This week, we discovered that the tenth National MP elected in 2011 has decided not to contest the 2014 election: John Hayes of Wairarapa being the most recent announcement, leaving the selection for this seat all but confirmed for Alastair Scott, a millionaire merchant banker and former managing director of Credit Suisse.
There is certainly no shortage of commentary on what all of this means for National. For my part, I think the Nats are on to something, certainly something that Labour needs to catch on to, pronto. The retirement of Ross Robertson isn’t really enough, and without passing any judgements on the quality of sitting MPs, it does at least appear that the new talent in the pool isn’t being adequately utilised if some who were ministers in the Fourth Labour Government look to be pretty good chances to take up similar roles in the Sixth. I think a strategic priority for Labour in upcoming elections needs to be genuine renewal. This doesn’t necessarily mean ugly selection or list battles, nor MPs sitting far longer than they should, but rather a more genuine definition of the role of an MP and a guide for people to follow to give a better indication of when their contribution might be starting to be less of a contribution, and instead more of a hindrance of others who can take start to the party in new and exciting directions.
Quite aside from the issue of moving MPs along, however, is the question of who is replacing them. Call me crazy, but it does appear that a new class of National MPs is forming, particularly in those provincial and rural electorates that have over which National has recently held such a stranglehold. John Key was one of the first of this generation, a wealthy financier who has benefited far more than most from neoliberalism and the vast sums of money that it has made available for the global elite class to harvest with impunity.
What is interesting about this new class of National MPs is their almost-imperceptible but relentless ideological colonisation of National. While National has long had what could be termed a “liberal” wing, characterised by Venn Young in the 1970s through to Nikki Kaye today, the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s placed those less inclined to tend conservatively on economic and social issues in the ascendency in the National Party. These early neoliberals pursued their reforms with an ideological vigour surpassed only by that of Roger Douglas himself. However, beginning with Key, and now Stuart Smith and especially the all-but-confirmed Alastair Scott in Wairapapa, their ranks have been thinning in favour of these extremely wealthy and less ideological individuals: paradoxically seen as the perfect successful “anti-politician” by the public, yet have little-to-no experience outside of multinational banks, right-wing think-tanks or business associations of various hues. Rich white men have always had a dominant position in politics, but these guys have managed to reinvent themselves as something fresh and new: and many voters like it.
The New National Class has, I think, almost as much potential to change the face of the National Party as the embracing of social liberals has had for Labour. The classic farmers and small-time accountant types so often elected to these supposedly-conservative blue seats may well be increasingly supplanted by those whose economic attitudes are neoliberal in the extreme but, as seen by Key’s approach to government, are nonetheless willing to misuse the resources of the state in picking winners. I intentionally use the word “misuse” as these winners are not defined by any traditional views of what role the state has had to play in the economy, but rather by an arrogant view of the value of the financier class to the rest of the country: a kind of “what’s good for us (as opposed to efficient market activity more generally, as envisaged by Douglas and Richardson) will be good for you” kind of cronyism.
It isn’t difficult to see the dangerous effects of this: the global financial crisis and ensuing unrest in the United States and UK were only much worse than they were here because this new political class phenomenon had already taken such a strong hold in those countries’ economic and political systems. New Zealand’s almost-neoliberals have the potential to claim a new political space within National and therefore legitimise this crony capitalism in the eyes of the public. John Key has already been remarkably successful at this, and it doesn’t take a communist worldview to see the dangers of this, especially for a fragile and small economy like ours.
The left, therefore, is presented with a number of challenges if it is to effectively respond to this transformation within National. I don’t claim to have any answers, but a coherent socialist-oriented response to crony capitalism is needed, along with taking control of the dialogue around what constitutes a successful citizen in New Zealand society. Labour, in particular then needs to reflect this ideal in its candidates, refreshing and renewing as necessary to reinforce the power of the message. It is only then that the New Zealand left has the chance to combat the scourge of the New National Class’s colonisation of New Zealand political discourse and build a new, post-neoliberal economic and social consensus.