Monday 4 September 2023

So Little To Defend, So Much To Punish.

Weapon? Shield? Tool?: How will the majority of voters use their votes in the forthcoming General Election? As a weapon to punish their enemies? As a shield to protect them from their enemies? As a tool to build a better world? Given the febrile political temper of the times, only the bravest punters would put their money on the constructive option.

MOST OF US use our votes in one of three ways: as a weapon; as a shield; as a tool. With early voting commencing in a month’s time, the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders would appear to be preparing to use their vote as either a weapon or a shield. All the signs point to those intent upon weaponising their vote being the largest fraction of the electorate. The number intending to use their vote as shield against their enemies is, however, unlikely to be significantly smaller than that of the weaponisers. Sadly, only a tiny minority of voters will be brave and/or principled enough to cast their votes positively in 2023. This is not going to be a happy election.

It was never going to be easy for Labour to live up to the hopes and encouragement of the voters in 2020. Not since the joyful election of 1972 made Norman Kirk New Zealand’s twenty-ninth prime minister, and gave him a whopping parliamentary majority of 23 seats, had so many Kiwis used their votes constructively, as a tool. Not only were their ballots deployed as an enormous “Thank you, Jacinda!”, but many were also given to Labour as a way of facilitating the “transformation” which its leader had promised, but which Covid-19 had interrupted so dramatically.

Tragically, the Labour cabinet, caucus, and party organisation proved unequal to the challenge of using the tools which an astonishing 50.01 percent of the voting public had given them. Something strange and sinister appeared to overtake Jacinda Ardern, darkening her sunny political disposition. Her Cabinet was no help, and neither was her caucus. It was almost as if they were annoyed and/or affronted by the tools thrust into their hands. It was for them to set the agenda, not 1,443,545 presumptuous voters.

All of Labour’s team had failed to read the events of 2017-20 correctly. Most especially, they had failed to grasp that the success of their Covid response was based almost entirely on the state’s decisive intervention on behalf of the “Team of Five Million”. Those aligned to the ideologies of the Right knew exactly what they were looking at as the government seized control of the pandemic response. That’s why they were so furious. Allow the voters to see what a mobilised state could do for them and, inevitably, they would want more.

Painful though it may be to acknowledge, Labour’s ministers were as ill-disposed to keeping the state’s shoulder to the wheel as the Right. Rather than being inspired by the mass support for their Prime Minister and Party, they seemed terrified of it. Rhetoric was one thing, reality another. On the re-elected government’s agenda their was just one item: getting everything back to normal as quickly as possible.

In politics, executing such an unheralded handbrake-turn will always exact a high psychological price, and the Ardern-led government proved no exception. Working against the expectations of her supporters changed “Jacinda” – and not in a good way.

But, the political price incurred by Labour’s refusal to keep on moving forward was much, much higher. Hopes raised, and then dashed, will swiftly curdle into a witches’ brew of disappointment and fury. When next they enter the polling-booths, those who believe themselves betrayed by “Jabcinda” will wield their ballot papers like a butcher’s knife.

In doing so they will add their numbers to the roughly one-third of the electorate who have always wielded their votes as weapons against those who would upend what their “betters” still believe to be the natural order of things.

At the core of this army of nay-sayers are the inhabitants of rural and provincial New Zealand. These “Heartlanders” have always looked upon the cities as sinks of iniquity and havens for the undeserving poor. Every three years, National and Act supporters grind their teeth in fury as impoverished citizens, many of them brown, turn out in support of Labour’s redistributive policies – using their votes as shields against the threatened depredations of the Right.

In uneasy alliance with the Heartlanders are the wealthy citizens of the big cities. Although they live, safely sequestered from the poor and the brown, in the leafiest suburbs of the cities, it is more difficult for these citizens to weaponise their votes in the manner of the farmers and their small-town allies.

The people who work in their factories and warehouses, clean their offices, serve in their shops and fast-food joints, and build the nation’s infrastructure for them to make profits out of are, after all, people they see every day. Somewhere in the recesses of their social consciousness, they understand that the working-class is something their own class cannot do without. When things are going well, they may even be persuaded to help the workers. When things start going badly, however, or when – God rot them! – their employees start joining unions and taking their destiny into their own hands, that’s when the wealthy turn their ballot papers into pistols and start shooting.

It is the working-class voters who, most of all, yearn to use their votes in the way their grandparents and great-grandparents did, as tools to build a better world. Every three years they hope-against-hope that Labour will ask them to create something worth having with their votes, but election-after-election they are disappointed. Reluctantly, and without enthusiasm, they lift the protective shield of the franchise against the worst the Right can offer – keeping Labour viable solely out of fear of meeting something worse.

