It’s the first day back in Wellington for our MPs. Even though the new MP for Dunedin North, David Clark, hasn’t yet spoken in the house, he’s had his private member’s bill drawn. The Bill seeks to ‘Monday-ise’ Waitangi Day and ANZAC day when they fall on a weekend. to ‘Monday-ise’ Waitangi Day and ANZAC day when they fall on a weekend.
I’ve just been sent this impressive set of documents (see below). It has been sent out by the Colin Craig’s Conservative Party to their full list of contacts, and presumably their membership as well. I’d be interested to know how many actual financial members they have, but they do claim to have sent this to a list of 3,000 supporters. That is a very decent start.
There are three documents – a welcome letter from Colin Craig. It’s full of fluff, but it does the job. The a page with their four goals for 2012, and the final page lists particular ways you can help achieve their four goals. The back of the final page has a freepost to return the document, presumably with some payment.
Their four goals are worth looking at –
1. Increase Membership
This has to be the main goal of any new political party, particular in the year following an election. I’d be interested to know what sort of response rate they get out of their 3,000 supporters, but it isn’t hard to imagine that this letter will push them past the 500 they need.
2. Form Electorate Committees
Also an important task for a new political party. In Wellington Central we never saw the Conservative Party candidate, and the contact that we were given for their local party lived in Ohariu. They, like all other political parties, need more feet on the ground.
3. Publish and Distribute a Booklet/Magazine
You may remember that during the campaign the Conservative Party published a large glossy booklet filled with stock photos. They’re planning on doing it again. I’m not 100% convinced it’s the best spend of their money, but I’m not in a hurry to give them better advice either.
4. Build a Financial Support Base
Well, Colin’s pockets obviously aren’t limitless. Makes sense that they tap their supporters. If they do it properly, it should be easy enough for them to sustain the party organisation until the next campaign, at which point they will be needing Colin to open his wallet again.
The third page is probably the best – it gives the members and supporters a list of nine simple ways they can help achieve the four goals. It’s not rocket science, but they’ve hit the nail on the head.
The Conservative Party obviously have some decent operators on board – while it may not be perfect, this is far from amature hour. Without a seat in Parliament, it’s going to be hard for them to get any airtime in the next few years, but they obviously are already looking to the long-term success of the party.
I’ve begun reading Al Gore’s book The Assault On Reason, and I highly recommend it. This passage jumped out at me:
It is simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse. I know I am not alone in feeling that something has gone fundamentally wrong. In 2001, I had hoped it was an aberration when polls showed that three-quarters of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for attacking us on September 11. More than five years later, however, nearly half of the American public still believes Saddam was connected to the attack.
At first I thought the exhaustive, nonstop coverage of the O.J Simpson trial was just an unfortunate excess – an unwelcome departure from the normal good sense and judgment of our television news media. Now we know that it was merely an early example of a new pattern of serial obsessions that periodically take over the airwaves for weeks at a time.
As I was reading this, one event immediately sprung to mind – the teapot tapes “scandal” that engulfed the final weeks of the 2011 campaign.
People on all sides have acknowledged that it was something of a non-event. It was no Watergate. But still, it took up almost all of the political coverage during the most critical part of the election campaign. Was it simply easier for the media to latch onto a hard and fast “event” like this? Either way, the political discourse in our country suffers when things like this take disproportionate coverage.
It is a long standing bugbear of the beltway to bemoan the lack of quality news. Personally, I think that avenues such as the internet are going to have to play an increasing role. I’m looking forward to reading what Al Gore has to say at it.
The final in a series of guest posts from Hayden Munro. Read part one and part two here.
So now we come to the point of this story, the lessons we should draw from From and Blair’s story. The lesson is an important one and it is this: if progressive Parties weaken the organised forces that push for the interests of working and middle class people, they should not be surprised to find themselves with a political system that does not listen to these people. The out sized political power of the super wealthy is the direct result of decisions to weaken the organisational power of groups representing middle and working class interests. As happened throughout western economies and society, the push for individualised methods of social organization, rather than the collective action that defined the post-war era, weakened the power of ordinary voters to influence the system.
