The Labour Party’s Chief of Staff in Parliament, Matt McCarten, is soon to depart Wellington to set up Labour army in Auckland. In this guest blog post, Ben Rosamond ponders what affect this will have on the non-parliamentary political left on the ground in Auckland.
No matter where people sit on the political spectrum, there seems to be one point of agreement regarding Matt McCarten: he’s good at what he does. What he does, of course, doesn’t refer to sitting in an office in Wellington, but to active campaigning, network building and organizing. With this in mind, his departure as Andrew Little’s Chief of Staff to establish an Auckland base for the Labour Party is likely to be a very good strategic move for them. What’s good for the Labour Party, though, is not always good for the rest of the left.
Despite a resounding defeat, McCarten showed he could run a real election campaign in the Mana by-election of 2010. He proved there his ability to mobilize a great number of activists who might not otherwise expend their energy fighting parliamentary campaigns, to the point that many made the long march down from Auckland just to support his bid. The circumstances are different, and he is now fighting within the Labour Party rather than against them (with all the extra resources that implies), but his stature among a large part of what might be termed the radical left in Auckland is still massive.
Unite Union, a McCarten project, has more organizers, members and activists in Auckland than anywhere else, and has proven its ability to run and win campaigns with and without him, most recently over Zero Hours contracts (which the Labour party tried to claim as its own victory.) Amongst the most politically active and developed of these activists, as with most of the broad extra-parliamentary left in Auckland, there is a depth of anti-Labour feeling. This layer is nowhere near strong enough however, numerically or in influence, to hold back the potential surge of on-the-ground support for Labour that McCarten’s active presence in Auckland might be capable of forming.
A large number of the same people McCarten will target in building a campaign machine were similarly mobilized during the 2014 election campaign by the Internet-Mana party. The sheer amount of work required for an effective election campaign is massive, and as these activists found out largely taken on by volunteers. In the wake of Internet-Mana’s poor showing on the night of September 20, many who had worked on the campaign were demoralized, exhausted and burnt-out. It took a long time for many of the social movements active in Auckland to build up steam again. To take just one example, it was over a year before any seriously mass work resumed on the anti-TPPA campaign. If McCarten were able to mobilize similar numbers for the Labour Party, it’s not too much of a stretch to see another predictable surge of activity around election time and then slump of inactivity and exhaustion afterwards.
While I don’t know anyone on the left who would prefer a National-led government, the possibility of the Labour party winning in 2017 offers another worrying scenario for those of us who don’t see it as the only, or even the best, avenue for advancing the struggle. Participation in extra-parliamentary movements and organizations has, in general, been higher under National than it was under the 5th Labour Government. Many on the soft-left now seem to nostalgically romanticize those years, as evidenced by a fairly general support for Helen Clark’s UN bid. Ask many Maori, however, about the Foreshore and Seabed, or activists about the Urewera Raids, and it becomes easy to remember that those years were not a great time for the left outside of parliament. Similarly, though it might be considered a low blow, the experience of 1984 proves that it’s not always a good strategy for radicals to put their faith in the Labour party to implement left-wing reforms.
But, as we all agree, McCarten is a good organizer, and is very likely to influence many of those who might sit more naturally to the left of Labour into campaigning for them in 2017, and taking ownership of whatever result they achieve; roads which lead either to burn-out or an enthusiastic embrace by a large portion of the left of a Labour government that can’t necessarily be trusted. These outcomes, it should go without saying, are bad for the continuation of social movements and the growth of the radical left. To be fair, that isn’t the Labour party’s responsibility. McCarten’s move is a good move for Labour, and that should be what Labour considers when making such decisions.
It does serve, however, as a wake up call to those on the left who don’t believe in the Labour Party’s capacity to implement genuine change. As individuals and as groups, we shouldn’t work to the temporality of the election cycle but should be trying to build power quite outside of that framework. There doesn’t exist the infrastructure to sustain a large amount of activists working in such a space in Auckland at the moment, and this should be our primary concern. Rather than just critique Labour, we need to provide alternatives more than the disparate, disconnected and often somewhat mysterious campaigns, movements and small organisations that currently exist are capable of. We can’t expect people we think should be engaged in extra-parliamentary activist work to do so if we don’t provide accessible and inspiring avenues through which this can happen. McCarten will be good for Labour in Auckland, and for this reason the broader left needs to have a coherent and capable organisational force attracting people before, during and after next year’s election.
Ben Rosamond is a post-graduate student, activist and researcher based in Tāmaki Makaurau. He is a researcher and the co-convener of the Political Organisation Inquiry Group at Economic and Social Research Aotearoa, alongside his sustained commitments to several activist organisations.