Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Something In The Air: Examining The Precursors Of Past Labour Victories

There's Something Happening Here: The Labour victories of 1972 and 1984 were preceded by massive upsurges in extra-parliamentary civil engagement. By 1999, however, the neoliberal counter-revolution had reduced politics to a contest between political parties - the two largest of which were steadily becoming ideologically indistinguishable. (Photo by JOHN MILLER)
 
A DECISIVE FACTOR in New Zealand’s left-wing electoral victories has been the upsurge in progressive civil engagement which preceded them. In its turn, this increased politicisation has lifted the level of electoral participation. In circumstances of heightened civil engagement the ordinary citizen experiences a growing feeling of politics being “in the air” and the act of casting a vote is more easily presented as “making a difference”. At length, even the politically disengaged begin to take an interest, and since political disengagement is disproportionately associated with the young, the poor and the socially marginalised, it is hardly surprising that an up-tick in participation from these groups can make a crucial difference to the electoral efficacy of the overall “Left Vote”.


 
Let’s flesh out this proposition by examining the three periods immediately preceding the decisive Labour victories of 1972, 1984 and 1999.

1972
 
Having only narrowly lost the 1969 General Election (National: 605,960 votes or 45.2 percent, Labour: 592,055 votes or 44.2 percent) Labour was confident that the very small swing required to change the government in 1972 could be achieved.
 
This confidence was boosted by the widespread public perception that “the times they were a-changing”. Young people – especially the tens-of-thousands who were yearly taking advantage of New Zealand’s “free” tertiary education system – were making their political presence felt on the nation’s streets in protest demonstrations of unprecedented size and impact.
 
The 1971 “mobilisations” against the Vietnam War featured simultaneous demonstrations in the university cities of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Hamilton and Palmerston North. The combined turnout of these protest marches represented roughly 1 in 4 of the country’s university students. They were joined by thousands more progressive New Zealanders from the churches and the trade unions. On Friday, 30 April 1971, more than 30,000 citizens participated in anti-war protests across New Zealand.
 
The trade unions themselves were increasingly by-passing the now discredited Arbitration Court and deploying the strike weapon against their employers. Acute labour shortages left employers with little option but to settle and wages rose accordingly. Working-class New Zealanders’ political confidence grew by leaps and bounds. The Federation of Labour’s conservative National Executive struggled to keep pace with the jaunty aspirations of the unions’ rank-and-file.
 
In 1970, 264,907 people (10 percent of the country’s population!) signed the “Save Manapouri” petition – imprinting the issue of environmentalism on to the nation’s political consciousness for the first time. This potent example of “post scarcity politics” was followed by the creation of the Values Party. In 1972 this plucky political arriviste, chock-full of visionary inspiration, so spooked the Labour Party that their full-page election advertisements featured a graphic of the New Zealand environment (including a forest-destroying deer) safely bottled up in, of all things, an Agee preserving jar!
 
By the time the election rolled around, politics wasn’t just “in the air” – it was filling the air. The 1969 turnout had been a very respectable 88.94 percent and crucially for Labour that number – three percentage points higher than the turnout in 1966 – held firm in 1972. This time, however, the Norman Kirk led Opposition won 677,669 votes or 48.4 percent, and National 581,422 votes or 41.5 percent. The massive upsurge in civil engagement described above had challenged the complacency of the old and politicised the young. Labour’s winning slogan: “It’s time for a change” was resoundingly endorsed.

1984
 
The three years separating 1981 from 1984 saw the huge outpouring of progressive energy occasioned by the Springbok Tour channelled into a series of long-term hegemonic projects that have yet to end.
 
Labour’s easy victory in 1984 provided belated confirmation of its plurality of the popular vote in 1981. Only the exigencies of the First-Past-the-Post electoral system allowed Rob Muldoon’s National Party to cling onto power in that tumultuous year. In 1981 the final count gave “Rob’s Mob” 698,508 or 38.77 percent of the popular vote compared to Labour’s 702,630 votes or 39.01 percent.  (Social Credit, which claimed an extraordinary 20.6 percent of the popular vote, was “rewarded” with just 2 seats!)
 
