One amusing theorem about minor parties says that ‘the intensity of party politics is in inverse proportion to the amount of power the party has achieved’. Well, the Residents Action Movement (RAM) party showed itself to be a great distance from power at the last general election when it won only 465 party votes (despite claiming a membership of 3000). And now the future of the fledgling party is up in the air, with the recent departure of some key activists and ongoing internal fights over the future of the party. [Read more below]
The current implosion of RAM actually has less to do with its election result than the rather shaky foundations that the embryonic party was built upon. The party was established by the Trotskyiod Socialist Worker (Aotearoa) in an attempt to build a ‘broad left’ parliamentary party. Its Wikipedia entry says ‘RAM describes itself as a broad left coalition, stretching from social liberals, community activists and former National Party members to social democrats, democratic socialists and left-wing radicals’.
Socialist Worker (Aotearoa) itself has a rather complicated history – formerly being the old Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ). After the collapse of ‘existing Communism’, the old Stalinist CPNZ gained the NZ franchise of the Trotskyist International Socialist Tendency – based around the largest far left party in Britain, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) – by fusing in 1994 with the existing NZ International Socialist Organization (ISO).
From this point, Socialist Worker (Aotearoa) has taken an approach sometimes called “tailism” whereby the organisations tail-ends whatever left or popular political project is in existence. Hence Socialist Worker has jumped variously from one ‘next big thing’ to another, which has included getting involved in (or just cheer leading) such things as the Climate Change Coalition Climaction, the anti war movement, the Venezuela Aotearoa Solidarity Team, the Unite Workers Union, Workers' Charter, Solidarity Union, the Green Party, and more recently the Maori Party.
This has generally been the approach of the ‘mothership’ SWP in Britain, which more famously built the Respect coalition - an electoral alliance with maverick MP George Galloway. Noting this success, Socialist Worker (Aotearoa) attempted to replicate this party-building, unity project by setting up RAM in 2003. And initially it had some decent success – especially with its creation of a local body ‘rates revolt’ in Auckland, and then winning a seat on the Auckland Regional Council in the 2004 by candidate Robyn Hughes. In the same local election RAM gained 87,000 votes across the Auckland region for its eight candidates. In the following election in 2007, the vote decreased, to 76,000 and Hughes lost her seat.
RAM then set about trying to create a national organisation to contest parliamentary elections, gaining registration with the Electoral Commission in 2008. Its policies included ‘free and frequent public transport’, and – as with UK Respect - it put a strong focus on supporting Muslim rights and campaigning against racism and Islamophobia. Significantly, RAM organised a public tour of George Galloway to New Zealand.
However, just as a major schism and eventual split developed in Respect between Galloway and the SWP, here in New Zealand the non-Socialist Worker component appears to have been in revolt lately. The story going around the left is that although Socialist Worker is a minority within RAM – or at least on the national executive – the non-Socialist Worker activists felt their decisions were being undermined. Activists say that the Socialist Worker is ‘reverting to type’ – reminiscent of the split that occurred back in the 1990s whereby the ISO claimed the old CPNZ leadership figures had not broken from Stalinist organisational practices and politics.
There appears to be an ideological aspect to the current split – with Socialist Worker suddenly pushing RAM on a new leftwing course. Having originally tried to sell RAM by watering down the Socialist Worker’s politics and adopting an almost Alliance-type manifesto (which only produced a low vote), the Socialist Worker leadership now want to tack sharply leftwards. This is of course the whole history of CPNZ, Socialist Worker and RAM - shifting backwards and forwards between left and centre, and between socialism and populism.
This hasn’t thrilled the non-Socialist Worker faction, and so apparently Oliver Woods (until now, a co-leader), and Sam Richardson have resigned. A continued large exodus is threatened. The non-Socialist Worker faction have been in despair that although they have constituted a majority they are being out-maneuvered. If the exodus occurs, this will leave the RAM executive with more than half its places empty.
Activists say that RAM is reverting to an extremely archaic form of Marxism reminiscent of early church-style revivals! Apparently the Socialist Worker leadership is excited by the growing global economic recession. Recent RAM meetings have involved the Socialist Worker comrades going into huge apocalyptic tirades, saying that ‘we've been predicting this crisis for decades!!’ and essentially rubbing their hands with glee. Many pronouncements about the ‘death of social democracy’ will surely follow.
Perhaps Chris Trotter was right – if applied to RAM – when he argued recently that socialists prefer to see the economy in downturn due to the opportunities it affords the left:
Nothing about this far-left split should be too surprising. After all, following their split from Respect in the UK, the SWP has also been moving away from its parliamentary focus and gone for an almost militant, anarchist-like approach of turning ‘to the streets’. But the Socialist Worker (Aotearoa) Left Turn all sounds a bit like Third Period Stalinism!
This new approach will probably suit people like RAM’s indefatigable Grant Morgan and his loyal lieutenant Grant Brookes. Despite Morgan’s more moderate and backroom maneuvering approach of late, he has a long history of militancy – especially in his old CPNZ days of struggles over housing and National’s market rents of the 1990s. You can already see the nucleus of this revived approach in a quite good post-election blog analysis written by Morgan late last year. See: Protecting the people from the market crisis And perhaps we will also now see the near-defunct ‘Unity’ journal (described by Socialist Worker as ‘by far the most influential Marxist publication in New Zealand’) brought back to life.
RAM’s poor election result last year reflected in part that in the absence of any significant level of class conflict, consciousness and leftwing radicalization in society, which means that there’s no real demand or resonance for leftwing projects at the moment. (The Workers Party also didn’t do much better in the last election, but because that party isn’t such an ‘electoralist project’, they probably weren’t so bothered). But as with Socialist Worker’s previous left and right shifts, the latest Socialist Worker change of direction will be accompanied by a lot of leftist hype.