Seismic shifts and political earthquakes

Back to politics again. But first, it is the shortest day of the year in the southern hemisphere today, and I woke up at 6am to a rumbling earthquake. It turned out not to be a big earthquake, by our standards, but it was close by. And it came a couple of weeks after two rather larger ones off the west coast of the North Island, jolting the Wellington region. Just as we are enjoying the post-Covid 19 freedoms, and the ability to shop in actual shops now, there are natural disasters to worry about again.

Usually if I wake up early enough I try to catch the Sky News bulletin that is screened live on the Australian Sky News channel overnight. Of course, this is mostly to catch up on the political news in Britain, before reading the Guardian on-line later in the day. But it is rather difficult to watch British news now, for obvious reasons, but not just because of the pandemic and other losses of life. It is rather irritating watching the bumbling right wing ideologues pretending to be world-beating leaders, whether in Westminster or Washington. Yet, despite the obvious fiasco taking place, the Conservatives still lead on.

Certain sections of the international media like to focus on New Zealand, or, more particularly, Jacinda Ardern, our Prime Minister. In the first place this is because of the elimination of Covid-19 here, and the accessibility of a leader speaking to the public without the baffling waffle and nonsense that conservative white men offer. Of course there was a bit of a wobble this week, when two women returning from the UK were let out of quarantine and turned out to have the virus, after not being tested while they were in their luxury hotel accommodation. There were also questions for the health administrators, after they claimed that the women drove from Auckland to Wellington without having to stop for petrol or for other reasons. It actually takes 9 hours to do this drive and I always have to re-fuel somewhere when I take the trip. But after these questions were raised Jacinda stepped in and the right corrective measures were taken.

Jacinda Ardern was already riding high in the opinion polls before the Covid crisis, but this was based on personal popularity. Her Labour Party was not the most preferred party, it had been the conservative National Party, which had lost the last election even though it had the higher party list vote than the Labour Party. But because of the pandemic crisis, and the visibility of the Prime Minister, the Labour Party’s polling has been surging past that of National. It’s leader had never really registered as a preferred Prime Minister, so he has been replaced without having fought an election, with another right wing man from the provinces taking over. The only question is whether Jacinda’s personal popularity will translate into a majority in the party vote. The next election has been called for September, and it seems unlikely that National can form a government.

But New Zealand has a proportional representation system, and no single party has ever got a clear parliamentary majority since the change in the electoral system was made in 1996. The point here is that, even if one party did achieve this milestone, they would actually choose to include other parties, either as coalition partners, or through having a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement. This has been the preferred arrangement for the National Party, which always seems to think that it wins by having more seats than Labour. It looks like they will have the biggest reduction in the party vote since 2002, when Helen Clark won a second term very easily. But Clark sought out a coalition partner to her right, and shunned the Green Party, which has always been to the left of Labour. At the moment that is the status quo, although the Green Party has a confidence and supply agreement, as well as having some minor ministerial portfolios.

Now the international media see Jacinda Ardern and Labour as a centre-left party, but this is only relative to the National Party, which is usually in government. The New Zealand Labour Party is not a socialist party, as the British Labour party has been, at least while Mr Corbyn was leader. In fact, the term ‘socialist’ is very seldom heard in Wellington. There may be some individuals who call themselves socialists in the Labour Party, but they are not MPs. This is because of a seismic shift in the late 1980s, when the fourth Labour Government implemented Thatcherite policies, including a very dodgy privatisation programme. The result was that the left of the party broke away as individuals, with some outsiders, to form New Labour (which later formed an alliance with the nascent Green party). The trade union movement did not support the break, but was decimated by legislation introduced after the National Party won a landslide election in 1990. And it was the National Party which changed the electoral system, after a referendum in 1993, for retaining First Past the Post, or creating a proportional system.

I recently read a comment on the Labour List website, in which someone named Ollie Middleton was singing the praises of Jacinda Ardern, and suggesting there were lessons to be learned by the UK Labour Party. There were some nice words here, but mostly some misinterpretation of events in New Zealand. Middleton suggested that Ardern had pursued a radical domestic policy agenda. This is not really true. She was not able to implement a capital gains tax measure, even at the height of her popularity; and even if she had a radical agenda, her coalition partner (called New Zealand First) has been putting the brakes on. Her one large policy promise involved a large house-building programme, based on heroic assumptions about what the building industry could do, and which has already failed and been largely curtailed. Back to the drawing board then.

In fact, the significance of the Ardern phenomena is not about policies at all, it is based on the ability to respond to crisis events, and rally the public to her side. Or just her popularity in opinion polls. This would be the lesson for the Labour Party in Britain when it chose a new leader. But instead, the Labour Party there chose a safe option, Sir Keir Starmer, a competent and solid performer in Parliament, when they could have gone for a woman from up North. It seems that their major concern is the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn in the 2019 election, judging by the Labour Together Election Review that has just been published. It essentially blames Corbyn for the loss and, implicity, his version of British socialism.

It is easy to be critical of this document from afar, but the analysis is deeply flawed. It also seems to assume that there is still a two party system, even when it acknowledges that the SNP control most of the Scottish seats. It claims that it is not impossible for Labour to win a parliamentary majority, but it looks incredibly unlikely under the First Past the Post system, which appears to be set in stone. While it is navel-gazing at Labour’s campaigning problems it ignores the seismic shift that seemed to occur in 2014-15, when the Scottish Nationalists almost swept all the other parties away. While the nationalists are in power in Edinburgh, Labour cannot expect to form a majority in UK elections again, with the ‘English Nationalism’ of the Tories still relevant to the white working class. Having a Labour Government in Wales is about the best it seems able to do.

The really extraordinary thing in this election review is how much Labour are in thrall to the Conservative Party, and not just because of the trauma of losing the ‘red wall’ seats in the north of England. The analysis is that there is a long term trend of Labour losing working class seats to the Tories, outside of the big cities, and university towns. This is portrayed as a kind of inexorable process, where there are even more seats that could be lost, and despite the incompetence of the current Conservative government. The really amazing thing is the idea that the good result under Corbyn’s leadship, in the 2017 general election, somehow ‘masked’ the underlying demographic trend. The goodish result in 2017 was only because the public didn’t really know a lot about Corbyn; or the view of the right faction within Labour was that voters who stayed with Labour did so in the expectation that Corbyn could not win anyway. This does not explain how Labour won so many Tory held seats in 2017. It also does not explain how Corbyn’s Labour managed to hold on to seats that were gained in 2019, some very narrowly, but others comfortably in the south of England. And if the Liberal Democrats had been able to win more seats off the Conservatives in their former strongholds in the south west the overall result would look rather different. But the Liberal Democrats gained over 1 million more votes without winning any more seats at all; and there are still half a million Labour voters in Scotland who are left unrepresented, apart from one seat in Edinburgh.

In any other country, without an archaic electoral system, winning an extra 1 million votes would have been a triumph. Not in dear old Blighty though, where 43% of the overall vote is good for a landslide win. If the British were to learn anything from its former colonies like New Zealand it would be about how to create a modern electoral system, and one which reflects representation of a multi-ethnic society. And if the British Labour Party were to learn anything from Jacinda Ardern and her Labour Party, it would have been to take a chance on a female leader, and to no longer expect to have to win an absolute parliamentary majority before getting into government again. And it is not just the different electoral system that makes this possible.

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