The turnout in 1981, at 91.4 percent, was even higher than 1969 and 1972. The near record number reflected the extraordinary politicisation of the country which the Tour had effected. That it failed to secure Muldoon’s defeat saw progressive politics bifurcate into the largely extra-parliamentary “New Social Movements” (Feminism, Anti-Racism, Gay Rights, Pacifism and Environmentalism) and the more traditional, class-based movements (trade unionism and the working-class political parties). There was, of course, a lively intercourse between the two which saw the Federation of Labour endorse the Working Women’s Charter and the Labour Party establish its enormously influential Women’s Council.
 
The 1981-84 period also marked the high point of the “New Cold War” and its answering response – the movement for a Nuclear-Free New Zealand. The extent to which this movement permeated the New Zealand population is extraordinary – as evidenced by the succession of county, borough and city councils (representing two-thirds of the population) which declared themselves nuclear-free between 1980 and 1984.
 
Finally, there was the creation of the unemployed workers’ rights movement. Astonishingly, at least to younger politicos, this movement was state-subsidised. Unemployed Rights Centres received grants not only from the trade unions but also from government agencies, and their full-time staff were paid courtesy of government work schemes. For the first time since the 1930s, the poorest and most marginalised citizens had a voice. (Interestingly, the Fourth Labour Government moved very quickly to eliminate this kind of state support for advocacy groups.)
 
The Left's mobilisation of New Zealand’s most marginalised citizens almost certainly explains the truly extraordinary turnout for the 1984 General Election. At 93.7 percent it holds the record for the greatest percentage of registered voters ever to have participated in a general election. Labour was swept to power in what should have been an undiluted triumph for the Left. The full explanation for why it very quickly turned into something else must wait for another occasion.

1999
 
The Neoliberal Counter-Revolution which remade New Zealand in the years that followed 1984 reached its zenith in 1991 with Bill Birch’s long-prepared Employment Contracts Act and Ruth Richardson’s savage “Mother of All Budgets”. Had both been answered as they should have been, with a General Strike from the unions and mass demonstrations by the unemployed and beneficiaries, the following decade could have been one of unprecedented and radical politicisation culminating in the eventual election of a government committed to rolling back neoliberalism in toto. Tragically, the 1990s turned out to be anything but.
 
On 18 April 1991, state-sector union bosses (actively encouraged by the officers of the Council of Trade Unions) voted down the General Strike motion advanced by the private sector unions – thereby condemning hundreds of thousands of wage workers to the steady erosion of their workplace rights and the relentless deunionisation of their industries.
 
And because the unions did not rise, the sympathetic effect of a general strike upon the other groups under attack from Jim Bolger’s National Government never eventuated. The natural alliance of wage workers and beneficiaries which had already begun to take shape as tens-of-thousands took to the streets in late-March and early-April 1991 was brutally aborted by the CTU’s failure to effectively resist the Employment Contracts Bill.
 
The inevitable and entirely predictable result of this strategic failure on the part of the New Zealand labour movement was a steady decline in the turnout of registered voters at general elections. Twenty-seven years after that record 93.7 percent turnout in 1984, the number of registered voters participating had slumped to just 74.2 percent – the lowest turnout recorded since the advent of universal suffrage in 1893.
 
There were, of course, a succession of bold and extremely sincere opponents of the neoliberal counter-revolution – the most effective being those heroic champions of the MMP cause who, by securing a narrow victory for proportional representation in the referendum of 1993, successfully resisted the corporate sector’s well-funded campaign to preserve the manifestly unfair FPP system.
 
But not even MMP could undo the terrific damage inflicted upon New Zealand’s political system by the Fourth Labour Government’s abandonment of social democracy in favour of neoliberalism in the 1980s. This fundamental political derangement not only split the Labour Party but, by driving National sharply to the right, inspired its more moderate elements to form NZ First. Subsequent to Labour’s ideological apostasy, all politics in New Zealand has been about how best to navigate around the black hole where the centre-left used to be.
 
