Catching the tides of history

Speech to the National Party Epsom electorate’s “newsmakers” breakfast, 29 June 2001

My first point is that I am not a newsmaker, as the title of these breakfasts suggests. I am a news watcher.

My interest is not in what or who is right or wrong but in what will stay the distance or fall by the wayside. Those who have political or economic agendas often think I am for or against them or their position — when actually I am testing them or their policies against the public’s judgment. I am, in the famous words of Sir Walter Nash, “neither for nor against”. I am a news watcher, as dispassionate as I can be, not a newsmaker, passionately arguing a case or pushing an interest. What I think or feel, even what I conclude after analysis is the “right” policy course or person for the job, is irrelevant to readers. What I can relevantly do is clarify for readers what the actors in the deadly political game think or feel.

My second point, which arises out of the first, is that I try to take the long view. I am a great deal less interested in what will win or lose today or tomorrow, though I have to take an interest in that to ply my trade, than I am in what will win or lose over time. That is the theme of my remarks this morning.

And my third point, which also arises out of the first, is that, as with my speech to the Auckland regional conference, I have aimed, in preparing this one, to offer some thoughts which could equally be presented at a Labour party gathering without any change. My interest is in the big picture, not in partisan or ideological posturing.

I intend today to develop the thoughts in the regional conference speech. The theme will be similar: the factors which will determine which main party might dominate the government through the next decade or two. But I will approach it from a different tack.

At the regional conference I set my analysis in a simple frame of “freedom” and “security”. I suggested that getting the language right is critical to holding power over time. Of course, that is not a matter only of some key words, gleaned from focus groups or the like: it is a matter of the policy mix, the tone and the compatibility of the party�s leadership with the public, how much the voters see party leaders as “one of us”.

What I suggested in that speech was that voters’ taste for the mix of “freedom” and “security” changes over time and the party that best reflects that changing taste at any point in time is more likely to be in power. I suggested that National had got that right in the 1950s and 1960s but lost track in the 1970s and never quite got it right after that. I suggested that Labour had got the mix right in 1999 — but only for the moment. The prize for the major party which gets the mix right now might be to dominate the next 20 years of politics. I said it was far too early to tell which party would do that but that for the moment Labour was ahead and National had some catching up to do.

I want today to look in from a different angle: whether a party is on the right or the wrong side of history.

This is not as simple as it sounds.

It is easy in retrospect to say that socialists or social democrats were on the right side of history through much of the twentieth century. Much of the politics of the twentieth century was devoted to the construction and extension of the welfare state in response to the aspirations of a fully enfranchised electorate looking for security. For conservative parties to succeed in the second and third quarters of the twentieth century, it was necessary to accept and support large dollops of regulation and state assistance.

It is also easy in retrospect to say that neo-liberals — or “more-market” reformers or “economic rationalists” — were on the right side of history through the last quarter of the twentieth century. That period was devoted to reversing what were felt to be the inhibitors of economic growth embedded in the welfare state policy settings — and also, initially as an aside, to reverse the huge growth in “dependency” and the disintegration of the nuclear family. For social democrats to succeed in the last quarter of the century, it was necessary to accept that markets would rule in allocating resources and the best social policy could do was alleviate the damage to the less advantaged.

From that it is obvious that history does not stand still. To stay on the right side of history a major party must pick the deep currents of change and broadly aligned with them. In 1949 Labour failed to pick an undercurrent of chafing at the permanent extension of wartime control. National was floating along on that current and, after some early catching of crabs with its oars which cost it votes and an election, got the formula off pat under Sir Keith Holyoake, at least for the first half of his highly successful reign.

By contrast with a major party which must get 40% or more of the vote, a minor or niche party can survive quite nicely if it can ride a bow wave of change still a decade or even decades away, as socialists did in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Hope and a belief that the future is theirs will keep both the party and its supporters afloat.

Such a hope and belief may, however, be mistaken. Social Crediters thought they had the key to eternal prosperity and that the political future was theirs if only they could educate enough voters. But actually, by contrast with the Labour party’s accumulation of support in the three decades before its 1936 breakthrough, only a tiny sliver of Social Credit’s vote was subscription to Major Douglas’s cranky A plus B theorem. The great majority of its vote was just disaffection — people out of sorts with history.

The same mistake was made by the Alliance in the early and mid-1990s, into which, aptly, Social Credit (now the Democrats) folded. However valid their complaints that the Douglas-Richardson revolution had wrecked social equity, actually they were not garnering true believers in a socialist revival but people out of sorts with history — the “left- behinds”. Winston Peters and Gilbert Myles were in that category, too, and Gilbert even joined the Alliance.