Labour, as the lesser of two evils, remains the workers’ choice. Even if, in 2023, it no longer represents the working-class who peopled its ranks in 1923. Labour, now, is the party of the people who teach the working-class; who take care of it when its sick; who keep it afloat when jobs are scarce and puts its worst casualties up in hotels when they have nowhere else to go. They’re the people who, when the kids of the working-class start breaking bad, defend them in court, write reports about them, give them counselling, and mange them when they’re released from prison. There are tens-of-thousands of these people: not quite bosses, but not quite workers either. The American sociologists, John and Barbara Ehrenreich, called them the “Professional-Managerial Class” – and they have made the labour and social-democratic parties of the world their own.

The problem with this intermediate class is that its top two priorities are: to preserve the institutions that employ them; and, to keep the power relationships within those institutions from changing in ways that threaten their status. These essentially conservative priorities make the Professional-Managerial Class extremely difficult to like. They may talk the talk of “progressive politics”, but they are far too risk averse to walk it. Indeed, they offer living proof of the early-twentieth century “muck-raking” American journalist, Upton Sinclair’s, famous quip: “It is very hard to make a man understand something, when his salary depends upon him not understanding it.”

In this election, the National Party has its knives out for the professionals and managers of the public service, so no one should be surprised to see them voting defensively for their own party. Labour’s problem, however, is that it has given far too many New Zealanders far too many good reasons for wanting to punish it.

Because, when all is said and done, Labour was the party which, in 2020, led half the country to the mountain-top, only to decide that if the promised land had no need of bosses, then it might also have no need for managers and professionals like themselves. Daunted by this terrifying prospect, they opted to proceed no further.

But you cannot show people the gates of heaven, and then turn around and go home. Not when there’s another election in three years’ time. Not when your party has ended up giving the New Zealand electorate so little to defend, and so much to punish.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 1 September 2023.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

I have to say, Labour promised much and delivered very little. Although much of what it promised has pretty much no relation to the working class. I must say, I haven't thought about Labour's support from the government/professional/managerial class. Not in those terms anyway. I knew the Labour Party had been captured by someone. My bad I really should have put more thought into it. But to be fair, there are still those who go into government service to actually perform a service for the people. But I bet those who are at the tippy top of the government service don't vote Labour, those advocates of managerialism. Their salaries might suffer a little from national downsizing the public service but I bet their jobs are reasonably safe. Most people always seem to land on their feet no matter how competent or incompetent they may be, there's always someone willing to give them another job through the good old NZ old boy network.
But national have made promises that I doubt they can keep. Particularly around improving government services while cutting jobs. I'd love for someone to ask them where the hell the fact is that they're going to trim, or where there are efficiencies they could make. I suppose wallet will boil down to is people being expected to work longer hours for less pay as usual.
These to be a lot of talk about provider capture and the like but very little about managerial capture. That's definitely a thing, you only have to look at the inflated salaries of the managerial class at universities and hospitals. God help us, the bookkeeper at my son's old high school has taken to calling himself the CEO. Words fail me on that one.

Gary Peters said...

Hi Chris. I read most of your posts even though we are poles apart on the political spectrum as I appreciate the effort you make to explain the world as you see it through your eyes.

I must admit that this post is probably the one that most shows how far apart we are in the way we see the world though our ideological lens.

For example, you say "Labour, as the lesser of two evils, remains the workers’ choice" yet 2023 will completely disabuse you of that opinion as labour over the past 40 years has proven to be the worst option of the "worker" by a country mile starting with the ravages of Rogernomics on an ill educated mass to the enforced medical mandates of the ardern era. Those decades of poor treatment of their support base have come home to roost and will be revealed in October 2023.

You also refer to our vote as a weapon, a shield or a tool whereas I see that it can be a weapon and a tool and possibly a shield at the same time. A weapon, or more accurately a broom, to sweep aside the incompetent group we have had to endure for most of the past 6 years, a shield to ensure that they do not ever regain the seat of power in their current form and a tool to start the process of rebuilding our country with sound policies that will concentrate on education, health and security enabling the entire electorate to create a better family and life and therefore a better country.

Maybe the future offers us a chance to regain our "rockstar" economy but tempered with compassion and an avenue for those that want to be better off to actually do so. A future that is not linked to a manufactured racial divide based on historical inaccuries but one that seeks to address any wrongs but bury the hatred that has been stirred up over the past 6 years.

Pipe dreams, possibly but you see a future where the government leads wheras I see one where we lead our families ourselves and therefore our country.

Didn't Reagan say the most fearsome words were "I'm from the government and I'm here to help". Well they haven't helped much lately have they.

Kat said...

"enforced medical mandates of the ardern era....."

Well my father was the recipient of "enforced military mandates" to go off to fight in your glad you were not around then Mr Peters, I certainly am.

Jason Barrier said...

