Quickly, Bryson became the dominant narrative surrounding the Gender Recognition debate.
The sexual violence committed by this individual was horrendous. Further, it is understandable that many were concerned that she was sent to a women’s prison given this violence.
Isla Bryson does not represent the entire Trans community. This statement is not controversial and should be self-evident. Yet the reporting and debate surrounding this case and the broader issue of gender recognition in the UK illustrate that this is not well understood. Or, certain people in power, with willing allies in the media, are happy to frame the story in this way for their own political interest.
This is not just a story about Scottish devolution. Whilst this controversy will have contributed to Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation as First Minister, this is not the key issue. This is not just about an ongoing culture war in western society, specifically gender and so-called identity politics, though this is clearly part of the story. This is about something far more critical.
This debate is about every teenager, anywhere in the world, questioning their gender and sexual identity. This is about the person who after years of suffering, at some point in their lives decides they wish to identify as having a gender identity different to that of their birth.
This debate is about the awful statistics published in a Stonewall report in 2017 showing that:
● 92% of trans young people have thought about taking their own life; ● 84% of trans young people have self-harmed; and ● 45% of trans young people have tried to take their own life.
Recent moves to allow the trans community more rights and recognition have been met with opposition. Some of it is nothing more than prejudice and fear. But there is also an important debate to be had about gender and feminism, a debate which to date has been polarising and gets easily dismissed as a ‘culture war’.
TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) is a term used to describe Germaine Greer, J K Rowling or other feminists who are critical of self-ID and other policies which allow people born as males to identify as women. Some of the comments made by these individuals and other TERF feminists have lacked compassion towards the trans community and understandably caused outrage. Some of the responses to these TERF’s has at times also been harsh.
We live in a world where people are socially conditioned to live and act in certain ways due to the gender of their birth. There are biological differences between men and women, yet society places considerable expectations on the role one must play in life based on this. For example, the idea historically that women were homemakers or were more suited to nurturing. Men my contrast are expected to show strength, not show emotions and be the “breadwinner” for the family.
Historically, and still today other societies have viewed gender differently to western society. For example, matriarchal societies continue to exist in parts of the world. In Samoa, the Fa’afafine non-binary or third gender has traditionally been part of their culture.
In our society, we have for centuries lived as a patriarchal, male-dominated culture. It is only just over a century ago that women were given the vote. Within the last half-century that same-sex relationships were decriminalised, and same-sex marriages were legally recognised. While there has been social change, we cannot pretend that old conservative attitudes towards gender and sexuality do not still dominate much of society. It should be no surprise that attempts to change gender recognition laws will be met with resistance.
We also need to understand where some of this opposition comes from. Whilst for many, opposition to trans rights is from a place or fear or lack of understanding. But there are also many who fear what many happen if someone born as a male, can identify as a women, and enter women-only safe spaces.
Figures from Rape Crisis show that one in four women have experienced rape or sexual assault in their life. Women are disproportionately more likely to be victims of domestic violence and homicide. The vast majority of these crimes are committed by men towards women. It is in this context that some fear men being able to identify as women, and why the Isla Bryson case, resulting in such a strong public backlash.
Of course, many of the horrendous statistics on rape and assault of women are as bad and often worse for the trans community. Where are the safe spaces for the trans community? Why should only someone who is a women by birth have access to things like women’s toilets?
The argument goes that the experience of someone born a women is not the same as that of someone who is trans. Except, not all people born women, or men, have the same experience living as that gender. The problem is, our society still has quite a rigid gender binary structure. Over the last century, this has been challenged and moved to an extent but is still largely intact.
It is easy to dismiss this discussion and debate as liberal wokism. For conservatives, both big C and small c, this all feels like a distraction about a small minority. The tendency is to either ignore the debate or use it to divide political opponents, as recently occurred in Scotland.
From a human rights perspective, we should be aiming to build a society where people are not forced to live within strict gender identities, determined by their sex at birth. Should someone wish to change their gender, they should be supported and made to feel safe and loved.
At the same time we cannot ignore voices who fear unintended consequences of reforms. Trans women competing in women sport or men identifying as women potentially committing crimes against women. These issues are not straight forward. The root of the problem is that our structures remain still very binary in terms of gender, and changing this is not easy. Creating safe spaces for people who are non-binary would certainly help, be it in sport or creating safe spaces.
At present, this debate continues to polarise and quickly inflame, with little really improving. For the 14 year old current questioning their gender identity, this debate must add to their stress and confusion considerably. It is for them, and anyone else struggling with their gender identity, that we must now try to move this debate onto human rights.
Cyclone Gabrielle is the second major weather event New Zealand has suffered in the last month. At the end of January, just days after Chris Hipkins becoming Prime Minister, Auckland, the country’s biggest city faced major flooding. This was not only the first major test of Hipkins as Prime Minister but also of the recently elected Auckland mayor Wayne Brown.
It would be unfair to claim that Mayor Brown has no previous political experience. 15 years ago he served one term as mayor of the Far North District, and prior to this had been a member of the Auckland District Health Board. But primarily, Brown’s experience was in the private sector as an engineer and property developer.
Brown’s election as mayor in October 2022 ended 12 years of Labour dominance of the Auckland mayoralty. The election of a right-of-centre mayor in New Zealand’s largest city was seen as an indication of what might happen nationally in the 2023 General Election.
After the Auckland flood, Wayne Brown’s election will now be viewed as a cautionary tale. What can happen when someone who is inexperienced and unsuited to political office is elected to important political leadership roles. The blowback of this on the New Zealand right should not be understated, it is bad news for them.
The key criticism of Brown was that he was slow to declare a state of emergency in Auckland. During the crisis said to one journalist that “it was not his job to rush out with blankets.” In a text, to friends, Brown complained that he could not play tennis during the weekend of the floods as he “had to deal with media drongos over the flooding.”
