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Home Opinion Fifty shades of beige – with a megaphone
State of the Left - New Zealand

Fifty shades of beige – with a megaphone

Josie Pagani - 10 March 2016

The New Zealand Labour party’s prioritisation of gesture politics over intellectual renewal has had catastrophic electoral consequences

This year opened with the release of two polls marking a damning milestone: a decade since the Labour party last led the conservative National party in any published poll. After three elections and nine years in government, National is winning close to 50 per cent voter support compared to Labour’s 30 per cent.

Labour appears to have given up being more popular than National. It aims to form a left bloc with the Greens and New Zealand First, a Trump-ish anti-immigrant party. Although coalitions are normal in New Zealand's German-style proportional representation system, the strategy of trying to stitch together a winning majority from a base vote of around 30 per cent has failed three elections in a row.

According to research, Labour lost the 2014 election because it was not trusted on the economy, people did not like its leader, and because the party refused to rule out a coalition with the militant-left Internet-Mana party, which was so toxic that a staggering 56 per cent ranked it 10/10 on a dislike scale.

Voters distrust the ability of a weak major party to manage its coalition partners. They do not mind coalitions, but if a Labour-led government threatens to be unstable or weak, it hands National an electoral advantage. Proportional representation ends the two-party duopoly but it is no substitute for making major parties electable.

History tells us Labour is capable of winning more votes than National outright, as it did in 1999, 2002 and 2005, when Greens, New Zealand First, other leftwing parties and a centrist party were also in parliament competing for its vote.

Its decline since owes a lot to the popularity of prime minister John Key, who has governed as a moderate conservative.  Other than partial privatisation of electricity generators, and an increase in VAT to fund income tax cuts, it is hard to nominate examples of a rapacious Thatcherite economic agenda. He has maintained Labour initiatives such as a workplace savings scheme, a large tax credit for working families, interest-free student loans and paid parental leave. His government responded to the global financial crisis with neither austerity nor stimulus.

As the economy sagged, an earthquake smashed the city of Christchurch. Rebuilding New Zealand's second largest city has provided political cover for nine years of fiscal deficits – possible only because the preceding Labour government ran nine consecutive surpluses.

This has presented Labour with a dilemma. If it argues the country is going to hell in a hand basket, as it often does, voters view it as unrealistic and carping. Yet if it does not oppose strongly, then the government's popularity rises further. And when Labour tries to change the subject to the few topics where it has an advantage, it looks cynical and opportunistic.

For example, in 2014 when some native trees fell down in a storm on the struggling west coast of the South Island, the government lifted a ban on milling native timber, for a temporary job creation measure. Labour opposed milling this wood, which was lying around on the forest floor in the working class community where the Labour party was founded. Voters saw the party choosing trees over workers, and it crashed to its worst defeat in 100 years.

Examples of fiascos in that election are numerous, like the time the leader apologised for being a man.

Labour's working class base now often see the party as more interested in social engineering than social mobility. It entertains sugar taxes, but discards taxes on capital. It has seemed more interested in making you a better person than making you better off.

Behaving like a different protest group every week, Labour has turned inward. It opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal which, in government, it started negotiating and which is supported by four former party leaders.

Labour's nativism reached reactionary depths last year when it compiled a list of people with ‘Chinese-sounding names’ as Exhibit A in its campaign against foreigners buying houses in Auckland. I wish I was making that up. None of these positions come from a passionately-argued revision of principle. Instead, it is the result of a culture Labour has developed where advancement depends on your skill at palace politics. A contest of ideas is heresy. Most damaging of all, forced unity has become a priority above everything else, including good ideas or deep connections to your community.

Behind the placards and behind the frenzied attacks on foreign corporations, immigrants and John Key, the public sees cynical, risk-averse and calculating individuals placating activists. Fifty shades of beige with a megaphone. Meanwhile, this gesture politics lends itself to emotive, negative campaigning that turns even more voters away.

The message from Labour is often ‘your life is miserable, New Zealand is a dreadful place and getting worse, the world is scary, don’t let it in, and by the way you’re fat – vote for us!’

It’s not an especially progressive pitch, and it is an electoral debacle.

Josie Pagani is a political consultant and commentator

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's monthly insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

Tags: Josie Pagani


Jose Joaquin
13 March 2016 19:46

Second attempt.... Dear Josie: Are you sure that you are not writing about the fate of the so called Chilean left, or for that matter, from any other similar scale model of this marvellous though sad world of all of us, human beings? For all I know, the so called political right, in government or in opposition, here and there and everywhere, represents only the public incursion of the private right that, at any particular time, holds economic power, that is the only real power. Politics is not, as it seems to be, just the bizarre art of fighting, for the state’s power, but, is the one step more evolved art of utilizing accesible knowledge, in order to drive economy for the good of all, WHILE letting inspiration of the social groups, AND wisdom of all of us the people respectively, to drive and pull society in the same direction and sense. Therefore, the political and economic dimensions of human endeavour on their own, can only force or at the most govern the human collective towards the good of the very few, while in subordinating it from the human community. Only the social and cultural dimensions, of the social groups -us-, and the people -all of us-, are able to inspire and drive and pull wisely, the human community AND the human collective towards the good of all, WHILE subordinating the human collective to the human community. Only this way, humanity will ever start evolving continuously from: • Power to knowledge to inspiration to Wisdom • Desires to projects to yearnings to Vocation • Faith to hope to love to Charity • Temperance to prudence to justice to Fortitude • Equality to liberty to fraternity to Unity • Dependency to in-dependency to inter-dependency to Transcendence Thus, my conclusion and general comment, is that any given self-appointed, knowledge-inspiration-and-wisdom-despising, phantom-and-partly-public left; that pretends not only to fight but also conquer the very real and private right, that always holds power, behind the social groups and people’s backs, even if ever elected by the people, will never be able to govern the whole of society towards the good of all, because the wise pull of the people and the inspired drive of the social groups are too weak to overcome the very tugging of this consumer economy towards the good of a few, and the weak, erratic and overall unreliable attempts of politics to drive god knows who, what, how and when, towards god knows where, why and for what. I invite you to visit, counter-clock-wise, my Manifesto on Model Thinking. http://modelthinking.blogspot.cl

Jose Joaquin
13 March 2016 12:07

Dear Josie: My apologies for addressing my still unpublished comment from yesterday march 12, to Mr. Pagani.

11 March 2016 08:43

Pretty spot on. Good job pointing out Keys centrism, people I know get crazy when I point this out. I'm really bothered by the depiction of PM Key as an evil bogeyman - which has reached deranged levels amongst many labour voters - it does the lett cause huge harm. Every time anti Key obsessives lose their minds over his latest alleged outrage - pony tail pulling, the flag - the rest of the country simply shake their heads and think to themselves "well even if I don't like Key that much, these other people are just nuts so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt." I constantly find myself in this position because I'm so irritated by the sanctimoniousness of my left friends. With out clear eyed assessments labour cannot rebuild and become a government in waiting. Key learnt from Clark to be relentlessly, even ruthlessly, centrist (remember how Clark panicked over Foreshore and Seabed a craven play to "middle nz").

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