The Mana Party’s selection of a right-wing candidate for the crucial Tamaki Makaurau electorate is a blow for the left of the party. Mana will be pitting ‘waka jumper’ Kereama Pene against Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples. Pene is a self-declared fan of New Zealand Prime Minister John Key. The Ratana Church minister is also a former supporter of the now defunct Christian fundamentalist Destiny New Zealand party, and has also given his support at various times to Labour, Mana Motuhake and to the Maori Party. Guest blogger John Moore argues that the selection of Kereama Pene represents the marginalisation of the left within the Mana Party. For although the party appears radical on paper, in reality a number of Mana’s leaders aim to cut deals and form alliances with parties that would have little interest in Mana’s ‘socialist’ policies. Therefore, the selection of Karema Pene sends a signal that Mana is both ideologically flexible and that the party’s socialists are being kept on a tight leach. All of this amounts to the attempt by a section of Mana’s leadership to present the party as respectable and non-threatening. So, is the game up for Mana’s left? [Read more below]
Mana’s divided leadership
Mana’s confused ideological identity is reflected in the diversity of its leadership. On the left are former Alliance leaders Matt McCarten, Mike Treen and Gerald Hair, former New Labour Party vice-president and Green Party MP Sue Bradford, and anti-Springbok tour leader John Minto. Most of this left caucus are also centrally involved in the militant Unite Union – Matt McCarten in particular. McCarten is in fact the central figure of the Mana left and has had the most influence on Mana’s policy direction. Yet his continued poor health represents a serious blow for the fortunes of the leftwing forces in Mana, and of their abilities to influence the Maori nationalist wing of the party.
The central Maori nationalist leaders in the party are undoubtedly Hone Harawira and Annette Sykes. Although both of these figures do lean distinctly to the left, they do so in a rather inconsistent and confused manner.
Both Harawira and Sykes have been convinced by McCarten to make common cause with those political activists who are to the left of Labour in New Zealand. This has led to Harawira and Sykes endorsing a set of leftwing policies that focus just as much on winning a general working class base for the party as they do a Maori base. In light of Harawira’s previous Maori-only focus, this left-turn has surprised many political commentators. Much of this significant change is down to the influence of McCarten.
McCarten has also acted as a bridge between the predominantly pakeha left of Mana and the tino rangatiratanga focused Maori membership of the party. Of course, McCarten is himself Maori and, among the Maori leadership of Mana, is the only figure with a deep understanding of and tradition within working class centred left politics.
Yet now with McCarten’s ill health causing him to step back somewhat from work in Mana means that his role of empowering the left of Mana, and of acting as a bridge between the party’s two ideological wings, has diminished. This has meant that the ‘socialist’ wing of the party appears to be increasingly marginalised and is having a diminishing role in shaping the image of the party.
The tino rangatiratanga focused leadership of Mana may be flirting with radical class-centred politics, but they are clearly propelled by a desire to be influential players in parliamentary politics. Whereas the left of Mana may want to build an independent force to the far left of Labour, Harawira and Sykes aim to build a party of a more conciliatory nature, one that can cut deals with a range of political players, and that will be positioned to be a possible ‘king-maker’ in a future parliament. The Maori nationalist leaders certainly see the usefulness in having a number of left figures help to build up a profile of the party and that act to extend the party’s voting base beyond the Maori electorates. At the same time, these nationalist leaders see the need to counter an image that Mana is a hard-left party that has an intransigent attitude towards its political opponents.
Therefore the selection of the conservative Kereama Pene reflects a number of developments in Mana, including the weakened role of president Matt McCarten (due to his ill health), the general weakened position of the left, and a desire from the likes of Harawira and Sykes to re-shape Mana as a conciliatory party prepared to make flexible deals with party’s to its right. For example, in one of Harawira’s first interviews after leaving the Maori Party he essentially dismissed the idea that Mana would be some form of ‘class war party’ when he indicated his desire to work with Labour and the Greens. 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 Maori political 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].
Harawira’s shift to the left
Hone Harawira’s lurch to the left needs to be contextualised. The Mana leader’s break from the Maori Party came largely from the party’s inflexibility towards the Te Tai Tokerau MP, and the party’s desire to have a congenial relationship with the National Party. Of course Harawira was far from a staunch opponent of the Maori Party’s coalition arrangement with National, but was dismayed by the inability of the party to act as a more critical and independent voice within the government coalition. When Harawira chose to publicly voice his concerns over the nature of the coalition arrangement between the two parties, the Maori Party leadership balked and decided to alienate the maverick MP within the party. Harawira, who only had significant support in his own electorate, had little choice but to leave his party, or to concede defeat to Maori Party leaders Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia. Harawira, a new comer to parliamentary politics, therefore was in desperate need of help in building a new political base for himself. Matt McCarten, a long time friend and political advisor for Harawira, was the obvious ally for him in building a new party in opposition to the Maori Party.
