National’s New Clothes

In the aftermath of the recent National party leadership coup, I quickly skim read a popular blog which discussed the various reasons as to why the spill was abnormal. The conclusion was that right-wing National members (and voters) had previously tended not to worry about who was the Leader of the Party.  It was an interesting post and, it was well researched and argued.

However, it was not strictly correct.

For most of its history National’s parliamentary leadership has been largely stable.  However, National leaders certainly did face leadership coups (and, these coups were supported by the membership).  But there were distinct differences in how the Party perceived them and how they were dealt with.

Firstly, National, was one of the most successful conservative parties in the Western world from 1935 until 1993. (This period covers the election of the first Labour Government in 1935, the establishment of the National Party in 1936 and ended with the final First Past the Post election in 1993).  During that fifty eight year period, National was in Government for thirty two years, compared to Labour’s twenty six years.   It was because the party governed New Zealand throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s (aside from a brief 3 years from 1957 – 1960 and 1972 – 1975) that National considered itself the natural party of Government.  And, you stayed as the natural party of Government by not rocking the boat ie. by launching bloody coups against your leaders.

Secondly, National (and, indeed, Labour party) leaders tended to be masters of their respective Caucuses.  Muldoon, after “disposing” of Sir John Marshall in 1974 ruled his Caucus and the wider party with an iron fist.  Sir Keith Holyoake, despite his demure appearance and personality, had done likewise.  National’s leaders, despite their commitment to individualism and the seemingly laisse faire approach to caucus membership and authority, have been ruthless in imposing strict discipline that would put the democratic centralism practiced by Marxist-Leninist parties or groups to shame.

My father once said to me that there is nothing more vicious than a Tory with their back against a wall.  When leadership coups have occurred within the National party they have tended to be when National’s electoral backs have been against such a wall.  The only exceptions have been Sidney Holland, who was replaced by Holyoake as he was ill and could not fulfill his responsibilities and, Holyoake who stood down from the leadership in 1970.  (Holyoake’s leadership was being challenged in the late 1960s. But he saw off potential interlopers.  However, after leading National to a 4th term in Government, he saw the proverbial writing on the wall and retired). Muldoon, after biding his time as deputy leader, to Marshall, ruthlessly disposed of him in 1974.  A coup which had the support of both the caucus and the wider party.  This situation came about due to Marshall’s inability to match Norman Kirk.   The hapless and luckless, Jim McLay who ‘succeeded’ Muldoon, was likewise ruthlessly disposed of by his predecessor and his deputy, Jim Bolger in 1986.  McLay was no match for either David Lange or a vengeful and resentful Muldoon who had rallied a significant section of the National Party (Rob’s Mob) behind him.  Bolger was later rolled by Jenny Shipley in 1998.

Modern National party history, since 2000, is equally replete with such spills.

So is the modern Labour party.  For the most part, aside from Kirk’s coup against Arnold Nordmeyer in 1965, Labour leaders remained in place for considerable periods despite electoral losses. The first leader of the Labour Party, the Marxist Harry Holland was leader from 1919 until his death in 1933.  Labour finally became Government in 1935. Walter Nash was leader from Peter Fraser’s death in 1950 until he retired after 1963.  (Nash was Prime Minister between 1957 – 1960).  Bill Rowling lost the Prime Ministership in 1975 and, likewise led Labour to electoral defeat in 1978 and 1981.  Both, particularly 1981, were narrow loses with Labour polling ahead of National on both occasions but losing because of the First Past the Post electoral system.

In 1989/90 and in the aftermath of Labour’s loss in 2008 there have been a succession of leaders until stability was restored by Helen Clark in 1994 and, by Jacinda Arden in 2017.

The reason I think that leadership spills occur far more frequently in both parties now is due to the problematic proximity of the parties to electoral power.  The MMP system and the need to connect with sympathetic voters and potential coalition parties means that both the major parties are more readily able to form a Government.  MMP has meant that National can no longer perceive of itself as the natural party of Government.  Unlike the winner take all approach of the First Past the Post system, MMP requires convincing voters and potential political partners to support you. It relies on you and your coalition partners being able to achieve 50% and more of the total parliamentary vote to become the government.  (Previously, National had 45% but no coalition partners.  Labour, might have had 40% support but it had coalition partners who shared its general policy outlook.  The result is that National loses and Labour governs as it has over 50% support in Parliament).  Consequently, parties have become more ruthless in terms of decerning who their leaders are – not only in terms of selling their respective policy but, (and, more importantly) in ensuring that they are able to connect with voters and potential partners.

