] This “Bircher” rhetoric is echoed by the NZ Public Party: “It does not matter which of the two main colours you vote for” reads their website. “They are both in bed with the UN, despite the fact that YOU, the public, never voted for this”.[34]

Right-wing unity?

Billy Te Kahika made overtures to the other right-populist parties to merge with his NZ Public Party. An arrangement with Vision New Zealand looked close to happening. “Our proposal to Vision was simple & consistent with what we had discussed with members and other parties” wrote Te Kahika in a statement posted to Facebook by the party. “1. Merge with NZPP and rebrand to NZPP. 2. Hannah could be Deputy Leader 3. We would take all of and respect their candidates.”[35]

But in a “last-minute meeting” Vision had apparently decided Hannah Tamaki would remain leader with Te Kahika as deputy. Te Kahika rejected this arrangement. “This would have destroyed all that NZPP stood for and built. We were astounded at the lack of integrity and forthrightness of a ‘Christian’ organisation.”

An attempt to merge with the Outdoors Party also failed, according to Waatea News.[36] A statement published on the Outdoors Party Facebook page claims “There is almost mass hysteria on facebook begging us to join with Billy Te Kahika and the Public Party.” and lists eleven questions they want answered before any possible merger. Among them:

We understand Michael Stace (formerly known as Michael Leon) who proposed the Reset NZ Party is involved in marketing Billy. We need clarification as to why he changed his name and an explanation about his “Master Mason” title and his work for and any ongoing relationship with the Freemasons so our team can better understand and implications this may have.[37]

It seems promoting UN Agenda 2030 conspiracy theories isn’t enough to get other conspiracy theorists on side if your organisation has a Masonic connection. “I’m gonna tell you right now, I’m not going to be voting for the New Zealand Public Party” states Damien de Ment, an American expat who has become New Zealand’s biggest promoter of the Qanon conspiracy on YouTube.

I have too many concerns, too many red flags have come up in the last couple of weeks. For instance, party manager Michael Stace, his background in Free Masonry (sic) – he was the director of communications and marketing for the Free Masons of New Zealand, that’s a pretty big title for an organisation that has tentacles in a lot of places”.[38]

De Ment is voting for the New Conservatives, he explains:

They may not be jawboning the whole truth movement that I’m very passionate about, ya’ know, crimes against humanity, Qanon, taking down the cabal and the deep state, but I promise you, Elliot and Leighton know that these – this paradigm exists, that these conspiracies are absolutely real, but they have to run an effective campaign to get as many votes as they can and appeal to a wider audience. So you may be frustrated right now that they’re not talking about these truth topics as much as the New Zealand Public Party, but I don’t see how the New Zealand Public Party right now is benefiting the political landscape if they’re not even registered yet.

On YouTube, still the video platform of choice for voters who have rejected the “mainstream media”, the differences between the various minor parties are debated and defended. “Billy’s a really charismatic guy, I like him.” says Elliot Ikilei, appearing on The Vinny Eastwood Show. “From the very first time we had lunch it was really cool. I like the way he thinks about – in terms of specific agenda items and the UN.”[39]

Eastwood is a New Zealander, but his show is broadcast on American Freedom Radio (as well as on YouTube), AFR shows cover all the usual topics for conspiracy theory enthusiasts – chemtrails, UFOs, the New World Order etc. When I visit for researching this article, their website tells me that there have been over 21,000 other visits from New Zealand this month.

“When it was discussed about the idea of a merger” continues Ikilei “or at least the model that was put forward, we politely declined.” The New Conservative Party believes joining with the New Zealand Public Party would have resulted in them doing most of the work, but Billy Te Kahika getting the publicity. This episode of the show is sponsored, somewhat ironically, by The New Zealand Public Party, who seem to know where to find a receptive audience.

Te Kahika: a polarising figure

Aside from petty sectarianism and clashing egos, a significant divide on the populist fringe is race. To some Pākehā social media personalities Billy Te Kahika appeared to come out of nowhere with a large following, but conspiratorial ideas have been gaining a foothold among Māori for some time. That a Māori populist leader would emerge parallel to but independent from the likes of New Conservative, who favour abolishing the Māori seats in parliament and call institutional racism a “well debunked myth”[40] is not wholly surprising.

“Amid this pandemic, the conspiracy theories are like a virus on social media…Māori are really susceptible, it seems to me, to these kinds of really bad information and fake news” That was how Bay of Plenty regional councillor Toi Iti put it in a livestreamed korero with Waiariki MP Tamati Coffey in April. “It’s driving me crazy, is it driving you crazy Tamati?”

“It is driving me crazy” replied Coffey “it’s driving me crazy, in fact I was asked about it this morning, the whole 5G thing…I don’t believe in chemtrails, but I know plenty of my whānau that have brought into it, and subscribe to the Facebook pages and get updates regularly.”[41]

Karaitiana Taiuru, a Māori cultural adviser in the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) area, and a doctoral student at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, told The Spinoff that Māori communities are vulnerable to believing these kinds of ideas because of widespread, generational mistrust in the government.[42]

For Terry Opines, a far-right YouTuber who is supporting the New Conservatives, Te Kahika’s connection to te ao Māori is a big red flag:

I want some real questions answered, like who’s funding him, is he being funded by Iwi? And why is he so closely associated with Mark Solomon? The former leader of Ngai Tahu, is he funding him? and given the fact that his business interests have focused explicitly on Māori interests as opposed to New Zealanders in general we must ask this question, is he a separatist?

These questions were asked in one of what are now several exposé style videos on Te Kahika. [43]

Lee Williams, the man behind another local far-right YouTube channel; ‘Cross The Rubicon’ spoke of the backlash he received for sharing Opines’ video “I got a backlash for backing up Terry’s video and sharing Terry’s video…a lot of people got on to me calling me a racist, racist against Māori – and some of these people have been my subscribers in the past”.[44]

Williams has posted numerous videos where he scaremongers about immigration, particularly of Muslims. He was visited twice by police following the attacks on Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic centre, and has used that incident to further his popularity on YouTube, today he has over 13,000 subscribers. The Māori share of that audience were evidently on board when he spoke about foreigners, but have now changed their opinion of him.

“I’m getting so much push back from my last video with concerns of Billy TK’s NZPP.” Williams wrote in a text post on YouTube. “Some real venom showed here calling me racist and Māori hater. It’s like I’ve asked questions of someone from the left, and the cultural Marxists have come out to do what they do.”[45]

Where next for the populist right?

Williams reneged on his opposition to Te Kahika after meeting with him at his motel room in Christchurch. On the 15th of July he posted a video titled “For the greater good of this nation we should join together”:

For the greater good of New Zealand sacrifices have to be made by the leaders of the smaller parties [he wrote in the description]… Put your differences, and egos aside to be stronger as one United force. The most important thing now, with two months to go to the election is getting this UN, CCP, WHO, Soros, Gates backed puppet out of power. Jacinda has to go![46]

William’s rhetoric is detached from reality, as the combined vote for these five parties is at best 2%, but commenters on his video turn the detachment dial up to 11: “Māori and European nationalists must join to defeat the radical left who will destroy New Zealand’s traditions and way of life…2020 is the most important election NZ has ever faced.”

On July 26, Billy Te Kahika announced an alliance with Jami-Lee Ross, parliament’s only independent MP. Ross was elected on the National Party ticket and is expected not to retain his electorate seat. Te Kahika will stand in the Māori electorate of Te Tai Tokerau, where his Christian ministry is based. A win is unlikely but not necessarily impossible.

Ross told media that the goal was to form a “centrist version” of the Alliance, a left-of-Labour grouping that existed in the 1990s and 2000s. The New Conservatives and the Outdoors Party reiterated their disinterest in this idea. Geoff Simmons from the Opportunities Party, a populist party that unlike the aforementioned could fairly be called centrist, was even less keen: “no way would I ever stand on a stage and shake hands with those snake oil salesmen.” he told The Spinoff.[47]

Social Credit, who were part of the original Alliance, have been approached, as has the Heartland New Zealand Party led by former Franklin District mayor Mark Ball. Vision New Zealand appear to have burnt their bridges. Even if some sort of alliance is cobbled together in the weeks leading up to the election, it looks like there will be multiple parties competing for the same target audience of right leaning conspiracy theorists.

Most voters will go to the polls and wonder who all these parties are. Those who sympathise with these group’s views will make a decision as to which one will get their tick, or in some cases cast a vote for National or ACT out of concern a minor party vote would be ineffective.

By the time the 2023 election rolls around, it’s unlikely the exact same parties will be there. Conservative Christianity has always had a small political presence in New Zealand, so it’s probable that at least one party will be around to represent those voters. With the decline of New Zealand First, the traditional choice for voters motivated by xenophobia, it’s possible New Conservative could fill that niche – perhaps while also being the choice for Christian fundamentalist voters.

Diewue de Boer, who straddles both those demographics, has indicated he is in this for the long haul. “I hope to learn lots from this campaign season, contribute as much as I can, and look forward to being part of conservative politics in the coming decades” he wrote in the introduction to his speech at the New Conservative campaign launch.[48]

As social media platforms do more to prevent the spread of misinformation – Twitter recently removed 7,000 accounts associated with the Qanon conspiracy, for example[49] – the growth of these movements will slow. Research has shown that as a tactic to limit the spread of disinformation, deplatforming works.[50] Nonetheless, conspiracy theories and far-right beliefs existed prior to the rise of social media, so deplatforming won’t make them disappear entirely. Applying a false information label to content shared by the New Conservatives (as Facebook did last April) might deter a few potential supporters, but not those already convinced that fact-checking is part of a vast left-wing conspiracy.

The hard-right in New Zealand is inspired and motivated by events overseas: Brexit in the UK, the election of Donald Trump in the US and the success of various ideologically similar parties in Europe – Hungary in particular- so to some extent what happens in this country will depend on what happens elsewhere.

The perfect storm of factors that led to five different right-wing populist parties – or even more, depending on how loosely one defines right-wing populist – gaining enough members to be on the ballot (even if only the largest of them managed to register in polls) is likely to be confined to 2020, but the views these groups espouse will continue to be a part of New Zealand’s political landscape. The question is whether they will return to the margins, or inch closer to the mainstream. Dr M. R. X. Dentith, a philosopher and conspiracy theory expert, told Newsroom that we shouldn’t ignore these movements because of their small size.

Part of the problem with the growth of the alt-right in Europe and the US, for a long period of time we said these people are minor parts of the population, they’re always going to be around, but they’re not particularly big and they’re not particularly popular. We can ignore them in political debates…

And that allowed them to grow in the background with no one paying any attention to them to the point where they actually emerged as a big problem. Actually, if we had dealt with this years ago, this wouldn’t be an issue now.[51]


[1]              https://fightback.org.nz/2020/06/12/how-the-far-right-found-a-home-in-the-new-conservative-party/

[2]              https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/shows/2020/07/new-conservatives-defend-western-culture-as-greatest-in-the-world-warn-nz-sliding-toward-socialism.html

[3]              https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/christchurch-shooting/111387889/radical-losers-and-lone-wolves-what-drives-the-altright

[4]              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUwlWlRQzeU

[5]              https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/31-12-2019/summer-reissue-the-furious-world-of-new-zealands-far-right-nationalists/; https://www.politico.eu/article/united-nations-migration-pact-how-got-trolled/

[6]              https://www.odt.co.nz/news/national/emotional-junior-staffer-national-worker-who-deleted-petition-not-so-junior

[7]              https://fightback.org.nz/2019/08/23/a-report-from-the-new-conservative-meeting-in-christchurch/

[8]              https://www.newconservative.org.nz/welfare-policy

[9]              https://thespinoff.co.nz/the-bulletin/23-05-2019/the-bulletin-christian-and-conservative-party-field-gets-crowded

[10]             https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/politics/2019/05/hannah-tamaki-calls-for-97-percent-immigration-cut.html

[11]             https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/politics/2019/10/hannah-tamaki-wants-to-pay-refugees-not-to-come-to-new-zealand.html

[12]             https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/politics/2019/11/hannah-tamaki-s-vision-nz-says-it-will-ban-the-construction-of-mosques-temples-and-other-foreign-buildings.html

[13]             https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12241008

[14]             https://oneparty.net/faq/

[15]             https://www.nzherald.co.nz/northern-advocate/news/article.cfm?c_id=1503450&objectid=12340560

[16]             https://oneparty.net/priorities/immigration/

[17]             https://oneparty.net/priorities/israel/

[18]             https://www.newconservative.org.nz/nz-israel-position-statement

[19]             https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/18-08-2020/a-revelation-in-marton-the-spinoff-meets-new-zealands-newest-christian-party/

[20]             https://www.facebook.com/NewConservativeNZ/posts/2368235069919483?
comment_id=2368617633214560

[21]             https://www.facebook.com/NewConservativeNZ/posts/2368235069919483?
comment_id=2368640313212292

[22]             https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/11-01-2020/outdoors-party-reckons-it-can-ride-an-anti-1080-wave-to-parliament-in-2020/; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1080_usage_in_New_Zealand

[23]             https://www.outdoorsparty.co.nz/nz-outdoors-party-policy-on-5g/

[24]             https://thespinoff.co.nz/society/18-05-2020/how-5g-and-covid-19-mixed-to-make-a-toxic-conspiracy-cocktail/

[25]             https://suegrey.co.nz/index.php/2020/05/18/cell-towers-burning-off-democracy/

[26]             https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/its-okay-to-be-white

[27]             https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2020/06/race-relations-commissioner-blasts-appalling-racist-abuse-towards-young-woman-at-outdoors-party-rally.html

[28]             https://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO2003/S00246/former-rugby-ceo-david-moffett-joins-the-nz-outdoors-party-as-executive-director.htm

[29]             https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/110099964/former-nz-rugby-boss-david-moffett-now-tackling-populist-politics

[30]             https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12339908

[31]             https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_TK

[32]             https://www.waateanews.com/waateanews/x_news/MjQ5NjI/Paakiwaha/COVID-19-gives-Billy-TK-the-UN-red-flag-blues

[33]             https://www.splcenter.org/20140331/agenda-21-un-sustainability-and-right-wing-conspiracy-theory

[34]             https://www.nzpublicparty.org.nz/un-agenda-21-and-agenda-2030

[35]             https://bit.ly/32HVYnM

[36]             https://www.waateanews.com/waateanews/x_news/MjUwMTc/Public-Party-praying-for-electoral-lifeline

[37]             https://www.facebook.com/nzoutdoorsparty/posts/3390632597661581

[38]             https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyL0jLqvskY

[39]             https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGlnVrwtkuI

[40]             https://www.facebook.com/NewConservativeNZ/photos/a.552878204788521/3080786001997716/

[41]             https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=553179278654470

[42]             https://thespinoff.co.nz/atea/14-07-2020/why-Māori-communities-are-more-vulnerable-to-5g-conspiracies/

[43]             https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L113FB319_o

[44]             https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3yoMxSs3oVQ

[45]             https://www.youtube.com/post/UgynPk8_11oi5CJD3JF4AaABCQ

[46]             https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTfiPO0mQNQ

[47]             https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/26-07-2020/jami-lee-ross-billy-te-kahika-and-the-rebel-alliance-of-election-2020/

[48]             https://www.rightminds.nz/articles/doing-what-works-my-speech-new-conservative-2020-campaign-launch

[49]             https://www.euronews.com/2020/07/22/qanon-twitter-bans-7-000-accounts-linked-to-conspiracy-theory-group-thecube

[50]             https://www.hopenothate.org.uk/2019/10/04/deplatforming-works-lets-get-on-with-it/

[51]             https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/26-07-2020/jami-lee-ross-billy-te-kahika-and-the-rebel-alliance-of-election-2020/

Left Populism at the dead end: where to after Corbyn and Sanders?

by DAPHNE LAWLESS. From Fightback‘s upcoming issue on Electoral Politics. To subscribe, please visit https://fightback.zoob.net/payment.html
What’s wrong with this picture?