This is why the Greens and Mana Motuhake were misfits in the Alliance. Mana Motuhake, for all its muddle, was from its start in 1980 canoeing on a rising tide of indigenous reassertion of rights. Its submersion in the Alliance left the political expression of that reassertion to other forces, including (though also improbably, given the otherwise counter-historical cast of the party they were in) Tau Henare and Tuku Morgan. The Greens were and are riding the long current of environmentalism. While they were in the Alliance they lost much of their support.

But when you are in the midst of history in the making it is very difficult to pick out the forward currents from the eddies and the doomed counter-currents. This is especially difficult when there are major dislocations or revolutions.

The National party, as a party of incremental change within a generally conservative stance, got marooned by what the Americans call the “values revolution” among the young in the 1960s. This might loosely be characterised as a celebration of free will which in this country culminated in the “independence” revolution of the late 1980s when the 1960s young had grown up enough to assume pre-eminence in the arts, business and politics. This happened along at the same time as the neo-liberal tide hit these shores and so gave us the intense Douglas-Richardson version of the economic reforms sweeping the western world.

As these young people grew older and those of the next age cohort adopted their values and took them another stage, National fell further and further out of step with history. In the 1970s it stepped out of character and turned to Sir Robert Muldoon’s grotesque populism. That was a sad perversion of National’s tradition of liberal-conservatism.

By no means sad or a perversion was National’s Ruth Richardson period. But it was nevertheless also uncharacteristic of National, in that it dumped liberal-conservatism for radicalism. Radicalism is for minor parties or revolutionaries, not for large mainstream movements. National’s sub-35% votes in the 1990s make that point.

The saver for National and what kept it in power through the 1990s was Labour’s response to the values revolution. In 1972 it made an entirely excusable mistake in misreading what the new generation was about. As participants in a revolution, the young of the 1960s took note of what their elders said was radical: the belief that the state was the instrument by which society could be perfected, if only politicians tried hard enough. It was that message the Kirk government faithfully tried to carry out, only to be swamped in the economic fallout from the 1973 oil shock, which, we can now see, put limits to the social power of the state.

Then in the 1980s Labour reversed the country rapidly out of National’s Muldoonist dead-end with a policy revolution. This radicalism was a true expression of the underlying values of the 1960s revolution, shorn of the mentoring of out-of-date 1960s social perfectionists. It was the “free-will” revolution, the celebration of the individual and the liberty that is indivisible from the true individual.

But revolutions are not currents of history or even tides. They are waterfalls. As revolutions often do, the 1980s one consumed its own, dispersing Labour politicians to the four winds (to ACT at one end, to United in the middle, to New Zealand First off to the side and to the Alliance at the other end) and reducing the rump of the Labour party to the verge of minor party status.

Curiously, however, just as Labour saved National in the 1990s, so National also saved Labour. The 1990s in retrospect look like the last stages of a prize fight, with two tottering punch-drunks holding each other up.

In those unusual circumstances, Labour was able to win in 1999 with a policy that in effect rode not a mainstream current of history but an eddy-current of history — partly undoing some of the 1990s policy changes. What its win really reflected, however, in my view (without yet the benefit of retrospect), was a final flick of public disapproval of the revolutionary politics of the 1980s and early 1990s. It was a reaction against “extremism”.

In late 1997 it was, I thought, just possible Jenny Shipley could have put National in the pole position by 1999 by restating National in its true liberal-conservative colours. From a too cursory look at her upbringing and values, I expected her to do this. And she had some raw material she could have made use of in her “brat pack” who were starting to assert liberal-conservative, centrist values. But, for reasons I have yet to fathom, Mrs Shipley chose another course. Perhaps she lacked the confidence to be truly herself. Perhaps she, too, had been consumed by the revolution.

This has given Labour a golden chance to set itself on the right side of history through this decade.

Sure, Labour is shacked up with the Alliance which is, as my colleague, John Armstrong, put it last Saturday, promising a better past. But before our eyes the Alliance is biodegrading as the history it was in tune with fades out. Labour may be shacked up with the Alliance but it is not shackled to it.

And Labour has one important advantage, the young. After the free-will revolution of the 1980s, the young seem to my very imperfect observation to be seeking something you might call “connectedness”. This is not old-style social democracy. It is closer to what the Greens talk about.

It is in this sense that the Greens are an important adjunct to Labour. As far as we can tell without the future to help us through retrospect, the Greens do look like a party of the future, that is, on the right side of history, though somewhat in advance of it — as socialists were 100 years ago. The evidence lies in the way the mainstream parties have over the past 30 years progressively incorporated green ideas into mainstream policy. Labour has been far more attuned than National and so the Greens naturally gravitate to Labour’s side — for the next while at least.

