By Chris Trotter*
David Seymour is on to something with History. Shrewd use of the past can enhance the political campaigns of politicians battling in the here and now.
Knowing this, the Leader of the Act Party is seeding the idea that the National Party has a history of “campaigning from the right, and then governing from the left”. On the five occasions the National Party has defeated and replaced a Labour Government, Seymour alleges, it has failed to scrap its predecessor’s socialist reforms.
It isn’t difficult to discern why Seymour is advancing this line of argument. One of the abiding features of New Zealand’s MMP electoral system is its propensity to pile up seats for the parties of the centre, National and Labour, while denying the more overtly ideological (that is to say, policy-driven) parties the parliamentary seats required for anything more than a supporting role. The long-term effect of MMP has been to condition the voting public into looking upon the smaller parties as “also rans”. Useful for applying pressure on the major parties when they are failing to perform in opposition, but best left to the tender mercies of the ideologically-driven at election time.
From an historical perspective, the voting public can hardly be blamed for declining to reward the also-ran parties with too many seats. The first MMP election (1996) allocated 44 seats to the National Party and 17 seats to NZ First. In other words, nearly a third of the resulting coalition government was made up of NZ First MPs. This made for a particularly fractious partnership, the longevity of which was, from the get-go, extremely doubtful. As the Lakota Native Americans used to say: “Too few to win, too many to die.” No one was surprised when the coalition broke apart well short of the 1999 election.
And yet, a replication of those 1996 coalition percentages would appear to be exactly what Seymour and his team are seeking in 2023. He is asking conservative New Zealanders to vote sufficient Act members into Parliament to ensure that National cannot simply brush aside their policy priorities. To convince them of the need to do this, he is reaching back into New Zealand’s political history.
But, does he have a case? Does history confirm that National does indeed campaign from the right when it’s in opposition, only to govern from the left when it’s in government? The answer to this question is ….. complicated.
Certainly, one could make the case that the National Party leader, Sid Holland, was only able to defeat the First Labour Government, in 1949, by first promising to leave the essentials of Labour’s welfare state in place. In saying that, however, it is important to note that National’s pledge to undo Labour’s reforms, which had formed a crucial part of its appeal to the electorate in 1938, 1943 and 1946, had also been a crucial factor in its succession of electoral defeats.
Seymour needs to accept that if National had continued to refuse to accept that New Zealanders had no intention of losing their welfare state, then his party would likely have ended up in the same position as the conservative parties of Sweden: political losers for decade after decade.
What National did with the power in won in 1949, by accepting the welfare state, was to make damn sure it was not further extended. The fight Holland picked with the Watersiders' Union, and the successful struggle he waged against the most militant elements of the trade union movement, shoved “Overton’s Window” sharply to the right. Holland’s and National’s vindication in the snap election of 1951, in which National won 54 percent of the popular vote, intimidated the Labour Party to such an extent that it would not be in a position to hold power for more than three years until the general election of 1984.
The other thing National did between 1949 and 1957 was make damn sure that Auckland became a city of cars, motorways and dormitory suburbs on the American model. The plans presented to Labour by the radical planners of the Ministry of Works in 1946 would have transformed Auckland into a city on the Scandinavian model: a state-designed and constructed network of public apartment complexes, connected by a comprehensive public transport system featuring light-rail and cycleways. If capitalists drive cars, and socialists ride trains, then National’s 1949 win proved to be an unequivocal capitalist victory!
Seymour is on firmer ground when he castigates National for perpetuating Labour policies following the defeat of the 1957-1960 government of Walter Nash. Between them, Labour’s Finance Minister, Arnold Nordmeyer, and its Trade & Industry Minister, Phil Holloway, set forth an ambitious plan to diversify and modernise the New Zealand economy. National’s Prime Minister, Keith Holyoake, saw no good reason to abandon Labour’s plan. Although the machinations of a young back-bencher, Robert Muldoon, did force him to tear up the already-signed contract for a massive cotton-mill in Nelson.
That same Robert Muldoon also gives the lie to Seymour’s claims about National governing from the left in the aftermath of its stunning landslide victory over Labour in 1975. It was, after all, Muldoon who scrapped the scheme that was set to become one of the greatest socialist achievements in this country’s history – the Third Labour Government’s New Zealand Superannuation Scheme. Had the scheme proceeded as planned, New Zealand’s current appalling infrastructure deficit would not exist. Nearly 50 years after he killed the scheme, Muldoon’s ruinously expensive pay-as-you-go replacement scheme still hangs like an albatross around the necks of young New Zealanders.
No doubt Seymour would counter that Muldoon ended up running New Zealand “like a Polish shipyard”, making him “the best leader Labour never had”. But Muldoon was never a socialist, he was only ever an idiosyncratic Keynesian who had somehow failed to receive the memo explaining the international conservative movement’s decisive break with the Keynesian post-war consensus. (Maybe that’s because the memo somehow fell into Labour’s hands!)
Labour’s adoption of neoliberalism via “Rogernomics” renders what remains of Seymour’s historical schema nonsensical. Since 1990, New Zealand’s economic, social and political settings have been robustly bi-partisan. Such reforms as have been passed never posed the slightest threat to the neoliberal status-quo. Paid Parental Leave, Working For Families, the re-creation of a state-owned bank, and minor tinkerings in the workplace-relations space, were measures that could just as easily have emerged from a shrewdly-led liberal/conservative government. That’s because they tend to make capitalism work more, not less, efficiently. They’re good for business.
Sadly for Seymour, History is not on his, or Act’s, side. National has dominated post-war New Zealand politics not by governing from the left, but by positioning itself in such a way as to render any argument for a radical left alternative to the status-quo vaguely ridiculous. National’s first victory, like Labour’s, was its defining moment. 1951, and all that, destroyed Labour as a driving and decisive working-class-based force in New Zealand society. And, National’s car-centric Auckland contributed the oily icing on New Zealand capitalism’s cake.
Paradoxically, about the only eventuality that could reconstitute a genuine left-wing movement in New Zealand would be the election of a National-Act government pledged to implement David Seymour’s reactionary agenda of gutting the welfare state, further engorging the rich, and upping the exploitation of the wage-earning workforce.
What History really tells us about New Zealand politics is that Kiwis will only vote for radical change in the direst of circumstances. And that the politicians who most often win our elections, are the ones who promise voters to keep as much as possible about their country exactly the same.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.