McCarten has been acting as an advisor for Harawira for quite a period of time now. The former Alliance president was able to convince the maverick Maori leader that rather than building a ‘Maori Party mark II’, Harawira should seek to widen his support base by aligning himself with what exists of a left of Labour in New Zealand. McCarten has planned for a long time now to form a new working-class centre party. His building up of the Unite Union was certainly part of his strategy to build a political base for a new left party. With Harawira’s estrangement from the Maori Party, along came the perfect opportunity to align a group of dissatisfied Maori Party supporters with leftwing activists This collection of leftists include the central players in the Unite Union, as well as former Alliance members, independent leftists such as John Minto and a small number of radicals from far-left groups. However, McCarten’s desire to build a new class-based party always centred on his skilful ability to manage such eclectic forces, and to form a policy framework that would appease both the Maori nationalists and the left players in the party. McCarten was also acutely aware, from his experiences in the Alliance, that candidate and leadership selection would be crucial to keeping Mana on a leftwing course. In the case of the Alliance, the elevation of a number of conservative and non-left candidates to parliament acted to allow former party leader Jim Anderton to push the party to the right to the point where it became almost indistinguishable from the centrist Labour Party. As Chris Trotter has recently pointed out, McCarten aimed to set the bar very high for candidate selection:
Before being forced out of Mana’s day-to-day decision-making processes by illness, Mr McCarten had set up an extremely testing set of political and organisational hurdles that every prospective candidate was required to clear before their nomination could be accepted. The choice of Mr Pene for Tamaki Makaurau suggests that these pre-requisites are now being honoured more in the breach than in the execution.
Under McCarten’s hands-on-leadership there would be no repeats of the Alamein Kopu fiasco that serious dented the image of the Alliance Party in the 1990s. Alamein Kopu was a conservative Maori candidate for the Alliance who, once elected to parliament, jumped waka and ended up supporting and propping up a minority National government. The selection of Kereama Peneas – an Alamein Kopu-type disaster-in-waiting – as the Tamaki Makaurau electorate candidate shows McCarten ill health has led to his loss of influence in the party. Consciously or not, McCarten’s effective retirement from a central leadership position in the party has allowed the likes of Sykes and Harawira to shift the party away from its hard left image and to redefine the party as a more flexible and less intransigent organisation.
Mana’s trajectory to the right
Prominent left-wing members in Mana, including Sue Bradford and John Minto, will be aghast at the selection of Kereama Pene for the symbolically important seat of Tamaki Makaurau. Both Minto and Bradford would have wanted a candidate with definite left leanings, ideally a union activist with a base amongst Maori workers. That they’ve instead been presented with a candidate who unashamingly praises both the present and past National-led administrations, and who has easily shifted support from parties of the right and of the centre, does not bode well for the trajectory of Mana. But will Mana’s left leadership be willing or able to put up a fight against the right trajectory of the party?
Sue Bradford has made serious political compromises in the past, especially in joining the Green Party, a party she formerly dismissed as either ignorant of or hostile to worker and union issues. However, the former Green Party MP appears to be concerned about the eclectic ideological makeup of the Mana Party, and will be well aware, from her experiences in both the former New Labour Party and the Greens, that parties that are radical or left on paper can easily shift to the right. From her experience of being marginalised by a centrist leadership in the Greens, she will also be aware of the importance of the political makeup and personal drives of a party’s leadership. The conciliatory tones made by Harawira towards working with both the Greens and Labour, as well as calls by him to even unite with the Maori Party in the future, will send alarm bells ringing for the former Green MP. In regards to the rightwing Maori party, Harawira has said, ‘Ultimately I would like to see us come back together as Mana-Maori’.
Bradford may well fear that the demise of McCarten’s role in the party, combined with the conciliatory natures of both Sykes and Harawira, could lead to a repeat of her being marginalised in Mana in a similar way to the way she was pushed out of the Greens. So alongside Bradford’s likely disquiet over the trajectory of Mana, what is John Minto likely to be thinking of recent developments in his new party?
Minto is a different kettle of fish to Bradford, and he has consistently kept a distance from the compromising nature of parliamentary politics. His agreement to play a central role in Mana was, according to his campaign organiser Joe Carolan, negotiated on the condition Mana would not become part of a future coalition 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.
Matt McCarten, who has worked alongside John Minto in the Unite Union, would have assured Minto that he would personally make sure that he would act to check the conciliatory and at times wayward politics of Harawira, and that Mana would explicitly be a leftwing working class focused party. So surely Minto must be now asking himself if he made a bad call in throwing himself into a leadership role in Mana, and whether his political marriage with the likes of Harawira will end it disaster.
A political struggle will inevitably come to fruition in Mana between its left and right wings, as well as between those members (both of the left and of the tino rangatiratanga milieu) who want to build a radical movement of activists against a conciliatory parliament-focused leadership. The nature of any future conflict depends partly on how many, if any, Mana candidates make it to Parliament after the November election. If Harawira, and maybe Sykes, are elected as MPs, then both the Maori nationalist and conciliatory nature of the party will be cemented, and the left will be further marginalised. As with the history of the Alliance in Parliament, the parliamentary wing of Mana will dominate the party and act to determine the party’s future path. Whether the conciliatory approach of Harawira can be countered will be very much determined by whether the left in Mana see the need to engage in a conscious political fight against those who aim to pull Mana in a rightwards direction. With the selection of Kereama Pene, and dismissal by some of Mana’s socialist members of the significance of this selection, the left’s role in Mana is not looking good.