Tuesday 29 November 2011

Rout & Ruin

"When the hurlyburly's done,/ When the battle's lost and won.": Having come within a whisker of winning 50 percent of the popular vote, National's position on the Right has grown even more hegemonic. But what of the Left? What can we expect to see emerge from the rout and ruin in 2011?

“ROUT AND RUIN” was my bleak reply to the e-mail from Glasgow. A friend had asked “How bad is it?” What else could I say? Labour’s 2011 Party Vote was an eye-watering 165,000 votes shy of 2008’s. At 27.1 percent, the Party’s share of the popular vote was only marginally greater than the 24.2 percent it attracted in 1919 – the very first general election it contested.

The crucial difference, of course, was that in 1919 Labour was the new kid on the political block. Barely three years old, it was bursting with enthusiasm and eager to replace the ailing Liberal Party as the principal opponent of Bill Massey’s Reform Party government.

Fast-forward 92 years and it is Labour that is ailing. New Zealand’s oldest political party is being challenged on all fronts by younger, more vibrant organisations – most particularly the Greens. With close to 11 percent of the Party Vote, the latter’s level of support is now approaching half that of Labour’s, an ominous statistic for the party which used to be able to count on attracting seven votes for every one that went to the Greens.

Labour’s dramatic debut on the hustings in 1919 ushered in a decade and a half of extraordinary political turbulence that only ended with the Labour Party victory of 1935 and the creation of the National Party the following year. The 2011 general election result suggests that New Zealand may be about to re-enter the sort of agitated political air it last encountered in the 1990s.

The difference, this time, is that the turmoil within the party system is not being driven by the sound of ideologies clashing (or crashing) as they were (and did) in the days of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. This time it is the absence of strong ideological themes in our domestic politics that is generating the instability – especially on the centre-left.

What does Labour really stand for in 2011? It most certainly does not stand for the socialist aims and objectives proclaimed by Harry Holland’s Labour Party in 1919. Indeed, two of the most important policies promoted by Phil Goff’s Labour Party in 2011: the introduction of a Capital Gains Tax; and lifting the age of eligibility for superannuation from 65 to 67; could just as easily have emerged from a moderate conservative party.

Moderation has also been the watchword among Green Party strategists in 2011. Gone are the apocalyptic, doom-saying Green Party MPs of yesteryear, and in their place we find the coolly rational Dr Russel Norman, laconically peddling non-threatening economic solutions in a pale green suit. Dr Norman openly proclaims his party’s intention of taking Green politics “mainstream”: moving out beyond the gentrified streets of the inner-cities to the sprawling suburbs of “Middle New Zealand” where modern elections are won and lost.

There was a time when Labour was extremely competitive in these leafy suburbs. But the Greens’ emergence into double figures, Party Vote-wise, suggests that the well-educated, environmentally-conscious, middle-class New Zealander with a social conscience – the demographic that has provided Labour with its winning electoral edge for the best part of three decades – may, finally, have completed its migration from red to green.

But a Labour Party reduced to what are now its core demographics of Pakeha superannuitants, low-paid Pasifika and Maori, and beneficiaries of all colours and creeds, offers a very poor match for the politics and policies of moderation. The diminishing parliamentary assortment of middle-class professionals, civil servants and trade union officials that sits atop Labour’s demographic rump look less-and-less like the people it purports to represent. So much so, now, that the notion of the brown, the poor and the elderly one day deciding to cut out these middle-men and women, and represent themselves, is acquiring an aura of inevitability. Hone Harawira and his Mana Party will be hoping so.

But Mana has a lot of growing to do before it can hope to compete with the party that re-emerged from the electoral shadows with a pundit-smiting 6.8 percent of the Party Vote: NZ First.

Winston Peters’ success hinges upon his instinctive grasp of the issue that will increasingly come to dominate the politics of the next decade: the issue of economic sovereignty. How to foster not only the domestic control and utilisation of the nation’s resources, but also the cultural and political confidence required for their successful defence.