Hacker and Pierson, in their unbelievably highly recommended book Winner Take All Politics explain why organised groups can influence government action where individual voters cannot:
“To influence the exercise of government authority in a modern democracy generally requires a range of formidable capabilities: the capacity to mobilise resources, coordinate actions with others, develop extensive expertise, focus sustained attention, and operate flexibly across multiple domains of activity. These are attributes of organisations, not discrete atomised voters.”
No matter how worthy the cause – it must have organised power behind it if our political system is to respond to it. It’s this fundamental truth, that ordinary people best exert power over their leaders when they organise and band together, that is the foundational assumption of the labour movement. It’s why we have unions and why we have progressive political parties. Sadly, the story of progressive parties for the last 25 years then has been a concerted effort to weaken the ability of working and middle class people to exert organised pressure on their leaders.
It is important to know that this move from effective organised participation to ineffective individualised participation is not the story of all forces in our political system. In fact there is one interest group who has moved in the opposite direction: corporations and the super wealthy. Since the 1970’s business groups have become ever more organised and effective at putting pressure on politicians to take their concerns seriously and to govern in their interests. One way to measure this is the exponential rise in the use of lobbyists by business groups (a rise it should be noted, that can also be seen in New Zealand). The extent of this new organised lobbying effort was dramatised by a recent report by Public Campaign, an American interest group who found that 30 of the US’s biggest corporations paid more in lobbying fees trying to influence public policy than they paid in federal taxes between 2008 and 2011. So while corporations and the super wealthy were finding more and more organised and effective ways to push policy makers to bow to their concerns, progressive parties have spent the last 25 years removing their members ability to effectively organise in their own interests. In the battle over who Government listens to, one side has been unilaterally disarming while the other has been stocking up on ever more effective weapons.
The last few years have shown decisively that the current political-economic arrangement, where the super wealthy have vastly disproportionate power and bend the rules to suit their interests, isn’t working. It is widely accepted within Labour that our party has to change, has to allow more say for our members in everything from leadership to policy formation. The challenge we have is creating a party system in which our members not only have a voice, but the organisational might to make sure their voice is heard. We must remember that any reforms that lessens our members’ ability to organise, be it through a union or sector group or even just a voting bloc, lessons their ability to make the political system respond to their interests. We must make sure we build our new Labour Party on foundations of real, effective representation, rather than top down elite control in the name of “democracy”. Collective action and organisation are the tools by which members of the labour movement have built a better world and a fairer New Zealand for the last hundred years. They are the way through which we will create an economy that once again works for everyone. We must make sure we protect them.
A very interesting profile of Labour’s new MP for Te Tai Tonga in the latest edition of the Ngai Tahu magazine, Te Karaka. Tirikatene reveals…
Why the Labour Party?
“I think everything I’ve done career-wise has been to try and help people. Now it’s just gone to another level.
“People often say ‘you’ve worked in the business area wouldn’t you be more National?’. Labour is not anti-business at all. We’re very pro-business and growing the economy, but we just want to make sure growing the economy benefits everybody.
“I’ve got a strong sense of social justice. From a young age I’ve just really wanted to help people.”
Muir had this to say on the difference between what the Greens do and what they say in his latest Guardian column…
And with Labour flip-flopping over pay freezes and cuts, thank god for the Greens, and a measure of consistency. They refuse to shake the dead hand of austerity. Unless they are in power. Then who knows? Certainly there is confusion in Brighton, where they’ve watched party leader Caroline Lucas standing with the Occupy protesters at St Paul’s and attacking government austerity measures on Question Time, but where they also see her acolytes on the city council pushing ahead with cuts of £35m. Members don’t like it. “It is particularly disturbing to learn that Green party councillors in Brighton and Hove intend to proceed with budget plans that will cut millions of pounds from local services,” said a statement from Green Left. “The first Green-led council should be drawing up a budget which not only defends existing service provision but which also reverses the cuts made by previous councils.” Better opposition than this, they say, but there’s no sign of a U-turn. Always respect to be gained taking the tough decisions. Look at the Lib Dems.
