Monday, November 10, 2008

Red is dead, watch out for the Green machine!

The fall of the Labour Party in New Zealand is not merely the consequence of electorate boredom. Nor is it simply the consequence of bunker mentality which seems to afflict anyone in the Beehive for more than two terms. The reason the Labour Party lost is that it is intellectually bankrupt.

When Labour returned to power at the beginning of the 2000s its message of hope was simple. It would return New Zealand to the top half of the OECD for income per capita. Michael Cullen told the Chicago School mandarins in Treasury in no uncertain terms that they had a choice: my way or the highway. They knuckled under – as they had to Bill Birch before him.The problem was that after all the hoo-haa surrounding knowledge economies, and innovation the Labour Party took the easy way out. It opened the immigration floodgates – not hard after 9/11 – and fell back on the 1842 Wakefield National Enrichment Programme i.e sell the same land to newcomers for higher prices. New Zealand has been relying on this now for 160 years and when combined with an international mortgage bubble suddenly made everyone feel rich.

The Labour Party watched unemployment fall to record levels, its coffers swelling to embarrassing levels and fooled itself into believing that it was delivering on its promises. What next? It was at this point that Labour began to get religion about climate change, partly through the offices of the cunning Jeanette Fitzsimons and partly through the patronisation of the British New Labour Party who chucked Helen under the chin and told her she could be terribly important if she supported their efforts to talk up the value of carbon (which is vital to the City of London). Seeing a future swanning around being important in Europe Helen swallowed hook line and sinker and suddenly returning to the top half of the OECD seemed parochial and dull. Instead Helen decided New Zealand would lead the world on sustainability with targets even oil rich Norway would consider impressive.

Never slow to seize an opportunity the Greens went into overdrive and effectively became the intellectual leaders on both economic and social policy in Wellington. Very quietly however something was happening out in the electorate. A tear between the Labour Party’s leadership and its traditional supporters was beginning. When people who have not had much to begin with, gain something they become conservative. The Greens rank and file is however made up of both the very well-off and younger people who either can afford extra costs or simply won’t face them. Greens can go places Reds cannot. And slowly the issues started mounting up. Smacking kids, shower flow rates: Green initiatives endorsed by Labour were flowing down to the Labour base and going down like a cup of cold sick.

The more it went on the more the tear became a rend. The intellectual head of the labour movement used to commanding the attention of the masses who looked to it for protection and representation was becoming Green and biting the Red body. And newly enriched the Red body was slowly feeling bluer than ever before even if it mistrusted this new sensation. The result came to a head on Saturday 7 and Labour now finds itself without a head at all.

What will happen now?

Helen Clark’s personal failure has been to fall into the trap of ‘strong leadership’. People don’t want ‘strong’ leadership. They want inspiring leadership. The reasons leaders emphasise strength in leadership is that it does take an enormous amount of personal strength to be a leader. Compare Helen Clark the weeping Health Minister in 1986 with Helen Clark today. There isn’t a comparison. Clark has been burned, scarred and scolded into the will of iron style leader people actually can’t relate to or like. The problem with Will of Iron leaders is that they surround themselves with sichophants and burn off anyone else. Once that happens reality becomes an act of will and Government loses all sense of reality.

Labour’s problem is therefore two-fold. Most of its surviving senior people are relatively weak and they don’t have a coherent or appealing ideology. The bankruptcy in the Labour Party – like the bankruptcy in world markets is actually a lot deeper and a lot more serious than might at first appear. The role of old style unionists has diminished and the parliamentary wing looks more like the party of the gay green minority than anything that will appear to working people.
Meanwhile having carried out a brilliant campaign the Greens are strengthened and ready to become the major voice of opposition in the new Parliament. Although they will almost certainly face policy-knockbacks as the National Party blunts their sharper policies the Greens will almost certainly become the leaders of political opposition both in Parliament – and just as important on the streets.

This is a make or break time for the Greens and they have to win. For if, as promised the nation does hold a referendum on MMP at the next election and selects FPP or STV the Greens risk losing all influence in the Parliament. Their goal, therefore, must simply be to outshine the Labour Party in Parliament and out-inspire the Labour Party with young people on the street. Their ultimate goal must be to completely eclipse the Labour Party within ten years.

The Green Party needs its idealism but it also needs to get a lot stronger as a realistic alternative to Labour with corporate New Zealand. It needs to develop a more sophisticated economic view and it needs to adopt a careful balance of co-operation and antagonism with business. If the Greens are careful they will also need to step up their push into the labour movement as well and show more sympathy for the role of workers in large industrial enterprises than their purist policies have to date.

While the National Party will hold the policy pen for the next three to six years the more interesting struggle will be on the left as the Greens emerge as a force to be reckoned with regardless of electoral system we may ultimately choose.

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