Tuesday 8 August 2017

Are Jacinda Ardern’s “Sunny Ways” Enough To Mobilise Savage’s Grandchildren?

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

- William Butler Yeats, “Easter 1916”

MIKE WILLIAMS, searching for a political precedent, reached all the way back to the Snap Election of 1984. His fellow panellists on TVNZ’s Q+A couldn’t help but agree. Certainly, I remember the electrifying effect of Rob Muldoon’s surprise announcement. On the evening of the day after the night before, dozens of people turned up to the emergency campaign committee meeting called by Stan Roger, Labour’s candidate for Dunedin North. The meeting room was far too small to accommodate all of them comfortably. It was standing room only – with the doors flung wide.

I recall looking at the faces of the people present. Some were familiar, party stalwarts of forty years standing, but many were new. Looking at the younger, middle-class professionals lining up along the walls, the nascent political analyst in me could hardly miss the blindingly obvious conclusion: Labour was going to win.

Even in the 1980s, Labour needed more than the unionised working-class to seize the Treasury Benches. Thirty years ago – just like today – electoral victory could be secured only by drawing into Labour’s ranks a critical mass of young, well-educated, urban professionals: the confident offspring of Mickey Savage’s welfare state. (The very same demographic, it should be noted, who rescued Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party from oblivion back in June.)

It’s a notoriously difficult group to engage politically. If they cannot be convinced that something new and positive will be achieved by casting a vote, then they have no qualms at all about sitting an election out. In 1984 the opportunity to usher in something new and positive was unmistakeable and the yuppies seized it with both hands. Nine years of Rob Muldoon had been more than enough!

Jacinda Ardern’s dramatic ascension to the Labour leadership has captured the attention of Savage’s children and grandchildren alike. Her arrival has generated an overwhelming surge of money and people into Labour’s camp. More than that, however, her “unrelentingly positivie” and “sunny ways” are rapidly persuading tens-of-thousands of young New Zealanders that – this time – casting a vote just might make a difference.

If that process of persuasion and mobilisation is to continue, however, Ms Ardern must make very clear what she is running against. In 1984, David Lange was challenging Muldoon’s last-ditch defence of Keynesian economics. New Zealanders had had enough of wage and price freezes, massive agricultural subsidies and patently absurd bureaucratic regulations. “You can’t run a country like a Polish shipyard!”, Lange thundered, and the New Zealand electorate cheered him to the echo.

In 2017, Ms Ardern is running against a very different set of economic and social phenomena. Her targets are not massive and poorly directed state interventions, or heavy-handed government controls. On the contrary, her targets are the consequences of Keynesian economics wholesale rejection. When she says “Let’s do this!”, the “this” that her supporters anticipate is an unequivocal repudiation of the squalor and misery that Roger Douglas unleashed, Ruth Richardson intensified, and which even Helen Clark’s and Michael Cullen’s best efforts failed to eliminate. Jacinda’s “Muldoon” is Neoliberalism: the relentless extension of competitive markets into every corner of New Zealand society and into every facet of New Zealanders’ lives.

Nowhere are the consequences of this country’s thirty-year neoliberal experiment more obvious than in housing, health, education and the environment. The squalid spectacle of poverty amidst plenty. The entrenched inter-generational unfairness of the housing market. The deep cultural affront of undrinkable water and unswimmable rivers. The virtual debt peonage into which so many young New Zealanders seeking higher education have fallen. The appalling state of New Zealand’s mental health services. These are the targets upon which Ms Ardern must train her rhetorical guns. To prove that “New Zealand can be better than this” – they are the giants she must slay.

“All changed, changed utterly” was how the Irish poet William Butler Yeats described the Ireland that emerged from the tragedy of the 1916 Easter Rebellion. Before the rising, he had despaired of his society as a place where only fools prospered; a place of “polite meaningless words” and pointless pub conversations. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t. Where once there had been the despondent resignation that nothing could ever change, the uprising’s tragic heroism was transforming everything. Suddenly, a “terrible beauty” was born.

Yeats is right. The Goddess of History is a terrible deity to behold. Ruthless and utterly uncompromising in her expectations of those she thrusts forward onto the stage of human affairs. Yes, it is a good thing to be “unrelentingly positive”. And, yes, “sunny ways” are by far the best means of securing the electorate’s co-operation. But, if Ms Ardern intends to offer them as alternatives to a 1984-style electoral uprising, then she will fail.

“Sunny ways” are not enough.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 8 August 2017.


Polly said...

