Tuesday 10 May 2022

Staying Inside The Lines.

Unfinished: Always, gnawing away at this government’s confidence and empathy, is the dictum that seriously challenging the economic and social status-quo is the surest route to electoral death. Labour’s colouring-in book, and National’s, have to look the same. All that matters is which party is better at staying inside the lines.

DOES THIS GOVERNMENT have the gumption to go on the offensive against its National and Act opponents? The evidence, to date, suggests not. All we have seen from Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues since National eclipsed Labour in the polls is the risible politics of “anything you can do I can do better”. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but, in electoral politics, flattering your enemies is not a winning formula.

At the core of the Government’s supine response to National’s reflexive policy kicks: tax-cuts, reduced spending, fuelling moral panics on education and youth offending, getting tough on gangs, racist dog-whistling at He Puapua and co-governance; is the Centre-Left’s besetting fear that fighting-back against the Right will cost it votes.

Teasing out this core anxiety, it soon becomes clear that the Centre-Left’s fear arises from its conviction that the overwhelming majority of the electorate is susceptible to the ideological arguments of the Right. That being the case, it only makes sense for them to inoculate themselves against the Right’s attacks by saying “Me, too!”

But, if the electorate is susceptible to the Right’s policy pitches, then it is only because it has been years since they heard the Left come to them with anything remotely resembling a passionately argued case for radical change. One would have to go all the way back to the general election of 1993: to the Alliance’s left-wing manifesto (which attracted 18.3 percent of the popular vote) to hear a political party ask for the electorate’s help in upending the status-quo.

It is difficult to understand the Left’s reticence on matters of policy. Certainly the Labour Party’s history argues strongly in favour of implementing radical change without apology and defending the gains made against all comers. After governing for 14 years, Labour had the satisfaction of losing power to a National Party which had only become electorally competitive by pledging to keep the core economic and social reforms of the First Labour Government in place.

It is possible to argue that Labour repeated that feat with Rogernomics, which, following a half-hearted attempt to rally its supporters against the Lange Government’s “more market” reforms in 1987, the National Party embraced with frightening enthusiasm in the days and weeks immediately following the 1990 general election.

To make this case, however, it is necessary to argue that Labour found it impossible to grasp the ideological and electoral implications of National’s wholesale conversion to neoliberalism. Following the Mother of All Budgets and the Employment Contracts Act, Labour’s continued adherence to the core elements of the neoliberal economic order left it stranded in exactly the same position as National between 1950 and 1984. By refusing to abandon Rogernomics, Labour began its long, slow decline into an attenuated version of its principal electoral rival. A party equally committed to maintaining the neoliberal status quo. National Lite.

All attempts by Labour’s rank-and-file membership – especially following the Alliance’s demise in 2002 – to put an end the Parliamentary Labour Party’s love affair with neoliberalism ended in failure. Unfortunately, Helen Clark’s successor, the enthusiastic Rogernome, Phil Goff, was not a remotely credible salesman for the refreshingly social-democratic programme forced upon him by the likes of Helen Kelly, Marion Hobbs and Michael Wood. Labour’s dismal Party Vote of 2011 – just 28 percent – was taken by the Labour Right as proof that stepping away from the status-quo could only end in disaster.

Undaunted, the Labour Left continued to agitate for a final repudiation of neoliberalism, even managing to elect the only mildly apostatic David Cunliffe as the Party’s leader. Outraged at this rank insubordination, a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party – spearheaded by MPs who are now senior Cabinet Ministers – made it clear that Cunliffe’s support within the Caucus was weak, vulnerable and unequal – intellectually, emotionally and politically – to the task it had set itself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the 2014 general election Labour crashed to an even worse defeat – just 25 percent of the Party Vote.

The Party was now in the unenviable position of being unable to go either forward or back. With a clear majority of Labour MPs vehemently opposed to abandoning neoliberalism, and their minions in the party organisation conducting a ruthless purge of all those who had promoted and supported Cunliffe, the leadership of Andrew Little was characterised by a steady retreat from the progressive economic policy positions won between 2008 and 2014. Unsurprisingly, that retreat was matched by a relentless decline in the voting public’s enthusiasm. Had Jacinda Ardern not stepped into the breach, it is likely that Labour’s Party Vote would have continued to decline – quite possibly into the teens.

Ardern’s great achievement in the 2017 general election was to allow her own natural ebullience and rhetorical energy to generate an impression of political rejuvenation. Though she never actually said as much, “Jacinda” did not go out of her way to correct the widespread misconception that Labour had, finally, freed itself from ideological captivity. When she said “Let’s do this!”, a great many people construed her words to mean: “Let’s move beyond Rogernomics!”

