Chris Trotter: Losing the Working Class

Chris Trotter: Losing the Working Class

I ALWAYS WONDERED what it would take to detach the New Zealand working class from Labour. Not all of the working-class, obviously, but enough to strip the party of the demographic heft that, for more than a century, has made it a decisive electoral player. Now I know, but it took a fair few wrong guesses before I got there.

On paper, it should have been Rogernomics. After such a comprehensive betrayal of Labour’s working-class base it seemed impossible that all but the most mindless loyalists would continue to vote for the party. It was the conviction that underpinned Jim Anderton’s creation of the NewLabour Party – give the ordinary working-class voter an honest social-democratic party to vote for and Labour’s electoral base would shift en masse.

Well, that’s exactly what happened in Jim’s seat of Sydenham, but NewLabour’s message fell on deaf ears just about everywhere else. Labour’s candidates reassured the residents of working-class electorates that Rogernomics had been for them. New Zealand could not have gone on the way it had been under Muldoon. Something had to be done. Our economy had to be shaken-up and set on a new, more productive path. It had all been done for them, so their kids and grandkids to look forward to something better than freezing-works and car-plants. If Mickey Savage had been leading Labour in the 1980s, they said, he would have followed exactly the same policies.

And, you know what? It worked. In Labour’s safest seats Jim Anderton’s candidates hardly made a dent in Labour’s bodywork. The workers stayed loyal right through.

Their dogged faith in the Labour Party reminded me of “Boxer”, the indomitable draughthorse of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. No matter how many times the pigs who wielded the power made the lives of all the other animals miserable; no matter how many times they slyly amended the rules of the farm (most famously from “All Animals Are Equal” to “All Animals Are Equal – But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others”) Boxer remained loyal to the Revolution, exerting all his mighty strength to keep it going. Until, at last, worn out by his ceaseless exertions, he fell ill and was sold to the proprietor of the local knacker’s yard by the self-same pigs he had always believed in and supported.

There had been other tests of working-class loyalty. The abortion issue had sorely tried the patience of Labour’s working-class Catholics of Irish descent in the 1970s. Homosexual law reform did the same, right across the Christian denominational spectrum, in the 1980s. Like the Springbok Tour of 1981, which had pitted young, mostly middle-class, university students and their liberal middle-aged mentors, against the rough-and-ready working-class lovers of Rugby, the struggle for gay rights was overlaid with an ill-disguised contempt for the morally deficient people its promoters were struggling against.

By the late-1980s, however, the issue which had bitterly divided the traditional Left in the years immediately following the Springbok Tour, and hacked a jagged wound across the trade union movement, was turning up on the conference floor of the Labour Party. The radical quest for Māori sovereignty, and its central political demand – “Honour the Treaty” – could no longer be ignored by the party whose 50-year alliance with the Ratana Movement had given it control of the Māori seats.

That was the moment at which Labour should have grappled with the political implications of Māori sovereignty and the Treaty, thrashing them out for good or ill, until its members, and (much more importantly) its voters grasped their meaning. But, that was not what Labour did. When confronted with policy remits requiring Labour to honour the Treaty of Waitangi, conference delegates and MPs nodded sagely and dutifully raised their hands in support. Very few understood that what they were receiving and passing-on was the political equivalent of a live hand-grenade, and that, one day, the pin of that hand grenade, either by accident or design, was going to be pulled out.

Anyone who has ever wondered how the Fourth Labour Government could so blithely legislate for the Waitangi Tribunal’s reach to extend all the way back to the signing of the Treaty in 1840, or how that judicially pregnant phrase “the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi” could so carelessly have been inserted into the State Owned Enterprises Act, should wonder no more. The leaders, and the members, of the Labour Party were so ignorant of both the Treaty’s status in Maoridom, and of their country’s morally dubious colonial history, that they simply didn’t see the harm in paying lip-service to Māori demands.

Donna Awatere had put her finger on the phenomenon in her seminal Māori Sovereignty essays, published in Broadsheet:

“The strength of white opposition will be allayed by the fact that Maori sovereignty will not be taken seriously. Absolute conviction in the superiority of white culture will not allow most white people to even consider the possibility.”

Lord Cooke of Thorndon, however, had no choice but to take the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi seriously. His ground-breaking judgement that the Treaty was “in the nature of a partnership” would produce a rich harvest of subsidiary judgements and policies that, as the decades passed, would draw the descendants of the settlers who made New Zealand closer and closer to the Dock of History.

One of those judgements related to the foreshore and seabed, and came frighteningly close to tipping New Zealand into fierce racial conflict. It was only Helen Clark’s up-close-and-personal interactions with the hard men and women of the Māori nationalist movement, the people she dubbed “haters and wreckers”, that prevented the 2005 General Election from anticipating the 2023 General Election by 18 years. Clark’s effective nullification of the Court of Appeal’s decision, and her unequivocal assertion that the foreshore and seabed belonged to all New Zealanders, was sufficient to hold enough of Labour’s working-class vote to defeat Don Brash’s attempt to start what Act’s David Seymour is now promising to finish.

Unfortunately, Jacinda Ardern, possessed none of her predecessor’s understanding of the Māori nationalist movement and its revolutionary interpretation of the Treaty. When asked to summarise the Treaty’s clauses by journalists in the first months of her premiership, she could not oblige. A classic example of her party’s dangerous propensity to good-naturedly wave Māori issues through Labour’s policy check-points, Ardern simply lacked the political resources to turn back the political demands of such forceful Māori politicians as Willie Jackson and Nanaia Mahuta.

Neither Ardern, nor her successor, Chris Hipkins, had the intellectual or ideological sophistication to argue either For or Against the revolutionary ideas contained in the He Puapua Report. Nor did they possess the courage to follow Helen Clark’s example of political intransigence.

Labour made no case for co-governance because it couldn’t. For the previous 40 years it had put “all that Treaty stuff” into the too-hard, or the too-scary, basket. When the sovereignty hand grenade finally exploded, in the second term of the Sixth Labour Government, the best Labour could manage was to blame the resulting injury to the New Zealand body politic on the “racism” of the people whose votes it would need to go on governing.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t get them. Almost accidentally, Labour discovered what it would take to make the working-class stop voting for it. Not the Pasefika working-class, admittedly, but the “settler” working-class – made up of Pakeha New Zealanders and the children and grandchildren of immigrant workers. Making those citizens feel as though they had, somehow, to justify their right to participate in shaping their nation’s future: that was the crucial catalyst for electoral defection.

Like their European and American counterparts, the New Zealand working-class has completed its historical journey from Left to Right.

And it ain’t going back.


Chris Trotter is New Zealand’s leading leftwing political commentator, with 30 years of experience writing professionally about New Zealand politics. He now writes regularly for the Democracy Project, producing his column “From the Left”.

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