Introduction: the dream is over

On 8th April 2020, Keir Starmer replaced Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the British Labour Party, following that party’s trouncing by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in the December 2019 election. On the same day, Senator Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for US president, soon after his disappointing results in the “Super Tuesday” Presidential primary elections which were dominated decisively by centrist former Vice-President Joe Biden.

To be dramatic, we could call this “the day the dream ended”. That dream was one shared by much of the Left over the last ten years: that nascent Left-wing “populist” electoral movements across the world, often arising from protest movements such as Occupy or the demonstrations against austerity in Greece, would arise to defeat both the neoliberal establishment and the rising tide of Right-wing populist, even fascist, movements. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are the names most commonly associated with this movement in English speaking countries, but other movements such as PODEMOS in the Spanish state, or SYRIZA in Greece, have also caused much excitement on the broader Left. The former is currently the junior coalition government partner in Spain, and the latter led the government of Greece from 2015-2019.[1] Further back in history, the “pink tide” governments in Latin America, most famously that of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, can also be seen in this category.

So why has this “Left-populist” wave reached such a dead end? And was it a wrong direction to start with?

Bernie Sanders: where was the turnout?

The strongest argument for Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was always that “Bernie” was unique in having a mass movement behind him dominated by youth, who were excited and motivated by his social-democratic, anti-establishment message. None of the other, centrist candidates, the argument went, could match the “enthusiasm” and “energy” of the Bernie wave – and if Bernie were to be nominated, this wave would then go on to completely swamp the Trump campaign. Excitable online leftists, such as Will Menaker from the podcast Chapo Trap House, enthused about how the centrist Democrat establishment would soon have to “bend the knee” before the Bernie movement[2], while journalist David Klion was even more optimistic about the future:

As it turned out, there was something of a landslide on “Super Tuesday”, 3rd March 2020, when 14 states held their primaries. Turnout for the Democratic primaries was much higher than in 2016; in states such as Virginia, it doubled.[3] African-Americans, Latin@s and others in working-class suburbs queued for up to 7 hours (due to deliberate underprovision of polling places by Republican state governments) to vote…[4] and the results were excellent for Joe Biden, and disappointing for Bernie Sanders, essentially ending the latter’s chances of winning the nomination.

The immediate counter-reaction from the Sanders camp was to point out that overwhelmingly older voters (tending to support Biden) had turned out, while younger, more Sanders-inclined voters didn’t. But that begs the question. Bernie’s fabled support had not appeared at the polls. Of course, polling times and polling places were inconvenient for young people – exactly as they will be in the November general election. No matter the quality of the Sanders programme, this was powerful negative evidence about his ability to defeat Donald Trump.

One explanation was this was a real-time demonstration of “Cuomo’s Law”. In 2019, the centrist governor of New York state, Andrew Cuomo, was challenged from the Left by Cynthia Nixon, an actress best known for her role in the TV show Sex and the City. Her campaign was extremely popular on social media, but in the end Cuomo defeated her by 31 points.[5] The social media “buzz” behind Nixon ended up having little relevance to actual elections. Hence, one Twitter user suggested “Cuomo’s Law”: that online politics have nothing to do with real life.[6] That is, the argument was that the Sanders mass movement was only an Internet phenomenon, unable to be translated into ballots going into boxes.

Others have given more substantive political analyses for why the Sanders campaign stalled in the primaries. Journalist Zack Beauchamp argues:

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s theory of victory was simple: An unapologetically socialist politics centering Medicare-for-all and welfare state expansions would unite the working class and turn out young people at unprecedented rates, creating a multiracial, multigenerational coalition that could lead Sanders to the Democratic nomination and the White House… In a 2019 essay in the socialist magazine Jacobin, Princeton professor Matt Karp staked his case for Sanders on the candidate’s ability to win over economically precarious voters by appealing to their common interest.

In the end, this approach failed. It was former Vice President Joe Biden, not Bernie Sanders, who assembled a multiracial working-class coalition in key states like Michigan — where Biden won every single county, regardless of income levels or racial demographics.

Sanders had success in shifting the Democratic Party in his direction on policy. But the strategy for winning power embraced by his partisans depended on a mythologized and out-of-date theory of blue-collar political behavior, one that assumes that a portion of the electorate is crying out for socialism on the basis of their class interest. Identity, in all its complexities, appears to be far more powerful in shaping voters’ behaviors than the material interests given pride of place in Marxist theory.[7]

Those who really believed that the Sanders campaign was a “political revolution” that would destroy the centrist Clinton/Obama/Biden Democrats as well as the Trumpist Republicans must have been disoriented that Bernie Sanders has joined Joe Biden in rejecting the quite moderate slogan of “Defund the Police”[8]; or when Sanders argues that Biden might turn out to be “the most progressive President since Franklin Roosevelt”.[9] If we believe the analysis of David Atkins, this statement by Sanders (quite wild on the surface) might make some sense:

The reality is that leftist policy has never been more ascendant in the Democratic Party since at least the 1960s if not the 1930s. The Biden 2020 campaign platform is well to the left of the Clinton 2016 platform, which was itself well to the left of the Obama 2008 platform. Every major candidate in the 2020 field ran either on some version of Medicare for All, or at least a public option and Medicare expansion as a pathway toward it.

Every major candidate proposed much bolder action on climate change than the Obama administration, and major policies to address student debt and college tuition. And on social policy from LGBT rights to criminal justice, the difference between the Democratic Party of today and that of 10 years ago could not be more stark. Most of those advances are due to the hard work of leftists whose tireless advocacy has successfully won the force of moral argument and persuaded mainstream Democratic base voters and independents.[10]

The Democratic Party has moved to at least rhetorically embrace some of the reforms demanded by the ongoing Black Lives Matter uprising.[11] While there is cause for scepticism that fine words in opposition will mean anything if and when Biden makes it into the White House, results from recent Democratic primaries suggest that a new crop of progressive legislators will be joining Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others in the House of Representatives to push for these ideas.[12] The movement to elect candidates (almost inevitably from within the Democratic Party) who will promote economic justice, universal healthcare and other supportable reforms can and should continue, intersecting with Black Lives Matter and all the other mass movements for justice and dignity.

In contrast, the presidential election is now a simple referendum on the accelerating, murderous and increasingly authoritarian disaster of Trumpism. Biden’s lead in the polls corresponds with more than 160,000 dead in the COVID-19 pandemic due to federal non-response; plain-clothes federal agents snatching protestors off the streets of Portland; Trump’s blatant misuses of power to harass personal enemies, exonerate criminals who happen to be his allies, and attempt to depress voter turnout; levels of graft and self-dealing within the administration which are beginning to disgust many lifelong conservatives and corporate donors; and Trump’s increasingly naked appeal to racism, xenophobia and bloodlust.

Given all of this, Biden’s greyness, “easy-going” persona and appeal to nostalgia is proving extremely popular in the polls, to the point where he hardly seems to need to leave his house to campaign. While Sanders himself has embraced party discipline and swung his full support against Biden, an initial common reaction from his supporters to their defeat was dire prophecies that Biden would fail to motivate voters, and be utterly trounced in the general election by incumbent President Donald Trump. Some, such as the British-based magazine Salvage,[13] but many others online, even concluded that the Democratic Party leadership knows full well that Biden will not and even cannot win against Trump, and that they supported his doomed candidacy because Bernie was seen as a greater threat.

This analysis seems to embody “Cuomo’s Law”, in that it makes perfect sense for a certain online Left bubble, but does not take into account the disconnect between “very online leftists” and the actually-existing masses of working people, who took to the polls despite suppression to make Biden their standard-bearer against Trump.

We must of course fight any beliefs that Democrats in power will do anything better than restoring “capitalist normality”, except under the pressure of a mass movement backed by labour action. The Left has good reason to be repelled by Joe Biden’s moderate-at-best record as a legislator and as Vice President, his appeal to nostalgia for the good old days of bipartisanship, his stutter and verbal gaffes which are wrongly argued by some to be evidence of cognitive decline, and the believable claims of sexual assault against him by ex-staffer Tara Reade (all things that Salvage exaggerates for polemical effect). Similarly, it is important to critique the record of his running mate, Kamala Harris, as Attorney-General of California, who sued to deny trans prisoners health care and in many other ways upheld the very prison-industrial complex that the BLM/George Floyd protests are up against.[14]

It was completely correct for Sanders and Warren to mount a strenuous campaign against the “business as usual, back to normality” retro-neoliberalism presented by Biden and the other centrist candidates – and the activist Left must continue to hold Biden and Harris accountable for both their record and their proposals for office. But Biden showed support where it matters for electoral politics, at the ballot box in the primaries (by a significantly larger margin than Clinton in 2016) against all his Democratic challengers of both centrist and liberal varieties, who had none of the personal problems mentioned above. Moreover, according to the latest polling, Biden is currently also winning it handily against incumbent President Donald Trump – who has all of Biden’s problems, and more besides, in addition to his repulsive personality and increasingly fascistic politics.

This article is being written months before the November election, and it is of course still possible that Trump’s increasingly naked appeal to naked authoritarianism, racist violence and a “culture war” narrative might pull him over the line in the distorted Electoral College. Or, failing that, his attacks on postal voting and attempts to defund the Post Office might become part of a wider movement to discredit or even rig the election, after which he would simply dare Democrats to try to shift him out of the White House. However, the Black, migrant, queer, working-class and other oppressed communities of the United States are not going to be won to an insurrectionist perspective until they have exhausted the electoral route. It is one thing to counsel preparations for mass strikes and insurrection should Trump successfully rig the election; it is a bridge too far, here and now, to suggest giving up on the presidential election altogether. Even in Belarus, the masses waited until after Lukashenko’s rigged election to rise up.

In any case, the question of Trump rigging the election would be also faced by a Sanders-led ticket. Right now, Biden is ahead by an average of more than 7 points in opinion polls, a level Clinton in 2016 never reached.[15] Arguments that Bernie Sanders would be in a better position to lead opposition to Trump had he won the nomination are unfalsifiable and therefore useless. Leftists who have gone from cheerleading Sanders’ left-electoral programme to counselling electoral nihilism seem more interested in finding an excuse, any excuse, not to vote for Biden and Harris than in seriously building mass politics. A more useful reaction to the Sanders defeat is probably this:

Bernie collecting millions of campaign dollars from young, unemployed & marginalized people, just to bow out, endorse Biden & stand against defunding police—which is the start of abolition— is a good reminder that career politicians are not for you. Righteousness is w/ the people.[16]

Meanwhile, in Britain…

When Fightback wrote about Jeremy Corbyn’s movement in 2017, after British Labour’s much better than expected result in the parliamentary election of that year, we credited this success to the Corbyn leadership’s successful “fudge” on Brexit, refusing to take a clear Remain or Leave position.[17]

However, by December 2019, the benefits of ambiguity had dissolved. As the actual deadline for a final decision on Brexit drew nearer, it became clear that the Conservative government would take a “hard Brexit” (cutting all ties to the EU) as an excuse for a bonfire of laws on worker protection, human rights and even the National Health Service. This was surely the time to squarely stand for cancelling or at least delaying Brexit, rather than to continue to pretend that this issue was a distraction. Former Scottish Labour advisor Ayesha Hazarika argues:

The huge mistake that we made over Brexit was at the end, it didn’t matter what our position was, it was so confusing. We  tried to be all things to all people and we were like nothing to anybody, it was just the worst of all worlds.[18]

A commission of inquiry into Labour’s defeat discovered, according to a report in The Guardian, that:

Helped by their clear “Get Brexit done” message, the Conservatives succeeded in turning out 2 million previous non-voters, accounting for two thirds of the increase in their vote share….

… Corbyn’s leadership was a “significant factor” in the 2019 result. His public approval ratings collapsed at around the time a group of Labour MPs including Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna left to found the Independent Group, citing antisemitism within Labour and its Brexit policy.

The report says: “‘Stop Jeremy Corbyn’ was a major driver of the Conservatives’ success across all their key groups including previous non-voters, and among all the swing voters Labour lost to the Tories.”

Had Corbyn been as popular in December as he was two years earlier, Labour’s vote share could have been 6 percentage points higher, the analysis finds.

When it came to Labour’s radical manifesto, launched at an upbeat rally in Birmingham, the analysis found that individual policies were popular, but doubts about the leadership stoked a perception that the package as a whole was not deliverable.[19]

The response heard very often on the Left is that Jeremy Corbyn was defeated  by smears in the fanatically Right-wing British press, and sabotage by centrist and “Blairite” rebels in his own caucus. It’s undisputed that, like Bernie Sanders, Corbyn was running against much of his own party, never mind the Tories. But to accept this “stab-in-the-back legend” as the main explanation serves to deflect any criticism of Corbyn and his movement, thus making it impossible for the movement to learn from its mistakes and to self-correct.

