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.”


Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Why a ‘Cuppa’ with ACT is problematic for National

Guyon Espiner has written an interesting opinion piece about the dangers of National sitting down for a quiet ‘cuppa’ with ACT. Espiner feels that such a sit down and chat over a cuppa could place National in some difficulty and actually hurt its chances at the polls. He comments that the vast majority of voters simply don’t like or trust ACT mostly as a result of the various actions of its MPs over the past parliamentary term. However, I think that National is caught between the ‘Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’ on this issue.

It appears to me that National has two options. Firstly, to go for a majority government which would mean that it needs to get over 50% of the popular vote. Although the polls are suggesting that it might achieve this, it needs to be remembered that this has only happened, as far as I am aware, three times previously (1938, 1946 and 1951). While, polls can provide good snap shots, the final poll that counts is on the day itself. In 1996, National just managed to hold onto Government despite polling well throughout the year. In 2002, Labour, despite good poll results previously, only gained 41% on election night and was forced to put together an unlikely coalition comprising Peter Dunne’s United Future Party and Jim Anderton’s Progressive Coalition.

This leads to option two, which is to ensure that there is a suitable coalition partner in the event that National does get under 50% of the popular vote. If past election results are any indicator, it appears more likely that while National will emerge with the highest percentage of votes and as the largest party in the House. But, it may lack ‘suitable’ coalition partners, especially, those parties prepared to back its economic programme – even the Maori Party is not open to the idea of asset sales and the economic and social restructuring that is being suggested by National. Therefore, the only party that National can count on in terms of being open to its ideological agenda is ACT.

To sit down with Brash over a cup of tea (The Devil) may lead to the outcomes that Espiner is suggesting – as he notes, 99% of people don’t like ACT and the spinoff of such a deal could be bad for National along the lines of voter cynicism toward National and a corresponding decline in its vote. Plus, there remains no guarantee that National voters in Epson will vote for Banks, given the enmity toward ACT in the electorate. Even if Key endorsed Banks, Goldsmith could still win.

However, not to endorse Banks and ACT could lead to National being forced, in the event that it does not get 51%, having to put together a coalition (or being a minority) Government in which its key economic and social planks are scuttled (The Deep Blue Sea).

National has painted itself into a corner – it needs to get 51% or it needs ACT in parliament.