British voters have "had quite enough of austerity politics", says Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. He should know. He came from nowhere to within a whisker of defeating the Conservatives preaching anti-austerity. Are voters thinking the same way in New Zealand? If so which party will benefit in the September election?

New Zealand is not Britain, or any other country for that matter, but we do like to look to the "old country" when it comes to clues for where our politics might be heading. These ties even extend to running campaigns. The National Party has for some time now relied on the same advice the British Conservatives get from advocate of attack dog politics Sir Lynton Crosby - although they may be rethinking the wisdom of doing this after last week's election debacle.

It will be remembered that Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election believing that she would win by a landslide. Instead she lost her majority and a resurgent Labour Party came within a whisker of taking the Treasury benches. Theresa May was humiliated while the once derided leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, was the man of the hour.

In a long list of unpredictable election results, the British outcome was one of the biggest surprises. How did it happen?

Let's start with the Conservatives. The snap election had its roots in the decision by former Prime Minister David Cameron to hold a referendum on British membership of the Europen Union. Cameron wanted Britain to remain a member and believed his communication skills would ensure voters agreed with him. He was proved wrong because 52% voted to leave and 48% voted to remain. The result, labelled Brexit, was a stunning own goal. Cameron departed, May took over and promised to be a "steady and stable hand" on the tiller of state.

Then she called a snap election. Despite this being a broken promise, it made political sense. She wanted a stronger mandate for Brexit negotiations and her opposition, Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party, seemed to be engaged in a prolonged process of self-immolation.

It all went so wrong. The Conservatives emerged as the biggest party, but found themselves only able to form a government by inviting the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party to support them through a "confidence and supply" agreement. The next step will surely be the departure of Theresa May.

The rapid demise of Theresa May is at first glance difficult to understand. When she replaced David Cameron she appeared to understand that the Brexit vote was underpinned by much more than a dislike of Europe. After years of being preached at by graduates of Eton about the virtues of going without so the rich could get richer, a majority of British voters had, in the words of Jeremy Corbyn, "had quite enough of austerity politics". May appeared to get the message when she said:

 "If you're from an ordinary working-class family, life is just much harder than many people in politics realise. You have a job, but you don't always have job security. You have a home, but you worry about the mortgage rates going up. You can just about manage, but you worry about the cost of living and the quality of the local school".

 She said these were the people she would represent.

But she didn't. During the campaign, she looked every bit the arrogant, elitist, market worshipping, nasty, austerity driven politician she said she would not be. The rigours of the campaign allowed voters to see her for what she really was and a majority did not like what they saw.

Meanwhile a faction of the Labour Party had also been listening to British voters and had come to the same conclusion - austerity was last decade. After wandering about in the wilderness following the departure of Tony Blair, a series of unanticipated events conspired to make Jeremy Corbyn leader. It did not start well. Corbyn could not manage his party and seemed more interested in Labour being a social movement than a government.

 But the campaign saw him come into his own. While May thrashed about sabotaging herself, Corbyn looked like a man reborn with a message to match. In unequivocal terms he said Labour would ignore deficits, spend on every itch there was to scratch and soak the rich for the money.

The momentum generated by such a postive campaign took the Labour Party from death's door to the edge of government. Given the tribulations that May's shaky coalition is already experiencing, Corbyn might yet make it to Prime Minister.

Even if this does not happen, Corbyn and his faction of Labour will have won in their own terms. They have changed the face of politics.

As Corbyn said: "You know what? Politics has changed and politics isn't going back in the box where it was before...Because what's happened is that people have said the have had quite enough of austerity politics...They have had quite enough of cuts to public expenditure, underfunding our health service, underfunding schools and our education service and not giving our young people the chance they deserve in our society. And I'm very proud of the results that are coming in all over the country, of people voting for hope, voting for hope for the future and turning their backs on austerity".

Does any of this have relevance to the upcoming New Zealand election? It does because already the main parties have taken on board the lesson that austerity is over.

This is a significant shift for National who have for nine years been preaching the virtues of austerity while pursuing a budge suplus that meant underfunding everything. In their most recent budget they changed direction by committing themselves to spending billions of dollars to address the very problems they have created. During the election, they will try to sell the message that the pain was necessary, good times lie ahead and that the country needs a "a stable and steady" hand.

Labour (and by proxy the Greens) are also anti-austerity but they have a problem. They have already locked themselves into a promise to not raise taxes and to live within the same fiscal boundaries as the National Party who have already spent most of the avaialble surplus. It was very telling that following the recent budget Labour had almost nothing to say. Right-wing commentator Matthew Hooton argued that all Labour could say was that the Government should have spent a little more - hardly the stuff of a Corbyn style revolution.

Which leaves New Zealand First (the other parties will just make up the numbers) and their Trump like mix of nationalism, on-rule-for-all dog whistle, anti-immigration, protectionism and anger. Already they look like doing well because they occupy the highly desirable political real estate called "we are not the establishment".

If New Zaeland First do get the roll on that commentators predict, they too will change the face of politics. But not in a good way.

Given the unpredictability of elections around the world, it is probably not wise to say anything definitive about who might win or lose on September 23rd. But it seems parties will be united in their rejection of austerity.

If this is the case, I for one will be sceptical. Austerity was never a convincing argument, but neither is the belief that it can end just because people have had quite enough of it. In Britain, the Brexit decision means that very tough economic conditions lie ahead. The current round of cuts might look generous in hindsight.

