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Chris Ford: The Right In The Ascendant

Chris Ford
Chris Ford

This past Friday night, I enjoyed a few beers with one of New Zealand's pre-eminent political commentators, Chris Trotter. Accompanied by two other friends, Otago University political scientist (or more accurately political sociologist and blogger) Bryce Edwards and his partner Sarah Martin, we discussed the key political issues of the day ensconsed in the surrounds of the Victorian-era Staff Club at the University of Otago.

One of the topics we collectively ruminated upon was the appalling state of the Left in New Zealand at the current time. As Trotter observed in his dryly witty way 'it is on life, should we fetch the next-of-kin?'

I wouldn't go so far as to state that but it does look dire if one looks at the current state of our overall political culture. As I have commented on previously, there is the huge gap in the polls between National and Labour and furthermore between the centre-left and centre-right party groupings. On the night we were engaging with Trotter, the so-called 'anti-smacking' referendum delivered a blow to left-leaning social liberals everywhere in that well over two-thirds of those who did vote don't share our convictions that kids shouldn't be hit as a means of punishment. Two days beforehand, Sir Roger Douglas had his Voluntary Students Association Membership Bill drawn from the private members bill ballot at Parliament.

And to add to the misery for the Left (and I encapsulate within this term everyone from the most radical Trotskyist to the most right-leaning Labour Party member), our National Government can do no wrong even when they send troops to an increasingly unpopular war (Afghanistan), cut government spending on social services and preside over the biggest increases in unemployment seen since the late 1980s.

I believe that this country began moving back to the Right again in the mid-2000s with Don Brash's Orewa speech on race relations marking the first turning point. So-called 'Middle New Zealand' was getting pissed off with socially liberal reforms like prostitution law reform, civil unions and then the anti-smacking law was seen by many as 'the last straw'. Mind you, the forces of the Christian Right were instrumental in subliminally pushing these 'enough is enough' messages (a la Brian Tamaki) and the primary beneficiaries of these messages (even if unintentionally) tended to be the National and Act parties who held to a slightly more socially conservative world view.

Economically and socially, many New Zealanders did agree with much of what the Labour-Alliance and then Labour-led Governments had done during their 1999-2008 term with the creation of Kiwi Bank, paid parental leave, nil interest on student loans and slight increases in pension rates all being highly popular moves that National has, so far, not seen fit to reverse (but still could if they win a second term).

What has done it for the Right is that many New Zealanders are currently going through a socially conservative phase in their political and social thinking (that is if they ever think of politics at all nowadays) and are more concerned about their own survival and less those of even their nearest neighbours in the street during this recession. During the Great Depression of the 1930s and indeed in most of the recessions that followed the Second World War, a spirit of communitarianism thrived in that people looked out for one another and wanted to support the least fortunate members of our community in times of crisis. This time I don't see this same attitude being as prevalent as it was in crises past. Simply put, that's why the two single parents on the Domestic Purposes Benefit who came forward about their plight due to the Government's recent Training Incentive Allowance cuts were so villified by both media and public alike about three weeks ago.

There has been a sea change in the way that many of my fellow New Zealanders view the world around them. Prior to the late 1970s and early 1970s, there was a more social democratic, egalitarian ethos that permeated within our communities underpinned by the fact that many people worked regulated hours, enjoyed higher pay, were able to access education and health care comparatively more easily and were involved in their communities through clubs and societies and religious/spiritual networks such as churches.

Now society has become increasingly atomised and individualistic in character. The bonds that once held communities together in terms of social networks like sporting organisations, churches, trade unions and rugby clubs have frayed. People are working (in this country) for longer hours and at lower rates of pay (while the rich get away with the jam) and access to health and education has become more rationed than ever it was before. Therefore, there's more of a "I'm trying to get on with my life, don't bother me about yours" attitude that has infested our collective psyche to a large degree.

That's why talkback radio and letters to the editor columns are once again filled with vitriolic attacks on beneficiaries, immigrants, refugees and on Maori and Pacific Islanders. This shift to the right has become more pronounced with the passing of the years through the implementation of Rogernomics and then Ruthenasia and has hardly dissipated even after nine years of a slightly more social democratic (but no less free market-oriented) Labour regime.

While society has always been less than perfect in terms of it having always experienced such ills as crime, poverty and social division, etc, I have never known a time in my short 39 years where people have become so alienated from political institutions and structures that could protect them such as trade unions, offer them community support and recreational opportunities such as community groups or help them understand that they are part of a wider community through getting to know their neighbours as friends and allies rather than just as people to be waved to over the fence as is the case today.

It is upon all this societal breakdown that the New Right thrives. The business and political elites who support this ideology say that the problems stem from a failure of individual effort and the mass media convey that back to the populace who, having little time for engaging in deep thought, discussion or analysis, merely swallow what they are told. As Margaret Thatcher once infamously said "there is no such thing as society," and upon that basis if there is no society, then it is easier to preach the politics of individualism and succeed.

These are probably the underlying key reasons as to why the left is down and out but only for the moment. I believe that people will one day begin to turn leftwards in New Zealand as the political pendulum will always swing back and forth in line with the political tides. The main thing for everyone on the left, whether they be Maoist, Marxist, Trotskyist, Marxist-Leninist, social democratic, democratic socialist, ecosocialist or just plain socialist is to keep the flame alive, continue to oppose, even on principle, moves to erode social spending and send our forces overseas and perhaps tackle the underlying issue of our age - the need to adopt policies that will bring back a sense of collective community through shortening our working hours, raising our wages and upping our levels of social security to where they once were.

The parties of the mainstream and radical left, be they the Alliance, Worker's Party, Residents Action Movement, Green or Labour need to come up with visions of how we can change the collective nature of our society so that the Right is no longer in the ascendant anymore.

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