Probably the most cringe-worthy moment was the joint media conference the Mayor did with the Prime Minister and two other Government Ministers. Brown was defensive and sounded out of his depth, whilst Chris Hipkins sounded like a Prime Minister.
I first met Chris Hipkins back in 1998 at a fundraiser for the Rimutaka (now Remutaka) Labour Party at the now-closed Plates Restaurant. He had been head boy at Petone College and led the campaign opposing the closure of his old school the by then Tory Government. Slightly older than me, Chris was VUWSA President a few years before me. Living in London at the time, he kept in contact and gave useful advice whilst I was President – including once when he reminded me that it was Saturday night in New Zealand, so I should go out and have fun instead of worrying about the Students’ Association budget.
After Student politics, Chris spent a brief spell in the private sector before working in parliament as an advisor to Helen Clark’s Government. In 2008 he became an MP and quickly was promoted to Labour’s opposition front bench. After Labour came to power in 2017, Chris has served in various senior Ministerial roles.
One of the big criticisms of ‘career politicians’ is that they do not have enough experience outside of parliament. It is true that within a parliamentary democracy, it is important to have diversity and people from different backgrounds. The same is true within the cabinet. However, the Prime Minister is in a political leadership role, the most senior politician in the country. Experience in politics is crucial, and it is something that Chris Hipkins has.
The implications of all this for the NZ Leader of the Opposition, Christopher Luxon, are not great. Luxon, a first-term MP elected to parliament in October 2020 wishes to be New Zealand’s Prime Minister in October. His experience prior to 2020 is in the private sector, most notably as CEO of Air New Zealand.
Having worked in and with the private sector through my company Piko, I accept that there are transferable skills from private sector leadership roles through to political leadership. But there are differences. In government, there is a need to manage ambiguity, much more so than when managing a company. There are far more competing priorities, all of which can have a profound impact on people’s lives. And when things get really tough, like during the COVID-19 pandemic, business leaders rely on the state for support. Therefore it falls to Government in a time of crisis to make the tough calls.
Diversity in politics is important. Yet on the right, the call isn’t for diversity. Instead what is often called for is people with “business experience”. CEO of big companies, high net-worth individuals who have done well on the money markets and other c-suite executives. Transferable skills from this sector can well help in political leadership roles, but these alone are not enough, other skills and experiences are needed to be a success.
By contrast, working as a parliamentary staffer, or in the public service, is viewed as being at risk of government groupthink. Worse, that promotion may be through nepotism rather than ability. There is always a risk of these things but has also worked with the public service and in parliament, it would be easy to overstate this risk. What you do get in these roles is close exposure to how the machinery of government works. My work in the British parliament over the last three years has taught me this. Parliamentary staff role offer valuable experience for anyone in a senior political role.
The Auckland floods and the current cyclone have highlighted the importance of political experience. Chris Hipkins, having served as a Minister during The Christchurch Mosque Terror Attack, COVID-19 and the cost of living increase is no stranger to a political crisis. He and his team instinctively know how to respond, when to open the emergency Beehive Bunkerand how to communicate clearly to a worried public during these difficult times.
The events in the last few weeks have highlighted that in politics, actual political experience really counts.
Shortly after I started as a bus driver at Go Wellington as a Bus Driver I recall overhearing drivers talking about the company changing shifts to reduce drivers’ overtime pay. One driver, a former bank teller believed the problem was the union leadership. In his view what the Tramways Union needed was “a smartly dressed lawyer in a suit and with a good haircut to come and sort everything out.” Instead of this, the drivers ended up with me as their union president, no suits but I did eventually get a haircut. More importantly, what drivers got was a democratic union where drivers stood together and improved their pay and conditions.
The Great man of history theory is nothing new and has been quite seriously rebuffed by historians for many years. In Leo Tolstoy‘s War and Peace he firmly rejected the “great man” (and when he wrote this in the 1860s, it was men who were being written about), a theory claiming that in fact, they are only “history’s slaves.”
Yet, much of history is still written about and from the perspective of our leaders. In politics, it is a truism that leadership is of paramount importance, yet few can really define what ‘leadership’ really is. The common features tend to be personal strength, decision-making powers, bringing together and managing a team, the ability to communicate, and in effect being the human embodiment of a political ideal or movement. More cynically, money, good looks, fame, and various superficial qualities also help.
It is certainly true that the performance of a party leader can decide an election result, and this is understandable as they are in a position of responsibility where they must exercise judgment. The risk though is that the personal qualities or weaknesses are given greater emphasis and boring detail like tax policy is reduced to who came up with the best slogan or soundbite.
This issue is not a new one. Whilst it is currently vogue to blame all the world’s ills on social media, the reduction of politics down to a popularity contest of leaders predates Twitter. It has probably always been a feature of politics and certainly something that has constantly been a feature of democracies. Leaders with deep voices for example have tended to perform better, as physiologically we find them more authoritative.
The problem is, once we understand that to be a successful leader it helps to have certain qualities and mannerisms, those with ambition quickly start to act the part. Building a personal brand based on characteristics common among successful leaders has become the tried and trued playbook of many ambitious upcoming politicians, business leaders, and others aiming for positions of power. Maybe this is just smart and anyone who is ambitious needs to learn these unwritten rules? But when many believe politics and civil society is in decline, should we not think more critically about leadership?
There can be very little doubt about the importance leadership has played in recent politics. My recent post about Rishi Sunak and the state of the British Conservative Party outlines, the challenges facing the UK Government today make it very difficult for the Tories to win the next election. Whilst Rishi Sunak certainly has some of the qualities of a successful leader, he is simply too constrained by the situation he faces to really lift support for the Conservative Party now, though this may change. Likewise in New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern’s meteoric rise to power in 2017 and global popularity shortly after, dissipated throughout 2022 as the current economic crisis hit.
