Every election that comes about inevitably has some hacks saying it is “interesting”, “historic” etc, which of course they always are. Elections always change governments in some way, even if not the ruling party. Psephologists (an area that I am often tempted to drop into) are keen to dissect some greater meaning from a vast range of individual decisions made at the ballot box or to not go to the ballot box, and political parties are even more keen to use that data to inform their future utterings of rhetoric, promises and contortions of fact.
The 2014 New Zealand General Election is, though, a bit more than all that. For it needs to be seen in the context not only of 20 years of MMP politics, and an vigorous level of campaigning by opposition parties, that saw many pundits thinking the election would be close, either due to wishful thinking on their part, or because governments seeking a third term usually only scrape through (see 2005, 1996, 1981).
In the height of economic recession, a majority of voters chose to change the electoral system, thanks to sustained campaigning by a coalition on the left, poorly focused counter-campaigning by those on the right (remember Janet Shirtcliffe?) and the feeling by a significant number of voters that they had had enough of radical reforms they neither understood nor felt were helping them. Bear in mind in that same election in 1993, National won by one seat, with 33% of the vote. First Past the Post meant that opposition votes were split between Labour, the Alliance and NZ First.
Today, opposition votes are also split between Labour, the Greens (which have succeeded the Alliance as the far-left faction in Parliament) and NZ First, but National has won an election in its own right, with the system many on the left thought would deliver them sustained so-called “progressive” majorities of Labour supported by a leftwing partner, and perhaps a centrist party maintaining a balance. Not now. Despite a campaign whereby the left DID campaign on a lot of policy, and dishing up a fair bit of dirt, a majority of New Zealand voters weren’t swayed. National getting its best ever result since 1951 and Labour its worst since 1922 speaks volumes not of the split on the left (which has not grown, as the Greens are sustaining fairly consistent levels of support), but on a series of factors that should result in some introspection, particularly from the left...
1 The economy: NZ was barely scratched by the global financial crisis, but was dented by the Christchurch earthquake which destroyed significant capital and has altered Christchurch considerably not least due to the failures of those responsible for its recovery. Still, the overall picture is stable, with relatively low unemployment, steady if not spectacular economic growth and a currency that has sustained value protecting NZers from inflation for capital goods. Whilst most people are employed and are able to maintain a reasonable standard of living, it is difficult for oppositions to gain traction.
2 Kim Dot Com/Hone Harawira/Laila Harre et al: Politically, if there was one movement that poisoned the prospects of a change of government it was this multi-headed hydra of hypocrisy, vanity and power lust. The fugitive billionaire hooking up with a racist anti-semitic bully, a power-crazed communist and a series of like-minded hangers on looked, through their own rhetoric, to be gaining some traction, but didn’t. This mob not only didn’t attract the apathetic, but undoubtedly turned off many voters from ticking the two main leftwing parties because it looked likely they would need HarreWira to form a government. As it turned out, not even the people of Hone Harawira’s home electorate were willing to countenance him selling out to a foreign billionaire, and Laila Harre has wrecked a second political party (herself coming a distant fourth in the seat she contested). They were a gift to John Key, and their demise should be a relief to those on the left, and a stain on those who endorsed them.
3 National has become the party it is comfortable being: While those on the left sought to scaremonger that John Key was out to privatise the remaining SOEs (who really cared?), and had plans for a “neo-liberal” revolution, the truth is that National looks like it has done so for most of its history. A government that doesn’t do much change at all. Beyond charter schools and reform of the RMA (both of which are worthy, although timid), it is steady as she goes. A government that is constraining the welfare state, but retaining it. A government that selectively engages in corporatist picking winners, a government that spends up large on big infrastructure projects it believes in (though fortunately even excessive road spending is much less harmful than massive energy or manufacturing schemes under Muldoon). National is in the centre-ground, which means that it isn’t exciting, it isn’t innovative, but it does move with the winds, and as long as the economy keeps ticking over, and people are content with the services the state provides, it has ltitle reason to change. In other words, a majority didn’t really want change, National is “conservative” in that sense.
4 A majority don’t want their money redistributed: A key part of the campaigning for both Labour and the Greens was to go on about child poverty, and although they weren’t blatant about it, their plans for capital gains tax and carbon taxes respectively and to help poor kids smelt of socialism – although most Kiwis wouldn’t know to call it that. Most people work reasonably hard, earn their money and support their own families, and support a welfare state so that people aren’t homeless or starving. However, while many have genuine concern about kids from poor families, they resent being forced to pay more to bail out the parents who in their view, shouldn’t have had kids they can’t afford or may be seen as feckless, fair or otherwise. Such perceptions may be more acute in electorates where working low-middle income families live side by side those who don’t work, or who are negligent or anti-social. The blanket “give the families of poor kids more money” doesn’t wash with those who rightfully see those who live off the back of others with much more limited concern for their kids. In short, kiwis don’t want more welfare, the lower vote for both Labour and the Greens reflects this.
