I want to be very clear about one thing from the start. When I talk about the Left, Im referring to a certain cluster of political theories and attitudes; I do not mean a particular party or parties within New Zealands parliamentary system. I was six years old the last time Labour could say they stood for workers and the poor without people coughing behind their hands. I am not interested in Labour returning to 40% of the vote if it has to abandon the struggle for equality (again) to do so. My vision is not of a country where National is pretty much still in government only they wear red ties instead of blue. But on the other hand its vital we learn something from this. Were going to need to have some very forthright conversations about what is and what is not essential to the Left. And were going to need to reach a general consensus. And after that, anything that turns out to be a secondary concern is going to need to be sidelined unless its a means for achieving the primary concerns, and that question is going to need to be settled on the basis of evidence.
Undoubtedly there were many things that went wrong at the campaign stage, especially with Labour. The revelations this past month about the National Partys wrongdoings, first by Nicky Hager, then by Greenwald and Snowden, may perhaps have robbed Labour of oxygen, i.e., the airspace to get their own positive ideas out. Somebody pointed out rather acerbically Id give you the link if I could find it again that on that basis the Watergate scandal should have propelled Richard Nixon to unprecedented heights in the polls. There are differences, of course. Watergate broke two years, not one month or one week, before Nixons potential re-election; and the United States has a two-party system, so there was only one other realistic option on the card. Still, I dont think its much of an excuse. One month before the election, Labours values and general policy orientation should already have been generally known. They should have been able to pick up Dirty Politics and say See? See? National are so nasty they need to resort to tricks like this to keep people voting for them.
A much more obvious failing was one pointed out two months ago by Chris Trotter at The Daily Blog:
...really, the hoarding facing us was all about Phil Goff. It was his ugly mug and buck-toothed smile that confronted the viewer, and his name in bold sans-serif that somebody had helpfully placed a big tick underneath. Oh sure, right down the very bottom you could, if you squinted hard enough, make out the Labour Party’s slogan Vote Positive, and yes, there was even an exhortation to Party Vote Labour. But, seriously, nobody driving by is going to have time to register anything other than the local MP, Phil Goff, is soliciting their vote.
Im told this is happening all over the country. That the hoardings erected by Labour electorate MPs are, overwhelmingly, self-promoting. Not the party (unless you have very good eyesight). And certainly not the Leader. (God forbid!) In spite of delivering the worst result in 90 years, the so-called election strategy of 2011, promote the candidate not the party, is being idiotically repeated by the same idiots!
...The fundamental message of the MMP system: Only the Party Vote matters! is, once again, being studiously ignored by MPs whose only concern is to retain their seniority in Labours faction-ridden caucus.
What this will produce, just as it did in 2011, is the absurdity of Labour plummeting to 27 percent in the Party Vote, but capturing 32 percent of the Electorate Vote. Had those figures been reversed on Election Night three years ago, Phil Goff would now be Prime Minister.
...we changed [our voting system] in 1993... I turned 18 in 1996, and cast my first vote under the new system, which is called MMP Mixed Member Proportional...So whoever made this graphic got it right three times out of eight. The Conservatives missed out on getting any seats because Murray McCully won the candidate vote in East Coast Bays, and Act and United Future would have been out too if their candidates hadnt won in Epsom and Ohariu, respectively. The other squares are dead wrong. Voting for a Labour candidate instead of a National one accomplished nothing. And one striking feature of this election was that Labour got an awful lot more electorate votes than party votes. But this graphic was not produced by a sitting centrist Labour MP trying to retain their senior position in the caucus. I had an argument in the Facebook comments thread with someone who turned out to be running for Labour in a North Island electorate. Ive blurred out the name but I can tell you this person was not then and is not now a Member of Parliament.
How it does work is that you cast your vote for both a candidate in your electorate, and a party. And when the votes are counted, all the people who got the majority vote in their electorates get seats in Parliament, just like before, but there are fewer electorates than there are seats in Parliament. Then the remaining seats are dished out in such a way that the total number of seats a party has in Parliament is proportional to the number of party votes they got. So the minor parties can still get in and potentially form coalition governments with other parties. And for a big party like Labour, one more electorate MP just means one less list MP... Now there is a wrinkle with smaller parties. Any electorate candidate who gets the majority vote in their electorate becomes an MP, which is right and proper. A party with no electorate MPs only gets any seats at all if its party vote tops the arbitrary value of 5% of the total vote, which automatically gets them six MPs since there are 120 seats in Parliament. However, if a party gets (say) 2.5% of the vote and an electorate MP, then the threshold is ignored, and that party gets a total of three MPs, which is to say two list MPs riding on the coat-tails of the electorate MP... So all right, minor party candidate votes might well change the Parliamentary landscape. But not Labour ones.