To paraphrase Harold MacMillan, what shapes the course of political history is “events dear boy, events”. Having certain qualities can get one into leadership positions, but ultimately one’s time in power is judged by how one responds to events. And more often than not, leaders only have limited control of these or their own legacy.
Labour in the UK currently has a double-digit lead in polls ahead of the Conservatives. The Polls immediately after the Truss/Kwarteng mini budget gave Labour their biggest lead ever, with a lead of 33% over the Tories. This has since fallen back to a 20% lead, still making Labour the strong favourites were an election to be called today. For this reason, there will be no election in the next year if the Conservatives have anything to do with it. The next election must be held at the latest in January 2025, and in all likelihood will be sometime in mid-2024. Given how terribly the Government has performed, it is hard to see how they could make it back even if the economy begins to recover.
However, just as one should never underestimate the UK Conservative Party as an electoral force, one also should never underestimate the UK Labour Party’s ability to clutch defeat from the jaws of history. It is just under two years ago that Labour under the current leadership of Keir Starmer lost the Hartlepool byelection, a so-called red-wall seat previously held by Labour since 1964. Much has happened since then but given how quickly things change in the current political climate, who knows what will be happening in 2024.
After the last UK election, I wrote a series of posts assessing why the UK Labour Party Lost. Shortly after this, a leaked report showed that factionalism was so bad within Labour that members of the Party head office tried to sabotage the 2017 election for the party as their favoured faction was not in charge. At the time few could see Labour making it back to power in 2024, with many predicting that Boris Johnson would be Prime Minister for the coming decade.
Starmer was elected Leader of the party in April 2020 having run on a platform of trying to bring the factions together. Specifically, Starmer’s campaign would continue the popular policies from Labour’s 2017 manifesto would be the ‘basis of the Party’s ‘foundational document’ for policy under his leadership. This recognised the fact that whilst Corbyn and the Momentum faction supporting him had become quite unpopular, the social democratic platform Labour ran on in 2017 was popular, more so than the party in itself. Now, in 2022, Starmer has said this document is being put to one side and instead the party will be “starting from scratch” leaving many to ask, what will Labour’s next policy manifesto look like?
The backdrop of course is the coronavirus pandemic and the economic chaos it has caused, followed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Added to this is the economic ineptitude of the Truss and Kwateng mini-budget has meant the UK find itself in a very difficult economic situation. The challenge for Labour now, is that it needs to be seen both as credible economic managers who can repair the damage caused by the current government, yet also present a programme that addresses growing inequalities. In particular, it needs to address the fact that most people under 40 in the UK are now significantly worse off financially than their parents were at that age. The younger voters who supported Labour in the 2017 ‘youthquake’, who were disproportionately disadvantaged after the last decade of austerity, are looking to the opposition to address the growing inequalities and to create a new social contract that works “for the many, not the few.”
It is not clear how the current Labour leadership will address this, with the prevailing thinking in the party now being that people on the left have nowhere else to go, and the priority for Labour now being to win former Tory voters over. The risk is that younger voters and voters on the left become disillusioned and stay at home, or cast a protest vote for The Greens or some other candidate. This may not seem a problem now, but if polls begin to narrow by 2024, stay-home or protest-left votes in a First Past the Post electoral system could be fatal in marginal constituencies.
The current Labour leadership wish to put as much daylight as possible between the Party now and the Corbyn years. This has meant distancing themselves from some of the more popular parts of the 2017 manifesto, including public ownership of rail, energy companies and other public services, despite most party members and the British Public favouring nationalisation in this area. Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves have said such policies do not stack up against the Party’s fiscal rules. This could create tension for a future Labour Government. Internally, the Government would be fighting both the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ left on these issues. Also, many voters, not only those who vote Labour, would become frustrated if the private companies continue to profit from a rail system that’s expensive and unreliable or an energy market that forces people into poverty.
At the same time, those on the left of Labour need to accept a few hard facts. The 2019 election defeat was a devastating loss caused in no small part by missteps, poor tactics and wrong policy calls by Corbyn, his advisors and Momentum. Also, Labour may have increased its vote considerably in 2017, but despite losing seats, the Tories also increased their overall percentage of the vote and got more votes than Labour.
Corbyn has done himself absolutely no favours with his frankly idiotic position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, calling on the west to stop arming Ukraine and aligning with the Stop the War coalition’s position which appears more critical of NATO than Russia. This has now made it very easy for Starmer’s team to say that Corbyn will not have the whip restored. The left has now spent two years wasting energy trying to defend Corbyn and campaigning for him to get the whip restored. This absolutely plays into the hands of their opponents who now have good reason to expel leftists for not showing solidarity with Ukrainians.
Compare this to the US Democrats where Jo Biden’s former rival Bernie Sanders is now chair of the Senate Budget Committee, and a clear pact was made between the left and the moderate factions of the party to help beat Trump in 2020. Electoral politics is about building coalitions. The left in the UK needs to accept they alone do not have majority support and need to work with what they term the “soft left” and more centrist factions to win. The current Labour leadership need to ensure that the left still has a stake in Labour winning, and give enough to motivate the left to vote and campaign for Labour. In 2020 the Democrats learnt the hard lessons from 2016 when Sanders supporters were shunned by Hillary, resulting in many not supporting her campaign after the primaries and ultimately allowing Trump to win. In 2020, the Biden campaign made sure the left had a stake in a Democrat victory, and it paid off.
