Jill Ovens’ recent election victory for the position of Northern Regional Secretary of the Service and Food Workers Union is causing some controversy on the left. She has been accused of being a “class traitor” for abandoning the Alliance Party she once led and joining the Labour in order to increase her chances of victory.
Writing on his Blog, Newsoc (New Society), Len Richards, Alliance Party Co-Leader and former Socialist Labour League Trotskyite explains that Ovens’ move was simply good Leninism.
Jill’s victory over Darien Fenton’s anointed successor to the Northern region Service and Food Workers’ Union (SFWU) secretary’s position is an extremely important and historical achievement. A socialist in the political tradition of the early Labour Party and the theoretical tradition of Ralph Miliband is now the elected leader of the largest region of the SFWU.
The SFWU is the largest union of low-paid workers and the Left should get right in behind the project to make it an even more powerful and effective tool to fight for the interests of the most downtrodden workers in NZ. In the process SFWU members will be politicised in ways the current bureaucratic union methods prevent.
For those who condemn her for joining Labour, a little more reading of Lenin might convince you that this was not the actions of a traitor, but rather the actions of a courageous and politically savvy hero of the working class.
It was Jill’s own supporters among the delegates, those who were campaigning on her behalf, who urged her to join Labour. The opposition tactic was to raise the bogey that Jill was not Labour and that it was all an Alliance plot to take over the trade unions.
In her speech to the election conference Jill proudly ‘owned’ her role as the National Council representative on the Alliance caucus and her support for the scrapping of the ECA and the introduction of paid parental leave, both measures that the Alliance had a big hand in implementing. She also said in answer to the ‘Labour’ question from the floor: “I have joined Labour but I don’t want to make a big deal of it. It is of no greater relevance than whether I am Anglican or Catholic, they’re both on the side of God. The Alliance supports workers’ rights after all. The real question is who is the best person for the regional secretary’s job.”
The reason for joining Labour was to deflate the opposition tactic of turning the election into one about party affiliation, rather than who was the best person for the job. Lenin would have approved. As he wrote in “Left-wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder: “One must use one’s own brains and be able to find one’s bearings in each particular instance. It is, in fact, one of the functions of … leaders worthy of the name, to acquire … the knowledge, experience and – in addition to knowledge and experience – the political flair necessary for the speedy and correct solution of complex political problems.”
Jill had good reasons to step back from the Alliance, and joining Labour does not mean she thinks there is no place for the Alliance. On the contrary the Alliance has a very important role to play as the socialist and left conscience of the wider labour movement. Many people who are Labour Party members and supporters acknowledge this, and the more the Left maintains a principled, ‘united front’ position with Labour and trade union people, the more credibility our left-of-Labour message will garner.