Politics in the age of populism

Here’s my speech notes from last night’s Fabians Society panel in Wellington, comprising myself, Rob Egan and Bryce Edwards. A lot of it you will have read before if you’re a regular! As always I didn’t deliver this verbatim, but any rumours of a fellow Piko Consulting director having Facebook Lived my presentation are terrible lies and must not be countenanced.

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Mike asked us to talk about the implications of the recent elections in the United States, the UK and France on our own little general election in September, and whether we’re in an age of populism. I’m going to pull the old trick of immediately finding fault with the question, because I don’t know what populism is. It’s a word that gets applied to a certain style of politics, in a derogatory, if admiring manner. It describes politicians who are brash, loud, take cheap shots, and don’t do politics properly. It’s an elitist label for politics that appeal to people’s baser instincts and aren’t well-grounded or properly thought through.

Donald Trump is populist because he raves about immigrants and Muslims and building walls, and we all feel a bit smug because we’re not stupid and thoughtless like those people who vote for him. Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t really described as populist at all, because if anything his fault was being too thoughtful and unassuming and right up to the exit polls predicting a hung Parliament we all know he was completely unelectable. I admit I don’t know a lot about French politics, but Macron was running against a bona fide fascist in a run-off presidential system which has a tendency to throw up extremists every now and then. Who knows what that means.

I’m less interested in whether we’re in an age of populism and more what it says about us that we want to describe this time as an age of populism. Others call it a period of transition, and there’s an excellent volume published by Bridget Williams Books and edited by Morgan Godfery called The Interregnum, which I confess I haven’t read yet because I’m a terrible person. We are certainly in a time thanks to technology where people can get right in a politician’s face, and politicians can talk to voters directly without being interpreted or framed by the media. It would be generous to say that this is an age of populism because politicians are forced to engage more with real people.

But we also use “populism” as a nice way to say “extremism”, and that’s very dangerous. We’re accepting the idea that rightwing, authoritarian extremism like Trump’s or Le Pen’s is a valid expression of people’s core ideals and instincts – those people who aren’t serious and thoughtful about politics, like us. And the logic follows that in order to win, to be popular, we too have to pander to those instincts, even though we tell ourselves it’s just what we have to do to get into power to fix the mess neoliberalism has made of the world.

That worries me. Because if we jump in without really understanding what’s going on, we will be selling our souls and committing political suicide at the same time.

A good example, because it’s a consistent issue across all these elections, including ours, is immigration. Trump promised to build a wall. Le Pen was blatantly xenophobic. The Leave campaign in the UK played on it. We’re told this was the reason for those campaigns’ varying, worrying levels of success. And, to be blunt, our own centre-left parties, if not promising to build a wall, have made pretty populist statements about the need to cut migrant numbers, and the danger of unbridled immigration on our country.

And if it works, why not? Well, firstly because racism is gross. But secondly because it doesn’t.

I’ve talked at the Fabians before about values and framing, which is what all the cool kids are doing in progressive political communications. Essentially, if you take map fundamental human values – Common Cause in Australia has a really good one – on one side you’ve got intrinsic values like universalism, benevolence, equality. And on the other, extrinsic values like power, wealth, self-indulgence. I don’t need to guess which motivates the people in this room, right? But the short version is all of us hold all of those values to a greater or lesser extent, and all of them can be triggered in us. What authoritarians like Donald Trump do is tap into values like security and social order – which are literally the opposite of the ones that drive progressives and collectivists. They hype up people’s anxieties and fears and then tell them the answer is in those values, in being insular and xenophobic and antagonistic.

That’s why anti-immigration rhetoric didn’t work for Ed Miliband in the 2015 UK general election. Because Labour aren’t meant to be narrow-minded and insecure and jealous. It cuts against our values, and people see that, so even if we say exactly what they want to hear, it rings hollow. Corbyn in 2017, in contrast, tapped into those core progressive values of benevolence and social justice and universalism – for the many, not the few – and said the solutions to our anxieties can be found in caring for one another.

It was authentic. And authenticity, as any number of articles about Bill English putting tinned spaghetti on pizza will tell you, is everything.