The fact is that to win elections, especially in a First Past the Post electoral system, a party needs to build a coalition of support. In 1997, UK Labour was able to build a coalition which in addition to the people who’d supported it throughout the Thatcher years, voters who’d supported the Thatcher project and its broad economic programme, but by the mid-1990s wanted something new, more socially liberal and slightly more moderate economically. This coalition held for three elections, but in 2010 many from this group of voters had drifted to the Lib Dems under Nick Clegg or back to the Conservatives under David Cameron who promised a more socially liberal and compassionate conservative party.
Starmer and the faction around want to build back the same coalition of voters they had in 1997. The problem is 25 years later, which included a decade of austerity, the voter demographics are more polarised and complex. The Conservative Party in 2022 has been forced to abandon Thatcher economics that Truss and Kwarteng tried to resurrect from the dead, and instead are now raising taxes, including for top income earners. The so-called centre-ground in politics is not the same as that in 1997. In fact, the term ‘centre’ is lazy political shorthand as if voters are easily categorised into ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centrists’ the latter swinging between the two and acting as king-maker. It has always been more complex than this, with people being more socially conservative on certain issues or economically liberal on others. The Brexit debate cut right across the old political divides with people across the spectrum, across class devices and cultural backgrounds being completely divided on the issue. A working-class voter in Hartlepool was not considered a swing voter until very recently, nor was an upper-middle-class voter in Kensington. Yet in the 2020s these voters will be part of the much larger ‘swing vote’ that will decide the next government.
Then there are the four nations of the United Kingdom. The majority of UK voters live in England, so inevitably this is where elections are won and lost. Historically, Labour has performed well in Scotland and Wales, with Northern Ireland having its own difficult history and different parties. Labour still performs well in Wales, having controlled the Welsh Senate since its creation in 1999. The 2021 deal between Welsh Labour and the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru has been clever in securing broad support of support within the devolved government there.
The situation in Scotland is nowhere near as rosy. Traditionally, Scotland was a Labour stronghold, yet in the 2019 election, the party won only one seat up there. The Scottish National Party (SNP) have controlled the Scottish Parliament since 2007. There was a small amount of comfort for Labour in the 2022 local council elections where Labour came second to the SNP, but still a long way behind. Even the polls showing Labour with a 33% lead over the Tories nationally, had Labour was far behind the SNP in Scotland. Whilst support for independence hovers around the 50% mark in Scotland, it is consistently higher now than during the last independence referendum in 2014. The SNP have been clever to build a coalition of former Labour left voters and Scottish nationalists including some from the centre-right. By contrast, the various deals being done by Labour with the Conservatives and Lib Dems to stop the SNP risk doing more long-term harm to Labour’s chances in left-leaning Scotland.
For Labour, the strategy to win not only the next election but to start winning more often in the UK is to win over more English voters, as over 80% of the population live there. English voters have traditionally been small ‘c’ Conservative and large the ‘C’ Conservative Party usually do well, especially in the South outside of London. A wholesale return to Corbyn’s era politics is unlikely to shift this. In the short term, Labour with more of a 1997 flavour may win the next election, but it is not 1997, and very soon voters will grow restless.
English voters might be conservative but may see the need for economic reform so more people have opportunities. They will expect serious government interventions in housing, employment, education and transport. Already we have seen a Tory Government partially renationalise the railways, increase taxes to fund social care and lift Univeral Credit (the UK’s universal benefit), things the Tories would not have considered in the 1990s. The fact is society has changed. And in politics. you need to adapt. Traditionally the Conservative Party are much better at this than Labour. Whilst the Tories will probably now lose the next election, but, the size of their loss and Labour’s win will determine how long they spend in opposition. For Labour, winning more often will require nuisance and being adaptable. Yes, learn the important lessons from 1997, but know that times are now different and so too are policies and tactics. The left may not be strong enough to win, but they are still too big a block now to ignore and are more significant than in the 1990s. Like the Biden campaign, Starmer’s team will need to give the left something that means they can at least give grudging support. In turn, the left need to accept that a few important gains are better than none at all and the great cannot continue to be the enemy of the good or even the ok-ish.
The next election could well go to Labour, or at least be lost by the Tories due to their ineptness at running the country in the last few years. Labour’s internal problems have not gone away, it is just that the Conservative Party’s internal issues are now a lot worse and unusually for them have been aired in public. The opportunity for Labour is to build a winning coalition that helps them win not just the next election, but to start winning more than they lose.
On October 25 2022 Rishi Sunak became the fifth leader of the Conservative Party since they came to power in 2010. Having lost the membership ballot in the summer, Tory MPs having seen the polls after the Mini Budget and facing the prospect of electoral annihilation, coalesced around Rishi Sunak and ensured he was the only person on the ballot. In short, MPs no longer trusted their party membership after the Liz Truss fiasco.
When a new Prime Minister comes in and appoints a new Cabinet it is referred to as a “new government.” This wears somewhat thin when many of the “new” Cabinet Ministers have served in previous governments, many only a few weeks earlier. The likes of Michael Gove, Dominic Raab or Penny Mordant have served under previous Prime Ministers pursuing the same Conservative Party policies in Government. The Conservative Party were elected in 2019 on a Manifesto that the public expect them to implement. The accumulative issues of the last 12 years or the last 12 months have not disappeared with a change at Number 10.
The Truss libertarian experiment, described by Paul Goodman editor at Conservative Home as the economic experiment, which blew the roof off the chemistry lab. The Conservatives, having learnt in 2017 that policies of austerity are electoral Kryptonite, now face the reality that small government libertarian policies much craved by many tory members, simply will not work. Sunak inherits a party bereft of ideas and vision and is now forced to increase taxes to pay down public debt and fund public services such as the NHS. Promises made in 2019 to cut taxes would have been difficult to implement before the pandemic, now they simply are not possible.
