Matt McCarten’s candidacy in the Mana by-election is one of the most promising developments on the New Zealand left for many years. Not only does this mean that the by-election just became much more interesting, McCarten’s campaign has much wider political ramifications – for example, it could be the launching pad for a new party to fill the gaping big hole on the left of the political spectrum in New Zealand. This blog post looks at why McCarten is standing in the election, whether he could actually win the seat, who might support him, and what it all means for Labour and the Greens. [Read more below]
Can Matt McCarten win Mana?
At first look it might seem highly unlikely that Matt McCarten could actually win the Mana electorate. After all this is a solid Labour-held seat (with a 6000+ vote majority), and recently iPredict has had Labour’s Kris Faafoi predicted as about 90% likely to win the seat. So clearly, it’d be a long shot for McCarten.
But there are a number of factors that make the assumption of a Labour/Faafoi victory less certain. Things can turn around quickly in politics, and by-elections are not normal elections – they’re often a chance for voters to experiment and send unusual messages. Maverick, colourful or under-dog candidates can often come from no where to win. And if anyone meets that criteria – it’s Matt McCarten. He’s certainly got the chutzpah to make things happen in politics, and he’s been achieving the so-called unachievable in New Zealand politics for over two decades now.
By-elections are certainly more volatile than general elections. New Zealand voters have a history of electing candidates from outside the political mainstream, or at least candidates from parties not normally favoured by a particular electorate. The most obvious example, of course, were the Social Credit party candidates who won by-elections around 1980 – Bruce Beetham won Rangitikei in 1978 and Gary Knapp won East Coast Bays in 1980. Then in 1985 Labour lost the safe seat of Timaru to National. There was also a rash of by-elections in the early-1990s where the McCarten-run Alliance machine did so well – in fact his campaigns caused big upsets after the Alliance nearly won Tamaki in 1992 and Selwyn in 1994. Later in the 1998 Taranaki-King Country by-election McCarten's Alliance gave Labour a bloody nose and forced them to seek peace before the 1999 election. (The Alliance actually won the two biggest towns in that by-election - Stratford and Te Kuiti. What's more this was a very conservative rural seat where the Alliance had almost zero organisation or membership just weeks before the election.)
McCarten will have a huge support infrastructure that he can tap into. There’s a number of left intellectuals like Laila Harre, Chris Trotter, Marty ‘Bomber’ Bradbury, John Minto, Mike Lee, Cathy Casey, etc, who might be expected to help rally the troops and design a leftwing political platform that will resonate with Mana voters. Maybe even some more Labour/Green partisans like Andrew Campbell and Sue Bradford might also pitch in.
He’ll have many unionists onside. Obviously his whole candidacy is endorsed by the Unite! Union. The union will not have any money to inject into the campaign, but they sure seem to have a lot of enthusiastic, hardworking and innovative troops that will be migrating into the Mana electorate. Although many of these people will have to come down from Auckland – where Unite is strongest – there are also many Unite members and sympathisers in Wellington. In fact any unionist in Wellington that has reservations about the centrist and pragmatic nature of the Labour Party will be very tempted to go and get involved in a truly progressive campaign. What’s more, in Mana there are plenty of young, low income workers – often brown rather than pakeha – who are not ‘Labour tribal’ in the same way that their ‘elders’ are. These are people who unionists will be able to inspire with ‘real’ working class policies like getting rid of GST rather than gimmicky ‘GST off fruit and veges’.
McCarten might also have the media onside as well. Political journalists have always appreciated Matt McCarten because of his unique nature – he’s not inclined towards the heavy-spin and bullshit that other politicians try to push – instead he’ll speak his mind and talk frankly. Similarly, even though many political journalists have no time for his socialist political ideology they still seem to respect that he’s a genuine principled leftist (unlike the rest of the many Labour and Green politicians they have to deal with). And because he actually says interesting and meaningful things about politics and the world he is a breath of fresh air in an era of ideological vacuity and timidity.
Those on the right might even give McCarten some acknowledgement as some sort of preferred candidate – not because they agree with his politics, but because some of them actually respect and like him. Thus, look out to see some sort of non-political endorsement from the likes of Mathew Hooton, Deborah Coddington and David Farrar. They won’t say that they want him to beat the National Party candidate, but they might possibly say that ‘Mana electors would be better served by McCarten than a Goff-hack like Faafoi’. In fact Cameron Slater (Whaleoil) has already come out and said, ‘Matt at least has true leftwing credentials and for that reason alone the workers of Mana should support him’
And of course there’s a number of those from ‘Maoridom’, or the Maori Party that will rally behind McCarten. Certainly the Maori Party owe him a favour or two, so they might lend him a hand. And the likes of Willie Jackson and John Tamihere are also likely to give him some sort of endorsement as well, to say nothing of radio publicity.
So there’s a number of factors that could make ‘the impossible’ actually ‘possible’. As David Farrar has already said, ‘Does it mean Labour could lose the seat? To be honest, at this stage no one knows… What we don’t know is whether he will get 500 votes or 5,000 votes. That may depend on what issues he campaigns on’.
Trouble for Labour
The Labour Party will not welcome Matt McCarten’s candidacy. Not only is it going to make Labour and Faafoi have to work harder for victory, but also it will be a big embarrassment for Labour to be challenged from the left. They’re just not used to that happening any more, and the leftwing critiques of them hurt more than anything else. In fact Matt McCarten’s very existence has always been deeply embarrassing for Labour – he embodies everything that the Labour Party lacks: a working class orientation, socialist principles, campaign competency, and leftwing charisma. More than that, he’s a reminder for many Labour MPs and activists that they’re not actually involved in a leftwing, working class party.