The question I ponder when polls show people are anxious about immigration is, what’s behind it? Immigration in of itself is just the movement of people across borders. Are they worried about wages? Job losses? Housing pressure? Rents? Traffic? Crime? A loss of our national identity? All those things immigrants get blamed for.

What Corbyn did as well as play strongly to progressive values, is offer solutions to all those underlying anxieties which feed anti-migrant sentiment. You don’t need to fear newcomers if housing and transport and industry and pay and corporate greed are getting sorted. You don’t need to fear losing your identity if your identity is founded on community and collectivism.

We have to campaign on our values not just because they are good but because they are powerful. They are popular, if not populist. We’ve just hobbled ourselves by letting the right push their values into the mainstream and trying to mimic them. What Corbyn’s near-win can show us is that there’s a way to be popular and keep our integrity intact – because integrity is a much better vote-winner, in the short and long terms, than jumping on whichever bandwagon is rolling past.

What progressive political parties in New Zealand need to do – or needed to have done, because let’s face it we’ve got two and a half months until the election – is present a clear alternative, not just to National but to the status quo. I’m sure Labour and the Greens think they are. But I don’t think people – outside circles like these, of political nerds who actually read the policy – are seeing that. If there is one thing to learn from populism, or whatever we want to call it, it’s that a consistent, bold message, which upsets the status quo and hits people right in the values, is what succeeds.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s in the old wisdom that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. And this government is teetering. Looking dishonest on housing and Pike River, heartless on mental health and the abuse of children in state care, lacking in ideas and bereft of their magical charisma leprechaun, John Key. It could be anyone’s to win, and probably Winston’s to decide. But for 2020 and beyond, the game is going to be completely changed, and we know from history that the right will adapt very quickly, so we’re going to have to be even quicker.

Emotional politics at Labour’s 2017 Congress

I popped into Labour’s Congress yesterday to catch up with a few comrades who were down for the big event. Literally everyone was buzzing about a couple of the speeches which had been delivered earlier in the day, from Deputy Leader Jacinda Ardern and Finance spokesperson Grant Robertson.

Jacinda’s speech was livestreamed, and it’s well worth a look:

The full text is here. Some highlights:

Generation Y are the product of social breakdowns and two decades of rapid economic and global change. And what did that mean here in New Zealand? It meant that basically, they are the product of a time where WE, politics and politicians, told young people we didn’t owe them anything.

We sold their assets.

We told them their education wasn’t a public good anymore.

We traded on our environment while we polluted it for those who follow.

We stood by while home ownership amongst young people halved in a generation and is now the lowest it has been since 1951.

Generation Y have been the ones to watch inequality rise, they have been the ones to watch poverty rise, and they will be the ones who’ll see it compound even further as those who have become those who inherit.

This generation may not be having the same experiences as generations past, but just because they are different, doesn’t make them indifferent.

I was only 13 years old when my best friend’s brother took his own life. I had just started high school and was waiting for class to start when I heard the news. I can remember exactly where I was standing, just outside the science block.

Every single thing about it seemed unfair, and still does to this day. Even at my friend’s wedding just a few years ago, the sense of loss, of there being a missing member of that family, hung in the air.  He was just 15 years old when he died.

There should be no politics in addressing an issue like this, there should only be one thing- the value we place on new Zealanders of all walks of life having a sense of belonging, a sense of support, and a sense of hope. And none of that is more true than for our young people.

Grant also spoke very well. The text of his speech is here. He said:

When Andrew asked me to take on the Finance portfolio I was clear with him that I did not view the job as one that was just about spreadsheets and statistics, or share markets and currency movements.

Don’t get me wrong, those things matter.  But they don’t matter as much as people.

I still cannot get out of my head the story of TA, an eleven year old girl who was looked after by Te Puea Marae last year.  She was living in a van with her other six family members.  She was trying to do her homework by torch light.

Delegates, New Zealand is not at its best if there are children doing their homework by torchlight in a van.

Mr English and Mr Joyce, hear this- you cannot raise a family in a car.

Hearing so many of the Labour whānau rave about these speeches reminded me of last year, when I attended the Party conference up in Auckland, and the speech of the weekend was Justin Lester’s. He brought the entire room to tears talking about the benefit cuts of the nasty National government of the 1990s – not just materially, but psychologically. The son of a solo mother, he found himself adopting the beneficiary-bashing narrative of the day, and blamed his mum for not doing a good enough job. He cried. We cried.

