• The Voters Deserve Honesty

    When Don Brash failed by a hair’s breadth to become Prime Minister in 2005, it could be said that New Zealand dodged a bullet. Despite his undoubted intelligence, Brash would have been a disastrous Prime Minister, polarising opinion and splitting the country in the cause of extreme social and economic policies.

    I was certainly not alone in welcoming the advent of John Key, who struck me as a much more moderate figure who – though no doubt serving the interests of those who put him in power – I hoped would not do too much damage to New Zealand’s great traditions of social justice and equal opportunity.

    John Key himself was quick to understand the potency of an appeal to moderate opinion. He has courted an image as a politician who is difficult to categorise; we saw that facet of his political personality again in his announcement last week of plans to raise educational standards by paying top-performing principals and teachers to spread best practice.

    That initiative is typical John Key; on closer examination, it may well be asked whether this is the best way to spend $359 million and whether there is any established causal connection between incentive pay and improved educational performance, but it sounds good and is unlikely to cause any actual damage, and the Prime Minister was able to tout it as a step towards an egalitarian society.

    This occasional foray into his opponent’s political territory is all of a piece with the pragmatism shown by the Prime Minister in musing about potential allies if he seeks to form a government at the end of the year. It seems that the actual policies don’t matter; it is only the votes that count, provided they add up to enough to keep him in power.

    So, he is happy to contemplate a deal with the Conservative Party, about whom little is known other than the flaky views of its leader. Both Act and United Future remain in the frame, despite the problems both they and their leaders have endured – problems that should surely have disqualified them from any role in government. The Maori Party will again be welcome, notwithstanding the unhappiness of their voters, while the issues of principle that supposedly excluded New Zealand First have miraculously faded away when the parliamentary arithmetic demands it.

    So far, the voters seem not to mind too much that the Prime Minister gives such a convincing performance as a political chameleon, changing colour from one issue to another – indeed, depending on who he is talking to – from one conversation to another. For the moment, they seem ready to forgive him the ducking and diving; but there may come a time when they grow tired of the sharp tactics and demand something more principled.

    But, in any case, the flexibility – not to say slipperiness – apparently demanded by MMP politics conceals a very different truth. John Key’s carefully cultivated image as a pragmatist is a mask for a much more ideologically driven politician. It has suited him very well to pose as open-minded and ready to consider all options, especially by contrast with his predecessor, but in reality he is just as committed to partisan politics as Don Brash.

    Whereas Don Brash, however, ensured that anyone who would listen would know what his views actually were, John Key is much more circumspect. Perhaps he genuinely does not see himself as an ideologue – that he even believes, in the face of all the evidence, that his government really is a defender of an egalitarian society – but there is a growing gap between image and reality.

    It has surely become more and more evident, especially in his second term, that his starting point is always the same simple inquiry – what serves the interests of big business? This may or may not be described as an ideological bias, but it is certainly in practical terms a sure-fire recipe for ensuring that the interests of ordinary people, and of wider society, are always subordinated to those of business – and, for preference, of overseas business and the bigger the better.

    The result? An economy that is increasingly dependent on a single domestic industry (and the income stream even from dairying, too, is now passing into the hands of foreign owners), and on overseas mining and petroleum companies keen to dig up and drill for whatever they can find, leaving us to pick up the pieces when they leave.

    The price we pay is a polarised society in which increasing numbers of poor and dispossessed have to make do with the occasional well-publicised sop to give the impression that the government cares, while the proportion of national income going to profits (which are increasingly repatriated overseas) grows rapidly at the expense of wages.

    The Prime Minister’s apparent pragmatism conceals, in other words, a deliberate policy that has produced a widening and damaging gap between haves and have-nots, as destructive in economic as it is in social terms. He should stop dissembling and put that policy and its outcome clearly before the electorate; at least Don Brash ensured that voters could make a clear and properly informed choice.

    26 January 2014

  • The Voters’ Anger

    The disenchantment of British voters with democracy, we are told, is to be explained by the anger they feel at the failings of politicians. Those failings, it is supposed, are to do with the perception that politicians are “on the make”; but that conclusion – while no doubt partly justified – is surely far from the whole truth.

    The Guardian/ICM poll finding that 50% of respondents chose “anger” as their principal sentiment when thinking of politicians may well conceal a deeper malaise. The scale and depth of public disaffection is, I believe, to be explained by something much more fundamental than the sadly all-too-common instances of politicians breaking the rules governing their “perks” and allowances.

    What is in play instead is a growing realisation that the political class – which extends far beyond the ranks of elected MPs to include the whole of what used to be called the establishment – has failed a country that is now in a state of unmistakable national decline. Those responsible for what passes for serious debate about the state of the nation – and that includes business leaders, the media, civil servants, leading academics and experts, as well as politicians – have contributed to a process that has not only meant manifestly hard times for many of our citizens but also offers little hope of a better future.

    Despite constant assurances that better times are just around the corner, the UK has over the last four or five years suffered the sharpest fall in living standards in over a century. Those who have borne the main brunt of that precipitate decline have been the weakest in our society, for whom the safety net is regressively being withdrawn. Economic decline and social disintegration are now seared deeply into the national consciousness.

