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Economist Brian Easton asks: Do some offshore trends presage the future of New Zealand politics?

Economist Brian Easton asks: Do some offshore trends presage the future of New Zealand politics?

This is a re-post of an article originally published on pundit.co.nz. It is here with permission.


The British Labour Party took a pasting in the local body elections and the Hartlepool by-election earlier in May. Given the circumstances, it might have expected to do well. The Conservatives made a terrible mess of managing covid (although things are coming right with their vaccination rollout, after a long depressing lockdown and too many deaths). Brexit was equally badly managed. Of the Conservative Prime Minister, it is said that librarians are going to place his autobiography between George Washington, who never told a lie, and Donald Trump, who never told the truth, because Boris Johnson cannot tell the difference. (Many libraries are being closed after a decade of Conservative austerity economics.)

There will be many explanations as to why Labour is doing so badly but each needs to explain the collapse of the ‘red wall’ of traditional Labour seats in the north of England in the 2019 General Election and so few successes over the last few years.

The party seems to be becoming detached from its traditional class base. Extraordinarily, a 2017 survey found that Labour is actually less popular than the Conservatives among working class voters.* While 42 per cent of voters in the C2DE social categories (that is working class) supported Labour at the last election, 44 per cent supported Conservative. Some 77 percent of Labour Party members are in social categories ABC1 (upper and middle class), concentrated heavily in London and the south (well away from the red wall). The proportion of Labour MPs who have done a working-class job at some point has declined from 33 percent in 1983 to less than 10 percent today. As one Labour MP said, rather candidly, ‘there is a canyon between us and the working class’.

Parties are coalitions. The conventional wisdom is that the British Labour Party was a ‘progressive alliance’ between two very different groups. They are sometimes called ‘workers by hand’ and ‘workers by brain’ with the belief that the first provided the numbers and the second the intellectual clout – a description not without its divisive snobbery. The numbers seem to have gone Tory.

Britain is not unique. Donald Trump scooped up a lot of traditional working-class Democrat voters.

What is happening on the other side of the world may be of interest, but may seem of little relevance here. We like to pretend that class hardly exists in New Zealand or is barely relevant to understanding society, although in my experience that view is most likely to be articulated by those in the equivalent of the British social categories ABC1.

It is certainly true that initially New Zealand’s non-Maori class structure was different from that of the societies they left. It was not just that there were few genuinely upper class here but that social mobility seems to have been higher, in part because migrants did not bring all of the burden of their heritage but also because our economic structure was different, especially with the predominance of the small family farm.

However, there were social gradations which became firmer over time. One of the first to identify this systematically was Bob Chapman, professor of Political Studies at the University of Auckland, based on statistical analysis by a young Ian Pool, who became our most eminent demographer (and a professor at the University of Waikato).

Back in the 1950s, Chapman and Pool attributed the trend to urbanisation. My guess is that the trends were blunted by the compacting of the income distribution at the time, a decline which ended in the early 1980s. I needed to trace what happened in my Not in Narrow Seas: The Economic History of New Zealand because one of the great puzzles was why Labour’s Rogernomes paid so little attention to the working classes who were being ruined by their policies. It appears that the Labour leadership had become so detached from its traditional base that it was unaware of the pain its policy was causing. (David Lange was the exception.) That led to the split between Labour (ABC1 plus party loyalists) and the Alliance (C2DE plus ideological loyalists) which cost the left the 1993 election.

So there may be increasing parallels between the New Zealand political-class system and those of the older affluent societies. Before further drawing them out, however, we need to recognise a major difference. New Zealand has the ethclass of Maori.

We proceed with caution because there is a lot of diversity within Maori even if much public rhetoric ignores it. The unwillingness to talk about class in the conventional scientific way has meant we tend to equate Maori with working class. Certainly there are proportionally less of them in the ABC1 category, but they are there. (For instance, while 5.9 percent of all New Zealanders were in the upper income bracket of above $100,000 in 2013, so were 2.5 percent of Maori.) Moreover, there are many more Pakeha in the working class than Maori, however you define the notion.

So today’s New Zealand Labour Party is torn at least three ways, not just along the ABC1 to C2DE axis of the British Labour Party, but cutting across it is the ethclass of Maori (and a smaller one of Pasifika). One consequence is that the left avoids the tension by emphasising what is loosely called ‘cultural politics’, nicely captured in the interests of the Auckland-based Helen Clark Foundation which pays little attention to economic issues.

That does not mean the Labour Government ignores economic matters. (Grant Robertson may well grimace every time the NZCTU knocks on his door – which, so I understand, is often.) However, when it is torn between its three main components, it is the C2DE which is most likely to be neglected. (For example, the proposed Maori Health Authority is giving voice in health delivery to Maori, but there is no Pakeha working-class equivalent even though their health standing may be more like Maori than like middle-class Pakeha.)

