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.

~

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!

~

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.

Politics in the age of populism

Here’s my speech notes from last night’s Fabians Society panel in Wellington, comprising myself, Rob Egan and Bryce Edwards. A lot of it you will have read before if you’re a regular! As always I didn’t deliver this verbatim, but any rumours of a fellow Piko Consulting director having Facebook Lived my presentation are terrible lies and must not be countenanced.

~

Mike asked us to talk about the implications of the recent elections in the United States, the UK and France on our own little general election in September, and whether we’re in an age of populism. I’m going to pull the old trick of immediately finding fault with the question, because I don’t know what populism is. It’s a word that gets applied to a certain style of politics, in a derogatory, if admiring manner. It describes politicians who are brash, loud, take cheap shots, and don’t do politics properly. It’s an elitist label for politics that appeal to people’s baser instincts and aren’t well-grounded or properly thought through.

Donald Trump is populist because he raves about immigrants and Muslims and building walls, and we all feel a bit smug because we’re not stupid and thoughtless like those people who vote for him. Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t really described as populist at all, because if anything his fault was being too thoughtful and unassuming and right up to the exit polls predicting a hung Parliament we all know he was completely unelectable. I admit I don’t know a lot about French politics, but Macron was running against a bona fide fascist in a run-off presidential system which has a tendency to throw up extremists every now and then. Who knows what that means.

I’m less interested in whether we’re in an age of populism and more what it says about us that we want to describe this time as an age of populism. Others call it a period of transition, and there’s an excellent volume published by Bridget Williams Books and edited by Morgan Godfery called The Interregnum, which I confess I haven’t read yet because I’m a terrible person. We are certainly in a time thanks to technology where people can get right in a politician’s face, and politicians can talk to voters directly without being interpreted or framed by the media. It would be generous to say that this is an age of populism because politicians are forced to engage more with real people.

But we also use “populism” as a nice way to say “extremism”, and that’s very dangerous. We’re accepting the idea that rightwing, authoritarian extremism like Trump’s or Le Pen’s is a valid expression of people’s core ideals and instincts – those people who aren’t serious and thoughtful about politics, like us. And the logic follows that in order to win, to be popular, we too have to pander to those instincts, even though we tell ourselves it’s just what we have to do to get into power to fix the mess neoliberalism has made of the world.

That worries me. Because if we jump in without really understanding what’s going on, we will be selling our souls and committing political suicide at the same time.

A good example, because it’s a consistent issue across all these elections, including ours, is immigration. Trump promised to build a wall. Le Pen was blatantly xenophobic. The Leave campaign in the UK played on it. We’re told this was the reason for those campaigns’ varying, worrying levels of success. And, to be blunt, our own centre-left parties, if not promising to build a wall, have made pretty populist statements about the need to cut migrant numbers, and the danger of unbridled immigration on our country.

And if it works, why not? Well, firstly because racism is gross. But secondly because it doesn’t.

I’ve talked at the Fabians before about values and framing, which is what all the cool kids are doing in progressive political communications. Essentially, if you take map fundamental human values – Common Cause in Australia has a really good one – on one side you’ve got intrinsic values like universalism, benevolence, equality. And on the other, extrinsic values like power, wealth, self-indulgence. I don’t need to guess which motivates the people in this room, right? But the short version is all of us hold all of those values to a greater or lesser extent, and all of them can be triggered in us. What authoritarians like Donald Trump do is tap into values like security and social order – which are literally the opposite of the ones that drive progressives and collectivists. They hype up people’s anxieties and fears and then tell them the answer is in those values, in being insular and xenophobic and antagonistic.

Via http://valuesandframes.org/handbook/2-how-values-work/

That’s why anti-immigration rhetoric didn’t work for Ed Miliband in the 2015 UK general election. Because Labour aren’t meant to be narrow-minded and insecure and jealous. It cuts against our values, and people see that, so even if we say exactly what they want to hear, it rings hollow. Corbyn in 2017, in contrast, tapped into those core progressive values of benevolence and social justice and universalism – for the many, not the few – and said the solutions to our anxieties can be found in caring for one another.

It was authentic. And authenticity, as any number of articles about Bill English putting tinned spaghetti on pizza will tell you, is everything.

The question I ponder when polls show people are anxious about immigration is, what’s behind it? Immigration in of itself is just the movement of people across borders. Are they worried about wages? Job losses? Housing pressure? Rents? Traffic? Crime? A loss of our national identity? All those things immigrants get blamed for.

What Corbyn did as well as play strongly to progressive values, is offer solutions to all those underlying anxieties which feed anti-migrant sentiment. You don’t need to fear newcomers if housing and transport and industry and pay and corporate greed are getting sorted. You don’t need to fear losing your identity if your identity is founded on community and collectivism.

