One initial thought: While certain people get up in arms about using the MMP threshold system to gain representation, the real problem is how big parties can use it to deny representation… whether Internet Mana or Conservative. So RIP Internet Mana and even the Conservatives, who earned their right to air their lunatic views in Parliament with 19 times United Future’s votes.
Also, John Campbell is quite wrong to say the deaths of these two shows that “money cannot buy politics in New Zealand.” Who does he think pays National’s extremely successful PR people? What does he think is the force that keeps mainstream media so uncritical, anaesthetising, anti-intellectual, anti-policy and pro-National (despite his best efforts to work against that)? In fact, what it shows is that money is no substitute for good strategy, being in tune with dominant opinion in your society, and/or (in our unjust electoral system) support from a major party.
Anyway, onto how I was wrong…
Of all the blogs I’ve written, I think the most off the mark was this one where I said I was “(tentatively) happy about Internet Mana.” Second would be this one where I underestimated how bad Dotcom’s failure at the Moment of Truth was. I may have been wrong when I backed Cunliffe for Labour leader too, but I don’t know if it would have made much difference if Shearer or Robertson or Jones was in charge (probably the main difference would be that if Shearer had stayed on, there would have been a cleaner break post-this-election).
I still like pretty much everything I previously liked about Internet Mana. I still think the deal is ethically legitimate given the unjust threshold system. And it was a valiant idea to try and appeal to the young, poor and disengaged people who stay home in their droves on election day. But as it turned out, the experiment failed. It looks like turn-out-per-enrolled-voter was only slightly up this time, Internet Mana’s vote was only slightly higher than Mana’s last election, Hone lost his seat so Internet Mana are out of Parliament, and the Key government is returned with an increased majority. So I was totally wrong about the strategic value of the Internet Mana alliance.
I was wrong because I underestimated the backlash of dominant opinion in NZ against Kim Dotcom (not so much when he was a victim of the US-style-US-instigated illegal police raid, but certainly after he started trying to throw his own power around). This felt its effect in a few ways:
- It looks like for every apathetic Gen-Y-er vote Internet Mana won for the left, they scared several boomers, conservatives and Stuff readers towards the far-right. Though this isn’t 100% clear. Labour started to drop in the polls after the Internet Mana deal. But they also dropped after the WhaleOil + Herald smear on Cunliffe that turned out to be 95% bollocks, but not before doing its damage in the polls. And, bizarrely, Labour dropped after Dirty Politics too.
- NZers don’t like what they see as “dodgy deals,” though they’re hypocritical about it: they’ll forgive National’s Epsom and Ohariu cups of tea, but when they already didn’t like Harawira or Dotcom (and didn’t understand the ways the two parties are consistent; thinking it was entirely a money thing), the deal was another reason to oppose them and anyone who might end up in government with them.
- Dotcom and the Internet Mana deal seems to have turned Te Tai Tokerau voters off Hone Harawira enough that they could be convinced by Labour, National, NZ First and the Māori Party to vote for Labour’s Kelvin Davis. Labour had no choice but to oppose Internet Mana, a populist boomer swing voter’s nightmare, given that they rely on the opinions of such voters for success. But they tried to have their cake and eat it too by not unequivocally ruling Internet Mana out of any kind of government agreement, which was understandable given they’d be struggling to form a government without them, but ultimately a big mistake. They were close enough that Internet Mana presumably scared baby boomers and conservatives away from Labour, but far enough away to kill off Internet Mana and waste thousands of change-the-government votes, including my own.
- Dotcom failed at the “Moment of Truth” worse than I previously acknowledged. He’d been promising for months to provide evidence Key knew about the US plot against him earlier than the day before the raid. Instead, he made the MOT entirely about spying, and leaked a bizarre e-mail without anything to back it up, which didn’t prove anything – I still can’t figure out if it was fraudulent and, if so, whether Dotcom knew it was fradulent or not; but it’s certainly not convincingly real. The annoying thing is it’s quite likely he’s right about the “political pressure” on his case. But his e-mail took credibility away from that theory, rather than adding it.