In this respect, as a party identified with economic sovereignty and national identity, NZ First may prove to be the opposition party with the greatest potential for growth. Because the New Zealand electorate has given Winston Peters and his new caucus that rarest and most precious of gifts: the opportunity to learn from past mistakes, and lay claim again to the gratitude of posterity.

Proof, indeed, that “rout and ruin” can be overcome.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 29 November 2011.


Robert Winter said...

Somewhere else I wrote about "the conservative, nationalist, slightly xenophobic people who worry about who owns our assets and how will pensions be provided and what should our immigration policy be and how should treaty settlements be handled, and Mr Peters has a rapport with a swathe of such people."

Mr Peters does have an instinctive grasp of that world and his resurgence proves the point (with a little help from Mr Key). Ms Clark knew this too - hence the "National Identity" strand to her thinking. It is implicit in the Greens protection of the environment fundamental, too.

It does cross my mind every now and then, that, when the world is turning upside down, the comfort blanket of Nationalism, Protectionism and, to some extent, Isolationism, looks beguiing.

Anonymous said...

I don't know that many Pakeha superannuitants support Labour either. The ones that I know, all living basically on the pension, were voting NZ First. The Gold Card should be personally autographed by Winston. Shame there is no gold card for beneficiaries, and there was no direct support offered by Labour, it was also masked as tax tinkering. Relying on the support of polynesian manual workers in South Auckland, and then promising to raise the retirement age to 67 was an obvious strategic error.

Labour seemed to be cast within the very narrow confines of the fiscal manager, as if they could just resume where they left off as ministers three years ago. Instead of being bogged down arguing about Treasury's numbers and pointless forecasts and projections, they needed to grasp the big picture. In truth both Cunliffe and Parker were outperformed as Opposition finance spokesmen by Russell Norman. Given some of the dodgy financial practices exposed by Norman, it is difficult to see why Cunliffe or Parker is the answer to the leadership question, and issues of policy substance.

Victor said...

Robert Winter

I have some sympathy with your post.

In the last week of the campaign, it struck me that, although Labour had hit a nerve with its campaign on asset sales, this might not have been a matter that resonated hugely with the poorest and most vulnerable in the community.

The folks who were (rightly)concerned over this issue could just as easily vote Green or NZ First. Many,clearly, did just that, whilst others sat on their doubts and loyally opted for 'Brand Key'.

Instead of spending the last few days of his admirably energetic campaign on asset site photo-ops, Phil Goff may have been better advised to campaign in South and West Auckland on issues such as the minimum wage, GST and the prospect of benefit cuts.

I also agree that Winston Peter's reemergence is a matter of significance, however much this grates on a section of the Commentariat.

If Peters can discipline/channel his proclivity for political brawling and avoid dog whistles to the xenophobic extremes, he may yet provide New Zealand with a moderate, quasi-Keynesian vehicle for patriotic conservatism, that fills one of the aching gaps on our current spectrum.

At the very least, he'll give Key an exhausting run for his money and provide great entertainment value.

Meanwhile, who or what is to fill the gap on the Centre Left?

Does Labour have a promising future as the champion of the dispossessed and only of the dispossessed? I think not.

Can it woo back its supporters amongst the hard-pressed working poor, particularly in the Pasifika communities? Not, I think, if it insists on offending their conservative, Christian values?

Can it prise 'urban liberal' support back from the Greens through new leadership, adventurous re-branding and a revitalised organisation? I'm not sure. The 'Mantle of Heaven' may already have passed.

Can Labour regain the support of 'Waitakare Man'? I suspect that Winston will beat it to it.

And so we have a fractured left, much as both New Zealand and the UK endured, during the long decades when Labour was emerging from the broad shadow of Liberalism.

In both countries, these were decades of Tory dominance and (in the UK at least) social and economic atrophy. Are we destined to repeat this experience?