Good read,
I agree with your opinion, I don't believe the so-called 'jacinda effect' will last to long.
She a terrible performer in the house, but most of the voters would not know that.
It would seem that Grant Robertson is running the show.
Tax increases will have to come about for policies that Labour is hinting at, simply to say they will stop Nationals tax cuts, to pay for their policies is a lie.
Stopping a tax cut does not bring in one cent to government coffers.
More wait and see, though I predict as many others do that she will lift Labour in the polls

Anonymous said...

Chris, you have said -
Thirty years ago – just like today – electoral victory could be secured only by drawing into Labour’s ranks a critical mass of young, well-educated, urban professionals: the confident offspring of Mickey Savage’s welfare state. (The very same demographic.

This is just as I have been saying for some time.
I have always voted Labour, but my three well educated adult children will not, they just don't understand the Labour Party at all.
They are doing very well for them selves as things are, so they will not rock the boat, so to speak.
However, this is the group that Labour need the most to get into power.
This is the challenge for the new leaders in the next six weeks.

Anonymous said...

Re "“Sunny ways” are not enough"

Article on findings from some voter focus groups run in Sydney and Melbourne. And, yes these are Australian focus groups, but there are similarities in terms of voter outlook and issues of concern that cross the Tasman.

See http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/voters-express-discontent-at-both-major-parties-in-fairfax-focus-groups-20170806-gxq97d.html

And you can find other articles via google for different views on the same focus group studies

Some quotes:
"The young and the middle-aged, former Liberal voters and former Labor supporters, residents of both big cities, revealed that despite their differences, they were united at core: they believed government was failing them"

"And they didn't hold out hope that the current political opposition was bold or different enough to do anything about it.

Many believed that Liberal and Labor agendas were almost identical."

And that is where I see Labour V National. In terms of the issues that matter, they are almost identical.

And if you are looking to harness a protest vote, then it is no use being as similar as possible to the opposition, which has been Labour's mode in opposition over most of the past decade.

Another article on the focus groups:

"Foreign investors and immigrants were blamed; neither of the main political parties were seen as having the solution."
"Ipsos research director Laura Demasi, who moderated the Sydney groups, observed: "Housing affordability was the number one issue that cut across age, gender and political leaning."

There was "absolute consensus on housing affordability being the number one issue for them personally – themselves or their children – and as an acute social issue, leaving them with a sense of despair for the next generation and concern about the implications for Australian society in general.

"Politicians don't seem to feel the same pressures," said an older woman, "probably because of their huge salaries and all the other perks." It was noted housing affordability was not the Prime Minister's number one concern."

Housing affordability rhymes as an issue affecting New Zealanders. Particularly those from the lower classes. For me, I am a baby boomer with a house paid off. But I am very concerned that my kids will, most likely, never be able to get their feet on the housing ladder. And I am concerned for all those New Zealanders being squeezed in renter land by the ever upward push of rents and house prices. With high levels of migration pushing down on wage growth and upwards on rents and pretty much a consensus between Labour, National and the greens that high levels of migration are sacrosanct, there are not many alternatives to be found

No prizes for guessing which party in New Zealand is most likely to benefit from any protest vote. At some point, people will either hold their noses and vote for that party, or, if they feel like there is no point in voting, stay away from the polls on election day.

And finally, an article riffing off the focus groups concerns re housing affordability


Jens Meder said...

A swing too much to the "Left" from the status quo might be quite risky and even if it brings victory, it might be only a short term victory, and not the beginning of a "new era".
The safest ("Third") way would be in leadership from the Centre, which - if not also taken up by National - would still remain an innovating vision even if it did not bring victory this time.
But it will bring victory eventually, if National still sticks to free market libertarianism with its natural consequences of the rich getting richer and the poor remaining have-nots, even if "mollified" by more "circus and bread".

greywarbler said...

The shame is that Savage's grandchildren haven't had the country's past history passed on to them as actually a work in progress; we haven't realised we needed to explain the system and the need to keep it strong. Instead it has been like a prettily coloured little box in a pass the parcel game.

We didn't understand how and why our country's polity was built up the way it was. We didn't understand the alternatives and that no way is perfect. We took up MMP and just got that through because there was a seen need. But understanding something before the need is important. We never dreamed that our country could be surgically removed from us so well. And the wounds taped over with some tape that somehow makes the pus invisible.

We have been under-educated in important things like the pressures of capitalist economics, the default position that will occur if controls and regulations are not maintained or revised with regular scrutiny. The sorts of things they apparently teach in civics in the USA though it doesn't seem to have led to a proper critique from citizens.