This is what politics is missing. Genuine passion. Real stories of real people affected by politics. It can’t be any wonder that a lot of people don’t vote, and think politics isn’t relevant to them, when every discussion seems to be about costings and Budgets and abstract arguments about the role of government. But when we’re talking about young people being able to feel like they have a shot at a good life or families raising kids without enough money or workers getting a fair deal, it’s real. When our politicians show that they give a fuck about other people’s lives, in concrete and real terms, not as figures on a spreadsheet or projections in a Treasury forecast, it is immensely powerful. The right know this. That’s why they sneer at any hint of emotion in politics, and try to spin passion as a negative with their “Angry Andy” memes.

We should not be ashamed to be angry when young people are killing themselves and children are doing their homework by torchlight and mums and dads can’t even pay the rent when they’re working three different jobs. We should be proud of that anger, because it shows we care. Because it shows we don’t see politics as a fun game to play in between tobacco lobbying and seats on the board of Air New Zealand. Because people want to know we give a fuck. That’s when they’ll start to think that there are politicians worth voting for.

Why fiscal responsibility is the Bog of Eternal Stench

Labour and the Greens have announced a cornerstone coalition policy for the 2017 general election: a set of Budget Responsibility Rules which will, per the Greens’ website:

… show that the Green Party and the Labour Party will manage the economy responsibly while making the changes people know are needed, like lifting kids out of poverty, cleaning up our rivers, solving the housing crisis, and tackling climate change.

It feels like I’ve been banging my head against this brick wall for a decade. The short version is this:

Labour and the Greens cannot credibly campaign on a foundation of “fiscal responsibility”. It is anathema to genuine progressive politics. It isn’t a vote-winner. It’s a vote-loser.

I’ve heard the defence: but we ARE the fiscally responsible ones! Look at our surpluses in government! Witness our detailed policy costings! BEHOLD OUR GRAPHS!

If empirical evidence worked, we’d already been in government and this conversation wouldn’t be happening, and I know I for one would be happier for it.

Everyone knows this is crap. No one really tries to defend it by saying, “but fiscal responsibility is the most important thing in government”. They say, “but we need people to believe we’re fiscally responsible.” They say, “but the media always ask how much our policies will cost!” They say, “we need to win or we can’t achieve anything, learn to count Stephanie.”

We know we’re selling our souls, but only for the right reasons. The tragedy is, we’re not. Fiscal responsibility is the Bog of Eternal Stench. Once you dip so much as a toe in, it makes everything else you do reek.

Don’t just take my word for it – after all, we’re all rational creatures making objective decisions based on evidence, right? Take it from someone who has the evidence, my favourite American Anat Shenker-Osorio:

Peer-reviewed psychological studies show that money-primed people … become more selfish. They are, for example, much less willing to spend time helping another student pretending to be confused about a task. When an experimenter dropped pencils, money-primed subjects elected to pick up far fewer than their unprimed peers. Also, when asked to set up two chairs for a get to know you chat, those who had money put on their minds placed the chairs farther apart. Money-primed undergrads showed greater preference for being alone.

The results of these experiments should give progressives pause and serve as lessons for how we do our messaging. Talking about money first makes the whole subsequent conversation start in a mean and selfish place — the last thing we want when we’re talking about the common good and our national future. …

Those politicians who actually believe in the institution in which they serve would do far better to speak of what government does for us — and trust that we’re smart enough to know that good things don’t come cheap.

If we prompt New Zealand voters to think about money first, they aren’t going to think about common good, about ensuring their neighbours have a good life too. They’re going to think “actually, getting another block of cheese each week does sound good” and the right’s fourth term is secured. They don’t even have to work for it, because when we explicitly buy into their values, it weakens our own.

It cuts out the heart of our politics. Our critics are absolutely right: Labour and the Greens are not trusted to be good fiscal managers. THAT’S THE POINT. No one wants us to be good fiscal managers – except for the right, who are thrilled that we not only want to play in their playhouse but will obey all the rules they’ve made up to ensure they always win.

