Managerial politics in vogue for a consumerist society

First of five A curse on small parties, some say. Why can’t Labour and National get together and stop tails wagging the dogs? After all, this line goes, there is less difference between the two big parties than between them and some of the minors.

Not so. Our politics are built around the two big warring parties, which have in the past joined forces only in times of national crisis.

Their war is part history, the product of what political sociologists call the social “cleavage”: Labour from socialist beginnings, representing workers in opposition to bosses, National a fusion of conservative parties representing farmers, business, professional people and the middle classes.

This distinction was clear for all to see in National’s deregulation of the labour market in 1991, Labour’s partial re-regulation and generous Holidays Act since 1999 and National’s promise now to deregulate again. The divide between employers and employees, though now much blurred, is still one of the faultlines of politics.

There are other important differences. Labour tends to see “freedom” as a matter of rights requiring the elimination of disadvantages (as in the Civil Union Act); National sees “liberty” as freedom from undue state constraints. Labour is more internationalist and peace-oriented in foreign affairs, National more trade-bound and alliance-oriented. Labour is more attentive to “identity” groups such as gays and lesbians, women, the disabled and ethnic minorities; National is whiter and more wedded to older values. Labour turns more readily to the state for policy solutions; National is more open to the private sector and non-government options. And so on.

Thus, while the suburban household is not likely to notice much difference in its daily life when the government changes, the two parties plot divergent policy paths that become apparent during long periods of dominance by one or the other.

That is why September 17 is not just about the next three years.

But staying long periods in office has become harder. The solid voting blocks that once underpinned the two parties election after election have turned to marshmallow. Labour dropped to 28 per cent in 1996 and National to 21 per cent in 2002. Walter Nash and Sid Holland would have turned in their graves: in 1951 they shared 99.8 per cent of the vote between them.

No single social “cleavage” will now do as a proxy for the political divide. Today’s consumerist society is diverse and multi-faceted, segmented by socioeconomic status, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, moral proclivities and more. In part that heterogeneity accounts for the rise of smaller parties, even before MMP: people can’t fit into a two-party system any more.

So government has become more “managerial” — still tweaked by prejudice, preoccupation and ideological preference but anchored in practicality. The touchstone is what works; voters judge governments by whether what they do works.

That managerial effectiveness is what “trust” is about in politics.

Political trust is not a matter of not telling lies. During Australia’s election campaign last October, which he won handsomely, Prime Minister John Howard was exposed as having lied about refugees throwing children overboard at a crucial point in the 2001 campaign.

Helen Clark was exposed shortly before the 2002 election, which she won handsomely, as having signed paintings for charity which she didn’t paint. Right now Gerry Brownlee is striving to get voters excited about whether she really did not notice, as she claimed, the hell-raising speed of her motorcade last year.

Of course, a string of uncovered lies would undo a Prime Minister. But that is less because of the individual dishonesties than that voters would take them as indicating a substandard manager.

It was the damage Opposition parties did from January to May to Clark’s reputation for running a tight and efficient ship that wiped Labour’s poll lead.

So governments that want to last in office these days steer by a conservative compass.

They know that voters mostly want a quiet life, with services available when needed and at a reasonable price (tax take). Voters don’t as a rule welcome change, unless to meet a particular individual need or wish.

Those who do want a lot of change tend to be positioned near the outside skin of the political spectrum, where most small parties are. Most voters see themselves as somewhere in the centre.

So for Labour and National the trick is to occupy as much of the centre as possible — away from the extremes — and hold it for as long as possible. That was National’s secret after 1949: it was in office for 38 of the next 50 years. Clark wants to reverse that.

Occupying the centre is not simply mining focus groups to find the centre and then fixing up policies to fit. It is also a matter of defining the centre, through policy, action and language.

In the first term Clark was doing that, aided by a booming economy and an absent National party. She laid the foundations for a small-c conservative-toned mildly left government, dedicated to the quiet life after the 1980s-90s upheavals.

Bill English, who understands exactly the pertinence of a small-c conservative tone — being mildly right-conservative himself — could not get a hearing in the 2002 election campaign. Now he is back in business.

In her second term Clark indulged off-centre rights claims by her identity groups: more labour law, anti-smoking law, prostitution reform, civil unions and more Treaty of Waitangi inserts in legislation. That took her towards the skin of the political spectrum.

Result: the “PC” label began to stick. Space opened up for the English-toned National party that is emerging in the shape of John Key, Simon Power and Katherine Rich — even Don Brash, now that he has softened his 2002 credo.

Thus at the heart of the election on September 17 is this question: Can Clark recover her “managerial” credentials as a small-c conservative Prime Minister delivering a quiet life to households?

Her awareness of that imperative is evident in her drawback on Treaty issues. She is sensitive to the PC charges. Immigration and criminal law have been tightened. Labour re-regulation was declared completed in 2004. Michael Cullen told Labour’s 2003 conference the government could not risk coming adrift from public opinion.

Numerous management correctives or initiatives have been set in train: fixing up the NCEA and rationalising tertiary education; building more roads and generating more electricity; pressing beneficiaries to find and stay in work; refocusing Maori policy less on rights claims and more on development; making a start on boosting savings.

These correctives and initiatives are below most voters’ radar and so won’t work at this election. So for Clark and Cullen to reap any credit, they must stay in office this time — and then manage the coming economic slowdown and possible house price slide. National gets little voters credit for the 1990s economic policy settings which are in large part responsible for the past few years good times.

Consumerist voters habituated to constant model upgrades measure their managerial governments on short-term criteria. September 17 will test whether manager Clark is keeping that movable market more or less satisfied.

Next: Campaigning in an uncommitted electorate