Sanctuary said...

"...Are we destined to repeat this experience..?"

No, because in a FPP country like the UK a fractured opposition allows one party of plurality to rule, whereas under MMP the smaller parties can form a coalition.

Anonymous said...

A good and interesting column, Chris (and I say that as one of those "nasty right-wingers"... ;) )
I actually very strongly *support* raising the age of eligibility of super to 67. However, that one policy was nowhere near enough to convince me to vote Labour.
The bottom line for me, in one sentence?
Labour has yet to convince me that they can be fiscally responsible.

The default policy for almost everything that Labour looks at is to throw money at it.
Throw money at everything that moves.
That is not good. Not responsible.

This was highlighted best by their *abysmal* promise to extend WFF to beneficiaries.
I have to say, Chris, that *that* single policy would have been a deal-breaker for hundreds of thousands of voters. They would not have even looked at anything else that Labour offered.

I will offer this little bit of advice to Labour, and this is genuine advice.

Make sure that every policy, every promise that you make, passes the "fiscal responsibility sniff test".

Even if you only do that (and nothing else), that will be a big improvement on your current policies.

Anonymous said...

@The Sentinel: "The Gold Card should be personally autographed by Winston."
No need. Winston is in my wallet. Every time I hop on the bus and get a free ride to the shops and back, I am reminded of Winston. It is worth a fortune to him but only costs the taxpayer about $7 a week in my case.

paul scott said...

Of course you will know by now Chris, that
between Labour, NZ First, Greens, Mana, and Maori
the asset sales need not occur.
We all know where Maoridom stands,
they do not want the chiefs to take all the money,
NZ First Chris,

barry said...

Labour have lots of challenges - or opportunities as some may call them.
I think they are rendered apart by factions - the unions, the gays, the feminists (and some of them are nasty bits of work) and what I would call the traditionalists.
They have a hard job in front of them......
and it will be made impossibly hard if they are silly enough to elect Cunliffe to lead them.

Boss Hogg said...

Chris, I must say that I laughed long and hard when you were talking with Kerre on Sunday and you relayed the comment from Winston to you when his response to your question was "Its SHOW Time" A good belly laugh indeed.

Thanks for the entertainment.

Anonymous said...

I don’t think Labour ran that bad of a campaign. That there is a disconnect between Labour and the electorate is a consequence of the fact that in all western societies there is (and has been for a long time – and it is now acute) a disconnect between the electorate and reality. People still live in hope that the economic and climate crises will just go away without them having to change their lifestyles, and too many parties are content to make faith based promises to that end. The devil will of course arrive at the appointed time to collect. If nothing else, it will be fun to watch the air let out of the middle class.

MPledger said...

In America the congress and the president end up being from opposite parties - it's just the American people's way of putting restraint on parties having free rein.

With the evolution of the super city in Auckland and the talk about how powerful the Auckland Mayor is, it's possible that Aucklanders voted right to keep in check the left leaning Mayor nad that this will be a continual see-sawing event.

But, wot a laugh if Banksie becomes Local Government Minister. I feel sorry for the Auckland Mayor in that case but it should keep Banksie happily diverted.

uke said...

"People still live in hope that the economic and climate crises will just go away without them having to change their lifestyles, and too many parties are content to make faith based promises to that end. The devil will of course arrive at the appointed time to collect. If nothing else, it will be fun to watch the air let out of the middle class."

Sadly, though, the poor & working class will always bear the brunt of the devil's work long before the middle class. It's already happening. Over the period of recent crisis, the richest in society increased their wealth substantially. For the poor, it was austerity and the return of some 19thC diseases.

The poor are always the first to be impacted in any crisis, because their "insurance" is essentially the goodwill of the rest of society. (In days gone by, local working-class communities provided a strong back-up, too.) If this election has shown one thing, it is that the middle class look after their own interests first and have increasingly less goodwill toward the pooerst members of their own society.

