Saturday 5 September 2009

Take Your Partners

Come Dancing: Labour entered its Third Term Electoral Ball on the arm of the poor, and then proceeded to dance with every other girl in the room. It didn't get invited to a fourth.

"DANCE with the one you came with." That’s what I told Helen Clark (via Radio New Zealand) the morning after the 2005 election. Labour had been saved by the votes of the poor: state house tenants, beneficiaries, low-paid workers of every colour and creed – but most particularly Pasifika and Maori New Zealanders living in South Auckland.

Helen Clark arrived at the Third Term Ball with the poor on her arm. It was their needs and their values that her government was, strategically speaking, bound to serve for the next three years. If Labour neglected the partner whose ticket had got them into their third electoral ball, it would not be attending a fourth.

But, as everybody knows, Labour couldn’t dump its date fast enough. No sooner was it safely through the door than the party was back among the same old crowd: free-traders, welfare incentivists, tax-cutters and anti-smackers.

The swingeing benefit cuts imposed by Ruth Richardson’s "Mother of All Budgets" remained in place – along with the desperate child poverty they’d institutionalised. Manufacturing industry, and the jobs it created, continued to be driven off-shore. The already parlous condition of the State’s housing stock was allowed to fall into headline-grabbing squalor. And then, to add one last, deeply resented, cultural insult to all these class injuries, Labour decided to back Sue Bradford’s "anti-smacking" bill.

Not only had Labour failed to dance with the girl it came with, the Party had forced her to sit and watch while it danced with every other girl in the room.

Three years later the Poor got their own back. Not by teaming up with someone new, but by refusing to buy Labour a ticket. In 2008, the impoverished voters from the other side of town – the social democrats’ perennial and shamelessly neglected date – simply stayed at home. It was the crucial abstention of these tens of thousands of disillusioned and angry New Zealanders that sealed Labour’s fate, and made possible a new government.

So, on whose ticket did John Key gain entry to the dance-hall? What sort of partner did the National Party bring to its first First Term Ball in eighteen years?

If we look at the election data for the 2005 general election, we find that National had rallied practically the whole of the traditional right-wing vote to its side. With one or two lonely exceptions, the provincial towns and cities voted solidly for National. Outside of the provinces, however, National’s pickings were slim. It’s 21 seat gain over the disaster of 2002 came largely at the expense of other right-wing parties. To win in 2008, National had to break Labour’s grip on the mixed metropolitan suburbs.

The voter escorting National to its First Term Ball turned out to be the sort of bloke who spends Saturday afternoon knocking-back a few beers on the deck he’d built himself, and Saturday evening watching footy with his mates on the massive flat-screen plasma-TV he’s still paying-off.

His missus works part-time to help out with the mortgage, and to keep their school-age offspring in cell-phones and computer games.

National’s partner – let’s call him Waitakere Man – has a trade certificate that earns him much more than most university degrees. He’s nothing but contempt for "smart-arse intellectual bastards spouting politically-correct bullshit".

What he owns, he’s earned – and means to keep.

"The best thing we could do for this country, apart from ditching that bitch in Wellington and making John Key prime-minister," he’d inform his drinking-buddies in the lead-up to the 2008 election "would be to police the liberals – and liberate the police."

Waitakere Man values highly those parts of the welfare state that he and his family use – like the public education and health systems – but has no time at all for "welfare bludgers".

"Get those lazy buggers off the benefit", he’s constantly telling his wife, "and the government would be able to give us a really decent tax-cut."

On racial issues he’s conflicted. Some of his best friends really are Maori – and he usually agrees with the things John Tamihere says on Radio Live. So long as the conversation stays on sport, property prices and fishing, he doesn’t really notice the colour of a bloke’s skin. It’s only when the discussion veers towards politics, and his Maori mates start teasing him about taking back the country, treaty settlement by treaty settlement, that his jaw tightens and he subsides into sullen silence. Though he didn’t say so openly at the time, he’d been thrilled by Don Brash’s Orewa Speech, and reckoned the Nats’ "Iwi-Kiwi" billboards were "bloody brilliant!"

Winning over Waitakere Man turned out to be a great "twofer" deal for the Right. To its immense satisfaction, the highly-skilled, upwardly-mobile working-class blokes who began trooping into National’s camp following the 2005 election were bringing their wives with them.

The "gender gap", which had for so long worked in Helen Clark’s favour, was closing. Where Brash’s unflinching neoliberal austerity had turned women off, Key’s boyish charm and his "aspirational", "Labour-lite" polices were turning them on.

