An edited version of this was published in the NZ Herald on 13 November 1997, under
the title 'Why Jenny Shipley must take aim at the Centre'.
Keith Rankin, 13 November 1997.
Jenny Shipley, our next Prime Minister, is a neoconservative, not a neoliberal. She represents the new Centre, not the far Right. She will be a highly competitive Prime Minister in a contest in 1999 with Helen Clark, who represents the old Centre; the new New Right. (Act represents the old New Right.) Shipley is neither a Kim Campbell nor a Ruth Richardson, although she has some similarities to Margaret Thatcher.
Immanuel Wallerstein, this year's Auckland University Robb Lecturer, noted on radio on Sunday (National Programme, 2 November) that the neoliberal New Right that we have come to know has already had its rather short day on the world stage. Roger and Ruth are passé. The new dominant political class will be expecting the Government to intervene, as most dominant political classes have done. The new centre wants a viable public health system, and a bigger tougher police force.
The new centre of New Zealand politics is driven by economic insecurity. The post Employment Contracts Act working class constitutes a politically powerful proletariat. They have jobs; poorly paid and insecure jobs. They believe in two-parent single-income nuclear families, but are overworked double-income families out of necessity. By and large, they are not members of trade unions.
The new working class, while generally suspicious, are easily won over by populist leaders. They know that their lives are much more stressful than they ought to be, and are looking for the scapegoats that populists tend to offer. Beneficiaries - the underworked - make ideal scapegoats. Shipley is seen, more than anything, as tough on the work avoidance. And, now that unions are no longer the political bogey that they were in Rob Muldoon's day, organised business is set up to play that role. Shipley will not want to be seen as being too close to the Roundtable.
Today's working class is suspicious of trade unions, and they worry that union membership may make it harder for them to get another job when their present job expires. Many have had four or five jobs over the last ten years. In many cases each new job was won at a cost of lower wages and/or lesser working conditions. They may be willing to tradeoff holiday entitlements for a bit more cash today.
Many in the new working class voted for NZ First in 1996, or at least planned to when NZ First was at 30% in the polls. Having deserted Winston Peters this year, they are now being polled as uneasy Labour supporters. They don't like Jim Bolger, who doesn't seem to represent anything any more. They hate Act, and what it stands for. These are the people whom Jenny Shipley will appeal to. The centre is there for the taking. Shipley is too sensible to reject the opportunity they offer her.
The new working class are easily persuaded that benefit dependency is a major problem for the New Zealand economy. They do not seem to appreciate just how low wages would be today if beneficiaries were competing even more actively for the jobs held by today's wage workers and subcontractors.
The new working class are in conflict with the group they fear becoming a part of; the new beneficiary class. The targeting of benefits both fuels that conflict, and is fuelled by it. And, while they would rather have a better health system than tax cuts, they resist tax increases. While in no way seeing themselves as beneficiaries, they want more of the second tier benefits which acts to maintain an income margin between workers and beneficiaries; ie Independent Family Tax Credits and Guaranteed Minimum Family Income.
From the "naive work ethic" perspective of Heartland New Zealand, the Alliance is the beneficiaries' party to the left, and Labour is the professionals' party to the right.
Shipley has the makings of a pragmatic populist. While the payment of benefits to people of working age are likely to become more conditional - the Code of Social Responsibility will prove to be tailormade for Shipley - some parts of the welfare state may well be strengthened. We may even see the end of student loans as we know them. There will certainly be a pitch to young voters.
I expect that Shipley will crowd out some of the political territory of the Alliance as well as that of NZ First. Not only do I expect her to oversee the dismantling of many of the inefficient Health structures that she helped to set up, but she may even come out against a blank cheque MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investment). And she may put an end to any further moves to reduce tariffs.
Shipley has the makings of an economic nationalist, not unlike Margaret Thatcher. While I am sure that she will continue to advocate privatisation, I believe that she will seek to promote privatisation to working class New Zealanders, and not through sales of public assets to foreign interests. The new centre of New Zealand politics is somewhat xenophobic, while also being generally unsympathetic towards Maori aspirations.