We have to campaign on our values not just because they are good but because they are powerful. They are popular, if not populist. We’ve just hobbled ourselves by letting the right push their values into the mainstream and trying to mimic them. What Corbyn’s near-win can show us is that there’s a way to be popular and keep our integrity intact – because integrity is a much better vote-winner, in the short and long terms, than jumping on whichever bandwagon is rolling past.

What progressive political parties in New Zealand need to do – or needed to have done, because let’s face it we’ve got two and a half months until the election – is present a clear alternative, not just to National but to the status quo. I’m sure Labour and the Greens think they are. But I don’t think people – outside circles like these, of political nerds who actually read the policy – are seeing that. If there is one thing to learn from populism, or whatever we want to call it, it’s that a consistent, bold message, which upsets the status quo and hits people right in the values, is what succeeds.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s in the old wisdom that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. And this government is teetering. Looking dishonest on housing and Pike River, heartless on mental health and the abuse of children in state care, lacking in ideas and bereft of their magical charisma leprechaun, John Key. It could be anyone’s to win, and probably Winston’s to decide. But for 2020 and beyond, the game is going to be completely changed, and we know from history that the right will adapt very quickly, so we’re going to have to be even quicker.

The political prospects for 2017: living our values

This week I spoke on an panel with Morgan Godfery and Mike Munro at the Fabian Society in Wellington on the political prospects for 2017. A podcast of the discussion should be up on the Fabians website shortly. In the meantime, here’s my speech notes – about 90% accurate to what I ended up saying on the night, which is how these things always go.

The political prospects at the start of 2017 are looking pretty bleak. The polls aren’t great. The right is in ascendancy around the world. I don’t even want to know what new fascist executive order Donald Trump has signed in the time it took me to walk here this evening.

The challenge for the left is pretty massive. With crises at every side – climate change, housing, inequality – it’s not enough for us to just get over the line. We need profound progressive change. A fundamental shift in the consciousness of our society.

It can be done. The trick is not to take the wrong lessons from Trump.

We’ve heard it again and again since November. “The white working class feel ignored. That’s why Trump won. That’s why Brexit passed.” In New Zealand, we talk about Waitakere Man, a narrow-minded stereotype from a less-sophisticated Outrageous Fortune. We’re not talking enough about his issues. We’re not paying enough attention to his needs.

And subtly or more usually unsubtly, we hear, “Women? Shush. Brown people? Shush. Queer people? Shush. Your issues are distractions. No one wants to hear about it. Wait until we’re in power.” Feminism lost Hillary the US election, or maybe it was Barack Obama saying a few mild-mannered things about police violence. Here in New Zealand, senior Labour advisors publicly bagged Louisa Wall’s marriage equality bill as a distraction from issues that matter.

It’s like we’ve forgotten a basic fact of leftwing politics. It’s built on solidarity.

That’s the fundamental divide between left and right. We believe in community and cooperation. They believe in self-interest. We’re about the collective. They’re about the individual. We know that the important question is not “how does this benefit me personally?” It’s “how does this benefit us all.” Standing together, not because we’re all the same and we’re all after the same thing, but because we have the same enemy: capitalism, which takes many forms: patriarchy, white supremacy, social conservatism.

The Standing Rock occupation against an oil pipeline in North Dakota does not impact me directly. It’s not my water that could be polluted or my ancestral lands being torn up. But I know the struggle at Standing Rock is aligned to my struggle – against corporate power, against environmental destruction, against dispossessing and exploiting indigenous people and their land. It isn’t about my benefit. It’s about my values.

I don’t want to assume everyone here has sat through at least one Labour Party conference or candidate selection, but I know you’ve heard the line: “My values are Labour’s values. And Labour’s values are New Zealand’s values.”

We understand the importance of values. But we’ve forgotten that they’re not theory. They’re practice. We need to live them.

When we live our values, nothing’s a distraction. Every issue is an issue that matters.

Take healthcare. We Kiwis take such pride in our public health system. We look at the absolute disaster of American healthcare and feel very smug.

Labour’s policy platform says this about health: “a nation where all New Zealanders, regardless of income or social circumstances, are able to live longer and healthier lives because they have the knowledge to make informed health decisions and the support of a strong and adequately funded public-health system.”

That’s a damn strong set of values.

But let’s take three issues which put that principle on shaky ground. (This may be where I lose some of you.)

