National's Plunging Cleavage. (Opinion/ Politics)

By James, Colin | New Zealand Management, November 2002 | Go to article overview

National's Plunging Cleavage. (Opinion/ Politics)


James, Colin, New Zealand Management


How does a party go about assembling a solid voting base when the old "social cleavage" no longer decides loyalties? By values.

Elections used to be fought on the pocket book, a galaxy of economic issues to do with incomes, taxes and benefits. And those issues still are important. But now, as Australian Labour party front-bencher Mark Latham points out, "political culture" plays a large part.

"Society is not just a set of economic relationships. It is also a dense network of personal relationships, the human emotions and connections that give us a sense of social identity," Latham said recently. "When people share these experiences collectively, they also start to build a set of shared values and norms. This process often crosses economic and class boundaries."

This is the politics of values--a challenging sort of politics for everyone in the game, but particularly for the old parties, Labour and National.

ACT cottoned on to it in the mid-1990s, with the slogan, "Values. Not politics." It dropped the slogan in this year's election, thereby implicitly recognising that ACT's leadership has long since practised politics, not values, though that has begun to turn around.

Latham sees values politics as a "culture war" between "insiders"--the social and political establishments of left and right--and"outsiders"--suburban dwellers "who feel disenfranchised by social change".

"Insiders" are at ease in the globalised world, living an "abstract lifestyle" which leads to an "abstract style of politics" (ACT's theoretical neoliberalism versus Labour's or Alliance's social liberalism).

"Outsiders" live in the here and now of immediate issues needing practical solutions. Their votes are driven "by pragmatic beliefs".

Latham reckons parties of the right in Australia have been better at winning votes in these values contests, "not because [those parties'] values are the right ones for society but because they are more comfortable and experienced in this sort of debate. During a time of social anxiety, the conservative call for order ... offers people respite from the consequences of disorder."

Apply this to the 2002 election here. New Zealand doesn't have a conservative John Howard proclaiming his championship of the suburban "battlers" and winning an improbable third term on a refugee scare. We have Helen Clark, champion of political correctness and the "abstract" discourse that Latham says can't win elections. …

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