The NewLabour Party, which soon became the Alliance, was the best effort to rebuild an electorally viable alternative on the Left. By 1996, however, its relentless struggle against what remained of the Labour Party had severely shaken the electorate’s faith in the entire Left’s ability to govern. It is for this reason that the first MMP coalition government was the one formed between National and NZ First.
 
Turnout for that first MMP election, at 88.3 percent, was the highest since 1984, and between them National and NZ First secured 47.2 percent – more than enough with the votes of the avowedly neoliberal ACT Party to form a government.
 
Racked by internal strife and the insuperable contradictions inherent in any attempt to merge the neoliberal and conservative ideologies into a single project, the National-NZ First Coalition Government was soon reduced to an incoherent collection of rabid ideologues and disreputable turncoats. Seizing the moment Labour and the Alliance announced their intention to govern together in a loose coalition and the scene was set for a “left-wing” victory in 1999.
 
But the Labour-Alliance victory (augmented by the electoral success of the Green Party which had left the Alliance in 1997) bore almost no resemblance to the victories of 1972 and 1984. Yes, there had been some protest activity – mostly centred around tertiary student fees and, to a lesser extent, environmental issues – but it paled in comparison to the mass actions of 1971 and 1981. Overwhelmingly, politics had become a matter for organised parties. The extra-parliamentary impetus which an effective trade union movement, peace and environmental activism, and the struggle against Apartheid had given to Left politics as a whole in the 1970s and 80s was absent.
 
The 1999 turnout, at 84.1 percent, represented not a rise but a falling away in political enthusiasm. Bluntly, Helen Clark became Prime Minister because she was not Jenny Shipley. And when Big Business complained about the radicalism of her Alliance partner she was quick to reassure the bosses that socialist measures would pass only over her dead body.
 
2014
 
As the General Election of 2014 approaches, the signs of any sort of upsurge in civil engagement are few and far between. Certainly, the kinds of mass protest and the forcing on to the agenda of wholly new political issues and priorities which were the precursors of the great electoral transitions of the 70s and 80s are almost entirely absent. A dreadful inertia pervades the body politic: an unwillingness to be moved by any cause or even any outrage. It is hard to believe, looking back at the conscience-driven civil eruptions of our recent history, that we are the same people.
 
The National Prime Minister, John Key, recently told Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report that when Labour was last in power, National voted for two-thirds of its legislative programme, and that since he’s been Prime Minister, Labour has voted for two-thirds of his. It was an extremely shrewd statement, because the only New Zealanders who could possibly object to such a cosy arrangement are those who desperately need politics to be about difference. And the only way to secure the success of transformative politics is for the young, the poor and the socially marginalised to, once again, become engaged in the processes of change.
 
The very thing that, currently, they are either unable, or unwilling, to do.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 8 July 2014.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

Such a tragedy, Chris, it breaks my heart to see what we have become. Your article should be compulsory reading for every potential voter

Kat said...

"And the only way to secure the success of transformative politics is for the young, the poor and the socially marginalised to, once again, become engaged in the processes of change."

Yep! two-ticks Labour should do it.

Anonymous said...

For the sake of completeness, some other turnout stats:

1935: 90.75%, up from 84.6% in 1931. This increased to 92.9% in 1938.

1946 (narrow Labour victory) and 1949 (comfortable National victory) both had 93.5% turnout.

1957: 92.9%, up from 91.4% in 1954. This decreased to 89.8% in 1960.

The National landslides of 1975 and 1990 were noted for their comparatively abysmal turnout (82.1 and 85.2%).

jh said...

You leave out one important point Chris: Labour started mass migration and the building of a multicultural society.The result is a dilution in the sense of ownership of the nation and it's resources (Tuwangawaewae).The other thing is a lack of flow from shop floor to union to Labour politician.
Your Labour politician today is likely to have interests that would never impress the real working class (I don't mean the PSA).

jh said...