To a large extent, the Corbyn takeover of the Labour Party was the victory of the “activist Left” in Britain. This may be hard to imagine from Australia or New Zealand, two countries in which there is no longer any significant class-struggle, strongly social-democratic tendency in our Labo(u)r Parties.[20] But the “hard Left” in the British Labour Party, which had been ruthlessly excluded from the leading bodies of the party and of the union movement for 30 years, jumped at the new rules for electing the leader which came into force in 2015, making it a simple “one member, one vote” decision by all party members[21], which enabled Corbyn to do an “end run” around his institutional opponents and pull off a shock victory.[22]

But this strength was also its weakness. Many commentators in America have noted the problems that the US radical Left, having been confined to a campus-based subculture for decades, have had with having to adapt their language to the mass politics needed to win elections. The “anti-Semitism scandal” which bedevilled Corbyn’s tenure as leader can be seen from one angle as an example of this.[23]

Jeremy Corbyn had long been one of the most prominent advocates of Palestinian liberation in the British Labour Party. It should be no surprise, then, that his leadership of the Labour Party brought certain very problematic aspects of the Western pro-Palestinian movement into mainstream politics. Whether Corbyn personally holds anti-Semitic beliefs, even unconsciously, is irrelevant to the issue of his defence of a notorious mural using anti-Semitic tropes,[24] or his laying of a wreath in front of the grave of a PLO leader who authorised the 1972 massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes[25], and the reactions which these provoked among British Jews, which were of course gleefully promoted by the Tory press. The Corbyn leadership’s reproduction of the activist Left’s usual rhetorical moves against accusations of anti-Semitism – denials, defensiveness, and accusations of bad faith – were ineffective and even counterproductive in the mainstream media arena.[26]

Editor of politics.co.uk Ian Dunt argues that anti-Semitism in British Labour

was allowed to take root and spread because people who were not anti-Semitic relegated it to secondary importance. Defending Corbyn was the chief moral requirement. Everything else could be sacrificed in order to secure that aim. It was, at its heart, a matter of priorities.[27]

It is probably best to see Corbyn’s tolerance for the expression of anti-Semitic tropes by his supporters within Labour in the context of his foreign policy, which was his major focus before he became Labour leader.[28] Corbyn’s foreign policy has always been, in common with most the British activist Left, a “campist” one – the benefit of the doubt has always been with those forces in geopolitical opposition to the Western states and to Israel.

Corbyn’s categorization of the armed opposition to the Assad dictatorship in Syria as “jihadis” and “Salafists”[29] could have come right out of a Russian Foreign Ministry press release. But for ordinary British voters, perhaps more shocking was his attempt to cast doubt upon the responsibility of Russian spooks for the nerve-gas poisoning of defector Sergei Skripal on British soil.[30] Before he became leader, Corbyn sponsored a Parliamentary motion which denied that Serbian forces had committed genocide in Kosovo[31], and claimed to recognize “the hand of Israel” in a jihadi attack against Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula in 2012.[32]

As I explained in my 2015 article Against Campism[33], over much of the activist Left in Western countries, healthy suspicion of Western “humanitarian” motives for military interventions has collapsed into denial and conspiracy theory when it comes to crimes committed by non-Western states. The deep intertwining of the issues of Labour’s anti-Semitism problem with Corbyn’s campist foreign policy is particularly clear in the case of Corbyn’s defence of his staunch supporter, Chris Williamson MP. Williamson was suspended from the Labour Party for denying that there was any anti-Semitism problem; but he was also a promoter of pro-Assad conspiracy theories and chemical warfare denial.[34] Former Labour councillor Adam Langlaben argues that the Corbyn movement’s penchant for conspiracy theory (in foreign policy, in their dealings with the media, and in their reactions to intra-party opposition) inevitably led them to anti-Semitic tropes.[35]

It is also no coincidence that two of Corbyn’s closest allies, Seumas Milne[36] and Andrew Murray, were political veterans of the section of British Communism which has historically promoted Soviet and later Russian foreign policy aims. Murray in particular was associated closely with the Morning Star newspaper[37], which ran a front-page article cheering the murderous Assad regime’s recapture of free Aleppo as a “liberation”[38] and, more recently, dived into TERF politics.[39] Corbyn himself wrote a notable article in the Morning Star, before he became Leader, apologizing for Russia’s invasion and occupation of eastern Ukraine as being provoked by NATO.[40]

It may be shocking to a broad audience that many within the activist Left would argue that there was nothing wrong, and certainly nothing anti-Semitic, about most of the above positions. The stock line is that because George W. Bush and Tony Blair lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, then any Western/Israeli reports of atrocities must be treated with the deepest suspicion.[41] But as I pointed out in my 2018 article The Red-Brown Zombie Plague[42], denial of inconvenient truths by yelling “hoax” or “fake news” is precisely what we ridicule Trump fans or other Right-wing partisans for doing.

We can briefly summarize that Jeremy Corbyn took the actually-existing British activist Left movements – with all their positive and negative features – right into the heart of mainstream politics. When these contradictions were inevitably exposed by the capitalist press, voters rejected Corbyn personally – despite his generally supportable social-democratic platform. Corbyn’s campist foreign policy (and his “whataboutery” about anti-Semitism on his own side) is pretty standard for much of the activist Left in Western countries; but when it “hit the big time” in Britain, it appeared grotesque to mainstream voters and discredited his positive and supportable anti-austerity politics. Former Labour MP Ann Turley claims that her canvassing led her to believe that only 20% of Labour voters switching to Conservative were motivated by Brexit; the remainder, by anti-Corbyn sentiment[43].

A few years ago, a New Zealand Twitter user suggested that there is a definite constituency in elections for “soft-left but sensible ideas, if not attached to someone with a rap sheet that makes [voters] hate them”.[44] British socialists who want to rebuild an electoral challenge must examine how Jeremy Corbyn accumulated precisely such a “rap sheet”.

The theory of populism: Laclau and Mouffe

Though this article treats both Corbyn’s and Sanders’ movements as varieties of “Left-populism”, we have to pause here to emphasise the differences between them. These movements were very different, they had very different politics and social compositions, and they came to a “dead end” for very different reasons. To use shorthand, the Sanders campaign discovered the limits of “class-first” social democracy in an era of extreme racial and ethnic polarization; whereas the Corbyn campaign discovered that campist foreign policy, currently the common sense of the activist Left, was an easy target when playing in the political “big leagues”, and that reacting with denial, bluster, whataboutery, and claims of conspiracy didn’t help.

The biggest academic names which have featured over the last 30 years or so in recommending a “Left-populist” form of organisation have been the partnership of Argentinian Ernesto Laclau and Belgian Chantal Mouffe. Describing themselves as “post-Marxists”, their starting point is that – in the era of neoliberal globalisation – the industrial working class around which Marxist hopes had been traditionally built can no longer be the basis for a revolutionary or even a reformist challenge to the status quo, at least in Western countries. The challenge, therefore, is to build a new kind of popular majority to challenge austerity, imperialism and oppression. Though Laclau is now deceased, Mouffe carries on their work.

Laclau and Mouffe’s theories – most famously expressed in their joint work Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) – make a lot of sense in an era where traditional working-class organisations and communities have collapsed, and in which “intersectional” politics of race, gender, sexuality and migration status have come to the fore. However, I intend to argue that the Corbyn and Sanders movements – and at a further remove, the more successful movements behind SYRIZA in Greece and the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela – demonstrate serious flaws in Left-populist politics as practiced over the last 20 years, which I believe can be shown to be inherent in the populist method of organisation itself as described by Laclau and Mouffe.

The problems of populism 1: Potato sacks and dear leaders

Everyone interested in making sense of modern politics should read Karl Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.[45] In 1848, Louis Bonaparte (nephew of the French revolutionary general and later Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte) became President of the French Republic because all the squabbling factions of the ruling class – monarchist, republican, conservative and liberal – saw him as a harmless clown who could be used and discarded. By 1852, after four years of constant fighting between these factions, President Bonaparte was able to ride a popular wave of resentment and exasperation, firstly, to carry out a coup to give himself dictatorial powers, then to make himself “Emperor Napoleon III”, in imitation of his uncle (which gave rise to Marx’s famous dictum about history repeating, first as tragedy then as farce).

Marx points out that Bonaparte’s social base was not the Parisian working class, but the French peasantry– an atomised social layer who could only be unified in the sense that potatoes are unified by putting them into a sack. This “sack” was the cult of the Bonaparte name and nostalgia for the First Empire (something we might today call “Make France Great Again”?) and a feeling of what we would now call “anti-politics” – the sentiment ¡Que se vayan todos! (They can all get out!) of the Argentinian uprising of 2002.[46] In another sense, Bonaparte and his successors repeated the successful formula of Julius Caesar, who was supported by ancient Rome’s poor and socially-excluded free citizens in overthrowing the traditional aristocracy and making himself Dictator for Life, allowing his successors to become Emperors.

Modern populist politics of both Left and Right varieties inherits this “potatoes in a sack” method of organisation, where horizontal solidarity between people and groups within the movement is less important than vertical loyalty to a unifying slogan, programme, or Leader. In his book On Populist Reason (Verso Books, 2004), Ernesto Laclau argues that an individual leader upon whom many different sectors of society can project their hopes and dreams is in fact a vital aspect of the populist style of organising:

An assemblage of heterogeneous elements kept equivalentially together only by a name is, however, necessarily a singularity. The less a society is kept together by immanent differential mechanisms, the more it depends, for its coherence, on this transcendent, singular moment. But the extreme form of singularity is an individuality. In this way, almost imperceptibly, the equivalential logic leads to singularity, and singularity to identification of the unity of the group with the name of the leader. (Kindle location 1728)

A less jargony way of phrasing this would be: an individual Leader becomes a logical necessity for holding together a broad movement composed of many different groups with their own demands.[47] But the problem here is that a political leader is not only a point of unity, and a symbol; he or she is a real person with real political authority, and the two aspects of this role contradict each other. Although Left populism assembles a different set of groups under a different programme and a different personality than Right-populism, a Leader who is a symbolic unifying figure is very hard to seriously challenge from within the movement – leading to an essentially authoritarian relationship between leader and led.

Laclau himself speaks later in this book about Juan Perón, the former Argentine president who became the leader of a vast and very diverse populist movement while he was exiled during the 1960s. At this time, Perón himself compared himself to the Pope – a symbol of unity and reverence. However, after Perón returned to Argentina in the 1970s – and especially after he was re-elected President – he became an actual political leader who had to make decisions which outraged either the left-wing or right-wing parts of his coalition, or both. His movement quickly dissolved, occasionally erupting into fatal violence between factions (Kindle location 3709).

Similarly, Left dissidents from the Greece Left-populist movement SYRIZA have claimed that as the organisation got closer to power, it was progressively

turn[ed…] into a leader-centred party… The aim was to move from a militant party of the left, with a strong culture of internal debate, heterogeneity, involvement in social movements and mobilizations, to a party with a passive membership which could be more easily manipulated by the centre, and keener to identify with the figure of the leader.[48]

Another SYRIZA dissident suggested that this was accomplished through mechanisms of “direct democracy” which had the appearance of giving power to the grassroots but in fact concentrated power at the top. It was suggested that the same thing was happening in Spain’s PODEMOS.[49] This has uncanny parallels to the way Louis Bonaparte, as President and later as Emperor, used periodic referendums to give legitimacy to his dictatorship.

Certainly the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns both contained a minority (with an outsized presence on social media) which took on a “personality cult” aspect, intolerant of any criticism of the Leader. But an outsized role for the personality of the Leader goes hand-in-hand with a political emptiness among the “potatoes” in the populist sack – the various factions end up with very little in common except for what “team” they’re on. In Adam Langlaben’s words:

There’s no such thing as Corbynism, because Corbyn never said anything of substance. He enabled whatever he says to be so vague, that it allows his supporters to decide whatever they want, and to give his supporters permission to say and do whatever they want, because there was [sic] no red lines, he wasn’t saying yes or no to anything.[50]

The fact that all these populist movements have ended up in failure – even the ones which have taken State power – show a problem with not only this inherent authoritarian dynamic, but also a problem with its horizon – that is, the greatest extent to which it can be successful. In practice, this horizon has turned out to be at best a militant form of social democracy – a strong welfare state which guarantees certain economic benefits and political rights to all citizens, standing against the powers of “the market” and of foreign imperialism, as at the high point of Hugo Chávez’s administration in Venezuela.

But, as explored by American revolutionary Hal Draper in The Two Souls of Socialism,[51]this model is counterposed to socialism as in workers’ power expressed through grassroots democracy, involving the abolition of capitalist social and economic relations altogether. Too many modern-day “revolutionaries” seem to have forgotten there’s a difference between these two meanings of “socialism”. Hence nonsense propaganda like Jeremy Corbyn’s face photoshopped into old Soviet or Maoist propaganda posters, or – my personal favourite – Bernie Sanders depicted as Che Guevara on T-shirts – while Corbyn was calling for more funding for police and border guards,[52] and Bernie Sanders hardly challenged the Democrat consensus on imperialist foreign policy.

In the days when Hugo Chávez was President of Venezuela, many on the Left argued that a Left-populist, anti-imperialist State leadership would open the door for revolution from below. Sadly, this didn’t happen; and now, Chávez’s successors have made sure that it never will, having moved to the model of an authoritarian clientelist state in which capitalists who become “friends of the regime” are protected.[53] A top-down movement based around a leader with an exceptional personality, which is what populist movements tend to become in practice, cannot bring about an end to exploitation and oppression. Mistaking authoritarian, though Left-leaning, populism for socialist democracy is a mistake that the organised Left has made over and over again throughout history.

Moreover, a movement based on the personality of the Leader will find it increasingly difficult to correct the Leader when he (and it is usually a “he”) makes a wrong turn – or even to accept criticism in good faith. Ian Dunt describes the reaction of the Corbyn camp to criticism:

Out they came, every time. The loyalist ranks, where Corbyn’s survival mattered more than anything, and all that challenged him was by definition a conspiracy. First the anonymous Twitter accounts, then the ones with large followings, then the big hitters, the Corbyn supporters who appear on TV debate programmes – the whole weird cottage industry of faith-based political defensiveness. All working to chisel away at the seriousness of what was happening, to make the people targeted feel that they were somehow in the wrong.[54]

One shorthand for this kind of knee-jerk “defence of the Leader” is “Stan culture”. “Stan” is a term for a deranged, obsessed fan (from an Eminem song), and the nastiest Corbyn and Sanders supporters on social media have sometimes acted like participants in one of the infamous feuds within popular entertainment fan cultures, rather than political activists.