It’s like some people watched Mean Girls and thought, “well of course we have to wear pink on Wednesdays and throw out our white gold hoops, how else will we get Regina George to truly respect us?”

Pink is not our colour. Fiscal responsibility is not our strength. The economy is not the most important thing in the world – HE TANGATA, HE TANGATA, HE TANGATA.

We’re meant to be the ones who care about people, and make sure everyone in our communities is taken care of, whether they’re sick, or old, or exploited by a shoddy employer or having a baby or building a life in a new country. These are the areas where we’re strong. These are the values which we must promote – not just because we hold them dearly, but because doing that is the best way to fuck up the other side’s message of greed and self-interest and exploitation of people and our planet.

People want change. They don’t want poverty and housing crises and public services stretched to breaking point. They know these things cost money! But they’ve been told for decades that government must be small, and the private sector runs things better, that the only metric that matters is that sweet surplus. They know it doesn’t feel right, but there doesn’t seem to be another way of doing things, because we keep telling them we agree with it. And they vote for the party they “know” are the better economic managers, because that’s National’s brand, and not all the graphs and spreadsheets we throw at them are going to convince them otherwise.

We’re never going to win while we keep playing in the right’s playhouse and skinny-dipping in the Bog of Fiscally Responsible Stench because we want to smell just like our enemies. We have to be an alternative. Stop talking about the bloody money and start talking about people.

Updated: doing the math on the Labour list

Back in November I posted about getting more women into Parliament – particularly, through the Labour Party’s list process.

Now there have been a few key candidate selections which shift the math a little.

Here’s where we were in November:

  • Labour holds 27 electorates and has 5 list MPs (Little, Ardern, Parker, Cosgrove, Moroney).
  • 12 of the 32 Labour MPs are women – 37.5%

Since then a few key events have taken place:

  • The Mt Roskill byelection doesn’t change the balance
  • Women’s representation in electorate seats took a blow with Annette King stepping down and Paul Eagle being selected unopposed in Rongotai – this should be cancelled out with Jacinda Ardern taking Mt Albert on 25 February
  • Deborah Russell was selected to run in New Lynn following David Cunliffe’s retirement
  • Greg O’Connor has got the nod in Ōhāriu. This should absolutely be winnable given his public profile, Dunne and Hudson splitting the right vote, and building on Ginny Andersen’s hard work to get the majority down to 700.

My assumptions remain static for the sake of easier math, but feel free to leave your own variations in the comments! So: let’s assume Labour shouldn’t lose any currently-held seats (and I will flag here that there’s a lot of rumour and discussion going on about the Māori seats, but that’s well outside my political expertise). Some good hard campaigning should deliver Duncan Webb in Christchurch Central, too.

So on electorates, post-2017, we end up at:

  • 29 electorates, 12 of which are held by women, plus the top list position going to Andrew Little – that’s 40%
  • At this point, at a minimum, Labour has to win 30% of the party vote to bring in six more list MPs, literally all of whom have to be women, to get a 50:50 split.

However, add in Willie Jackson “in the single digits” with Trevor Mallard and David Parker ahead of him and Labour will require 35% of the party vote, with every single other list MP – 9 in all – being women, to achieve parity.

That’s, fair to say, a pretty substantial bump on Labour’s recent party vote results, and it’s hard luck for any other Labour dudes, if the moderation committee is genuinely dedicated to parity.

So even with an unwavering commitment to putting the talented, well-connected, dedicated women you hear about like Willow-Jean Prime, Liz Craig, Priyanca Radhakrishnan, Janette Walker, or Jo Luxton high on the list, the math doesn’t look great. And that’s a real pity.

The easy excuse is “oh, but not enough women stood for selection in safe seats” and its nonchalant cousin, “oh but too many safe seats were held by men, what can you do?”

But those are cop-outs. The fact is, you can’t just magic equal representation out of thin air. And no one expects you to. Overcoming ancient, ingrained systemic discrimination demands action and will and planning, not a last-minute panicked search down the back of the sofa cushions looking for spare sheilas. As I said in my previous post:

We don’t set gender equity goals because women need help. We set them because our institutions need help, to step out of the past and be fit for the future. It’s nothing to be frightened of. It makes us stronger, not weaker, when we acknowledge the problems of the past and take action to rebalance the scales.

