Wednesday, 5 September 2012
For my posts from December 2011 to June 2012, please go here: http://neilstockley.posterous.com/.
I will import my back catalogue when Posterous lets me!
Saturday, 10 December 2011
The vast majority of Liberal Democrats support the coalition with the Conservatives, even if they have deep reservations about some of the government’s policies. But I still hear suggestions that it may have been wiser to enter an agreement to support the Conservatives on votes of confidence and supply, presumably in return for some kind of shared policy agenda. Such a deal, the argument goes, would enable the Lib Dems to preserve more of their independence and identity, avoid being held accountable for decisions with which they disagree, and gain credit for particular policy gains. This is, of course, an option for future hung parliaments. (Over the last day or so, I have seen some tweets arguing that, in light of David Cameron’s refusal to sign the new EU treaty on fiscal union, the Lib Dems should switch to a confidence and supply arrangement sooner rather than later.)
It wouldn't remove all the potential threats from working with larger parties, however. My home country, New Zealand, has used the mixed member proportional system (MMP) at each general election since 1996. No party has won a parliamentary majority on its own – though prime minister John Key’s (centre right) National Party almost managed it in the general election on 26 November. As a result, the country has seen various types of governing arrangement involving third and minor parties. But look how the minor parties have fared.
- In 1996, New Zealand First (conservative-populist) won 13.3 per cent of the party vote and went into coalition with National. New Zealand First later split and crashed to 4.3 per cent in 1999.
- Following the 1999 election, the (left-leaning) Alliance, with 7.7 percent of the party vote, formed a minority coalition government with Labour (social democrats / social liberals). The Alliance subsequently split into two parties – the Alliance (“bolsheviks”) and Progressives (“mensheviks”). The Alliance won just 1.3 per cent of the vote in 2002.
- After the 2002 election, the Progressives formed a minority coalition government with Labour. They went from 1.7 per cent in 2002 to 1.2 per cent in 2005 and 0.9 per cent in 2008.
- Having won 6.7 per cent of the party vote in 2002, United Future (centrist) pledged to support Labour on matters of confidence and supply, in return to specific policy commitments. In 2005, their vote slumped to 2.7 per cent and, after they signed another confidence and supply arrangement with Labour, 0.9 per cent and one constituency seat in 2008. Then, they entered into a confidence and supply deal with the incoming National government. At this year’s election, United Future held their one seat, because of the long-serving MP’s exemplary constituency record -- and also because of a less than subtle endorsement from Key who suspected, correctly as it turned out, that he may again need a few support partners.
- NZ First won 5.7 per cent in 2005 and entered into a confidence and supply agreement with Labour. In 2008, they won 4.1 per cent, below the 5 per cent threshold and because they won no constituency seats, ended up with no MPs.
- After the 2008 election, (market liberal) ACT’s five MPs entered into a confidence and supply agreement with National, which contained some of their policy priorities. This year, the party won just 1.07 per cent of the vote and their sole successful candidate only won his constituency seat after a controversial endorsement from Key. The party now seems to exist on life support.
- Less predictably, the Maori Party also made a confidence and supply deal with the new National government in 2008, to secure of their policy agenda. But the party split and, after campaigning on the basis of what it achieved in alliance with National, dropped from 5 seats in 2008 down to 3 this year, and lost nearly half its share of the vote.
Well, so much for the myth that PR systems enable the tail to wag the dog! As the veteran political commentator Colin James once said, the tails just keep getting smaller.
Earlier this year, Tim Bale, a political scientist at Sussex University, described what has happened to the New Zealand parties as the “black widow effect”:
The large spider, after having lured the small spider into a trap, does not kill it but lets it escape, at the price of leaving part of itself behind.
Some of the minor parties have been accomplices in their own near-destruction. During the 2008-11 parliament, ACT was racked by splits, scandals, a leadership coup and ended up with none of its sitting MPs seeking re-election. Even so, Bale’s description is all too accurate. The minor parties were all overshadowed by whichever major party they worked with, and were held responsible for the government’s perceived shortcomings. The black widow effect struck, regardless of whether minor parties had entered into a fully fledged coalition or a confidence and supply agreement complete with disputes processes and provisions for agreements to differ with the senior partner.
And, whenever realpolitik pushes and opportunity knocks, they will do deals. With 59 seats in the 121-member parliament, Key needs to assemble a durable majority. This week, ACT and United Future both concluded confidence and supply agreements with National, as well as signing up to National’s “action plan”. The two single MP parties both did well. ACT’s John Banks has scored some spectacular policy wins for his shattered party, including a legal cap on future government spending and a commitment to establish charter schools that compete with existing schools, with funding on a per child basis. He will be a minister outside cabinet. (For the full agreement, click here.)
Peter Dunne of United Future has secured Key’s agreement to progress flexible superannuation and some outdoor recreation issues. He will remain a minister outside cabinet. (For the full agreement, click here.) Both agreements are drafted so as to clearly brand the minor parties’ priorities. But then, so were the parties’ agreements with National in 2008. Once again, the support parties will need to market their policy wins and show potential voters that they have made a difference -- just as they would if their MPs were in cabinet, uner a UK-style coalition.