Apart from the issue with the possibility of democratically holding the Leader to account, in a populist movement, real power is wielded by who can get closest to the Leader to influence him in the “right” direction. Thus, we saw a rush by socialists in the UK and the US to get onto the front seats of the Corbyn and Sanders bandwagons; even worse, in the UK, to create the repulsive illusion of a “left-wing Brexit”. It should not be surprising, however, to watch “leaders” of the revolutionary Left set aside their principles to go in this direction. This is in practice how this author has watched the revolutionary movements in Aotearoa/New Zealand work over the last 15 years – tailing popular demands or leaders and giving up political clarity in favour of “influence” over the leaders of centrist or even conservative forces.

The evidence of all the Left-populist movements that gave us so much hope over the last 25 years repeat this sorry story. To an extent, it doesn’t matter whether Hugo Chávez really supported Russian and Chinese imperialism and dictators like Mugabe or Lukashenko; whether Jeremy Corbyn really thought Russia were on the right side in Syria, or whether anti-Semitism in the Labour Party was no big deal; or whether Bernie Sanders agreed with a “class reductionist” approach that ignored Black Lives Matter and similar movements in favour of cultivating white populist reactionaries like Joe Rogan. But a decisive number of important people around them certainly did, and were able to act in the name of The Leader – names like Milne or Murray in Britain, David Sirota or Briahna Joy Gray in the US, or Diosdado Cabello in Venezuela. Philadelphia antifascist Gwen Snyder argues, with respect to Sanders and the “dirtbag left”:

his campaign staff urged him to lean into it. It wasn’t his base, he had much broader appeal. He just had exactly the wrong people whispering in his ear and encouraging him to play to exactly the wrong audience, an audience that reviled the rest of his coalition.[55]

The problems of populism 2: Red-Brown confusion

Although far from a communist horizon, strong-state social democracy might still sound like an improvement for most people compared to corporate-led global neoliberalism, let alone authoritarian Right-wing populism. But the more serious problem is that Left-populism – with its majoritarian, “we are the 99%” rhetoric, based on a division between the people and the Establishment/the elites – has in practice reproduced the one-sided opposition to liberals/neoliberals/centrism which I discussed in my 2016 article Against Conservative Leftism.[56] This has opened the door to de facto or even explicit alliances with Right-populists or even fascists against neoliberal globalism.

One particular subset of the Left-populist movements – commonly known as the “Dirtbag Left” in the United States, to use the self-description of the podcast Chapo Trap House – argue that the Trump electorate can be won to social democracy by class reductionism – restricting the movement to solely “bread-and-butter” economic demands for higher wages and social welfare, completely rejecting questions of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and immigration as “divisive” or even “neoliberal”.

The argument seems to be that Donald Trump’s mass support is open to being converted to a social-democratic or even socialist platform, as long as it does not evoke the dreaded “Identity Politics”. Racism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia do not need to be confronted separately, in this light – in fact, they should not be, as doing so would alienate “the white working class” (read: white men with a “blue-collar” cultural identity) from socialist politics. Bernie Sanders, according to this analysis, gave too much away to “IdPol”. Ironically, this runs directly against Laclau and Mouffe’s proposals for Left-populism; this does not involve unifying disparate groups and integrating their demands under the common banner of “the People”, but one (privileged) part of “the People” imposing dominance over the rest. As one Twitter user put it, “they would sell out every POC and every LGBT+ person to not pay college loans”.[57]

This is often accompanied by an assertion that Trump ran to the “left” of Clinton in 2016, in particular that he promised to end foreign wars. If this were true, then a Trump pivot to anti-imperialism and social-democratic economics would make as much sense as anything. But in fact, Trump did precisely the opposite, demanding that the US commit even more vicious war crimes, such as murdering the families of “terrorists”.[58] A similar assertion is that many people who voted for Trump over Clinton in 2016 did so for the same reasons that Leftists opposed Clinton: her responsibility for neoliberalism, austerity and imperialist wars. This is often combined with an assertion that Trump’s support base are “white working class” – precisely the kind of constituency that a Left-populist movement would dream of mobilizing.

One example of “Trump is the lesser evil” rhetoric. Whether sincerely held or a Trumpist making mischief, this kind of talk is dangerous.

In reality, even if Donald Trump is not a literal fascist, he is at the very least “fash-curious”. He has built a movement (almost a cult) out of open expression of white privilege and resentment. His target audience is not the working classes or the oppressed, but the downwardly mobile, formerly privileged (overwhelmingly white and male) middle-classes and skilled workers. These are the layers who have been atomised and dispersed by neoliberal capitalism, and have lost some of their relative privilege over various layers whom they see as “beneath them” (blacks, Muslims, migrants, uppity women, queer and trans people). They direct their resentment towards the latter, while continuing their hero-worship of the billionaire class who have grown fat off their suffering.[59]

All the evidence points to Trump’s voters being much more motivated by racism, misogyny, and 25 years of Right-led conspiracy theory which has sought to convict Hillary Clinton of corruption, murder, and literally sacrificing children to the Devil. All analyses of Trump’s support show that it skews very heavily towards wealthier white (male) voters; though 52% of white women voters plumped for Trump in 2016, recent evidence suggests that this has plummeted, rendering the misogyny of the Trump movement even more stark.[60] Even worse, the same is true of the Bernie Sanders vote from 2016: as left-wing pollster Sean McElwee put it, “the white working-class voters that Sanders won were mostly anti-Clinton voters”.[61] As David Atkins puts it, the evidence of the Sanders campaign shows that “unlike leftist policy more broadly, this theory of the electorate has utterly failed.”[62]

Similar confusion was apparent among Left-populists who wishfully declared that the 2016 vote for Brexit was “a multi-ethnic working class uprising against the elites”. In fact – as for a Trump vote – the best predictor of a Brexit vote was being white.[63] This shows an incapacity of the existing Left-populist movement to tell the difference between radical and reactionary opposition to the status quo. If the Revolution only means “the masses in motion”, then any mass movement with a popular leadership which threatens the neoliberal establishment (from Left or Right) is an opportunity rather than a threat.

Rather than building a different power bloc among the excluded masses with its own programme, as Laclau and Mouffe suggest, this kind of “populism” skips over class analysis (which would involve an up-to-date analysis of how the contemporary globalised neoliberal economy works, where value is being produced, etc), in favour of drawing a dividing line between “the elite and the masses” based on cultural features. “The people”, in this kind of “Left Populism”, are all those who do not share the cultural signifiers of the upwardly-mobile middle class; or alternatively, display the cultural features of the manual working class which existed before the neoliberal era began. This is a conservative, even traditionalist, understanding of politics, which benefits from the prevailing drift to the radical Right, rather than opposing it.

Even worse, this envy of the success of Right-wing populism creates an irresistible temptation to “join them if you can’t beat them”. As opposed to a “horizontal” form of building a mass movement, which would ally all the oppressed and exploited on the basis of solidarity, it seems that Left-wing populism seeks to combat its Right-wing equivalent by appealing to the same base – downwardly mobile formerly privileged layers (particularly white, blue-collar men) who have lost out in the era of globalised neoliberalism.

This confusion of Left-wing and Right-wing oppositions to globalised neoliberalism opens the door to the embrace by a Left-populist movement of socially conservative and “campist” politics, even fascist-infected Red-Brown politics. Alongside this often comes a defence of authoritarian nationalist regimes which are (supposedly) opposed to US imperialism, such as Russia, China and Syria. A tell-tale sign of this kind of Red-Brown populism in the US is adamant insistence that the investigation into Russian state collusion with the 2016 Trump campaign is some kind of hoax. Well-known promoters of this kind of politics include American-Brazilian journalist Glenn Greenwald and Irish writer Angela Nagle, who have actually appeared on the show of extreme-Right FOX News host Tucker Carlson to agree with him about the horrors of neoliberalism and identity politics.

Lebanese activist and journalist Joey Ayoub puts it colourfully and succinctly:

if the ‘populist left’ has common grounds with fascism the ‘populist left’ can fuck right off and there’s absolutely no reason to waste any time listening to three white people debating whether common ground can be found with those who want to erase our existence.[64]

The problems of populism 3: Trump Envy

The role of a kind of resentment, or even sadism, in populist politics of both Left and Right is vital here. It’s no coincidence that many people who promote these kinds of politics have previously expressed the wish for a “tough guy socialism”, which, to misuse an old expression of Trotsky, “really wants to tear the bourgeoisie’s head off”. The British socialist writer Richard Seymour, now an editor of Salvage magazine, used to talk on his blog Lenin’s Tomb about how Corbyn was too “nice” and he needed supporters who would leverage “hate” and even “sadism” against the conservative Right and neoliberal centre.[65]

It might even be said that modern Left populism suffers from “Trump Envy”. Quite apart from the need pointed out by Laclau to have a leader-figure as a binding force for a populist coalition, many Left-wing activists have the desire for someone in this role who will be just as rude, aggressive, abusive and transgressive as Donald Trump but for “good purposes”, “from the Left”. If a mass movement against the neoliberal establishment is what is required – never mind its politics or its class composition – it’s easy to imagine that supporters of the Trump movement (or the Brexit movement, or similar manifestations in other countries) could be turned “to our side”, if they were offered the same aggressive macho leadership but with a different programme.

Left-populism shares with its Right-wing sibling a certain joy in transgression, in (at least verbal) violence – which tracks with what Laclau says in On Populist Reason about the vital role played by emotions, rather than strictly rational analysis, in cohering a populist bloc (Kindle location 1925). The Black Lives Matter uprisings show that retaliatory aggression and violence against the oppressor class are a part of any vital mass movement. However, the real problem comes when this aggression is directed horizontally – or even “downward”, towards a social layer which the movement considers “beneath” it. This goes beyond intemperate attacks on centrist Democrats and the neoliberal establishment, and even the usual excesses of intra-movement conflict, to become a kind of half-spoken political strategy, of abuse as a feature of the movement, a “perk” of belonging.

As explored above, factions of the Corbyn and Sanders movements in the US and the UK went down the path of Conservative Leftism in rejecting “intersectionality” as a neoliberal piety – and this has combined with the pleasure in transgression or sadism mentioned above, to emerge as racist, misogynistic, homophobic or transphobic abuse, justified as being “from the Left” when delivered against acceptable targets. For example, Gwen Snyder, a strong supporter of the Sanders campaign, became the target of sustained harassment (escalating to death threats) for pointing out issues of misogynist behaviour within Bernie fandom, and the Red-Brown drift among fans of “Dirtbag Left” podcasts.[66] The Bernie Sanders campaign itself (not Sanders himself) proudly touted an endorsement from Joe Rogan, a pop-culture podcaster who is flamboyantly transphobic and otherwise bigoted.[67]

Another curious phenomenon is people who hold much better Left politics than the “Dirtbags”, even though they quite rightly despise Trump and almost everything he stands for, defending Trump, or at least seeing him as a lesser evil, against “the Establishment/elites”. For example, they agree with Trump that he is being unfairly attacked by a “Deep State”; law enforcement, military and intelligence personnel and other people within the US state who are opposed, not so much to Trump’s politics, but to his disregard for the norms and conventions of the US bourgeois state, or even its laws and Constitution – something that many Left-populists regard as a positive feature, if only he would use it “for good”.

This is amplified by the way in which, as mentioned above, the US activist Left has concentrated over the years on attacking liberals, neoliberals, and “the Dems” as its first priority. And who is better at really “triggering the libs” than Trump? Disturbingly, and as in 2016, many Left-wing figures attack the Democrats in terms which are so similar to those coming from the Trump campaign that it is often impossible to tell the difference; this is the same process that Gwen Snyder identifies whereby the “Dirtbag Left” serves to “launder” fascist memes for a Left-wing audience.[68]

This phenomenon of Left-populism taking a “lesser evil” approach to Right-populism against the neoliberal establishment has become a meme to the point where it now has a name. In the same way that anything that comes after “I’m not racist, but…” is going to be racist, a Leftist who says “Mr Trump, who I do not support…” is about to support Trump against the Deep State or the neoliberal Democratic Party.

These Left populists oppose this putative sabotage, not because they like Trump’s politics, far from it… but because they imagine the State apparatus doing the same thing to a putative President Sanders (or on the model of what the Chilean state actually did to Salvador Allende in the 1970s). Similarly, many supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have attempted to discredit the mainstream media as irredeemably biased against their candidate, in very similar terms to Trump and his “fake news” slogan – with the same purpose, to discredit any criticism of Dear Leader, whether valid or not. This is a logical consequence of a horizon of victory which envisions a popular Leader taking control of the State machinery “for good purposes”, rather than a popular movement dismantling it.

This sneaking sympathy by Leftists for Trump against “neoliberal elites” leads to what can only be described as wish fulfilment fantasies, that Trump may one day “pivot” to the Left, if he sees it in his electoral interests to do so. The Twitter account “Shitty Outflanking Takes” collects arguments from Leftists that Trump will, someday soon, start promoting social-democratic causes such as Medicare for All, forgiving student debt, criminal justice reform, or even ending American overseas military adventures, to “outflank” the neoliberal Democrats and win a working-class base.[69] If Trump is politically empty – if he just wants power and will say or do anything to get re-elected – and, as much of the US asserts, the “Dems” and the “GOP” are no different – why should Trump not adopt the Bernie Sanders programme in total? An interesting reply would be: if that were true, why did Sanders not run as a Republican?


To summarize, we have sketched out three categories of problems with Left-populism in practice. Firstly, there are problems inherent in the populist political method as sketched out by Laclau and Mouffe. Chief among this is the contradiction between a populist leader’s symbolic unifying role and their actual role in strategy and tactics; the fact that the urge to “defend the Leader” might make self-correction in the movement impossible; and the way in which those around the Leader can use their role as his “biggest supporters” to justify atrocious politics[70]. Both the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns developed a “Stan culture”, targeting centrists or even insufficiently enthusiastic supporters of The Leader as the main enemy.

Secondly: there is also the problem that problem that Left Populism and Right populism are – as Laclau says – the same method used for different ends, and we have seen a steady stream in practice of Leftists who enthusiastically back the former often end up backing the latter because they have lost the ability to tell the difference, or remember why it’s a vital one.. There is even the phenomenon of “Dirtbag Leftism”  which seeks to throw out the inheritance of 50 years of intersectional struggle in favour of trying to restore a white, male, traditionalist audience for social democracy – which is contrary to what Laclau and Mouffe would see as populism altogether, and forgets that 1960s social democracy wasn’t so great either, which is why it was rejected by the Beatnik, Hippie and Punk movements.

