Monday 17 November 2008

Circulated Out of Power

I'M finding it really difficult to adjust to the reality of being on the losing side of the recent electoral battle.

The Wellington political scientist, Jon Johanson, talks approvingly about "the peaceful circulation of elites" (and I'm certainly not decrying this aspect of our democratic system) but it is definitely a lot less enjoyable being part of an elite that has just been "circulated out" of power, than it is being part of one that's just been "circulated in". For the past nine years, no matter how insufferable right-wing politicians and commentators became, the Left could always cheer itself up by mentally repeating Michael Cullen's immortal quip: "We won, you lost - eat that!"

Well, they've won, we've lost, and now we're just going to have to get used to the taste of it.

Some will say, like good little democrats, that "the people are always right", and that, since we lost their confidence, we must have been doing something wrong.

To which I say: "Well of course we did things wrong! We're human-beings!"

What did we do wrong? Quite a lot. We got horribly disconnected from our base. We became arrogant and intolerant towards those who didn't sign-up to our point of view right away. We were too timid - too unwilling to upset a few apple-carts. But, most importantly, we were far too sanguine about the readiness of the news media to go on reporting politics in a fair and balanced fashion after we'd forced the Electoral Finance Act down the New Zealand electorate's collective throat.

In short, Labour forgot it was the representative of the people who, in order to get their fair share of what this country has to offer, are obliged to take it from those who have a great deal more than their fair share, and who acquired it at the expense of others and the natural environment.

Redistribution is, ultimately, a zero-sum game. And if our side is winning, it is only because in real, or relative, terms the other side is losing. And they don't like to lose - especially not for three elections in a row.

We'd been in power so long that we thought we had an entitlement to it: that, somehow, it belonged to us by right. We'd forgotten what it was like to be on the outside looking in, always unable to effect the changes we believed were so important.

Labour liked to think of itself as a government of "competent managers", and was supremely confident that "the people" would remember all the things it had done for them, and that, with hard economic times coming, the voters would show little enthusiasm for changing horses in mid-stream.

But, in making all these self-serving assumptions, we on the Left were forgetting that the people are not necessarily the rational beings we believe them to be.

Oh, to be sure, over most human beings you will indeed find a veneer of rationality, but it is periously thin. Scratch the surface of the average citizen and you'll uncover a seething cauldron of drives and passions, hatreds and resentments. Unleash the atavism of the masses, and you can reduce the most competent of governments to a smoking ruin in just three years.

When you're out of power you know this.

When you've been in power for nine years - you forget.


Anonymous said...

Pretty much on the money. I see myself as being a left-winger, yet voted something other than Labour for the first time in 32 years.

Frankly, the moment a government, any government, starts to act like it was born to rule, it's time to give them their comeuppance.

Despite what you can read on all the crowing right-wingnut blogs, I believe this was a vote AGAINST Labour rather than a vote FOR National - and I definitely don't think ACT has any kind of popular mandate.

Anonymous said...

Maybe if the left had reminded the voters exactly what they had done for them instead of trying to demonize John Key things might have panned out differently
Doubt it myself as it was "time for a change" and that is hard to resist

Keep up the good work Chris, like the blog's name!!

Anonymous said...

Chris, I suggest you organize a support group and once a week someone could bring the cheese for the whine. Seriously you lefties need to suck it up.

Anonymous said...

You are doing it again.

Sunday week ago's bile about the ignorance of the electorate and now "people are not necessarily the rational human beings we believe them to be".

Keep it up and I predict at three terms in the political wilderness for the left. If not more now that John Key has done the deal with the Maori Party.

Anonymous said...

Chris, I think you have it half right. Even the most raving leftie should recognise that a every government has a few blind spots, and that some time in the wilderness can get those seen to. Howard in Australia was voted out despite a famously strong economy and happy citizens - largely due to some missteps, a perception of being out of touch, and overreaching in areas he didn't need to over reach in. Similarly Helen.

Of course, I also take issue with your world view. Your suggestion that "representative of the people who, in order to get their fair share of what this country has to offer, are obliged to take it from those who have a great deal more than their fair share, and who acquired it at the expense of others and the natural environment." is to me incomplete.

