Thursday 8 December 2011

Ripping-Up The Consensus

Re-focusing On The Right: The Confidence and Supply Agreement signed between Act and National signals the Right's intention to rip-up the "Labour-lite" consensus that guaranteed John Key's re-election. Neoliberalism With a Human Face is about to be replaced by Neoliberalism Without a Human Heart. The resulting political crisis could easily become the Left's opportunity.

WELL, NOW WE KNOW. For more than three years political commentators have speculated and quarrelled about National’s identity. Was John Key’s rise evidence of a return to the conservative pragmatism of the 1960s? Or, was this government’s relatively unadventurous first term merely the necessary hiatus between Helen Clark’s and Michael Cullen’s Neoliberalism With a Human Face and the renewed onset of Neoliberalism Without a Human Heart?

The confidence-and-supply agreement negotiated between National and Act provides us with an emphatic answer to that question. Confronted with a “coalition partner” incapable of garnering more than 20,000 votes nationwide, or winning a seat without assistance, Key’s National Party arrived at the negotiating table without obligation. Indeed, it was John Banks who was entirely obligated to John Key – without whose intervention the Act Party would’ve ceased to exist as a parliamentary player. Had they been of a mind to do so, National’s negotiators could have simply shoved a C&S agreement in front of Banks and told him to: “Say ‘Thank-you’ and sign here.”

That National’s negotiators walked out of the room with a C&S agreement mandating a Tax-Payers’ Bill of Rights (TABOR) and the establishment of Charter Schools owed nothing to Banks' skill as a wheeler-dealer, and everything to a sophisticated strategic understanding between Catherine Issacs, John Key and Stephen Joyce. The latter’s pragmatism dictates that Key should hold on to his moderate persona for as long as he can by attempting to blame Act for the National-led Government’s sharp turn to the Right. Issacs, meanwhile, will take advantage of the inevitable disintegration of the “Brash Bloc” to carve out a new niche for the Act Party.

The “Brash Bloc” was Joyce’s shrewd adaptation of Labour’s long-established “No Enemies to the Left” strategy. Between 2002 and 2008 National’s key objective was to re-absorb the voters of the Right into a single, massive bloc of conservative support, eliminating or hopelessly marginalising every other party bidding for right-wing votes. The ultimate goal was a genuine majority of the Party Votes cast and the re-birth of National as “the natural party of government”.

Well, it was a case of “close, but no cigar” – hence the decision to tear up the “Labour-lite” consensus of 2008-2011, break up the Brash Bloc, and allow Act to reconstruct itself as the ideologically-driven, vanguard party it should always have been (and which Catherine Issacs has been trying to build for the past seven years). The Brash Bloc was worth preserving while there was still some hope of expanding it with the remnants of New Zealand First. But Winston Peters' dogged refusal to accept his 2008 defeat, coupled with the remarkable tenacity of the NZ First Party itself, saw National’s high-tide crest where, in the sixty years since 1951, it has always crested – at just under 48 percent.

Some commentators have suggested that, faced with this situation, National should break to the Left and position itself as a potential coalition partner for the Green’s. To follow this strategy, however, National would have to concede a far larger share of the conservative vote to Act and NZ First, leaving it dangerously vulnerable to a strong leftward push from the Green’s. More worryingly, the notion that National was at the mercy of a radical, farmer-unfriendly, social-ecologist party could easily lead to the formation of a “heartland” country party based in rural and provincial New Zealand. The risk, then, would be the coming together of a conservative bloc large enough to contemplate governing without a by-now-limbless National rump.

Strategically-speaking, National has run out of “soft” options. Saddled with the proportional MMP electoral system, and having reached the outer limits of its voter support, it will be obliged to abandon its moderate persona and strike out boldly to the Right. With Act’s capacity to mask this rightward shift extremely limited, the public’s perception of National will likely undergo a sea-change, causing the polls to register a steadily rising level of support for the opposition parties.

The Government’s only real hope of re-election at this point will be to manufacture the sort of crisis that causes people to seek refuge under conservatism's umbrella. Some sort of cultural and/or environmental provocation seems the most likely: something to provoke Maori, the social-liberals and/or the environmentalists to actions which exceed the bounds of “mainstream” tolerance. If they were really clever, the Right’s strategists would be looking for something that could not only incite extra-parliamentary protest, but a sharpening of the ideological tensions within the opposition parties. Chaos on the streets and conflict in the ranks of the Government’s opponents might just be enough to snatch a tactical triumph from the jaws of strategic defeat.

The onus is thus placed upon the parties of the Centre and Left to anticipate National’s tactics and use the next few months to formulate a decisive break with the current economic and political orthodoxy. The emergence of a de facto progressive programme, based on the opposition parties’ firm and final rejection of the neoliberal project and their embrace of emerging policy options like the Universal Basic Income and the Financial Transactions Tax awaits only the political will to write it down. This emerging progressive coalition should also evince a willingness to think the unthinkable by openly discussing such taboo subjects as the restoration of universal union membership and the renationalisation of privatised industries.