Thirdly: there is a real problem of Trump Envy, the belief that what the movement needs is a “left-wing version” of the Trump phenomenon, or even a hope of Trump “outflanking” the Democrats to the left on economic populism. This includes a distressing number of “Lefties” who delight in the same kind of mob cruelty and aggressive disregard for inconvenient realities which characterise Trump’s and other Right-populist movements.

Laclau’s argument is that a Leader figure who can unify atomised and conflicting social layers in an anti-establishment movement is an essential element in populism. The worst possible form such a movement can take on, of course, is fascism. At best, it can take power in the capitalist state – but historical evidence suggests that, from there, it can only retain power through conciliation with global capitalism and turning on its own supporters. Populist movements have successfully changed the balance of power within class society – but never abolished it. For “post-Marxists” like Laclau and Mouffe, the latter might not even be possible.

Direct action gets the goods

One way out of this problem might be, not to reject the Left populist strategy, but firstly, to recognize it as necessary but insufficient to provoke a fundamental change in society; and secondly, to reject primarily electoral populism of the Corbyn/Sanders/SYRIZA variety.

Electoral politics usually come after a downturn in the direct-action movements, and vice versa. The failure of Occupy and the Arab Spring gave rise to SYRIZA, PODEMOS, the Corbyn and Sanders movements; the failure or dead-end of these electoral movements has erupted in the current global wave of “Black Lives Matter”/anti-police uprisings. This is similar to how the defeat of the movements of the 1970s, and the election of Right-populists Reagan and Thatcher in the US and UK, was followed by insurgent broad-Left electoral campaigns by Tony Benn, Jesse Jackson and their like.

British left academic Harry Pitts argues that the Corbyn movement in the Labour Party was in fact

the legacy of the anti-austerity social movements after the crisis. Their ultimate failure, I guess, you know, and their fragmentation, the turn of a lot of the people involved in that towards a more electoralist parliamentary route.[71]

In majoritarian (first-past-the-post) systems like the United States or the United Kingdom, Left-wing electoral populism can only act as a “spoiler”, attempting to take away enough votes from the more liberal of the major parties to be able to dictate terms upon it; unless, of course, it succeeds in taking over the liberal/centre-Left major party from within. The former is grossly irresponsible when the Right no longer wants a nastier version of capitalist normality, but the mass repeal of democratic rights and the welfare state in a fascist or Pinochet-style programme. As Fightback has argued repeatedly, this is the same fatal mistake made by the Stalinised Communists of the 1930s who saw no difference between Hitler and capitalist normality.

“Third Period” politics being reborn in real time on social media

The latter runs up against the logical problem of how to successfully dominate a party mostly composed of people you despise. The Chapo “bend the knee” slogan would never have worked in practice for Bernie Sanders inside the US Democrats, just as the Labour Party caucus and apparatus never “bent the knee” to Jeremy Corbyn – which is of course exactly what Corbyn’s die-hard supporters complain about. The alternative – to purge the liberals and moderates from the party – does not seem a plausible step forward to winning electoral contests. The failure mode of both these approaches is the electoral nihilism condemned above; of asserting that neoliberal capitalist normality is no different than fascism, that it won’t be allowed to win anyway, that electoral politics are a waste of time if “Our Guy” isn’t on the ballot.

The lessons of Chávez in Venezuela and SYRIZA in Greece show that when a Left-populist movement seizes state power and confronts international capitalism, there is a period of stalemate followed by slow but inevitable capitulation. Come to think of it, this is also the legacy of Stalinism. My personal suggestion would be to concentrate on building a real Left-populist movement for protagonistic, intersectional democracy – while fully embracing a vote for “our preferred enemy” in elections. The question is whether we would prefer to be on the streets in 2021 demanding social reforms and police abolition from President Biden, or defending the remnants of freedom of speech and assembly from an emboldened President Trump and fascist mobs.

This is of course the dreaded “lesser (or least) evil” strategy, as criticised (though not rejected) by Hal Draper.[72] But anyone who argues that it is possible for a party or candidate to actually win a bourgeois election contest while not becoming some form of evil – that is, without making compromises with capital and social layers which support it – can be charitably advised to “get real”. Encouraging people to believe that voting for a Left-wing social democratic politician is actually “The Revolution” – the “Bernie in a Ché hat” phenomenon – while demonizing other centrist or reformist candidates and tendencies, means – once the compromises begin – setting up the movement for massive disappointment, abstention from the fight against fascist, or even drifting in a Trumpist or fascist direction, fuelled by hatred of “liberals/moderates” above all else.

In any case, as we’ve seen above, voting is secondary in terms of social transformation, or even a “consolation prize” once mass direct-action or protest movements fail. It seems strange that Corbyn or Sanders supporters should depict their leaders in the same terms as Communist revolutionaries, breathing fire on the hated “liberals” all the time, while at the same time placing their hopes for social change on winning elections in the bourgeois state. In fact, Gwen Snyder argues that an approach that prioritises direct action might have spin-off benefits for electoral work:

centering direct action organizing is more productive than centering electoral work when it comes to focusing our energies. Direct action changes minds and wins hearts and makes people realize their power. When people’s hearts & minds are changed, when folks realize that their action makes a difference and that they hold real power when organized, they’re much more likely to be open to coalition-building around a candidate with bolder positions when it comes time to talk elections.[73]

We might counterpose to electoral populism the concept of protagonistic democracy – a situation where working people take matters into their own hands to create a better world. Such a form of direct-action populism would necessarily require its unifying slogans and its (symbolic and practical) leadership to reflect intersectional politics – identifying and building commonalities between different axes of oppression, rather than privileging one part of the coalition above others. The “conservative Left” strategies discussed above, which centre the “traditional” (white, cishet, male) working class as the face of struggle, offer no path forward but the netherworld of Red-Brown reaction.

The Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, not to mention the current “Black Lives Matter” uprisings in the United States[74], give us recent examples of direct-action populist movements. Syria’s democratic movement gives examples of the kind of unifying slogans which make connections rather than fudge differences – ‘Syria is one’ sought to counter sectarianism by assembling a people under the signifier of free Syria, combined with the transnational slogan ‘the people demand the fall of the regime’ (which has re-emerged in BLM protests). In contrast, while the Arab Spring was drowned in blood, Occupy reached its own dead end due to a confused political project whose slogan (“We are the 99%”) and practice did not draw sharp lines against conspiracy theories, misogyny and even fascism. The latter is, as we’ve seen above, a danger inherent in the populist method which must be strongly guarded against; which suggests a vital role for anti-capitalist political centres within such movements.

As this article is written, the BLM movement has quickly overtaken the Bernie Sanders phenomenon politically and is enacting a form of protagonistic democracy on the streets, under the violent repression of Trump’s fash-curious USA. It has gone far beyond the original coalition between Black communities acting in self-defence and white radicals; the white “moms and dads” who stood against Trump’s snatch squads in Portland in late July are a sign of a populist movement which is really taking off. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders himself is united with his apparent polar opposites, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, in making verbal gestures of support for the movement, while refusing the demand to “Defund the Police” (let alone abolish it). Some of the dead-end “anti-liberal” Left have been reduced to repeating lukewarm versions of Trump’s slurs against Joe Biden, or fantasies about Trump “outflanking” the Democrats. American journalist Josh Messite comments on this inability to realise when they’ve lost:

if Bernie and Corbyn both achieved massive electoral wins and enacted sweeping reforms, I would have had to shift my thinking on organizing priorities and the path to power. instead Bernie and Corbyn both lost, and yet the people who pushed for that strategy haven’t changed a bit.[75]

Just recently, a major left-wing blog in Ireland ran an appeal for a new electoral coalition between the various socialist factions.[76] Left-populism has its dangers and has not yet fulfilled its promise, though I am not willing to agree that it was a mistake altogether. My argument, though, is that a primarily electoral Left-populism has proved itself to be a comprehensive dead-end.


[1]              Fightback previously published an analysis of SYRIZA’s own dead end – https://fightback.org.nz/2015/08/21/greek-crisis-syrizas-dead-end/

[2]              https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jul/22/chapo-trap-house-podcast-dirtbag-left-takes-aim-at-clinton-supporters

[3]              https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/3/4/21164518/super-tuesday-results-voter-turnout

[4]              https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/super-tuesday-results-2020-primary-texas-voter-suppression-lines-long-wait-queues-a9373886.html

[5]              https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/13/nyregion/andrew-cuomo-cynthia-nixon-wins-governors-race.html

[6]              https://twitter.com/marcushjohnson/status/1240117667287228416

[7]              https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/4/10/21214970/bernie-sanders-2020-lost-class-socialism

[8]              https://www.foxnews.com/politics/sanders-says-i-dont-agree-with-to-abolish-police-departments

[9]              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieFL8StRyJo&feature=youtu.be

[10]             https://www.inquirer.com/columnists/attytood/trump-presidential-election-joe-biden-democrat-hillary-clinton-misogyny-20200702.html

[11]             https://www.vox.com/21299730/george-floyd-democratic-party-joe-biden-black-lives-matter-protests-2020-identity-politics; https://www.wonkette.com/joe-biden-wants-to-be-your-fdr

[12]             https://www.politico.com/news/2020/06/24/progressives-primary-justice-democrats-338488

[13]             https://salvage.zone/articles/salvage-perspectives-8-comrades-this-is-madness

[14]             https://www.out.com/news-opinion/2019/1/22/kamala-harris-takes-responsibility-opposing-trans-surgeries

[15]             See https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/us/general_election_trump_vs_biden-6247.html for up-to-date figures.

[16]             https://twitter.com/yohannabeee/status/1271155114569424896

[17]             https://fightback.org.nz/2017/10/17/winning-with-conservative-leftism-jeremy-corbyn-and-brexit/

[18]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/31/episode-3-transcription/

[19]             https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jun/18/dysfunctional-toxic-culture-led-to-labour-defeat-major-report-finds

[20]             If an equivalent of the Corbyn or Sanders movements exist in mainstream politics in Australasia, it’s in the Green parties.

[21]             https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2015_Labour_Party_leadership_election_(UK)

[22]             This appeal of a leader-figure over the heads of representative or intermediary bodies to an atomised mass of individuals is an essential feature of populist politics, as we will explore further below.

[23]             In what follows, I will attempt to analyse, not Jeremy Corbyn as a person, but the movement which he led and to some extent embodied.

[24]             https://fightback.org.nz/2018/08/01/10842/

[25]             https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corbyn_wreath-laying_controversy

[26]             https://theconversation.com/labour-and-anti-semitism-these-are-the-roots-of-the-problem-on-the-left-94923

[27]             https://www.politics.co.uk/blogs/2020/06/26/week-in-review-labour-returns-to-its-anti-racist-roots

[28]             Journalist Jonathan Freedland suggests that Corbyn enjoyed the reputation of “being the foreign minister of the Left” (https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/episode-1-transcription/)

[29]             https://jeremycorbyn.org.uk/articles/jeremy-corbyns-speech-against-military-intervention-in-syria/

[30]             https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/jeremy-corbyn-russia-spy-nerve-agent-iraq-war-wmd-labour-theresa-may-a8256021.html

[31]             https://balkaninsight.com/2015/08/17/uk-labour-frontrunner-queried-on-kosovo-motion-08-17-2015/

[32]             https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/uk-labour-leader-corbyn-voices-conspiracy-theory-against-israel-in-2012-563714

[33]             https://fightback.org.nz/2015/11/05/against-campism-what-makes-some-leftists-support-putin/

[34]             https://www.newstatesman.com/world/middle-east/2018/08/labour-can-be-jo-cox-s-party-or-chris-williamson-s-it-cannot-be-both

[35]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/episode-1-transcription/

[36]             https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/media/2015/10/i-wanted-believe-jeremy-corbyn-i-cant-believe-seumas-milne

[37]             Short, shameful confession: the author of this article wrote a piece on New Zealand politics for the Morning Star in 2014. I don’t remember their politics being so bad at that point.

[38]             https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/morning-star-labour-mps-aleppo_uk_584f2931e4b0b7ff851db424

[39]             https://metro.co.uk/2020/02/23/newspaper-apologises-transphobic-cartoon-sparks-outrage-12287799/

[40]             https://web.archive.org/web/20150923060138/http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-972b-Nato-belligerence-endangers-us-all

[41]             As recently replicated by the extremely pro-China Socialist Action group within British Labour: http://www.socialistaction.net/2020/08/12/the-left-should-not-be-taken-in-by-us-wmd-lies-this-time-about-uyghers/

[42]             https://fightback.org.nz/2018/05/09/the-red-brown-zombie-plague-part-one/

[43]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/24/episode-2-transcription/

[44]             https://fightback.org.nz/2016/10/19/aucklands-no-choice-elections-blue-greens-and-conservative-leftists/

[45]             https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/

[46]             https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/feb/06/global-recession-backlash

[47]             Some of the diagrams in On Populist Reason which illustrate Laclau’s theory of building unity in a populist movement between different social forces depict these forces as ovals… that is, potato-shaped.

[48]             https://newleftreview.org/issues/II97/articles/stathis-kouvelakis-syriza-s-rise-and-fall.pdf

[49]             https://isreview.org/issue/100/reflections-our-experience-syriza

[50]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/episode-1-transcription/

[51]             https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1966/twosouls/index.htm

[52]             https://www.expressandstar.com/news/uk-news/2017/05/28/corbyn-pledges-increased-staffing-levels-at-security-and-intelligence-agencies/

[53]             https://socialistworker.org/2017/07/13/being-honest-about-venezuela

[54]             https://www.politics.co.uk/blogs/2020/06/26/week-in-review-labour-returns-to-its-anti-racist-roots

[55]             https://twitter.com/gwensnyderPHL/status/1294068877522014208

[56]             https://fightback.org.nz/2016/02/15/against-conservative-leftism/

[57]             https://twitter.com/NickRup/status/1278128227274371072

[58]             https://www.mediamatters.org/donald-trump/myth-donald-dove-shows-perils-gullible-press

[59]             https://www.thedailybeast.com/anti-establishment-americas-new-syphilitic-politics-of-the-far-left-and-alt-right

[60]             https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-06-26/behind-trumps-sharp-slump-white-women-who-stuck-with-him-before-are-abandoning-him-now

[61]             https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/4/10/21214970/bernie-sanders-2020-lost-class-socialism

[62]             https://washingtonmonthly.com/2020/04/11/leftist-policy-didnt-lose-marxist-electoral-theory-did/

[63]             https://fightback.org.nz/2017/10/17/winning-with-conservative-leftism-jeremy-corbyn-and-brexit/; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0176268018301320

[64]             https://twitter.com/joeyayoub/status/1276194859167121408

[65]             http://www.leninology.co.uk/2015/06/yes-you-can-hate-rich.html; http://www.leninology.co.uk/2016/06/in-praise-of-hate.html

[66]             See thread beginning at https://twitter.com/gwensnyderPHL/status/1249712403404783618

[67]             https://www.forbes.com/sites/dawnstaceyennis/2020/01/26/joe-rogans-endorsement-the-stain-on-bernie-sanders-that-some-voters-think-makes-him-more-attractive/

[68]             https://twitter.com/gwensnyderPHL/status/1288588513601040384

[69]             https://twitter.com/mtwidns

[70]             Those familiar with the theories of Jacques Lacan may recognize the psychoanalytic concept of “The Name of the Father” at work here.

