Defining John Key the manager

The next few months will define John Key as opposition leader. Is he a pretty face, a marketing toy? Or does he point to a different way to think about the economy and the country? Or is he offering different management?

The politics of the 1980s and 1990s were the politics of competing ideas. “Efficiency” was the dominant driver of the 1984-92 reforms. Efficiency is at the core of the classical economics of the Chicago school of economic theory on which the reforms were based.

Those reforms cost very large numbers their jobs and/or cuts in income. NewLabour and the Alliance were formed in consequence, essentially to argue against the dominance of efficiency. ACT was formed to push the case for efficiency more widely across government policy.

Labour under Helen Clark and Michael Cullen edged away from “efficiency” while never completely disavowing it. In the Labour party’s thinking wing the “third way” dreamed up by British social liberals took root, though it never flourished in the party’s uppermost reaches.

The Clark-Cullen politics of the 2000s have been the politics of cohesion: more social spending to even up life chances, more emphasis on heritage and on making the most of cultural diversity.

Efficiency is the preoccupation of economists and those whose interests are closely tied to the economy. Cohesion is the preoccupation of social managers and those whose interests are closely tied to how well people get on as individuals or groups.

Efficiency demands smaller government. Cohesion demands more active government.

Of course, they are not distinct. Politics is seldom black and white.

So a cohesion advocate would argue that there is an efficiency argument embedded in the politics of cohesion: companies generally make better profits in societies that function well; cohesive societies function better than fragmented ones; obsessive efficiency fragments societies.

An efficiency advocate would argue that there is a cohesion argument embedded in the politics of efficiency: stronger economic growth generates the wherewithal to enhance life chances; societies with strong economic growth have more scope to generate conditions of cohesion.

Clark lines up with the cohesion advocates (at least in her stated intentions). But where is Key?

Key’s pre-Parliament trade was investment banking, which does best in policy settings which promote efficiency. Consequently, some people reckon he is hard-wired for classical economics and would promote that in government, just as Don Brash hoped to.

But Key also spent time in a state house as a child. That didn’t automatically make him poor but it did mean he lived in a neighbourhood in which most people were not well off and some were poor. He knows that life. So, if he is hard-wired, it must include that experience (just as Clark’s includes farm life).

Logically, Key’s hard-wiring straddles efficiency and cohesion. And that in the 2000s passes for a centrist position.

In fact in his first few weeks as leader on a range of policies he took positions that were decidedly closer to the government’s positions than Brash’s had been.

That served two purposes. It limited Labour’s scope to paint him as a rightwing wolf in centrist sheep’s clothing. And it took the fight directly to Labour on management grounds.

In the 1950s politics divided largely along the contours of a social cleavage: bosses v workers, professionals v tradespeople, well-off v less-well-off. But by the 1980s the changing economy, coupled with much broader education and social mobility, had filled in much of the cleavage.

There are still occupational and income influences in the tendencies to vote Labour or National but they are not nearly as determinant as 50 years ago.

What counts among large numbers of voters now is how well a government manages: how well the economy does, how well policy attends to social needs and how well the government’s values accord with majority values.

The economy has gone well and most social needs have been attended to. That gives the Clark government management brownie points.

But crime is a worry and there are doubts about some of the values. So there has been some erosion, as is normal for a long-lived government. That gives Key his opportunity.

Key offers freshness, a new generation and modernisation (not reform). He is challenging Clark not on the basis of promises of distinct policy change, which the great majority mistrusts, but as a different manager, younger and energetic.

These are post-revolutionary times. Politics is management. The defines how Key must define himself these next few months.