The lessons from the 2017 election … so far

Hey, we still don’t have a government! Nevertheless, the Wellington Fabians got together last night to hear Jane Clifton, Morgan Godfery, Mike Smith and me talk about the election aftermath. Here’s my speech notes.

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The 2017 general election is over, and we may or may not have a government by the time I’m talking to you. I’ve left myself a bit of wiggle room in my notes.

For me, the big lesson of the election is this: We still have a lot to learn.

People do not understand MMP. I’m not talking about the usual scapegoats – young people, unengaged people, migrants. I mean political nerds like us. We’re still psychologically attached to electorates, shown in the criticism levelled at the Greens candidates in places like Maungakiekie and Nelson and Ōhāriu – criticism levelled by experienced campaigners who absolutely know better.

We have to learn that electorate victories do not really matter; the party vote matters. A good electorate candidate should be able to turn the party vote out; a good electorate MP should be drawing a very clear connection between their work as a local representative and the party they represent. Instead of attacking Chlöe Swarbrick, Labour strategists might want to ask why we’re losing the party vote in some of our safest traditional seats.

We still have a First Past the Post mindset. Often this criticism is levelled at the media, who have perpetuated memes like the supposed moral mandate of the largest party – completely contrary to the spirit of MMP, which is about getting a government which represents a true majority of voters. But Labour is guilty of this too, agreeing to “major party leader” debates which perpetuate the idea it’s a two-horse race, or that the identity, competence and performance of one person, the next Prime Minister is more important than the debate of ideas.

It’s easy to put on the hindsight blinkers and say, but we do have two major parties and a couple of minor ones – now that Labour is up on 37%. But for a good proportion of this campaign they were polling closer to the minor parties than to National. Only ingrained bias really set them apart. That kind of thinking works for National, who have pursued a fairly successful strategy of devouring all their potential coalition partners. It does not work for the left.

There’s a good argument to be made that by trying to pursue the same strategy as National – by staking out traditionally Green issues like climate change as core Labour policies, for example – Labour weakened the overall position of the left in the election. However tremendous the individual result for Labour – and there are some amazing MPs coming in who will do fantastic work – the balance of Parliament has not really shifted. National remains a powerful force, and Ardern’s success came chiefly at the cost of the Greens. Some people within Labour probably think that’s a good thing. They are wrong.

Here’s my refrain: the left simply has to be better at communicating our values to people who aren’t already on our side. A significant part of the Labour surge, the Jacindamania, came from people already on the left projecting their values onto Ardern: she’s a woman, she’s young, she must represent a new way of doing things, a more progressive outlook, a fresh approach, if you will.

She was also aided I think by the brief period she had to make an impact, and time will tell if those values really shine through, and if they’re finally able to crack those “soft National voters”. Every Labour leader since Goff has enjoyed a bump of support immediately following their ascension; where it always falls away is when they weren’t able to deliver on the values and ideas people projected on them, and couldn’t build a broad, popular support base.

Sexism was and remains a major issue. Just yesterday a Herald article proclaimed “Comedian’s girlfriend enters Parliament”, and with no offence to Guy Williams, I think Golriz Ghahraman, as our first refugee MP whose work history includes the trials of Cambodian and Yugoslavian war criminals, is pretty deserving of her own headline.

Madeleine Holden at The Spinoff has written an excellent summary of all the misogyny, casual and calculated, which plagued the election, and gives special mention to the case of Metiria Turei. I know the accepted narrative is already well set: the Greens should have expected the literal witch hunt which ensued, and if only Metiria had grovelled more and worn a bit of sackcloth and ash on Checkpoint it would all have turned out differently. I reject that. Metiria Turei demonstrated exactly what she intended to: no one cared about social welfare. No one really wanted to talk about the fact women were being imprisoned and even driven to suicide by the hostile, harrowing attitude of Work and Income until a powerful, high-profile woman threw down a bombshell. No one wanted to address the fact that these issues are structural, and deliberate, and have been perpetuated by more than one government.

The reaction to Turei’s bombshell warrants some serious reflection by our media. It was fair to question her, to illuminate the broader issues in play – Mihi Forbes produced some amazing coverage of the reality for people living on benefits – but the point at which commentators felt okay making insinuations about Turei’s sex life, the point at which John Campbell of all people made the argument that life couldn’t be all that bad if she wasn’t forced into sex work – well. As Giovanni Tiso wrote at Pantograph Punch, “you knew it was as good as it gets” if even Campbell is doing it. It was unnecessary and vicious, and the message clearly sent was that poor brown women get no quarter, in a country where men like Peter Talley get knighthoods.

Discussing sexism inescapably brings us to TOP, and one of the enduring questions of New Zealand politics: will we ever see another election without an egotist millionaire white guy deciding he knows what’s best for everyone and it’s himself? Last time I spoke at the Fabians there was some support for Gareth Morgan. I stand by what I said then: he should never have been the frontman of the party, because that made it look like an ego trip. The fact he chose to be the frontman of the party showed it was an ego trip.

His association with a man like Sean Plunket, who think it’s really clever to tweet disgusting things and then say, “Look how toxic Twitter is, people attacked me for tweeting disgusting things!” demonstrated that TOP was never about promoting serious evidence-based policy or altering the way politics is discussed in New Zealand: it was about a couple of guys deciding they were the smartest men in the room and that entitled them to be in charge. They didn’t have to persuade people, because anyone who questioned them was just an idiot who was never going to vote for them anyway. The only good news is, hardly anyone did.

A final question that’s been popping up: do coalition negotiations take too long? I feel very strange about this because I was twelve in 1996 and I apparently remember those six long weeks without a government better than actual adults! This is what happens when you have fewer parties (partly a result of National’s cannibal strategy) and only one of those parties can feasibly work with either side. This is what happens when you have Winston. This is what happens when both National and Labour try to have their cake and eat it too, denouncing NZ First’s more objectionable policies and statements but never quite ruling them out. It’s the players, not the game, and I think we’d be better served if the press gallery found something else to report on until an actual announcement gets made – if anything, denying Winston the opportunity to grandstand on the telly every evening would probably speed up the process!

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In the Q&A a number of questions came up around who Labour’s base is these days, why the tax message was so poisonous to them (again), and how to get cut-through with their messages, which was a great excuse for me to re-state my very strong opinions on values and framing; instead of repeating myself again, here’s some previous posts I’ve done on tax, values, and Labour’s base. Also: buy this book.

3 Replies to “The lessons from the 2017 election … so far”

    1. It could have! Epsom is now the only electorate where the candidate vote really does have the potential to change the balance of power (as a resident of Ōhāriu I’m very happy to no longer be in that situation). What troubles me less than the Greens running a candidate is that Labour have not only run a candidate, but a high-profile front-bench candidate in David Parker, for the past three elections. It doesn’t seem the best strategic decision.

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