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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Musing on Minto

John Minto wrote an excellent opinion piece in the NZ Herald on Thursday, Oct. 27 about the rise of the juvenile gang culture that has been in the news with the violent attacks over the last couple of weeks. Many of the "street gangs" that are seen as responsible for this violence have been identified in Otara, South Auckland where John teaches, so he would have seen the situation close-up. John blames the violence on "a strong sense of alienation" originating from the poverty rife in places like Otara.
Low income levels result from the low wages many people are paid in casual and insecure employment. The low wage rates mean long hours are worked by parents, exacerbating the situation facing the young in the area. Lack of hope for a better future combined with poor or non-existent parental supervision of, or involvement with, their children (because of work demands), provides a local breeding ground for the imported gang culture celebrated in the music videos, computer games and films many of these kids are exposed to and identify with.
John Minto slates the Labour governments of the last six years for not seriously dealing with poverty. He says that after the introduction of income related rents, "which was a plus", it has been "a long, slow, downhill slide". He says even after the Working for Families package is implemented, 175,000 children will still be living in poverty.
Schools in poor areas are also disadvantaged by up to 25 per cent because of the extra income the schools in wealthy areas can raise from parents and fee-paying students.
He concludes that: "The poor can go to hell in a hand-cart as far as Labour is concerned."
All this is true; to a point. That point is: what would things be like under National? This prospect is disregarded by John.
He does not mention that it was National that cut benefits and smashed-up the unions with the Employment Contracts Act so that non-union low-paid jobs became the norm. Mass poverty was the result.
Of course the Labour administration of the 1984 – 1990 period initiated the neo-liberal reforms that led to massive increases in unemployment through closures and "restructuring" of industries. This was the result of "Rogernomics"; the capitalist-empowerment project that was carried out in the name of "deregulation". That administration, however, flew apart under the weight of the contradiction between the right wing leadership and the working class support-base of the Labour Party. Most of the right-wingers responsible for the 1984-90 betrayal by Labour ended up in the ACT Party or the political wilderness.
Labour has been forced, in words and in some of its practice, to renounce its Rogernomics past. Many of the underpinning neo-liberal legislative changes remain intact (like the Reserve Bank Act) but Labour has repealed and replaced the ECA, for example. Although strike action is still severely restricted by the new law, unions at least have legal recognition and protections they had lost under National.
And no-one could deny that the support of the working class was crucial to Labour's victory in Election 05. This means that a Labour-led government is susceptible to pressure from the working class through its organisations and its independent political action, even if Labour only acts out of a sense of political survival and opportunism. This is why the real masters of the universe on the right want to keep Labour out of governmental power. They want a National-Act government.
A naive or non-political-activist reader could be forgiven for taking from the tenor of John’s Herald article the implication that he must be a National supporter because he comes across as so virulently anti-Labour. Of course this would be a gross misjudgement of John’s politics, but sometimes the anti-Labour vitriol from those to the left of Labour is hard to distinguish from the rantings of those to the right who also wish to destroy Labour.
This is something those of us who wish to build a left alternative to Labour should ponder. The first task of such an alternative is to defend the working class and its organisations from the attacks of the capitalist class enemy and its open agents on the right. Only from that high ground can the genuine left have success in undermining, in the eyes of the working classes, the more insidious support base for capital provided by the mis-leadership of the Labour and trade union bureaucracy.


Janet Bogle said...

Nice photo of you and the baby (grandchild?. I am surprised at your impassioned defence of Labour.
John Minto is right about the poverty - Labour has done nothing for the poorest in this country.. they haven't reversed the 1991 benefit cuts or raised benefits at all - in real terms they have reduced considerably whilst everyone else's standard of living goes up. In fact they have introduced several benefit cuts, such as abolishing the Special Benefit, and reducing benefits like the DPB so that the increases in Family Support that everyone else gets, amount to Zero for beneficiaries. Also the Working for Families tax credits do not apply for beneficiaries.. so beneficiaries who are in paid work don't get any tax concessions for their children. Outright discrimination.
So Labour has done nothing for the poorest in this country.

