On Brexit

I was discussing Brexit with a group of Wellington lefties last night over a few craft beers* and was dismayed to hear some of them applying the analysis that it was the result of the masses acting out of uneducated racism.

That’s an analysis that’s not just wrong, and a little classist, but – if it is the final analysis social democratic organisations fall back on – extremely dangerous.

With the Brexit referendum the Government foolishly gave the nation the opportunity to raise a middle finger to a political and financial establishment that they have been systematically estranged from. And the nation took that opportunity.

Much as they took a similar opportunity when they voted Corbyn in as Labour leader, and much as their brethren across the Atlantic did in voting up Trump as a candidate and in getting a septuagenarian socialist within cooee of taking the Democratic candidacy.

In a smaller way there was an element of that reaction against the establishment in the election of the last two Labour leaders here in New Zealand – neither of whom were caucus’ first choice.

These are lessons it’s important for the establishment to learn. Particularly the social democratic establishment. Representative democracy fails to maintain legitimacy when it is no longer representative of the people. And in an interconnected world in which the most successful businesses and movements are those that give voice to their customers and members, the insular paternalistic liberalism of late 20th century social democracy no longer provides enough sense of such voice.

The Brexit failure of David Cameron notwithstanding, the right have generally adapted better to this new electoral environment, perhaps because it reflects an atomised and individualised customer environment they have been dealing with through business for some time, perhaps because they take a more cynical and expedient approach to politics than your average wonky lefty.

The danger is that by not taking this lesson on board, and instead dismissing the electorate as ignorant or racist, social democratic organisations in particular would move further away from their traditional base and cede even more ground to the right. Because people can sense when you don’t like them and they don’t support people who don’t like them.

An even more dangerous situation would be these organisations mistaking the symptoms – anti-immigration and other reactionary positions – for the cause and trying to regain currency by triangulating these positions. That would be a serious error – the electorate is extremely clever, not in a delving-into-debate-about-policy-detail way (really, who has the luxury of time for that kind of thing?), but in their ability to recognise when people are being inauthentic. And there are few things as inauthentic as a triangulating social democrat.

A much better reaction to Brexit and to what now appears to be a wave of anti-establishment reaction across western democracies, would be for social democratic political parties to look for ways to reengage with the electorate, and particularly the working class, on progressive issues.

That means seeing the parliamentary left not as leaders of the debate but as an equal part of a broader progressive movement. It means giving more authority to rank and file party members (it’s no coincidence that people joined NZ Labour and UK Labour in droves when they had a meaningful opportunity to make a choice of leader), it means working alongside democratic organisations like unions and NGOs as a parliamentary cog of the progressive movement rather than acting as defacto leaders of it.

Ultimately it means acknowledging that representing people in the 21st century means opening the doors to them, not just “looking after” them from within the inner sanctum. That shift was what Corbyn was signalling when he let the people have his parliamentary questions to Cameron, it’s what Sanders was showing with his mass rallies and campaign advertising focused on other people’s stories, and it’s what has worked best for New Zealand Labour when they have done it.

Even in opposition, social democratic parties and non-parliamentary organisations have incredible opportunities to make change. If there’s one thing they should learn from Brexit it’s that they need to work with the electorate as equals to do it. That’s how you re-engage people, and it’s how you build the trust that allows them to feel you are fit to lead on their behalf.

~

*there you go, Paddy.

The flag and democracy

The results of the first flag referendum has really thrown up some bizarre perspectives on democracy in New Zealand.

Like the person I jostled with on a mutual friend’s Facebook page who said he “feared” people voting to keep the current flag because they didn’t like the blue Lockwood design. Apparently this would be ignoring the wishes of the majority who had voted for it.

Or this – somewhat joking, I guess? – editorial on Stuff which argues that it’s just time for a change therefore you must support change because the only reason you could possibly vote to keep our current flag is because you’re childish (or an old RSA fogey, or Winston Peters, which I suppose are kind of the same thing.)

Now, I’m not particularly thrilled by our current flag. I absolutely agree that it’s time to move past the symbols of our colonial masters, as part of a serious process of acknowledging that that colonial past is still very much with us.

But it’s a bit bloody cheeky for this government, who actively reintroduced archaic rubbish like knighthoods (and gave one to Peter Talley) to wax lyrical about our need to rebrand as a modern global nation by scrapping the union jack. It’s a bit cheeky for anyone who isn’t actively advocating republicanism to say “getting rid of the Union Jack is the most important thing” when the Queen will still be on our currency, the Governor-General will still rubber-stamp all our laws in her name, and probably most importantly, we’ll still be pointlessly sending our soldiers into overseas conflicts because the UK told us it was a family event and it wouldn’t be the same if we weren’t dying there too.

I think the blue Lockwood flag is ugly. I think it looks horribly corporate, horribly 90s, and just boringly obvious. It’s not a surprise it won this referendum because it’s comfortably bland. Even if Helen Clark had overseen this process, I would not vote for this flag.

Because we only get one shot at this. If we change flags now, we probably won’t have another chance in my lifetime. If we keep the current flag, for now, there’s an opportunity for a different government to run a proper discussion about our identity as a nation – not one orchestrated by a Prime Minister desperate for ~a legacy~ in cahoots with a panel stacked with stuffy old white men, ~business gurus~ and reality TV producers.

New Zealand could easily become a republic in the next 10, 20 years. I can wait.

And here’s the ultimate irony. There’s a strong meme going around that Red Peak fans are being bitter and nasty and childish about their #1 pick not being the winner. But the only nastiness I’m seeing is from people who like the blue Lockwood (or like the idea of John Key getting that legacy), sneering that we must accept the ~wishes of the majority~ … by not exercising our votes in the second referendum – not in a way they don’t want.