Certainly, Winston Peters and NZ First understood the public’s eagerness for a break with the old order. Indeed, so caught up was he in the currents of history that the old campaigner felt moved to have a crack at capitalism itself – a rhetorical blast only half-heartedly echoed by Ardern.

But “kindness” and social-democracy, although closely related, are not identical twins. Had Covid-19 not intervened, the growing gap between the Ardern Government’s rhetoric and its performance would almost certainly have seen it thrown out in 2020. As it was, the country enthusiastically rewarded “Jacinda” for six astonishing months of political heroism. She had faced down the let-it-rippers of the corporate Right and welded the “Team of Five Million” into a remarkable political community. Only someone very special can deliver Ilam and Rangitata to the Labour Party!

But, even with an absolute parliamentary majority, a move away from neoliberalism has proved to be beyond the Parliamentary Labour Party’s imagination. The sixth Labour government’s radicalism on matters relating to ethnicity and gender has not been matched by those relating to taxation, government regulation, poverty and housing. Even on Labour no-brainers like health and education, the government cannot seem to get it right.

Always, gnawing away at its confidence and empathy, is the dictum that seriously challenging the economic and social status-quo is the surest route to electoral death. Labour’s colouring-in book, and National’s, have to be the same. All that matters is which party is better at staying inside the lines.

And so, we can only imagine a Labour Government willing and able to take the fight to Christopher Luxon and his largely talentless caucus. We can only dream of a Prime Minister with the steel to, for example, call out Luxon for inviting George Osborne to address his caucus. Saying something like this:

After all, what is Osborne famous for? (Apart from tipping the Brexit vote in favour of ‘Leave’ by threatening the electorate with economic torture if it voted the wrong way.) That’s right, he’s the Chancellor of the Exchequer who bailed-out Britain’s biggest banks and corporations and then paid for it by imposing years of bitter austerity on its working-class. Yep, he’s the one who ran down the NHS to a point where Covid-19 was able to kill hundreds-of-thousands of his fellow citizens. This is the politician Luxon would like the National caucus to learn from. What does that tell us about the sort of government he intends to run?

Multiply attacks like this a thousand times between now and election day 2023, and how much that was electorally useful would remain of the National Party and its leader? Reinforced by Labour’s unequivocal and irrevocable repudiation of its neoliberal past, and a policy platform dedicated to repairing the damage of the last 35 years, the Prime Minister and her Cabinet might be pleasantly surprised at how enthusiastically a majority of ordinary Kiwis availed themselves of the ballot box.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 10 May 2022.


Wayne Mapp said...

Well, I hope Labour tries this strategy. It would pretty much guarantee their defeat. I don't believe there is anything like a majority of voters who want a full on repudiation of "neo-liberalism". Basically it would mean a substantial increase of taxes, coupled with much more state control. I think we have seen the limits of public tolerance of that with the backlash against all the Covid controls.

I reckon Jacinda and her top team are much more in tune with voters than you are. To begin with they have a massive polling and focus group operation which will give them that insight.

Is it too late for Labour to turn their fortunes around? The polls are finally balanced at the moment, but it is clear Luxon has the momentum. However, it is probably relatively thin, so possibly could be turned around by Labour. But think about the political reality of all this for a moment.

The voters most up for play sit in the middle. Self evidently, as the polls indicate, they can swing between Labour and National. So a bunch of policies that could be pretty easily criticised as socialist are hardly going to appeal to this group of voters. Both major parties have announced policy in the last week directly aimed at this group of voters. For Labour, it was their crime package. For National it was accepting Shaw's climate change emissions targets. Both these policies, in their different ways, are intended to reassure middle voters that the major parties are responsible, not radical.

Notwithstanding your railing against "neo-liberalism" for the last 30 years, it is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Just as the first Labour government's settlement lasted for 50 years from 1935 to 1985, so it is likely that "neo-liberalism" will last up to 50 years or more. A good couple of decades to go.

Will the likes of Chloe Swarbrick be able to come up with a smart new approach to economics and social policy? I mention her because she appears to be thinking things through, and as a younger generation person, won't be bound by Alliance dogma of 30 years ago. She certainly is not there yet, but she seems to be developing a new take of a Green approach to politics. If she can do that, without destroying the economic base to our agricultural economy, she might be on to something. I mention agriculture, because if a government ends up wrecking farming and thereby plunging New Zealand into recession, such a government will given a good nine years in opposition to repent.

Brendan McNeill said...