The longstanding problem with British politics, as other commentators have pointed out, there is an expectation of European levels of spending on public services, but a naive view that the country can also have American levels of taxation. This is a problem not just for the Conservative Government, but for the opposition who once in government will have the choice of increasing taxes or slashing public spending. My next blog post will address this issue further.
Brexit is adding to Britain’s economic woes. In 2021 the UK faced a 14% fall in trade with the EU. The new trade agreements have not offset this, with deals like the one signed with Singapore largely mirroring Singapore’s deal with the EU meaning no gain from leaving the single market. In the case of the Australian deal, the desire to quickly conclude negotiations resulted in terms less favourable to Britain. There is no appetite from any of the main political party’s to revisit the decision to leave the European Union and to date little evidence that another referendum would see a different outcome. However, this becomes an issue of economic management with many leading Conservative politicians having boasted that having left the EU, Britain could negotiate favourable trade deals with the rest of the world. There is little prospect of a Free Trade deal with the US and the geo-political situation means deals with China are also unlikely, and in both cases, it is unlikely any deal would be favourable to Britain. The Conservatives since 2016 have talked of the opportunities of Brexit, yet have delivered few. This may not be top of voters’ priorities right now, but certainly, for many businesses, including those who have supported and donated to the Tories in the past, this is a serious problem. This is not a problem Sunak or any Conservative leader is likely to fix without going back on earlier commitments and renegotiating terms with the EU.
The Conservative Party are the natural party of Government in Britain and is the most electorally successful party in Europe. One of their great strengths is internal unity and discipline, much more so than Labour who more often than not air their dirty laundry in public. In the last 18 months, internal infighting has dominated the Conservative Party and ground the government to a halt over the summer while they elected a new leader, only for the winner to resign and be replaced by the runner-up weeks later.
Sunak’s ascent to the top job has not reduced these internal divisions at all. The below tweet from former Minister and Conservative MP Nadine Dorries recently gives some idea of the simmering tensions within parliament:
The ‘Get Brexit Done’ coalition has fallen away with many former voters and supporters feeling disillusioned with the Tories’ performance in Government. Whereas in 2019, enough voters could get behind The Conservatives over Brexit, now there are fewer policies areas where the government have an advantage over the opposition. Attempts to attack Labour regarding recent union industrial actions have not landed so far. Many feel sympathy for striking nurses and feel health workers are not paid enough. Traditionally Rail workers get a bad rap for taking strike action without explaining their position to the public very well. RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch has been much stronger than his predecessors at making a case for his members. At the same time, with inflation above 10% many have sympathy with striking workers, and many more see the problem as poor economic management by the government even if they do not like unions going on strike. The current situation feels much more like the Ted Heath Conservative Government in 1973 than the Thatcher Government taking on the Miners Union a decade later.
It will be very difficult for the Conservative Party to win the next election. Certainly were an election held today the government will lose. But this is why there will be no election in 2023. In the best-case scenario, the economic situation is unlikely to improve until early 2024. Further to this, Sunak will want as much distance as possible from the Kwarteng Mini Budget, and this will take time. As well as an improved economy, the Tories will need to restore party unity both within their MPs and the broader party membership – who didn’t vote for Sunak.
A wedge issue, like Brexit, was in 2019, could help the Conservatives, but it is unclear what this would be. After 12 years in power, it is difficult to talk about ‘fixing the asylum system’ without it begging the question why haven’t you done so already? Slogans like a coalition of chaos about Labour and the SNP may have worked in 2015, but given the last year the Tories are in no position where they can accuse others of creating chaos. Certainly the 2017 slogan of strong and stable will not work again.
Despite everything that has happened, it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the British Conservative Party which has proven time and again to be an electoral force to be reckoned with. In England, where over 80% of British voters live, Tory is the default option in many parts of the country. The polarisation within Britain is high with tensions from the Brexit debate and ongoing calls for Scottish Independence still simmering. The Tories can certainly play these divisions to their advantage in the hope of winning support.
As the next post will discuss, Labour should be able to win the next election, but it is not a certainty yet. They have their own internal issues to resolve.
Last week people in New Zealand and around the world were shocked to hear that Jacinda Ardern had resigned as Prime Minister. An unexpected end to her extraordinary five years in this role. Her exit, like everything else she had done as a leader, was on her terms.
Jacinda Ardern has surprised people throughout her political career, not least when she took over as Labour Leader in August 2017. She took the New Zealand Labour Party from a long way behind in the polls to government in just a few weeks.
I first heard of Jacinda Ardern just after the 2008 election. Labour had just lost power after nine years in office. Ardern was one of the new MPs being touted as the future of the party. At that time I was not a party member, having left in 2002 and did not rejoin until 2013. Whilst I was hearing Jacinda’s name a lot, much of the noise was from the Wellington bubble and party insiders. It was only later that I, like most New Zealand voters was to see the political force she really was.
I first met Jacinda at Labour Leadership campaign hustings in Auckland in 2014. She was Grant Robertson’s running mate and I was the campaign manager for Andrew Little, who went on to narrowly win that leadership contest. We were standing outside this hustings event leafleting for our respective campaigns. I realised just before the meeting that my cell phone was about to die, so asked if I could borrow her charger. Unfortunately, she did not have one, and for the next 90 minutes, I nervously watched my phone’s battery bar decline.
Jacinda came in as a list MP, having unsuccessfully contested the safe Tory seat of Waikato in 2008. In 2011 and 2014 she ran in the Auckland Central electorate, which prior to 2008 had been considered a moderately safe Labour seat. Jacinda was unsuccessful both times and remained a list MP until 2017 when she won Helen Clark’s old electorate of Mount Albert. Shortly after this, she became Deputy Leader of the Party.