Consequently, National’s past might be useful in determining its potential future approach.  National’s new leader, Todd Muller has realized that appealing to sympathetic voters and parties such as New Zealand First will not be achieved by adopting the approach of National’s first leader, Adam Hamilton and its most recent, Simon Bridges to simply “oppose, oppose and oppose” the Labour Government.  The electoral success of the Holyoake Government lay in the ability of that Government to reach a consensus between different parties and different groups. Consensus is reached between those parties who have common principles or policy.  It is seldom reached between those who have substantially different views and approaches.

It is not by accident that the new leader of the National party, Todd Muller has seemingly adopted a more collaborative approach and has reached out to New Zealand First as part of the new direction. He recognizes that there is a commonality between both parties and where there is commonality there might be a political consensus.  Tracey Martin has recognized the new approach and responded warmly to National’s new overtures. As the old saying goes, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

Social Democracy (and JM Keynes) rides again…

With the hullabaloo about the budget finally dying down it is probably time to reflect on what it meant and, what it portents for the future of the country (and, the Labour party).

I want to make the point that it is probably the most sweeping budget for the past 40 years.  Effectively, turning its back on the market, the central role for planning and development was conclusively given back to the State.  Further, the Government openly declared that it would not be pursuing surpluses or balanced budgets.  Instead, it would deficit finance to minimize the coming recession.  In one fell swoop, the Government turned its back on 40 years of neo-liberalism and market led economics. .

It was a budget, that certainly reset the scene for the re-introduction of social democratic principles and policy.

But, it was also a budget designed to reassure both the business community and the voters that the Government had a plan and that plan would not be the heralding in of the red dawn.

The budget instead opted for the principle that the Government had to be responsible for ensuring economic growth, stability, and demand. It also clearly indicated that Government was determined not to throw people into the fire pit of austerity – which had been suggested by some economists, business people and political commentators.  Among the suggestion to come from that quarter was to simply let struggling business go to the wall, lower wages and, then, simply wait for a market correction to deal with the resulting unemployment. One of them even suggested that the wage subsidy be turned from a subsidy into a loan which workers would later pay back. The most common refrain was that the Government was placing new generations of people into debt. (Ignoring the simple fact that private debt has considerably risen in this country since the advent of neo-liberalism in the mid-1980s and succeeding generations are poorer than the preceding ones).

Thankfully, the Government ignored the bleating from these people.  Listening to them would have had the effect of worsening New Zealand’s overall economic condition, turning solvent workers into insolvent unemployed ones , damping domestic demand and turning a bad recession into a truly terrible one (or worse).

Of course, as Jacinda Arden and Grant Robinson observed we are not out of the woods yet and, I would suggest that the Government might have to delve more deeply into its social democratic/democratic socialist traditions (and bag of tricks) to find policies and procedures to cope with the coming international recession.

As I suggested in an earlier post, one of these means is to have the Government lead and coordinate economic planning and development.  However, as a friend of mine observed, Government’s ability to plan has been substantially weakened in the past 40 years.  Instead, Government’s have allowed the market and private capital to determine outcomes and the market has proven itself to have an appalling tendency to either think tremendously short term and if it does think and act long term, as major Corporations do, then that thinking and acting is to benefit themselves and not the wider community.

The tendency to let the market determine goals has permeated the public sector to a degree that the State Sector CEOs are little better than state paid business people.  In the past, Governments, both National and Labour were far more ‘hands on’ in their management of state sector development and they will need to be so again.  I am aware that the State Sector Act is being rewritten by the Government.  The redrafted Act promises such an approach and the restoration of parliamentary oversight and democratic control into that sector.  This needs to happen.

The other thing that needs to occur is the creation (or recreation) of a coordination and planning Ministry that can spearhead development.  A suitable name for this new agency could be the Ministry of Works, Development, and Infrastructure.  It could have its own responsible Minister in Cabinet.

A further coordination step would be the recreation of a body bringing together unions, local government, central government, and the private and public sectors to plan and coordinate projects on all levels.  This body could be like the old New Zealand Planning Council.

Of course, how far down the social democratic track we go depends on what shape the Government takes in the next term.  If Labour wins an outright majority of over 50% (a feat unseen since 1951) then we might expect more far reaching reforms.  The same is true is if Labour goes into a Government with the Greens (and, not New Zealand First, which is acting as the conservative handbrake (and footbrake) on the current Government). A Labour-Green Government would be a true Green social democratic government which would probably look at taking some of the more necessary steps in economic, social, environmental, and industrial reform and policy.