Victor said...


Yes MMP does make a difference.

Even so, I can't, off hand, think of a single country with MMP or a similar form of PR, in which centre-left governments have thrived without one of the parties of the centre-left being clearly dominant vis-a-vis the other.

Moreover, what is Labour if it is not a 'Broad Church'?

All of its niche constituencies can be just as easily represented by some other party. And some of these parties are not necessarily of the Left.

Olwyn said...

"If this election has shown one thing, it is that the middle class look after their own interests first and have increasingly less goodwill toward the poorest members of their own society."

There is surely a case for the idea that a unified society is better able to withstand crises than a society in which one group closes ranks against the rest. Instead of attempting to appeal to some imaginary centre in the wake of the election defeat, the left would do better to look at ways by which a deeper sense of social unity can be forged.

Anonymous said...

"Sadly, though, the poor & working class will always bear the brunt of the devil's work long before the middle class."

There will not be a middle class; at least not in the way that we think of it.

Look at who is striking in Britain today. Teachers, lecturers, council officials, etc. They are striking because the Conservative government has decided to make them pay for the antics of the wealthy.

The current attempt to wither the state is going to catch an awful lot of university educated people in it, since they tend to make up a higher proportion of the public sector.

You can't really attack the poor without catching these people in the crossfire.

Brendan McNeill said...

@ Olwyn

I agree with you. The days of class warfare are over. We face a greater threat to our future and the future of our grandchildren than a fractured 'me first' society can provide.

I'm not instinctively a labour supporter, but I am inclined to support the 'under dog' who is prepared to work, save, invest and live for the next generation.

Can we as New Zealanders find a collective understanding that transcends political ideology and genuinely looks to preserve that which transcends the pre-eminence of the individual and considers family and community above personal interest?

If we can, count me in. It may look conservative, it may look economically responsible, but I'm there totally.

Cynic said...

In this election Labour tried to define itself in terms of how it was different from National. It didn't work. It left Labour trying to sell itself using a bizarre mixture of policies of little consistency or appeal to the electorate.

And National hasn't exactly been running amok. Indeed the majority obviously feel that they haven't been doing a bad job all things considered. That has made them a small target so that targetting them has been unrewarding and difficult. Labour might be better directing its guns at targets that are a lot easier to hit.

Winston makes an excellent target. Try explaining to all those voters who deserted Labour for "Winston First" why voting for Winston is a really really bad idea. Almost too easy!

And target the Greens too. The Greens get away with advocating all sorts of rubbish policies because nobody subjects them to much scrutiny. Yes they are caring idealists with hearts in the right places, but you can't run a country based on fantasies and wishful thinking. You have to live in the real world. Half the time the Greens clearly don't.

At some point the country will be looking for an alternative to National. What Labour needs to do is make sure that when that day comes the country understands why Labour is a much better alternative than the rest.

Olwyn said...

@ Brendan: I do not for one minute think that unity can be based on the idea that those who presently suffer privation & chronic insecurity should put up and shut up. In fact you will not have unity where some prosper while others lack (1) A living wage, and (2) Security of dwelling.

With the economic hollowing out of this country, the arena of the class war has moved from bosses versus workers to haves versus have-nots, with those who are desperate to gain secure footing on the "have" side hating and fearing the "have-nots." The fight between bosses and workers involves some common ground - it is in both of their interests for the enterprise to continue. The fight between haves and have-nots does not, and quickly reduces humans to the status of swamp birds. You often go on about dole bludgers - on the other side of that coin are those who see resource acquisition as a more reliable way of staying middle-class than job-generating enterprise.

Any attempt at finding a basis for unity would have have to involve a real attempt to reverse the hollowing out of the economy. Something which is highly unlikely under the present government.

Anonymous said...

