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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 39, Number 24, September 27, 1976.

Labour ~ The Progressive Myth

page 10

Labour ~ The Progressive [unclear: Myth]

"What has happened in the Middle East has shaken the capitalist system to its very roots. The fight over the next few years will not be to balance oil prices but to prevent the whole structure from collapsing." Norman Kirk, at the 1974 Labour Party Conference.

It's not a happy time. Even crumbs and damp pieces of cloth (the students staple diet) are being hit by inflation. Unions and others trying to win back a cup of cold tea are threatened with heavy fines and deregistration. Local racism is coming more and more out of the woodwork. Muldoon's paranoia of the Soviet extends everywhere.

The contradictions, as Mao said, are sharpening. Conflicts of all kinds that could be postponed during the boom come out with a vengeance in the slump. If you think this is bad, the President of the Manufacturers' Federation reckons we just might have a real recession next year.

So what's the answer? Where's the elusive elixir? David Exel came up here a couple of weeks back to tell us its the Labour Party. While the reception he got was not the most friendly, the questions he raised are important ones. What is the role of the Labour Party. How much can we expect from it?

Even in its own terms, the Labour Party is not doing too well at the moment, as Exel was ready to admit. The problems go a fair bit further than he suggests though. Its not that that the people at the top of the Party are 'wrong' somehow, and everything would be roses if they were replaced. As we will see a little later, the Labour Party, the very essence of its role in the slate system cannot solve our problems. In fact, it often intensifies them.

How Labour is Labour?

But firstly, in its own terms, how has Labour been faring? The electoral disaster of November 29 is still fresh in the mind. The result was a combination of factors. National's vote increased little to 39% of the electorate, whilst Labour's support slumped, much of it to the low turnout. The Labour Party has long claimed to be part of the Labour movement. It seems members of that movement are having doubts about the association.

The Party has moved a long way from its early days when it was seen as the political wing of a Federation of Labour struggling to smash capitalism. Militant unions then, after their defeats in the 1912 and 1913 strikes, realised they did not have the strength to take on the Government in an outright fight. In the Unity Conference of 1916 it decided to push for its aims (which centred around "socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange") through Parliament.

If the road to Hell is paved with good intention, the Labour's road to power was paved with discarded policies. Nationalisation of land was dropped in 1931, and the 1935 manifesto pledged not "abolition of the wages system" but to take up where Seddon had left off. Michael Joseph Savage campaigned not as the working class's friendly uncle but as everyone's friendly uncle.

Photo of a large group of construction workers and Labour cabinet

The 1939 Labour Cabinet visit the construction site of the Centennial Exhibition. Centre is the Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage. Next to him on the right is Walter Nash, Minister of Finance and later Prime Minister: and on the left is James Fletcher, the contractor for the job, who needs no introduction. Photo Alexander Turnbull Library.

For all that, the Government of 1935 had many members who had been through the mill, and strong ideals, if the socialism had become pale. The changes made by that Government were many. The two most important were the "welfare state" and a system of import controls, which would protect New Zealand industries and hence guarantee workers jobs.

Many of the Government's actions, particularly after Fraser became Prime Minister, were at best questionable (see the earlier articles on the Second World War in Salient no's 5 and 6). But the major steps of import controls and the welfare state provided the basis (along with good export prices) for the prosperity and relative equality of the 1945-65 period. They were a significant victory for the working class of this country. Significantly, they were also in the interests of industrial capital. A contented workforce in a stable economy is obviously a profitable workforce.

From the large successes of the 1938 election, the Labour Party went steadily downhill. It lost seats, it lost members and at times it lost interest. Most importantly, imbued with the great ideology that the state is neutral and stands above classes, it lost contact with the labour movement. The persecution of the Public Service Association in 1947 and the deregistration of the Auckland carpenters Union in 1948 were political blunders of the first order.