Bruce Jesson once observed that New Zealand was a conservative social democratic country and most people had conservative social democratic principles and a strong belief in equality.  New Zealander’s were so enamored of equality for example, that one overseas observer in the early 20th century said that he could envisage the erection of a statue of Equality and its placement in Wellington harbour. Eugene Victor Debs, the great American socialist was apparently once asked if he could lead the masses to socialism. He responded that he could, but that someone would simply lead them out again. In 1984, New Zealander’s were led away from social democracy into the far harsher and more cruel set of beliefs and principles of neoliberalism.

Necessity will make the majority of us, at the very least, social democrats again in the immediate future.

Don’t Fear the Reaper

“… So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear isfear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”  Franklin Delano Roosevelt 1933 Presidential Inauguration Speech

In the very early and mid-1990s, I worked for Para Rubber in Dunedin.  Para Rubber was a NZ institution that had been established in 1910 and survived a Depression and two World Wars.  It was a national wide chain with shops in most of the country’s cities and towns.  However, that was to come to a shuddering halt in the mid-1990s when it was split off from Skellerup Industries, broken down and, then franchised.  The new franchise operators could not deliver the same products or provide the same service as the old national chain. So, they cut back. Frustrated customers went to other stores to get the goods that they could not longer get at Para with the result that the stores cut back again.  Eventually, the franchised stores closed, staff were laid off and a great nation-wide chain was reduced to a few desultory outlets.

What happened to Para is the template for how businesses operate in a crisis.  COVID 19 has produced such a crisis and private businesses are taking the appropriate action and measures. They are retrenching, cutting costs and reducing services.  It is a survival mechanism for businesses in a recession.  They need to turn a profit to survive.  Consequently, those additional costs (such as labour or wages) that prohibits them from surviving is jettisoned.

Private businesses are hard wired to think short term.  Their economic survival depends upon them turning a profit in the appropriate quarter.  Subsequently, they are ill equipped to encourage or lead long term economic growth or planning.  Long term planning and growth needs to be undertaken by other bodies and usually this other body is central Government.

The problem is that the New Zealand economy since 1984 has been run on largely commercial lines borrowed from and influenced by business.  Businesses have led the way and influenced not only the economic priorities that the country has followed but, also the way in which governments have structured and conducted themselves and the language that Government uses.  For example, the New Zealand public service is not really a public service.  It is run on largely commercial lines.  Ministries, Departments and state agencies are administered by boards and led by a Chief Executive who operate on commercial lines.  They refer to the public as clients or customers.  Outside organisations or agencies are referred to as service providers.  People are charged for advice or for resources.  Simply, they are run as de-facto commercial organisations.

The problem for New Zealand is that we are seeking answers from people who have now been heavily influenced by a set of priorities and principles that are outdated and deeply problematic.  Simply, the beliefs that they subscribe to do not provide answers or rather they will not provide the answers to questions that people are asking about jobs, standards of living and opportunities etc.  To provide those sorts of answers to those sorts of questions, the Government (and the New Zealand economy) needs to step away from a set of economic beliefs and priorities that benefited one small set of people over the well being of the community.

There is a reason why US President, Harry Truman quipped, “Give me a one-handed Economist. All my economists say ‘on hand…’, then ‘but on the other…”. Simply, economics is not a valueless system.  It is hotly contested and there are countless economists with different prescriptions based on different values.

This is because economics is not a science.  It is deeply political and, as such, economies and economic frameworks are determined by what (certain) people think that a society wants and needs.  If a people want a society that provides people with housing, jobs, comprehensive public health care and education and a high quality of life, then an economy has to be designed that provides those outcomes.  However, since 1984, we have had an economy that has largely benefits the wants and needs of a select group of people.  The theory was that these ‘captains of industry’, once they were ‘engorged’ enough on low taxes, low interest rates and low financial and economic restrictions, would then throw some money to the great masses of people and somehow, society at large would benefit.  (It is comparable to the same manner that medieval Lords would throw scraps to the dogs from the banquet table).

Simply, it has not worked.  But that is hardly surprising, given that it did not work in the 19th century, or in the 1930s, or in 1987 and in 1997.  It will not work now, either.  It will only make a dire situation more dire.