Key still needs more third party insurance, in case ACT implodes or his own backbenchers become rebellious. The obvious option is the Maori Party, which has unfinished policy business. But the bruised party is thinking carefully how it will work with National this time around. Over the past few days, it has been holding some 20 hui (assemblies) around the country to consider the options: memorandum of understanding (a commitment to work together on specific policy issues; confidence and supply; “relationship agreement” with confidence and supply – and opposition. Overlain with all this has been talk of a partial leadership coup. And there has been plenty of advice on hand about what sort of bargain they should strike.
We’ll soon see where the Maori Party ends up, but a new confidence and supply deal is on the cards. I’m not sure their process for deciding what to do in a hung parliament would be very helpful to the Lib Dems. Where the Maori Party holds hui to thrash out the options, the Lib Dems could use regional conferences -- if they wished. But what seems to work in New Zealand may not be so easily transposed to the UK. New Zealanders now take prolonged post-election negotiations between parties in their strides partly because, apart from what happened in 1996, it’s been clear on election night who will be the prime minister. Based on the experience of 2010, British markets, media and voters demand a much quicker settlement.
Finally, compare the fates of New Zealand’s black widowed parties with that of the Greens. In 2002 and 2005, they promised to abstain on votes of confidence and supply, and effectively gave the Labour-led government a majority. They did ok, scoring 5.3 per cent in 2005 and 6.7 per cent in 2008. In the 2008-11 parliament, the Greens had a “memorandum of understanding” with the National government, to take forward shared policy initiatives, for which the small party was able to take credit. After running a highly successful campaign, the Greens went on to break the 10 per cent barrier at this election, their best showing ever.
The Greens, having spent years on the opposition benches, courted suburban voters with a "green growth" programme and kept a narrow opening to working with National, in an attempt to gain more credibility, more seats and more leverage. They may have another “memorandum of understanding” with Key, but getting any closer to National, when they don’t really need to, would split the party and fracture its support base. The Greens will surely have their time in the sun as the indispensable junior coalition partner in the next Labour-led government. The black widow effect may well strike them too, later on. But they’ll take the chance if it comes. After all, political parties exist to gain power and make a difference.
Thursday, 24 November 2011
Sure enough, in the run up to New Zealand’s general election, to be held this Saturday, National, the lead party in the governing centre-right coalition, has used a “more of the same” narrative, in a soft-focus, reassuring kind of campaign.
But Grimond led his party a generation ago, in an era of two party politics, under first past the post voting. New Zealand in 2011 is political light years away from his political world. One basic difference: my home country uses the mixed member proportional (MMP) voting system. The opposition Labour Party, who started the campaign as much as 20 points behind in the opinion polls, have defied Grimond’s maxim. Their campaign has told many stories, but none of them is really about change.
Take their widely praised campaign opening broadcast. The 20 minute documentary style video re-told the party’s myths, using black and white archive footage to highlight Labour’s beginnings on the West Coast and the achievements of the first Labour government. Free milk in schools, free healthcare, thousands of state home . . . it was all there. (Hey, I was raised on these stories!) The grainy images were a series of cues designed to spark myths (stories) in the minds of the audience. The video was a political version what Annette Simmons calls “values in action” stories. A record is so much powerful than rhetoric.
Labour politicians set out to embody the party’s narrative about itself. Party leader Phil Goff and his 87 year old father Bruce tell the story of how, after the death of Goff's grandfather, a boost in the widow's pension helped the family to survive.
Other Labour MPs told personal, “who I am” stories. Damien O’Connor is well anchored in the West Coast Labour tradition. Jacinda Ardern took us on a drive through her home town of Murupara, a shadow of its former self after the big economic gales of the 1980s and 1990s.(I wonder if someone in Labour’s advertising agency has watched John Major’s famous 1992 drive through Brixton?) And Stuart Nash is the grandson of former Labour prime minister and icon Sir Walter Nash.
But there were no “vision” stories. The video canvassed Labour's plans for a capital gains tax, tax free first $5000 of income, and retaining state owned assets, but on the whole it was policy light.
This is, after all, a party that does not seriously expect to win the election. Labour has been in the polling doldrums since they lost office in 2008. Earlier this week, Roy Morgan found that 49.5% of voters said that New Zealand was heading in the right direction and 31% said it’s heading in the wrong direction.
Even if there is little appetite for change, Labour wants to be a credible contender in 2014. This time, the best way to avoid a wipeout is to shore up and bring out the core vote. Hence the invocation of the party’s myths and legends.
Labour has plenty of policies. They have promised to raise the pension age and to make KiwiSaver compulsory. These are bold and, in many ways, risky stances, but then the party had nothing to lose. And remember, “attracting attention” is the first of Stephen Denning’s key steps for inspiring action.
