2017 12 – news from New Zealand

A Letter From Our New Zealand Correspondent

Feargus O’Raghallaigh

Living at the ‘last bus stop on the planet’ and getting the first sunrise of the day gives one a different view of things. Clocks, the track of the solar orbit and time-zones quite change one’s sense of place. The northern hemisphere seems, indeed is, a different world, far, far away.

As with everywhere, here too all news is, like politics, local. But local as ever has context – and here it is not the northern hemisphere – Europe, the US, even with colonial legacies, history and connections. It is China – even at the last bus stop in all its smallness and parochialism, maybe even especially so.

There is Australia and the island states of Pasifika and India. But it is China that today dominates.

China and India are not simply rising economic and political powers and new markets. One of the legacies of the Empire is the diasporas of Indian peoples and Chinese communities scattered through the South Pacific.

Here in New Zealand the Chinese community dates back to the latter part of the nineteenth century, the gold rush days. In the 1930s they became a source of seasonal labour in agriculture. Today ethnic Chinese are a significant community, hugely important in the horticultural, market gardening and orcharding sectors.

But to mainland China: its rise has sustained Australia as, as the Aussies see it, the world’s most successful market economy; twenty-six recessionless years, 103 quarters, free of negative growth fuelling China’s continuing industrial revolution.

For New Zealand too the rise of the Middle Kingdom has been transformational. While the Lucky Country’s luck lies in its capacity to feed China’s need for minerals and coal vital to its industrial revolution the New Zealand story is based on being China’s big backyard farm. It is mostly a dairy story but not exclusively. China is also a market for meat – and the produce of New Zealand’s gardens and orchards and forests. In a matter of weeks for example the fresh cherries of Otago will be loaded onto freight planes for the Chinese market (with a small amount put aside for the local NZ Christmas market).

A few weeks ago however I saw something else. It was yet another example of how huge is the Chinese success. But it was also a sorry illustration of quite how much of a mess British governments and the country’s business classes have made of the UK economy, how much has been lost to British life and by its working class through the ruthless pursuit of the British model of capitalist accumulation based on global financial intermediation and in Britain, intensive wage slavery in de-skilled low productivity businesses, having broken the unions.

China gets the raw materials for its industrial engine and the food for its expanding urban working and middle classes from the likes of Australia and New Zealand – as well as, it should be said, from within its own resources and capacities. For the likes of NZ the Chinese diet is also changing, favouring the kinds of products in which Kiwi farmers have comparative advantage and a long record. The other side to this trading relationship is the growing imports by Australia and NZ of finished products from China – from autos to computers and an awful lot in between – and inward investment from China (much of it going into property speculation).

At the beginning of the month a local NZ online news service that I follow carried a press release from the New Zealand Automobile Association. It announced that two more Chinese-made car models (‘marques’ in the jargon) had achieved top safety ratings (they were SUVs or as they are called here ‘utes’). November was the second month in a row that Chinese auto manufacturers (LDV and Haval in this case) had achieved such top scores: the previous month it was MG’s new ute that had achieved the rating.

MG? Yes, MG, that once upon a time little racer that with Rover was the backbone of the one-time industrial Midlands economy and British car manufacturing. Now in Chinese hands and ownership it is alive and thriving and pouring cars off production lines in Nanjing exporting to the rest of Asia and the South Pacific. The Chinese bought the company, its technologies and brands at a rock bottom price in 2005 from a group of predatory British capitalists who asset stripped the company and destroyed the industry as well as a skilled workforce.

The irony of the story and press release is that within days I read online, the Guardian’s obituary for Derek Robinson (‘Red Robbo’) who had been the leading AEU shopsteward at Longbridge in the 1970s. Robinson died on 31 October. His death was heralded by the Daily Mail with the headline, “The man who killed Britain’s car industry:

“With his relish for confrontation, Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson represented all that was worst about the “British trades union movement in the Seventies.

“In his thuggish obstinacy, he was the personification of the bullying, power-hungry movement that paralysed industry, wrecked the economy and turned Britain into ‘the sick man of Europe’.”

What actually happened was something more complex and not at all a plot line from a Boulting Brothers movie. In the 1970s Leyland/BMC had become a strange semi-nationalised business centred on Longbridge but comprising dozens of companies employing tens of thousands of skilled workers. It was a peculiar entity in that while there were state shareholdings and investment it remained managerially in the hands of the British business class. The policy, particularly in the reign of Sir Michael Edwardes, was to by any means break union power.

Robinson was not a real-life Fred Kite, an irredentist advocate of all sense in the name of objectively indefensible worker privileges. As the Guardian obit makes the point, he did negotiate an end to the privilege system that was the old piece rate structure. He knew the business – was apprenticed, became a tool maker and an Austin employee. Yes, he favoured simple nationalisation but also believed in workers’ capacity to run industries. “If we make Leyland successful it will be a political victory. It will prove that ordinary working people have got the intelligence and determination to run industry.” That was his aim.

He was opposed to national agreements – but then who in British unionism, indeed in British capitalism or actually in British politics was? Truly?

Robinson’s real problem was he was a Communist. He was easy meat for the capitalist elite that continued to run Leyland in state ownership, the mainstream media and the anti-Communist leadership of the AEU who eventually coalesced with management to get rid of him on a ludicrous charge (producing a pamphlet opposing a proposed collective agreement) – and then together made sure he never worked again.

Even so Leyland continued to be repeatedly reorganised and eventually in reduced and shrunken form dismembered – thrice: first to the Germans (BMW) who really only wanted the Mini marque and then in further reduced form to a group of British business vultures (with the nerve to call themselves the Phoenix consortium) and finally, almost totally stripped, to the PRC’s Nanjing Automobile Corporation (NAC) which parcelled up most of what was left and moved it back to China. A rump operation was left in Longbridge but this too is now closed (shutting down in 2016).

Meanwhile in Nanjing …

In a matter of weeks many tens of thousands of Chinese workers, managers and professionals will with their extended families arrive in New Zealand for the lunar new year holiday and marking the beginning of the Year of the Dog. There will presumably be not a few from NAC now merged with Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation or SAIC. There will likely be not a hotel bed to be had, or motel unit on South Island. Even campsite tent pitches will be at a premium for the duration. Hire cars and camper vans will clog the road and the fireworks will light the nights skies.

Meanwhile in Birmingham and Brexit Britain …

Is there not in the arc of time between the Opium Wars and today’s British industrial wasteland and Longbridge as a property developer’s landbank a certain symmetrical character evident? A certain irony about it all?