In the early 1930s when the same economic systems and prescriptions were in play as they are now, there was a growing belief by economists, governments and a growing number of people that the business as usual/classical economic approach had failed.  It had failed to provide business stability, it had failed to provide employment, it had failed to provide a standard of living for millions of people.  It had only benefited the very rich (who continued to make money at this time) and it had led to the greatest economic depression in the modern world.

And, Governments and parties reacted to this breakdown.  The failure of classical economics to provide basic living conditions and stability saw Sweden’s new Social Democratic government turning its back on the classical approach in 1932.  New Zealand did so in 1935.  Of course, the most significant rejection was when the newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt announced his ‘new deal’ in his 1933 Inauguration speech.  It was the final confirmation that the ‘business as usual approach’ advocated by the business community and their allies (and which had contributed to widespread economic and social pain for millions of US citizens) was over.

New Zealand and the world stand on the edge of an economic, social and environmental, abyss as large as that which swallowed the world in the 1930s.  It is folly to believe that the same economics that contributed to the calamity that now exists are going to solve the situation and lead the world to a new golden age.  Already, their prescriptions are clear.  Governments need to cut, retrench and do less and, somehow, society will be restored.

As in the 1930s, Governments and communities need to be strong and turn their backs on the harping from failed neo-liberal economists and their political ilk.  As Roosevelt said the only thing that we have to fear is fear itself.

Falling down the Rabbit Hole – Don’t Scrimp on Wages

Over the past weeks, Jacinda Arden made news with her statements that she intended to take a short term salary decrease as a means of showing solidarity with the thousands of workers who now face unemployment or reduced wages and conditions as a result of the COVID 19 crisis. The aftermath of what was an altruistic measure by the Government has been the call by other members of the community to cut public sector wages as well. (Ignoring the fact that many public servants are not paid significantly high wages. The benefit for public servants is that the public sector is highly unionized and, as a result, public sector workers do have better terms and conditions than private sector workers).

The other option that has been mooted is that public service wages are simply frozen. However, this will also essentially lead to other problems down the line. Simply, if wages do not increase while the cost of living does – then workers have had an effective cut in their wages. (Like a number of people, I still remember the chaos that resulted from the 1982 Wages and “Price” Freeze).

Additionally, the public sector drives wages and conditions in the private sector. A move to restrict or to lower wages in the public sector will have flow on effects in the private sphere as well. Those private sector employers who were driven to match public sector pay increases will no longer feel inclined to do so. The result will be a stalling of wages across both the public and private sector and a decrease in demand as people cut back.

Simply, a cut in one area will directly mean a cut in another.

Already, the ranks of the neoliberals in the business community and their political allies are being rallied. Their prescriptions are very simple, cut costs, reduce spending, lower taxes and return to sound business practices as soon as possible. Paul Goldsmith, the Tory finance spokesperson spelt it out very clearly by stating that “… the core engine of growth will always be private sector investment.” (Ignoring the fact that historically public investment has always led economic recovery In New Zealand with private investment cautiously and reluctantly tiptoeing behind).

They are promoting a policy of austerity. It is largely the same austerity programme as practiced by other conservative governments internationally and, was practiced by governments in the 1920s and the 1930s. The effects of that package are, and were, economically and socially dismal.

When Jacinda Arden announced the COVID 19 alert level process that the Government would be following, behind her was a picture of Michael Joseph Savage, Labour’s first Prime Minister. Savage’s government was one of the few in the western world which was at the forefront of confronting the “business as usual” classical approach pursued by western Governments in the 1930s. It was the classical approach that saw the curtailing of wages and government spending and led to the prolonging of the Depression. As the economist, John Maynard Keynes observed at the time, the financial approach of Governments to depress wages and investment was folly, “ …everyone who hates social progress and loves deflation, feels that his hour has come and triumphantly announces how, by refraining from every form of economic activity, we can all be prosperous again.”

The government needs to invoke not only the ‘picture’ of that Labour Government, it needs to invoke its spirit and practice its actions as well.

For most of its term, I have never thought of this Government as being transformational, despite the statements that it was. However, it has reacted incredibly well to the crisis, saving lives and jobs in the process. It now does have the potential to be truly transformational in its next actions. There will be ongoing effects as a result of the COVID 19 crisis which will require direct government and community involvement. The Government does recognize that the state is the only institution that can “kick start” the economy and that public resources need to be directed toward that goal.