Doing the right thing isn’t easy. But that’s not the point, is it? You do it because it’s the right thing to do. And maybe in 2017, it’s simply mathematically impossible for Labour to reach gender parity. The question is whether the party will take a lesson from this, and get a lot better at promoting women, and people from other marginalized groups, and truly representing the diversity of New Zealand. That’s how the left wins, after all. The alternative is, well, a little bleak.

The political prospects for 2017: living our values

This week I spoke on an panel with Morgan Godfery and Mike Munro at the Fabian Society in Wellington on the political prospects for 2017. A podcast of the discussion should be up on the Fabians website shortly. In the meantime, here’s my speech notes – about 90% accurate to what I ended up saying on the night, which is how these things always go.

The political prospects at the start of 2017 are looking pretty bleak. The polls aren’t great. The right is in ascendancy around the world. I don’t even want to know what new fascist executive order Donald Trump has signed in the time it took me to walk here this evening.

The challenge for the left is pretty massive. With crises at every side – climate change, housing, inequality – it’s not enough for us to just get over the line. We need profound progressive change. A fundamental shift in the consciousness of our society.

It can be done. The trick is not to take the wrong lessons from Trump.

We’ve heard it again and again since November. “The white working class feel ignored. That’s why Trump won. That’s why Brexit passed.” In New Zealand, we talk about Waitakere Man, a narrow-minded stereotype from a less-sophisticated Outrageous Fortune. We’re not talking enough about his issues. We’re not paying enough attention to his needs.

And subtly or more usually unsubtly, we hear, “Women? Shush. Brown people? Shush. Queer people? Shush. Your issues are distractions. No one wants to hear about it. Wait until we’re in power.” Feminism lost Hillary the US election, or maybe it was Barack Obama saying a few mild-mannered things about police violence. Here in New Zealand, senior Labour advisors publicly bagged Louisa Wall’s marriage equality bill as a distraction from issues that matter.

It’s like we’ve forgotten a basic fact of leftwing politics. It’s built on solidarity.

That’s the fundamental divide between left and right. We believe in community and cooperation. They believe in self-interest. We’re about the collective. They’re about the individual. We know that the important question is not “how does this benefit me personally?” It’s “how does this benefit us all.” Standing together, not because we’re all the same and we’re all after the same thing, but because we have the same enemy: capitalism, which takes many forms: patriarchy, white supremacy, social conservatism.

The Standing Rock occupation against an oil pipeline in North Dakota does not impact me directly. It’s not my water that could be polluted or my ancestral lands being torn up. But I know the struggle at Standing Rock is aligned to my struggle – against corporate power, against environmental destruction, against dispossessing and exploiting indigenous people and their land. It isn’t about my benefit. It’s about my values.

I don’t want to assume everyone here has sat through at least one Labour Party conference or candidate selection, but I know you’ve heard the line: “My values are Labour’s values. And Labour’s values are New Zealand’s values.”

We understand the importance of values. But we’ve forgotten that they’re not theory. They’re practice. We need to live them.

When we live our values, nothing’s a distraction. Every issue is an issue that matters.

Take healthcare. We Kiwis take such pride in our public health system. We look at the absolute disaster of American healthcare and feel very smug.

Labour’s policy platform says this about health: “a nation where all New Zealanders, regardless of income or social circumstances, are able to live longer and healthier lives because they have the knowledge to make informed health decisions and the support of a strong and adequately funded public-health system.”

That’s a damn strong set of values.

But let’s take three issues which put that principle on shaky ground. (This may be where I lose some of you.)

Abortion. Abortion is still a crime in New Zealand. It’s difficult to access, especially if you aren’t bureaucracy-savvy or don’t live in a major centre. A pregnant person on the West Coast will have to travel to Christchurch, at least twice, to a clinic which is only open a few days each week, in order to terminate a pregnancy. They’ll need to take time off work or find last-minute childcare and god forbid they’re in a vulnerable situation where they have to keep it all a secret. We’re talking about a safe medical procedure, a basic question of personal agency, a life-changing situation which is not adequately supported by our health system.

