The Agony of Defeat.

Well, it was a grim morning of the day after in my household on Sunday. The evil-doers prevailed and the forces of righteousness and progress were soundly spanked, with the exception of a formerly progressive party that now has gone managerial as it mainstreams to the political centre. Sure, there were some points of solace in the otherwise dark landscape of electoral outcomes, but overall the egalitarian side of the NZ political spectrum got hammered.

But all is not lost. In the scheme of things, this was not the worst election defeat I have experienced as a voter. For me, as an ex-pat Yank, that dubious honor rests with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The idea that someone who epitomized prejudice, elitism, ignorance, racism, war-mongering, corporate-backed chickhawk cowardice and the utter insipidness of campaign promises could defeat a decent fellow such as Jimmy Carter actually made me fear for basic freedoms and civil rights in that country. Sure, it was not as bad as living through coups or revolutions in Latin America, where losers in the regime change had very real reason to fear for their lives. But is was as close as I have felt in a democracy to being politically at risk as a result of an election. That feeling was reaffirmed a few months later when Reagan was shot, where the response on the working class African American street where I lived was to “hope that a brother did not do it.” Such was the tone of the times that we worried more about the backlash then the fact that the president was almost killed off (and boy, were we relieved when it turned out to be a white nutter who fired the shots).

I felt nearly as bad when W. Bush was fraudulently installed as president after losing the US popular vote in 2000. However, by that time I had moved to NZ and did not have to worry about directly suffering the consequences of yet another silver spoon-fed corporate chickenhawk imperialist stealing his way into power. But I feared for what he was about to wreak on the US (where my family and close friends live) and the world at large. A decade later the proof of his folly is everywhere to be seen. Helen Clark was right: things would have been different had Al Gore rightfully been awarded the 2000 election. But all that is water under the bridge and the person copping the most flak in the aftermath is Barack Obama. Talk about inheriting a mess!

Given that backdrop I am not catatonic because the currency speculator and his band of money-grubbing bullies have been re-elected under the banner of “stability.” It could be worse, and I am thankful that when compared to the US, the bulk of the NZ political spectrum is less reactionary or retrograde. Even so, with expanded anti-terrorism laws and powers of search, surveillance and seizure all passed by the National government in recent years (something that went unnoticed in the buildup to the election), I can see encroaching authoritarianism in its second term. One only has to watch the Prime Minister’s response to hard questions to see his sense of arrogance and entitlement on display. This is a guy who is used to getting his way, however he can, without much regard for the consequences except with respect to his corporate peers. So regardless of public opinion, the PM will push his asset sales agenda, will continue to suck up to both the US and the Chinese while pursuing trade for trade’s sake, and will play as loose with the rules of the democratic game as his weakened opposition will allow him.  And by playing divide and conquer with the Maori Party and the Greens, he could well get his way across the board.

I take solace in the fact that electoral defeats are the lifeblood of democratic politics. It is not so much what the victor does after an election. It is how the losers respond that makes the difference. Losing allows parties to remove the sclerosis from their ranks and rejuvenate both personnel and policy platforms. Losing allows parties to reinvigorate in opposition. Losing forces parties to explore new policy options and ideological possibilities. Should Labour understand this simple law of democratic politics, it can regroup and compete more effectively in three years. If it does not, we could be saddled with the corporate-cuddling cabal for a third term. The question is: does Labour have it within itself to make the serious changes required for it to have relevance in the years forward?

I do see the Green Party vote increase as a positive sign even if its support is coming from disaffected Labour voters more than anywhere else. Between the Greens and Labour there is still a solid 35-37 percent of the vote, figures that could grow should National’s economic policies continue the trend of growing income disparities, elite enrichment, environmental degradation and foreign control. Since voter turnout was so low this year, a mere rise in those who vote in 2014 is bound to increase support for the Left (such as it is) because people tend to vote when they are unhappy about the status quo (apathy such as that seen in this year’s election had less to do with serious discontent and more to do with complacency and belief in a foregone outcome). Thus this moment of defeat is a ripe time for Labour to undertake the necessary changes required to come back and compete successfully in 2014. That means a major leadership shuffle as well as policy change away from the “National-lite” pro-market stance it has maintained for nearly 20 years. In other words, it needs to turn back Left, both in terms of recapturing a class line as well as more sincerely embracing post-modern progressive causes.