One of the left’s failings is fighting yesterday’s battles. I see you are at it again.

You may well be right about the lack of depth in National’s caucus, but you wouldn’t get wet diving into Labour’s caucus either. They are the most talentless inept Government we have had the misfortune to endure. To be fair ineptness appears to be a characterisation of most present day Western Governments. It would be unfair to criticise President Biden, but have you ever listened to an interview or a speech by America’s Vice President Harris?

We are witnessing the decline of the West; a comfortable decline I grant you, cushioned by borrowing, disguised by welfare and filled with entertaining diversions. An eventual unravelling is inevitable, but the structure of democracies does not permit politicians to publicly confront these realities; no one is rewarded for truth telling it seems, instead as a result of both Government and media propaganda we all must pay respect to the left’s ideological pieties. Luxon understands this as evidenced by National’s embrace of the Greens/Labour climate change agenda. We know from polling that approximately 50% of New Zealanders remain skeptical about human induced climate change, and even more skeptical about New Zealand’s ability to influence climate one way or the other, and with good cause. The Ministry for the Environment estimated that New Zealand's gross emissions were 0.17% of the world's total green house gas emissions in 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_change_in_New_Zealand

It maters not a jot what we do with respect to emissions, yet it seems both Labour and National are committed to imposing substantial reductions in our standard of living if we are to meet their pious climate aspirations. Saving the world from destruction is apparently a vote winner, especially amongst the young, building a resilient and independent New Zealand apparently not so much.

If you think courage is missing on the left, then please be assured, it is absent on the right as well, although these political labels have all but lost their meaning. These are days requiring courage, a clear strategy for energy and food security ought to be top of mind for our politicians; independence from nations like China who are not exactly in love with liberal democratic nation states like New Zealand is a growing necessity, yet all we get from National is tax cuts, and from labour co-governance and more tax.

I wonder what’s on Netflix tonight?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Funny, the only time the Labour Party has canvassed me in the last 40 or 50 years I told him I wasn't voting Labour any more – he said "why?" I said "it's not a proper Labour Party anymore." He said "Yes" and we both hung up.

I suspect though Wayne that there is more support for social democracy than you think – unfortunately those who make the most noise are those who oppose it. And equally unfortunately those who make the most noise are the ones who tend to be listened to.
I also wonder how many of those "focus groups" consist of people from Mangere or Porirua – genuine question, because I don't actually know but I suspect that for the focus groups they favour articulate middle-class people.
I suspect also that that middle group of swing voters is not nearly as large as the disillusioned who don't vote. If Labour got off their arses, actually got boots on the ground and got these people to vote like La Tosha Brown andStacey Abrams did in the US ... But I guess that's too much like hard work compared to listening to focus groups.

KjT said...

"Everyone" says "Socialism doesn't win votes".
Then leading up to each election, both National and Labour give the lie to that, competing by making "Socialist" promises.
Watch both promising to "fix health waiting lists", "improve education", and other Socialist policies. And the real joke. National saying they will, "fix housing"!
National at present making noises about more funding for Pharmac, is a prime example.

The reality is Socialism does win votes, it doesn't win party funding.
We see both parties pretending to be more "Socialist" than they are, at election time.

Kat said...

Agree with you Wayne that it is that swinging middle rump that changes govt. Labour is smart to follow the incremental change policy, those swinging sheeple are easily spooked.

The difficult position that National finds itself in is Luxon trying to better Labours socialism from out of one side of his mouth while talking up prudent fiscal management from the other side.

It is obvious that Luxon will shore up Nationals core base, mainly at the expense of Act, plus a chunk of that swinging sheeple vote. Will it be enough to change the govt, my heart tells me Labour should romp in, my head tells me it will come down to which party has successfully courted more of those swinging middle sheeple.......as usual.

greywarbler said...

I think Wayne's comment starts off with a very ordinary analysis. I have always wondered how come right wing and National people think as they do. I think, the answer to that is that they don't think - about the outcomes of their actions and inactions, how people are affected by the written and obvious laws and rules and beliefs, but also by the unsaid, the secret, the intrinsic attitudes and the lack of commonsense psychology, eg If a child is brought up in an unfeeling manner or undisciplined then that is how the adult will grow.

A lack of care to teach, to pass on information and explain things to youth, leads to a young person who finds it okay to take drugs, yo use and entice others against their best interests, to accept that you have rights that others should appreciate though you don't do so in return etc. All can lead to Covid protests, reasons quite different than come to your mind

larry mitchell said...

Chris said ..."Christopher Luxon ....and his largely talentless caucus"!