    None of the major contenders for government seems to offer anything but further retrenchment. The voters look in vain for an alternative to the current orthodoxy. Labour continues to suffer the burden of the New Labour legacy. The Tories commit themselves to self-harming austerity and promise to make life tougher for the already disadvantaged. The Liberals look for ways of distancing themselves from Tory failure without giving up the fruits of office. Even those voters tempted by UKIP recognise that they offer a counsel of despair rather than redemption.

    Little wonder that voters feel a sense of frustration and anger. They understand that the democratic process has not protected them from national failure and decline and that – although the formal power of decision is exercised by government – the shots are really called by global business interests whose dominance over what actually happens has, if anything, increased as the failure of the policies they enjoin has become more evident.

    What the voters expect from those who govern them is what they expect from any other group of supposed professionals – simple competence. What they see instead is a bunch of amateurs with little understanding of the economy they are supposed to manage and therefore totally at the mercy of political prejudice and vested interests.

    The cure for voter disaffection with democracy is simple. Politicians have to convince the electorate that they are able to abandon a failed orthodoxy that continues to smother new thinking, in favour of a fresh and more positive economic policy – and then deliver on that promise.

    What should be the elements of that new policy? It should focus on real issues and not on imagined problems. It should take as its starting point the need for a sustainable rate of growth which current policy is incapable of delivering.

    It should recognise that decades of comparative failure have left us with a profoundly uncompetitive economy and a manufacturing industry that is on its last legs. We cannot rebuild our productive base for as long as we cannot compete in international markets.

    The loss of competitiveness means that we cannot and dare not grow for fear of ballooning trade deficits and rising inflation. It means that the government’s debt – even while public spending is being cut – will continue to grow faster than the economy as a whole. And while growth languishes, unemployment continues to cost us lost output, acts as a brake on recovery, and undermines our social structure.

    We need to face facts and to engineer an exchange rate that allows us to make a fresh start by immediately improving competitiveness. We need a new approach to monetary policy, treating it not primarily as a means of restraining inflation but as an essential facilitator of increased investment in productive capacity. We need an agreed industrial strategy and new investment institutions to ensure that an increased money supply goes into productive investment rather than into consumption or bank bonuses.

    Above all, we need to restore full employment as the central goal of policy. An economy that offered productive work to everyone able to work, that provided ample finance for those ready to invest in new and competitive businesses, that found ready markets around the world for all it could produce, would not only restore faith in the value of government and democracy; the Labour Party should note that putting such proposals forward might get them elected as well.

    Bryan Gould

    29 December 2013

    This article was published in the London Progressive Journal on 31 December and in Comment Is Free in The Guardian on 6 January.

  • Game On

    In a properly functioning parliamentary democracy, voters can do much more than cast a vote from time to time. They should be able to hold their government to account and, if they decide they don’t like it, they can replace it with another – in effect, a government in waiting.

    If the system works well, that government in waiting will have been identified in advance, and the voters will have had the chance to compare what it offers in prospect with what has been delivered by its predecessor.

    It doesn’t always work like this, of course. In some systems, the voters find it difficult to get rid of the government, let alone identify a credible successor. In post-war Italy, for example, repeated elections were held but voters could never get rid of the Christian Democrats, not because they were so popular but because the opposition parties were so fragmented.

    It was often said – with some justice – that this was a particular weakness of proportional representation systems. But it has been the particular genius of New Zealand voters that we have managed to secure through MMP the advantages of a more representative parliament without losing the essential choice between right-of-centre and left-of-centre governments.

    There is a further advantage of a system which produces credible competing contenders for office. The effect of that competition is usually to compel the contenders to vie for the support of centre or uncommitted opinion. It is, in other words, a force for moderation in our politics.

    That, at least, is how it should operate. But, in the US at present, we see the opposite – an instance of one of the two major parties being taken over by an extreme minority and abandoning the battle for moderate opinion; the Republicans under pressure from the Tea Party element seem prepared to jeopardise the US economy and international credibility in order to express their hostility to a health-care regime that has been endorsed by the voters and championed by President Obama but is reviled by extremists as “socialist”.

    In New Zealand, however, we have no such concerns. Despite the occasional (and somewhat ridiculous) charge that the opposition to the present government has moved to the “far left”, we have succeeded in maintaining the battle for the centre as an essential element of that quintessential democratic power to vote one government out and move another one in.

    Yet those aspects of our democracy cannot be taken for granted. If our system is to produce its full benefits, it depends on there being a credible alternative to the party in power. An effective democracy depends, in other words, almost as much on the opposition coming up to scratch as it does on the governing party.

    With Labour and its potential allies languishing in the polls, there had been something of a phoney war about the political battle. The government could afford to take a fairly cavalier attitude towards other views and to public opinion in general. The Prime Minister and his government were able to convince themselves that the absence of a credible alternative meant that the next election was in the bag.