Up till this point, Jacinda only had limited support outside the political bubble in Wellington. She was a strong performer in parliament and from 2014 onwards had started getting some very good soft media building her brand as a relatable politician. But it was once she became deputy leader that her profile really began to grow. When polling started to show her personal support was ahead of the party leader, her promotion was only a matter of time.
In August 2017, just a few weeks out from the New Zealand General Election, Andrew Little resigned as party leader as it was clear that he was unlikely to win. A few days later Jacinda was elected leader. In the days that followed Labour’s polling numbers started to bounce. As the campaign wore on, National Party (the NZ Tory Party) Prime Minister Bill English, who had taken over the role only a few months earlier, began to sound rattled. By the time of the main leader’s debates, Jacindamania had taken hold.
Despite all this, it was still far from certain that Labour could win the election. After nearly a decade of polling behind the National Party, the last-minute polling surge still felt like it could still fall away again.
In my blog post from 2020, I described the last time I met Jacinda, just one day after she became the Leader of the Opposition:
A few weeks before leaving New Zealand, my friend Rob and I were in Burger Fuel on Cuba Street the hipster trendy part of Wellington. Piko was renting an office space in the old Wellington Trades Hall and we were doing painting and renovations of the space. In our crappy paint-covered work clothes we sat in Burger Fuel when Rob alerts me to who had just walked into the restaurant. 24 hours beforehand, Jacinda Ardern had replaced Andrew Little as leader of the Labour Party. We both knew Jacinda so said hello and talked about the Stand with Pike campaign we had been working on which Jacinda had pledged to support a few hours before. This slightly awkward conversation with the new leader of the opposition did not last long. None of us, I suspect even Jacinda, knew that in a few weeks’ time, she would achieve one of the greatest upsets in New Zealand’s political history and become Prime Minister
A few weeks later I moved to London. By the time I had left, the polls had narrowed and it looked as though the election would be close. I arrived in London on Monday 11 September, and that afternoon went down to New Zealand House in Haymarket to vote for the New Zealand Labour Party. Whilst I wanted NZ Labour to win, I still did not believe they would. As I watched the election results come in just under a fortnight later, it still seemed like the National Party would just hold on for another term. But a series of factors conspired, resulting in what is still one of the most surprising NZ political victories in living memory.
Social democratic values and policies are in fact far more aligned with the New Zealand public than the Tories. I believe the same is true in Britain, as I outlined in my blog posts on why the UK Labour Party lost the 2019 election. Yet in both countries, the Tories win more elections than they lose. In the years 2008 to 2017 when the NZ Labour Party were in opposition, Labour policy often had far more support than the Labour Party. For example the Key Governments’ partial privatisation of state-owned assets in 2011 which Labour opposed. On that specific issue, polls showed public opposition to privatisation. Yet in 2011, National was easily reelected and Labour’s share of the vote declined.
Jacinda’s strength as a leader became apparent during the 2017 campaign. She was able to bridge the gap between policy and people’s perceptions. She convince people that Labour values were aligned with their own, in a way that many of her predecessors simply had not. Her warmth, her strong communication style and her positivity gave a human face to centre-left politics, one that voters could relate to.
The results of the 2017 election were close, and whoever formed a government would need to form a multi-party coalition. Here again, Jacinda showed skill and strength by being able to build bridges with New Zealand First, a socially conservative centrist party, and the Green Party. This required compromises which disappointed much of Labour’s base, yet got Labour into Government so they could implement at least some of their policy agenda.
Over the last five years, Jacinda has held up as a model of progressive political leadership throughout the world. There are many examples of where she has shone as Prime Minister. The best example is her response to the Christchurch Mosque shooting in 2019:
Her statement immediately following the attack against the Christchurch Muslim Community was clear “they are us” , a clear condemnation of Islamophobia by a world leader. When Donald Trump asked what he could do to help Jacinda replied he could show “sympathy and love for muslim communities”
They are us. Three words to the Muslim world showed compassion, humanity and inclusion after an act of evil.
The New Zealand Government’s initial response to the pandemic in 2020 was another example of strong leadership. In crisis management, it is crucial that you quickly assess the relevant information and then act decisively. The decision to close the border and put in tough restrictions was not an easy thing to do, but it undoubtedly saved thousands of lives. Not least as the health system Labour inherited when they came to power in 2017 had been badly underfunded and under-resourced for a decade. After only 30 months in power, there had not been enough time to turn this around. The restrictions were tough both for people in NZ and for people like me living overseas and unable to return. Much as people may now blame Jacinda and the Labour Government for the tough restrictions, they might also want to consider the impact of National’s mismanagement of the health system for nearly a decade. This mismanagement of the health system left it vulnerable to collapse during the pandemic.
In October 2020, Arderns’s Labour Government won the biggest majority of any New Zealand government in half a century. Jacinda’s crisis management and clear communication during Covid, the Mosque shooting and the White Island eruption all contributed to this victory.
After Labour won its second term in office, I outlined some of the challenges the government would face:
The coming term will not be an easy one for Labour, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rumble on and the world plunges into the worst financial crisis in decades. On Saturday Labour were rewarded for their handling of the crisis so far, but the hard part is yet to come. On the one hand, they need to rebuild the NZ economy at a time when international tourism is dead and export markets are volatile. But even prior to this the New Zealand economy was unbalanced and in a precarious state. Its over-reliance on dairy exports has made it vulnerable if anything happens to this market and resulted in over-intensive dairy farming which has harmed the environment – not a good look for a country that brands itself as clean and green. It also faces growing inequality with significant growth in homelessness and poverty in recent years.