National was getting two (or more) votes for the price of one. Sometimes Waitakere Man brought with him the votes of his mother, daughters, sisters, aunts and nieces as well. How had Clark forfeited the trust of Waitakere Woman?

Between 1999 and 2005 working-class women took pride in Clark’s political success, and responded positively to the introduction of Paid Parental Leave and Working for Families. They’d admired her decision to stay out of Iraq, and had, by-and-large, been relieved when she spurned the Greens for Peter Dunne.

What broke their connection with Clark was the anti-smacking legislation. They felt affronted – as if their parenting skills had been weighed in the balance of the Prime Minister’s conscience and found wanting. Clark, who had no children, was telling them how to raise their kids. She seemed to be passing judgement on their whole family – turning them into criminals. They felt betrayed.

Waitakere Woman’s sense of betrayal, combined with the ingrained misogyny and cultural diffidence of Waitakere Man, was what got National onto the dance floor in 2008. Key should read both Rodney Hide’s intransigence on Maori representation, and the recent Referendum’s unequivocal result, as timely reminders of the price of his party’s admission.

When the band begins to play, Waitakere Man and Waitakere Woman must not be left standing.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 3 September 2009.


Jonathan said...

Thanks for the excellent read Chris. I hate to think what 'Manurewa Man' would think of Clark's successor - what has he ever done to earn his or his whanau's vote? Sign a free trade deal with communist China? That's his only achievment I can think of and something tells me it's not exactly very high up on the priority list for your average Labour voter.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Aaaaah Mr Trotter. You are the master of the parable.

I've been having a bit of a dust up with the shouters of the right over at Farrar's Troll Farm. (Hell, I'm a life long National/Liberal voter)Most of these chaps appear to be the self styled intelligentsia for whom your Waitakere Man shows disdain. They are spitting chips because they haven't got their way over the smacking referendum. Short sighted dolts, all of them.

I think you are right in your summing up. It's just a matter of timing and I reckon John Key and his mates are keeping the smacking law up their sleeves to knock over Mallard as he attempts to lead Labour back from oblivion.

Maori seats an issue? Naaaah. That's just a smoke screen. Only the university activists want them. Real Maori, like me, will get our representation by earning it, thank you very much. Maori have already, in nine months, made more gains with National than they made with nine years of Labour.

Clark destroyed the Labour Party when she buggered off to talk to a sheep.

Graeme Edgeler said...

It was hardly central to you point, and wasn't even quite what you were saying, but the idea that Labour won the 2005 election on the back of a strong get out the vote campaign in South Auckland is one of the persistent myths of New Zealand politics (up there with the myth that we were always going to have a second referendum on MMP).

It really doesn't bear analysis.

Anonymous said...

Wow, it took you 1052 words to describe Pauline Hanson's One Nation. Funnily enough, John Howard built a successful political career by usurping Hanson's producerist and racist message. And funnily enough, Crosby/Textor - who seem to have a close relationship with National - were his PR gurus of choice. If I were the NZ Labour Party, I would hope someone was talking the ALP on how to defeat the wedge politics of Crosby/Textor.

Unknown said...

Producerist? Yes, god forbid that those who actually PRODUCE something get rewarded by society.

Lindsey said...

Amazing how something which gave your child the same rights as your dog was spun into something so different from the reality.
I was on a Jury once where a sadistic child beater tried to use S59 as a defense and I am pleased it was repealed.

Olwyn said...

From what I remember, analysis done by the unions at the time does support the claim that a big South Auckland vote played a large part in Labour's 2005 win.

Harking back to earlier posts, the big problem facing the left lies in the fact that poverty and insecurity are entrenched in NZ society, and few want to know about it - neither Waitakere man nor his quasi-urbane opponent. Labour's efforts in getting everyone employed certainly helped, but were countered to some extent by the housing boom, which gave rise to a new bunch of lay-landlords, happily pocketing the rental supplement recycled through low-paid hands and into their bank accounts. In fact housing unaffordablity may have played a larger part in Labour's defeat than the smacking bill.

It is as if most the country has accepted that some percentage or other of abject poverty is inevitable, and will only begin to matter if people start starving to death in the street. Our standard response is to place an increasing list of constraints on the already desperate, whenever we are shown up by a UN or OECD report.

Anonymous said...

Chris, liked it.

The last advocate of the Manurewa man is Ross Robertson, who has been sidelined. There is now no party for the working class.