Labour Sells Out in '51

The Party started its period in the wilderness in 1949, and with no especially strong line against the Holland Government's rabid 1951 attack on civil liberties and the waterfront unions (Nash declared himself "neither for nor against" the workers' struggle) seemed destined to stay there. The 1951 confrontation showed up another major effect of the Labour Government's reign - the union movement split in two. The radical Trades Union Congress urged the need for organisation and strong unions. The Federation of Labour held strongly to the benefits of cooperation with the Government, and even helped Holland smash the waterfronters.

Wandering around in the wilderness, the Party picked up a few disciples, a few new policies and one or two new faces. The electoral success of 1957 (when Labour got a majority of two seats) was a political disaster. Labour faced a major economic mess, caused by falling export prices but greatly helped by National's dismantling of import controls.

The stem economic steps of the 1958 Black Budget were technically successful (they kept the ship afloat), but politically suicidal (all the crew left). Other measures of the administration were equally popular. Progressive steps such as recognising China or asking the Rugby Union not to tour South Africa (who wouldn't let Maoris in the team) were quietly shelved. Industrialisation was encouraged, but in a disastrous way. There was little consultation with local people and the benefits (e.g. of Comalco) were never quite apparent.

It is clear that the Party had lost contact with the Labour movement. It was trying to manage capitalism better than the Nats (in which task it probably succeeded). But its members left in droves, and at the 1960 Party Conference there was strong support for a motion attacking the Government for being completely out of touch with what was left of the Party rank and file.

As in 1951, and again in 1975, Labour's 1960 reward for its compromises and ploys was a low turnout at the polls (especially of Maori voters) and a sacking as the Government. Its attempts to restore the Welfare State and reintroduce import controls once again got whittled away by the National Government.

Again into the wilderness. And Satan said: "If you will bow down before me I will give you all this." Lip service to socialism went out the door like a shot, but electoral gains didn't come easily. The members of the Parliamentary Party were changing. Fewer now came from trade union backgrounds. Many came from professional liberal backgrounds. None dared think of the class struggle.

The Technocrats Rejoice in '73

Labour eventually resurfaced on the Treasury benches in 1973, no longer the party of the working class but more a amalgam of political copromises. Regional development, the environment, compulsory military training - all played their part in Labour's election victory. Foreign policy took a decided turn for the better. These, however, were the actions of a liberal democratic party, not a party whose electoral support was the urban working class. These people's faith met little response.

The two key points of earlier Labour Governments the welfare state and a controlled economy - took a pounding. The technocrats got in and fouled it up but good. Roger Douglas's superannuation scheme has been called many things, but it certainly wasn't egalitarian. Bill Rowling's adherence to capitalist free enterprise economics coupled with Kirk's impatience made the 1973 boom reach ludicrous heights, and made the consequent recession the worse. On the encouragement of overseas finance bodies, import controls all but disappeared.

On involvement with the unions the Government's record was equally bad. The widespread reaction to the use of injunctions against union leaders in 1974 was met by an unyielding Government. "No one is above the law", proclaimed Martyn Finlay clearly recognising the class bias of the law. "I've had a guts-full of militant unions", said Norman Kirk.

Bill Rowling was a little more sophisticated. With "full negotiations" and "meaningful discussions" with the Federation of Labour (whose apron strings to the Government have still to be cut) the Government cut workers' pay by some 8%. Few problems. Muldoon's attacks so far come to 5%. Who said Labour Governments were bad for business?

The years 1972-5 were thus' in many ways a replay of 1957-60. The Government got absorbed in managing the economy, and became more and more technocratic. The Parliamentary Party became divorced from the rank and file who supported it. Membership turned downward again. The result was coupled with an amazingly stupid election campaign and Bill and the girls and boys were on the road again.

Labour Play Pitiful Opposition Role

Labour in opposition, as in 1950 and 1961, shows an advanced case of shell-shock. The most remarkable thing its done so far is to have a record numbers of members sent to the privileges committee. There has however been a realisation of the problems of communication ("with the election and 10 000 Auckland hotel workers pulling out of the Party thats not surprising).

