Red Tory: NZ First has always won more support by tacking to the Left than it has from backing the Right. Sensible conservatives, like sensible social democrats, understand the need to keep Capitalism on a tight leash. That makes Winston Peters' natural ally Labour - not John Key's National Party.
NEW ZEALAND FIRST has some serious thinking to do. As the National Party’s electoral support continues to erode (to 43 percent in the latest Roy Morgan poll) Winston Peters’ political options become decisive. Only NZ First is positioned to pivot between Labour and National in 2014. The Greens’ abhorrence of National’s second-term policies has shackled them to the Left in ways which Labour is beginning to find unnerving. No less than John Key, David Shearer must be calculating the price of securing NZ First’s support in two years’ time.
But, if Mr Peters is guided by experience, the choice between Labour and National will be simple. Mr Key’s second-term government is an unashamedly neoliberal affair and a very uncomfortable fit with NZ First’s nationalistic populism. To win mass support, NZ First must tack to the left – not the right.
That a turn to the Left is the best choice he could make may not be immediately apparent to a classical conservative like Mr Peters. The National Party was where he won his political spurs and, like a young man’s first love, will always enjoy a special place in his heart. But, as Mr Peters is fond of pointing out, the National Party of John Key is not the party of Sir Keith Holyoake or Sir Robert Muldoon.
They were what social historian, Dr Chris Harris, calls “Red Tories”: conservative politicians who fear the social division and disintegration which unfettered capitalism inevitably produces.
Because working-class men and women have scant reason to support an economic system that lashes them for being poor, the Red Tory believes it’s in capitalism’s long-term interests to guarantee every citizen a reasonable standard of comfort. Like Mr Peters himself, they subscribe to the “One Nation” conservatism of the nineteenth century British statesman, Benjamin Disraeli, striving to bring all classes together in the tight embrace of an all-inclusive nationalism.
But, if Mr Peters is serious about putting capitalism on a leash, he must acknowledge the primacy of politics over economics. Yet that is something his potential allies in Mr Key’s National Party will never tolerate. The Prime Minister and his colleagues are all free-market men: “Blue Tories” who put economics first, and whose unwavering belief in an unfettered capitalism leaves no room at all for the Red Tories’ heavy-handed regulation and protectionism. Any coalition agreement which made provision for such economic heresies would, like the National-NZ First coalition agreement of 1996, be broken almost as soon as it was signed.
Labour offers NZ First much better prospects.
Reading the speeches of Davids Shearer, Parker and Cunliffe; it is clear that Labour still favours a “New Zealand Incorporated” approach to economic management. Equally clearly, however, they’re unwilling to admit that such a policy would also necessitate putting politics ahead of economics. As a concept, NZ Inc. presupposes that it is possible for all the factors of production to be brought together for the purposes of generating a healthy national dividend – payable to every citizen. That this would involve some form of economic planning, and some sort of mechanism for ensuring everybody stuck to the plan, smacks too much of socialism for today’s Labour politicians’ comfort.
They’d prefer New Zealand’s capitalists to simply fall-in with Labour’s plans voluntarily, because they represent sound economic sense. Since this is about as likely as Paula Bennett authorising a Christmas Bonus for solo mums, Labour’s “Blue Socialists” and NZ First’s Red Tories should be encouraged to embrace the primacy of politics together.
Mr Peters and his colleagues will have to lead the way, because only by demonstrating the Red Tory populists’ power to mobilise the non-vote will Labour be persuaded to step out of its “No, no, we’re responsible economic managers” comfort zone and take the fight to the Blue Tory defenders of free-market economic orthodoxy.
The beauty of a Labour-NZ First coalition for those capitalists capable of taking the long view is that it asks nothing more of them than a willingness to admit that they, too, are a part of the nation, and that, like every other citizen, they have responsibilities as well as rights.
It’s a simple proposition: For capitalism to function effectively in New Zealand it must acknowledge that there will be times when, to preserve social cohesion and deliver social justice, people must come first and money second.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 October 2012.