The danger is that New Zealand Labour may alienate its traditional working-class base, just as British Labour and American Democrats have done. The one protection at the moment is the dishevelled state of the National Party. But if they found a genuine populist – one with a bit of mongrel – who knows what would happen in New Zealand politics. Step up, Winston Peters?

(* The British social categories, first devised for  the National Readership Survey,  are as follows:

A: higher managerial roles, administrative or professional; 4% of the population.

B: Intermediate managerial roles, administrative or professional; 23%

C1: supervisory or clerical and junior managerial roles, administrative or professional; 28%

C2: which is skilled manual workers; 20%

D: Semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers; 15%

E: State pensioners, casual and lowest grade workers, unemployed with state benefits only. 10%

The categories do not exactly conform to income strata. The ‘Upper Class’ is about 2 percent of the population.)


Brian Easton, an independent scholar, is an economist, social statistician, public policy analyst and historian. He was the Listener economic columnist from 1978 to 2014. This is a re-post of an article originally published on pundit.co.nz. It is here with permission.

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13 Comments

Like the article. Labour in the UK have an inbuilt disadvantage in that for about a generation a lot of popular media has fallen under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch and the UK is just naturally a more conservative (small "c") country because their population is both older and aging faster than New Zealand. However I don't fault your argument that Labour suffers if it alienates it's working and lower middle class core supporters. In New Zealand voter turnout is just higher than the UK and I suspect that's an endorsement of both the electoral system as well as the general level of political engagement.

Yes. Surprisingly no mention of the Murdoch effect? Even here in NZ, commercial talk back radio is dominated by right wing ranters. The NZ market seems too small to support similar information free zones in the TV media section, perhaps that's partly why the left is slightly more successful here?

Probably the main difference between NZ Labour and their overseas equivalents is they appear understand this neo-Marxist language and messaging is toxic to the majority and especially to the working class. Policywise is a bit more of a mixed bag but even then they pull back pretty fast the moment they realise something's unpopular.

Another difference is there some competent and genuine populists in the Troies, which are non existent in National. These are people who in the very least are actually able get their messaging about tackling the status quo (for the benefit of the working class and others) on point and sometimes follow though. Winston being a disingenuous populist but also suppressing any real populism in the centre is probably another difference.

But until National realise the majority don't want to back to the Key era and change their messaging Labour's not at risk of losing anything. Judith's idealogical goals are too narrow and here messaging outside of these is just weak.

Strange how toxic right wing media, is just media, with no associated backlash. Left wing media on the other hand, seem to be preoccupied with measuring wokeness. I've never experienced toxic left wing media? Perhaps you can indicate where I might sample some for experiential perspective?

I would suggest you reread my comment more carefully. The only clarification I might make is I am solely referring to communication from the political parties and their MPs (not the MSM) but I think that's pretty clear.

OK, give an example of direct toxic neo Marxist language, that would put off the majority and especially working class, issued straight from leftists mouths then?

As stated you will have to look overseas. Go do your own research and tell me that Labour UK has not recently run on a Marxist platform and that they have failed to shrug off. Objectively proving causality here requires effort (the discussion is off the front pages), and if you still don't want to change your mind you wont.
This may or may not help depending on what you are actually looking for:
https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2021/05/17/stereot...

Centrist positioning for this Roger Douglas Labour party is probably about right. The left is currently wide open for a working-class party or it's fertile ground for any party to dip their political toes into if they need to shore up their numbers when it comes to an election.

This current re-engineering of social policy and NZ's Economic Structural reconfiguration of late is subtle enough if you're paying attention?

I think the ethos will be 'adapt' or at least ride the wake.

Bumping up benefits large while telling nurses (max $77k) "no wage rise for the next 3 years".

This hollowing out of the middle class surely suggests that Labour doesn't care about them and also doesn't think that National will do enough to capture them.

Nurses got a 9/9/9 per cent wage rise in 2018 for the following 3 years. This happened in 2017/2018.

Yes. Think about how low they were before that.
Are you saying they should now give that up?

Labour has got into power twice (first with Helen Clark and second with JA as leader) because NZ First (under Winston Peters) has scooped up much of the socially conservative working class vote, and then has gone into coalition with Labour. What happens when Winston goes will be interesting.

I suspect that NZ Labours support base will diminish as the taxpayers revolt at the largess squandered on Maori in many ways whilst they pay the bill and don't even get recognition that its their works & taxes that fund the increasing separatist agenda of Labour. Labour have benefited from Nationals poor performance and lack of actual policies that appeal to their historic core voter base and if they fail to fully address this they will not gain power except as a coalition party to ACT whose popularity rises.