That’s another British General Election done and dusted. I haven’t followed one this closely since the 1997 campaign, where I was backing John Major.
Shock, horror! Hang on, Jack. Haven’t the media all said you are a leftie? Didn’t you stand for a left-wing party?
Therein lies a fallacy about left- and right wings. I’ve never completely understood the need to pigeonhole someone into a particular camp, when I would say most people on this planet hold a mix of views from both sides. Now that politicians are not unlike caricatures—there has been a “rightward” shift where the policies being adopted by some are so outside economic orthodoxy that they look like what their Spitting Image counterparts would have uttered back in the day—this holds more true than ever. We know what subscribing to certain parties’ views fully and completely is like: we risk looking loony, and, if taken too far, we risk becoming loony.
But the spin doctors and advisers aren’t in to transparency. They are into their talking heads conveying what they feel the public responds to, hence Mitt Romney, once an advocate of universal health care in his own state, becoming an opponent of it when he ran for president; or, for that matter, Ed Miliband’s insistence on the ‘budget responsibility lock’, to demonstrate that he had a handle on the economy, when Economics 101 told us that austerity isn’t a good way to help the economy along and Miliband began sounding like Cameron lite.
My support of Major in the 1997 General Election, which went against the prevailing view at the time, was down to several reasons. Unlike Cameron, Major didn’t practise austerity, but he did practise conventional economics with the government going more into deficit through increasing spending during the early 1990s’ recession, knowing the stimulus to be affordable, and knowing it had to be paid back once the economy was healthy again. It is interesting to note Sir John’s own goal while campaigning for the Tories in this General Election, when he said at the Tory Reform Group annual dinner, ‘We need to acknowledge the fact we have a pretty substantial underclass and there are parts of our country where we have people who have not worked for two generations and whose children do not expect to work.
‘How can it be that in a nation that is the fifth richest nation in the world, that in the United Kingdom we have four of the poorest areas in Europe? I include eastern Europe in that question.’
How indeed. The John Major who was prime minister will have answered that easily, and his own record illustrates just why he avoided such consequences in the 1990s that Cameron was unable to.
The second reason was that I really believed the ‘classless society’ speech, and if you have read his memoirs, or even biographies written about him, then there was a real personal experience woven into that. Critics will point at the fact the speech was written by Antony Jay (Yes, Minister) or the fact that Britain invented To the Manor Born and such sitcoms, but, generally, why should only certain classes have the ability to excel and do their best? Everyone should have that opportunity, and the measures implemented under the Major premiership, while not as far to the left as traditional socialists would have wanted, struck a good balance in my view in an immediate post-Thatcher period. We should always be wary of sudden shifts, whether they’re swings from the left to the right, or vice versa. A pragmatic approach seemed sensible.
Third, it was precisely that Major was not a Thatcherite, even if Margaret Thatcher might have believed him to be when she made him Chancellor of the Exchequer, a job that he wanted most of his political life. But what we had in his very shrewd opponent in 1997 was Thatcherism, or at least monetarism. As we know from Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s early move in allowing the Bank of England to be free of political control, their belief that this would avoid boom-and-bust cycles was not realized. However, the evidence does show that the freedom has coincided with a period of low interest rates and stable inflation, but equally one can credit the work of the Tories in handing New Labour a booming economy in May of that year. As Major noted at the time, it was rare for a government to lose while the economy was improving, but the Labour campaign, ably assisted by biased media at the time, and the easy pass Blair got from the British establishment despite being very, very vague about his policies, was hard to beat. All he had to do was utter ‘Change’ and ‘It’s about New Labour, new Britain.’ It hid, to those of us watching the General Election and the year before it, New Labour’s Thatcherite aims. I am not even that sure what Blair, Brown and Peter Mandelson were doing in the party to begin with.
This might be contrasted with a Tory party weakened through allegations of sleaze (and we know now that no party is any less sleazy than the other, but it depends on when you are caught out) leading Major to fight a campaign largely alone with the occasional publicity boost from the Spice Girls. No matter how specific the PM got, it didn’t matter. (Or, as I had told many of my design classes at the time when I was teaching, the Conservatives’ Arial was no match for Labour’s Franklin Gothic, a typeface family that, incidentally, was used by Thatcher in her 1983 election campaign, and by Labour in New Zealand in 1999 and 2002.) It was frustrating to try to discern what Labour’s specific policies were from Down Under, watching the General Election campaign with keen interest. And those lack of specifics worried me from the start, which explains why when I ran for office, I issued a manifesto early in the game. I liked being first, even if the electorate didn’t put me there.