So thats one thing that went wrong with the Left: the biggest party on our side of the House doesnt know how elections work nowadays. Another thing is the non-vote. The number of people who arent voting has been growing at every election for years, I gather its kind of plateaued this time. There have been several suggestions as to whats going wrong.
- People dont have the time on election day.
- People are so satisfied with the way the country is headed that they dont see the need to be bothered.
- People see all the parties as exactly equally good, and if they had voted they would have voted for all of them in equal proportion.
- People like Left policies but see no-one on the ballot capable of implementing them.
- People were swayed by Russel Brand and other silly big talkers into thinking that not voting was somehow a protest against the system.
- People are poor, dont see any hope for their future, and dont imagine that anyone privileged enough to run for Parliament cares what happens to them.
Now one possibility that I must, as a good free-thinker, take seriously, is that National voters know something I dont about whats good for the country. When dealing with people I take it as an axiom, until firm evidence to the contrary becomes available, that they are not stupid. In this you will notice I differ from our recently re-elected Prime Minister, who has been known to tell the nation on prime-time television that New Zealanders are so pitifully lacking in higher brain function as to care more about recreational fishing than their fundamental democratic right to privacy. (Im interpolating slightly, but its hard to avoid the conclusion that he thinks deflecting the interviewers questions with the same non-answer a dozen times in a row is only just sufficient to bring his point within the comprehension of his audience.) So Im going to steer clear of the rather insulting assessments of the New Zealand voting public that are going around at the moment.
But one can be an intelligent, moderately informed, and comparatively decent person, and not know the facts on some issues that are politically relevant. Theres no insult in saying someone probably doesnt know some things that I do. I assume anybody who works in a specialist profession or has had higher education knows some things that I dont. Well, here are some things that I know that I imagine most New Zealanders probably dont. And put together, they add up to the conclusion that National was a ghastly choice of party vote. My best recommendation for the Left, therefore, is to get facts like these into the public domain over the next year and a half. Dont leave it until the election campaign. An election campaign needs to consist of a few clear, strong, simple messages. These take a fraction more explaining.
Clean rivers are not a nice-to-haveNational has signalled that one of the first things they want to do when Parliament reconvenes is push through their changes to the Resource Management Act, which they failed to last time round because the Māori Party wouldnt co-operate and that lost them their majority by a whisker. I saw those proposed changes, and apart from one small recommendation that building resource consents should include earthquake safety planning, they were terrible. National wants resource consents to take into account the economic benefit of the proposed projects, as well as their environmental impact. This is exactly as good an idea as making it so that Warrant of Fitness tests can let unsafe cars on the road as long as the use of that car is important enough to the drivers occupation. But most New Zealanders wouldnt see that, I dont think, because they dont consider environmental damage to be a problem the way road accidents are.
The Green Party campaigned on the health of New Zealands rivers again this time around. And their focus was one I would normally recommend, namely showing people how the issue affected their own lives: they pointed out that most rivers are no longer safe to swim in. Unfortunately I think a lot of peoples reaction was along the lines of Sure, swimming is nice, but not as important as dairy industry jobs. I dont think it is general knowledge in New Zealand just whats at stake. Farms downstream have to use that water for their stock, pastures, and crops. Toxins build up in the soil and grass and end up in the product. Weve already had one shipment of milk powder turned back at the Chinese border because of contamination. Incidents like that will become more frequent and more severe in the coming years.
New Zealands dairy industry at present depends entirely on deceiving the world about our levels of water pollution; were it ever to become known that were less than perfect, people would stop buying our stuff because of the food miles. Well, were way, way less than perfect. The Manawatū is now one of the most polluted rivers on Earth. Sooner or later the truth is going to come out. The Left needs to make this general knowledge, so that if the crash happens on Nationals watch we can say We told you so, and if it happens after a change of government we can say We did warn you about this. By the way, this is not a general condemnation of New Zealand agriculture. Federated Farmers likes to make out that an attack on dairy is an attack on all farmers, but when scientists measured streams running off sheep and beef farms, they found they were just as clean as those running off natural tussock. The problem is dairy and dairy alone.