Really? by what measure?

I'd back the Nats over the present incompetent clueless Labs every day ... including Matariki Day.

greywarbler said...

larry mitchell You set your horizons too low. You need a wider spreadsheet when you can't think beyond the Opposition parties. What about the rest of the 5 million? Have you looked thoughtfully at them?

DS said...

"The middle" did not demand the installation of Neoliberalism in the first place. After a while, people simply settled around a new paradigm.

To be honest, while the conventional wisdom treats the middle as Centrist, I'd actually suggest a fair number of them belong to the disenfranchised group of "Economically Left and Socially Centrist or Right". People who don't like National on economics and don't like Labour for perceived Wokery (and who think Winston's a sleazebag).

David George said...

Labour have not been afraid to make changes, the problem is that they just seem to make things worse and themselves more disliked as a consequence. God knows what they are thinking with the complete upheaval to the health sector. The inevitable unfolding disaster another nail in the coffin.

Attacking economic liberalism might appeal to some but, absent successful, free, prosperous and just examples of alternative systems elsewhere, is simply not credible. The countries that have embraced economic liberalism have seen massive improvement in median, inflation adjusted, income over the past 40 years. Some from an admittedly low base but even in places like the UK the typical punter's income has more than doubled. The whole world is better off as a consequence. https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/daily-median-income?tab=table&country=OWID_WRL~ESP~KOR~MDG

Jens Meder said...

Regardless of the party in government, if we as a nation and individuals consume all our profits on welfare benefits, sickness relief and hand-to-mouth in worry-less comfort without saving anything for security reserves, profitable investing and for the profits in trading, then getting poorer and poorer is inevitable (or not ?), and widening starvation will be the result when all the existing reserves are consumed and money has become worthless due to continuing reliance on printing more of it or "borrowing" it without the willingness, intention or capacity of debt repayment.
This is the basic priority problem we should discuss and be concerned about.

sumsuch said...

Cripes, just by your under-headline (I should know the term being a journalism student, 20 years ago) you capture the picture. A blog on TDB reminds me that RNZ was fully on the side of our old social democracy till 2009. Let's never forget Sanders, Corbyn and we are entirely right and these idiots in all our countries aint. We just didn't ... forget, or except money.

sumsuch said...

Mapp (that's a contradiction), there is no foreseeable future.

Neoliberalism can't deal with climate change, democratic overthrow and fair distribution of wealth.

The only foreseeable future is there is no future for your 'freemarket revolution'.

Your Right and the fundamentalists need to look over to America for the future of your 'wrong' estimations. That you don't suggests an over-attachment to old ideas disproved.

sumsuch said...

Having read your (correct) political history of us now (including Winston's enthusiasm 5 years ago) these Labour folk have all the shame on them. It's comprehensible in 'their circles' but so unnecessary, so inapposite. If Helen was still leading even she would push on.

It hurts. What do you make of the gummint trying to disestablish the children's commissioner? Is that about us embarrassing them about their bullshit around poverty?

Too funny how 84ists still speak 'Left' politics on RNZ and run 'Left' blog TS, 30 how many years after?

Despise it all as the the tsunami of climate change curls over us -- not really, our children.

Fuck focus groups, fears from the 'winter of discontent'. Fuck our present tums.

David George said...

Yes Larry, probably not a smart move flinging about the easily refuted "talentless" slur. If a successful career, family etc. is any indication (it is) then the Labour apologists would be wise to keep schtum about talent comparisons.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I suspect that the only people who really know if a politician/minister is talentless or not, are those government servants who regularly work with them. It's an epithet that is thrown around a lot by the right, but rarely if ever is evidence produced to back it up. Personally I always thought John key was talentless in spite of the fact that he was touted as a businessman, when he was actually a gambler. His only talent to me seem to be schmoozing. But who knows, underneath it all he could have been – according to his bureaucrats – a tireless worker and an incisive mind. You never know. :)

sumsuch said...

John Key was the lighthead who oft rises to the top of the lighthead party. Short-term, or the last two hundred ridiculous years that have delivered us comfort. We think comfort now is a right. We historians laugh our guts out.

sumsuch said...

I had a brother who was a project manager on the re-do of the interior of the Beehive in the early noughts. Having left school early, he came away from it deeply cynical about democracy and now a supporter of the anti-covid bullshit. His stories, they were as colourful as my unrational family likes. Just him made me doubtful. If 'whale rider' means anything to you beyond the film, respond.

I don't care about sex, he was more puritan than me -- thought it decided things. Having no historical/cultural understanding.