Like just about everybody in the political prognostication and power-projection game, I make a regular habit of entrail reading. The trouble with entrail-reading, however, is that it customarily requires the beast you’re looking into to be dead, its belly slashed open like a Tauntaun whose life force, along with its intestines, slowly seeps out into the snow.
So it was with the nominal Left immediately following the 2014 election. Labour’s dropped into the low 20%s, there’s still upwards of a million non-voters, and even that great verdant hope the Green Party managed to lose a percent and a caucus member. Looking at the preliminary results late on election night (and far too early on the following Sunday morning) … once the incredible jubilation at New Zealand First’s result had died down (which took some hours along with much music and dancing), it really DID feel like the guts had been ripped out of the relatively more left wing of our politics for guys like me to pour over for weeks to come – looking for some hidden sign about why this happened and how to prevent it ever recurring.
[Because I’m acutely aware that I’m writing two weeks after E-Day, and that it’s entirely possible that you’ve already trawled to death any number of political postmortems which arrange various combinations of percentages and absolute figures in pursuit of closure … if another round of that’s going to bore you, feel free to skip to the conclusion. It’s something ENTIRELY different.]
The lessons I took from polling day were as follows:
National dropped nearly 50,000 votes. This is good. It indicates people in their “core” support base are FINALLY starting to grow weary of endless unfulfilled promises and ongoing dodgy-looking policies and politicians.
Despite the fact it’s still a huge number of non-voters, turnout improved slightly from 74% to 77%. Considering the ABSOLUTELY HUGE EFFORT put in by organizations like NZUSA in getting out the vote, and the eased restrictions on advanced voting … this is just absolutely mind-boggling, and hardly something to celebrate. I’ll consider this gall-ing bladder in more detail a bit later on, but for the moment it’s enough to state that there’s a feeling out there in the electorate that neoliberal (or centrist-moving) parties and their policy-menus don’t tempt still much less represent many voters; while the fact NZ’s political civil society has become all but vestigial means it’s more difficult than ever to actually reach out and energize voters without having to rely upon a clown-car full of partisan uber-hacks to have the wherewithal to do it.
Now as applies the conventional (somewhat softer) Left bloc … Labour dropped from 27.5% and about 615,000 votes down to 24.7% and somewhere in the region of 519,000. That’s incredible. The main opposition party is handed a spying scandal, actual evidence that the Prime Minister lied numerous times in an area he said he’d resign if falsehood was proved, a horrifically unpopular and damaging neoliberal governmental economic agenda … somebody event puts out a novel-length hard-copy best-sellling proof of a Watergate slash Stalinist Salami Tactics style dirty tricks campaign on behalf of the Government … and yet the main Opposition party STILL somehow manage to LOSE somewhere in the region of a hundred thousand votes.
And apparently, some people still think changing just Labour’s leader is going to be sufficient to save the New Zealand left 😛
Meanwhile, over in Lothlorien … the Green Party somehow managed to shed 40,000 votes; going from 11% and 247,000 to 10% and 211,000. I’m sure there is some capacious and considerable headscratching going on inside The Greens about how, exactly, they managed to turn an agenda full of reasonably pleasant-sounding centrist-appealing fully costed policies and a weakening Labour party into a worse result than they enjoyed last time.
Russel Norman blames InternetMANA. I like to blame the sort of milquetoast rhetoric that sees Norman setting the Greens up as being less inclined toward state intervention in the economy than National. We’re probably *both* right to a certain extent, but the fact that I’m blaming Norman moving the Greens into the center, while Norman’s blaming things on the further left … ought to tell you something about how we each view the New Zealand electorate.
I would also like to take this opportunity to state that not all New Zealand First faithful were pleased to see MANA go from the House; and I mark the passing of the party that gave us FEED THE KIDS with great sadness. Still, the fact they only managed to add 2,500 votes (taking them from 24,000 to 26,500 and from one seat to none) despite having four and a half million dollars as well as clearly and singularly awesome policy may evince that personalities such as Harawira’s and DotCom’s are even more capable of dissuading voters than Cunliffe’s. (Also, isn’t it funny how nobody actually credits Labour with winning Te Tai Tokerau, but instead insists other parties won it for them)
[Made it through all the numbers? Right. Here’s the important bit. Prefaced by more numbers!]
New Zealand First, however went from strength to strength – building on our impressive return in 2011 to increase our vote by nearly 40,000 and add 4 MPs to our Caucus. I like to think this evinces the growing popularity of an unapologetically economic nationalist and anti-neoliberal party and policy-set. I’ll blog more about what this means for the NZ Left in the near future (hint: Awesome, awesome black-and-silver things!) but for the moment I want to talk about the incredibly long electoral “shadow” that I feel has been cast not just by NZF but also by Labour and The Greens.
We’ve got a situation now wherein the right-wing neoliberal no-future bloc is, for the first time in half a generation’s worth of election cycles no longer gaining votes and support. I think I was in intermediate the last time this happened. Unfortunately, we’ve also reached a point wherein – with the exception of New Zealand First – left-wing parties aren’t exactly gaining support either. Quite the converse, in fact.
