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.

Sunday reads

A lot of critical thinking about the state and prospects of the left this week – no surprise!

Giovanni Tiso: A fresh approach no more: the return of politics in New Zealand at Overland

All of a sudden in Aotearoa New Zealand there is an election campaign worth following, and not just for its immediate result, but to test the boundaries of left-wing politics: what is acceptable, what is thinkable, what brings votes and hence the power to make change.

Sue Bradford: Why we need a new left wing party at ESRA

I suggest that the time is ripe for building a new kind of left party in New Zealand. Many of us are aware of this but the task is not easy. As my doctoral research showed, we are conscious of the failures of the past, and often lack confidence in ourselves. But it is time to move past this, and start to actively conceive and build new forms of organisation, now. In this challenge, which I hope we will relish rather than fear, there are at least eight central things I believe we must take into account.

Morgan Godfery: The left was fucked. And then it wasn’t at The Spinoff

Yes, Ardern is left, and her first official meeting took place with the Pike River families, a powerful signal that she intends to lead very much as a “labour” leader. But the same was true of Andrew Little, a former union lawyer who spent his entire working life fighting for his class, and even David Cunliffe, the former Labour leader most comfortable denouncing “neoliberalism”. Great men and women don’t shape politics – social forces do. Ardern can only occupy the left if social movements create space for her to do so.

A quick response to Rob Salmond

This has all the makings of one of those terrible leftwing blog wars (strangely not featuring Martyn Bradbury for once) but I think I can sum up my points quickly and leave it there.

Rob Salmond got a little patronising in his response to people’s responses to his response to Monbiot.

austin powers cross eyed

He starts off saying, “Rule 1 in politics is “learn to count.” 33 < 50.”

Hey Rob. You know what’s less than 50 and less than 33? Labour’s last two general election results.

emma stone burn

Since 2008 – Labour’s most-deliberately-“centrist”, trying-to-win-National-votes-by-mimicking-National period – Labour’s vote has gone down. It’s not only not attracting new voters, it isn’t even keeping its “base”. And the disillusioned leftwing vote isn’t going to other parties. It’s staying at home.

Rob says, “anyone who looks at Labour’s successful 2005 platform and sees anything other than an appeal to the centre is dreaming.”

I’m going to let Giovanni Tiso handle that one:

On the noble history of centrism-as-political-strategy: let’s not confuse popularity with “moderate” policy-by-polling. It’s meaningless to say “centrism has always been a thing because you always need to get lots of votes.” By that logic, Syriza is centrist because a lot of Greeks voted for them.

It’s a mug’s game to redefine anything short of the National Front or Socialist Aotearoa as “centrist” given the right circumstances, and declare victory. It’s easy to talk about “being relevant to more people” or “perception is reality” or being “data-driven”.

But the theory doesn’t work in practice. You know what the majority of New Zealanders were against back in 2011? Asset sales. How did Labour try to appeal to them in 2011? Campaign against asset sales. Result?

independence day white house explosion
Finally, competence: it’s a core part of looking like a government-in-waiting and inspiring confidence. But competence doesn’t mean giving people the answers you think they want.

There are a lot of teachers in my family. In 2008 one of them commented: “I think I’ll vote for National. At least I know what to expect from them.”

breakfast club double take

A party cannot look competent when it’s unpredictable. And a party looks unpredictable when, instead of having well-advertised principles guiding its actions, it’s jumping all over the place trying to please everyone except its own supporters.

I would rather stand for something.

parks and rec mic drop

Blogging, forgetting, and legacy

Giovanni Tiso has some good serious thoughts on the efforts of one Dirty Politics-affiliated blogger to get her writing stricken from the national record:

The case of lawyer Cathy Odgers is even more interesting. Odgers deleted her first blog in 2005, before embarking on the very popular Cactus Kate. This too she deleted in 2013, long before its contents became relevant to stories uncovered by Nicky Hager and other investigative journalists. It was at this later time, however, that Cactus Kate went through a second, deeper deletion, as it now evidently became important to Odgers to remove all existing traces of it. This had the opposite effect to what she might have intended.

There has been a lot of thought-provoking debate about this – the right to be forgotten, how we define the “public interest” or “national good”, the pointlessness of trying to ever permanently delete something from the internet – and a lot of silly debate, largely encapsulated by the efforts of some commenters at The Standard to compare the National Library’s collation of Kiwi blogs to the GCSB’s mass surveillance of personal communication.

It’s super ironic that the same kinds of people who would’ve murmured darkly about leftwing plots and untrustworthiness when John Key’s blatant photo op with John Banks was accidentally recorded – and who say all kinds of nasty things about journalists publishing their edited emails in pursuit of speaking truth to power – suddenly get all precious about confidentiality and privacy when it’s one of their own being hoist by her own petard.

Personally, I’m quietly chuffed that the National Library has included my little blog in its web archive. I’m sure in ten or fifteen years’ time I’ll look back on it and feel a little rueful about some things I commit to screen, but on the other hand, one of the things we really have to get used to in the internet age is that there’s no hiding the fact people change throughout their lives. Even if your core ideals remain relatively fixed – I’m pretty sure no amount of time is going to make me a fangirl of short-term capitalism, for one thing – we’re always learning new things and finding different ways to express our ideas.

Change is good. I think we should embrace it more. It shouldn’t be a shameful thing to say “yep, I thought that was the right thing at the time and I was wrong” – god knows it would shut down any number of pointless political mudfights about who said what in 1985. (Of course, both sides would have to maintain the ceasefire or it’d be churlish. And hypocritical.)

I’m not entirely certain where I stand on the argument about blogs-as-national-records-versus-the-right-to-be-forgotten. But when someone is attempting to eradicate their past from the record – a past which possibly involves underhanded activity aimed at manipulating our political system – I’m a little leery.

On the other hand, who’s to say whether a particular site or post is relevant to that issue? You’re not going to find many people who don’t have a stake in it one way or another. But I reckon the National Library of New Zealand are probably the most qualified to make that decision, and I’ll be interested to see what they decide to do with the archives of Cactus Kate.

QOTD: Boganette on Thomas the Tank Engine

An epic rant from my good buddy Boganette on Thomas the colonialist tank engine and Sodor the capitalist nightmare:

Sodor is quite frankly a capitalist nightmare. Trains are sent to the scrapyard if they’re not Useful. And we all know what that means – it means they’re executed. They execute workers who don’t work hard enough! Anyone who isn’t Very Useful is goneburger. There are no unions in Sodor that’s for sure. And that’s not even the most fucked thing about Sodor either. Don’t get me started on how lacking the representation of women is on the show. The women trains are actually girl carriages. You don’t need to have a masters in gender studies to read between the lines on that one.

Read the whole thing, it’s beautiful (and makes me dread having kids and getting first-hand experience of the Watching One DVD Over and Over parental hell).

It pairs well with Giovanni Tiso’s 2009 post, Reverend Awdry’s Revenge:

The titular hero of the modern cartoon and toy empire, Thomas, turns out to be an insufferable character with an inflated sense of self and an overriding desire to grow up to become, in the words that he often parrots from his master, ‘a really useful engine’, and therein is encapsulated the bludgeoning moral of conformity and compliance of the whole thing.

I have a younger cousin who, from ages 2 through 7, demanded a “Thomas and Percy”-themed birthday celebration. They were terrifying all-blue-and-green-everything times.