The beliefs of New Zealand’s political parties can generally be distilled into a principle or two…. except for National, who don’t really stand for anything. I think this helps them, because when you don’t stand for a principle, you can’t really disappoint.
Labour stand for equality, the Greens stand for conservation, and New Zealand First stand for, well, putting New Zealanders first. The Māori Party stand for indigenous rights, the Conservatives stand for conservatism, and Act stands for the freedom to marry and eat dead babies (and libertarianism).
But what do National stand for? Perhaps ‘common-sense’, although that’s not very audacious. Or in the case of the Key government, maybe ‘optimism’- but that’s more a disposition than a principle. They’re too statist to claim they stand for ‘freedom’, like right-wing parties overseas.
This works to their advantage because the problem with standing for a principle is that you can fail to act in accordance with it. For example, when David Cunliffe tried to talk about inequality by raising John Key’s house in Parnell, he looked like a hypocrite. When Green MP Mojo Mathers flew to a radio interview, she was accused of not being conservationist. National rarely face accusations of this kind because they don’t stand for anything. Also, it’s fairly clear when something departs from equality or conservation. It is difficult to reach consensus about when something is inconsistent with ‘Common-sense’.
Standing for a principle can energise some voters, but I’m not convinced Kiwis as a whole are swayed by principle-driven campaigning. If Obama arose in New Zealand I suspect we would all be slightly embarrassed by his soaring rhetoric and vision. National seem to know this, and play it nice and safe as a result.
So how should the Left respond to this? Should we adopt a light touch in regard to principle? I wouldn’t go that far, but there is something to be said for being tactical in how we prioritise the principles we espouse. I believe the Left should consider prioritising principles that enable progressive change while still resonating with the political centre. That is not to say that we should replace existing guiding principles. Rather, they can benefit the Left if prioritised effectively.
Advancing equality as your guiding principle is tough, especially when it requires more than just a law change. But equality can be tweaked and turned into ‘fairness’, which is less problematic. It can be deeply progressive, while at the same time being very hard for the Right to oppose.
Unsurprisingly, I also think ‘conservation’ is a great principle too, as I have stated in several previous blogs. Conservation neatly merges hostility to change, an impulse to protect, and appreciation of New Zealand. It can also provide a vehicle for progressive policy.
Another potential principle that no one on the Left seems to prioritise is ‘valuing family’. I believe the Left has given up the argument on family too easily because it carries undertones of the patriarchal nuclear family, and is strongly associated with conservatism. But ‘valuing family’ has immensely broad and deep emotional appeal. By this I mean a lot of people care about family, and those people care about family a lot. Furthermore, ‘valuing family’ as a political principle can be the basis of progressive policy ranging from guaranteed minimum income and welfare programmes to immigration reform (‘uniting parents and their children’). This is especially the case when one adopts a non-traditional conception of the family.
These are just three possible principles that could benefit the Left. I’ll have more to say on the Left’s lack of use of ‘valuing family’ in another post.