- Even without that failure, the cartoonish and manipulative way he went about the MOT made it too easy for people to simply ignore all the genuinely alarming revelations about spying at the MOT, and Key’s dishonest and desperate (yet apparently successful) defence. Dotcom tried to use the event for his ego and his desire for revenge, rather than for the good of the country. If he wanted to raise awareness about spying and really get through to NZers about it, he should have:
(a) not talked it up but kept it quiet, exceeded expectations and let the revelations do the talking;
(b) kept revelations from spying separate from revelations about his case, or at least made sure he had proof about the latter before revealing anything;
(c) released the info months ago rather than five days before the election in a transparent attempt to influence the vote; and
(d) stayed in the background himself got a respected figure from the left and a respected figure from the right (e.g. Graeme Edgeler) to front it.
(Possibly Nicky Hager should have followed a similar strategy with Dirty Politics: not just writing about the WhaleOil stuff, but making sure he also focused on some of the dodgier things Labour have done… even if it meant dredging up old news. I don’t say this for ethical reasons – “balance” is an illusion and he’s perfectly justified in having a specific focus on WhaleOil and associates – but for rhetorical strategy reasons. If he’d come across as more bipartisan it would have been harder to write him off as a “left wing conspiracy theorist.” He could have left it to the readers to realise National are so much worse at Dirty Politics than Labour.)
Kim Dotcom clearly has no idea about NZ culture, and the NZers he had alongside him (Laila Harré, the Mana people, Bradbury, Edgeler etc) should have known better, just as I should have.
To Dotcom’s credit, though: tonight he’s acknowledged that he poisoned the party with his toxic brand. (His concession speech is in stark contrast to Cunliffe’s denial. If Cunliffe had said he’d have to go back to his party and see who they wanted to continue leading the party, they may have let him stay on. But saying he’s going to hold onto the leadership probably guarantees he’ll be rolled… the only thing leaving him there is the fact they don’t have anyone better).
I’m not going to say I was wrong to vote Internet Mana, but I was definitely wrong not to realise the experiment would actually make Key more likely to be re-elected, not less.
(Of course, there are other reasons for tonight’s result too: Labour’s bitchy in-fighting, lack of consensus about what they stand for, and general incompetence; National still being extremely good at PR; a docile and blatantly biased mainstream media; dominant “common sense” in NZ being a lot more in line with National’s confident neo-liberalism-with-lip-service-to-welfare-state than anything any other party’s offering; etc. And of course it’s ridiculous that Kim Dotcom and Hone Harawira – whose policies are quite normal in Germany or pre-1984 NZ – are seen as dangerous extremists while ACT are seen as acceptable coalition partners and the Conservative joke party won around over 85,000 votes. But it would be denial to blame the media and dominant ideology entirely – the various mistakes of the left-of-NZ First also played a significant role).
PS: I was also wrong about the polls – turns out they were actually biased AGAINST National this time. Or maybe the media were right that the Moment of Truth aftermath and Dotcom backlash actually gave a bump to National. Or maybe soft National voters / Labour voters without hope freaked out when there was a last minute turn away from National and it looked like Winston Peters or Colin Craig might be in government? It’s impossible to know.
PPS: I was also wrong to spend so many hours writing blogs during the last parliamentary term. This will be my last blog for Cut Your Hair, at least for the foreseeable future. Thanks all readers and sharers and commenters etc; it’s been cathartic if nothing else.
The two faces of National’s hitherto successful PR strategy
UPDATE (19 Aug, evening): Literally in the last few hours, National have unveiled some policy on their website. This renders the first two graphs and table out-of-date. But the second half is still relevant, and I reckon it’s worth leaving the first half online as a time capsule of what National’s campaign looked like until WhaleGate. Coincidence? What do you think?
Original blog (19 Aug, afternoon):
“the left have given up on the policy argument. They don’t think they can beat the National Government on the issues … so what they’ve decided is they’ll play the man, not the ball … but we’re going to keep talking about the ball.”
This is similar to his quip when Laila Harré announced she was running against Key in his local seat:
“we won’t be having much of a debate about policy – the only policy the Internet Party has is to make sure Dotcom isn’t extradited.”
In fact, I’ve been following and compiling the various parties’ policies, and the Internet Party have far more policy on their website than National do – even though the IP have only had a few months to formulate theirs. In fact, National have less policy on their (single) policy page than any other party – significantly less than most of them. On word count, they only provide literally 2.4% as much as Labour or 1.1% as much as NZ First:
It is true that some parties (notably Labour, the Greens and the Internet Party) provide fuller versions of their policies or additional documents, linked from their main policy pages. This is the main difference between National’s and the IP’s policy websites.