The 1980s marked a range of changes – economic, social, cultural – as the country sought
to re-align its geo-political connections and the domestic and international
competitiveness of its economy. For most of the 1980s, the dominant cultural debates
centred around national identity, and what might be labelled “post-colonialism”, or in
During's (1985) terms, coming to know New Zealand in our terms, not those which
originated with a colonial power. At the core of this re-assessment was an emergent
biculturalism which involved placing indigeneity and the effects of colonialism on the
tangata whenua as a key consideration of political and policy development from the
1970s, and more particularly from 1985. Whether it was the delivery of Maori-sensitive
welfare and economic policy, increasing the awareness of the impact of colonialism both
in an historical as well as a contemporary sense, or Treaty settlements, there was a
significant re-orientation of public perception and practice. It also involved inviting
others, notably Pakeha, to explore their own post-colonial identity (Spoonley, 1995). But
almost simultaneously, decisions were being made about New Zealand's immigration
policies that were to have far reaching consequences for the cultural politics of New
Zealand, although it was to be almost a decade before there was an awareness of what
exactly this meant. Those decisions about immigration that saw policy altered from 1986
onwards have remade the cultural mix of New Zealand and have added a new layer to the
evolving imagery and policy concerns of this country.
In these circumstances, key questions concern the way in which these changes and their
impact have been understood by New Zealanders, both “new” and “old”. As with
anything as significant as the demographic and cultural changes that have occurred, there
are bound to be concerns. If democratic debate and constructive understanding is to
emerge, then the quality of information provided in the public domain is an essential pre-
condition. As with debates about biculturalism, the media play a critical role in
determining the nature of public discussion and private/public understanding. Along with
certain institutions, especially the education system, the media provide one of the most
important, and possibly the most important, point of contact. The media, in all its diverse
forms – print, radio, television, electronic – is a key institution in the creation and
distribution of images and messages about our community(ies). Those significant others
in our community, in the absence of in-depth personal contact or experience, will be
described and explained to us via the media. It helps confirm who we are as individuals
and members of various communities. As the demographic make-up of New Zealand has
changed since the late 1980s, the media have played a critical role in exploring what this
means for all of us.

Spoonley

Two points "New Zealand" wasn't asked and "the media" become the puppets of elites (left or right).

Jigsaw said...

Continually examining the entrails of the past is interesting-even obsessive apparently but tells you very little about what will happen this time or even in 2017. Not only is the country a vastly different place but technology and whole way people live has changed so markedly that it's about as useful as looking in a crystal ball.

Allan2468 said...

The 'neo-liberalism' of the 1984 Lange Government was driven by PRAGMATISM. Muldoon had left the country backrupt, creditors knocking at the door. Selling assets was unwelcome, but what else could they do? Lange was re-ected ith increased majority in 1987 so a lot of voters must have undestood the need for harsh measurea. It was fert that things turned to custard with the Douglas/Prebble duo.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Ah.. TINA. There WERE alternatives, but Douglas and co. were blind to them. Lots of intellectual dishonesty.

Nic the NZer said...

@Allan2468, Funny but Roger Douglas doesn't see it your way.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Douglas

"Douglas took a limited part in the Economic Summit Conference that began on 11 September 1984 because he was already at work on his first budget. He saw the summit as preparing the country to accept change, but noted the possibility that it might heighten expectations of continued consensus and involvement. He said later that he had taken up the finance portfolio with a plan for economic restructuring already in mind, and described the budget he delivered in November 1984 as ‘an amalgam of what I had originally envisaged and fresh options presented in briefing papers and in debate with fellow ministers and Treasury officials.’

Douglas’s insistence that economic policy was the product of a plan conceived by him as early as 1980 and not a response to crisis left the government open to charges of bad faith."

In addition your statement that "Muldoon had left the country backrupt, creditors knocking at the door." shows you know absolutely nothing about a currency crisis. A currency crisis is when a central bank lacks a foreign exchange reserves in order to defend it's fixed exchange rate. A central bank can not (by definition) be bankrupt in a currency it issues.

