Let Anger Be Your Guide: The fatal error of NZ First - this country's pre-eminent populist party - was to forget the most basic rule of populist politics: get behind the rage. It is popular anger that leads populist parties to political success. Which is why it is so important to always allow the enraged and the embittered to clear the path to victory.
IT’S EASY TO POKE FUN at NZ First. There’s something irredeemably amateur about the party; something rough-hewn and unrefined; that offends the professional sensibilities of New Zealand’s rather snooty political class. Except for Winston, of course, whose indisputable political skills, being more-or-less on constant public display, cannot be so easily dismissed. That said, it is not unknown for people to detect, in the air around Mr Peters’ trademark coiffure, the unmistakeable whiff of snake-oil.
That the political class (professional politicians, journalists, broadcasters, public relations specialists, pollsters, parliamentary staffers, columnists and commentators of every hue, plus those occasional academic specialists brave enough to raise their heads above the parapets of the universities’ ivory towers) take such offence at NZ First is, however, very reassuring.
Any political party so unashamedly driven by populist impulses as NZ First should be very afraid of the caressing fingers of official approbation. Just as everyone’s favourite teenage rebel, the Fonz, would cringe to hear himself praised by the local high-school principal, Winston Peters flinches away from excessive media acclaim. Populism takes aim at the high and mighty: the big man who crushes the little guy; the “effete snobs” who sneer at ordinary people’s tastes; the politically correct mavens who condemn their prejudices. No populist leader wants to win praise from the targets of his marksmanship!
Except for Winston, of course! NZ First's decision to "opt for National" in 1996 nearly destroyed the party and its leader. (Image by Frank Macskasy)
Except for Winston, of course. Or, at least, that younger Winston who, after keeping the New Zealand public waiting for nine interminable weeks in 1996, came within an inch of destroying both himself and his party by throwing in his lot with the National Party. (The very same National Party that he and his populist comrades had spent the previous three years attacking.) His supporters could not have been more surprised or disgusted. It was as if Robin Hood, having brought the Sheriff of Nottingham to his knees, proudly announced to his cheering followers that he was accepting Prince John’s invitation to become their local tax-collector.
Mr Peters near-fatal error in 1996 was to forget the most basic rule of populist politics: get behind the rage. It is popular anger that leads populist parties to political success. Which is why it is so important to always allow the enraged and the embittered to clear the path to victory. The moment the populist finds such folk blocking his way (NZ First’s practically instantaneous fate in 1996) then he knows his party’s on the wrong track. The successful populist politician’s response will always echo that of Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, one of the leaders of the February Revolution of 1848 in France: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”
To carry off this leading-by-following trick, the populist politician requires both a vigilant eye and an unusually sensitive ear. In present-day New Zealand, for example, only a blind, deaf and extremely dumb populist would assume that to stay behind the rage he has only to hurl abuse at John Key’s government. All he would demonstrate by such tactics is how thoroughly he has missed the fact that John Key is, himself, an extremely accomplished populist leader. What’s more, John Key, unlike Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, has no need to go running after the crowds. Thanks to his pollster, David Farrar, and focus-group supremo, Mark Textor, the Prime Minister knows exactly where the people are going. That’s why he’s so often to be found parked there, waiting for them to arrive.
Which is not to say that the electorate is without rage, merely that, unlike the unfortunate Judith Collins in 2014, John Key has yet to become its target. If popular rage is to find any focus at all in 2015 it is likely to be the fact that, when it comes to the big issues of affordable housing, rising inequality, child poverty and environmental degradation, the political class is offering New Zealanders so little in the way of believable solutions.
It is precisely in exploiting this rising level of popular frustration with the political “professionals” and economic “experts” that the much-derided ordinariness and amateurism of NZ First could come into its own. John Key’s government, unlike the government of that other great National Party populist, Rob Muldoon, finds it difficult to deliver very much to the “ordinary bloke”. Mr Key’s Cabinet’s slavish adherence to neoliberal ideology has meant that economic and social policies that could have really assisted the “average Kiwi” are consistently ruled out of contention. It is in National’s self-denial that NZ First may find its opportunity to grow the rage.
Promises of big changes, based on the common-sense solutions of ordinary, rough-hewn and unrefined New Zealanders, could very easily become the new currency of electoral success. Economic radicalism, fuelled by popular rage, but restrained by the average Kiwi’s social conservatism, is something NZ First could very easily get behind.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 27 January 2015.