[71]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/02/28/episode-7-transcription/

[72]             https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1967/01/lesser.htm

[73]             https://twitter.com/gwensnyderPHL/status/1288144108431773696. The importance of direct mass action in changing mass consciousness – rather than leaving it to elected politicians or professional organisers – was also raised by US union organiser Jane McAlevey in No Shortcuts, a book I reviewed in Fightback last year: https://fightback.org.nz/2020/01/13/book-review-no-shortcuts/

[74]             Some wags have dubbed it the “ACAB Spring” (All Cops Are Bastards).

[75]             https://twitter.com/JoshMessite/status/1276318659984703489

[76]             https://cedarlounge.wordpress.com/2020/07/09/the-old-world-is-dying-and-the-new-world-struggles-to-be-born-call-the-midwife-ireland-needs-a-new-left-party/

How the far-right found a home in the New Conservative Party

by BYRON CLARK

Candidates | newconservative

“We’ve got some awesome candidates that are stepping up for us,” announces New Conservative Party deputy leader Elliot Ikilei in a video posted to their Facebook page on March 27, 2020. “This is going to be one person over here. Now he is a little bit over there, a little bit over to the far-right…” (Ikilei moves to his left.) “So here we are, and this is a great man, this is a man who many of you will know, and we are so excited to have him on board! Now I’m just going to give it over to him. Sir! What is your name, and tell us a little about yourself?”

“My name is Dieuwe de Boer, and I am a candidate for the New Conservative Party.” announces de Boer. “I’m rather infamous at this point, for my conservative political commentary,” he says to giggles from Ikilei. The joke about de Boer’s infamy, and the earlier double entendre about his location on the far-right, is in reference to an article published by RNZ in January which described him as a “far-right activist”, when reporting on a police raid of his home over a suspected illegal firearm.

Not everyone saw the humour in that headline. Max Shierlaw complained to the Media Council about the use of the term “far-right”. He noted that de Boer was a Christian, a conservative, and a family man who supports gun ownership; these things did not, in Shierlaw’s opinion, make him a “far-right activist”, a term he argued was more properly used for neo-Nazis and racists, which de Boer is not. The Media Council did not uphold the complaint, noting in their response:

It is RNZ’s view that Mr de Boer’s statements put him somewhere on the far-right continuum and the Council agrees that, while ‘far-right’ is an inexact term, it was not an unreasonable description. While not everyone who opposes immigration has far-right views, Mr de Boer has also been openly critical of Islam, saying it was ‘fundamentally incompatible with western values and culture’, has expressed support for nationalism and had supported visiting speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, whose views have consistently been described as far-right. It was also telling that Mr de Boer himself had been quoted as saying that ‘far right’ might not be a bad description of his views.

“All of that makes far-right a rather meaningless and harmless slur.” commented de Boer in an article on his Right Minds website. He’s not necessarily wrong; the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish NGO based in the United States which combats anti-Semitism and other forms of hate, describes the term as “more vague than extreme right or radical right”, the terms they use to describe violent hate groups that exist outside of mainstream conservatism.

While begrudgingly accepting that the far-right label is going to stick, in that same article de Boer announces that his barrister had issued a cease and desist letter for what he describes as “a series of libellous tweets” about him, including one noting that he “regularly appears on Australian hate-monger Tim ‘Pinochet did nothing wrong’ Wilms’s podcast”. Dieuwe de Boer is indeed a regular guest on the podcast in question, The Unshackled, appearing in a weekly “trans-Tasman talk” segment. The slogan quoted in the tweet, “Pinochet did nothing wrong” is one that appears on a t-shirt that Wilms has worn in YouTube videos.

Augusto Pinochet was military dictator of Chile from 1973 to 1990, and is known for his  persecution of leftists, socialists, and other political critics. In particular his regime is remembered for death flights, a method of extrajudicial killing where dissidents were thrown to their deaths from helicopters. The phrase “free helicopter rides” has become a meme on the alt-right, a dog whistle to those who know the meaning, and a seemingly nonsensical joke to those who don’t.

Wilms’ t-shirt belays another meme to those in the know: the letters RWDS printed across the sleeve stand for Right-Wing Death Squads. While originally coined to describe paramilitaries in Colombia in the 1980’s, the term has been adopted by the modern alt-right. Searching for the phrase will bring up a SoundCloud track by that name featuring a picture of an armed man in silhouette in front of a Black Sun, the symbol featured on the cover of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto. One SoundCloud user comments: “Remember lads: Subscribe to PewDiePie”, quoting the shooter’s livestream and echoing another meme appropriated by the alt-right.

Of course, there are several degrees of separation between de Boer and these commenters; he can easily distance himself from them, and even from Wilms. “I am not responsible for Tim’s wardrobe.” he writes, before going on to say, “Tim’s views are generally not too different from mine”.

The Right-Wing Death Squads meme is noted in another of de Boer’s articles. Reporting on a protest he attended in Auckland’s Aotea Square where the right clashed with anti-fascist activists, he writes:

On our side there was someone in a t-shirt that said “Right Wing Death Squad” with a helicopter on it. No one on the other side knew the meaning of the joke, and it is unlikely that everyone reading this would get the joke too, which is why I think it is a terrible one.

He notes that this protestor can’t be labelled a white supremacist because while he would occasionally “yell something in German and talk about physical removal of leftists”, he was ethnically Chinese.

The Unshackled podcast and YouTube channel was previously a joint effort between Wilms and Sydney man Sukith Fernando, but Fernando was dropped from the project after it became widely known he was a Holocaust denier following an article published by Honi Soit, the student paper at the University of Sydney where Fernando was studying at the time. Fernando repeatedly claimed that he “didn’t know” whether the Holocaust happened when confronted by liberal students on campus. He had been part of a ‘Holocaust Revisionism’ Facebook group and had commented “Wow Hitler really did nothing wrong” under a video questioning the holocaust that was posted on his page.

The Unshackled has on numerous occasions provided a platform for one of Australia’s most notorious far-right extremists, Blair Cottrell. Cottrell is the founder of the United Patriots Front (UPF), and later the Lads Society. As reported by ABC News, the man who perpetrated mass shootings at two Christchurch mosques in March 2019 had been an admirer of Cottrell, frequently commenting on his Facebook live streams, referring to him as “Emperor” and donating to the UPF.

Tom Sewell, president of the Lads Society, had – prior to the shooting – tried to recruit the man who was later to perpetrate the Christchurch mass shooting to join a group looking to create a society of only white people. The man, who at this point was about to move to New Zealand, declined. “The difference between my organisation, myself and [the shooter], is simply that we believe, certainly at this stage, that there is a peaceful solution for us to create the society we want to live in,” Sewell told Newshub“If we are not given that opportunity, well, time will tell. I’m not going to give you any explicit threat but it’s pretty fucking obvious what’s going to happen.”

Again, de Boer maintains a degree of separation from these figures, but he has spoken openly about the overlap between the content of the Christchurch mass shooter’s manifesto and his movement. “The overlapping views obviously are that we favour nationalism and have an opposition to the United Nations,” de Boer told Stuff. “We want stronger controls on immigration. We haven’t talked much about replacement, but I would definitely highlight that Western nations in general have low birth rates.”

And highlight those birth rates he has. A 2017 article on Right Mindsis headed with a line graph showing the declining birth rate in New Zealand since the 1960s. Despite saying that Right Minds haven’t talked much about replacement, this article heavily implies that something akin to the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, after which the Christchurch mass shooter named his manifesto, is going on. “Every single one of our childless liberal leaders wants to import more immigrants to be the children they don’t have” writes de Boer. “Perhaps these parties should remove their gender quotas, official or otherwise, and replace them with some offspring quotas.”

Coming into the New Conservative fold

Initially de Boer was less than enthusiastic about the New Conservatives. In a June 2018 article he describes them as “boring” and lambasts them as “more green than the Greens” for missing an opportunity “to stand out here to and straight up call out the global warming lie”. In reference to an income splitting policy he asks rhetorically “does that mean a Muslim man can split income between all four of his wives and pay no tax?”, and concludes that the party has “run-of-the-mill socialist policies, much like every mainstream party in New Zealand.” By eighteen months later he had completely changed his attitude.

I got a message from deputy leader Elliot Ikilei, who told me that he had read my critically dismissive review, he thought I had some good points, and he wanted to meet up to talk about it. That one simple olive branch changed my life and I know he’s extended many more like it to others. Perhaps enough to alter the course of this nation.

Rather than ignoring the fringe blogging of a young man who said his party was not pushing climate change denial hard enough while dismissing every mainstream party as “socialist” and throwing in some barely hidden Islamophobia, Ikilei had specifically sought out de Boer. It may be that the politics of New Conservative are not as different from Right Minds as de Boer originally thought. His article endorsing the party praises Ikilei for saying that western culture is superior to all other cultures: “That’s a line you won’t hear from any politician”.

Other figures from New Zealand’s far-right have also been drawn to the New Conservatives. Canterbury man Lee Williams, whose YouTube channel boasts over twelve thousand subscribers, posted a video on July 19th 2019  calling for the small “right of centre” parties opposed to the United Nations Compact on Safe Orderly and Regular Migration (commonly known as the UN Migration Pact) to unite together. Underneath the video, one commenter writes: “A party has been formed”, “New Conservative Party (NZ) Good people here. Check it out.” Williams replies, “I’m in touch with Elliot”.

A few weeks later, he was in Auckland to speak at a Free Speech rally, along with Elliot Ikilei and others. Speakers were introduced by Dieuwe de Boer. In his speech, Williams begins “Well here we are, the white supremacists of New Zealand, according to Patrick Gower and the lying New Zealand mainstream media!”, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

Williams is referencing a Newshub piece that reported on members of the far-right attending a protest against the UN Migration Pact in Christchurch. Newshub reports that at that rally the notorious while supremacist Phillip Arps had called for Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters to be hanged. Arps has served a prison sentence for sharing the livestream video of the mass shooting at Al Noor Masjid, and had left pigs’ heads at the same mosque in 2016.

Williams was not mentioned in the piece, but has reason to gripe about the story. He was the one speaking at the rally when Arps, who had been standing beside him waving a New Zealand flag, yelled out “Hang him! Publicly hang him!” when Williams mentions Peters. In his speech, Williams states that “Europe and its people are being replaced”, referencing the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, a phrase that New Zealanders would become familiar with a few weeks after that rally when it was used as the title of the Christchurch mass shooter’s manifesto.

It’s likely that the content of that speech, and other videos such as one uploaded two weeks later where Williams claims “these [Muslim] wives are just knocking out babies with baby factories, you know, and vastly outnumbered the birth-rate of native populations – this is in every country in Western Europe”, were the impetus for police visiting him on two occasions after the Christchurch shooting.

After attending a public meeting in Christchurch in August, Williams made a video announcing his endorsement of the New Conservatives.

Anybody who’s informed and they watch what’s happening in Western Europe and they know what’s happened in the United States with the Democrats, Donald Trump if you – if you support Donald Trump, if you’re on one of the secret supporters of New Zealand then I would say you’d probably like New Conservatives. If you’re pro-Brexit, if you’re pro-freedom of speech, if you’re anti-mass migration, anti-United Nations Global Compact on migration, then the New Conservatives is for you.

When a commenter asks if the New Conservatives are “of a similar persuasion to A-M Waters and the ‘For Britain’ party in [the] UK?”’ Williams replies: “yes similar”. The For Britain Party was founded by the anti-Islam activist Anne-Marie Waters after she was defeated in the UK Independence Party leadership election in 2017. Their platform includes reducing Muslim immigration to the UK to near zero.

The New Conservatives have a zero net migration policy that doesn’t single out any particular ethnic group or religion. But the comments from their Botany candidate are not the only time the party has been associated themselves with that kind of ideology. On April 2nd 2019, the New Conservative Facebook page shared a video promoting Douglas Murray’s 2017 book The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam,describing it as “a powerful understanding as to why our culture is suffering,” and noted: “We absolutely agree.” The book claims that Europe is under threat from Muslim immigration and higher birth rates, and is popular on the far-right.

Much like Ikilei’s olive branch to de Boer, the party didn’t ignore the endorsement of a fringe YouTube personality who believes – among other things – that the United Nations is run by an “unholy alliance” of Islam and “cultural Marxists”, and that there is a deliberate plot to emasculate western men to weaken white majority countries. Instead, they shared Williams’ video on their Facebook page with the comment: “we are so humbled and encouraged to see critical thinkers jumping onboard.”

In a video uploaded to his channel in September 2019, Williams and an unnamed friend, who also attended that same meeting in August, call on people to vote for the New Conservatives, describing them as “the closest we’ve got to a Salvini or a Viktor Orbán”, referring to far-right politicians in Italy and Hungary. Lee Williams is wrong about a lot of things, but in that instance, he’s probably correct.

Green Vomit and statistical nonsense: the lies you hear about immigration and the Auckland housing crisis

hanson-farage-trump

Uncomfortable bedfellows: NZ Greens’ James Shaw joins Pauline Hanson (Australia), Michael Gove (UK) and Donald Trump (US) in an international trend of xenophobic scapegoating.

 

Article by Tim Leadbeater. Reprinted from the International Socialist Organisation (Aotearoa/NZ).

A few days ago the Labour party announced a new policy of increasing police numbers by 1000. I groaned at this news but it didn’t really surprise me. Then yesterday I heard of the new Greens policy on immigration, with James Shaw calling for a drastic reduction in numbers. Is New Zealand First calling the shots here, aided and encouraged by a compliant and uncritical media happy to jump on the anti-immigrant bandwagon? The Greens and Labour will almost certainly need the support of NZF to form a government next year, and Winston really just hates those hippy-dippy lentil munching do gooders. James Shaw knows this, yet needs to send a very clear signal to Peters that the Greens are willing to compromise. Immigration is a hot topic, and Shaw can easily frame the issue in terms of “sustainablitity” and “infrastructure”. No need for racist dog-whistles or Chinese sounding surnames, this is Sensible and Practical Greens policy, easily digested by sensitive liberals turned off by the crude nationalistic appeals of NZF.