Maori have a large visible presence on the left, in the new beneficiary class. (And they also have a growing presence on the far right as a new aristocracy.) I can see the Maori wing of NZ First pitching to impoverished Maori, perhaps looking to coalesce with Mana Motuhake. A strong Maori coalition led by Tau Henare could operate its own party list, independently from the Alliance, in the same way that the Greens are contemplating independence from the Alliance. All of these groups would be very important parts of a much bigger coalition than the Alliance; a coalition that must form to oppose National's centrist pitch for the new working class.
The polls show that the constituency of the new centre is like a lost flock, discontented and fickle. They desperately want a leader, a real leader. A leader with an aura of maternal toughness is perfect for the constituency now driving New Zealand politics. This constituency wants unity in Government. The National Party will unite around a leader they perceive to be a winner; around a leader who can command the centre ground. Like Peters, the National backbench doesn't want a leader lurching to the right.
The Conservative Party in Great Britain are in the process of pitching their new economic policy to the left of that of the present British Government, and in playing up British nationalism. A Jenny Shipley led New Zealand government will take encouragement from that, and move economic policy at least to the left of that signalled by Jim Bolger's "springtime" speech, and indeed to the left of Labour. Neoconservativism is to the economic left of liberalism.
Helen Clark seeks to become the Tony Blair of New Zealand Politics. Unfortunately for her, Tony' Blair's honeymoon is likely to be well over by time the next election is held. Labour will need to form the right wing of a 'Rainbow Coalition' in opposition to National. Only a broadspectrum opposition can beat a government settled comfortably in the centre, as Shipley's will be.
The opposition coalition will struggle in 1999 unless it comes up with an innovative new programme of social liberalism. And, if it is to have any chance of success, the Rainbow Coalition will have to be in place as 'the Opposition' well before the 1999 election, with arrangements made in constituencies such as Coromandel, Napier, Wigram, some Maori electorates, to ensure that all parties of that coalition gain constituency seats.
The next election will be, I believe, a great contest between two strongminded woman leaders, one leading a united National Party; the other leading a broad spectrum liberal coalition. There will be nothing particularly feminine about the contest. 'More market' neoliberalism will not feature as an issue. The contest will not be between 'left' and 'right'. Rather it will be about socioeconomic pluralism versus "Jenny's mob" of conservative 'Heartland' New Zealanders who see themselves as strivers. In some respects, it will be a contest between the political groupings who literally fought each other in our streets during the Springbok rugby tour of 1981.
Letter to the Editor, NZ Herald :
13 November, 1997
I would like to correct an editing error that appeared in my article "Why Jenny Shipley must take aim at the Centre" (13 November). Where I wrote "Mrs Shipley has the makings of an economic nationalist, not unlike Margaret Thatcher", "economic nationalist" appeared as "economic rationalist".
I believe that Mrs Shipley will move away from her past reputation as a neoliberal, and move towards the moderately nationalist position that the "Heartland" voters of the new centre hold.
The links between Mrs Shipley and Margaret Thatcher are quite interesting. Having gained a reputation as an economic rationalist, Thatcher is now better known in the United Kingdom as a nationalist, standing firmly opposed to the pro-Europe neoliberals who dominated both the Major Government and the Blair Government.
If Jenny Shipley doesn't adopt a centrist position, she risks the same fate as Kim Campbell who, in 1993, led the Canadian conservatives into electoral oblivion. I just cannot see that happening.
I believe that a Helen Clark led "Rainbow Coalition" of Alliance, Green, Maori and Blair-style Labour interests will be needed to outflank National under Mrs Shipley. Such a coalition could find a place for both the radical and the aristocratic elements of Maori politics. And it could present a global vision of economic sovereignty; a vision driven by cooperating rather than competing national, sub-national and trans-national communities.
© 1997 Keith Rankin