What is this election really about, deep down? “Outsiders” and how to make them “insiders”. The instability of our politics of the past 15 years has a lot to do with that.
In the old politics you could walk down a street and roughly pick its political complexion. While individual voters could not be typecast in this way, socioeconomic status was not a bad general guide to choice between the two big parties.
There is still some correlation between socioeconomic status and voting. But it is no longer a safe guide.
Society is more diverse. The old “cleavage” between bosses and workers, white collar and blue collar, is now cut across by other dividing lines on such matters as morals, the environment, feminism and Maori rights. Sons and daughters of workers are now smart professionals; sons and daughters of bankers are now Coromandel greenies.
In addition, since we internationalised our economy in the 1980s we have divided society in a new way: between insiders who do well in the new economy and outsiders who do not — the elite and those who feel shut out.
How many times this election have you heard: “It doesn’t matter. They’re all the same.”
“They” aren’t all the same. The two sides, Labour/Alliance and National/ACT, are offering significantly different policy paths which would affect individuals differently.
But outsiders see Parliament as an insiders’ game, of little relevance. So, election by election (with an exception in 1996 when MMP was introduced) more don’t bother to enrol and more of those who do enrol don’t bother to vote. MMP didn’t change this; from an outsider’s viewpoint, the muddle that resulted made things worse.
Outsiders see insiders as in league with the big forces that they think ranged against them: top of the list are foreign and big business, capricious controllers of jobs and security. Most outsiders battle on and don’t see themselves as losers but feel blocked by forces that are not easily identified but definitely beyond their control. Some become angry and alienated.
It is as much a state of mind as a position in society. Politics these days are psycho-social as much as socioeconomic. This makes loyalties highly changeable. Labour was reduced to 28 per cent in the 1996 election and polled far below that in opinion polls.
No one has yet organised the outsiders into a coherent political force. Some of the more disgruntled of them fetched up with Jim Anderton in 1993, the year the Alliance got 18 per cent and Bruce Jesson dreamed of the Alliance supplanting Labour. Some, including old people and Maori (who are outsiders on minority culture grounds) fetched up with Winston Peters in 1996.
After Mr Peters sided with the quintessential insider, National, they seem to have parked themselves with Labour, a choice many would logically have made in the old socioeconomic-based politics. But huge swings in opinion polls indicated they weren’t there for keeps.
Now some seem to be trying Richard Prebble. Leftists shake their heads in disbelief: how can outsiders vote for a party that wants more of the deregulation and privatisation that made them outsiders in the first place?
Easy. If “the politicians are all the same”, it’s what touches an outsider’s disgruntled soul that gets the vote. Mr Prebble’s “one country” line touches some disgruntled souls, especially when bludging beneficiaries and criminals are the other planks the ads tell them about.
What can the big two parties do about it? National can lie low, play the insider card, promote its fresh young team and bank ACT votes. The bother is for Labour.
Labour can count on the votes of many outsiders, people who, even if they are not doing well in the new economy, nevertheless retain a residual faith in the system or see a particular policy (workplace relations, for example) that appeals or are soothed by Labour’s promise to fix health and education, secure old age, stoke up the economy and stop future tariff cuts.
But to win Labour also needs some of the more disgruntled outsiders
In the past week Helen Clark, Mr Prebble and Mr Peters have all — in different ways — invoked the spirit of Norman Kirk, the big man who was Prime Minister briefly in the optimistic early 1970s.
Mr Kirk had the rare gift of being able to stir the best sort of nationalism, to paint a picture of what we could become, a country in which all had a place. He might have gathered in today’s outsiders. No one in this campaign comes within cooee of him.