We just didn't realise that what we had built over a century could be knocked down by overweening foolishness and cupidity from people we trusted. We are still wallowing in our ignorance - like fond mothers some of us are saying be careful out there, put on your debt-proof jacket to others, and they are saying we don't need this nanny state thing. We can manage on our own look how well we have done and others haven't. We've earned our success and the cries of take care, of be fair, we can't be expected to carry all these helpless people on our back. It's too much, we just can't afford it.

These are the thoughts going through the minds of many young adults who have never learned what being a country with strong commitments to each other involves. May they learn. I dare not read kiwiblog but hope that it is a therapeutic place for loonies, but fear there is a toxic environment in which mutations of spite, hate and disease will breed.

Mark Simpson said...

I always enjoy Chris's erudite and articulate observations but his (and other commentators') elation needs to be tempered methinks lest things go awry as they can so easily and quickly do in politics.
I too have four well-educated children who, even now, see little in Labour that would entice them to change and cast their vote in that direction. And it is difficult for my wife and I to verbalise what the Labour Party stands for.
Having said that, if Labour can really grab the nettle: be bold and visionary, I am sure they and many others will gladly give them a chance. Policy tweaking, tame toe dipping, pandering to cohorts to garner votes (as they have done in the past) will undo this prime opportunity to harness the groundswell of optimism they are currently enjoying.
"Don't stuff it up!"

greywarbler said...

Chris I should not have mentioned Kiwiblog at the end of my recent comment. Could you replace it with 'some blogs'. I do not wish to bring down that spite that I talked about on you, you don't need it in a time like now while trying to find a way through the fog to a win in this marathon.
I don't know what you do in such cases but feel free to alter the comment and scrub this one, or it just repeats the name. Regards

David Stone said...

Sorry Chris
I can see her taking a bit more tax off the higher incomes , though maybe just not reduce it, and give a bit more to people with kids. But she hasn't given the slightest hint of interest in the revolution you would like to see.
After all the time you have spent studying NZ and WW political history, and current political affairs , esp from a Left perspective you would think they would pay you some attention. How could any of them think they know better than you what they should be doing? (that's not sarcasm). But I fear" they would not listen they'r not listening still.
Perhaps they never will".
David J S

sumsuch said...


In the last few days my thoughts have turned to 'sunny ways' being the mark of bankruptcy for a left that isn't really left. Dragging out another 10 years of influence. Blair etc and the requisite hangover, while the horizon lowers.

If any NZ politician were, unbelievably, to speak your words, let alone inhabit them, break out from the '84 tent of political possibilities -- which has only room for one man (a man , mark you) and that a rich one. My implication from your words is we need a speaking revolutionary, a soapbox socialist, a persuader of people.

So not Ardern.

jh said...

I think the positive message pot is empty, but there are many vacuous ones.

Victor said...

I seek only a government that is better than the current one.

What do I mean by this?

Firstly, I mean a government less committed to neo-liberal orthodoxy.

Secondly, I mean a competent and energetically-led government.

Thirdly, I mean a government with an enhanced sense of responsibility for how the country is run and how the benefits get distributed.

That's not a lot to ask for, I would have thought. But, up till a few weeks ago, there seemed zilch chance of such a government emerging.

And now there is a chance. That's all it is; a chance. But it's better than a poke in the eye, don't you think?

greywarbler said...

David Stone talks about what will Jacinda do. I thought it was important to get someone who would turn the ship of state to another course but even if that is negligible there is a change. The fat-headed Nationals and the Righteous RW Neolib Religionists need to get the push. Instead of them remaining doing BAU only accelerating towards meltdown of our society and environment give them something discussed about in modern business: disruption or disruptive innovation.

This is an attempt to consider a scenario of the future and envisage plans for how to meet it, and from that arises new possibilities, new ways of doing business. The biggest disruption for pollies is chucking them out of their comfortable chairs. The new people create waves and rock the boat and those pollies and voters asleep wake up and pay attention. So Jacinda will surely do that and that alone would be a worthwhile outcome. But I am sure she and her team will do more, especially if they can nut something out with the Greens.

Disruptive innovation is a term in the field of business administration which refers to an innovation that creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market leading firms, products, and alliances.
Disruptive innovation - Wikipedia

But for business use, the term “disruption” really took off with Clayton Christensen’s 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. In it, Christensen introduced the idea of “disruptive innovation.”

He used this phrase as a way to think about successful companies not just meeting customers’ current needs, but anticipating their unstated or future needs. His theory worked to explain how small companies with minimal resources were able to enter a market and displace the established system.