Following on from Olwyn, one of the reasons for middle class discontent is the fact that there are many people getting otherwise respectable qualifications, and not being able to find any work, let alone a career. The student loans situation in the USA is dire, since they have no protection there. Even with our interest free version, as it stands at the moment, most of the people graduating from tertiary education will not find work in the related field, if there is one, especially for Arts and Humanities graduates. The polytechs also have many course that are becoming irrelevant, at least to employers. If educational success is not the path to a career, what are the middle class children meant to do?

Loz said...

Labour's "broad church" was based upon representing common interests of working New Zealanders when it was more fashionable for the left to promote unity instead of difference. I don't believe there are many characteristics that can unite a large cross section of New Zealanders apart from nationalism, class (as in all those who have to work for a living) or possibly the attempted unity of the 99% aka the Occupy movement.

Even with Labour shedding its leadership it will be difficult to align itself to representing either the national or the economic class interests of those being squeezed. The party will still be associated for its part in constructing the free trade / free market environment that National is continuing.

Attempts to portray governments of Lange and Clark as being in the same tradition of Kirk and Savage only highlighted the crippling political schizophrenia Labour suffers from and it accentuates a credibility problem for the party within the electorate.

Brendan McNeill said...


Hmmm... I don't recall ever "going on about dole bludgers", however I take your point about the divide being between those who are able to earn a sustainable living, and those who for a variety of reasons are not.

Over the last 30 years we have seen low tech manufacturing all but disappear from our economy, along with call centers, and other forms of enterprise that can be outsourced to low wage economies.

The message here is simple. If all you have is basic literacy and a pair of hands, as apparently is the case for one million of our workforce, then not only will your job opportunities be disappearing, but those that remain will be very low paid.

That trend has implications for tax revenues, and our ability as a county to fund the public services we historically have taken for granted.

It is also creating an 'expectation' gap. What unskilled workers once earned compared to their skilled neighbors is no longer achievable.

Second, as a previous commentator has observed, there is a growing group of unemployed in our Nation, that no business can ever employ because of drug / alcohol problems, illiteracy, and / or anti-social behavior.

Previous Governments have simply 'thrown money' at the problem, but from what I'm sensing, 'the problem' is not satisfied anymore.

Combine this with the dissatisfaction of the unskilled and low paid worker, and I suspect we will have political change sooner than later.

It remains to be seen if any Government can reverse these trends to the satisfaction of the majority of tax payers.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Funny how it's only class war when the workers fight back. It's been class war since 1987 and the rich are winning.

Anonymous said...

I estimate that if you include groups in rental vans Chinese are the largest group employed as tour drivers in the NZ tourist industry. This is one of Labours legacies.

Anonymous said...

Once I was a Labour voter. When the Greens emerged I began to vote for them, unless there were pressing tactical reasons to vote for the Labour candidate in my current location. This was fundamentally because although the Greens were not always right, they got the key environmental issues which were crucial to sustaining a viable Planet Earth.

Labour failed to co-opt the Greens or indeed deal with them as a political movement, or engage with the ideas they represented. This was a major strategic failure.

Whereas Labour could once count on the support of the Pasifika more or less en bloc, those days are gone. The churchgoing element of Islander life may mean that they are not going with homosexual liberation and the rainbow thing.

Maybe the Winston problem will solve itself. Assuming it is still the Winston party and has no legs without the man himself, there must come a day when he get sick and dies, or decides he is too old for politics. There is still no obvious heir with the Winston factor, that certain charisma spurious though it is. Or is there there someone amongst the new raggle taggle bunch? Anyone picked out the new Winston among them?

The real problem for Labour; what does it actually stand for? There is no 3rd way. Neo-liberal leftists? Does not compute. A gaggle of gays and Blairites ain't gonna make it.

Anonymous said...

and as the lady at the mobil station says in Scenic Town: "and it'll all go back to China.."

elsewhere a bloke laments to another that 'pon retirement you could afford to go and live anywhere...." another legacy of labour...:

"foreigners don't take it with them!" H Clark.