Yet it's still the same ball game. When Muldoon pushed through the Industrial Relations Amendment allowing employers to sack on the spot, the Labour Party stoutly attacked it. Not on the grounds that it page 11 was an unwarranted attack on workers tenuous rights. But on the grounds that it wouldn't work The end is apparently not in question only the means.

The picture that emerges is fairly clear and fairly unpleasant. What working class base the Labour Party once had in its policy and actions has long gone. The stress is on technocracy and meritocracy. "We can plan anything better", and "if you're good you can get to the top". The ideals behind the most successful moves of the first Labour Goverment have been lost on the way since. Import control is a dirty word now, and is for egalilartanism..........

So, David Exel might say, you see the problems. Now isn't the best way of doing something about them joining the Labour Party and changing it? Surely if the student politicos took over the Labour Cabinet things would be better?

There a no denying the fact that better people in Parliament would make some difference. But where would they come from? There's a long history, on both sides of the House, standing against it. Thinking "wouldn't it be nice if......and rushing off into action never really got anyone far, We cannot ignore the history of the Labour Party, the history that has led, through successes as well as failures, to the present situation.

Role of the State

Nor can we ignore, as Rowling and Tizard seem to be ignoring ("Karl Marx and I aren't even good friends") some essential issues on the nature of the state and the participation of people in that framework. The analysis must go a little deeper than a quick summary of the history of the Labour Party.

The chief function of the state in any society is that of social cohesion. The state arbitrates between various groups and claims to decide things for the good of all. As Engels put it "in order that society should not consume itself in fruitless struggle it becomes necessary to have a body, seemingly standing above society". This body is the state.

Yet there is a contradiction between the state's assumed role and its chief function. It is a matter of logic that, given an antagonistic class society, where one class exploits another, the state must take some part in that struggle. Simply because its role is social cohesion, protecting the status quo, the state must also be protecting the interests of the ruling class.

The class nature of the state is thus a matter of objective function, not of who is in power in the state at a particular time. Yet the state is not just a "committee of management" of the bourgeoisie. This is so for two reasons. Firstly, the bourgeoisie itself is far from being a united class. Secondly, because the state attempts, in its own terms, to "stand above society", it therefore has some independence of its economic base.

Capitalist society, based on the commodity form of production, has within itself severs! sub-modes of production. Different sub-modes are characterised by differing methods and forms of production. Thus while they all are part of the capitalist mode of production these are significant differences between the agricultural sub-mode, the small industry/service sub mode and the big industry sub mode. Within each sub mode, stemming from the productive relationships, there are classes, essentially based on owners and workers.

The classes stemming from each sub mode exist beyond their purely economic existence. They have political and ideological attributes as well. Thus in New Zealand the agricultural sector is marked by a particular political outlook, essentially opposed to the extension of state control and a particular ideology of the value of hard work, rugby, and mistrust for the city. The industrial sub mode on the other hand, dependant as it is on state protection, has differing political and ideological attributes. Politically it seeks an uneasy extension of the state's regulatory role. Ideologically the values of consumerism and city Hiring are strong.

The overall class of owners therefore comprises the collection of the owners in the various sub-modes, and the overall class of workers similarly includes workers in different areas. These groups are known as class fractions. As part of its role of social cohesion, the state must clearly attempt to unite the ruling class fractions (into a 'power bloc') and also try to disunite the working class fractions.

In these attempts the state is caught in contradictions. Competition, especially between bourgeois class fraction, tends to fragment the ruling class. There is noone the farmers hate more than the finance companies. At the same time, the development of society breaks down divisions and hence unifies the working class. The fact that the jobs of respective unification and fragmentation get more difficult over time is a major reason for the growth of state 'intervention' in the economy.