So, as I said, Labour has a golden chance to grab history by the throat this decade. But only a chance. The current Labour rode in 1999 was an eddy-current, not a main stream. It now has to suss what it is that history will in retrospect determine to have been the mainstream and then manoeuvre its waka into it.

One option is to work out how to plug New Zealand into the high-income economic opportunities the world now offers. On the evidence so far Labour is shuffling, rather than striding, in that direction — and if this is to work as a long-term commander of the centre, some high-risk policy may be called for. How it handles the Knowledge Wave conference in August will give us a clue whether it will find its step.

The challenge for National is to divine the mainstream and get there first. Max Bradford had the germ of Helen Clark’s “economic transformation” and even got a small policy initiative up as the embers were dying in the last days of the 1990s National government. But he was too little listened to, so that chance was squandered. Now National has to work out whether that was a mistake or how it can “me-too” Labour so well that Labour looks sluggish.

Labour has the advantage of being in government and so doing things that voters can see and respond to. National has the advantage of being in opposition and so thinking more freely.

I don’t see yet much evidence of such free thinking. Perhaps it is at odds with the liberal-conservatism the party is edging back to. But in any case, there is time, even if the next election is lost. Ms Clark is a conservative by temperament, highly risk-averse. That suggests that she will not have got far down the “economic transformation” track by 2005.

Just plugging New Zealand into the new world economy will not of itself create a new political mainstream. What will count will be how widely people feel they have a share in it. Labour comes at that from the social democrat’s belief in equality of opportunity; National from the conservative’s belief that order in society is unachievable if too many feel left out. Labour’s disadvantage is its distaste for “elitism” — but the new world economy is the province of elites. National’s disadvantage is its association in most minds with leaving too much to markets.

Who has National got as potential allies?

New Zealand First is on the wrong side of history. In any case, will National be able to hold up its head in 2002 if it can’t beat Mr Peters in Tauranga this time?

ACT once looked like a party of the future but its sidestep into populism and the waning of the power of neo-liberal ideas in the world debate put that at least in question. It may survive a while yet but that will be at least partly be for the reason Social Credit did — as a repository for disgruntled votes, in ACT’s case those disgruntled with Treaty issues.

National can also make some wins out of the young’s desire for “connectedness” — if I have got that right. This might be in old-fashioned family values or some modernised version of that. I have, though so far mistakenly, thought there is space for a moderate moral-conservative party, such as Graeme Lee’s Christian Democrats hinted at though they turned out to be looking in the wrong direction, that is, backwards.

“Connectedness” also is a green characteristic. And in time there might be an opening there for National, if it is switched on and forward-looking. Today’s Greens have a fondness for regulation and nanny-ism which might get out of step with the young — or at least some of the Greens’ constituencies.

Which brings me, in conclusion, to another huge historical current, the Treaty. Over the past 30 years, and particularly the past 20 there has been a worldwide reassertion of indigenous claims to land, culture and recognition. Maori have been part of this.

National congratulates itself on its settlements of Treaty claims in the 1990s. But, setting aside that it was Labour which legislated the claims process and that National settled pitifully few, claims are only part of the story. There is also an issue of the distribution of power, the demand by Maori — as equals with the “Crown” under the treaty — to “partnership” in decision-making and equal value for Maori culture.

Labour, sporting social democratic party credentials as champion of the underdog for a century, has the inside running on these extra dimensions. Its long association with Maori and with other ethnic minorities, while studded with insensitivity, misconceptions, ideological blind spots and paternalistic wrong prescriptions, has equipped it better than National (though still very imperfectly) to comprehend and respond now to bicultural aspirations. National, as a conservative party, can much less readily comprehend biculturalism and reconcile it with its principles. It cannot win Maori electorates.

On the other hand, most non-Maori see Maori aspirations as little different from those of other minority ethnic groups. Non-Maori understand multiculturalism but are mystified by biculturalism. National is closer to this puzzled and increasingly discomforted majority.

Where is the historical current heading? To much greater Maori autonomy as numbers grow? Or to backlash and division? The Treaty claims process has generated murmurings but not a concerted political movement, which is remarkable and a powerful statement of our society’s liberal credentials. But we cannot know how far that liberal tolerance will stretch as Maori leaders push beyond land claims and into power.

If all else is finely balanced in the 2000s decade, it might be how this plays out that tips the balance and decides who is on the right side of history.