the New Orthodoxy

Colin James for the Independent

The revolution is over — that much Richard Prebble, Bill English, Helen Clark and Jim Anderton agree on, though from very different angles. Now what?

The “what” is the deep agenda in this election. The great majority of the electorate has settled that it doesn’t want to go back to 1984 — maybe not even to 1990. But it is unsure where it wants to go from here and the big parties are jostling to draw a map.

Settled politics requires settled boundaries to the mainstream debate. Even in the most stable society there are outlyers, radicals and cranks. But if a society and its politics are to be stable there must be widespread agreement about what is within and what beyond the pale of mainstream debate — that is, about what is orthodox.

The 1980s were a time of radical policy upheaval which smashed political taboos. In the aftermath there has been a decade of political bewilderment and realignment. This is now coming to an end. A new orthodoxy is in the making.

Last election spinoff parties from Labour and National got 35% of the vote. Their average support in polls over the past six months is 17%, not much more than New Zealand got by itself in 1996. For this election at least, it looks as if around 80% of electors are preparing to re-deposit their votes with the two old parties.

Deposits can, of course, be withdrawn. Poor management or economic shocks over the next decade could send supporters of one or both of the old parties back out looking for deliverance. But the foundations are now in place on which they can re-establish themselves as the defining forces in politics over the next 10 or 20 years — if their leaders have the wit and the luck.

But which of the two old parties will be on top? Which party will write the language of the new orthodoxy? This election by itself will not tell us. That is likely to take at least another. But this election will decide the shape of the early contest.

Spool back 50 years to National’s first election win on November 30 1949. Labour had been the government for 14 years, building the world’s first comprehensive welfare state and establishing full employment and laying the groundwork for what historian Bill Oliver a decade later called a “modest affluence for all”.

Yet during that next decade after 1949 National established itself as the “normal” party of government for the 1960s and 1970s.

National had begun life in the 1930s as a fusion of two conservative parties opposing the welfare state. But by 1949 it understood the “quest for security”, as economist Bill Sutch put it, by ordinary folk who had been buffeted by an horrendous economic depression and two cataclysmic wars within a generation. That was National’s “liberal” strand as articulated by Jack Marshall and a bunch of other new MPs such as Ralph Hanan and Tom Shand in the late 1940s.

The key to National’s success was to add “freedom” to “security”. “It’s a free country” was common phrase of everyday life in the 1950s and 1960s. In establishing a welfare state designed to make people independent, Labour had misread the quest for security as a recipe for control. By 1984 Labour — or at least the Labour that traced its direct lineage to 1949 — had been almost written out of the script as a governing party. It had had only walk-on parts, two three-year terms in 35 years.

National’s trick was to make freedom safe. Its freedom was not open slather, nor the free market, but freedom within order, in a secure, conservative, small-property-owning society. Capitalism was a very tame beast in this scheme of things — easily cowed when after 1975 the populist Sir Robert Muldoon tore up the Marshall/Hanan/Shand lexicon and also misread security for control.

Tearing up the lexicon was a fatal mistake. What the National party in the 1950s had done was to write the language that defined the boundaries of the mainstream debate over the following quarter-century. Within those boundaries Labour and National had different emphases and so could mount a genuine electoral battle. But the battle was mainly on National’s terms, not Labour’s.

In Scandinavia during those prosperous years the battle was mainly on the terms of Labour’s counterparts, the social democratic parties, not National’s counterparts, the liberal or conservative parties.

Now, the post-Muldoon revolution over, a new lexicon can be written.

Post-Douglas Labour, trying to make sense of the welfare state tradition in a free market, dares not talk of “security” without adding “opportunity” — in case it is suspected of backsliding into control.

The tax take (which in any case is now 35% compared with the 1960s 25%) must not rise. Heroic ideals from the 1960s and early 1970s of a fully participatory society are no longer, as they seemed to Labour idealists then, just a matter of money. Steve Maharey, the party’s ideas man, gropes along a “third way” between the free market and the pervasive state.

Labour has taken this much from the 1980s: that the economy must be open to the world, to imports, capital and people; that regulation of the domestic economy must be limited and relatively light; that budgets must balance; and that inflation must be kept low.

If more “opportunity” is to be created through education and high-return industry, the state must, it says, be involved in helping ensure access to learning and business has the means to invest in research and development and ideas are turned into products and services. The state now for Labour is facilitative, not in command.

“Security” for Labour now is not protective walls against the world. It is state assurance of health care, help to get a job in the internationalised economy and financial and social underpinning when there isn’t a job. This security cannot be provided by the state alone but must be found among “social entrepreneurs” who develop local programmes for individuals on the ground. The welfare state has to become the welfare community.

Shuffle a few steps to the right and find National constructing a new conservatism.

The Shipley prime ministership spent its initial year focused tightly on micro-economic reform, recapturing the radical spirit of the early 1990s. This year has marked a belated switch to pragmatism.

The new voice is Bill English’s, a man of the next age group after the 1980s revolutionaries. He and his “brat pack” contemporaries take the ideas battle of the 1980s as won and also take as read the need for continuing microeconomic and social policy reform to continually improve fiscal and economic efficiency — though that reform must be judged by practical outcomes, not pursued because the theory is appealing.

The practical outcomes English wants are lower costs for business and higher-quality services for individuals. He and the brat pack accept that the state will go on spending around the current $25 billion on social support and services — public demand will not allow it to be substantially cut and will require, if anything, a rise the counter to which is to make the services more “effective”. English has quietly retreated from Sir William Birch’s aim to get the tax take back to 25% of GDP and doesn’t even talk of 30%, only of reducing taxes over time.

Under brat-packman Roger Sowry income support policy has moved from simple cash payments to case-work with each individual beneficiary, designed to ease the path to skills and jobs. To this he has added an expectation and an obligation on beneficiaries to make real efforts to get themselves into the workforce. This is the language of “obligation” and “reciprocality”.

Not much of this will be on television screens in November. National will pound away on tax, unions and the threat of the Alliance and insist it has a programme for the future and bright young people to take us there. Labour will focus heavily on the losers of the last 15 years and evoke kinder, gentler days under a “smart government” ready to take us by the hand.

Helen Clark would as prime minister operate cautiously and conservatively so as not to upset or frighten people, delivering more than she promises. She wants three terms to establish Labour as the “normal” party of government. Equally, National wants to deny her the toehold of a first election win, to develop its new conservatism.

This is the contest for which this election provides the first skirmishes. Just by being there three terms, Labour’s language would come to define the boundaries of mainstream political debate, that is, define the terms of the new orthodoxy. But if National can hold office most of the next decade, its language — English’s language — would define the orthodoxy.

The prize (failing a derailing world economic slump or security tensions that drag us into international conflict) is domination of governments over the next 20 years. Worth fighting for.