Bryce Edwards

Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at University of Otago

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: August 15

David Shearer. Photo / Kellie Blizard.
David Shearer. Photo / Kellie Blizard.

Should politicians lead political debate or follow it? Do political parties best serve democracy by 'listening to the people' or by articulating their own vision? These are two distinct approaches to the role of party politics, and it's worth keeping them in mind when following the ongoing online discussion over Labour's political direction. That debate continues unabated at the moment, despite David Shearer's (rather late) attempts to impose some leadership and discipline on his caucus. For the best summary of this, see Claire Trevett's Shearer warns MPs: Stop these sideshows.

The different political approaches boil down, according to political scientists, to whether politicians and parties should be 'preference-shapers' or 'preference-takers'. Much of the debate around the Labour Party - and all New Zealand parties - occurs within a mindset that assumes that political parties are 'hostages' of the fixed ideological preferences of voters. Rob Salmond epitomises this, as does the Pagani approach. This pragmatic view says that the vast majority of voters are centrist and therefore parties must cater to their ideological preferences.

Parties do not exist to put forward policies to change the world, but to respond to the views of the electorate.

There is a very different view of politics and the role of political parties. One where political parties represent particular ideological and sectional interests and put forward ideological programmes that they truly believe in. The parties (and their politicians) then seek to convince voters of the rightness of those policies. This model believes that the ideological preferences of the public are far from fixed and are shaped by the actions of political parties. Parties are not hostages to centrist voters at all, but instead they have a role in convincing those voters of ideas outside of the swampy mush of the middle of the political spectrum.

The professionalisation of politics pushes the first approach. Winning popular support is the name of the game and it is far easier to pander to existing views and prejudices than change or shape them. The fact that nearly all great political leaders and historic political achievements are a result of the latter approach is irrelevant to those poring over the latest focus group transcripts. This point is well made by Danyl Mclauchlan in his blogpost More armchair strategizing. He points out that while many voters like to consider themselves in the 'centre', their actual views on issues like taxation are considerably to the left: 'my hypothesis is that the National Party is really good at advocating for its core values. They didn't look at this chart and think, 'well, we need to win the center so let's endorse Labour's policies of taxation and state spending because they're popular with voters', they thought 'we need to get out and make the case for a low tax economy with less government, because that's what we believe in'.

On the same theme, Jimmy Reid at The Standard believes that the core is missing from Labour's strategy: 'You can't get people to think about policy unless they buy into the project. What is missing from Shearer at the moment is the articulation of Labour values. The articulation of a vision' - see: The wrong conversation.

Articulating a vision means leaving out the 'dog whistle' communication says Mike Smith - the strategy of sending coded messages that play to prejudices that politicians don't want to be seen to be overtly supporting - e.g. racial prejudice or, say, beneficiary bashing - see: Dog-whistling. Smith is worried that more is on the way with a rumoured undermining of teacher unions planned by Shearer in the near future.

There are alternatives to such tactics according to a post on the blog, Ideologically Impure - see: My struggle with Labour. Here it is argued that 'It should be easy for Labour to say, the needs of teachers and the needs of parents are the same thing: a great school system for our kids. Teachers don't want to see kids failing - who could ever want to see kids fail? Parents and teachers aren't enemies, they can work together towards a common goal'.

Of course there is another view that is even more challenging to Labour activists. The reality is that the last two Labour governments were, respectively, rightwing and centrist. Many of the progressive gains that Labour trumpets from the Clark-led era were either directly or indirectly the result of external pressure from coalition partners on the left. When that pressure was removed towards the end, Labour drifted, achieving little except power for its own sake. A centrist strategy probably doesn't reflect the party's activists or core support base, but it does reflect what their MPs deliver when in government.
In the meantime, Tova O'Brien reports Cunliffe shaves the beard - should Shearer be worried? and TV3 has a video of how Labour MPs react to anti-Cunliffe claims.

Other important or interesting political items today include:

• The Law Commission's Harmful Digital Communications report on cyber-bullying has the support of those struggling with youth suicide and school bullying but has some worried. New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties member Thomas Beagle writes in the NBR that the creation of new offences and bodies with the power of censorship is always a worry: 'it is proposed to make something illegal on the internet that wouldn't be illegal if it was published in some other way. Does it really make sense that the same message might be legal on a billboard in the middle of Auckland but illegal if it was then posted to the Trademe Forums? - see: Rushed cyberbullying proposals doomed to fail. David Farrar raises similar concerns and gives his views on all the major proposals - see: A Communications Tribunal for the Internet?

• Farrar also blogs about how the proposed MMP changes will affect National. Although they may well have prevented National holding power since 1996 if implemented then, he thinks the proposed changes will actually be to National's advantage in the future - see: The politics of the proposed MMP changes. The Electoral Commission has failed to justify its proposal for a 4% threshold says Pete George - see: Strong case for 3% MMP threshold.

• Debate over whether teachers and doctors should be compelled by law to report suspected child abuse or neglect has resulted from the release of submissions to the Government's Green Paper on Vulnerable Children reports Simon Collins - see: Information-sharing to protect children has popular support. The Police see the issue differently, saying 'the main problem was inadequate resources to respond to reports'

• The Government is accused of rushing through a select committee report on the asset sales to avoid admitting the accuracy of a report showing publicly owned power company prices were cheaper than those of privately owned generators -see Adam Bennett's Ministers dismiss energy pricing analysis.

• A vote on reform of alcohol laws is likely next week - see John Hartevelt's MPs to vote on alcohol purchase age.

• Fran O'Sullivan says Chinese get message: We're open for business, but the Greens and other opposition parties are sending out a very different message when it comes to land purchases - see APNZ's Farmland foreign ownership bill to be discussed.

• There is a distinct waning of support for our role in Afghanistan says Russell Brown - see: The question of Afghanistan becomes more urgent.

• Finally, while John Key may think his son's baseball match is headline material in New Zealand, Nicholas Jones has helpfully compiled a list of possibly bigger headlines the PM may have missed while watching the game - see: Key goes in to bat for 'big news' NZ sport.

- NZ Herald

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