Don’t Go There, Labour. Even Though You Already Went There.

Is foreign ownership of land and property in New Zealand a legitimate subject for political disagreement and policy debate? Personally, I believe it is – for many years, I’ve been concerned by how easily foreign owners can take up large tracts of New Zealand land, whether it’s been Shania Twain near Queenstown or James Cameron in the Wairarapa.

But when the Labour Party chose to frame that issue by attacking house purchasers on the basis that they had Chinese-sounding names, rather than framing the issue in terms of foreign investment, regardless of country of origin or how Chinese an investor’s name sounds, they crossed a line they may come to regret.

New Zealand politicians of both the Right and Left have a long and inglorious history of scapegoating people of Chinese descent living in New Zealand for political gain. If you doubt that, I encourage you to read White Ghosts, Yellow Peril – China and New Zealand 1790-1950 by Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Zeng Dazheng, which lays out many such examples and their consequences for the Chinese community of the time. The recent blog post Year of the (Scape)goat by “Kiwiese” reinforces the point.

Given the endorsement of Phil Twyford’s initial anti-Chinese framing of the issue by Labour leader Andrew Little, it’s clear that this is a strategy Labour has deliberately decided to employ, not one it has stumbled into by mistake. Ever since Andrew Little took over as Labour Party leader, there have been signs that Labour has concluded it needs to move to the right to recapture lost votes and lost voting blocks – and this anti-Chinese rhetoric may well be an attempt to capture back voters lost to New Zealand First.

Labour may have been goaded into this approach by its analysis of the recent UK election. There, Labour lost votes in a broad swathe of seats from the south to the North-East of England to UKIP, who sell hard-right policies dressed up in the mantle of white working-class cultural chauvinism and resentment of immigrants. While UKIP only took one seat itself, it did take enough votes off Labour to cost Labour many seats in this region. Perhaps New Zealand Labour has taken a look at this and decided to out-UKIP any other party which might try to claim this political territory.

But Labour could have drawn a very different lesson from the UK general election. In Scotland, the SNP, a party which although not especially socialist campaigned on a strong anti-austerity platform, swept a time-serving Scottish Labour Party from power and claimed 56 out of 59 Scottish seats at Westminster. Maybe, instead of trying on the clothes of Winston Peters or UKIP leader Nigel Farage, NZ Labour should take its inspiration from Westminster’s youngest MP, the SNP’s Mhairi Black:

Will Labour gain popular support by scapegoating people with Chinese surnames? Very possibly. It’s a tactic that has led to short-term political success in New Zealand before. Should they continue doing so? Absolutely not, in my view. And that’s not just because it is morally wrong: it is also driving committed activists away from Labour.

I know of a number of Labour activists, the people who knock on doors and answer phones and run meetings and deliver leaflets, who have quit Labour over this and related issues, and I suspect many of the activists who remain are far from happy about Labour’s new direction. National isn’t so dependent on activists to win elections, because they can call on lots of corporate donations. Labour doesn’t have access to that kind of money, so it relies a lot more on activists’ hard work to win elections. Lose too many of them, and Labour’s joy at its march to the political centre may turn to ashes in its mouth come the next election.

In conclusion, I suggest the New Zealand Labour Party sticks to developing a narrative about how a Labour-led Government will benefit New Zealand as a whole, and leaves the overt racism to others.