Assisted dying. Also a crime.  We deny people of sound mind the ability to make their own decisions about the end of their own life, no matter how much pain they’re in or how much time they have. We don’t let them treat their pain with cannabis, either.

And trans health care. Trans people face horrific difficulties getting the health care they need, and that’s putting aside the horrific levels of harassment, discrimination and violence they experience. The waiting list for trans feminine surgery, or male to female surgery, has 71 people on it. Doesn’t sound too bad – except that at current rates, someone going on the waiting list now will be there for fifty years.

This surgery literally saves lives. Those of us who don’t have to live every day in the wrong body might find it hard to comprehend. But it is absolutely basic, necessary medical care, which our health system does not provide.

What do these three issues have in common, besides making me incredibly angry? They’re Kryptonite, as far as our leftwing politicians are concerned. They’re dismissed, regularly, as unimportant distractions. Alienating fringe issues.

We’re talking about healthcare. About the value we place on supporting every New Zealander to get the treatment they need, quickly and effectively. Unless you’re unhappily pregnant. Or terminally ill. Or trans.

When we talk about values, and say we believe in certain things, and then we turn around to people and say “shush! Wait your turn! We don’t want to talk about your health, or your lives, or the support you need, it’s a distraction!” all we do is undermine ourselves. We show that our values aren’t dearly-held and unyielding – they’re flimsy. No one elects flimsy.

Imagine if, when a Labour Party conference passed a remit on reproductive rights, or a private member’s bill on assisted dying was drawn, we didn’t flinch. We didn’t throw basic issues of health access and bodily autonomy under the bus for fear of the polls. If progressive MPs and commentators and campaigners all stood together and said “Yeah. We believe every New Zealander deserves modern, accessible medical treatment, unlike this government which has ripped $1.7 billion out of the health system.”

Health is only one example. Imagine if David Shearer hadn’t flinched, when he was asked about the man ban. If he’d said, “It’s 2013. It’s ridiculous there aren’t more women in Parliament. Labour’s looking at ways to change that. Why not go ask John Key why his Cabinet’s such a sausage fest?” Maybe he’d be Prime Minister now.

This is how we improve the political prospects for the left in 2017: being bold. Standing on our principles. Even if people disagree with you, they respect you when you’re consistent and honest. And when you’re running against double-dipping Bill English and Paula Bennett the bully, that can be enough to swing a vote. How many people have you ever heard say “Look, I don’t agree with Winston, but I always know where he stands?”

We don’t narrow our focus. We reach out and show that all our struggles are the same struggle.

This achieves several things. It means our values of solidarity and universalism and community are demonstrated to an immensely broad group of people. Two, it gives people certainty.

Maybe their bugbear is the opening hours of the dental clinic down the road, but they live in a safe rural Tory seat that doesn’t get a lot of attention and certainly won’t warrant a visit from Andrew or Metiria or James. But when they see us standing up for increased health funding, and comprehensive services for marginal communities, and saying “we’re not turning our backs on this group of people, or that small town, or this particular need” they see what kind of people we are. They see our values in action.

A mass movement is not built by finding the largest homogeneous group we can and appealing solely to them. A mass movement is not built by nominating one group – like white working-class men – as the most important people to reach, and expecting women or Māori or queer activists to fall in line for the good of the cause.

Thousands of veterans turned up at Standing Rock to show solidarity with the water protectors. Muslim organisations have donated tens of thousands of bottles of water to Flint, Michigan. And I’ve got to be the only person in this room who hasn’t seen Pride, right? Don’t boo.

That’s how we change the world. By being ourselves. Being the people who believe in solidarity and standing up for the oppressed, even if they don’t look like us or sound like us or need the same things as us.

If we learn the wrong lesson from Trump’s victory – if we accept that the white working class will only support us if we speak exclusively about them and their issues, we are frankly fucked. We’ve sold out the notion of solidarity, which is the heart of our politics.

In 2017, the challenge for the Left is not to find the magic words which will make a mythical racist white working class vote for us. It’s not to silence women or transgender folk or Indigenous people. It’s to stop buying into this divisive bullshit, and show everyone what our values are, and that a better way of doing things is possible.

That’s what people are desperately after.

The prospects for 2017 aren’t looking good. But it could look better.