In fact it seems Douglas helped create the currency crisis, which was eventually used as an excuse to ram through economic reforms.
"A critical element of Douglas’s economic policy package, but not the Labour Party’s policy document, was a 20 per cent devaluation of the New Zealand dollar. This was a sensitive subject. If it was widely known that an incoming government would devalue the dollar, dealers would seek profit by selling the dollar at its higher price before the election, and buying it back at its lower price afterwards. The difference, which might amount to hundreds of millions of dollars if there was a run on the currency, would be met by the taxpayer. Soon after Muldoon called the election, Douglas held a public meeting in his electorate and distributed copies of his economic policy package, which made the case for a 20 per cent devaluation. Muldoon obtained a copy and released it to the news media, intending to embarrass the Labour Party."

The re-writing of New Zealand's economic history is never ending.

Chris Trotter said...

That's pretty much the way I remember the "crisis" of 1984 as well, Nic. But tell me - who are you quoting?

Chris Trotter said...

To: Jigsaw.

Neoliberalism is easily distinguished from other ideologies by its contempt for and actual fear of History.

Your comments here illustrate that contempt and fear admirably.

Nic the NZer said...

Most of the quotes are from the wikipaedia page as linked. I was just highlighting the parts which talk about the period. One is from Allan (which you probably saw).

Anonymous said...

Thing is Chris,
People have had multiple chances to vote for The Alliance and similar traditional left parties - but the vast majority of them chose not to.

Therefore, the (majority of) people don't want them.
How do you answer that?

There was a relatively brief period of very powerful unions and full employment from say 1940 - 1973. But then the world changed. Britain joined (what is now) the EU, and there were the oil shocks.

All of a sudden, there were no guaranteed markets for primary produce and no government surplus to fund farmers guaranteed prices, a huge and inefficient public service (Railways, anyone?), or union demands.

And of course MMP came along and opened up to scrutiny the previously monolithic parties, and split them up.

Increased access for nearly everyone to tertiary education (free or user pays) broke down the old class barriers. There are of course still rich and poor, probably even still classes. But you are no longer largely limited to a class by your accent, or what your father did. This means that people aspire to (and often succeed) in more than a 'respectable working class job'. This means they are much less interested in unions.

This coupled with increased immigration from Asia, and electronic communications, cheap air travel, that cosy little world has ended, generations ago.

And who, really would want to go back?

Fossil said...

The Wikipedia article quoted by Nic makes the point that Douglas’s thinking was inside Labour’s economic tradition until very late in the piece, when he came under Treasury influence. The Douglas claim that he had pushed for change of the kind introduced in 1984 as early as 1980 does not stack up on the documentary evidence, which suggests that it was vanity that later drove him to assert that he was always ahead of his time.

Douglas’s role in the currency crisis of 1984 is perhaps the most critical issue of his career. According to Lange, Douglas offered no explanation for his release of a document that suggested Labour would devalue by 20 per cent. It was a lapse that warranted dismissal but, again according to Lange, he could not afford to lose his financial spokesman so close to the election. At the same time it was mooted in business circles in Auckland that Douglas left business audiences in no doubt that devaluation would follow a Labour victory.

Douglas would doubtless argue that the speculators who caused the run on the currency that eventually led to devaluation (and much that followed it) were simply reading the signs correctly. His own role in the creation of the crisis remains to be examined.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Nic seems to be quoting Wikipedia. I usually google a sentence if I need to know where it's from. A sorta cheap turnitin :-).

Loz said...

Anonymous: "People have had multiple chances to vote for The Alliance and similar traditional left parties - but the vast majority of them chose not to. Therefore, the (majority of) people don't want them."

We could use the same logic to highlight that the free market ideas of ACT have been continually rejected by the electorate, "therefore" demonstrating that the people don't want them!

In the elections of 1984, 1987, 1990 and 1993 the voting public repeatedly voted for "left wing" policy platforms of universal health care and education and full employment but once those elections were over, pledges vaporised into a continuation of the same free market doctrine which produced a growing disillusionment with politics itself. The polls remain extremely clear in the overwhelming support for universal, state provided public services. The bigger problem is identifying a party that represents a “traditional” left wing platform as the label "left" is now strongly tied to the invigoration of identity politics, not a universal commitment to the egalitarianism that's always been valued strongly by the population.

Fossil: It was easy for speculators in 1984 to correctly “read the signs” when they had a memo from the incoming Minister of Finance!