Whether you agreed with Labour or not, and many would argue that the Blair and Brown years were not stellar, the divisions in their party—which I imagine we will see reemerge in the next few days—indicate that even within there is a great deal of polarization. The Thatcherites are in there, except they are called Blairites. And while Sir John put his weight behind his party out of loyalty, and from his earlier political years witnessing how ‘Labour isn’t working’ (the Wilson–Callaghan years must have been formative for him given his age), his comments at the dinner are telling on just where modern Conservative economic policies under George Osborne differed to his own and those of Norman Lamont. If people are suffering, if they aren’t getting their shot at the ‘classless society’, then is the place any good? If the class divide has grown, contrary to Sir John’s own views, and weakened Britain as a result of the contraction of economic players in it, then even the “right” can’t support that. To me, I thought conservatism was letting everyone have a shot, and about solid, national enterprise, and this century hasn’t given me much faith that that applies very widely.
Labour might have campaigned on that and on preserving the NHS although having listened to Miliband, I was never totally convinced. Perhaps, I, too, had concerns about Labour vagueness, and until this General Election I had not followed the Shadow Cabinet closely enough to know the thinking and histories behind the players. That area, I will leave to others to comment. In some respects, the caricature comment I made above applies to Labour, too.
Contrasting the Tories this time with the party I knew a bit better through observation—the two terms of John Major—I feel they are very different. And, sadly, I draw parallels with the National Party here at home, where people attempt to compare incumbent John Key with Sir Robert Muldoon (1975–84), and I simply cannot see the parallels other than the colour of the branding.
Sir Robert resolutely believed in full employment, the rights of the unemployed, the state ownership of assets, energy independence, and his ability to fight his own battles. Had attack blogs been around then, he wouldn’t have needed them. I do not agree with everything about his premiership, and his miscalculation of public opinion over the Gleneagles Agreement and the environment is now part of history. However, his terms are still being misjudged today, with an entire generation happily brainwashed by both the monetarist orthodoxy of the 1980s and a prime-time documentary (The Grim Face of Power) aired after his death (probably to avoid a defamation suit) to belittle his legacy. (The contrasting documentary made many years later, Someone Else’s Country, was buried on a weekend afternoon.) We did not have to wait months for a telephone, nor did we not have cars to buy; yet the belief that the electorate has a collective memory of only five years means we haven’t a hope of comprehending fully what happened thirty years ago. But to those of us who pride ourselves on a decent memory, and I believe if we seek public office we must have one, then things were never as bleak as people believe. He was sexist, yet I do not believe him to want to preside over a divided New Zealand, and his own books reveal a desire for unity. Unfortunately, looking at a man born in 1921 through the prism of 2015, plenty of his sayings look anachronistic and passé, but once context is added, the New Zealand we look at today looks more divided.
We, too, have an underclass that has emerged (those begging for change weren’t there two decades ago, nor were so many food banks), through economic policies that have weakened our businesses. Both major parties deserve criticism over this. For a country where experts have said we must head toward technology to end our reliance on primary products, other than software patents, we have had a strange record over intellectual property with a prime minister who was against certain copyright amendments before he was for them (and voted accordingly). A New Zealand resident who adopted the same rules over copyrighted materials as Google and Dropbox has been indicted by the US Government—that’s right, I am talking about Kim Dotcom. It’s a reminder that we haven’t done enough for our tech sector, the one which governments have said we should aid, which can help our overall economy.
We are hopelessly behind in how much technology contributes to our economy, and we have done little to support the small- to medium-sized businesses that form the backbone of our economy. Instead, we have been selling them short, welcoming ever-larger multinationals (who usually pay tax in their home country, not ours) and giving them more advantages than our own. Since when has allegiance to these foreign players ever been part of politics on the left or on the right? If we are to support businesses, for instance, we should be negotiating for our own milliard-dollar enterprises to make headway into new markets. Xero et al will thank us for it. Globalization is as much about getting our lot out there so they can pay tax back here. Politicians should be patriotic, but toward our own interests, not someone else’s.