What the surge of NZF support tells me is that there is a growing vibe in the electorate for uncompromisingly statist economics and an aggressive, bellicose protest voice in the House. This hasn’t translated into corresponding greater support for either the Labour or the Green Party – because the literal hundreds of thousands of Kiwis out there who might have voted for these parties previously, or who would have vaguely considered the possibility of doing so this time are standing in that “shadow” of democratic engagement *behind* our parties rather than the light of actually being engaged. They’re behind us, rather than off the political spectrum entirely because many of them genuinely believe in and identify with many of our values … but feel there’s barriers (whether of policy or personality or something else entirely) to their greater participation in – or even voting for – an organized political party.
We can venture any number of party-specific reasons why this is so. Some Labourites presumably don’t like the guy leading the party (whomever it might be) and/or the neoliberal policies Labour keeps running with election after election like raising the retirement age and taxing the middle class’s retirement savings. I’m not quite sure *how* to explain the Green Party’s reduced vote in 2014, as I don’t know their voter-base well enough – although it does seem interesting that NZF’s vote has gone up by nearly 40k while the Greens’ has deteriorated by about the same figure. There’s also an argument that #DirtyPolitics actually helped rather than hindered the right wing by switching tens of thousands of voters “off” politics because they mistakenly believed that we’re all as bad as the Nats and had the sense that no matter whom they voted for, they’d be electing a “politician”.
So the really big question that every serious politico should be asking is this: how do we reach out to these million non-combatants and bring them out of our democratic shadow and into the light.
It seems like the main vehicles we’ve used to foster political engagement for the last few cycles – whether political parties, or non-partisan voter-mobilization projects like Rock Enroll or the Electoral Commission just simply aren’t working; and at the same time, the growing disconnect between political parties and the non-hack portions of the electorate is only widening, with corresponding deleterious effect upon the ability of parties to actually represent the concerns, vision and aspirations of electors – much less encouraging people to join up, and play an active role in keeping those policies and parties fresh and relevant to the electorate.
As applies my own experiences with New Zealand First, and more especially NZ First Youth … for about six months in the run-up to the election, I had a near constant stream of people hitting me up via social media, calls, and even random encounters in the street to tell me two things: first, that they genuinely and strongly supported our economic nationalist agenda; and second, when I asked if they’d be keen to translate that support to the next level by joining the party … it kept coming back to a few core themes about why even in its present 21st century state, they couldn’t … just yet. Rest assured, I’m working on ’em 🙂
What this tells me is that at the same time Kiwis are getting ever more disenchanted with, and disenfranchised by the present government; they’re less able than ever to express opposition in our institutional and parliamentary political process thanks to an ongoing breakdown in the way parties act as an opinion conveyor between polis and policy elite.
A number of potential remedies for this have been suggested, ranging from direct democratic measures like binding referendums through to changing the electoral system or mandating that parties reform themselves. Each have their merits, and to that list I’d love to add broadcasting standards for political journalism; but given that, to my mind, the stumbling block for democratic engagement at the moment is many of the parties themselves, I’m most interested in extra-parliamentary political vehicles for engaging with, shaping and transmitting public opinion.
Organizations like Generation Zero have already had some considerable success with this, from an environmentalist perspective and with a view to engaging youth; while Bomber and others played a role in getting tens of thousands of people informed, aware, and pissed off enough to be taken into political consideration when it came to the GCSB bill.
These two causes have now attained recognizable salience in the Kiwi electorate, along with the twin forces of economic nationalism and anti-neoliberalism as core parts of what New Zealanders want out of their politics.
I contend that this occurred in no small part because there were extra-party and extra-parliamentary organizations and organizers prepared to put in the hard yards to make events happen, interface with political parties, and otherwise co-ordinate, contribute to, marshal and immanentize public sentiment on these issues.
The effects have been palpable and obvious – even if, in the case of environmentalism, it’s taken some years to go from an activist-niche cause to something so pervasive and prominent in the Kiwi political consciousness that even the neoliberal National party has to maintain a “BlueGreen” interior organization to accommodate environmentalism in its deep-blue right-wing politics.
That’s the power of civil society, particularly when the already established political vehicles are being average with taking up or implementing a concern.
It’s my contention that just as civil society was able to propel environmentalism along with widespread concern for privacy rights and opposition to mass surveillance into the political limelight previously; there’s now a present need and vacancy for civil society to do something similar with economic nationalism. Previous efforts in this area back when neoliberalism was last seriously challenged in the mid-1990s like the Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA) met with some marked success; and it certainly seems like popular opposition to privatization, land and asset sales offshore, and other issues of economic nationalist salience such as the TPPA is at a twenty first century high.
With this in mind, I’d like to take this opportunity to call for the creation of a new extra-party political vehicle focused around linking up youth with economic nationalism in a similar manner to how Generation Zero’s done an exemplar job with youth engagement and climate/environmentalism issues.
As I’ve already said, there’s a huge swathe of unrepresented opinion out there in the polis on these issues; and due to the nature of economic policy, it’s my generation – the youth, some of the least-listened to voices when it comes to economic policy – that will be bearing the brunt of the consequences for a failure to act in our own future.
Let’s call it “OURtearoa”. Watch this space for more details.
“Curwen Ares Rolinson is a firebrand young nationalist presently engaged in acts of political resistance deep behind enemy lines amidst the leafy boughs of Epsom. He is affiliated with the New Zealand First Party; although his postings here should not necessarily be taken as indicative or representative of NZF’s policy or views.”