Abortion. Abortion is still a crime in New Zealand. It’s difficult to access, especially if you aren’t bureaucracy-savvy or don’t live in a major centre. A pregnant person on the West Coast will have to travel to Christchurch, at least twice, to a clinic which is only open a few days each week, in order to terminate a pregnancy. They’ll need to take time off work or find last-minute childcare and god forbid they’re in a vulnerable situation where they have to keep it all a secret. We’re talking about a safe medical procedure, a basic question of personal agency, a life-changing situation which is not adequately supported by our health system.

Assisted dying. Also a crime.  We deny people of sound mind the ability to make their own decisions about the end of their own life, no matter how much pain they’re in or how much time they have. We don’t let them treat their pain with cannabis, either.

And trans health care. Trans people face horrific difficulties getting the health care they need, and that’s putting aside the horrific levels of harassment, discrimination and violence they experience. The waiting list for trans feminine surgery, or male to female surgery, has 71 people on it. Doesn’t sound too bad – except that at current rates, someone going on the waiting list now will be there for fifty years.

This surgery literally saves lives. Those of us who don’t have to live every day in the wrong body might find it hard to comprehend. But it is absolutely basic, necessary medical care, which our health system does not provide.

What do these three issues have in common, besides making me incredibly angry? They’re Kryptonite, as far as our leftwing politicians are concerned. They’re dismissed, regularly, as unimportant distractions. Alienating fringe issues.

We’re talking about healthcare. About the value we place on supporting every New Zealander to get the treatment they need, quickly and effectively. Unless you’re unhappily pregnant. Or terminally ill. Or trans.

When we talk about values, and say we believe in certain things, and then we turn around to people and say “shush! Wait your turn! We don’t want to talk about your health, or your lives, or the support you need, it’s a distraction!” all we do is undermine ourselves. We show that our values aren’t dearly-held and unyielding – they’re flimsy. No one elects flimsy.

Imagine if, when a Labour Party conference passed a remit on reproductive rights, or a private member’s bill on assisted dying was drawn, we didn’t flinch. We didn’t throw basic issues of health access and bodily autonomy under the bus for fear of the polls. If progressive MPs and commentators and campaigners all stood together and said “Yeah. We believe every New Zealander deserves modern, accessible medical treatment, unlike this government which has ripped $1.7 billion out of the health system.”

Health is only one example. Imagine if David Shearer hadn’t flinched, when he was asked about the man ban. If he’d said, “It’s 2013. It’s ridiculous there aren’t more women in Parliament. Labour’s looking at ways to change that. Why not go ask John Key why his Cabinet’s such a sausage fest?” Maybe he’d be Prime Minister now.

This is how we improve the political prospects for the left in 2017: being bold. Standing on our principles. Even if people disagree with you, they respect you when you’re consistent and honest. And when you’re running against double-dipping Bill English and Paula Bennett the bully, that can be enough to swing a vote. How many people have you ever heard say “Look, I don’t agree with Winston, but I always know where he stands?”

We don’t narrow our focus. We reach out and show that all our struggles are the same struggle.

This achieves several things. It means our values of solidarity and universalism and community are demonstrated to an immensely broad group of people. Two, it gives people certainty.

Maybe their bugbear is the opening hours of the dental clinic down the road, but they live in a safe rural Tory seat that doesn’t get a lot of attention and certainly won’t warrant a visit from Andrew or Metiria or James. But when they see us standing up for increased health funding, and comprehensive services for marginal communities, and saying “we’re not turning our backs on this group of people, or that small town, or this particular need” they see what kind of people we are. They see our values in action.

A mass movement is not built by finding the largest homogeneous group we can and appealing solely to them. A mass movement is not built by nominating one group – like white working-class men – as the most important people to reach, and expecting women or Māori or queer activists to fall in line for the good of the cause.

Thousands of veterans turned up at Standing Rock to show solidarity with the water protectors. Muslim organisations have donated tens of thousands of bottles of water to Flint, Michigan. And I’ve got to be the only person in this room who hasn’t seen Pride, right? Don’t boo.

That’s how we change the world. By being ourselves. Being the people who believe in solidarity and standing up for the oppressed, even if they don’t look like us or sound like us or need the same things as us.

If we learn the wrong lesson from Trump’s victory – if we accept that the white working class will only support us if we speak exclusively about them and their issues, we are frankly fucked. We’ve sold out the notion of solidarity, which is the heart of our politics.

In 2017, the challenge for the Left is not to find the magic words which will make a mythical racist white working class vote for us. It’s not to silence women or transgender folk or Indigenous people. It’s to stop buying into this divisive bullshit, and show everyone what our values are, and that a better way of doing things is possible.

That’s what people are desperately after.

The prospects for 2017 aren’t looking good. But it could look better.