If National’s only viable strategic option is the ripping-up of the economic and political consensus that won John Key his second term, then the Left would be foolish indeed not to take full advantage of the ideological space his radical change of direction is bound to open up. In the finest dialectical fashion, the Government’s dwindling strategic and tactical options are multiplying the Opposition’s opportunities for bold and original thinking.

The same circumstances which now constrain the Right can offer hope and freedom to the Left; providing only that it possesses both the wit and the courage to use them.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.


Gerrit said...

Why are compulsory unionism and renationalisation such "taboo" subjects.

All the left have to do is put the policy before the voters and win in 2014.

The compulsory unionism is an interesting one as it is not a given that the new union membership will want to belong to any off the current unions. There could be a hundred (if not hudreds)of new unions formed, neither affiiliated to the CTU or the Labour party, to undermine the current union movement.

And re-nationalisation needs to be funded. Where from?

Unless it is re-nationalised without compensation in which case the electorate may or may not be impressed.

Brendan McNeill said...

Fiscal responsibility and the restoration of (very) limited parental choice in education hardly equates to a rush rightward.

John Key's political instincts remain as sharp as ever, and I doubt the electorate would even notice one or two degrees rightward turn in navigation, even if he chose to make it.

Historically, National Governments are socialist in nature, the only difference being their belief that they can manage socialism better than Labour.

Once back in power, Labour, who are the only governing ideologists, move the progressive vision forward, and National safely manage it for them again until their inevitable return.

That is how the New Zealand political cycle works.

There is no need for handwringing on the part of the left, in fact the ideological debate was won 80 years ago and has been increasingly re-enforced ever since, with only minor periods of deviation.

It occurs to me that some smugness on the part of the left would be justifiable.

The only threat to this political 'understanding' between the two major parties will be the inevitable European Euro crisis / default. This will result in a cut in Government revenues, increased borrowing costs, and forced cuts in Government expenditure.

That may bring the people into the streets, just as we have seen in Greece, but it will ultimately be to no avail. Even Keynesians run out of other people's money sooner or later.

What will emerge from this period of relative hardship will ultimately depend upon our individual and collective character.

Hopefully we are up for the challenge.

Chris Trotter said...

How sad, Brendan. Up until now your comments have generally slotted into the conservative world view without difficulty.

But that "National Governments are socialist" line has exposed you in all your Tea Party splendour.

No one who knows anything about political philosophy, or NZ politics, need ever take you seriously again.

Tiger Mountain said...

Good points, a UBI would help bury welfare stigma for good. ‘Compulsory’ unionism would in effect first have to be mandatory extended ‘coverage’ of workers in multi employer sector agreements.

The newly unrestrained lip curl on John Key’s mug since the election and even prior to the announcement of the specials has indeed signalled that the gloves are off. All the non National groups and organisations need to have a lot more formal contact in and out of parliamentary politics.

Olwyn said...

I know that the Labour party is not the only, or even necessarily the main, possible player in a left wing consensus, but I find it odd that you think what you do and yet appear to favour the candidate for the Labour leadership who is equivocal about where he stands, over the candidate who has at least declared himself to be red rather than pale blue. Do you have some inside knowledge, or some way of reconciling positions that, prima facie, seem inconsistent?

Galeandra said...

'Some sort of cultural and/or environmental provocation seems the most likely: something to provoke Maori, the social-liberals and/or the environmentalists to actions which exceed the bounds of “mainstream” tolerance. If they were really clever, the Right’s strategists would be looking for something.......'

Surely the inevitable austerity which approaches will suffice? Today's news, for example, about DOC retrenchments follows close upon the heels of National's Denniston indifference. Key may simply gamble on aevel of mainstream inertia which understands that while times are tough it doesn't pay to rock the boat and 'environment' or'beneficiaries' or 'teacher unions' are expendable and have had it too good, anyway?

jh said...

Banks job is ensuring growth continues for the property sector by ensuring the pesky citizens don't get in the way. There is a disconnect between the reality on the ground (house prices, spacial congestion, infrastructure costs) and the rosy picture created by those economists who tell us that population growth is beneficial. The left believes every new arrival (except white people) is an asset and that migrants (somehow) don't affect the supply and demand for labour. The Property Council membership requires more and more people to come here (Ponzi Scheme) or they have to moth ball their businesses.

On the other hand I may be the nutter.

Brendan McNeill said...


I accept my political memory does not extend back much beyond the early 1970's and I suppose it does depend how you define 'socialism', however most commentators would have considered Muldoon to be socialist in his policy settings and direction, and we have grown the size of the State considerably since then under all Governments including this present one.

We have seen the number of people being supported in welfare by those in work grow from one in twenty seven, in the early '70's to one in seven today, excluding those on superannuation.

John Key has been quoted as saying that 'all New Zealanders have a socialist streak' and I have no doubt that has been a deciding factor in his not rolling back a single one of Labour's excesses, including middle class welfare, during his first term in office.

In short, there has been a consistent growth in Government agencies and services since the 70's and a similar growth in welfare dependency, and a similar growth in Government expenditure as a percentage of GDP in the economy.

This trend has continued unabated under both Labour and National Governments during this period to the current day.

Therefore, we are more 'socialist' today than we were in the 1970's by any measure, excluding perhaps the State ownership of assets, although that would need checking.