Fossil fuel wealth is a curseNational think drilling for oil offshore is a great idea to grow the economy and create jobs. Sadly theyve managed to convince a lot of people, including some lefties. I dont know how sincere National are about the creating jobs part of this, seeing as the economy has grown 4% per year while theyve been in and unemployment is rising. Part of whats wrong with it is that drilling will do permanent environmental damage (with consequences similar to the above, only to our fisheries) for a temporary benefit. Oil doesnt grow back underground, you see, so once its been dug up and burned and contributed to global warming save your conspiracy theories, I also believe in evolution, the Holocaust, the Moon landings, that Barack Obama was born in the United States, that 9/11 was an outside job, and that Paul McCartney is as of this writing still alive once all that has happened your mine stops being of any use. Any spills, however, stay spilled.
But I suppose one could conceivably reply Jobs are more important than all that. The other problem is that oil wealth doesnt, in fact, create jobs. Some countries get very rich indeed by exploiting oil, but that wealth doesnt go to the citizens. Creating jobs would imply that the wealth was being distributed across a broad sector of the population, which is not what happens with oil wealth. Places with oil wealth have a tiny élite composed of a few exceedingly rich people, while the rest of the population remains in poverty. In fact, in places where oil has been discovered and exploited, the majority of the population end up worse off than before, between the effects of pollution and the effects of inequality. Economists call it the Oil Curse. Think of Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, or Venezuela. Hugo Chávezs best efforts to implement socialism in Venezuela couldnt shift it. Only Norway, which already had a seriously redistributive economy, has managed to turn oil into jobs. New Zealand once had a comparably redistributive economy; it doesnt any more.
Capitalist economic theory has holes in itWe on the Left have a bad habit of shrugging off what the other side says, because we know its all just a cloak for greed anyway just as they shrug off what we say because they think were all power-hungry lunatics who hate freedom. It would seem that theyre doing a better job of convincing the public at present. I really think it couldnt hurt to have some specific counters to capitalist arguments, but that means we have to demonstrate that they fail on their own terms. Which Im afraid we cant do unless we understand what their terms are. Why, for example, does National think its a good idea to grow the dairy and mining industries at the expense of everything else? The answer is something called Ricardos Theory of Comparative Advantage. It works like this.
Most often the argument is made for countries, but in fact the agents can be any scale; it works just as well for firms, local businesses, or individuals, and its probably easiest to understand with individuals. Suppose that you are a fantastic carpenter and also a pretty damn good baker. And suppose that I am a moderately good baker and a crappy carpenter. Even though youre a better baker than me, things work out best for us both if you fix up both our houses and I make bread and cake for both of us. You making your own baked goods would take time away that you could be using for carpentry; me doing my own carpentry would result in me falling through the floor. So even though youre better at it, I have what John Ricardo (I dont know, some eighteenth-century dude, he was mates with Adam Smith I think) called a comparative advantage in baking. The maths works out exactly the same if its countries exporting goods instead of neighbours doing services for each other. National voters use this logic to argue that New Zealand has an advantage in dairy and mining, and trying to cut back on them will result in lost export dollars. Other countries have the advantage in manufacturing and expertise, and things work out best if we just buy it off them with dairy products.
The flaw in this logic is that you cant keep extending it forever. Ricardo didnt know anything about ecology. My individual example up there didnt take your health into account. You might be the best carpenter around, but you cant be fixing houses all day and night or your back will go out and youll get occupational overuse syndrome and probably arthritis, and then your carpentry skills will suffer, quite likely permanently. Youre probably better off taking regular breaks from carpentry, even though that may mean less money in the short term. If that means there are some goods you cant quite afford, it might even be worthwhile spending that spare time making them for yourself on a small scale. Then if you do lose your aptitude for carpentry, or if some other carpenter moves into town whos even better, you have something else to fall back on. The national-level analogy is what Ive already explained, about pushing dairy until our rivers poison us. Comparative advantage does not make finite resources infinite. Just because New Zealand currently has an advantage in dairy doesnt make it a bad idea to develop our own manufacturing industry on the side. National has let manufacturing in this country go to ruin over the last six years; go Google what happened to Hillside Works.