If we’re generous, we can include a couple of documents from January about their 2014 priorities in this category… the speech is largely not policy, but they do link to these documents at the bottom of their policy page. This time National manage to claw their way up to 2nd-to-last, because ACT only expand upon two of their policies – but they’re still left in the dust by the left-of-NZ-First parties he accuses of giving up on policy:
It’s also worth noting that Labour and the IP both state that even more policy is forthcoming, and the Greens are frequently updating theirs. I wonder if National’s are on the way, too? [update: I guess so! National also now say there’s more on the way]
Here’s the full data, if you’re interested:
While I spent an embarrassingly long time on this [update: now-obsolete! grrr…] number-crunching, we actually didn’t need these numbers to know that National try to run policy-free campaigns and policy-free politics wherever possible. They don’t engage with public questions like this, this or this. They don’t engage (openly) with blogs; certainly not opposition ones, and certainly not on policy questions.They don’t really put policy on their billboards – some people had to do it for them last election. Their flagship policies are generally pretty unpopular. They [update: still] have [basically] no policy about some of the biggest issues facing NZ (climate change, child poverty, inequality and the housing crisis) – in fact, they often deny that they’re issues.
Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics has provided some alarming insight into what kind of politics they do instead of policy politics. I haven’t read it, but Danyl McLaughlin helpfully summarises the basic thesis thus:
John Key’s National government uses a ‘two tier’ communications strategy; positive communications, which are focused around John Key, who is presented as ‘relaxed’ and decent, and negative/attack communications, which are conducted covertly by senior staffers in Key’s office and fed to the media mostly – but not exclusively – through Cameron Slater’s WhaleOil blog.
Obviously, the emphasis of the book is on the negative ‘tier’; the positive ‘tier’ was already quite obvious… but in fact both strategies involve “playing the man, not the ball” … positively, they focus on “the man” of John Key, his smiling face [update: which emblazons 12/18 of these and 4/4 of these plus a bonus] and perhaps some content-free feel-good generalities coming out of it. Negatively – well, you can read the book or the excerpts or the leaks or the blogs yourself.
Playing the man in these two ways has been a winning strategy so far, and has kept National riding high since Key took over (they’re currently polling well over double their 2002 election result). Will Dirty Politics and Whaledump change that? I hope so, but I can’t say with confidence.
What I can say with confidence, though, is that Key’s latest accusation is the most brazen hypocrisy I’ve witnessed since I’ve been following NZ politics.
Post-script (21 August):
Here’s the updated first graph now that National finally have some policy (5965 words of it, to be precise):
They’ve also deleted the two documents they previously linked to, but they’ve added a whole lot of links on each of their policy pages (mostly past news stories about what they’ve done while in government, which is kind of cheating… but also some fuller policy statements). I can’t be bothered counting that up at this stage. My guess is it’s still much less than Labour and probably less than the Greens and Internet Party too (definitely if we only include policy announcements proper).
Finance Minister Bill English conceded that the Government would like to have had more New Zealand investors than the 62,000 and a higher share price than $1.50.
But he blamed in no small part Labour and Greens’ energy policy, accusing them of scaring off mum and dad investors from Mighty River Power and Meridian because of their policy to control wholesale power prices.
“They set out to sabotage lower income New Zealanders doing it. Unfortunately they’ve had some effect.”
So Bill English (yes, that’s the deputy prime minister, not your ignorant workmate) thinks poor NZers can afford to buy shares, and the only reason they aren’t buying shares in what we used to own together is that Labour and the Greens “sabotaged” their investment plans by “scaring them off.”
The most obvious explanation is that he’s trying to contort the embarrassing failure of the asset sales into being somehow the opposition’s fault.
A more worrying possibility is that he actually believes what he’s saying. This is, after all, the man who wrote off child poverty as merely “relative.”
70% of National supporters don’t know anyone who’s unemployed, so what are the odds the National deputy leader knows any “low income New Zealanders”?
As Robert McAfee Brown put it: “who we listen to determines what we hear; where we stand determines what we see.”
(Re. the title: I’m happy to be corrected)
Some world leaders according to PoliticalCompass.org (only vaguely related to this blog)
A friend who studies political science commented on Facebook in response to my last blog, saying among other things that she was (I’m paraphrasing) “confused about my determination to attribute everything to left-right frameworks.” She has a good point and I thought it deserved a good response. I wrote what turned out to be a very long response… I’ll let you decide if it was a good response.