Labour used to win by allying Manurewa man with Epsom man. But Helen also lost Epsom man. This chap (and chapette) used to think liberal meant voting left and had a sense of noblesse oblige. Epsom man gave his party vote to Labour and his electorate vote to a person who looked after the Grammar zone. Epsom man generally liked the social properties and Clarke's "third way" -- and Epsom man has friends in the UK who voted for Blair and for Clinton.

However, the increased funding that was promised led to more muppets being employed in Wellington. This led to more paper work. Epsom man would rather be generating billable hours -- and Epsom woman would rather be doctoring, teaching or nursing -- than filling in the increasingly baroque paperwork the muppets demanded.

And Epsom man was annoyed that Grammer had to have a zone, breaking 140 years of tradition. Epsom man found that -- and he is generally an expert in his field -- the advice he gave -- and he was asked -- by the last labour gov't was ignored by the 20 something polstudies graduate Helen had just employed.

The result is that the left do not have many Epsom men left in their ranks. They have lost all the Manurewa men -- and modern unions are run by professional advocates not men on the shop floor and women on the ward.

Old Labour may rise again, but the third way is beyond resurrection

Anonymous said...

At the end of the day, NZ is the victim of a cross between a deliberate hoax and voluntary self-delusion.

Emperor John has no clothes, but the populace can't stop cheering their wonderful colour, cut and texture.

I don't think Smacking Bill angst is going to have too huge an effect upon this coalition of the wishful thinking. When we really start paying the price for neo-liberal Peter Pan economics, we'll be told it's all Labour's fault!


Graeme Edgeler said...

Lindsey - I suspect you are misinformed about the protections animals have under the law.

Olwyn - Labour got a lot of votes in south Auckland, and without them would have been toast. But that's not the same thing.

Turnout rose in south Auckland in 2005 (where "south Auckland" = the electorates of Mangere, Manukau East, and Manurewa), but the 2005 election was close – so turnout was up everywhere.

Across New Zealand, it was up 3.94 points on the 2002 election. Across the general electorates only, it was up 3.51 points. In Mangere, turnout was up 2 points, in Manukau East, it was 2.24 and in Manurewa it was 2.64.

And it wasn't a large increase in enrolled voters, either. The population of New Zealand having increased, numbers of enrolled voters were just up. Admittedly, south Auckland electorates were up by more than the average, but Auckland was growing faster than the average (Auckland picked up an extra electorate in the recent post-census re-districting). And the south Auckland electorates weren't growing at a vastly different rate from, say, Auckland Central.

The three south Auckland electorates had the lowest turnout across all general electorates in both 2002 and 2005, with very low growth in turnout as well.

Anonymous said...

"And Epsom man was annoyed that Grammer had to have a zone, breaking 140 years of tradition. Epsom man found that -- and he is generally an expert in his field -- the advice he gave -- and he was asked -- by the last labour gov't was ignored by the 20 something polstudies graduate Helen had just employed."

And rightly so. The average Epsom man is a tiresome blowhard who thinks that having an LLB qualifies him to pontificate to the rest of the country on a wide variety of topics. He's basically Waitakere man with a snootier accent and a greater sense of entitlement.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Mr Trotter, you could not have wished for more reliable corroboration of your thesis than this piece of waffly junk from the DomPost. Says it all really.

It should have been headed "Love, Labour's Lost!" (Did you like that? You can have it. That's a joke, by the way. Remember Wayne and Shuster?))

Anonymous said...

Epsom man, Waitakere man, Manurewa man...

Perhaps political parties need to treat their voters as citizens, and not target markets.


Workingman said...


You say 'tried to use S59 as a defense'. So did the defense work, or did the jury reject that defense and say guilty of what ever the actual offence was?

Anonymous said...

Ah Trotter, with the typical sneering contempt for decent New Zealand we've come to expect from the Left-wing beneficiary class.

Labour were trounced in the last election because decent, law-abiding Kiwis were tired of being disenfranchised, tired of the creeping socialism and totalitarian aspirations of Pol Clark.

It was the ultimate protest vote. New Zealanders raised their voices and shouted a collective No! to the anti-Kiwi hate policies of the Clark regime.

Olwyn said...

Clearly you were not disenfranchised Anonymous, since you voted. And what exactly are these "anti-kiwi hate policies" to which you refer? I'd also like to know what qualifies a person as a "decent Kiwi" - it does not appear to include concern for the less fortunate by your account.

Rodders said...