Labour has not been able to move on to Denning’s next two steps – “stimulate desire for change” and “back it up it with reasons”. Before making the case for the Labour alternative, they needed to tell voters why the National-led government should be sent packing after just one term. The ad attacking National’s economic record contain some killer stats – but they are lists, not stories, and are less memorable as a result. (For a devastatingly effective “case for change” advert from New Zealand’s political history, click here.) Moreover, the tea tape argument – what did National Party PM John Key really say, and why wouldn’t he release the tape – dominated the penultimate weak of the campaign and deprived Labour of media oxygen.
In the final week, with its poll ratings hardly moving, Labour has gone back to its on-going theme – “stop asset sales” - and tried to turn the election into a referendum on National’s unpopular plan to partly privatise four state-owned energy companies and Air New Zealand. That sounds to me like an appeal to cast a protest vote. Labour’s closing broadcast is really another list of policies. And what's with the academic telling everyone how to think?
I'll finish with a brief comment about the Greens, the third party. At the general elections since 1999, between six and nine Green Party MPs have been returned, but they have always sat on the opposition benches. This time, however, the Greens seek greater influence in the new parliament, using a smart new campaign pitch that promises "jobs that work for our environment, our economy and our people . . . for a richer New Zealand”. You’ve got it: it's a positive narrative, about change, rather than a "plague on both your houses".
Monday, 14 November 2011
Leo Barasi has provided some useful context for the Cameron-Osborne "blame Europe" narrative on the economy. Their "blame Labour for the cuts" narrative still has some way to go. But half the country now holds the coalition responsible for the cuts, at least in part. Time for a new story . . .
Friday, 11 November 2011
In the second third of this parliament, the one now beginning, and whose opening will be marked by Osborne's autumn economic statement on 29 November, Britain's economic woes will be laid rather less at Labour's door and rather more at that of the eurozone. That's why Cameron and Osborne are now constructing a very obvious narrative of continental European failure, from which Britain is thankfully (as they depict it) exempt, but which nevertheless continues to put the UK economy at risk.
In some ways, blaming Europe is not as easy as blaming Labour. Labour is a stationary target, and both coalition parties can unite in dumping on it. Europe, by contrast, is a moving target that divides the coalition parties and emphasises their differences. But the political beauty for the Conservatives of blaming Europe is big. It goes down well with Tory activists. It allows Cameron and Osborne to frame their engagement with the EU as candid friends and it chimes with public opinion. And in particular it provides a ready-made and not entirely specious excuse for the failure of the government's economic strategy in the first third of the parliament.
In today's Guardian, Martin Kettle has a very perceptive article about the Cameron-Osborne narrative that "Europe is to blame" for Britain's economic woes.
Kettle's analysis picks up on the main purposes of political narratives. He brings out how they work.
First, narratives provide an account and an explanation for current problems, complete with heroes and, more importantly, fall guys and villains.
Second, they enable listeners to frame options for the future and work out what they need to do next -- in this case, to keep giving the coalition, or more importantly, the Conservative component, the benefit of the doubt.
"Blame Europe" has many of the properties of a successful narrative. It's easy to grasp and not completely implausible. And it plays to an emotional reflex that is very familiar to a large section - almost certainly a majority - of the British public.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats will have a hard time grappling with this narrative. Labour's best bet will be to pin the blame for Britain's economic problems on Cameron and Osborne and to argue that they have not kept us out of the Eurozone crisis.
Nick Clegg will have little choice but to blame the former Labour government -- unless he wants to recast his party's storylines about the EU. But will the public have moved on by 2015?
Tuesday, 8 November 2011
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, has called on “the environmental movement” to rethink the way it engages with climate scepticism. He told Business Green that following years of "pious alarmism”, green NGOs and businesses should develop a more "prosaic" argument for action on climate change based around its costs and benefits. He went on to say that climate hawks should equate action to cut emissions with the insurance that households and businesses buy but rarely use.
"[People] spend money on house insurance and car insurance and life insurance, and, if what is overwhelmingly likely to happen and your car is not broken into or your house does not burn down or you don't die, it is money poured down the drain," he said.
"Even if you are a climate change sceptic, you surely think the chances of manmade global warming happening are probably a bit higher than your house burning down tomorrow.
"So you do not have to believe all the worst case scenarios on climate change to think it is worth doing what we do as a family and spend a bit of money and make a few changes just to ensure that something catastrophic does not happen."
Matthew Taylor’s criticisms of some green campaigners struck a chord with me. I agree with him that the “insurance frame” is a very useful way of neutralising “climate sceptics” or, more likely, engaging with “climate neutrals”.
But let's not get too carried away. The “insurance frame” will not, on its own, build the political space needed for measures of the magnitude needed to meet the UK’s existing climate targets. These include, for example, securing £200bn of private sector investment in energy infrastructure by 2020; substantially decarbonising electricity by 2030; and increasing investment in renewable power generation.
Over the next few years, the government and climate hawks will need to advocate and defend low carbon policies against a backdrop of rising power prices and tighter household budgets.
Prosaic arguments won’t cut it.