Fern said...

I gave up on the Left on the day I saw Ken Douglas on TV and realised he'd had a makeover.

Davo Stevens said...

What happened could never have done so without the collusion of the CTU and Ken Douglas.

Whilst the turmoil was going on he rode off into the sunset with his saddlebags filled with gold.

Jigsaw said...

Chris-It's amazing that you seem to have terms for everything-neoliberalism -and of course it always has with it your definition of what that means. Reading much of what you write I am struck by how much you actually live in the past. History interests me greatly and of course we can learn lessons from it but you seem to be stuck there. To say that I am fearful of the past and have contempt for it is ludicrous and laughable frankly. For someone who is about 17 years younger than me you often seem at least that much older in your attitudes. Labour can't rebuild by emulating the past but by adapting to the future. Personal abuse and putting people in boxes is never a substitute for debate on the actual issues.

Nic the NZer said...

@Fossil, "The Wikipedia article quoted by Nic makes the point that Douglas’s thinking was inside Labour’s economic tradition", how on earth do you reach this conclusion?

"At the time of his appointment, Douglas had a reputation as a radical but his thinking on economic issues remained within the boundaries of Labour's Keynesian approach to economic management. By the end of 1983, his thinking had shifted markedly to the economic right."

"The 1984 budget was a radical departure from Labour’s established approach to economic management. Douglas answered criticism that the government’s intentions had not been made clear to the electorate by saying that he had spelled out his whole programme to the Policy Council, which, he said, had understood and endorsed his intentions. He maintained that the detail was not made available to the public because it did not have the capacity to absorb it in the short time available.

The budget owed almost nothing to Labour’s manifesto. Its content closely matched the Treasury view set out in Economic Management. Douglas’s identification with Treasury was complete by 1985. Treasury initiatives adopted by the government that were not signalled before the 1984 election included the introduction of a comprehensive tax on consumption (GST), the floating of the dollar (which Douglas opposed until 1984) and the corporatisation of the government’s trading activities, announced at the end of 1985.

Treasury’s view of economic policy was neo-classical and monetarist, and used commercial criteria as the basis for decision-making"

The wikipaedia article repeatedly contradicts the notion that "Douglas’s thinking was inside Labour’s economic tradition".

Guerilla Surgeon said...

That's funny jigsaw, I thought neoliberals lived in the past – the nineteenth century :-). Hence the neo part. Though of course you always put it forward as the wave of the future, it's just looking back to the old classical Liberal ideas of small government and very little social welfare and so on. Though being right wing and good at catchy phrases you guys tend to get away with it.

Fossil said...

Nic at 11.14 am: please read what I actually wrote.

Douglas will always be remembered as a neo-liberal but he did not start out like that. He had a successful career as a minister in the third Labour government. Around the time he was appointed Labour finance spokesman in early 1983, he was producing policy papers that advocated active government intervention in the economy and expressed strong aversion to the risks of unregulated markets. It was not until the end of 1983 (possibly as a result of his growing contact with Treasury officials) that his policy positions took on liberal colours. His conversion was remarkably rapid.

For his own reasons, Douglas preferred to obscure his interventionist origins, but they exist.

Jigsaw said...

GS- I think you should look at the way the left actually uses terms and takes charge of words. Claire Curran wrote a paper saying exactly that and it works-the left are masters at altering the way words are used and to their advantage as well. I don't think that you can look around the world and say that big government and huge welfare has been a successful system.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

See there you go, "big" government and "huge" welfare spending. Of course it works jigsaw. It worked in Scandinavia and to some extent still does. The reason some of them have retreated from it is for ideological reasons rather than any breakdown.

CarbonGuilty said...

You are right Jigsaw, the left is almost defined by its distortion of the past, as romantically purer, despoiled by capitalists, and the present as a plot against their return as saviours. It is pseudo: pseudo-religious. Chris for example thinks great left leaders are like Jesus and that Labour values are applied Christianity. Trouble is Jesus was a Rabbi who was talking only to his people and Christianity is stained with 'celebrate' priests. The left's Garden has worms in it.