The second reason why the state is not just a management committee of the bourgeoisie lies in its relative automomy from the economic sphere. Because it exists iwth a particular institutional framework on the political level, the state is the focal point for class struggle. And class struggle necessarily implies that the dominated classes can achieve some measure of success. Successes, albeit short lived, can be seen in the working class's victory in 1935 in New Zealand, or the petty bourgeois movement in Germany that brought Hitler to Power.

Labour Party Lost Class Consciousness

With this analysis in mind, what function does the Labour Party have in the state in capitalist New Zealand? The principle contradiction (the main opposition of forces driving society along) in capitalist society is economic, between capital and labour. On the political level this contradiction is reflected in the forms of class struggle.

Within the state itself the Labour Party does to some extent represent the working class. It certainly gains its basic support from this class, and is hence in antagonism to the National Party. However, as we noted before in surveying its history the Labour Party has lost much of its class consciousness even in this framework. In Australia Whitlam even claimed that Labour was the party of "the whole people", the Liberals representing special class interests.

Also within the state, and largely because it is more: attuned to the desires of the more oppressed members of the community. Labour takes a more humanitarian and involved role than National. But these actions, because they take place through the state apparatuses, have in themselves loaded political and ideological roles. Instead of encouraging people to work together, to form self-help groups, the state stresses "individual" pay outs.

This is part of the most important weapon the state has to fragment the working class - that of 'isolation'. It appears in various forms. Individual welfarism is one. Another is, because the state appears as a liberal democratic body with equal rights for all citizens it therefore confounds the unity of the working class steming from production. Through various of its agencies, particularly the education system, the state re-inforces individual bourgeois ethics.

A quick look at the present Labour Party shows it is pursuing this role of isolation to the letter. There is a stress on individual achievement, the 'meritocracy'. Douglas's superannuation debacle was reinforcing class and income divisions. And, most importantly as far as progressive movements are concerned, a Labour Government institutionalises and thereby disorganises them. This is clear in the emasculation of the trade union movement under Labour Governments. It is also clear from the dearth of protest groups under Labour, which are now getting back into swing.

How Should We View the Labour Party?

The major point to be made is that while the Labour Party does to some extent represent the working class inside the state, the state itself is a ruling class institution. In other words, the principle contradiction on the political level is not between National and Labour within the state, but between the state and the dominated classes.

The history of the Labour Party that was outlined before thus must be seen as much more than accidental developments caused by a few individuals. It is also more than a party starting off with socialist ideals and getting these whittled down whilst in office. Both of these pictures are superficially correct. But the practice that stems from them is incorrect - thinking that all we need to do is change the individuals or reassert 'socialist' policies.

Photo of Bill Rowling

Bill Rowling: facing a grim future?

What the Labour Party is up against is the very structure and nature of capitalist society. Its functioning within the state's ambit itself precludes the possibility of radical long-term measures. And its very functioning there means that the Party's 'content' must become firstly compromised and finally overwhelmed by the state's form'.

How then should we view the Labour Party? Kirk's quote from the beginning - stopping the capitalist system from collapsing fairly states how the Party sees its role. It is obvious that if real steps are to be taken towards socialism they must be taken outside the Labour Party. But, especially when the major question is not "whether socialism?" but more "whether fascism?", there are clearly situations where Labour's stand is progressive and worth supporting.

The situation is just that though "supporting" does not mean trying to reform from inside or tilting at the unalterable windmills of history. Making concrete steps towards a decent society for all requries three things: mass organisation; concrete and correct analyses and effective leadership towards real goals. The Labour Party, both because of its specific policies and its objective position, can provide none of these. David Exel's pleas for people to join must be rejected.

Photo of the 1973 Labour Cabinet

The 1973 Labour Cabinet. Front row, left to right: Rowling:Watt; Tirakatene-Sullivan: Kirk; King, and McGuigan. Only two of these six are still M.P.s.