Although McCarten is clearly parachuting himself into Mana as a candidate, Labour won’t be able to campaign hard on this as their own candidate is not only a ‘parachute candidate’ but also a ‘parachute party member’. Kris Faafoi is not a grassroots activist but a journalist-for-hire who has suddenly decided that he has some political beliefs buried somewhere beneath his neutral/professional careerist persona. What’s more, the departing representative has also shown herself to be little more than a professional politician careerist. After all, the only reason for having this $500,000 taxpayer funded election is because Winnie Laban saw being an MP as just another job in her career and thus wasn’t wanting to see out her full term that she committed herself to, and now wants to go onto something better.
Trouble for the Greens
The Green Party may actually end up being the most upset by McCarten’s candidacy. And they will are also likely to be the most damaged in the short term. McCarten’s first step towards a successful campaign will involve collapsing the Green vote into his campaign. Certainly if there is any chance of him winning he will have to reduce the contest to a three-horse race and he’ll need every left and liberal vote possible. Also, quite simply, McCarten will be seeking to beat the Green candidate – this will be one of McCarten’s personal target’s, and his criteria for judging the success of the campaign.
Fortunately for McCarten, most of the talented Green Party activists in the Mana electorate are actually refugees from the old Alliance party. People like Conor Twyford and Moira Lawler are actually the main Green activists in Mana, and they are much more politically close to Matt McCarten than they are to the Greens. They will be torn about who to campaign for. So this will be a good test for both the leftwing Greens in Mana and those in the wider Wellington region. Do they toe the party line, or do they follow their hearts and their consciences and actually fight for a real working class hero? Logically, if the Green Party is any real sort of leftwing party, then the Mana branch will actually resolve the issue by pulling their candidate out of the race.
The Green Party leadership will be particularly unhappy, whatever happens. There’s a fair bit of tension between the parliamentarians and other leftwing activists, and this might bring some of those issues to a head. For example, when the Unite union launched the $15/hour minimum wage campaign, the Greens only reluctantly signed up to it and then essentially refused to sign people up to the petition. The leadership justified this on the basis that the campaign was a precursor to Matt McCarten setting up a leftwing parliamentary party that might take votes off the Greens.
The launch of a New Left Party?
So why has Matt McCarten decided to throw himself into the Mana contest? It’s public news that McCarten has cancer, and no doubt this has focused his mind even more on his other not-so-secret plan to re-build the political left in New Zealand. This has been his plan ever since the Alliance disintegrated. Building the Unite union has always been the first step in this larger project of resuscitating progressive politics in this country. McCarten has never wanted to just be a unionist for the sake of it, but has instead seen that building of the Unite union as part of a larger vision for changing society. He knows very well that you can’t do this without an organized force at the political level. And for McCarten, neither the Labour and Green parties are capable of this; when push comes to shove, despite their posturing, both parties are not really particularly leftwing at all.
Therefore McCarten has always had his sights set on establishing a working class-oriented leftwing party. This is the end product for much of what he’s been doing for the last decade. He’s pondered the lessons to be learnt from the Alliance party disaster, as well as the lessons from the continuing disappointment that the Labour and Green parties have been for genuine leftwingers. But obviously the time for ‘pondering’ and planning is over. Serious illness tends to push you into action.
McCarten is standing in the Mana by-election merely as an Independent candidate. Although perhaps he’ll even get a ‘party’ designation on the official voting form for something like ‘$15 minimum wage campaign’ instead of 'Independent'. He’ll clearly be endorsed by unions like Unite, and his campaign will hardly be one of an individualist but a good-old fashioned one run by dozens of activists with maybe even hundreds participating. Who knows at this stage what sort of momentum he might pick up.
But ultimately the campaign is likely to be some sort of ‘test case’ for McCarten and all his leftwing and unionist backers. If he does well it will almost certainly be the launching pad for a new left political party. And that is something missing from New Zealand.
New Zealand actually has a bit of a tradition of people standing as Independents in by-elections and then using their successful campaigns as a foundation for the subsequent establishment of a political party. Matiu Rata did this in 1979, standing in the Northern Maori electorate as an Independent. Against all odds he polled very strongly (38 percent), and on that basis was able to establish his Mana Motuhake party. Likewise, Winston Peters won the electorate of Tauranga in a by-election as an Independent candidate in 1993 and then set up New Zealand First. And of course, Tariana Turia won her Maori electorate as an Independent in a by-election in 2004 and then set up the Maori Party.
So are we about to see another major change in the New Zealand party system? Let’s hope so.
Some other commentary on Matt McCarten’s campaign:
- Kiwiblog: McCarten for Mana
- Kiwiblog: How McCarten could do well
- Fairfacts Media: Mmmmarvellous news Matt!!
- Dim Post: McCarten in Mana
- Tim Watkin: Matt McCarten stands for Mana, promising to "change the campaign"
- The Standard: Matt McCarten standing in Mana
- Big News: McCarten to stand in Mana
- Bomber Bradbury: Labour just lost Mana: Matt McCarten standing
- Also: Matt McCarten interview on Radio NZ National (discussing the need for a new left party amongst other things.