A free labour market cannot improve wages and conditions for workersHeads up: I dont think were going to convince New Zealanders of this by insisting that markets never accomplish anything good at all ever, which is the usual line when socialists and social democrats talk amongst themselves. But we have to convince them somehow, because this is how National will defend their attacks on the minimum wage and workers conditions. Capitalist economic theory sees workers as sellers in a market, you see. Its just like selling a car if you dont like the offer youre given you can always turn it down. Then employers, as buyers, will be forced to raise the prices they offer for your labour. Simple supply and demand. Whats not to like?
Whats not to like is that simple supply and demand is the opposite of the way the labour market works. The idea of supply and demand is that sellers want high prices and buyers want low prices. If the price goes too high, buyers will stop buying; if it goes too low, sellers will stop selling. According to that theory, workers should work fewer hours as wages and conditions get worse, and more as they get better. But we all know thats not what happens, because you need to obtain a certain amount of money in a week to feed yourself. If your wages are low you work more hours to make sure you stay above the line. As your income rises, you can better afford to take time off. This basic behaviour has been confirmed by dozens of studies in the psychology lab, and a famous field study on New York cab drivers. In economic jargon, labour is negatively elastic. And that means that employers will never be forced to raise wages by supply and demand. Quite the contrary. Supply and demand, without a living minimum wage mandated by law, will always push wages to rock bottom. If you get into an argument about this online with a National supporter who prides themselves on their superior mastery of economics, tell them The labour market is negatively elastic and flick them that link.
Tax fraud costs the economy incomparably more than benefit fraudWell, not literally incomparably. Its about a three-hundred-fold difference. In 2010 each New Zealander lost approximately $5 to benefit fraud and very approximately $1500 to tax evasion. I know which one of those I think is more worth getting upset about. This time its not a complicated argument. Show them the numbers. They will, of course, come up with some other rationalization for why benefit fraud is still worse, the real reason of course being that benefit fraudsters are smelly with missing teeth and tax fraudsters wear nice clean suits. It doesnt matter as much as you might think whether you force someone to concede the point on the spot (this hardly ever happens). Some people will go away and think about it. Some people who were watching the argument and undecided will be convinced. And above all, the facts will become widely known, and National might just be stuck with reminders of who theyre really working for whenever they try and bash beneficiaries in three years time.
National has already seriously threatened New Zealands democratic constitutionThe nitty-gritty details of how the government works are, lets face it, tedious. I wouldnt know anything about them if I hadnt happened to take some notes in Law and Politics lectures. I think the same goes for many New Zealanders. I think most of us have this idea that there are some things the Government just cant do that if they decided they werent going to hold the next election until 2025, say, there is some kind of system of checks and balances in place to stop them. And there is, of course. But what you might not notice, if you hadnt had to type seventy words a minute, three hours a week, about the way our country is constituted, is that some of the more boring-sounding political news items that have come over the TV and radio in the last three years have been the sound of National kicking away at those checks and balances. Let me pick out three:
- The Courts. Parliament makes the law, then the Courts interpret the law. Thats how it works. The Courts dont tell Parliament what laws to make, and Parliament doesnt tell the Courts what laws they can and cant rule on. But National, three years or so ago, changed the law concerning disabled care so that certain groups of people could not sue for more money. This means the Government can now decide on a whim what that law actually means and no-one can tell them otherwise. What theyve done once, they can do again.
- Environment Canterbury. Environment Canterbury was a democratic local governing body that did what its name sounds like, it made decisions on environmental matters in Canterbury. Then they started saying things that National didnt like, so National got rid of the elected officials and appointed new people who would do what they told them.
- Parliamentary urgency. Normally a proposed law is read three times in Parliament before the final decision, and in between it is taken to whats called a select committee who present it to the people for submissions and comments. This is where democracy really happens where the people really have the chance to get their opinion heard. I mean, yes, elections are a necessary part of democracy as well, but Id like to think I live in a democracy more than one day in every three years. Sometimes of course Parliament has to make decisions in a hurry, as they did after the Christchurch earthquake in 2011, so there is an alternative process called urgency where a Bill is only read once before its passed or rejected. Since the earthquake National has realized that theres nothing to say they have to save urgency for an actual emergency situation, and theyve run bills through, bypassing democracy, whenever theyve known they would be unpopular.