You once again completely fail to see that some of those who are wealthier get that way through hard work. And that if someone feels that they have less than their "fair share" that they could get more by that same route - hard work. You seem stuck with the perennial view of the left that there is somehow a fixed amount of wealth, and that if someone has more wealth than another person, they must have gotten it unfairly.

Sure, there are some people who get their wealth that way. In fact, Winston Peters seemed to be protecting some of them. But if you live your life worrying about the few, instead of getting on and doing what you can, then you'll end up a rather sad and envious individual.

Anonymous said...

Welcome back Trotter (ummm resonates with an antique TV programme). Now I'm showing my age. Just added you to the blogroll.


Anonymous said...

Sad times, particularly from a workers point of view. It annoys me to see certain individiduals trying to pin this current mess on the outgoing Labour government, when any reasonable person knows that overseas events are the true reason. This incoming National government should successfully serve as a reminder of the past in the next 3 years. A wake up call to many I believe.
Always enjoy your posts Chris.

Anonymous said...

Nice to see you blogging again, Chris. Although there would be very few places where we would be in agreement, your posts are always worth reading. Welcome back.

Anonymous said...

What anonymous @ 7pm says. Note that many Labour voters seem to have skipped the election, rather than voting National. It will be instructive to look at the final voting figures to see how much of the rise in National/ACT's vote was due to increased numbers of voters opting for them, or National/ACT's proportion increasing due to Labour voters staying at home and reducing the total vote from what it otherwise would have been.

Recall that in "landslide" 1975, the biggest gains were made by the Values Party, the real story being the drop in Labour's vote. If this happened again to any extent, it augurs better for Labour than a wholesale switching between parties. In 1978 Labour out-polled National.

Anonymous said...

"But, in making all these self-serving assumptions, we on the Left were forgetting that the people are not necessarily the rational beings we believe them to be."

Depends on your definition of "rational" Chris. As I have argued elsewhere (my blog), NZ voters banked the gains from Labour and then looked to see if they could improve on the deal. National promised to leave those gains more or less intact, and through in more attractive tax cuts. It may have been naive to believe that, but it was arguably as "rational" as not.

A Blogger said...

Labour lost because like the Republican party of the USA, they ran a hate and fear campaign.

They ran on the BS that "Labour supporters are the real kiwis, the real New Zealanders"

People are sick and tried of politicians using emotion in trying to get votes. They want stats and hard data and science, something Labour always lacks.

Carol said...

Welcome back, Chris. I am pleased to see you blogging again, and to see your policy on keeping the tight wing vitriol out of this blog. I has amazed me to see the continuing punitive stream of anger in response to your last post on the old blog. I ewelcome a left wing blog of substance.

I was sad to see National form a government. I hope it performs a balancing act and stays near the centre, rather than being dragged to the right by ACT. I hope local government isn't privatised, the country doesn't go backwards on climate policies, and the less well off do not suffer unequally in the coming recession.

On the upside, I do think it could be good for Labour to spend some time in opposition, to get back to some of their core values, and, as you indicate, reconnect with some of their base.

One of the things that would have been a problem for Labour, if still in government, would be their relationship with the Maori Party, and many left wing Maori. One of the biggest criticisms I had of Labour, was the passing of The Foreshore and Seabed Act. I think the MP deal with National will have some benefits for Maori, but, ironically, it could also provide a useful space for Labour to rework its relationship with Maori, and especially, Maori on lower socio-economic levels.

I'll be interested to watch how things develop over the next 3 years, as there are various possible scenarios. The left blogosphere will need blogs of substance that provide a space for debate on the way forward in difficult times.

Anonymous said...

Here's my take on what the centre-left got wrong - the five big things imo didn't relate (with the partial exception of the Electoral Finance Act) to policy at all:

Taito Phillip Field

Allegations of misconduct against Field had been simmering since just before the 2005 election. Instead of implementing a proper investigation with the teeth to interview witnesses under oath, Clark implemented an Claytons inquiry that was widely perceived as a whitewash designed to clear Field. Then despite further very serious allegations, Field was retained in the Labour Caucus right through to February 2007, creating a perception of tolerance of impropriety and possible corruption.

