Sunday, December 4, 2011

Mike Butler: The no-vote protest vote

Why did the losers lose in last week’s general election? Labour leader-in-departure Phil Goff says it was not their time, and Shane Jones wants to know why three out of every four voters thought Team Goff was unfit to govern. Nearly 300,000 voters deserted Labour between 2005 and 2011 (1) voting with their feet against the Clark-Cullen leadership and Team Goff, plus the policies that went with them.

What were Goff’s unpopular policies? You don’t have to look far to see what went wrong. He promoted a capital gains tax on all property excluding the family home, a policy that former Labour leader David Lange warned would not only lose one election, but would lose the next three.

Goff promised an extra $70-$80 a week to beneficiaries by extending Working for Families eligibility at a time when people who are working cannot fathom why those on benefits – including sole parents – should not be obliged to look for work. Goff’s willingness to extend poverty and deepen the welfare trap prompted welfare commentator Lindsay Mitchell to warn that he should never be allowed to get anywhere near the levers of power.

Goff’s opposition to the partial privatisation of some government assets could have been more successful if the rest of his house was in order. A trawl through Labour policy reveals further ineffective and unpopular party ideas. (2)

Why was the voter turnout so low? Just 73 per cent of enrolled voters cast a vote in Saturday's general election compared with 79 per cent in 2008. Around one million eligible people didn’t vote.

The view that voters stayed away because polls predicted the National Party could govern alone overlooks a wider reality that many feel the electoral process has nothing to do with them. It’s the “don’t vote, governments always win” way of thinking. There is also the view that people who don’t vote are lodging a protest vote.

There is much to protest about, but the most obnoxious aspect of our political system is that the politicians act as if they know best. MMP brought lists of MPs who owe their loyalty to the party hierarchy rather than to an electorate. This led to MPs feeling proud to represent the party line to the electorate, a view expressed by dumped Labour list MP Stuart Nash, Napier, in the Hawke’s Bay Today newspaper. Voters are not silly, and don’t like being dictated to, and many of us believe we live in a representative democracy, founded on the principle of elected individuals representing the people, and not the other way around.

There is also the view that the successful, skilled, and motivated individuals who make it into parliament become well-paid muppets who exist solely to vote for policies created by the politicians who dominate Cabinet, currently John Key, Bill English, Gerry Brownlee, Steven Joyce, and Murray McCully.

Well-paid means very well paid. A backbench MP earns $141,800, the leader of the opposition and Cabinet ministers $257,800, and the prime minister $411,500. All these people are well into the top 10 percent. A bit hypocritical for Goff and other Labour trolls to claim to be speaking for the poor and downtrodden, don’t you think?

Unions are members of the Labour Party, with significant powers and control Labour’s list. Left-wing blogger Chris Trotter said: “It was the block-votes of the trade union affiliates which kept Helen Clark’s political machine ticking over so reliably for the 15 long years it controlled the party.” (3)

Trotter noted that since in the private sector workforce barely one worker in 10 is unionised, “the days when unions constituted a genuinely representative social, economic and political force are long gone”. Union leaders are elected by a few score of hand-picked delegates at an annual conference. “What were formerly the powerhouses of working-class democracy; and the generators of workers’ power; have become self-selecting oligarchies”.

This is how it works, according to National Party pollster David Farrar, who wrote on Kiwiblog, on December 3, 2011, that: “The Labour Party rules give significant power to unions that join Labour. There are five unions that have affiliated and they have 75,719 members between them. Their voting strength is based on what percentage of their members voted to affiliate. This info is not public but let us assume it is 75% on average which gives them 55,000 notional members.

"Those 55,000 notional members are divided up amongst the 70 electorates based on the Labour Party vote (ie if an electorate gets 2 percent of the overall Labour Party vote, then the union voting strength in that electorate is 2 percent of 55,000 or 1100 notional members. On average 55,000/70 is 785 members per electorate. As you can imagine, this is vastly more than the actual number of individual members. Based on current union numbers and assuming a 75 percent voting strength, the average electorate committee would have unions entitled to 14 delegates on the LEC – EPMU 6, SWFU 4, DWU 2, RMU 1, MU 1. The maximum size of an LEC is 30 members so at an electorate level unions can easily dominate should they wish to.” (4)

Farrar said that National does not allow businesses (or associations of businesses) to join the National Party, to vote at conferences, to help rank the party list and to vote at candidate selections, and noted that you could “imagine the outcry if National had a representative from Business NZ sitting on its list ranking committee”.

Labour West Coast electorate MP Damien O’Connor, who controversially characterised his party as “a gaggle of gays and unionists”, comfortably beat West Coast-Tasman MP Chris Auchinvole, National, by 2287 votes, reversing their 2008 election result and going against the country's tide of support for National. The voters backed his views!

With just 48 percent of enrolled Maori voters turning out last week, Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia is greatly concerned, although she should be more concerned that her party only captured 1.4 percent of the party vote. If you add in Hone Harawira’s Mana Party’s 1 percent, the total 2.4 percent share shows their influence far outweighs their actual support. They owe their existence to the anachronistic Maori seats.

If Turia applied some accurate thought and linked voter turnout with policies she has promoted, such as whanau ora separate welfare, signing up to the Declaration of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, pushing for a treaty-based constitution, and facilitating sweetheart deals with tribal corporations, the message is staring at her in the face -- that her party has failed to capture the imagination of Maori voters.

If she would step back a bit further, she would realise that the concerns of Maori voters are not separate and distinct. They are the concerns of everyone – jobs, health, education – and the government she was in coalition with has had minimal success on all three.

Voters have given the National Party another three years to see if they can do any better. While its leadership contest plays out, the Labour Party cannot claim to be an opposition. And the message is clear for all politicians – one million voters did not see anything worth voting for.

1. Labour must wield knife to be in shape for voters, NZ Herald, December 3, 2011.
3. Rebuilding Labour without the unions, Chris Trotter, December 2, 2011.
4. Trotter calls for an end to unions joining Labour, David Farrar, December 3, 2011.

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