But, if it is to truly succeed then the reforms and the programmes need to be more far reaching than that – this will mean the rolling back and replacement of many economic and social policies and programmes put in place from 1984 onward. It will mean the rewriting of the Reserve Bank Act, the renationalization of parts of the economy, the creation (or recreation of) new Ministries, such as a Ministry of Works, Development and Infrastructure and the reintroduction of controls and import barriers to protect jobs and investment. (I note that the Greens have put forward an investment programme that would be labour intensive and productive if parts of it were implemented. It would also put us ahead of the curve in terms of dealing with climate change – which has not gone away).

One of the things that the Government cannot do is to scrimp and cut back on wages and conditions. It is at this point that I would urge the Government to implement the Fair Pay agreements promoted by the CTU and the Unions. By establishing wage and salary guidelines and implementing national Fair Pay agreements, the Government can ensure well being across the private and public sectors at a national level. Hundreds of thousands of workers would be guaranteed of good wages and conditions while the domestic economy would be guaranteed of economic demand.

It is recognition of a simple economic fact that in a capitalist economy one person’s wages do indeed make up someone else’s income or profit. A simple decrease in wages will have the effect of curtailing spending in a shop or a café. This downward spiral leads to the cutting back of expenditure in the form of services, wages or jobs.

It would be too easy to fall down the economic rabbit hole as Governments in the 1920s and 30s did. If the current Labour-led Government does not want a rerun of the 1930s then it needs to be as brave as its 1930s predecessor was. Like that Government, it has a world to win.

Donald Trump and the Rise of Post Truth

The inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the US has now happened and like everything else to do with the Trump Presidency.  It has been mired in controversy.  Not, only did A-grade stars refuse to play at his inauguration balls, but the media and other political commentators pointed out that the Trump inauguration was smaller than his predecessors, especially Obama’s 2009 first inauguration.

Trump’s reaction to this has been to call into question the reliability and truthfulness of his opponents. In the case of the Inauguration, Trump and his team responded that they had never asked for A listers to attend; or that he wanted a people’s inauguration which is why there were no A list stars.  These explanations are at odds with previous comments from Trump that he was being approached by stars to attend and that Trump’s team had offered people money and political appointments if they did attend.

The latest controversy came with the observation by the Press and by Trump’s political opponents that the crowd for his inauguration was considerably less than that for Obama’s first inauguration in 2009.  As a clear comparison, many media outlets published photographs from the two inaugurations side by side to prove their point.  Trump’s reaction to this was to accuse the media of lying and creating “fake news”.  He expressed this belief when he was speaking to CIA officials on Saturday morning.

The CIA visit and the resulting speech was a means to repair a rather fraught relationship between Trump and the US intelligence agencies. Trump had been critical of the US Intelligence agencies throughout his campaign. However, he became more critical with the release of a recent report which alleged that Trump was in the pay of the Russians. In the aftermath of that release Trump compared the US intelligence agencies to those in Nazi Germany.

However, Trump largely used the speech to skewer his opponents remarking that the supposed hostility between him and the various agencies was the result of the media.  The media was openly trying to discredit him.  Indeed, the media could not even get the numbers at his inauguration correct.

As the Guardian reported;

His 15-minute speech included boasts about the supposed – and inaccurate – size of crowds for his inauguration; expressions of airily defined love and support for intelligence agencies with which he has been at odds over their belief in Russian attempts to influence the election on his behalf; boasts about the number of times he has appeared on the cover of Time magazine; the supposed fact that it stopped raining when he spoke at the Capitol on Friday (it didn’t); and an insinuation that he might start another war in Iraq.

The US (and indeed the larger international) media was provided with another strange scene later that day when the new White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer called a press conference and accused the press of dishonest behaviour over its reporting of the inauguration.  Reuter’s news agency reported that;

In an unusual and fiery statement on Saturday night, White House spokesman Sean Spicer lashed out about tweeted photographs that showed large, empty spaces on the National Mall during the ceremony on Friday.

“This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe,” Spicer said in a brief statement. “These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm about the inauguration are shameful and wrong.”

In response to questioning about Trump and his assertions, Trump’s team have now proposed that they have “alternative facts” to those that are being presented by their opponents.  (Their opponents appear to be anyone who is opposed to Trump).  The notion of “alternative facts” was presented by Kellyanne Conway, the newly appointed White House “Counselor” in an interview with the Chuck Todd, who is the political director of NBC news.  Todd confronted Conway pointing out that there was no such thing as “alternative facts” merely falsehoods.