The pledge card

Labour’s handling of the pledge card and the Auditor-General’s report was appalling. The should have simply admitted “we got it wrong, and we’ll pay the money back” (as the Greens did). Instead, they allowed the pledge card affair to drag on interminably, and were subjected to daily allegations in Parliament of corruption. They hadn’t actually done anthing that most other political parties had done, but their reluctance to own up to their mistake and put it right undermined public confidence in them as a Government.

David Benson-Pope

Much like Taito Phillip Field actually, although the allegations were not so serious. The perception was created, through Clark’s continued tolerance of Benson-Pope through the “tennis balls affair” in which he had quite clearly been economical with the truth. He was finally dispatched in July 2007 after allegations of him lying to Parliament over matters relating to the appointment of a Communications Manager in the Ministry for the Environment. Clark said at the time, “The way in which certain issues have been handled this week has led to a loss of credibility and on that basis I have accepted Mr Benson-Pope’s offer to stand aside”. Pity for her that she didn’t realise he had lost credibility much earlier.

The Electoral Finance Act

This was handled by Labour in the most appalling way. The original Bill was so poorly drafted that Justice Minister Mark Burton deserved the sack for allowing a Bill that was such a shambles to come before Parliament. He was later quietly stood down, but by that time the damage had been done. Labour railroaded the Bill through Parliament, refusing to consider very pertinent submissions from organisations such as the Human Rights Commission or suggestions from the Green Party who were left with a “take it or leave it” option. This allowed the right to create the perception of the Electoral Finance Bill, and consequently of Labour, being undemocratic - a task which the NZ Herald took up with great gusto.

Winston Peters

Need I say more. Clark stood by Peters as allegation after allegation of impropriety and, in the last few weeks, even corruption emerged against Peters. In her first and second terms he would have been promptly dispatched, at least temporarily, for allegations of far less substance, but her continued tolerance of him as a Minister allowed her and her government to be tarred with the same brush as Peters.

Anonymous said...

Looks like the right wingers are still a little scared...perhaps its because they know that the left were not skinned alive.......3 years and we will be back!

But at least we will be entertained over the next three years....especially now we have elected the NZ version of George W...a small degree of style and absolutely no bloody brains!

Anonymous said...

Bits of all the above, but I'd go with third-termitis and the perception of arrogant detachment as Number uno. Hard to counter that one when you run a campaign that really does nothing but reinforce your perceived nastiness.
Words that resonated were "haters and wreckers", "last cab off the rank" and cancerous and corrosive", these were, I am sure ,running through voter's minds as they made their decision. As a former Labour Party member - now a National convert, I can say that I would need considerably more civility and less sarcasm shown in the newer Parliamentary recruits before I would ever consider changing back. That means no Mallard, Cullen, Clark,King or Hodgson.The aforementioned, along with their sacked or expelled mates, are simply too tainted with a history of verbal slurs, hypocrisy and in two cases physical contretemps.

Add to the above the resounding public sentiment that said we were sick of Winston's lies and Helen's support of him, and it really was over and out

Anonymous said...

Chris - "In short, Labour forgot it was the representative of the people" sums it up really.
Labour and the Greens paid the price for not listening to us. They pushed several policies that the majority simply thought were wrong.
I think the election result was virtually sealed with the repeal of s59. The irony is that those most likely to beat their children are not likely to be National or ACT voters. They are most likely to be those caught in the circle of domestic violence.
The odiousness of Sue Bradford telling us we are to be criminals for smacking our children was simply too much to stomach. None of us who opposed the bill did so because we enjoy physically disciplining/correcting/whatever our kids, it's because we resent the intrusion into our own management of our own household based on the flimsiest of premises. We have laws against murder yet still it happens. Ditto drink driving.
We simply didn't believe this is the answer.
It's ironic that Key assisted in getting this bill passed and yet felt little of the backlash. But he took a more reasonable approach by saying 'Look we don't want to make criminals out of decent parents so let's make some concession for that'. And that's what we wanted. A rewording of s59 to define more acceptable limits to parental discipline would have been more palatable, but pandering to Bradford I believe ultimately cost the left the election.

Having said that, I believe NZ largely voted for a government more on the centre, and I believe that is positive change for all of us. Perhaps we could see a newer 'New New Zealand' where we don't have to be on different sides and where a government doesn't have to be impoverishing one side in order to make the other side happy.

Anonymous said...

good to see you back online Chris.

Steve Withers said...