Chris - Great column. However as an inhabitant of rural and provincial New Zealand - I am one of your Heartlanders - and a proud one at that. However, being proud of your own 'in-group' is not the same thing as being against an 'out-group' as Eric Kaufmann (Prof. of Politics at London University) notes in his very good recent book "White-Shift" (which I urge you to read if you have the time). Indeed I would go so far as to say - that in many respects Heartlanders have more in common with your urban working classes and more day-to-day engagement and goodwill between Maori and Pakeha, than either the Professional Managerial classes or the Leafy Suburb dwellers. In that regard, we are also using our votes not as a weapon but as shields - shields to protect against more insane short-termism for the current Labour government that is delivering only pine trees and unemployment to us here in the forgotten hinterlands.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"enforced medical mandates of the ardern era."
Which saved many lives if you look at the figures. Our debts per hundred thousand were a lot less than the US or Britain. And as one of those who is vulnerable and married to someone who is even more vulnerable, I'm grateful for that.

Simon Cohen. said...

According to the Public Service Commission over the last 5 years, the overall public sector workforce increased by 15.3%. That is from 2017 to 2022.

Perhaps Guerilla Surgeon can advise us if he feels there has been a corresponding increase in the standard of service.

Gary Peters said...

I have no desire to enter into the covid debate's pros and cons but I will say the basic tenet of any sane and reasonable society is my body my choice and if we throw that out the window we are truly on a slippery path.

Three of my uncles, including one whi died, fought in the second world war as did my father. To compare conscription to enforced medical treatment is rather bizarre in my mind, especially as that was one of the things they fought against peferring to have freedom of choice.

A simple example of the pointless growth in the public service is the vast expansion of admin in the health service and the massive deterioration in delivery.

Anonymous said...

I'm one of the 'intermediate class'. Proud of my profession and very 'old school' in my adherence to political neutrality in the performance of my craft. I'm probably a bit different from most others of my 'class'. I despise, with passion, 'progressive politics', so don't talk the walk, as Chris alleges.

Act's policies threatens many in my profession, but the ravenous maw of bureaucracy has consumed much and delivered little. Act, National and Labour have expressly said it's unsustainable; all three want to downsize the intermediate class. Labour has just said it in a way that will misguide their believers.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

The overall public sector workforce includes what? Teachers? Doctors and nurses? Core public servants? I presume that latter at least is included. Has the population increased over the last 5 years? By how much?
Perhaps Simon Cohen would like to explain where he thinks efficiencies could be made?

A basic tenet of any sane and reasonable society, is that the government can in an emergency impose conditions on people they couldn't do in other circumstances. This has been established by various courts both national and international over the years.

It's funny though, many of the "my body my choice" people when it comes to things like Covid are definitely not my body my choice when it comes to something like abortion. Are you one of those Gary? Quite possibly not, but there are plenty of them.

I had 3 grandfathers, 7 great uncles, various in-laws, and my father – all who fought in world wars 1 and/or 2. They mostly fought for their mates. I don't think any of them were highfalutin enough to fought for freedom – whatever that is.

Kat said...

"To compare conscription to enforced medical treatment is rather bizarre in my mind........"

I see, so if the once in one hundred years global pandemic with a virus killing millions was about wearing a military uniform and dodging bullets it would all be ok.......

Here's a song to put to those bizarre mindful thoughts.......

sumsuch said...

Another day's manual work tomorrow. Self-employed, I try to shift it off. But the bank account.

'But' covid, only 6000 lives saved? We did right like we should have for the 1919 flu. Understandable. And my four sibs got worked up about it. Not flooding the hospitals was the good thing for me. Otherwise I was bemused under the lowering sky of the Climate Change crisis. But it made the mistake of not being immediate.

Simon Cohen said...

Well if there have been improvements in education and health due to increases in their numbers most people would be hard pressed to see it.
Perhaps Guerilla Surgeon should be looking at the general public service. Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency has more than doubled its PR team since 2017 - when Labour took power - from 32 staffers to 88, 65 of whom are earning $100,000 or more. And the road toll has continued to rise despite these people devising wonderful campaigns such as the road to zero. [plastic $10,000 signs et al]
I would suggest that significant savings could be made there and that is only one example.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Well Simon I might agree with getting rid of a few PR people, but you people seem to think that there are thousands of civil servants sitting round with their thumbs in their bums doing sweet Fanny Adams and collecting fat salaries. Most of the ones I came across worked pretty hard.

But I don't think you're going to manage to get a 15% reduction in public servants simply by firing the PR and maybe the HR people – about as much use as teats on a bull those.

What normally happens is National comes in, fires a whole lot of people, things go pear-shaped and Labour has to hire them again when it comes in. Similar with the Tories in Britain the NHS is chronically underfunded, and has been for as long as they've been in. And schools are falling down, while the education ministry upgrades its offices.

I'm old enough to remember the Italian was it – glass put in the education department building soon after Roger Douglas got in. That wasn't socialism that was when we started treating government services like businesses. And when I visited the Treasury years ago, their facilities would make most school staff rooms look pretty damn bleak, if my son's was anything to go by.

To be honest, I don't remember things in health and education being any better on the national – perhaps you could provide some objective evidence for this? You know, instead of the usual conservative knee-jerk let's fire all the civil servants stuff.

petes new write said...

Let these selfish rightwingers in and you will have them for nine years. Luxon is one of the worst choices as leader and potential prime minister and ACT are a fascist rabble.