Re-focusing On The Right: The Confidence and Supply Agreement signed between Act and National signals the Right's intention to rip-up the "Labour-lite" consensus that guaranteed John Key's re-election. Neoliberalism With a Human Face is about to be replaced by Neoliberalism Without a Human Heart. The resulting political crisis could easily become the Left's opportunity.
WELL, NOW WE KNOW. For more than three years political commentators have speculated and quarrelled about National’s identity. Was John Key’s rise evidence of a return to the conservative pragmatism of the 1960s? Or, was this government’s relatively unadventurous first term merely the necessary hiatus between Helen Clark’s and Michael Cullen’s Neoliberalism With a Human Face and the renewed onset of Neoliberalism Without a Human Heart?
The confidence-and-supply agreement negotiated between National and Act provides us with an emphatic answer to that question. Confronted with a “coalition partner” incapable of garnering more than 20,000 votes nationwide, or winning a seat without assistance, Key’s National Party arrived at the negotiating table without obligation. Indeed, it was John Banks who was entirely obligated to John Key – without whose intervention the Act Party would’ve ceased to exist as a parliamentary player. Had they been of a mind to do so, National’s negotiators could have simply shoved a C&S agreement in front of Banks and told him to: “Say ‘Thank-you’ and sign here.”
That National’s negotiators walked out of the room with a C&S agreement mandating a Tax-Payers’ Bill of Rights (TABOR) and the establishment of Charter Schools owed nothing to Banks' skill as a wheeler-dealer, and everything to a sophisticated strategic understanding between Catherine Issacs, John Key and Stephen Joyce. The latter’s pragmatism dictates that Key should hold on to his moderate persona for as long as he can by attempting to blame Act for the National-led Government’s sharp turn to the Right. Issacs, meanwhile, will take advantage of the inevitable disintegration of the “Brash Bloc” to carve out a new niche for the Act Party.
The “Brash Bloc” was Joyce’s shrewd adaptation of Labour’s long-established “No Enemies to the Left” strategy. Between 2002 and 2008 National’s key objective was to re-absorb the voters of the Right into a single, massive bloc of conservative support, eliminating or hopelessly marginalising every other party bidding for right-wing votes. The ultimate goal was a genuine majority of the Party Votes cast and the re-birth of National as “the natural party of government”.
Well, it was a case of “close, but no cigar” – hence the decision to tear up the “Labour-lite” consensus of 2008-2011, break up the Brash Bloc, and allow Act to reconstruct itself as the ideologically-driven, vanguard party it should always have been (and which Catherine Issacs has been trying to build for the past seven years). The Brash Bloc was worth preserving while there was still some hope of expanding it with the remnants of New Zealand First. But Winston Peters' dogged refusal to accept his 2008 defeat, coupled with the remarkable tenacity of the NZ First Party itself, saw National’s high-tide crest where, in the sixty years since 1951, it has always crested – at just under 48 percent.
Some commentators have suggested that, faced with this situation, National should break to the Left and position itself as a potential coalition partner for the Green’s. To follow this strategy, however, National would have to concede a far larger share of the conservative vote to Act and NZ First, leaving it dangerously vulnerable to a strong leftward push from the Green’s. More worryingly, the notion that National was at the mercy of a radical, farmer-unfriendly, social-ecologist party could easily lead to the formation of a “heartland” country party based in rural and provincial New Zealand. The risk, then, would be the coming together of a conservative bloc large enough to contemplate governing without a by-now-limbless National rump.
Strategically-speaking, National has run out of “soft” options. Saddled with the proportional MMP electoral system, and having reached the outer limits of its voter support, it will be obliged to abandon its moderate persona and strike out boldly to the Right. With Act’s capacity to mask this rightward shift extremely limited, the public’s perception of National will likely undergo a sea-change, causing the polls to register a steadily rising level of support for the opposition parties.
The Government’s only real hope of re-election at this point will be to manufacture the sort of crisis that causes people to seek refuge under conservatism's umbrella. Some sort of cultural and/or environmental provocation seems the most likely: something to provoke Maori, the social-liberals and/or the environmentalists to actions which exceed the bounds of “mainstream” tolerance. If they were really clever, the Right’s strategists would be looking for something that could not only incite extra-parliamentary protest, but a sharpening of the ideological tensions within the opposition parties. Chaos on the streets and conflict in the ranks of the Government’s opponents might just be enough to snatch a tactical triumph from the jaws of strategic defeat.
The onus is thus placed upon the parties of the Centre and Left to anticipate National’s tactics and use the next few months to formulate a decisive break with the current economic and political orthodoxy. The emergence of a de facto progressive programme, based on the opposition parties’ firm and final rejection of the neoliberal project and their embrace of emerging policy options like the Universal Basic Income and the Financial Transactions Tax awaits only the political will to write it down. This emerging progressive coalition should also evince a willingness to think the unthinkable by openly discussing such taboo subjects as the restoration of universal union membership and the renationalisation of privatised industries.
If National’s only viable strategic option is the ripping-up of the economic and political consensus that won John Key his second term, then the Left would be foolish indeed not to take full advantage of the ideological space his radical change of direction is bound to open up. In the finest dialectical fashion, the Government’s dwindling strategic and tactical options are multiplying the Opposition’s opportunities for bold and original thinking.
The same circumstances which now constrain the Right can offer hope and freedom to the Left; providing only that it possesses both the wit and the courage to use them.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.