Throughout her fifteen years as leader, Helen Clark’s overarching political goal was to transform the Labour party into the natural party of government. This dream now lies in tatters as National, beset by scandal and dogged by stories on child poverty, house prices, and inequality now looks set to gain an historic fourth term.
Yet, as Margaret Thatcher once said of Tony Blair, Clark has every right to claim John Key’s government as her greatest success. His government left almost all of her signature reforms in place. This election, the first after Key relinquished his grip on the heartstrings of the nation’s voters shows just what effect he has had on the political landscape.
The real victory belongs to Bill English, the man who successfully fought off a tougher challenge than his predecessor ever faced.
National has successfully persuaded the electorate that it is the party for good times, as well as bad.
This was more difficult than I think has been given credit for. The struggle wasn’t just about third-term fatigue, but about a profound change in political messaging. The former British Chancellor, George Osborne, was known to say that a party should pick one political issue and monopolise it. For him that issue was austerity. He believed that softening on austerity would signal to voters that the nation’s finances were not a dire as they had once been and cause them to consider voting for someone else. Thus, Osborne rammed home the idea of austerity long after most support or evidence for the idea had drained away.
Not so with English. This election National has successfully persuaded the electorate that it is the party for good times, as well as bad. With deficits but a distant memory, English can claim to know how to save, as well as spend — a phenomenal political achievement, if nothing else, a feat not matched by the last Labour government. Second to this achievement is the not inconsiderable feat of convincing the electorate that these are, in fact, good times.
It probably needs stating that there’s no such thing as a simply ‘good’ economy. Like most things, it depends on how you measure it. National has shifted the public’s attention to the key metrics of GDP growth, net government debt, and the size of the government’s surplus. Good metrics, to be sure, but only if you’re telling a certain story.
Labour’s biggest disappointment will be the poor turnout of young people.
There are plenty of other ways to measure an economy: the size of private debt, GDP per head, productivity, and inequality, for example. By any of these metrics, Labour would have dominated the campaign, yet National pushed the focus onto its measurements and Labour was left floundering. Ardern even leant credence to the primacy of these metrics by conceding that English had been a competent finance minister. By many metrics, he has been anything but.
Labour’s biggest disappointment will be the poor turnout of young people. At the time of writing it appears that Ardern might have slowed the declining youth vote, but done nothing to restore it to its previous heights. This is truly surprising. Labour had a young, charismatic leader who campaigned hard in universities on policies designed to capture the youth vote.
The disappearance of the youth vote is redrawing the political landscape. Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism famously wrote that ‘society is indeed a contract. . . not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’ meaning of course that true Conservatives sustain the life of the nation, its finances and its constitution, for generations yet to come.
By this token, the National party is not a conservative party at all. Whether by its inaction on climate change, its light regulation on polluted streams and rivers, its inaction on child poverty, and inability to get young people into the housing market, the last nine years have been a long exercise in loosening the social bonds between the generations. The old wrack up enormous debts for the young, whilst simultaneously depriving them of the skills and wealth they will one day need to pay them. There is no shirking from the immense costs this younger generation will have to bear in the future, and unless the young make their presence felt at the ballot box, they themselves will discover that no quantity of avocado on toast will meet the cost of their parents’ profligacy.
While the election was an enormous victory for Bill English, who managed to shift the playing field to more familiar ground, he should proceed with caution lest it become a Pyrrhic one.
If English is lucky enough to form a government, he should read the entrails and see the signs of a nascent vote for change.
In 1981, Robert Muldoon clung on to power against a challenge from Bill Rowling’s Labour Party. The infamous Springbok Tour, held just a few months before the election had shown the profound social divisions in the country, and the 1979 oil shock had exposed Muldoon’s economic mismanagement. Reform was brewing — Social Credit, proposing a radically different economic system, won 16.1% of the vote. Even within his own cabinet, reformers not unlike those who would take the reins in 1984, were at work.
Yet Muldoon ignored the need for change and campaigned on stability. He cobbled together a government, and failed to implement the social and economic reforms New Zealand so desperately required. David Lange later lampooned him as King Canute: ‘he stands there and says everyone is wrong but me’.
English should take heed. If he is lucky enough to form a government, he should read the entrails and see the signs of a nascent vote for change — real, economic change that gives more people a stake in then country’s success.
There’s no surplus big enough to buy back the lives lost to youth suicide, or large enough to hold back the rising seas.
He should remember that Metiria Turei’s welfare confession caused the Green vote to surge before it crashed, and he should look at the success of TOP’s radical economics in spite of the profound unpopularity of its leader, Gareth Morgan, who halfway through the campaign decided to run against personality politics by campaigning as an arsehole.
His government has run up a huge debt to the youth of the country, locking them out the housing market and ignoring their very real social concerns of child poverty and youth suicide. To them, the most educated generation in our history, the cost of climate change is very real, and the benefits of government surplus very hollow. If there’s one abiding lesson, it’s that its impossible to make an economic argument to a generation that feels locked out of the economy, as our youth increasingly do.
They’re not stupid. They can’t go shopping with values, but they also know that there’s no surplus big enough to buy back the lives lost to youth suicide, or large enough to hold back the rising seas.