IF, AS EVERYONE ANTICIPATES, Labour wins the election, it is important to understand that, for Jacinda Ardern, little will change. She will still be Prime Minister, with all that entails. The constant flow of information from her officials will not slow. The daily decisions of government will still have to be made. Yes, there will be a new cabinet, but the key figures in that cabinet will still be her closest allies: Grant Robertson, Chris Hipkins, Meagan Woods. For Jacinda, the next few days and weeks will not be distinguished by how much everything has changed, but by how much of it has remained the same.
Depending on how the votes fall, Labour may, or may not, have to decide what sort of relationship it wishes to establish with the Greens. If, as National is desperately hoping, the Greens are forced out of Parliament, the matter will have resolved itself. If, however, National’s soufflé rises too little, too late, and the Greens squeak back into Parliament, their relationship with Labour will be determined by whether or not the seats they hold are needed to form a working government majority.
Obviously, if Labour needs the Greens to make up the numbers of power, then Jacinda will be obliged to offer James Shaw, Marama Davidson and, perhaps, three of their parliamentary colleagues, seats at the Cabinet Table. But, if Labour has the numbers to govern alone, then they will have a choice to make: to govern with the Greens – or without them.
A not inconsiderable number of Labour MPs will argue against a voluntary coalition with the Greens. Many will be furious with them for refusing to hose down National’s Wealth Tax allegations in the final days of the campaign. They will argue (with some justification) that Shaw’s and Davidson’s refusal to simply take the Wealth Tax off the table provided Judith Collins with the only weapon capable of influencing the election’s outcome. That’s not something they’ll let Jacinda forget. Their argument will be simple and brutal: The Greens cannot be trusted – not when it counts. Let them sit on the cross-benches for three years. See if that improves their judgement.
The Prime Minister and her closest advisors are much more likely, however, to heed the advice of that hardest of hardball politicians, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who, when his advisers pressed him to put the formidable FBI Director, J Edgar Hoover, out to pasture, memorably quipped: “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent, pissing out, than outside the tent, pissing in.”
The last thing Jacinda and Labour needs is a Green Party, positioned well to their left and feeling morally obliged to criticise every move Labour makes for the entire term. Better by far to slap them in the handcuffs of Collective Cabinet Responsibility – the doctrine which requires cabinet ministers to defend even those government policies they have argued and voted against. The Greens should therefore be very wary of smiling Labour leaders bearing gifts of ginger cake and kindness!
In the best of all possible worlds, the Greens would refuse to join any form of coalition government. In that world, the Greens would not need to be told that the only thing capitalism truly fears, or has the slightest reason to fear, is anti-capitalism.
Liberalism, even in its most radical manifestations (embodied to a decidedly unhealthy degree in the current crop of Greens) remains indissolubly wedded to the core principles of the profit-driven system. When the Green Party was first formed, more than 30 years ago, it quickly attracted a swathe of hard-core anti-capitalists (many of them, like Sue Bradford, refugees from the communist organisations driven out of Jim Anderton’s NewLabour Party). By no means all of these “eco-socialist” anti-capitalists have exited the Greens, but it is indisputable that the party has become much more capitalist-friendly since James Shaw was elected co-leader. Only stupid capitalists fear the likes of Shaw. Smart capitalists all know him to be a man they can do business with.
To avoid disappointment, and that all-too-familiar disillusionment that sets in among leftists after every Labour victory, progressive New Zealanders need to understand that “doing business” is the default setting of the system our representatives are elected to administer. Capitalist democracy has almost nothing to do with the emancipation of those on the receiving end of its economic and social injustices; it is, rather, as one of capitalism’s better analysts, Joseph Schumpeter, pointed out: all about securing “an orderly circulation of elites”.
National is demonstrating – to a hilarious degree – all the signs of an elite which has become exhausted, and needs a period out of power to reconstitute and re-energise itself. Labour, by contrast, has drawn around it an impressive cross-section of the professional and administrative strata responsible for keeping this country going.
Though few New Zealanders would express it in such a fashion: Jacinda’s and Labour’s general handling of the Covid-19 crisis proved both to be highly effective defenders of the capitalist status quo. She, and they, kept the lights on. And that, in the absence of an alternative team of lighting engineers, is pretty much the whole extent of 95 percent of New Zealanders’ expectations.
Maybe, as the world descends further into epidemiological and economic panic, and the planet itself turns aggressively on its dominant species, Jacinda, Labour and the Greens will prove themselves unequal to the challenge of keeping the lights on. At that point, we will begin in earnest the search for an elite dedicated to the creation of a new kind of economic, social, political and ecological order. That’s generally the way it works: the failure of an old system calls into existence a new one.
When our very survival turns on the creation and election of anti-capitalists, then rest assured, we will find them – and vote for them. In the meantime, as the French are wont to declare: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 16 October 2020.