The above was a fairly accurate summary of the challenges Ardern’s government would face in its second term. What nobody expected at that time was the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the havoc this would cause the world economy, already severely strained by the pandemic. Governments around the world have struggled with this crisis, with New Zealand being no exception. In May 2022 I wrote the following:
At the start of 2022 there began to be a seachange in New Zealand politics. The Government’s handling of the pandemic had strong support in 2020 and for much of 2021. But as more and more people were vaccinated, and increasingly other countries lifted their travel and other Covid restrictions, public support began to wane. The protests outside the New Zealand parliament in 2022 were a minority of anti-vaccination campaigners. This group, inspired by the January 6 Capitol attack in Washington did not enjoy widespread support. But they demonstrated that the polarisation that other English-speaking democracies faced in recent years had reached New Zealand. Alt-right, anti-science and anti-government protests caused considerable disruption outside parliament in Wellington. Those opposed to the protest became frustrated that the police and government had not moved them on. By the time these protests ended on 10 March 2022, support for the government had taken a hit.
At the same time as these protests and a struggling economy, Jacinda faced a new leader of the opposition. In the lead-up to the 2020 election, National managed to go through three leaders in four months. By the time of the election, they were no longer seen as a credible opposition and suffered their worst election defeat in 18 years. In late 2021 National put forward a new leader, Christopher Luxon. A former CEO of Air New Zealand, Luxon came into parliament in 2020 and was immediately touted as a future leader. Whilst in no way a match for Ardern in terms of oratory or style, Luxon could credibly challenge the Government’s record on bread-and-butter issues like housing, economic management and its slow delivery on infrastructure projects such as light rail in Auckland. Whilst Luxon has trailed Ardern in preferred Prime Minister Polls, for nearly a year National had maintained a 5-7% lead over Labour. At the end of 2022, it felt like Ardern’s government would likely face an electoral loss in 2023.
Critics of Jacinda Ardern have been quick to say that her resignation now was a way of avoiding electoral loss later in the year. Others have pointed to the level of hate and vitriol that Ardern has had to put up with in recent years, including former NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark who said that “Jacinda has faced a level of hatred and vitriol which in my experience is unprecedented in our country.”
Below is Jacinda Ardern’s resignation speech, I will leave the reader to decide for themselves what her reasons really are:
It is too soon to say what Jacinda’s legacy will be. She will certainly be remembered for becoming a mother whilst being a world leader. For her presence on the world stage as a voice for feminism and progressive politics. She ushered in a generational and attitudinal change in New Zealand politics. While internationally she offered an alternative to the politics of Trump, Bolsonaro, Scott Morrison and Viktor Orban.
Ultimately, governments are measured on their longevity. Both in terms of how long they are in office, but also how long their policies remain in place. Jacinda Ardern’s legacy will be judged not only on Labour’s successes under her leadership but also on how well Labour performs after her resignation.
On Wednesday, New Zealand will have a new Prime Minister, Chris Hipkins, who will lead Labour into the October 14 General Election. Chris certainly has his work cut out for him over the next few months. That being said, the coming election is by no means a foregone conclusion. For all the challenges of the past five years, he inherits a government that has much to be proud of, not least Jacinda Ardern message of kindness, inclusion and positivity. To quote the outgoing Prime Minister, “bring it on.”
You probably will not remember me. I was the campaign manager for Andrew Little when he ran for Labour Leader back in 2014. The last time we met was in Burger Fuel on Cuba Street the day after you took over as Labour Leader in 2017. I was with my colleague from Piko and we were both covered in paint after doing work at our Trades Hall office. We certainly weren’t expecting to meet the future Prime Minister that evening.
I am emailing to say thank you for all that you have done, both in New Zealand and internationally since becoming Prime Minister. I now work as a Researcher in Westminster and I can say that you have earned the respect and admiration of politicians from all sides of the political divide over here in the last five years.
In particular, I wish to acknowledge the strong compassionate leadership you took after the Christchurch Mosque attack. Your simple statement “they are us” regarding Muslims living in Aotearoa had a profound impact and broke down barriers of hate and ignorance at a time when tensions were so high. I still tear up thinking about how important your showing humanity and compassion was at that dark time. Thank you.
Your government’s response to the coronavirus in 2020 was the right one and undoubtedly saved thousands of lives. Again, having lived through the UK response to this crisis, I and many others living here looked to the NZ response with considerable admiration.
The last couple of years has been difficult for governments throughout the world. The Ukraine invasion on the back of a global pandemic has seen inflation skyrocket everywhere. People understandably look to their elected representatives in difficult economic times and we know that the actions of the government can help or hinder economic recovery. But there is also much that is out of the hands of the nation-state. Where governments can have the most impact is on policies that help in the medium to long term. In the short term, options are quite limited and it is easy for our leaders to take the blame for things that are largely out of their control. The New Zealand government has managed this crisis better than many in the last 18 months. In years to come I hope this is recognised.
Your legacy as Prime Minister will be as someone who showed both strength and compassion in some of the most challenging times faced by any leader in modern times. On the world stage, you are rightly held up as a model of progressive political leadership, and I am certain this will continue into the future in whatever role you take on next.
Finally on a personal note, due to the coronavirus, I was only able to spend two weeks in Aotearoa during your time as Prime Minister. But as a Kiwi in London, I was proud of your leadership both of our party and of the country.
As the world currently goes through a post-pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine fuelled economic crisis, it is interesting to reflect on the economic crisis of over a decade ago and how the public responded at that time.
After the 2008 financial crisis, despite predictions to the contrary at the time, there was a global shift to the right in the years that followed. Examples of this include the fall of the Brown Government to the Tory/Lib-Dem Coalition in the UK in 2010 or the Clark Labour Government being voted out in 2008. After some initial excitement about Obama’s election in 2008, the Republicans easily won the 2010 mid-terms. There were plenty of other examples across Europe, South Asia and South America of progressive or centre/centre-left governments falling.