Len Richards said...

Thanks for you comments Janet. Yes, the photo is of my first grandchild, Grace.
I wonder sometimes whether I speak the same language as others. When I point out that the working class was correct to ensure the defeat of National in the election, and point out that most workers still see Labour as the only party that they can support in order to achieve this, this is seen by some as somehow a defence of Labour on my part. Similarly, by pointing out that just decrying Labour without being able to put up an alternative is a dead-end project, I am also somehow making an "impassioned defence of Labour". No, I am not. I want nothing more than the defeat of Labour, but from the Left. A defeat of Labour by the Right would be a big blow for the working class.
I know many say it doesn't matter because both National and Labour are the same. That is the easy answer; and the wrong answer. The fact is they are not the same. Working class people put their hopes in Labour (in a very strong way in the last election) because they have no alternative. The way to get working class people interested in the alternative is not by going around attacking Labour as the only and main enemy. This is not correct. The main enemy is the capitalist class, its parties (National and ACT), and its state forces.
We have to learn to 'use' the Labour Party (and of course everyone who wants to will misinterpret that call) to get to the workers who support Labour in their hundreds of thousands. When the Left has a party also capable of gaining the support of hundreds of thousands then we can realistically call for and organise the defeat of Labour.
It is a fine tactical line that has to be walked. Unfortunately most on the Left don't even try to walk it for fear of being labelled a closet Labour supporter or some such other heinous crime.
This is crap. Lenin advised communists in Britain to join the Labour Party in the 1920s. They were too "infantile" and sectarian to take this advice. Communists have never won any significant support from workers in Britain, NZ or Australia mainly because they could never grow up. It is time we started to learn some of the lessons of history here in NZ.
Yes, Labour has done nothing much for beneficiaries - they did reduce the state house rents though. Yes Labour is a capitalist party etc etc..... But what's the answer - just protest against them? This is in effect the same as asking Labour to change its policies while at the same time saying it will never change. What sort of a dead-end is that to take working people up?
We have to demand the implementation of policies for the poor by the Labour Government. We have to do this in the spirit of expecting them to carry out policies for their supporters. Their supporters will become our supporters in the struggle for these policies. Over time more and more could be expected to join an alternative party (like the Alliance) once it is seen as being an effective and loyal advocate for workers/beneficiaries. An alternative mass-based organisation has to be built.
I get the sense of 'waiting for Godo' from most on the left. Somehow a mass will automatically break away from Labour and flock to the left when the time is right. If people do break from Labour spontaneously, it will probably be because they just get sick of them. In that case they will be most likely to end up in dispirited apathy and not in any party (or worse, in a populist right-wing party). We have to play an active role in organising the alternative mass party of the left while working alongside the existing mass party of workers (ie Labour) in a constructive way to advance polices for working class people. This is called a 'united front'. We should support the good things the Labour government does while attacking its failings. We should work with Labour Party people when they oppose their own government (and they do at times) and/or encourage them to oppose things that are against the interests of Labour voters. We should organise workers, beneficiaries etc., who are mostly Labour voters, under joint Labour/Green/Left(Alliance) banners for changes to benefit the downtrodden and to lessen the power of the capitalists.
I criticise John for not attacking National as well as Labour. I criticise him for not putting an alternative to Labour up for discussion. Does he want to see a Green/Left/Maori Party government? Were there not a perfectly good set of alternative polices to those of Labour put up by the Alliance and the Greens in the election? If you are just going to attack Labour and do nothing else, all you will do is alienate or demoralise the very people you are trying to win to a positive left course of action. I repeat the concluding paragraph from the blog:
"The first task of such an alternative (ie a left alternative party) is to defend the working class and its organisations from the attacks of the capitalist class enemy and its open agents on the right. Only from that high ground can the genuine left have success in undermining, in the eyes of the working classes, the more insidious support base for capital provided by the mis-leadership of the Labour and trade union bureaucracy."
Food for thought.