I thought I might share it here as well, because a lot of my recent blogs have drawn quite heavily on the left-right spectrum, and I thought some other people might be interested. As always, all comments are welcome.
The truth is that we probably largely agree that the left-right framework is over-simplified etc. – likewise with the Political Compass, which is only slightly less simplistic (two spectra instead of one).
Where we might differ is: I don’t think the left-right frameworks are completely useless and thus should be thrown out completely. Or at least, I only think they can/should be thrown out by people like yourself who have the time and knowledge to look into, and analyse, each party and philosophy and candidate on their own merits – which is barely anyone. I personally don’t have the time, knowledge or brain-power to analyse everything and everyone on its own merits without any generalisations to help categorise it.
When I use the left-right framework, I partly use it as shorthand for more complex realities (I think conciseness is vital in blogging, and I struggle enough as it is here). But I partly use it with an implied audience not of people like yourself who know I’m oversimplifying things, but of people who struggle to understand politics at all. I talk to quite a lot of people who describe themselves this way, and the number may surprise you as a POLS student… this is not to say that these people are stupid, they just haven’t put in the necessary hours and hours of time to understand politics. With local politics this category is even larger… I think I’ve probably done more research into it than most voters (at least most young voters), but I still don’t really understand anything beyond what I wrote in my last blog.
While over-simplified, I do think the left-right spectrum touches on some truth, for example the way neo-liberalism has shifted the political ‘centre’ in NZ. You as a POLS student would have more sophisticated ways of explaining this than me, but is it completely wrong to say that neo-liberalism involves a shift to the (economic) right? I think it’s a generalisation but a generally true generalisation.
I think if someone doesn’t understand politics at all, nor how NZ parties have shifted over the years, and then they hear my (admittedly simplified) explanation of both Labour and National shifting to the right economically since the 80s, they’ve increased their understanding. I don’t want to sound superior or condescending but if some of the people who struggle to understand politics (because they have other priorities, and haven’t put in the hours and hours you and I have into politics) read my over-simplified blogs and feel they understand it a bit more, I’m glad.
I also note that a lot of polls say that the current government’s policies are unpopular, but John Key as a person is very popular. There seems to be a disconnect from understanding the political realities and trends and philosophies that certain parties stand for (consciously or unconsciously), and the kind of policies they are likely to enact because of it. So if I can help to slightly decrease this disconnect, I’m glad too.
It’s partly my personality… I know a lot of people don’t like generalisations, but I do like them, as I feel that they can help us gain some kind of understanding of the patterns of how the world works. Even if they’re over-simplified, which they inevitably are, I think it’s still better than just seeing the world as random chaos and not having any grasp of the patterns at all.
I don’t think everything should be attributed to the left-right spectrum, and if what I write sounds like I’m doing that, it’s because I like to write in an extreme style, and I like to point out what I don’t think is being pointed out enough. It’s my impression that what’s pointed out a lot at the moment is personalities, individual quirks etc, but what’s not pointed out enough (in my experience) is the patterns and the groups of individuals that tend to believe certain things and do certain things.
It’s a bit like people saying that when multinational companies do horrible things, it’s because there’s a few bad apples. But if there’s a consistent pattern that multi-national companies, in their exclusive drive to maximise profit, act in psychopathic ways (cf. The Corporation documentary – which is probably oversimplified too), I think it’s worth pointing that out.
Likewise with Marryatt’s pay-rise. People might think it’s just a few bad apple individuals on council that voted for the pay-rise. But I think it’s worth pointing out that they seem to have all been right-leaning (correct me if I’m wrong), and that the four of them who are standing again are all standing for right-leaning political groupings (I-Citz and City 1st).
There’s another reason why I stubbornly cling on to the left-right spectrum as a way of describing things. The last few decades have seen a growth of ‘post-modern’ distrust of big stories and grand theories, and part of this is the growth of what has been called a ‘post-political’ and ‘post-ideological’ mindset, where we don’t like politicians to be tied to any big ideas, our politicians claim to be ‘pragmatic’ rather than ideological, and supposedly all the big grand narratives of religion, nationalism, communism etc. are dead.
