ACCORDING TO PEOPLE “in the know”, Labour is awash with more cash than its seen in a very long time. Apparently, Jacinda Ardern’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis didn’t just net her party an unprecedented number of votes, it brought in tons of funds. While this happy situation endures, Labour is said to be polling and focus-grouping like there’s no tomorrow. The PM doesn’t just have her finger on the pulse of the nation, she’s reading its ECGs.
This insight – if that is what it is – goes a long way towards explaining what a great many journalists and commentators have found immensely perplexing. Why, with an absolute majority in the House of Representatives, is this government so reluctant to use it for anything other than legislatively facilitating Maori wards, and (apparently) making it easier to convict men accused of rape? Why, with inequality increasing, and the housing crisis becoming more acute with every passing week, have Jacinda and her Cabinet stubbornly refused to direct anything more substantial than pious rhetoric at either issue?
Towards the end of last year, for example, the government found itself on the receiving end of a growing cacophony of calls for action on the housing front. Those calls came from across the political spectrum. On TVNZ One’s Q+A show, Laila Harré on the left, and Fran O’Sullivan on the right, were united in their demand for action. The push came from employers, unions, churches and NGOs. National and Act swelled the chorus. It was as near to a show of public political unanimity as New Zealand had seen in decades.
Twenty years ago, the political pressure generated by such a powerful display of public concern would have been irresistible. Indeed, liberal-democratic theory holds that no government can resist such pressure without registering a significant fall-off in popular support. Was Jacinda moved? Was Grant Robertson? Not one bit. The rhetoric of Labour leaders’ may have edged up slightly on the piety scale. Jacinda’s look of concern may have grown even more compelling. But, nothing was done.
What on earth had happened to the “politics of kindness”? Why was Labour being so bloody-minded – not to mention so bloody mean? Why, when everybody was saying “Yes please!”, was the Labour Government saying “No thank you!”
The answer, of course, is because “everybody” wasn’t saying it. Thanks to their polling agency and the participants in its focus-groups, the Labour leadership possesses a great deal more information about the Kiwis clamouring for action on the housing front than most journalists and lobbyists.
Confronted with a simple “Are you concerned about the lack of affordable housing?”, most New Zealanders will respond in the affirmative. But, ask them whether they favour addressing the housing problem by means of a Capital Gains Tax, and their agreement will evaporate instantly, like spilt beer on the barbie.
Allow a randomly selected group of focus-group participants to range widely over the big issues of the day, and the comments and expressions captured by the organisers’ microphones and cameras will reveal just how divided our society has become. Between rich Kiwis and poor Kiwis; Boomers and Millennials; people of colour and the white majority: the chances are high these recordings will confirm that, in the New Zealand of 2021, unanimity is in very short supply.
Just how dispiriting this must be for Labour’s new MPs is readily imagined. Fresh from mixing with family and friends over the Christmas break they will roll up to their first big caucus meeting of the year brim-full of the opinions and criticisms they have been given. How hard it must be for them to discover that what they have been told in no way reflects what is actually happening out there in the electorate.
Among the sort of folk who know and like Labour MPs, the level of concern for the homeless, renters, and first home buyers, is unquestionably real and urgent. The same is probably true of the mostly young journalists writing and broadcasting about these issues. They, however, are not the only people with concerns; attitudes; and (most importantly) interests. What Labour’s new MPs think they know; and the knowledge which Labour’s pollsters have gleaned from the hard data of their surveys; are unlikely to be all that similar.
The New Zealand middle-class, like its counterparts in other western societies, will defend its advantages tenaciously. Sitting back and allowing the government to appropriate and redistribute its wealth – especially among those it dismisses as the “undeserving poor” – is not an option it is likely to greet with the slightest degree of enthusiasm.
Just how unenthusiastically such notions are received soon becomes very clear to those tasked with watching and listening to the reactions of focus-groups. These can be hair-raisingly racist and sexist – more than enough to demoralise even the most idealistic supporters of the Labour and Green parties. That such brutal prejudices against the poor and marginalised are often reiterated with even greater vehemence by upwardly-mobile members of the working-class, makes them no easier to hear!
Their vested interests and shared prejudices notwithstanding, these two groups nevertheless contributed enormously to Labour’s electoral success in 2020. Keeping them on-side is, therefore, this government’s No. 1 political priority. It explains the PM’s point-blank refusal to countenance anything other than a general flattening of New Zealand property prices. Certainly, no policy measure threatening to weaken the “wealth effect” produced by inflated house prices will be countenanced. The good-will of the fortunate 15 percent of voters who shifted from National to Labour at last year’s general election must, at all costs, be retained.
Less clear, is whether Labour’s willingness to embrace the “woke” agenda represents a similar reflection of the data emerging from its opinion surveys and focus-groups. In return for the government leaving their wealth intact, have the middle- and upwardly-mobile working-classes suddenly become willing to tolerate the Labour-Green agenda on race, gender and sexuality? Are we looking at yet another of the Faustian pacts entered into by the Baby Boom generation? Something along the lines of: “You let us enjoy our tax-free capital gains, and we’ll tolerate your cultural revolution.”
Or, is it, rather, a case of not asking the sort of questions that could lead to the cancellation of a pollster’s contract. Requiring progressive MPs earning in excess of $140,000 p.a. to accept a moratorium on tax hikes is one thing. Asking them to tolerate the racism, sexism and homophobia of the voters who placed them on the Treasury benches is another.
There are some answers a political party is better off not hearing.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 18 February 2021.