I'd like to think that National Governments would reverse the trend and shrink the role and size of the State, but potential asset sales to one side, history shows they don't, and that was the point of my earlier post.

They are simply housekeepers for Labour, and while they may feed the occasional piece of meat to their supporters to remind them why they voted for them, history demonstrates that they are big Government statists, just like Labour.

Anonymous said...

The universal basic income idea, and the financial transaction tax proposal have been around for a long time, and the Labour Party has never shown any interest in them.

I sometimes wonder why Muldoon was called a socialist, especially by people who lived through that era. The use of the State for conservative purposes is not that unusual, and was a key part of Thatcherism. Brendan's obsession with the size of the State belies the fact that it is relative to the economy. It would be nice if the right wingers focussed on the role of economic performance, and the failure of the capitalists, rather than just on government spending.

Brendan McNeill said...

@The Sentinel

Aside from dividends from State assets, the Government has no money of its own. It's all generated by means of taxation.

Therefore, the larger the state, the higher the tax take is required to fund those services.

Spending money by means of the State is the least efficient means by which money can be spent in our economy. It is people spending 'other peoples money on someone else'. It's fraught with poor decision making, and the bottom line is those spending the money get paid each week regardless of the outcomes.

On the other hand, you make prudent decisions about spending your own money, as do businesses.

Therefore, the best way to grow an economy is to leave as much money in the hands of prudent decision makers whose future is determined by the quality of those spending decisions as possible.

That's why the size of the State is important. The larger it grows, the worse off we all are, regardless of who benefits from the State's largess.

The State has legitimate functions to perform that need to be funded - no dispute there. However a State sector the that continues to grow as a percentage of GDP impoverishes everyone, yourself included.

Does that make it an obsession? Well, it depends how important you consider everyones impoverishment to be.

Chris Trotter said...

Oh, for God's sake, Brendan, grow up!

States are inevitable, unless you fancy your chances in a small band of hunter-gatherers. They seize the resources required to make themselves effective - usually from those who have placed themselves under their protection - and rightly so.

The bigger the state, the bigger the citizen's obligation to contribute to its maintenance. If you really want to return to the days when the state collected the means for making war, and not much else, then say so - and see how many supporters you attract.

Learn some history you ignoramus!

Brendan McNeill said...


I enjoy your blog because it's a contest of ideas, and you are kind enough to publish those ideas that fall outside of your own political ideology.

I'm happy to wear the badge of 'ignoramus' when the ideas I presented around the inefficiency of State expenditure, compared to private expenditure are demonstrably refuted, but short of that it's simply name calling.

I don't recall advocating for a return to a hunter gather society either, but such charactertures are a useful device when seeking to discredit someones contribution, without debating the ideas they have raised.

I think I'll just head back to my cave for a while and lick my wounds. Hopefully the wife has cooked the wild boar I captured last evening.

Chris Trotter said...

Forgive my short temper, Brendan, but the posting to which I was replying made a number of theoretical claims about the nature of the state which demonstrated a glaring absence of understanding about the history and development of the state throughout human history.

It is a common failing of right-wing individuals that they abstract their theoretical constructs from anything resembling an historical context. They have to do this, of course, otherwise their ideas become vulnerable to instant demolition by straightforward references to historical experience.

The more history people know, the less likely they are to make unequivocal claims about the nature of human institutions.

Anonymous said...

If I could make another comment based on the initial piece, and with the benefit of just watching The Nation, on the charter schools. Having seen the guy from the Mainfreight school get his variety of company endorsement in, haven't we gone far enough down the path of private sector involvement already? It seems that there are all sorts of models already being tried, so this one seems to be a poke at the the teacher unions; and it is rather annoying to have a justification of schools failing in South Auckland etc. Remember when Key was asked in a debate what he was going to do about poverty, and he effectively said nothing, other than existing policies to help employers.

Maybe Muldoon was a socialist, in that he believed that unemployment was avoidable, and at least tried to intervene to help some communities find employment. Ask an older Black Power member, or was it the Mongrel Mob at his funeral, one or the other.

ChrisH said...

Chris - do you think any of this stuff on charter schools and TABOR was the "game changer" that the HOS decided we didn't need to know about? As for the chaos issue, I do worry about a sort of 'Ulster Unionist' strategy emerging in which a 2/3 majority is more or less permanently captured by a dog-whistle racist demagoguery that endlessly bashes a brown underclass, i.e. the other 1/3, long-term. That would work for the right, I think we have about three years to head it off.

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Chris

Said Brendan briefly poking his head out of his cave....

"how about some recent history. I note the EQC is paying ascessors $75.00 per hour. They were selected based upon their communications skills, not building industry knowledge."

Oh and they also get another $24k per annum in allowances. That's over $200k per annum for possessing " communication skills".

Where in the private sector are comparable jobs paid anything like $200k per annum?

This is just one example of many.

I'm not oblivious to the common good as expressed through the state, but I contend that its nature is excess and financial ill discipline. It has to therefore be kept on a strict diet.

Anonymous said...

Chris, great post as always. Just watch "Greens" doesn't require an apostrophe.