The second in a series of guest posts by Hayden Munro. Read part one here.
However as we now know, for all its electoral success, Clinton and Blair’s Third Way failed in some very real ways, ways that would see it summarily rejected by the majority of progressive thinkers and leaders by the turn of the decade. Within ten years, Blair would watch as his successor Gordon Brown re-embraced the Keynesian style demand side stabilisation policies of “Old Labour” in the face of a Great Financial Crisis that Blair never saw coming. Even worse, Blair was forced to watch as his chosen heir David Miliband was defeated in a Labour leadership election by his brother Ed Miliband, who ran on a ticket of opposition to the Iraq War and a “turning the page” on Blair’s legacy. Likewise Bill Clinton could do nothing but smoulder as his wife Hillary was defeated in the 2008 US Democratic Primary by an upstart Senator who promised to move on from the days of “Old Washington” and the small scale incremental change of the Clinton years. The electoral repudiation of the Third Way is the strongest possible evidence that there was something fundamentally unsatisfying with the outcomes of the Third Way project, and a look at Clinton and Blair’s economic record tells us why. Fundamentally, on the key economic challenges facing us today, the Third Way did not offer solutions.
To understand why the Third Way was unable to address these concerns, we must look at how it came to dominate the politics of Labour and the Democrats. It is here that we begin to see answers for why our politics stopped being responsive to the vast majority of our citizens. Because what both From and Blair did was takeover their parties by reforming how their members participated in their parties’ internal democracy. Despite the vast differences between the US and UK political system, and the rules structure of the Democrats and Labour, From and Blair’s strategy was the same: change the rules under which the party operated in a way that weakened the ability of opposing groups to organise against them, by promoting the idea that less organised forms of participation were more “democratic”. The effect of depowering organised groups within the party was always the same: it increased the power of elites and centralised control of the party apparatus and platform in the hands of an elite few. This led to less membership, less organisation and parties governed in an increasingly “top down” way.
Local government seems to be rising up the ladder of issues people are taking an interest in.
Patrick posted earlier in the week about the Shape the Future group in Wellington.
Aucklanders got briefly interested in how their city’s governed over the last couple of years, but it seemed like a passing fad – and sadly far too few Aucklanders engaged, or continue to be engaged, with what were and are extremely important issues. A pity – the Royal Commission papers and report were fascinating.
Local government has certainly occupied the minds of many residents, ratepayers and citizens here in Christchurch for a number of years, and it’s been a large part of our frustration (still growing btw) with how things have been managed since the earthquakes began. (For those keeping count we just passed 10,000 quakes since September 2010 – here’s the map)
I promised Patrick I’d write a rundown of the presentation I gave to Labour’s Summer School this year and what I think the implications are for Labour’s ongoing project of party reform. Not just the organisational review, but also any leadership, candidate selection, or constitutional changes. The broad theme is that way in which progressive political parties themselves have become neo-liberalised in the last few decades, and the way in which this has meant they have increasingly been unable to bring about real change when in power.
The presentation was a recap of the way Al From and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) took over the Democratic Party in the USA in the late 80’s and early 90’s and how this takeover inspired and informed much of Tony Blair’s New Labour project in the UK. From was the director of the DLC, the centrist group that eventually elected Bill Clinton. The presentation then linked this takeover to both parties’ inability to effectively respond to the major economic challenges we are facing at the moment, such as wide and growing income inequality, stagnating middle class incomes and an increasing sense that, as Grant Robertson has noted in a few public speeches, a public that increasing feels like politics is not something they do but something done to them.
This is a fairly lengthy subject, so I’ve broken it up into three posts which will be going up over the next few days.