The way to dominate politics in the MMP system is to stake out the opposition’s territory.
Labour’s ‘third way’ managed this in the 2000s by rejecting National’s worn-out neo-liberal idea that social policy must be subordinated to economic policy, and replacing it with a more subtle neo-liberal idea that social and economic policy depend reciprocally upon one another. Labour claimed both sides of the pitch, and then they put that into action by raising taxes by stealth (or 'fiscal creep') and hence delivering consecutive budget surpluses and reducing public debt.
Labour ‘squared the circle’ of the politics of the day, and they succeeded (for a good three terms in office) in taking that crucial middle-ground support. New left movements (New Labour, the Alliance, the Greens) came along, but Clark’s Labour Party captured and tamed them each time, while quietly allowing a fundamental monetarist consensus to continue unchallenged.
Such a political manoeuvre is bound to have its weak side, though. For Helen Clark’s strategy, a critical vulnerability arose from leaving their traditional working-class base unrepresented, partly due to obscuring class with ethnicity.
Since then, under Key, National has pulled off a similar political three-card trick, but under (obviously) different conditions. They’ve been sufficiently successful at it that left-wing commentator Chris Trotter went so far as to say that National now is
mainstream New Zealand.
So, how did Key and co. do it?
Their first trump-card was to claim that they knew all about a so-called ‘underclass’. To this day, most New Zealanders can probably recall Key’s PR visit to McGechan Close (state house territory) and his invitation to a Maori girl to accompany him to Waitangi (shades of Norm Kirk). Thus he reached deeply and symbolically into traditional Labour territory – the very territory that Labour had left unguarded and untended for more than two decades.
The next trick was to use tax-cuts to appeal to ‘hard-working New Zealanders.’ The latter term cuts across working-class New Zealanders and middle-class New Zealanders in one go, thus implicitly representing the unrepresented. (Who, regardless of class, doesn’t want to be represented as ‘hard-working’?)
By substituting the ideological term ‘hard-working’ for the traditional working-class/middle-class (or blue-collar/white-collar) distinction, they managed to obliterate the class politics that used to limit their appeal as a traditional conservative party, and hence to stake out a wider territory for themselves. After the 2008 election, the unexpected marriage of convenience with the Maori Party then helped them to obliterate ethnic-identity political boundaries as well.
But what happened to the under-class? Here comes the third trump-card: National’s rhetoric separated ‘hard-working’ New Zealanders from ‘not-working’ New Zealanders (on working-age welfare benefits). Thus the ‘hard-working’ identity could be shored up (among those who still had jobs after the 2008 Crash) by distinguishing itself from that ‘under-class’ of the unemployed. That's the same 'under-class' which John Key had used earlier for political gain – and then abandoned for ‘welfare’ policies that attack the supposed ‘dependency’ issues of that same beneficiary ‘under-class.’
In the meantime, this ideological card-game has concealed the ace that pulls off a large-scale upward mobilization of wealth, by means of tax-cuts and asset-sales. The latter policy will convert assets that presently we all
own into assets owned by the few of us with spare capital and an appetite for investment (i.e., the wealthy). Shares will be conveniently priced to ensure that the (rich) Mum-n-Dads’ investments are a safe bet.
Welfare and employment policies meanwhile have chipped away at the incomes of the lowest-paid.
If you were one of the 50% of us who didn't see the sleight of hand, Key has managed to walk on water as a 'telegenic' persona.
He was initially adopted by National’s insiders as ‘the candidate from central casting,’ and he has (most of the time) met their expectations.
But, as Athens burns, as dictators die, as the RWC ends, as the election’s knock-out match looms, and as some of our sacred beaches get polluted by the oil of neo-liberal deregulation, National’s card-playing luck may be running out.
So, what's National's
weak point? More on this later...