Is the Mana Party a new radical working class political force in New Zealand? Or is it a party still stuck within the parameters of identity and parliamentary politics – that is, is Mana merely a Maori Party Mark II with a left-wing sheen? Certainly, some on the left in New Zealand are arguing the former, and are making uncritical and embellished statements about the Mana Party and its leader Hone Harawira. Unfortunately, for these leftwing supporters of Mana, Hone Harawira’s public utterances have presented the electorate with a less than clear perspective of what his new party exactly stands for and where it’s going now that the Te Tai Tokerau by-election has been won. Rather than consistently presenting himself as the socialist working class hero that the left wishes him to be, Harawira has presented a contradictory image of himself – being on the one hand an activist championing the causes of Maori and the general working poor, and on the other hand being a responsible and mainstream politician. So, is it the case that the Te Tai Tokerau MP is offering a radical face to his leftist supporters, and at the same time offering a more moderate face to Te Tai Tokerau, the media and political establishment? Harawira’s more centrist and conciliatory statements do not bode well for his leftwing supports who claim the Mana Party is first and foremost an activist party and that it will refuse to bed down with mainstream parties. Guest blogger John Moore argues here that the eclectic statements coming from Harawira and other leading members of the Mana Party indicate that this new movement has deep-seated identity problems. [Read more below]
Mana - a working class party?
Te Mana’s hard left supporters have been busy painting the party as an activist-based, working class radical party. Certainly, policy pronouncements from the new party do position it on the left of the political spectrum. And Harawira does sometimes come across as some form of ‘born again socialist’, willing to hook up with New Zealand’s small but energetic far left. So far, strong support has been given to Mana by leading members of socialist groups including Socialist Aotearoa, the Workers Party, the International Socialists and Socialist Worker. Leading unionists and socialists of the Unite union are also playing a central role in building the Mana Party, including the union’s National Director of Organising Mike Treen and its National Secretary Matt McCarten. McCarten is in fact the party’s chairperson and is clearly playing the leading role in policy formation for Mana. Adding to this list of leftwing supporters is the fomidble activist and union organiser, John Minto. Minto has previously declined involvement in any parliamentary party, and it is likely he has stated certain conditions on his involvement in the party.
However, Mana’s radical left image would be seriously compromised if it was to become part of a coalition government, say with Labour and the Greens. The Green Party leadership is openly dismissive of leftwing politics, and the Labour Party is more committed to being the most efficient governmental managers of capitalism rather than to developing any pro-worker policies. Green Party co-leader Russel Norman has already made clear his distain for the leftish and radical politics that many members of Mana encapsulate:
Dr Norman said "there might be a few votes" for the new party, but "maybe not a lot". "I mean, who wants to relive the battles of the 1980s and 1990s? We're in 2011 for God's sake. We need a progressive force that actually deals with where we are now, not tries to refight the 1980s and 1990s. “I just don't think a lot of people are really hanging out for a Hone Harawira, Sue Bradford, John Minto, Annette Sykes kind of party ... They're looking for something progressive and forward-looking that actually is oriented to the current century rather than the last one."
So for the likes of Minto and Mana’s leftwing members, surely any parliamentary coalition between Mana, the Labour Party and the Greens would have to be a deal breaker? Some of Mana’s far left supporters seem to unquestionably accept the proposition that the Mana Party is, and will stay, a radical left party. On one leftwing discussion list, a leading activist stated:
I really can't believe assertions are being made that the Mana project is fixated with parliament. Matt's been street fighting for years to a level that many self-declared revolutionaries could not even begin to think about contemplating, and then there are the actual stated opinions of disfaith in parliament by other people who are involved.
The main socialist group active in the Mana Party is Socialist Aotearoa, and its members have been quick to dismiss any idea that Te Mana will strike a deal with Labour or the Greens. One of it leaders has argued that the Mana Party will not be part of any future coalition or capitalist government: ‘Resistance on the Streets and inside the Parliament is the motto. Minto joined on the explicit principle that we would never enter a capitalist government, or join a coalition government’. Yet the fact remains that Harawera has made clear his intentions to work with Labour and the Greens, as stated earlier, and has already offered his proxy vote to the Greens. And Mana chairman Matt McCarten, despite having a well-deserved reputation as a militant union leader, is equally not adverse to making deals with moderate and pro-establishment political forces.