The worrying thing is the attitude which appears to be taken by some politicians and is being legitimised by the Trump White House in what some people have euphemistically labelled as a “post-truth” situation.   For the layperson, Wikipedia notes that “Post -Truth” identifies a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. Post-truth differs from traditional contesting and falsifying of truth by rendering it of “secondary” importance. Post Truth allows people to repeatedly spread claims even if they have been found to be untrue by the media, opponents or experts.

In the post truth situation, the facts are derided, ignored or it even proposed that there are “alternative facts”.  Alternative facts endorse the idea that facts can be challenged.  As Humpty Dumpty remarked to Alice;

“When I use a word …. it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.

In the past if someone was caught lying then they would often admit it, especially after the facts of the situation came out.  As an example, Richard Nixon admitted that he had been less than truthful regarding Watergate when the facts were eventually revealed.  However, there is no such thing as “alternative facts.” It is nonsense, a fact is a fact is a fact. A fact is based on something that has demonstrable evidence.  Water boils at 100 degrees at sea level, a heavy stone falling on someone’s foot will hurt are factual.  In politics, this rationale does become more problematic due to its subjective nature.  But, we expect our politicians to be reality factual. Further, if they are caught out then they should admit it. Was Richard Nixon behind the break in at the Watergate Hotel? Yes, he was.

The problem is that facts are being circumvented by (political) opinion masquerading as fact.  This is the important difference, you can have alternative opinions but, these are not facts.  If someone offers an opinion on a topic, that is their opinion.  An opinion can be based on facts, and good opinions should be, but they are still opinions.  The worrying aspect of this situation is that these opinions are being stated as valid facts. Further, the public are being told that not only are there no such thing as facts, that any facts or events that you don’t like can be changed.  This has the chilling effect of nullifying facts in the public consciousness. That is, if everyone is right, then no one is right.

Reflection on the Elections – Labour’s Loves Lost

It’s been a long time since I have written a blog. My thesis got in the way and I made a promise to my Supervisors not to write a blog as it took time away from that. I was, I admit, bad at keeping some of the other promises that I made to them but I did keep the one about the no blogging – until now.

After one of Nationals’ inevitable victories when I was a kid in the 1970s, my father, who was a railway worker and Labour supporter, said to me; “You know I often think that the working class is its own worst enemy.” Doubtless, if he was still alive he would have said that last night as well. While I feel it’s an overstatement, there is a large amount of truth in that observation. After all, in 1931 in the depths of the Great Depression, the majority of people marched to the polling booths and voted for the Tories. In 1935, the majority of people again marched to the polling booths and voted for the Tories. The difference was that in 1935, the Tory vote was split and the FPP system favoured Labour which won its first election. In 1938, after three years of a Labour Government, the majority of people finally marched to the polling booth and voted Labour.

Not blogging and not being, until relatively recently, politically active has allowed me time to think. To be honest I am really disturbed by the lack of progress that the left has made in the past decade. Certainly, the Labour party needs to have fingers pointed at it. Simply, the party appears to have lost the plot. It does not seem to have any sort of coherent programme or vision. A friend of mine made a similar observation today on his face-book page commenting that once Labour stood for workers. Back in those far-flung days, when my father supported it, Labour did support workers and the poor and it used to get over 40 percent of the vote. We have been informed that times have changed and as a result Labour needed to move and so it therefore adopted neo-liberalism and the ‘third way’ or as the former deputy leader of the UK labour party, Roy Hattersley described the third way “a series of cliques looking for a coherent thought.” Yet, horribly for David Cunliffe his most successful moments as labour leader was when he was actually contesting the position and in the immediate aftermath of his win. This was when he actually had stated positions on programmes and actually renounced the ‘third way’ liberalism of his predecessors. However, this success stopped at his first conference as leader when he fudged over free trade and then continued to fudge thereafter.

Of course, Labour is not alone in its sins and, in this breath, I could mention certain left-wing bloggers who regrettably appeared to spend their time inventing or promoting conspiracy theories or scandals. Certainly, the allegations behind Dirty Politics need to be fully investigated. However, the most annoying thing is the extent to which Dirty Politics and the ill-named ‘The Moment of Truth’ were promoted by these bloggers as legitimate alternatives to serious debate and analysis.

All of this leads me to ask what precisely is it that the left actually stands for? People on the left used to talk about the ‘grand plan’ or ‘grand narrative.’ Essentially that they (we) had a set of ideals for a better society which set them (us) apart from the Tories or the capitalists. This grand plan used to be generally referred to as ‘socialism’ and/or social democracy. While, socialism is a term which I am comfortable with, but which has many unwelcome connotations for others, it nonetheless promoted a society which accepted social justice, equality and economic democracy as its basis. Social Democrats tended to opt for the phrase ‘equality of opportunity’. However, the idea was that in this society people had the equal opportunity to achieve their various aspirations.