    That is why, while supporters of the present government may take a little convincing, the emergence of a credible Labour-led opposition – and, by definition, a credible government in waiting – is something to be celebrated by all democrats.

    Many commentators, whatever their political persuasion, have recognised the sea-change that has occurred over the last month or so. The revival in Labour’s fortunes means that the next election is no longer a foregone conclusion.

    We now have a real choice. It is no longer enough for John Key to smile sweetly while coasting and ignoring public opinion. Politics is no longer exclusively about photo ops, phone-ins on talkback radio, and media management. We now have a real clash of ideas.

    With Labour not only proving itself to be an effective opposition, but also offering an alternative agenda for the future of the country, there is now an opportunity for voters to think about real politics – and that is how it should be.

    The result is likely to be better and more responsive government in the run-up to the election. Ministers will need to think harder about the rationale for their policies and about the interests of those who may be disadvantaged by them. They will have to get used to taking into account not just the views of their own committed supporters but of a wider spectrum of opinion as well.

    The voters will have to work harder too. They will be challenged to go beyond the superficial and to make a proper evaluation of competing views as to where the country’s interests lie. Should the government’s belief that advancing business interests produces the best outcomes for the rest of us be supported, or should we pay more attention to the interests of ordinary people?

    So, hold on to your hats. The next twelve months will be fascinating. The phoney war is over. It’s now game on.

    Bryan Gould

    6 October 2013

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 11 October.

  • The Labour Leadership

    It may truly be said of David Shearer that nothing so much became him as the manner of his going. He is living proof that, in today’s politics, being a decent and thoughtful person is not enough.

    Parliamentary politics and modern communications both place a huge premium on fluency and articulacy. Quite why those qualities should be equated in the public mind with the ability to run the country is not quite clear. Glibness is not always a sign of special ability.

    Many commentators, including of course government politicians, will profess to see David Shearer’s departure as evidence of the hopelessness of Labour’s cause. The reality is, I believe, quite different; David Shearer’s decision shows clearly how tantalisingly close is the breakthrough that will push Labour through the winning tape – and here is why.

    What will be painfully clear to National party strategists is that, even as things stand today, their chances of winning the next election rest on a knife edge. With poll ratings now under 50% and trending downwards, it is hard to see how they are going to find the votes to form a government in an MMP parliament.

    Both Act and United Future seem destined for the knacker’s yard. The Maori party’s chances seem almost as slim. The Conservative party is virtually an unknown quantity, as its ability to win any seats. Where is John Key to find the parliamentary votes to give him a working majority?

    New Zealand First, if they cleared the 5% threshold, might or might not be prepared to do a deal but Winston Peters might be equally tempted by the prospect of joining a new government and making a fresh start as Foreign Minister. His decision in that regard would of course be made much easier if a Labour-led coalition could show that, even without New Zealand First’s support, it commanded a greater share of the popular vote than the National grouping.

    All of this takes place against a background where the government’s greatest advantage – the Prime Minister’s personal popularity – is a wasting asset. There are only so many times that one can go to that particular well before it runs dry. “Trust me” works well until the day that trust is exhausted – as Tony Blair discovered when the truth was finally known about the Iraq war.

    The point to grasp is that all of these considerations and uncertainties present themselves for National without any further deterioration in the polls and at a time when the only alternative as Prime Minister was unable, by his own admission, to show that he was a credible option. Imagine how a new contender, able to demonstrate the necessary credibility, could transform what is already a difficult situation for National into one that is very favourable to Labour. Another few percentage points are all that is needed.

    It is a measure of David Shearer as a man that he will have done precisely this calculation. He will have concluded that a new leader – and a leader recognised as a potential Prime Minister – would provide all that is now needed for a Labour election victory, and he has accordingly acted in the interests of the party and, as he sees it, of the country as well.

    His personal sacrifice places a special responsibility on those who will now play a part in the Labour leadership election to make that sacrifice worthwhile. The party will congratulate itself on having changed the election process so as to give itself into the best chance of electing a leader who can take them to victory.

    The great advantage of widening the franchise, so as to give party members and affiliates as well as MPs a vote, is that it creates an electorate that is able to stand back from narrow personal and partisan concerns and to put the interests of the party first.

    I have participated (in the British Labour party) in a number of leadership election elections – usually as a voter and on one occasion as a contender. I have had experience of elections conducted both with the franchise restricted to MPs and also when the franchise has been widened.

    The benefit of the wider franchise is that personalities matter less and (hopefully) ability matters more. Within the hothouse atmosphere of the caucus, every vote matters greatly and the temptation is to allow all sorts of personal considerations – ancient grudges, favours to be repaid, long-standing friendships – to sway voting intentions.

    With a wider electorate, especially one that includes thousands of party members, individual votes matter less and a broad consensus about what is important to the party matters more. That is now the opportunity that presents itself.

    The good news for Labour is that the likely contenders all seem to have what it takes. The forthcoming leadership contest is not only a welcome exercise in democratic participation; it is an essential step in offering New Zealand voters a real choice as to who should form the next government.

    Bryan Gould

    23 August 2013

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 26 August.