Class, ethnicity and the Mana Party
Many political commentators have been surprised that the Mana Party has taken a seemingly hard left position and that its focus seems to be just as much on class as it is on specific Maori concerns. Morgan Godfery, of the Maui St blog, has written probably the most succinct piece yet on Mana, and it is worth quoting at length. He argues that although the key members of the new party come from an identity politics/Maori nationalist background, the focus of the party so far is on class politics and the party seems to be firmly positioned on the left.
To be honest, I am surprised that the Mana Party is focussing on class politics. The movement that underpins the Mana Party is firmly rooted in identity politics, however the party’s policy does not seem to reflect this. Identity politics dominated the last decade, however Hone, no doubt at the behest of Matt McCarten, is pushing policy firmly set along class lines. Unions, progressive taxes and so on all speak to the working class. The above policy is firmly aligned with the working poor and beneficiaries.
Yet, while a focus on policy paints the Mana Party as a class based party, its imagery and basic propaganda indicates a continued allegiance to identity politics. Godfery explains this contradiction in terms of the different inputs of leading members. The fact that policy announcements reveal a range of left social democratic positions indicates that Matt McCarten certainly has a firm hold, at this stage, on policy formation. But other aspects of the party’s public portrayal indicate that Maori nationalists, who may be radical but are not necessarily left-wing, still have a strong say in shaping the outlook of the new party. Again Godfery has succinctly summarised how these two different world outlooks are expressed through different parts of the party’s public imagery and propaganda.
There appears to be a divide between the substantive aspect of the party and the propaganda aspect of the party. The substantive aspect, read policy, appears to be directed from the left wing section of the party. While on the other hand the propaganda aspect of the party appears to be directed by the tino rangatiratanga section. For example the imagery associated with the party is Maori. The Mana logo is the typical red and black, two colours with prominent meaning for Maori and the font is, in terms of character, consistent with Maori design. The party website also incorporates red and black while Maori is the default language.
Throughout the Te Tai Tokerau by-election, Mana’s hard left image partly gave way to a Maori nationalist agenda. Harawira’s call for a separate Maori parliament highlights this shift. Such advocacy of separatist politics clashes strongly with the unitary class approach proposed by the left in the Mana Party. Also, Harawira’s implication that New Zealand’s 20 Maori MPs are currently under the thumb of their parties amounts to crude dog-whistle politics. Harawira is clearly implying that if only these Maori MPs were independent of ‘white’ parties they would be able to transform themselves into true leaders of their people. On this Harawira has said: ‘The trouble is that there are 20 of us and 19 are too scared to stand up. There are some very talented Maori MPs in there, but they are locked in to their parties and so they just go quiet. Well, I don't think anyone elected us to go quiet’.
Harawira would know the logic of this statement is flawed, and is aware from his own experience in the Maori Party that political separatism clearly does not automatically lead to better politics for Maori. Yet Harawira advocates forming a block with all Maori MPs. His perspective is to: ‘set up a "parliament" of those Maori MPs who would visit different electorates together on a regular basis, such as every three months. He [Harawira] said it would ensure all Maori MPs heard the message from their people and would become more independent thinkers. A bloc of 20 MPs was a significant force’.
Yet the reality is that for many of the supporters and members of Mana, the politics of most of these MPs would be an anathema to their own. His desire to unite all Maori MPs into some form of new political unit again highlights Harawira’s opportunism and confused ideology.
