It's the politics of values, stupid

How does a party go about assembling a solid voting base when the old “social cleavage” no longer decides loyalties? By values.

Elections used to be fought on the pocket book, a galaxy of economic issues to do with incomes, taxes and benefits. And those issues still are important. But now, as Australian Labor party frontbencher Mark Latham points out, “political culture” plays a large part.

“Society is not just a set of economic relationships. It is also a dense network of personal relationships, the human emotions and connections that give us a sense of social identity,” Latham said in a recent lecture. “When people share these experiences collectively, they also start to build a shared set of values and norms. This process often crosses economic and class boundaries.”

This is the politics of values — a challenging sort of politics for everyone in the game, but particularly for the old parties, Labour and National.

ACT cottoned on to it in the mid-1990s, with the slogan, “Values. Not politics.” It dropped that slogan in this year’s election, thereby recognising implicitly that ACT’s leadership has long since practised politics, not values, though that has begun to turn around.

Latham sees values politics as a “culture war” between “insiders” — the social and political establishments of left and right — and “outsiders” — suburban dwellers “who feel disenfranchised by social change”.

“Insiders” are at ease in the globalised world, living an “abstract lifestyle” which leads to an “abstract style of politics” (ACT’s theoretical neoliberalism versus Labour’s or Alliance’s social liberalism).

“Outsiders” live in the here and now of immediate issues needing practical solutions. Their votes are driven “by pragmatic beliefs”.

Latham reckons parties of the right in Australia have been better at winning votes in these values contests, “not because [those parties’] values are the right ones for society but because they are more comfortable and experienced in this sort of debate. During a time of social anxiety, the conservative call for order … offers people respite from the consequences of disorder.”

Apply this to the 2002 election here. New Zealand doesn’t have a conservative John Howard proclaiming his championship of the suburban “battlers” and winning an improbable third term on a refugee scare. We have Helen Clark, champion of political correctness and the “abstract” discourse that Latham says can’t win elections.

So Latham’s analysis does not apply here? Wrong.

First, note there in this year’s election there was a swing of about 1.5% from the parties of the left (taken as a group) to the parties of the right. Helen Clark has tethered her government to a party to her right. Second, that party, United Future, campaigned on social values: “commonsense” and “stability”, based on “family values” — Latham’s “conservative call for order”. Even its economic policy was mainly about social values. United Future had the biggest vote gain: from 0.5 per cent in 1999 to 6.7 per cent. The next biggest was New Zealand First’s 4.3 per cent to 10.4 per cent. New Zealand First, also a party of the right, offered insulation from migrants from alien societies and a halt to Maori separatism — social values and order again (the disappearing order of a monocultural society). Both parties represented Latham’s “outsiders”. The mined “insider” Natinal’s vote. Third, Clark is by nature a conservative: unradical and cautious. She comes from small-farmer rural Waikato. When she talks about health, her baseline is her childhood experience of serious illness, the care for which her parents could not have afforded if the state had not provided it.

Sure, there is a heavy overlay of university “abstract” theory of the 1970s social democratic sort that Latham reckons these days is missing the suburban bus.

But the longer Clark is Prime Minister the more that overlay wears thin in places. Even in foreign affairs, her first and abiding love in politics, she is proving more pragmatic than her background suggested she would.

We see progressively less of the university-trained, cosmopolitan “insider” and more of the child of rural “outsiders”.

If this continues she might commandeer the values debate for Labour.

Where does that leave National, which might have emulated Howard’s success? Unquestionably an “insider”, full of market theory and carousing with well-heeled big business and latte-drinking city-slickers. That is a minority pool.

In the “culture war” over values, National isn’t even on the board. In fact, if it doesn’t get a move on, the war might be over before it gets its powder dried.