“We think that the country needs a more sustainable immigration policy, so what we’d do is set a variable approvals target based on a percentage of the overall population. That would be at about 1 percent of the population, which is historically how fast New Zealand’s population has grown.”

Mr Shaw says the policy would even out peaks and troughs in annual migration numbers.

“You’ve also got to cater for changes in infrastructure, and because our population has historically grown at about 1 percent the country is set up to absorb that,” he says.

“Suddenly double that number, and you’ve got a problem like we’ve got at the moment, where you actually can’t meet the demand.”

Hmmmm. Sounds sensible enough. It’s not that we are racist or anything mean and horrible like that, it is just that we have looked at it very carefully and the numbers just don’t add up. One percent is all that the infrastructure can handle – just look at the housing crisis for proof, even if we wanted to we just couldn’t build enough new houses that fast. The government isn’t switched on like we are, they are letting in huge numbers and now people are sleeping in their cars! Etc, etc.

Curious about this one percent growth claim, I searched for the population data on Statistics New Zealand and came up with this graph:

population-graph

It is sort of true that the New Zealand population has grown at around 1% per year, as you can see for the period from the 1990s up to 2015, the line fluctuates above and below 1%. If you were a statistician paid by Winston Peters you could cut the time period to 1980 and onwards, and very easily draw a steadily increasing trendline through the periodic peaks and troughs. Look! The line is going up, we don’t have enough houses! The line must be flat, we must flatten the line! One percent is an absolute maximum!

The really strange and scary thing is to consider just how New Zealand survived throughout those extreme and rabbit-warren like years after the second world war. Those baby boomers were just popping them out without any consideration for New Zealand’s fragile infrastructure, pushing 3% for a couple of years and then a period of about 20 years with that line well in the red zone (and it was so sudden! How did they cope?). Then there was that period in the late 60s and early 70s when the line went into the 2% Danger Zone for about 3 years. Those damn hippies, what were they thinking?

Cheering for the Greens new anti-immigrant stance, Martyn Bradbury from the Daily Blog conjures conjures up some even more gratuitously false statistics to make the case:

Here is the grim truth about our current immigration settings. It’s not the 70,000-90,000 who become permanent residents that we need to be concerned about and it’s not their families joining them that we need to be worried with either, the real problem is our scam work/study visa scheme that sees 250 000 desperate students coming to NZ for bullshit ‘education’ programs that end up as bonded servitude with exploitative employers who hold onto their passports.

These 250 000 work hard jobs, many on less than minimum wage and pay tens of thousands for education schemes that are glorified english courses all for the promise of becoming permanent  residents.

A quarter of a million students paying tens of thousands of dollars to learn English, and getting exploited at the same time by ruthless bosses! And all of them putting massive stress on our infrastructure! They’ll never ever go back to where they came from because their bosses have stolen their passports!! We’ll be doing the country a favour as well as fighting for worker’s rights if we just stop them staying here! A double whammy:

We need to stop exploiting these people and stop promising them permanent residence via education. If they wish to come here for education, fine, that’;s their decision, but putting in place the pathway from education or employment to residency is exploitative and creating huge pressures on an infrastructure that can’t take anymore.

When I first read this blog I was struck by the twisted moral “logic” of Bradbury’s anti-immigrant stance. Like James Shaw, he wants to save the ‘infrastructure’ from the hordes of foreigners swamping our fair land. But he wants to present this as simultaneously saving the immigrants from exploitative bosses. If only they knew how exploitative and nasty kiwi bosses were, they would never have come in the first place. (Working conditions in places like India, of course, being obviously superior). I started pondering the strange and only barely coherent motivations for this ‘argument’, then my head started to hurt so I gave up. What then struck me was Bradbury’s figures. Where on earth did he get that figure of 250,000 ‘desperate students’?

He links to another blog by Mike Treen, which states that “250,000 people are granted student or temporary work visas each year.”. There are no sources given for any of these numbers, so I dug around the Statistics New Zealand and MBIE sites for up to date data. Treen’s figure of 250,000 is most likely based on data for the 2014/2015 year, in which 84,856 international students were approved for New Zealand courses, and 170,814 people were granted a work visa.

Let’s start with the temporary work visas. It is difficult to know exactly how many of these people are or were international students. There are several categories of temporary visa, and a set of complex rules and regulations surrounding each category. I didn’t spend enough time on this problem to come up with an exact number, but I did take note of the clearly spelt out fact that the biggest single source country of those gaining temporary work visas was the UK. And the fact that the biggest visa category (61,404 people) was ‘Working Holiday Schemes’ (think backpackers). How many people were granted visas in the ‘Work to Study’ category? Exactly 13,688. There are other categories international students might have applied under, but this is the most obvious candidate.

How about those 84,856 international students? Again I didn’t dig long enough in the data to work out how many of these students worked, or intended to work after studying. Fairly obviously the 18% of them who were under 16 will not be working, which leaves us with 69,582 who might get part time work alongside their studies. There is no denying that for a significant chunk of these international students (and ex-students), exploitative and often illegal work practices are a major problem. But the numbers involved are nowhere near the idiotically false figure of 250,000 which Bradbury confidently puts forward without any reservations.

Are these just careless mistakes made a by blogger who thrives on the hot air of passing controversies, or is there something else going on here? I’m aware that Bradbury operates a blog rather than an academic journal, but the brazen sloppiness regarding statistics is surely a big issue. The internet allows you to check numbers very quickly and easily, so why not back up your statistics with actual sources?

There are definitely some impressive numbers out there which at first glance appear to back up the argument for cutting immigration. According to Statistics New Zealand, surely a source far more credible than Bradbury’s blog or Green Party press releases, Auckland’s population grew by a massive 2.9% in the 2014 – 2015 year. This growth accounted for over half of the population growth for the entire country. Alongside these facts it would not be a difficult task to present a series of familiar and undeniable truths about the problems with Auckland’s infrastructure: the housing crisis, inadequate public transport, congested roads and so on. Shortly after the release of this data in July 2015, there was a Stuff article with the headline “NZ migration boom nears 60,000 a year, as Indians and returning Kiwis flood in”. Like many other similarly hysterical media reports, immigration is presented as a major causal factor of the housing crisis. With almost no attention given in the mainstream media to alternative points of view which question this received wisdom, the truth of the claim ‘immigrants cause housing crisis’ has apparently become established through constant repetition. In this environment, it is possible to make outlandishly false statistical claims about immigration without stirring any controversy.

The most insightful piece I have read about this issue is Peter Nunns’ transport blog article ‘Why is Auckland Growing?’. Nunns points out that net migration is extremely volatile, being dependent on both the numbers of Aucklanders leaving for places such as Australia and the numbers of people coming in from overseas. Much more constant and statistically significant is the natural population increase due to Aucklanders having babies. If we can get past the hysteria of the 2015 figures and look at the past 24 years for a broader and more robust view of the situation, the statistics tell a different story: in 18 of those 24 years, natural increase was a bigger contributor to growth than net migration. The significance of this is that even if regulations on immigration were tightened considerably, overall long term population growth would be roughly the same as if the status quo rules remained. Nunns demonstrates this with a simulation comparing a projected Auckland population growth with a 50% reduction of net migration to one without such a reduction. His prediction is that by the year 2043, the 50% reduction version of Auckland would have a population of about 2.1 million, whereas the status quo Auckland would have a population of about 2.2 million. The conclusion he draws is that Auckland faces some major tasks around preparing its infrastructure for population growth, so it needs to do things like build more houses. Cutting immigration is simply not a solution.

I can’t resist another conclusion: none of this pedantic analysing of facts and figures really matters all that much. What does matter is all those times you get on board an Auckland train in the morning and there are no seats left, and you are surrounded by lots of Indian and Asian young people. When you get on the bus and have to listen to all those conversations in Chinese. Then you get off on Dominion Road and basically every sign is written in Chinese, and they don’t even bother translating them into English. All those bright and hard working Asian students who get most of the academic prizes in the secondary schools. These very pertinent experiences and anecdotes build on each other, so when you read the outlandish and ridiculous sentence “the real problem is our scam work/study visa scheme that sees 250 000 desperate students coming to NZ for bullshit ‘education’ programs that end up as bonded servitude with exploitative employers who hold onto their passportsyou don’t even blink, it just sounds about right.

As a socialist I am for internationalism, solidarity and a world without borders. In this article however I have restrained myself from using any of the perspectives, values or arguments which inform these positions. The mainstream left in New Zealand appears to be lacking in both statistical literacy and the spirit of the famous phrase ‘Workers of the World, Unite!’. If we can’t communicate to them the spirit of solidarity, the least we can do is point out their mathematical failure.

In defence of the ‘user pays youth generation’

According to a US survey, 49% of millenials view socialism favourably.

According to a US survey, 49% of millenials view socialism favourably.

By Ian Anderson, Fightback.

The Daily Blog’s Martyn Bradbury recently posted an article seeking to characterise John Key’s electoral appeal. Bradbury contends that Key appeals to a ‘user pays youth generation’:

This empty aspiration appeals to a user pays youth generation who have no idealogical [sic] compass, and is best expressed through the naked narcism [sic] of Key’s son.

Bradbury has used the specific phrase ‘user pays youth generation’ before. In August 2015, the Daily Blog posted another article attempting to characterise Key’s base, with a nearly identical paragraph on the apparent superficiality of millenials:

[Key appeals] to our anti-intellectualism… He’s so laid back he burns books on his BBQ. This empty aspiration appeals to a user pays youth generation who have no idealogical [sic] compass, and is best expressed through the naked narcism [sic] of Key’s son.

Bradbury is right to suggest that Key’s PR-guided personality appeals to a certain Kiwi anti-intellectualism, a blokey ‘she’ll be right’ attitude in the context of the global financial crisis. National is supported by the rich, and by insecure middle-class folks relying on the property boom – which raises the question, how many people in their 20s own houses?

Although Bradbury may have a point about Key’s media-savvy philistinism, he’s wrong to imply that Key’s base is primarily young. While Young Nats offer a horrifying spectacle of privileged self-indulgence, this does not represent most ‘millenials.’ According to early voting statistics from 2014, students voted for a change of government, with Labour-Green-Internet Mana at a combined total of around 50%, and National votes at 37% (around 10% lower than the national average). This doesn’t say anything special about Kiwi millenials: youth generally tend to be progressive. According to a US survey, 49% of millenials view socialism favourably.

National’s electoral strength can be explained not only by who votes for them, but who doesn’t vote at all. 2011 saw the lowest turnout since the 19th century, and 2014 wasn’t a significant improvement. The ‘missing million’ of non-voters is comprised largely of youth, migrants, tangata whenua, poor and working-class citizens – the demographics most likely to vote left.

Surveys of non-voters reveal that they are more likely to cite disengagement (eg “my vote wouldn’t have made a difference”) than a perceived practical barrier (eg “I couldn’t get to a polling booth”). After 30 years of neoliberal assault and entrenchment by successive Labour and National governments, it’s unsurprising that so many are disenfranchised.

Generational narratives about ‘millenials’ and ‘Baby Boomers’ do in some ways resonate with lived experience. For example, I was born in 1988, during the reign of the Fourth Labour Government. Although Pākehā and relatively well-off, I was born into a world of privatisation, declining real wages, and ballooning private debt. Since leaving home I’ve only worked short-term casualised jobs, and lived in poorly maintained flats. If I’m part of a ‘user pays’ generation, I owe this in large part to Baby Boomers like Phil Goff, who introduced student loans (after getting through university with a universal student allowance). With a $40,000 student loan, I’m not inspired to vote for a party that recently promoted Goff as a potential Prime Minister.

However, generational narratives can also also conceal reality. Baby Boomers, in general, did not implement neoliberalism: a global minority carried out this assault. Many more resisted; thousands of leftists killed by Pinochet’s regime in Chile; thousands of miners in Thatcher’s England; and those of my parents’ generation who unsuccessfully fought a sudden, disorientating wave of restructuring initiated by the Fourth NZ Labour Government. I was raised with the idea that “socialism was a nice idea that didn’t work” – that there is no alternative – and didn’t come to understand this history until well into adulthood.

Reactionary complaints about the apathetic ‘selfie generation’ also conceal more than they reveal. My generation saw perhaps the largest ever global mobilisation, against the Iraq War, a mobilisation that did nothing to stop that military assault. This perception of political powerlessness, this sense that there is no alternative, seems more likely to discourage youth from political participation than the ability to take pictures with our phones.

A Baby Boomer coined the phrase ‘don’t trust anybody over 30,’ and in a certain sense he was wrong. Older radicals offer a reminder that not everyone grows conservative with age. Any socialist alternative to Labour and National’s business-as-usual will require the intergenerational self-organisation of workplaces, universities and communities. Otherwise, a privileged minority of millenials will find themselves managing a violent social system much like the one they were born into – likely dooming the species to extinction.

The kids aren’t alright, but generational warfare is a distraction. Capitalism remains the enemy.

See also

Coalition governments and real change

LabourMike Treen, General Secretary of UNITE Union. (Reprinted from The Daily Blog, originally published in 2013).

Can a party that wants fundamental changes in society be a minor part of a coalition government?
My conclusion is no, after having been a participant in the Alliance Party’s implosion after attempting to do so from 1999-2002 as part of the Labour-led government. But that does not mean that a minor party can’t be an effective player in parliament for reforms while continuing to build a movement outside of parliament as well for real change.

Similar disasters befell radical left or Green parties in many countries. In most cases there existed a moderate centrist Labour or social democratic party that had strong support from working people but was committed to the existing system including the system of worldwide alliances with the US-led western imperial ambitions.

Pressure always comes on the smaller more radical party to oppose the more right wing parties and support the “lesser evil” of social democracy. Many working people who either have illusions that their traditional party will make real change, or simply accept – albeit unenthusiastically – the reality of lesser evilism, will also often want their party to ally with parties to their left rather than their right in the hope of more progressive policies emerging. It is always worth remembering that not all Labour governments are a lesser evil. It would be hard to argue that was true for the 1984-90 Labour government.