I do not claim any particular expertise in NZ politics and this ramble was merely sparked by my reflection on which electoral defeats were the worst for me as a voter in a democratic country. But I do think that one big redeeming feature of liberal democracy, no matter how manufactured, manipulated and corrupted it has become, is that losers are allowed to compete again at regular intervals, which gives them the opportunity to engage the internal reforms that will allow them to emerge from the ashes of even a catastrophic defeat in a better condition to win down the road. This holds true not only for the biggest loser in this year’s election, Labour, but also for such parties as ACT. After all, Winston Peters has shown that even political mummies can be resurrected without being reconstituted, so there is hope yet for even the smallest losers this time around.

3 thoughts on “The Agony of Defeat.

  1. Love the colourful language in this piece… “silver spoon-fed corporate chickenhawk imperialist” is a great description for George W.

    Before this election I though that if Labour got anything under 30% then they were out for 2014 as well, but now I’m not so sure. Their chances will largely rest on how well they can recapture the left vote and how sharply National declines.

    John Key’s arrogance and sense of entitlement has indeed been increasingly on display, and will serve to discredit the constructed Brand Key persona in the minds of many people. This will amplify over the next three years, for two main reasons. Firstly, the media will stop being so compliant and put him under more pressure, which he may not react well to (the teapot tapes fiasco could come to form something of a tipping point in the relationship). Secondly, he’ll be leading a government that will be doing more and more stuff that could annoy people. Helen Clark and Labour found out that the longer they were in power, the more likely people would find some policy that they didn’t like, and turn against them. The same thing will happen for National, and their support will degrade over time. And this says nothing of big ticket issues like asset sales / mixed ownership model, which could see isolated sharp declines in support when brought in. For me the question is not whether National’s support will decline over the next three years, but whether it will decline far enough to give Labour a shot in 2014.

    As for Labour, yes, now is the time to undertake the necessary changes, but what are those necessary changes? Goff is gone, but to be honest none of the possible replacements stand out from the rest at this stage. I broadly agree though, that a clear turn to the left is the best course of action. We saw elements of this in the campaign, with talk of creating “a fairer society” and references back to the Micky Savage days. The strong reaction to the documentary on child poverty, which aired during the campaign, gives an indication at least that this could be electorally feasible. National regained their support under Don Brash by swinging to the right, and Labour could well do the same by re-embracing their socialist roots and swinging to the left. This could be good for New Zealand society and (perhaps more rarely) good for Labour electorally. It could also mean a really stark contrast between the two main parties at the next election (and the dawn of a new age of another strongly reformist Labour government, though this may be wishful thinking on my part…).

  2. A nice use of poetic embellishment in a most excellent post, which is far more than a ramble Pablo.

    I think the main problem that Labour faces is that the marginalized poor who are least likely to vote will be targeted once again by National because they lean towards the left. I don’t think the leadership issue is all that relevant in terms of Labours preference to stand on a policy platform instead of a cult of personality. Although a certain amount of showmanship is required… it is media bias and a very low turnout that has put National ahead. Countering that is the crux of the matter.

  3. The post was written a bit tongue-in-cheek, hence the rhetorical flourishes. But the underlying issues are valid: some electoral defeats are worse than others, and all electoral defeats provide losing parties with an opportunity for regeneration.

    As the 5th Labour govt showed, winning continuously leads to policy and personal sclerosis. No one wants to rock the boat, leaders sit on the status quo and squash independent thought and initiatives from below, and the rot sets in. The genius of democracy, as an exercise in bounded institutional uncertainty, is that it gives losers regular opportunities to compete again. This not only makes for increased levels of accountability amongst winners (at least theoretically), but allows–in fact, provides a reason for–losing parties to break out of the organizational doldrums in which they are mired. The worse the defeat the ore the reason for whole-scale changes in policy and personnel.

    Labour did not use the 2008-11 period to that end and paid the price this past weekend. It now has conclusive proof that it must do so. But given the dearth of talent on the back benches and the list, it is an open question whether it can accomplish the task quick enough to be seriously competitive in 2014. If the Greens continue to drain support away from Labour, then more misery awaits it in 3 years (which of course means that Labour has to try and regain some of the ground lost to the Greens as well as put up a coherent counter-platform to the National govt).

    Given the leadership contest at this early stage, it does not appear that Labour have fully embraced the need for serious internal change, the vocalizations of some of the contenders notwithstanding.

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