All of a sudden in Aotearoa New Zealand there is an election campaign worth following, and not just for its immediate result, but to test the boundaries of left-wing politics: what is acceptable, what is thinkable, what brings votes and hence the power to make change.
Just two months ago, it was all heading in a very different direction. Having signed a pact of fiscal responsibility that cut any prospect of expansionary interventions at the knees, the sole remaining viable parties of the centre-left – Labour and the Greens – appeared interested above all in projecting a reassuring air of technocratic prowess, and in continuing to vie for the same narrowing patch of the mythical centre ground, as they had done with terrible results for three elections in a row. Completely gone was the talk of expanding the voter base, the so-called ‘missing million’ of the disaffected and alienated – roughly a quarter of eligible voters – who have gradually abandoned the political process since the New Right reforms of the mid-1980s.
As is so often the case when parties want to avoid talking about a country’s resource base or in any way threatening capital returns for the most parasitical sectors of the economy, immigration – the most external of all external factors – became the darling issue of both parties. Having begun to demonise foreign property buyers early in the cycle by poring over recent records in search of ‘Chinese-sounding names’, Labour was first out of that particular gate, but the Greens swiftly caught up, couching their policy in the language of ‘sustainability’ and setting an unprecedented limit of 1% long-term arrivals per year including returning citizens.
Both strategies were sprinkled with the odd progressive policy, or promise of progressive policies to come, as well as with generic pledges to reduce the country’s staggering rates of inequality (all implicitly undercut by the spending restrictions alluded to above). But every zig was followed by a zag, every promise of new public housing with the reassurance that ‘we don’t want house prices to fall’. Business would be allowed to continue undisturbed, and the radical neoliberal policies that have dominated government in the country for the last 30-plus years would merely be given a human face.
Then Corbyn happened. But I don’t think that’s what did it.
The problem with chasing swing voters from a comfortable social bloc in a country with a thriving economy is not that it’s a strategy doomed to failure – although it is. It’s that the approach mines the foundations of left-wing politics, with even worse consequences down the line. In the short term, it bleeds parties of their activist bases. Over a decade or more, it erases, in a large portion of the electorate, the very memory of any alternatives. We are now at that very juncture, and Labour’s first round of election advertising dramatically underscored the bankruptcy of the project.
It’s hard to imagine a more feckless slogan than ‘a fresh approach’, especially as you keep repeating in speeches and on social media the hollow moralising mantra that ‘we must change the government’. What ‘a fresh approach’ really means is that things are basically fine. It’s an attack ad against yourself. To make matters worse, as Matt Fairhurst pointed out to me, the campaign was in fact recycled from a recent Labor campaign in Western Australia by Australian Moss Group, the same outfit behind Bill Shorten’s shocking ‘Employ Australians First’ ads.
Poll after poll made it clear: the centrist strategy was not only failing to capture any of the votes of the ruling National Party, freshly orphaned of their highly successful leader after John Key’s retirement last December; it was also strangling the left-wing vote.
The Greens, suddenly dwindling at a projected 10% of the vote while populist rivals NZ First appeared to surge, changed course first. It started with a mea culpa on immigration by co-leader James Shaw, and was followed by the startling admission by Metiria Turei to have lied about her circumstances while on the domestic purposes benefit in the 1990s in order to eke out a slightly higher payment for herself and her daughter. This was in the context of launching a genuinely aggressive policy of welfare reform but, as always, politics mattered more than policy: it was by making herself vulnerable to conservative attacks that Turei staked her claim. It was an act of considerable political courage whose consequences were – and are – impossible to predict by means of focus groups or advance polling.
Two weeks of intense national debate followed, the likes of which we hadn’t seen in years. While the majority of pundits took turns foretelling disaster for Turei and the Greens, the hashtag #IAmMetiria gathered thousands of stories about what two generations of women and families on welfare have had to do to survive. And then the first poll came out. The Greens were up four points to 15%. Labour was down, by nearly as much, to historic lows. It was only one poll, the littlest of pushes, but enough to dislodge Labour leader and professional grey man Andrew Little. An extraordinary seven weeks out from the election, Labour’s caucus replaced him with his very popular deputy, Jacinda Ardern, and elevated Kelvin Davis as the party’s first Māori deputy leader.
Ardern is not a newcomer, but Labour has been in opposition long enough to preclude her from having any executive experience. The ground for (re)invention, therefore, is all hers, and early indications are that she will make full use of it, and abandon the hesitancy of her predecessor. Just last week, in one of the dying gasps of the old leadership, she put the boot into Turei in a television interview. Now, in her first full day on the job, she has begun to send very different signals, and opening up, once again, the terrain of left-wing debate.
It’s hard to predict what will happen from here. The Greens and Labour could spend the next seven weeks fighting over that 4% of the left-wing vote which will make a great deal of difference to their respective post-election fortunes, but none over who gets to form the next government. Or they could take the first steps on the long road towards restoring the franchise of hundreds of thousands. My personal feeling is that this process could not happen as swiftly as it did in Britain, due to the profound disconnect between our parties and our chronically weak public institutions from the wider society. The work for progressives consists in restoring or weaving anew that social texture, and must be pursued strategically, irrespective of the fortunes of the parliamentary left.
As for the seemingly immutable social blocs that determine the outcome of our increasingly unpopular elections, the relative economic security of a large portion of the New Zealand middle class is set against bone-chilling levels of personal debt. Those conditions could change in a hurry, and shift the centre of the country’s politics just as quickly. In the meantime, campaigning for meaningful change remains the first priority of a left that wants not only to survive, but to thrive.
Image: Koru New Zealand Fern / Bernard Spragg