This was true in 1999 in New Zealand. There was genuine enthusiasm when Helen Clark extended the olive branch to the Alliance Party at its conference that year and what was effectively an alternative coalition in waiting won the election.
Alliance leader Jim Anderton was made deputy prime minister and three others got cabinet posts, but the party essentially disappeared from view into Labour’s embraces and its policies were seen as essentially the same. The government remained reasonably popular but the Alliance Party’s support collapsed in the polls. Technically the party retained the right to differentiate its own position from that of the larger partner while remaining in cabinet but this was rarely invoked. Then when the decision was made to send troops to Afghanistan it provoked a bitter internal fight, with the vast majority of the party rejecting the decision by Anderton and a majority of Alliance MP’s to support the government’s position. The Alliance was eliminated from parliament at the 2002 election and Anderton’s faction has simply been absorbed into the Labour Party.
The problem for a genuinely radical party is that it only has minority support and cannot impose any significant policy change on a party committed to the existing system. So long as that system is based on serving the 1%, only small and relatively minor progressive changes are achievable. That was the case for the Alliance, which achieved the establishment of Kiwibank and Paid Parental Leave and some labour law reforms, despite significant opposition from elements in the Labour Party at the time. But these changes weren’t enough to significantly change the position of working people in the country. They weren’t enough to give people hope that unemployment could be eliminated, inequality radically reduced, democratic control exerted over the key sectors of the economy.

If the Alliance had remained outside of cabinet it could probably have negotiated for all the changes it actually achieved, but remained free to agitate and mobilise people in the streets for the more radical changes that are needed to make a real improvement to the lives of working people.
The Greens will face a similar challenge if they can achieve a majority able to form a government with Labour after the next election. The Greens have already taken the first significant steps to becoming a “partner” in running the existing system rather than challenging it when they signed up to the ETS [Emissions Trading Scheme] as a mechanism to combat climate change. They know that the ETS, or any other market-based mechanism, cannot make any real impact in combating a threat to humanity that has arisen as a consequence of the free market system in the first place.
Protecting the environment and protecting the rights and living standards of the vast majority of people in the world requires the system of capitalism to be superseded. That requires a radical social and political movement that aspires to win a majority in the country – not simply assume the role of “junior partner” to a party that remains fundamentally committed to the current system.
The Mana Movement, which is in my view a system-challenging movement, may also face a similar problem if the election is close and Labour and the Greens (and NZ First?) require their vote to form a government. They too will be in a position to negotiate some reforms that benefit the people who support them, as part of a negotiated agreement to allow a Labour-led government to be formed. By doing so they will respect the fact that for now they are a minority party and the majority of the people they want to represent have voted for Labour or the Greens. That democratic choice can be respected.

At the same time Mana can retain their freedom of criticism and ability to organise at the grass roots for the generally timid reforms to go further, or against any reactionary policies that such a government will inevitably end up promoting. So long as these parties in government are trying to make a system “work” they can’t escape ultimately disappointing their own supporters, because for this system to work it will continue to produce economic crisis, unemployment and environmental destruction. Movements like Mana can then provide a progressive alternative for those people rather than have that disappointment captured by the right.

Elections and migrant-bashing: Full rights for migrant workers

Ni-Vanuatu migrant worker

Ni-Vanuatu migrant worker

Joe McClure, Fightback

Labour and National both have unpromising records when it comes to immigration policy. National, represented by Minister of Immigration Michael Woodhouse, has suffered a series of embarrassments this year. Groups of Filipino workers employed in Christchurch were found to be victims of exploitative company Tech5, which was keeping them in cramped conditions, taking $125 per person per week to “pay for the cost of their tools”, and coercing them into working for the company without complaint, or risk losing their visa and being returned to the Philippines. A recent raid on fruit picking operations in the Bay of Plenty found eight people working without visas, and more than 18 companies operating in breach of immigration requirements. In May, Woodhouse was found to have met with overseas investors and significant National party donors, including prominent Chinese businessman Donghua Liu, before deciding on their visa applications.

Labour has also been dogged by the case of Liu, when it was found that Labour leader David Cunliffe had intervened in his application, after Liu allegedly paid $100,000 for a bottle of wine at a Labour party fundraiser. Despite Cunliffe’s adamant claim that he never got involved with Liu’s visa application in 2014, it has been revealed that in 2003 he wrote a letter asking for Liu’s immigration application to be fast-tracked. Liu donated an undisclosed amount to Labour after the application was approved.

Labour’s hostility to immigrants (other than wealthy businessmen) was made clear in their election policy, where they announced they wanted to reduce immigration to avoid raising housing prices. Despite the party’s frequent attacks on National’s immigration stance, Deputy Labour Leader David Parker made it clear that the Labour party intend to control the number of immigrants arriving in New Zealand, reducing the number arriving without qualifications or skills of value to the New Zealand economy, and fast-tracking those instances where applicants can demonstrate that they can contribute to growing New Zealand’s GDP.

Labour party policy involves a points-based system, which ensures that immigrants are spread throughout the country rather than being concentrated in just one or two regions. In a concession to potential coalition partners such as the Green Party, Labour promised to ensure immigrants are paid no less than the minimum wage, provide training opportunities for upskilling immigrants, and increase the refugee quota from 750 per year to 1000. In contrast, the National party claims that the risk of refugees targeting New Zealand is growing, a claim echoed by NZ First leader Winston Peters.
Peters has announced his party’s position on immigration, involving increased security and a reduction in the number of student visas granted, in line with the party’s conservative ideology; however, the lack of detail in Peters’ statements prevent a clearer appraisal of his position.
In contrast, the Green Party, in their policy framework, include promises to increase the refugee quota to 1,000, with a focus on uniting families, ensuring that migrant workers are paid no less than local workers and employed in the same conditions, and will create opportunities for people on temporary visas to upskill so that they can apply for permanent residency.

Finally, MANA-Internet policy reflects a more open-borders position, in which skilled visitors from overseas can come and go from New Zealand as necessary. Internet Party founder Kim Dotcom has been a very prominent figure in immigration discussions, as his residency was granted under dubious conditions by Immigration NZ, and subsequent to this, an illegal search of his home was carried out, including the seizure of various items belonging to him.

Dotcom claims that former Immigration Minister Jonathan Coleman pressured Immigration NZ to accept his residency application, as part of a deal with the US government, and to ensure he invested in the NZ economy. He further suggests that this was to make it easier for the US government to extradite him out of New Zealand, as he was accused of copyright fraud by various American media companies. According to reports released under the Official Information Act, Immigration NZ were aware of these accusations made against Dotcom, but felt that his economic contribution was more important than his legal situation.

As a result of these obfuscations and denials, Dotcom has demanded transparency in government processes, and a full review of the relevant diplomatic and intelligence agreements. MANA leader Hone Harawira has also taken up this view, as have his fellow candidates; John Minto demanded that Woodhouse explain why the NZ government was discriminating against Pacific people from Tonga and Samoa while putting out the welcome mat for anyone from Australia, irrespective of skills and criteria.

New Zealand employs numerous workers from around the Pacific each year to take part in fruit picking and other seasonal employment, and this creates a valuable opportunity for these people to work in the NZ environment, improving their English language fluency, as well as picking up skills that they can use both in New Zealand and in their home countries. However, these workers are often discriminated against, as in the example of the construction workers in Christchurch, and the MANA Movement is one of only a few parties that have promised to prevent this happening.
MANA has offered to migrant workers the same pay and conditions as local workers, without the risk of having their visas revoked, and enabling them to receive the same support as a New Zealander working in that job could expect. This is just one of the areas where Fightback stands alongside MANA, in affirming the rights of dispossessed workers, and demanding fair and reasonable treatment without discrimination, whether for migrant workers employed in New Zealand, or New Zealand-born workers.

National and its right wing friends

billboard

National today appears to be seeing a level of popularity unheard of in the MMP era. But behind the polls, the reality is much more mundane. Most political polls exclude undecided voters and those planning not to cast a ballot, yet these groups can occasionally make up as many as 15% of respondents. At the last election, the number who didn’t vote was even higher. In 2011, just over a third of the population voted for National, a quarter didn’t vote at all.

The party has barely campaigned, beyond some tough-on-gangs murmuring, the meaningless #teamkey hashtag and and the usual billboards featuring the faces of its leader and candidates. National has very little to campaign on, much of government policy is a holdover from the previous Labour government, which in turn did little to reverse the neoliberal economic reforms of the 80s and the 90s.

The changes National has made are hardly vote winners- further erosions of work rights, including such basic rights as meal breaks, attacks on civil liberties though granting more powers to the GCSB, and opening up protected areas for mining and drilling. Added to that is the deeply unpopular asset sales program, which triggered a citizen initiated referendum. National has also made cuts in education, social welfare and ACC- the latter of which they reneged on somewhat after an effective campaign to restore funding for sexual abuse survivors.

National plans to win this election through inertia, hoping that enough people will be too disillusioned or disinterested to turn up at the polling booth. Its a reasonable strategy, when the past three decades have seen little difference between National-led and Labour-led governments, why bother when the outcome is going to be one of the two?

A change in government could be quite significant this year though. Labour has previously shunned the Green Party, last time it was in government aligning with parties to its right- NZ First and current National partner Peter Dunne- but the Greens have grown their support over the past decade and can’t be ruled out. Of course, Labour has already stated it expects to rely on votes from National to pass legislation the Green Party would oppose on environmental grounds, so the presence of Green MP’s at the cabinet table is unlikely to be a shock to the system.

The major challenge to the status quo comes from Internet-MANA, while Labour has ruled out having them in government the electoral alliance between the MANA Movement and the Internet Party has been clear from the start that a vote for them is a vote to change the government. Last term Labour adopted MANA’s ‘feed the kids’ bill, voting on the bill has been delayed until after the election meaning a change in government will see it passed. MANA was the first party to call for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador following Israel’s latest bombing in Gaza, within a fortnight the Green Party had echoed the call, the issue is now on the agenda. Small but significant victories like this make giving a tick to Internet-MANA on election day a worthwhile action.

National evidently recognises this threat, as Internet-MANA is engaging previous non-voters with social media, the ‘party party’ events, and packed out meetings across the country. As a result John Key has been pouring scorn over Internet-MANA to a much greater degree than he has toward any other party. Recently Key made the the sexist statement that Kim Dotcom was a “sugar daddy” to Laila Harre. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sugar daddy as “a rich older man who lavishes gifts on a young woman in return for her company or sexual favours”.

Among the 35% or so of the voting age population that support the party, some are no doubt better off under a National led government, tax cuts for the rich are only a bad thing if you’re not rich, and a few people are. That said, National could not survive if it didn’t achieve a level of support from some of the working class. John Key’s image plays to a type of identity politics. While he refuses to appear in front of the no-holds-barred interviewers of Radio New Zealand, he is a regular guest on sports radio and talkback stations. Key has created an affinity with a number of male voters, the sort of people who praised him for his “not all men” response to Labour leader David Cunliffe’s speech on domestic violence at Women’s Refuge. He’s not losing any votes from that part of his base by standing by his “sugar daddy” comment either.

Identity politics is nothing new for National, under the leadership of Don Brash the party went from their worst election result in history to a near win in 2005 after a campaign full of rhetoric about Maori privilege, ‘one law for all’ and the infamous Iwi/Kiwi advertising campaign- implying that Labour was for Maori and National was for ‘everyone’ of course, the campaign was targeting just one ethnic group- Pakeha.

National would not go in for that rhetoric today, if for no other reason than the fact that it would seem hollow in light of its arrangement with the Maori Party, but the Maori Party is set to leave parliament (largely due to the stellar efforts of MANA’s Annette Sykes who is challenging Te Uraroa Flavell in Waiariki) and National has indicated it would like voters in Epsom to elect ACT’s David Seymour, and ACT has no qualms about playing the race card.

ACT

With the election of philosopher Jamie Whyte as leader, and the merger-in-all-but-name with the Libertarianz (former leaders now hold high list positions in ACT) the party once known as the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers looked set to become a doctrinaire libertarian party- with poll results to match: in one poll they were equalled by the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, an organisation promoting the one libertarian policy the majority of the public actually agrees with.

Perhaps this is why Jamie Whytes conference speech was light on ideology and instead focused on anti-Maori populism. According to former ACT on Campus vice president Guy McCullum, Whyte told a small gathering of ACT supporters in Dunedin on the morning of 20 July that he was in search of a “stunt … because you know, the polls.”

That stunt came in the form of the bizarre allegation that Maori occupy a similar social position to the aristocracy in pre-revolutionary France. “ACT’s policies are about reminding you of scary burglars, zealous bureaucrats with a hidden green agenda, and resentful Maori…This is the imagery the vague words are designed to create. Liberals and libertarians are getting a rough deal from ACT” McCallum, who resigned from ACT following the speech, told Otago student magazine Critic.

ACT seems to be confused about what sort of party it is, libertarian, or conservative? perhaps the next parliamentary term will be the last one ACT is relevant, depending on the outcome in Epsom, they may become irrelevant even sooner. Unfortunately National has another right-appendage waiting in the wings.

The Conservatives

Colin Craig may be unsure about the historical validity of the moon landing, but he’s smart enough to see that ACT’s disarray, combined with the retirement of NZ First firebrand Winston Peters, which really can’t be that far away, opens up a space for his party. If not this year, then in 2017. As such, The Conservatives have joined in the attack on supposed Maori privilege, using the much more groan inducing slogan “one law to rule them all” and borrowed a number of NZ First policies.

Right now, the party is still a joke, but if given an Epsom-style deal in 2017 they may need to be taken seriously. For the mean time though, the best strategy is to keep laughing at them. If you need help, Colin Craig once did a glamour photo shoot which is easily found on Google Image Search.

New Zealand First

While finding anti-immigrant rhetoric not the draw card it once was, NZ First has spoken against “separatism” and ruled out working with any “race based” parties, meaning there are now three parties flogging that dead horse (actually four, if we count the tiny 1Law4All party which managed to register) NZ First has some progressive policies, but recent rhetoric has shown they are likely to support National, for example a bottom line is keeping the retirement age at 65, a policy where National is actually more progressive than Labour.

In 2011 some commentators argued that returning NZ First to parliament would mean a change in government, and a vote for them would be ‘strategic’ that was wrong then and its wrong again now. At best it would mean a centre left bloc in opposition with less Labour MP’s and more NZ First MPs (this is how Richard Prosser ended up getting a platform beyond conspiracy theory magazine Investigate to espouse his Islamophobia) at worst, it means keeping National in power with the help of a party elected in part by progressive voters.

The best outcome for anyone wanting a change in government would be for NZ First to drop below the 5% threshold, and the best option for bringing about a meaningful change is a party vote for Internet MANA.