What would be more convincing is to hear parties talking about the kind of innovative, bold policies that will lead to a new type of economy, an intelligent active welfare state, security in retirement, an education system that is about learning not assessment, secure jobs with living wages, solutions to climate change, a reduction in inequality, vibrant communities, a better democracy and an adequate tax base for investment - among other things. In other words, parties might acknowledge that the times we live in require more than a debate about how much to spend.

Deep down voters know this. It is not well articulated, but behind all the dissatisfaction with the way things are today is a sense that fundamental change is needed. This thirst for change is not to be seen as negative. On the contrary, the possibilities for an optimistic and positive future are breaking out all over the world. The party that can capture this view of the future and make it credible will really change politics.  





Comments (10)

by Ian MacKay on June 14, 2017
Ian MacKay

I just hope that Andrew will emerge within a month or so with an exciting message that is easily communicated to every voter. In Britain the people who voted for Labour were largely the Educated ones. So educated people here will grasp the significance of a plan that lifts the grim low wage economy where even those who work 2 full time jobs are still scraping to survive. That is so wrong.

So Andrew waiting time is up. Excite us.

by Alan Johnstone on June 15, 2017
Alan Johnstone

We've not had any austerity politics in NZ. Whilst National has been in power Crown debt has increased by 300%

by Andin on June 17, 2017

"300%" So either National has been lying to the electorate and feathering its own bed or there is no poverty in NZ. C'mon which?

Could be you are hung up over a word. Cause NACT policies look exactly like the Cons in Britain

by Katharine Moody on June 17, 2017
Katharine Moody

What I'd find really useful, Steve, would be a direct analysis of the NZ First policies;

As evidence to support this statement:

"If New Zealand First do get the roll on that commentators predict, they too will change the face of politics. But not in a good way."

For example, is it just their Maori Affairs and Immigration policies that will send NZ to rack and ruin;

Or are there other policies that will take us into this extremely "bad way"?

I just find this general statement of villification curious - as there is a direct comparison made to Donald Trump which I just don't get.  I thought they worked very satisfactorily with Helen Clark's government - yet they fell out with Jenny Shipley's. On many important issues, they are in line with current Labour thinking;


by Charlie on June 18, 2017

Steve: "Does any of this have relevance to the upcoming New Zealand election?"


Because the NZ government never implemented austerity economic policies.

After 2008 the National government loosened the money supply and allowed national debt to rise in order to keep the economy moving. They also embarked on several major infrastructure projects that had previously been held back by Labour (eg Waterview) to maintain empoyment levels.


by Charlie on June 18, 2017

Ian: "In Britain the people who voted for Labour were largely the Educated ones"

There are two possible responses to this:

1. Post a link to support this if you can.

2. An really educated person wouldn't ever vote for Corbyn!

by Katharine Moody on June 18, 2017
Katharine Moody

@Charlie - have a read - why Kensington voted Corbyn;


by Ian MacKay on June 18, 2017
Ian MacKay

No Austerity in NZ? Why was the funding of so many institutions withdrawn or diminished? Night school, Citizens Advice, National Radio, Altzhimers Society, School Funding, DOC and dozens of others. Almost as though those cuts were collectively used to make the Economy look better than it is.

by Rich on June 19, 2017

I used to vote in Kensington, and it was considered a very safe Tory seat. 

(Although I'd note that the Lib Dems received many of the non-Tory votes until they destroyed themselves by going into government with the Conservative party, and that has consolidated the opposition votes behind Labour).

The people of Kensington consist of oligarchs (who can't or won't vote), their nannies and servants, the underclass and the "working rich". It's the latter who've moved away from the Conservatives, driven by that party's failure to deliver an environment in which they can maintain their income and lifestyle - they've mostly got the option of emigrating (as I did some years ago) but have an inexplicable desire to stay in the UK.

by Dennis Frank on July 04, 2017
Dennis Frank

I disagree with Steve's view that voters aspire to fundamental change - speaking as someone who has been working for that for 46 years.  I'm encouraged that more are realising that the old employment paradigm is increasingly unsustainable, but the aware portion of the electorate is likely to be no more than a third at present.  The zeitgeist needs further traction to shift more centrists out of complacency.

In recent times even conservatives have joined a transnational groundswell of support for a basic income as of right (first proposed here by the Values Party in the seventies), but I haven't noticed any other of our parties joining the Greens in support of that structural basis of a sustainable society.  Slow learners.

My take on Corbyn's success is that it's as much a personal endorsement as nostalgia for socialism.  Flogging the dead horse then seeing it get up and chase down the conservative poll lead is such an unlikely political transformation that nobody wants to draw the unpalatable conclusion that socialism may not actually have fallen permanently into Trotsky's dustbin of history after all.  I'm bemused by Corbyn's unapologetic advocacy of the failed prescription, while being genuinely impressed by his personal style.  Authenticity.  Sincerity.  So rare in a politician.  I reckon voters decided to reward him for being a positive alternative.

As regards what it means for our election, I sense no obvious relevance.  Our swing-voters will only shift away further away from National if a change of government starts to seem preferable, and if they see a viable alternative emerging.  Britain is in a worse state than we are.  The legendary kiwi complacency has tremendous inertia and it takes a lot to shift it.


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