It has been announced that Nigel Latta will assist in the review of the Child Discipline Law. Christine Rankin is a member of the Families Commission. Why not complete the trifecta by creating a New Zealand Senate to which a horse could be appointed.

Anonymous said...

A moderation of support for Labour by the poor and a substantial shift to National by middle-income women probably explains the outcome of the last election in fairly accurate terms. And I think you are right to point to the anti-smacking legsilation as a significant factor underlying these changes. But I think the more significant factor was the attractiveness of Key and our ambivalence towards Clark. As the NZ Herald unscientific poll of greatest living New Zealander demonstrated, we respect Clark enormously. But I don't think kiwis ever really liked or warmed to her. This wasn't so much of a problem when she faced leaders of the National Party no-one particularly warmed to such as Jenny Shipley, Bill English and Don Brash. But up against Key, someone who is just possibly a genuinely nice guy, albeit a fairly uncomplicated one and one not overly troubled by ideas, and carrying the baggage of 9 years in office, our respect for Clark wasn't enough to make us stick wih her. Instead we flocked to the unthreatening nice guy who seemed to have had a very succssful life and career before entering politics. And the stratospheric support for Key and National evidenced in the polls this year suggests that kiwis are still backing this nice guy. In my view, Key has something of the Ronald Reagan about him; he's not much of a thinker (which in NZ is a positive) but when we look at him we see what we would like to see in ourselves - successful, easy going, uncomplicated and broadly decent. Key is going to be very difficult to beat in the short-term. But in the long term the very things that make him so popular now will ultimately found a judgement about 'wasted years', 'years of drift', 'absence of vision' etc etc.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the previous poster. In many countries, someone with Key's chronic inability to articulate cogently would be considered ineligible for any form of public office. Similarly, Clark's inherent cogency would have been seen as an asset. But not, apparently, here! However, it might eventually become apparent even to New Zealanders that the Emperor has no clothes.


Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Interesting that small minded commenters here write off one of the greatest 'thinkers' in America's 20th century. Probably because he didn't use big words.

Just goes to show why you are stuffed. You can't tell the difference between a dead hedgehog and a hind quarter of texel lamb.

Anonymous said...

Adolf, I think you may have been referring to my post when I referred to Ronald Reagan (and John Key) as not great thinkers.

I don't think even the most partisan of Republicans (nor National Party big wigs) would seriosuly argue that Reagan (Key) was (is) a deep or profound thinker. But this is not my point. Reagan had, and continues to have, a profound impact on politics and culture in the USA and beyond and I don't think Key will have the same type of impact in this country. Rather, the point of similarity between the two is their ability to offer themselves to the electorate as a screen or mirror upon which the electorate can project an image of themselves as they would like to see themselves, rather than as they actually are.

In Key's case,I think he probably is a decent likeable guy. He's moderate and pragmatic (think Jim Bolger and Keith Holyoake) and probably the first Prime Minister we have had in my lifetime who doesn't have an obvious major personality flaw. He speaks like the majority of kiwis, poor grammar and all (remember his election nigh accpetance speech?), he's modest and doesn't mind acting the goat in a loud shirt dancing like a dork either with drag queens or visiting our Pacific neighbours. He's been terribly successful overseas (ie he's proved himself on the world stage) and returned home and thrown himself into public service. And he is proving as popular as all get out.

Labour will not prevail over a Key-led National government in the short-term (at least a couple of terms and probably three). It will take time for mistakes to accrue, policy problems to gestate and for the political cycle to turn. The only glimmer of hope for Labour is that some of the manifestly inadequate members of his cabinet - think here of Kate Wilkinson, Anne Tolley, Paula Bennett and Nick Smith as a start - will, when put under pressure and pressed on the detail and implementation of policy, be shown as not up to their jobs and this will take the gloss off the government as a whole. But it will take time and an awful lot of hard work for shadow Ministers to best their opposite numbers as they have only their intelligence and diligence against the resources of government. But the good thing for the country is that Key is sufficiently pragmatic (remember his compromise solution over the anti-smacking legsilation) that he might well steal any good ideas generated by the opposition. The temptation for Labour is to give in to impatience, try out a few different leaders, and refuse to develop policies of its own for fear Key might steal them. I think Labour needs to put the country and its constituencies ahead of self-interest, try to influence policy in important areas, and wait out Key and for the electoral cycle to turn and/or for the hard heads in the National Party to push Key aside. As one of New Zealand's premier philosophers once famously said: "It might not happen overnight, but it will happen!"