WITH THE END of the year racing towards us, the temptation is strong to review the twelve months just gone. Some political journalists even go as far as issuing awards for the best and the worst of the nation’s political players. Others channel their inner schoolmarm and award grades, or marks out of ten. Away with all such malarky! What most interests the politically aware is not the past, but the future. Never is this more true that when the new year fast approaching is an election year.
I would be remiss, however, not to reference to the most jarring political event experienced by New Zealanders in 2022 – the occupation of Parliament Grounds. The full significance of this episode has only become clear with the benefit of hindsight. It intensified a prejudice against ordinary New Zealanders that, already strong, has since become a badge-of-honour among a distressingly large percentage of the political class. Before the Occupation, ignoring the wishes of the Great Unwashed could still elicit feelings of unease among “progressive” MPs. After the Occupation it became a positive duty.
How else to explain the outpouring of official concern at the amount of misinformation and disinformation coursing through the veins of the body politic. So swollen had these “rivers of filth” become that the Security Intelligence Service was prevailed upon to issue a booklet identifying the tell-tale signs of potentially lethal radicalisation in the boy next door. Concerned citizens were even given a number to call. 0800-STASI perhaps? It was all of a piece, however, with the melodramatic “Fire and Fury” documentary produced by Stuff’s Paula Penfold. In it, the time-honoured traditions of journalistic balance were jettisoned in favour of journalism which travelled in (if not at) the direction of the Government.
Clearly, democracy – unguided by the morally superior members of the political and academic mandarinate – can degenerate very quickly into the terrifying mobocracy that unleashed arson and violence in Parliament Grounds. These feelings of personal vulnerability, aroused among parliamentarians and journalists by the Occupation’s fiery end, were both palpable and novel. For the first time in decades they had been made aware of just how destructive those excluded from the nation’s political discourse could become – if sufficiently provoked.
The historical precedent for this outrage and anguish can be found in the reaction of “respectable” politicians and journalists to the rioting and looting that broke out in New Zealand’s four main centres in the summer and autumn of 1932 – when the Great Depression was at its deepest. The NZ Herald’s cartoonist, Gordon Minhinnick, captured the disgust of the newspaper’s middle-class readers by depicting the rioters as rats erupting from the sewers. The governing conservative coalition responded to the violence by passing the draconian Public Safety Conservation Act. Unconstrained by entrenched electoral clauses, the Reform and United parties were also moved to postpone the general election scheduled for 1934 until 1935.
As the Labour Party confronts the New Year, it will not only struggle to move beyond its now visceral mistrust of the Occupiers, but also of the third of the country who believed their anti-vaccination mandate grievances worth worthy of a hearing. There will be some among Labour’s ranks who feel keenly the irony of a supposedly working-class party living in terror of the actually existing proletariat, but most of the party’s members and MPs will dismiss the whole notion that the people Trevor Mallard turned the sprinklers on are working-class.
Certainly, they were very different from the ageing, Pakeha, blue-collar trade union delegates who turn up to Labour Conferences, or the loyal Pasifika workers who sit beside them. What Labour has forgotten, however, is that barely 10 percent of private sector workers any longer belong to a trade union. The world that the Employment Contracts Act made in the 1990s – and which Labour has never seen fit to unmake – changed the New Zealand working-class no less thoroughly than Thatcherism and Reaganism changed the British and American working-classes. Driven from the political stage, they have wandered into strange pastures and swallowed strange fruits. The degree to which these abandoned and marginalised workers are able to surprise the contemporary parties of the centre-left can be summed up in just two words: ‘Brexit’ and ‘Trump’.
‘Idiot Savant’, the hard-working blogger behind “No Right Turn” asks rhetorically: “Why won’t Labour keep its promises?” His favoured explanation is that the party has become too beholden to the lobbyists and donors that keep it solvent. He’s right, of course, but there’s much more to the problem than that. Labour is vulnerable to lobbyists, and increasingly dependent on wealthy donors, for the very simple reason that it is deeply fearful of ever again becoming a mass party – most particularly, a mass party of today’s working-class.
Such a party would be economically radical and socially conservative – precisely the opposite of the entity Labour turned itself into by embracing the more-market ideas of the Reserve Bank and Treasury in the 1980s. A key aspect of that transformation was the catastrophic defection of the tens-of-thousands of Labour members who did not sign-up for Rogernomics. But the dramatic reduction in the size of the Labour Party was a feature, not a bug, of the neoliberal transformation. Having a lot of members is more-or-less a guarantee of having a lot of trouble.
It used to be the case that New Zealand’s political fault-line ran not between National and Labour, but squarely down the middle of the Labour Party itself. Up until 1984, the really big arguments concerning New Zealand’s economic and social future were those that took place between the right and left wings of the Labour Party. But, when Rogernomics caused Labour to split in 1989, it lost virtually all of its left-wing members to Jim Anderton’s NewLabour (later the Alliance). That was critically important, because although it has gone largely unnoticed and unreported by this country’s political journalists for the last 30 years, the transformations of 1984-1993 relocated the nation’s political fault-line to the left of both National and Labour where, ever since the demise of the Alliance and NZ First, there is only the swirling and inchoate rage of unrepresented rebels in search of a cause.
Labour is likely to lose next year’s election because it has become little more than New Zealand’s alternate governing party. New Zealanders lucky enough to live in their nation’s comfort zones will turn to Labour when National appears to have exhausted itself, and to National when Labour fails to impress. The only task which mainstream voters set themselves is determining which of National or Labour is more likely to administer the status quo efficiently and effectively. In the face of a Labour Government struggling to cope with record inflation, a cost-of-living crisis, and all the other side-effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, National’s hopes of reclaiming the Treasury Benches are, justifiably, high.
And that swirling mass of unrepresented and cause-less rebels: unimpressed by National and Labour, or their respective outriggers, Act and the Greens; what will they do in 2023? In the absence of a truly charismatic populist leader (sorry Winston) most of them will abstain from the electoral process altogether. Overall turnout is likely to be well down in next year’s election. An abstention rate of 25 percent is not inconceivable.
Not that National or Labour will care all that much. They have seen what the Deplorables can do when they get angry. They have no desire to see what they could make of Aotearoa-New Zealand if they ever got organised.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Tuesday, 20 December 2022.