Add them up: in Australia, Britain and now the United States, left gives way to right — or, rather, ins give way to outs. Hillary Clinton last week was the emissary of a de-mandated President. Is there a pointer for our politics?
What do we share with those three “Anglo” countries? A long period of widening inequalities, slowing or stalled growth in real incomes for large numbers and falls for many, offset by bubble economics which allowed an illusion that rising prosperity could be borrowed without repayments — then, since 2008, a hard post-bubble reality. Even in mineral-rich Australia credit and retail statistics are reflecting a squeeze on households in most states.
The details are different. But there are important similarities. Could a version wash up here?
In Britain in May, despite Labour’s grim unpopularity, the Conservatives had to coalesce with the Liberal-Democrats, whose vote rose. In Australia in August the Liberal-National coalition couldn’t get over the line despite a dramatic turnoff from Labor — instead, the Greens got a remarkable 12 per cent in the lower house. In the United States last week the catalyst for a big swing of seats to the Republicans was the Tea Party which thinks regular Republicans stink nearly as much as Democrats.
In all three, though there was a pendulum swing from left to right there was a comparable or bigger swing from the governing party to protest: in Australia and Britain protest voting options were already in the legislatures; in the United States’ hermetic two-party system the protest took the form of a viral invasion of the opposition party.
In Britain, Labour had ruled 13 years. But Australian Labor had ruled only three years and the United States Democrats only four in the Congress and two in the presidency.
This suggests a qualitative difference from seesaw or even turnoff politics — just as you would expect after the biggest economic shock since the 1930s one, which also triggered qualitative political change. Though the protest vehicles are minorities, accommodating them will drive change.
The protest vehicles started from different areas of the political spectrum. They were vehicles, not destinations. Britain’s Liberal Democrats draw on liberal and social democratic traditions and also favour decentralisation. Australia’s Greens are red-greens, not blue-greens. The Tea Party includes small-government and anti-socialist ideologues (at odds with majority opinion).
The common thread has been a range of emotions from loss of bearings to anger, directed at incumbents. A Tea Party refrain has been to “take back America” from Washington.
The Tea Party is a loose and often contradictory assemblage blaming what one commentator called their “outrage in a tough economic environment” on treacherous politicians and big government who they are certain have mortgaged, stolen or trashed the true America. Beneficiaries and migrants are also targets.
In short: something’s gone terribly wrong; my country is not what I knew it as; it has been perverted by “them”; we must replace “them” with “us”. It’s anger politics. Anger begets certainty in an uncertain world.
Is something like the Tea Party lurking here? Is this where Winston Peters fits in next year’s election? (And Rodney Hide on ACT’s angry days?)
Go back to 1992. Unemployment was high after a bunch of radicals had trashed long-held certainties using foreign economic policy prescriptions. For large numbers, especially older people, lives and livelihoods had got worse and/or bewildering. Depending on their past leanings, they went with Jim Anderton or with Peters.
Peters (13 per cent in 1996) proved better at anger politics than Anderton over time. He linked the bewilderment and anger to Asian immigration, which ran hot in the mid-1990s. He focused much more on what his followers were against than on policy fixes, except for populist pitches.
He was in that frame again at the New Zealand First convention late last month. He said, Tea Party-like: “We have to get back to owning and steering our own ship of state.”
Will there be enough unease and anger to get him 5 per cent next year? In the United States unemployment is 10 per cent, house prices have plunged and exit pollsters recorded nine of 10 voters worried about the economy and four in 10 saying their family’s situation had worsened in the past two years. Here, as in Australia where the left-right swing was small, the post-bubble adjustment is more slow grind than plunge.
But some in New Zealand First are sure of 5 per cent already, finding disappointment with John Key and disbelief Labour can remake itself as a credible alternative.
Are they picking up early signs of an erosion of Key’s young National government, shades of Australia and the United States? It is far too early to say. But Britain, Australia and the United States have shown Key would be unwise to play by pre-2008 rules. We are in a time where only anger can be certain.