The "mainstream": a tale of "us" and "them"

Tony Blair’s trumpet, Alistair Campbell, made two predictions to an invited audience on Thursday: the Lions would win and so would Helen Clark. Clark will now hope sport and politics don’t mix.

Except, of course, in southern Africa. Labour ministers are at an old game: condemning — stopping when they can — sport with countries whose regimes they abhor. Norman Kirk set the precedent in 1973 when he stopped the racist Springboks from visiting.

There are excellent reasons to abhor Zimbabwe. It is ruled by a demented thug who is starving his people. But does that translate into a principle of banning sport with Zimbabweans? And, if so, how far does that principle extend? Obviously not to the thugs who rule China.

National used to have a principle that sport and politics are separate, that people-to-people “bridges” are more effective thug-beaters.

The high point in (alleged) exercise of that principle was Sir Robert Muldoon’s order to police to battle protesters against a Springbok tour in 1981.

So on what principle is National now urging bucketloads of your money to stop cricketers touring Zimbabwe?

Go back to Muldoon. Muldoon was not a man of esoteric principles. His was an operational principle: attend to the “ordinary bloke”, an archetype who was culturally and socially conservative and greatly valued economic security — that is, attend to votes. Zimbabwe is now votes.

Don Brash cannot exhume the “ordinary bloke”.

First, Muldoon hated Brash. He knifed him in the 1980 by-election in the previously safe National seat of East Coast Bays — so Brash lost to the Social Credit Political League. (It is a nice but irrelevant irony that Brash’s political adviser, Murray McCully, is now East Coast Bays’ MP.)

Second, since the rise of the gynocracy (women in charge), the “ordinary bloke” won’t quite do, even for the National party, which is short of blokesses in its upper ranks since Brash demoted two of them and is also short of blokess voters.

Too many un-ordinary blokesses have done too much in the intervening quarter-century: Prime Minister (twice), Governor-General (twice), Speaker of the House, Chief Justice, chief executive of Telecom and chiefly roles in the law and accountancy professions. (And that is not counting Irene van Dyk, loftiest of them all.)

But Brash has found a modern equivalent of the “ordinary bloke”: the “mainstream”.

This is a construct the Australian Liberal party has used effectively to woo the suburbs from their previous allegiance to the Australian Labor party — which, like Labour here, is fascinated by latte causes. John Howard is now among the most successful of Australian Prime Ministers. Who wouldn’t copy him?

Clark herself is copying him. Impressed with the effect on voters of Howard’s scare that voting Labor would bring back high interest rates, she has been running this line against Brash’s tax cuts — and reminding heavily-mortgaged voters who was Reserve Bank governor when mortgage rates were sky-high.

Clark has also been trying to corner the “family” market. An example is the bus-shelter posters you paid for as taxpayers telling you your family has never had it so good. Now there are billboards of a flying baby.

The flying baby is a puzzling ploy, given Clark’s babylessness. Since the “mainstream” has babies, that seems to be singing to multiple-babied Brash’s tune. Moreover, Clark may be non-“mainstream” on two more counts: she has not had affairs, nor has her marriage broken up.

You will by now be getting the picture: the “mainstream” is defined by who isn’t. It is an exclusive, not an inclusive, notion.

Marian Maddox, an Australian academic (and therefore herself outside the “mainstream”?), describes it thus: “The concept of mainstream relies on a magical geometry. Everyone can see themselves (sic) as part of ‘Us’, imagined in opposition to a threatening ‘Them’.”

National is relying on that “magical geometry” to wedge it into office.

There is a long-term problem with the magic. Muldoon’s “ordinary bloke” was an “us and them” mechanism but eventually he turned too many “us-es” into “thems” and he lost office.

Short-term, however, that is no bother — provided Brash doesn’t repeat his mistake of essaying a definition of the “mainstream”. Clark easily finessed him last week with her definition: “all decent, law-abiding, hardworking Kiwis”.

Which is nearly all of us (we think). The trick Brash has to learn is that the success of the “mainstream” technique relies on leaving voters to define who is “mainstream” and who is not and dogwhistling them into identifying Clark with their personal “thems”.

Labour’s PC second term has given Brash scope to do that. How might Clark retrieve the initiative and make Campbell half-right on election day? By rebuilding her damaged image of down-to-earth competence and acquiring the one-of-us-ness Prime Ministers have to have.

That’s now a tall order. Brash, with tax and populism, has got the “mainstream” jump on her.