Therein lie my many posts about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement on my Facebook. It is precisely because I support business that I am against a good part of what has been leaked so far. (I am aware that many trade agreements are negotiated in secret, so there is nothing new there.) It is precisely because I believe in a level playing field for Kiwis that we should be careful at how we liberalize and in what sectors and at what pace we should do it. The curious thing there is that the substantial arguments (obviously against it) have come from the “left”, or friends who identify as being left-wing, while some who have identified as being right-wing have bid me an indignant exit from the discussion by attacking the players and not their utterances, and yet somehow the lefties are branded the woolly, emotional wrecks?
As I wrote last year, ‘All I want are facts, not emotional, ideological arguments. On the evidence for me, things are leaning toward the anti side. I come from the standpoint of the market being a man-made construct and people are not numbers.
‘… [T]here are cases going on with tobacco companies where they are using IP to argue that plain packs are contrary to trade agreements. So where do you draw the line with public health versus a foreign enterprise profiting? I’d like to see healthy people not taxing the system, and plain packs were a foreseeable development IMO for a tobacco manufacturer. [I know this is an argument that is typically trotted out, but I use it since there is at least one case out there.] A wise tobacco company would have acquired businesses in other fields (as some have done), just as Coca-Cola, seeing the tide turn against sodas, have bought up water, energy drink and juice businesses. It’s wise investing, and it’s progress.
‘There is nothing wrong with the notion of a trade tribunal but what has been emerging from the leaks are ones where corporations can be compensated for loss of profits based on, say, plain packaging. If a government is democratically elected to implement such a policy, and corporations have always understood investments to be subject to the laws of the land (including the risk of divestment in some), then should their rights trump that of the citizens? This is the danger here, and this is the heart of the sovereignty argument.
‘Another example is with software patents, which our country has voted to do away with. It’s been shown that that would spur innovation.
‘The tendency is that TPPA is against these moves, although given the secrecy we do not know for sure. But reading other IP provisions it does not take a big leap of the imagination.
‘… Do I believe in global free trade? Absolutely. But I also believe in making sure that people have the means the buy the stuff I sell, and to me this treaty (based on what has been leaked) does not ensure that. I also believe in social responsibility and that citizens have their basics looked after so they can participate in commerce. I am pro-innovation, especially in smaller enterprises where some great stuff is taking place, and we have reasonably robust IP laws already and conventions that govern them. I’m not saying I have a complete alternative that replaces it, but some of the work we have done at the Medinge Group touches on these issues.’
One argument in favour is: if we are not party to this, then does this mean we will get shut out of it? I’m not entirely sure we will in that we are already one of the freest markets in the world, although I welcome arguments and past examples. In the areas I know well, the absence of a free-trade agreement with the US, for instance, have never hampered our firm exporting there, but I realize for our primary producers there have been obstacles. But do such agreements mean unimpeded access when it’s so easy, even under WTO, to erect non-tariff barriers? And why should corporations’ rights trump citizens’, as opponents are quick to point out?
‘At the end of the day,’ to borrow a phrase, all human systems are imperfect. And the market is just as human as any other. My belief is that your own citizens, and their welfare, must be placed first, and we should support our own people and our own businesses. The political caricatures that certain parties have now rendered into human form don’t necessarily appear to understand this, certainly not by their actions. This is at the crux of the arguments that I saw from Labour supporters in the UK General Election, and to some extent from those who opposed National and ACT in our one last year. Labour’s loss here, too, in my view, can be placed on a leader who himself came across as unsubstantial on TV as his opponents; and his refusal to resign can be contrasted to the behaviour of Miliband and Nick Clegg yesterday. He could have always pulled a Nigel Farage.
The sooner we get away from notions of “left” and “right” and work out for ourselves where we’d like our country and our world to head, we will start working together without these false divisions. I might add that “being Asian” in this country is yet another false division. No wonder most people are sick of politics, politicians and “politics as usual”, because most of us cannot be bothered pigeonholing ourselves. We just want to do what’s decent and honourable and have the chance to get on with it.
The political caricatures of old have taken human form, but they’re still nothing like us
That’s another British General Election done and dusted. I haven’t followed one this closely since the 1997 campaign, where I was backing John Major.