I have been told that the social democratic project is over. I would argue that it barely got started in New Zealand and that we adopted a conservative version of it. The Welfare state with its emphasis on full employment, free health care and education, decent standards of living, etc are an important part of such a society. But, they are only one part of the programme. The other part which guarantees economic and social democracy and participation remains untapped. A recreated social democratic grand vision needs to turn its back on neo-liberalism and agitate instead for the restatement of social, economic and democratic justice as a central part of its programme. It needs to restate the ideal that people’s aspirations are not achieved through the ‘free market’ but through the ability of equality of opportunity.

An integral part of socialism (and of Sesame Street) is the concept of co-operation. This is something that the left (and yes, the Labour party) has particular trouble with. To be fair, so does the National party. Peter Dunne and the new forgettable ACT MP for Epson are not co-operating partners with National. Rather, they are vassals to a feudal lord. National has effectively cannibalized the right-wing vote which will cause it problems at some point in the future. But, quite frankly, having partners on the left is not, as many in the Labour party appear to believe, a bad thing. It is, particularly in an MMP situation, a good thing. It is something that should be encouraged. The reason for this is because such parties can actually contribute to building and strengthening the left. They can go places, engage with people and suggest things that might be an anathema to some of Labour’s own supporters but nonetheless shore up a left-wing vote and actually help develop an alternative programme. It has to be remembered that most of the reforms that we have today – the welfare state, employment rights, public healthcare and education were all someone’s radical and revolutionary idea at some point.

It is, therefore, disconcerting when you decide to ‘kill off’ your potential partners. Last night, Labour killed Internet Mana. It may deny that, but that is what it did. For Laila Harre, it would have been a situation of déjà vu, as she was the leader of the Alliance when the Labour party decided to kill it off in 2002. The outcome of that killing was Labour coalitions with Jim Anderton, Peter Dunne and Winston Peters.

Simply, the days of the Labour party being the only major force on the left is over. Subsequently, it should (needs to) embrace other parties on its left as perhaps bothersome, but nonetheless useful potential allies.
This is already occurring in terms of the party vote. Although, the campaign slogan is “only two votes for Labour can change the Government.” People largely know that this is not true with the result that people are casting their electorate and party votes for different parties. This I feel explains some of the discrepancy in votes in various seats. The media, fixated as they are on simplistic reporting, overlook the combined votes of the Greens and Labour in a seat and instead decide to focus on the single large National vote. Mostly, because the vote for National’s right wing partners are virtually non-existent.

Lastly, there remains the need to engage with people. I have been told, but am yet to check that the turnout in this election is low. If it is low then National’s grand victory is illusionary and that the engagement process has failed. People remain disengaged and feel that the current electoral system does not have a place for them within it. It is little good to encourage people to advance vote if the only people who do so are those who would have voted anyway. If the turnout was reasonable then the left has simply failed in its attempt to engage with people. Certainly, the National party has a simple message to engage people by tying their aspirations to those of its leader. He is a self-made man and you can be too. National’s message is like a Tony Robbin’s advertisement or a verse from Hot Chocolate, “Everyone’s a winner, babe, that’s the truth.” Only, it ain’t.

It would be best at this point to reflect on the attitude of Labour’s first (and only Marxist) leader Henry Edmund (Harry) Holland. Holland knew that the progress of a party was based on more than simply an electoral cycle. It was a long-term project which required patience and education. To conclude this is not the time for fear. Now is the time for reflection and rebuilding. To quote the old catch phrase, “Things are always darkest just before the dawn.” The dawn is coming. It might be a while, but it is coming. People just need to have a little patience and a little faith.

A Long Lasting and Bitter Cuppa

Former UK Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson once famously observed ‘that a week was a long time in politics’ and John Key must be painfully aware of that observation at the current time. It has been a week in which Key has effectively gone from ‘hero to zero’ as a consequence of him having a simple ‘cuppa’ with ACT’s Epson Candidate, John Banks. A ‘cuppa’ which, although being held in full media glare in a cafe in Epson, had an unwanted addition, as on the same table, unnoticed by either Mr Key or Banks, sat an inconspicuous little black bag containing a switched on recorder, which was quietly recording their private conversation.