But what this obscures is that there is in fact one ‘narrative’ that is far from dead. Capitalism (and consumerism, free markets, commodification, inequality etc) is more globally dominant than ever before, and it no longer needs a big narrative to support it – in fact it’s supported precisely by the post-modern turn from big theories to individual feelings and individual consumption. (You could also say that social liberalism/individualism is a narrative that is extremely powerful in the West, but I’d say that capitalism is more globally dominant – cf. China combining capitalism with social authoritarianism and doing it even ‘better’ than the countries who combine capitalism with democracy).
Paralleling this, in political science (from my outside perspective) there seems to be a movement towards seeing the old left-right frameworks as inadequate and seeing people who ‘still’ use them as out of touch. But again, I think this can potentially obscure real political phenomena like neo-liberalism, especially if you don’t replace my over-simplified ‘shifting to the right economically’ explanation with a better and more accurate explanation that is still accessible to non-POLS students.
So my question is what should we replace the left-right spectrum with? I think I’d be happy to abandon the left-right spectrum (and the political compass two-spectrum model) if I saw that there was a better alternative. I’m very happy to be corrected and educated here, but at the moment, all I see replacing the ‘old’ left-right model is A) from academics: complex theories that are inaccessible to most people, B) from politicians: cynical obscuring of the real political realities they represent. I’d rather have an ‘old-fashioned’ model that can be understood and engaged with than intentional or unintentional obscurantism that contributes to lack of understanding and apathy.
My preferred candidate…
1. I’m hearing a narrative from a few friends about Shearer being a nice guy betrayed by his MPs. I think this has it partly right but is largely missing the point. Shearer was betrayed first and foremost by the faction in caucus who put him in power – commonly known as the ABC (Anyone But Cunliffe) clique. They knew the wider party membership and affiliated unions wanted to move the party back to the left, and overwhelmingly supported Cunliffe. But they rallied behind the obscure and inexperienced Shearer instead.
It would take a charismatic political genius with a compelling vision to win over a party when you’ve been made their leader as a big fat F-you to its members. And it would take the same qualities to be a real match for Key. Shearer may be a nice guy but he’s certainly not a charismatic political genius with a compelling vision. Whatever truth there is to media speculations about Cunliffe and/or Robertson undermining Shearer, I don’t blame Labour MPs for being frustrated as Shearer mumbled and stumbled and bumbled for the last 20 months.
Fortunately, at last year’s party conference the
grassroots members party successfully voted in a more democratic method of electing the leader – 40% current MPs, 40% party members, 20% affiliated union members (the ABC clique, not surprisingly, opposed this). It’s currently being implemented for the first time. So whoever the next leader is, he (they’re all hes) will have one major advantage over Shearer – the perception that he was chosen by the whole party. (This is also why Shearer should have called for an election on the new system directly after the conference… coming off his successful housing speech and showing courage and respect for the members, he just might have won his job back and a proper mandate to go with it).
2. The other narrative about Labour being crippled by infighting and struggling desperately in the polls is also quite misleading I think. Gordon Campbell and Frank Macskasy point out that division is normal for a major party in opposition and National’s in no position to judge. It’s worth comparing Labour now to National’s last era in opposition – note also election results and methods of changing leaders…
3. I support Cunliffe for the leadership. If Labour et al want to defeat Key in 2014, they’ll need to do exactly what Shearer couldn’t do: Articulate a coherent and attractive vision, clearly point out how the Key government is failing New Zealand, and offer a genuine and compelling alternative. While Robertson, Jones and Cunliffe are all more charismatic and articulate than Shearer (and probably have better music taste), Cunliffe has the edge on coherent vision and genuine alternative. Of the three, Cunliffe has been the most clear about returning the party to its Labour roots, and opposing the shameful slide to inequality that all our governments since the 80s have tolerated (Clark) or actively promoted (Lange, Bolger, Key).
But I’m not getting my hopes too high. Cunliffe’s not the messiah, and sometimes he’s a naughty boy. He’s still only centre-left (if that) while Key is hard right. Plus, if he’s leader he still has to deal with a caucus full of dead wood, many of whom seem happy with the neo-liberal consensus, even though it’s crippling NZ’s health and their party’s credibility. And he’d have to find a finance minister who’s competent and on the same page (preferably Russell Norman).
I’ll still probably vote Mana as I want to support more radical critiques of the capitalist status quo. But if the next Labour government can end this National one, shift the centre slightly back towards equality, and do something about our horrendous child poverty problem, I think that’s a good thing.
PS: Best source of info and the range of opinion about all of this: Bryce Edwards’ political round-ups.