So can these two informal factions, the socialist wings and the nationalist/identity politics wings of the party, so easily coalesce? The best of socialist politics has always centred on the concerns of various oppressed groups and a nuanced Marxist analysis, for example, has offered materialist accounts, and possible solutions to, oppression based on ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Socialists, like Maori nationalists, want to end Maori oppression and also recognise that New Zealand was formed as a racist white settler state. However, its crucial to realize that socialists and Maori nationalists do not offer the same perspectives on, and possible solutions to, ‘the Maori question’. A belief that Maori nationalists, stepped in identity politics, and socialists, with a class-centred world view, can easily come to a political accommodation without serious debate over differences of perspectives, ideology and political programme does seem somewhat naive. In fact the view by many leftists that Maori nationalism always equates with leftwing politics actually led many groups, such as Socialist Worker, to initially identify the Maori Party as leftwing and somehow pro-worker. This delusion about the Maori Party has obviously now been shattered, yet strangely many of the left still have illusions in Maori nationalism as organically leftwing. Despite these delusions about Maori nationalism, we are still likely to see some major fights in the future between Mana’s leftwing and the nationalist faction over what political direction the party should take. Morgan Godfery, who sees the party as a strange collection of ideologically dissimilar activists, has argued we will see infighting begin when and if Mana becomes involved in a future government.
The Mana Party consists, by my reckoning at least, of two sorts of activists. Tino rangatiratanga activists and far left advocates. The tino rangatiratanga activists outnumber the far left advocates. Both sets of activists will be fighting for primacy. My money is on the party holding - until they get within range of government. That is when the ideological disputes, the practical disputes and so on will come to the fore.
Mana - a mainstream party?
Before the Mana Party had even been officially launched, Hone Harawira had said that Mana would be prepared to cut deals with current parties in Parliament. He also shied away from declaring Mana as some kind of radical leftwing party. On TV3 Harawira was asked if Mana was some form of new ‘class war party’. His reply was telling:
Certainly if we had to make a choice we wouldn’t be working with National. National have already chosen their Maori party, we have no interest in joining them. We’d be open to working with the Greens and we’d be open to working with Labour. In terms of a second Maori party, we will certainly be the second Maoripolitical force in this country, likely to be the first one by the time we get to the election in November, but open to all races colours and creeds to ensure that the disenfranchised in our society actually get a real voice [emphasis mine].
Why did Harawira totally avoid the question of whether Mana was some form of class war party? And why did his response include a statement of intention to work with the Greens and Labour? Was Harawira in fact trying to reassure those in the political establishment and media that, despite the fiery leftish rhetoric of some of his supports, he as Mana leader will lead the party to be a ‘responsible’ coalition partner with other parliamentary parties? The fact he sidelined the question over whether his new party is some kind of class war party was most probably an attempt to not appear too extreme while at the same time not alienate his leftwing supporters by outright denying that Mana is a radical workers party. His declaration that he was more than open to working with the pro-capitalist and centrist Greens and Labour was clearly an attempt to position the Mana Party within the mainstream of New Zealand politics and to appear flexible and moderate.
Interestingly, one of Harawira’s main grumbles with his former colleagues in the Maori Party was that they had not spent time cozying up to parties other than National. In an opinion piece in the Sunday Star Times, which severely soured his relationships with his fellow Maori Party MPs, Harawira argued strongly for building up a relationship with the Greens and Labour.
[The Maori party should] Develop strategic relationships with the Greens and with Labour. In one of his more magnanimous moments during the flush of his 2008 election victory, John Key told us that “the Maori Party shouldn’t just aim to be a coalition partner for National, but a party that can work with anyone”. Now’s the time to take him up on his offer. Make it clear that in the interests of advancing the status of Maori we will be meeting with other parties to consider our options.
For Harawira then, it looks as if it his vision for Mana is for it to be a left-of-centre version of the Maori Party, with the new party striking up deals with Labour and the Greens in a similar way that his former party has build up a relationship with National. Certainly, this opinion piece can be read as indicating that Harawira is open to serving as part of a coalition government with the Labour and the Green parties.
First as tragedy, then as farce
Mana’s chairperson Matt McCarten has already gone through the experience of building a new working class party, which aimed to unite ‘street level activism’ and parliamentary politics. In 1989 McCarten, along with leading lights of both the Labour Party and radical left, helped form the New Labour Party (NLP). In a similar way to how the Mana Party has been formed out of a legitimate view that the Maori Party has betrayed its base, the NLP’s formation was the accumulation of a period of resistance by leftwing activists to the implementation of neoliberal economic and social policies by the fourth Labour government. As with Mana, the NLP positioned itself as a party of the working class, which would foster mass grass roots activism against attacks on working class interests. Over time the NLP transformed into an organisation qualifiably different from the party formed in 1989. Its focus became almost exclusively on parliament, it steadily moved rightwards in policy direction and, with its entry into the politically amorphous Alliance, its focus on working class politics disappeared.