5 A large majority are uninspired by environmental activism: While the Greens sold child poverty they also sold clean rivers, opposing offshore oil exploration, wanting action on climate change and their new urbanist ideological obsession with rail transport. Although Labour wasn’t far behind in supporting this, the lacklustre Green result indicates that the time for scaremongering over the environment has passed. The child-like messages of fear and simple solutions don’t convince, and few are convinced that the future of the planet is in the hands of a small country in the South Pacific. The Greens did well in party vote in some university electorates, showing that bright naïve enthusiasm for socialism still fires up those who don’t yet have to pay for it. However, the naïve hope the Greens could one day rival Labour has been dashed.
6 Winston Peters is more authentic than David Cunliffe: NZ First’s rather stunning result is a direct outcome of a Labour Party that has very much confined itself to the jargon driven rhetoric of identity politics around leftist gender feminism (“sorry for being a man”), unionised (mostly state sector) labour and so-called academia, as well as Maori identity politics. Whilst this goes down well with many public servants, the heavily unionised employment sectors, beneficiaries and those who imbibed on identity politics at university, it doesn’t work for blue collar workers, especially men. Whilst Winston Peters is expert at being a chameleonic shape-shifter, he is more of a voice of authentic expression of opposition to issues of privilege, cultural alienation and hard work than the swarmy Harvard educated Cunliffe, and his coterie of “spent a life in politics or unions” colleagues. Labour looks less and less like a party that will promote the likes of Shane Jones, Damien O’Connor, John Tamahere or Clayton Cosgrove, and more a party of self-satisfied academics and do-gooders. So few in Labour have stories to tell of entrepreneurship or toil as workers, and ever fewer are willing to engage in the politically incorrect rhetoric, rather than soundbite tested pablum, that Winston happily blurts out. Labour knows Winston wont last forever, but it has lost support to that sort of politics for a reason, and not a reason it is comfortable owning up to. What blue collar traditional Labour voter could vote for a man who apologised for being a man? Or indeed one who hasn’t had the decency to resign straight after the party’s worst defeat in over 90 years, but to quibble like a weasel.
Beyond that, there are some footnotes worth mentioning:
- Maori are not as radical as some may fear. Maori returned to Labour and NZ First in the party vote, and rejected Internet Mana’s radical mob of Harawira and Sykes.
- ACT suffered because of fears Seymour wouldn’t win Epsom and the poison of the recent past. Yes, Jamie Whyte could have done some things differently, he wasn't without gaffs that costs it some credibility, but ACT suffered primarily because it had been gutted by the John Banks era (error) and genuine concern that party vote ACT would be wasted if the election had been close. As it turned out, that fear was unfounded, but it will be up to Seymour to prove he has rock solid support in Epsom to rebuild the party to gain the 3-4% support it ought to attract for wanting less government. The problem is if Seymour looks less like the free market thorn in the side of the government and more like the facilitator of government policy. He needs to have the courage to carve out that identity, the Nats will want him to be a good boy and not to rock the boat. However, he is there to, at least point where the boat ought to be going, not just paddling with a team that isn't his own.
- United Future is like Jim Anderton’s Progressive Coalition – a one man band literally. Peter Dunne is the overhang MP, and when he retires so will his party. It has absorbed several parties over the years and they have all eroded to nothing. The ALCP has greater support.
- There might be 5% + support for a socially conservative party in NZ, but it can’t be led by Colin Craig. He didn’t ever do himself too many favours, and faced the catch 22 ACT faced of not convincing enough potential supporters that his party could reach 5%, so it didn’t. However, he came a distant second in East Coast Bays and handed Labour it’s only significant non-Maori seat victory in Napier with Garth McVicar coming a strong third.
Will the NZ left recover from facing up to the fact that the National Party now embodies as much of what the public wants from socialism as it will support?
However, for those of us who want less government it is more a case of being grateful for it not being worse. National is steadying, not shrinking the state, unless tax cuts mean tax as a proportion of GDP drops over time. National isn't weaning people off of taxpayer funded savings and healthcare, even though the demographic time bomb will make that ever more difficult to sustain. There is a big gap to the "right" of National, I'm unsure David Seymour is able to fill that gap, quite yet. I hope I am proved wrong.