Redistribution isn't a zero-sum game. Redistributed money appears to have a multiplier effect that sees wealth created and the money supply expand. The wealthiest period in human history kicked off when income tax started.

As for the previous government's links to the people, they were (in my view) mostly severed by a hostile print media (Fairfax and APN, in particular) allied to the Opposition. The major newspapers more or less blocked or diminished any good news. For example, good news about the lowest dole numbers in 30 years sank without trace - uncovered. Much was made of Winston Peters money issues while almost nothing was made of John Key's clear conflict of interest in relation to share he held in companies he was seeking information about in his role as an MP. Both examples were dodgy and Key clearly tried to lie about it on TV, but the way the media handled the two issues was like night and day - yet both had integrity at their heart.

As for the average citizen, as in the US, people got upset by non-issues like the anti-smacking bill. They were successfully played for suckers on that issue, being ignorant of both the old law and the new and making no effort to learn the truth about either.....or what the actual purpose of the new law is. John Key knows. He says the new law is working well. But that wasn't the message National and the media fed to lazy, uncurious Kiwis who number 86% at last count.

People who voted for National or ACT to punish Labour may have effectively cut off their own noses to spite Labour's face.

Noses all over the floor.

We'll see in a few years time how they feel about that.

Maybe John Key really is a moderate and will keep the religionists - be it market or deities - in line.

Anonymous said...

If you look at the total assault on all fronts in the last 3 years, Labour should very pleased they got the share of the vote they did. National, with the help of a largely compliant media just kept beating the same drums again and again, even though much of the assault was BS e.g.
S59 and the EFA changes

Anonymous said...

Tim, your assertions re s59 don't stand up to scrutiny - see my reply to Bethany to my post on

Above all, every National Party MP voted for the final draft of s59 - if the electorate were so passionate about the right of parents to hit kids then surely they would have considered National as traitors to their cause and rebelled against them (and voted Kiwi, Family or ACT).

In vast numbers, they did not.

Anonymous said...

Great to see you back Chris. We desperately need analyses such as yours from the left point of view. I agree with much of what you say about this election. Tonight I have been reading the article "Brand Key" over at The Standard. Manufacturing consent has hit cunning new heights it seems.

Anonymous said...

"Its desperate rearguard battles against an enemy the public could not see (and were never shown) increasingly came to resemble the crazed flailing-about of a government well beyond its use-by date."

This is a quote from one of your recent atricles Chris. Can you please tell us all what this "enemy the public could not see" is? Because we hear about this sort of thing a lot from people such as yourself and Winston Peters, but we never get any details, which leads me to believe that it does not exist.

Steve Withers said...

NickC: You're being disingenuous?

Anonymous said...

Truthseeker- I am totally in agreement with you. The hostile media did put an end to this Labour government. You can spin the election anyway you like, but in the end it was the media (NZ Herald the worst offender) who decided Labour was going to go and set about getting rid of them. How could National lose when the major media were campaigning for them? So much for democracy and fairness.

Prior to the election it made me angry to hear so many (ignorant) people around me saying that Helen Clark had ruined New Zealand and had done nothing good in 9 years. These people were just repeating what they were being told by both the msm and the right wing noise machine that permeated everything.

The "right wing noise machine" bothers me greatly. Almost every comment left on political stories on the msm websites is anti-Labour. From the letters to the editor in the local paper, to jamming the debate polls on television- the right have organised themselves so efficiently that their point of view is the only one heard.

In my opinion, unless the left organises itself to make plenty of noise and beat the right at their own game, we will be unlikely to win the next election.

Anonymous said...

toad, you will note that I said Key assisted in getting the bill passed yet felt little of the backlash. I agree with your comment regarding Key's appearance as a successful broker of a compromise.
I would posit the theory that after the amended bill was successfully passed then a number of parents would now be relucatant to admit to smacking their children, and this would affect the accuracy of research as a consequence.
If one was to now be asked if they smack their children, a response in the affirmative is a confession to being a criminal.

Anonymous said...

If Winston Peters had not antagonised the media, they wouldn't have been vindictive. Helen let him get away with this and his dirty money games. She failed the country and her party in not dealing with him, and now they're gone.

If anything, Fairfax is ridiculously leftist - look at what the SST cranks out week after week.