Over the past week, the revelation of what might be on that recording has seen the Prime Minister deny any wrong doing in relation to comments which he made in the course of the ‘cuppa’. He has questioned the integrity of the journalist whose bag it was and then accused the New Zealand media of acting like the ‘News of the World’ and UK tabloid journalism in securing the recording. He contacted and laid a complaint with the police about the recording, he has walked out of press conferences, and he has made bizarre comparisons of the recorded conversation with suicide. The entire thing would be completely laughable, if it did not have the potential to seriously undermine Key and National’s campaign and effectively kill ACT in the process.

Key walking out of a press conference and avoiding comments about the matter provoked Labour leader Phil Goff to comment that he could not have imagined any other Prime Minister back to Muldoon, acting in such a manner. I would have to concur. Certainly, one could not imagine Sir Robert Muldoon acting like John Key. Muldoon would not have dodged any media ‘bullets’ and he certainly would not have run from a press conference. Instead, one could imagine Muldoon meeting with John Banks in an office (probably his office in the Beehive, as cafe’s were never his ‘thing’), bluntly laying down the terms for any political concessions and then, later, equally bluntly facing down any journalist who dared question him about the situation.

But, Key is not Muldoon. Muldoon was a person of many attributes. He was a polarising and aggressive figure. However, Muldoon could also be bluntly honest. Key is completely different and that perception of honesty is one of the key (no pun intended) factors in this matter. After all, what can be said about a man who opinion polls are now saying that a significant proportion of New Zealanders like, but don’t really trust.

However, what is really different about Key to me is that he has always appeared as a media creation. As a result, one of the principle interests of the ‘cuppa’ saga has been it effectively taking the ‘shine’ off the Key persona.

In the past a number of political commentators, including myself, have tended to compare Key to National’s last long serving Prime Minister, Sir Keith Jacka Holyoake. ‘Kiwi Keith’ was perceived as having the ability to rise above political disputes. Moderation and consensus were the key terms of Holyoake’s administrations in the 1960s. Key has tried to project himself in that mould.

However, the real comparison to Key is not Keith Holyoake. It is, rather, former UK Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Key, like Blair, is supposedly media savvy – as are his ‘minders.’ Key, like Blair, carefully cultivated the media to bring across a particular image. Like Blair, that image was of Key being an approachable, amiable, likable everyman who had a ‘realistic’ programme, which was divorced from the ‘old’ ideologies which dominated New Zealand politics. Simply, Key wanted to appeal to mostly everyone. He wanted to be liked. He wanted to be ‘cool’.

Yet, despite his attempts to appear, like Holyoake as a progressive conservative; as a mediator and a moderator, as a ‘cool’ person, Key’s Government has undertaken a number of extremely right wing and ideologically motivated decisions – welfare reforms, tax cuts, and changes to employment law amongst the number. In addition, Key and National have also suggested a number of future policy changes should he and they be re-elected, such as asset sales. That is because, Key, like Blair, is actually very ideologically loaded and like Blair, Key has attempted to downplay and minimise these policy changes, by suggesting that they are necessary and ‘sensible’ reforms – when in fact, they are not. However, Key, like Blair, has been (largely) successful in this course of action as he has been aided and abetted by a compliant media.

The ‘cuppa’ fiasco is trivial and in any functioning, politically aware democracy it would not be worth comment except for a few lines in the paper or a few seconds on the news. But, in New Zealand’s ‘New Idea’ focused, politically unaware democracy it has become central to political debate. Yet, this is not just a failure or comment on the status of New Zealand politically unaware news media this is also a failure of Key and his media minders. Not just because, Key has massively stuffed up the situation, but, because I believe that initially it suited Key and National to have the issue centre stage as it effectively deadened debate and discussion during the latter half of the campaign. Key and his minders actually thought that they could initially ‘spin’ it. But, they were wrong and the problem, thanks largely to Key, is that this issue has now taken on a life of its own.

One of the factors that combined to bring down Blair was the media turning against him. In the end all Blair’s years of skilful and careful media manipulation were for nought. Blair, like the Emperor in the famous Hans Christian Andersen tale, was revealed to have no clothes. With the police now threatening to raid key media outlets such as TVNZ and Radio New Zealand for copies of the recording, Key has effectively isolated himself from them and the media at large. Unfortunately, for Key it has also meant that this entire issue will continue to play out for a considerable time to come – right up, possibly, to Election Day next week.

As Wilson went on to observe…” and, a fortnight in politics is an eternity.”