By Chris Trotter*
Seldom have the conditions for establishing a new, mainstream political party been so favourable. There are a host of critical issues crying out for concerted government action – and not receiving it. There is voluble backing from key state institutions, the Treasury, the Reserve Bank, for a significant increase in government spending – which is not being heeded. There is a rising chorus of voices lamenting the inability of the nation’s political leaders to rise to the challenge of urgently needed reform – but not from within the existing parliamentary caucuses. Why, then, are we not witnessing the birth of a new political party?
Part of the answer lies in the sheer homogeneity of opinion throughout New Zealand’s political class. When Francis Fukuyama wrote about the “end of history” in the early 1990s, he was, of course, quite wrong. History never ends. What he was really describing was a phenomenon that had already been observed and written about roughly three decades earlier, the “end of ideology”.
The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties is a collection of essays edited by the American sociologist Daniel Bell and published in 1960. The book’s argument, in essence, is that post-war politics had ceased to be about dramatic confrontations between diametrically opposed systems of belief, and was, instead, reducing to a process characterised by sensible debates between sensible people about practical measures designed to improve, incrementally, economic and social systems that were generally agreed to be working well.
That description corresponds remarkably closely to the manner in which the New Zealand political class carries out its functions. Thirty years of neoliberal economics have left very little in the way of credible, organised opposition to its standard operating procedures. Not even the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09 was sufficient to undermine the world’s confidence in neoliberal policies. It continues to be the language in which serious people debate serious issues.
Such was not the case when neoliberalism first began to acquire political momentum. Forty years ago, Keynesianism was still the language in which serious people discussed serious ideas. It’s successes in 1960, when Bell’s book was published, were so prodigious that the dwindling band of Keynes’s critics were largely dismissed as cranks. To become the language of economic common sense, neoliberalism had first to challenge and then to decisively defeat its Keynesian opponents.
In New Zealand, as elsewhere, that struggle split the ranks of the major parties. In both Labour and National there were plenty of individuals and interests whom Keynesianism had served extremely well since the 1930s. Their champions were familiar with Keynes’s arguments and wielded them unhesitatingly against the proponents of the “free market”.
When it became clear that the battle had been lost in both major parties, the upshot was two new political formations: NewLabour (later to become the Alliance) on the left, and NZ First on the right. Their respective leaders, Jim Anderton and Winston Peters, came from within the two big parliamentary caucuses, and a great many Labour and National members followed them out.
Just how different the present political environment is from the 1980s and 90s may be gauged by the almost complete absence, in 2019, of alternative economic ideas (and their champions) within the boundaries of mainstream New Zealand politics.
The closest this country has come to a champion promoting an alternative to the neoliberal status quo, Labour’s David Cunliffe, proved to be a very weak reed indeed. He had the wit and the courage to declare neoliberalism a failure, but failed entirely to produce and promote a coherent economic alternative for the broader labour movement – which had voted him into the leadership – to make its own. Without such an alternative, he was powerless to mount any kind of effective defence against the defenders of neoliberalism in National, the news media, and – crucially – his own caucus.
It is no accident that those who occupy the leading positions in Labour’s present parliamentary hierarchy are, to a man and woman, the leading prosecutors of the case against David Cunliffe between 2011 and 2017.
Another explanation for why there appears to be so little sign of a significant electoral challenge to the status quo lies in Anderton’s and Peters’ success in attracting the opponents of neoliberalism to their respective banners. This, and the closely related success of the MMP option in the 1993 referendum, meant that, economic policy-wise, National and Labour ceased to be “broad church” parties. Their MPs might differ over same-sex marriage and euthanasia, but on the key components of Roger Douglas’s neoliberal revolution they remain fiercely united.
The implosion of the Alliance over Anderton’s support for toppling the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 was, thus, even stupider than it looked. The split not only robbed the left of its most competent leader, but also ensured that the most talented and articulate opponents of neoliberalism lost their parliamentary seats and were scattered across the progressive community. There they did much that was good – but never on the scale made possible by the Alliance’s presence alongside the Labour Party in government.
But, what about the Greens? Surely, theirs is the party that occupies the political and ideological space vacated by the Alliance? Certainly, there are many who would say so, but are they correct? Have the Green Party, and the Values Party before it, ever truly been the “watermelons” – green on the outside, red on the inside – their enemies claimed?
The honest historical answer is: sometimes they have, sometimes they haven’t. It was the bitter struggle between its eco-capitalists and eco-socialists that tore Values apart, and very similar tensions have plagued the Green Party since its formation in 1990. The plain truth, however, is that while the eco-socialists have at times exercised considerable influence over, they have never dominated the Green Party. Whenever a choice has been offered – as it was in the contest between Sue Bradford and Metiria Turei – the eco-socialists lost.
Never has this eco-capitalist ascendancy been more evident than under the present co-leadership of James Shaw and Marama Davidson. It was, after all, Shaw who insisted that Labour and the Greens sign up to the quintessentially neoliberal Budget Responsibility Rules. And it was Marama Davidson who, only last week, sat beside Megan Woods and seconded Labour’s abandonment of the KiwiBuild project. Some rent-to-own and shared-ownership experiments are a poor substitute for the massive state-house construction programme which a genuine eco-socialist would have insisted upon.
Though the programme for a new party is essentially already written:
- Increased spending on our crumbling national infrastructure
- Root-and-branch reform of our health and education systems
- A crash programme in state house construction to end homelessness, drive down rents and lower house prices
- A “Green New Deal” to tackle Climate Change
- Radical transparency and enhanced accountability within the state sector
- A foreign policy which proclaims “Neither Washington nor Beijing!”
The chances of a political party forming to seize the present moment are very low.
On neither the Left nor the Right are there the individuals or the institutions ready to launch and fund such a challenge to the status quo. For the best part of a generation there has been no serious debate over the core content and direction of New Zealand economic policy. Young people, in particular, find it difficult to frame even the questions necessary to challenge what they have been taught to regard as “common sense”.
Perversely, MMP – intended to prevent sudden, massive and unmandated change – has locked in place the very neoliberal revolution its adoption sought to roll-back. What’s more, MMP has excused both the Labour and National Parties from making room for rebels. In this country we will not see the sudden emergence of ageing keepers of the Keynesian flame like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn; nor the “authorised radicalism” made possible when self-proclaimed socialists and revolutionaries attract the mass support of younger voters by setting up shop within the reassuring structures of the existing party system.
The political irony of the situation is exquisite. Just when the Powers-That-Be would welcome a radicalisation of the language used by serious people to discuss serious issues; the possibility of a serious new political party emerging to make that happen is vanishingly remote.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. His work may be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com. He writes a fortnightly column for interest.co.nz.