Democracy, chaps. It works both ways.

Women of #nzpol: on the #nzflag challenger

The women-of-#nzpol Twitter roundup is brought to youย in the interests of amplifying womenโ€™s voices in the political debate and also because:

addams family misandry

Well, that was disappointing. Not surprising, just … disappointing.

First, the facts, because the journalistas of Twitter are quick off the mark:

And then, the reaction.

I think that’s a “no” from the admittedly selective group of women on my #nzpol list, then.

Flag referendum 1

I’m a politics nerd, so of course I was excited to receive my voting papers in the mail for the first part of the flag referendum – despite strongly disagreeing with the way it’s been conducted, the fact it’s a smokescreen for the Key government’s third-term flailing, the bankruptcy of the “design process” and lack of genuine public debate, and of course what a gigantic waste of money all of the above entails.

On the other hand … boxes to fill in! Options to rank! I’m so easily pleased in some regards.

Ooh yeah, democratic participation

A post shared by @msstephaniecatherine on

If you have serious questions about the voting process, Graeme Edgeler seems to have covered everything off over at Public Address. If you have uncovered the truth about the flag referendum and need to tell the world about DUE AUTHORITY, the TPPA, the constitutional importance of the Union Jack, or the two-year time limit which will allow John Key to personally change the flag without a further ballot if the number of formal votes exceeds the number of informal votes … please form an orderly queue to see Dr Dentith.

Having previously said I think the first referendum is essentially rigged in favour of John Key’s put-a-fern-on-it preference, I’m still going to rank the options I like and leave the ones I don’t. The received wisdom is we’re going to reject a flag change in the second referendum anyway (which would really show what a farce the whole process has been) but I want to do what I can to make sure our current flag is at least up against an alternative I like.

You, personally, get to decide what you want to do with your vote. Not voting is always an option.

The only thing I’ll say is that trying to “send a message” by not voting or spoiling your ballot is an uncertain game. Yes, a low turnout could say that we the people reject the process – or it could, and probably will, be spun as “we’re all pretty relaxed about the process.” High numbers of informal/spoiled votes could say that many of us think the process is corrupt – or it could, and probably will, be spun as “those weirdos on the Left who hate democracy” or “see, we told you preferential voting systems just confuse people, let’s try to resurrect FPP again!”

If you want to send a message, send that message. Sign a petition which clearly states your view, or write a letter to the editor, or take to the streets, or tweet it. We live in a world dominated by spin, marketing and short attention spans – we have to work extra hard to make sure our opinions are clearly stated and not open to mischievous misinterpretation for other people’s ends.

It’s all about the game

For weeks the flag referendum has been a debacle. Nobody understands why we’re not having a simple “do you want to change the flag” vote first, nobody understands how the hell two identical corporate logos got into the final four, nobody has a good explanation for why the government which re-introduced knighthoods suddenly got all aflutter about asserting our independence as a nation by scrapping the Union Jack.

Until Monday’s post-Cabinet press briefing, where John Key, half-Prime Minister half-circus contortionist, went from “Stop trying to make Red Peak happen, it’s not going to happen!”

“I love your enthusiasm, folks, but I’m SUPER SERIOUS about this! … Well, okay, technically we could.”

“In fact, we totally would, but they’re not playing ball.”

And in a moment in which apparently none of the Press Gallery’s heads exploded (they’ve clearly all maxed their Fortitude):

So in less than half an hour, as I sat checking Twitter on an early bus home, the flag story turned. From a $26 million ego trip, with Julie Christie, the woman who didn’t see value in having John Campbell on the telly, entrusted with the identity and ~brand~ of the nation, a PM who used every weasel word in the book to avoid spelling out that yes, he wants a fern on the flag, “public meetings” with an absolutely dismal turnout and a popular, grassroots campaign for a better option …

Suddenly, this is a problem of Labour’s doing.

It’s nonsensical. Wasn’t it just a week ago that John Key was dismissing the idea of changing the shortlist, because he’d have to change the law, which is obviously impossible for a government to do?

Brook Sabin found his own explanation:

Now, if you’re on the left, you just don’t believe that. Labour could have immediately said “hell yes, let’s do this thing!” and we just know, deep in our guts, where we’re still bitter about frankly made-up stories about Donghua Liu paying $100,000 for a bottle of wine, the line would be “Key, the great gameplayer, has masterfully turned the Opposition’s own arguments against them and come to a compromise which all New Zealanders will agree is decent and common-sense.”

The house always wins. John Key wins. Because we’ve come to accept that politics is a game, and political commentary is like sports commentary: more about how things occurred and whether the players are competent than what actually happened.

So we don’t get a lot of people with mainstream platforms pointing out that the need for a law change is a red herring, the waste of parliamentary time is a red herring, the demand for cross-party support in a red herring.

clue communism red herring

What gets reported is that Key played it really, really well.

And we’re all part of it. I’ve seen more lefties than journos saying “wow, that was masterful”, “dammit Labour, play the game better.” This entire post is about the political meta, not the facts!

This all leads people to say that John Key has magical political powers. And if you look at the results he gets, at the speed with which he turned a weeks-long tale of his own political machinations and frivolous spending of public money on a vanity project into a nationwide debate about whether or not it’s playing politics to point out he’s playing politics … it seems pretty magical.

But it makes me sad. Politics should be more than a game, and we should judge our leaders on what they achieve, not how brilliantly they cover up the fact they’re achieving nothing at all.

Makes for a catchy song though.