Harawira’s desire to build a ‘strategic relationship’ with the Greens and Labour should ring alarm bells for former NLP members such as Matt McCarten and Mike Treen. The coalition deal between the Alliance and Labour led to significant compromises and the eventual implosion of the Alliance Party. The realpolitik of working within a parliamentary system and being part of a pro-capitalist government led the NLP members in the Alliance to move rightwards, and to make significant compromises on key policy areas including education and welfare. It was only when the parliamentary wing of the Alliance party supported New Zealand troops being sent to Afghanistan that the left of the party decided to put up a real fight. But by this time the game was over, and the rightwing of the Alliance split from the party. What remained of the Alliance’s electoral support then collapsed.
The lessons that should be learnt from the NLP/Alliance debacle is that there is a structural logic to left-wing parties compromising and selling out as a result of seeking governmental power within the confines of a capitalist system. Mana’s leftwing activists already know these arguments, but yet they continue to present an unrealistic view of what Mana is capable of under a capitalist system. Equally, they seem to want to defer any doubts that the Mana Party and Harawira could sell out and repeat the mistakes of the NLP and the Maori Party.
This party is just being set up. It offers an opportunity to break (or at least challenge) the Labour/National paradigm. It offers a real, concrete chance for a left wing party to enter parliament with several MPs. The people involved have a history of direct action, of militancy, of radicalism. So far the signs are good - Harawira is not going to pick out a candidates list, he has refused to be drawn on who will stand where and who will be ranked over who, and is instead seeking to put such decisions in the hands of the party membership. And having read Matt McCartens account of how the Alliance was destroyed by Anderton and co, I'm sure he will work for a party where the membership control the leadership and not the other way round.
Yet, the NLP was started with similar hopes, and involved socialists with a history of direct action and militancy. It was also meant to be a party controlled by its membership and not its leadership. Questions of why the Alliance imploded need to centre on the nature of parliament and the state, and not so much on the ‘bad behavior’ of politicians such as Jim Anderton and co.
The question of parliament and the state
With much of the socialist left jumping into the parliamentary-focused Mana Party, questions arise over how the left can utlilise the state. So, can Parliament and the state be manipulated in the interests of poor Maori and workers in general? Unfortunately, these questions seem to have been sidelined by the socialist supporters of Te Mana.
A Marxist analysis puts forward the position that left and working class parties that focus on capturing governmental power within current frameworks end up acting directly or indirectly in the interests of the bosses. Lenin once said that capitalist elections give workers the choice to… ‘decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people through parliament’. Such a Marxist analysis does not entail a conspiracy theory, with sinister capitalists secretly controlling the state. Marxist theory positions the state and governmental organs within the structure of an economic system based on private property and profit accumulation. Therefore, even radical left parties that capture power within a capitalist framework are from the start compromised by their need to efficiently manage the profit-centred economic system. For an ‘instrumentalist viewpoint’, which sees the state as an instrument in the hands of the capitalist ruling class, see the works of Ralph Miliband. For a ‘structuralist analysis’, that sees the state as being relatively autonomous from the ruling class but acting to maintain the optimum conditions for capital accumulation, see the works of Nicos Poulantzas. The history of the New Zealand Labour Party, formed on the basis of an ostensibly radical socialist programme, (and later of the New Labour Party and Alliance), seem to validate such radical analysis.
If Te Mana is to focus on capturing a slice of governmental power, it will inevitably act as a junior partner in managing capitalism. Therefore, will this new left party merely repeat the tragic path followed by the current Maori Party and the NLP/Alliance before it? If the socialist left members of the Mana Party do seriously raise and debate questions around the nature of the state, capitalism, coalitionism and identity versus class politics, then a different and more positive outcome could eventuate.