Given the financial crisis exposed the failings of the banking sector and free market economics, it would seem strange at first that it was the political right who were the primary beneficiaries of this. In certain countries, incumbency was the issue where rightly or wrongly the party in power were blamed. The late 1990s and early 2000s were the height of the Third Way era, meaning many progressive governments had accepted and made little attempt to reverse the free market reforms of the 1980s. Whilst this position was electorally popular up to this point, by 2008 this position was not tenable. Meanwhile, the right was much quicker to pivot away from Laissez-faire to a more traditionally conservative position, raising concerns about immigration whilst claiming to be prudent economic managers. The politics of austerity were never popular where they were implemented. Yet, the argument that national debt is like household private debt where you just have to tighten your belt to get out of the red was not adequately challenged. That cutting social spending, holding down wages and other earnings and other such measures resulted in less money in the economy thus making the crisis worse became obvious, eventually. Yet in the early 2010s, many European Governments were implementing these sorts of policies.
It was in this context that ‘Occupy Wall Street’, which quickly grew into the international Occupy Movement was born. Anger at banks being bailed out in the US whilst people’s homes were being repossessed and a feeling that the elected politicians had failed to stand up to Wall Street sparked this protest movement. The protests took inspiration from the Arab Spring protests in early 2011 which successfully brought down a handful of corrupt rulers in the region such as Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt amongst others.
Although there was some involvement of organised labour and other elements of the traditional left was involved, many more were not. In part, this was due to the reluctance of the main social democratic parties to be involved with such a movement, especially in the US when there was a Democrat in the White House. For many in the movement, there was a level of antipathy towards members of the political establishment, including those on the left.
As a friend of mine said to me a few times during the 2003 Iraq War protests “mass movements shoot up like a rocket, and subsequently fall like a stick.” Within a few months, the initial movement had dissipated. This was very similar to the late 1990s early 2000s anti-globalisation movement, the difference being that Occupy was responding to a serious financial crisis and failure of the global banking system. By contrast, anti-globalisation was reacting to the moral shortcomings of institutions such as the IMF or the World Bank and accused multi-national corporations of undermining democracy and self-determination, especially for those in less well-off nations.
It is interesting to look back now to see how both the anti-globalisation and the Occupy Wall Street movements influenced policy over the coming decade. Both were clear attempts to forge a new left in the post cold war era in response to the new right. On the surface, neither made any direct impact, with the free trade and the IMF agenda still rumbling on after the anti-globalisation protests in Seattle, Genoa and elsewhere. Likewise, the banking sector after 2008, took the government bailouts, the executives paid themselves bonuses and people paid the price, including mortgage foreclosures in the US. This contributed to the backlash against Obama during his presidency, as mentioned in an earlier blog post.
Ironically, the 2008 financial crisis saw the right move away from free market deregulation policies, in no small part as they had just failed on such a spectacular and global scale. The right became much more concerned with reducing debt through reducing government spending and other austerity policies. This is not inconsistent with free market ideology, more radical deregulation policies were not pursued with such vigour. With both the Brexit referendum in the UK and the rise of Trump in the US, the right began moving away from international trading blocks such as the EU or NAFTA. The claim by the anti-globalisation movement in the early 2000s was that the Neo-Liberal agenda wanted the free movement of capital, but not people. Certainly, in the case of Brexit, this was to see greater restrictions on both.
Not for the first time in history, the right took the sentiment of the anti-globalisation campaign and used it to pursue what is now termed a more ‘populist’ agenda. The UK Conservative Party winning “Red Wall”s seats in 2019 or Trump winning in the “rust belt” in 2016 were all in part due to this more ‘anti globalist’ agenda by the right. It also reflected that trying to openly pursue free market policies post-2008 was not going to work. Unlike the left, the right was as always quick to adapt to the changing environment.
The Occupy movement’s influence over politics in the 2010s is less obvious. Whilst the larger protests soon became much smaller, this movement did help shape the narrative of the left in the coming decade. The slogan “we are the 99%” stuck as did accusations of politicians serving the 1%. The surprising levels of support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in 2017 and the rise of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Primary owed something to this anti-corporate, anti-banking campaign of a few years earlier. More significantly, as the left needed to reinvent and reposition in the 2010s, this movement at least in part helped shift the centre-left parties towards a stronger anti-austerity and pro-public services position. The austerity light ‘moderate’ position some social democrats espoused in response to the financial crisis was never going to gain public support, especially when austerity was soon shown to have deepened rather than halted the economic crisis of the time.
Sudden mass movements may not instantly change the world. My friend’s analogy of the rocket becoming a falling stick may have been a good comparison. But maybe the falling stick in a small way did help change the course of history at least a little bit.
On Sunday 30 October, a watershed run-off election was held in Brazil where former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) narrowly defeated incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro 50.9% to 49.1%. There was a lot at stake in this election, not least the lungs of our planet, the Amazon forest. In the four years of Bosonaro’s presidency, more than 34,000 square km of the Amazon rainforest disappeared. The return of Lula to power in Brazil certainly will not fix everything, but another term of Bolsonaro would have been a devastating defeat in the fight against climate change.
On Tuesday 8 October, another critical election will take place, this time in the northern part of the Americas, the United States midterms where control of Congress and Senate will be determined, along with elections to State Legislatures and for State Governors.
Historically there are two common trends with mid-terms:
Turnout is significantly lower than in presidential elections
The party with control of the White House usually performs poorly
On point one, turnout has historically been lower for midterm elections. For example, in 2008 President Obama on a platform of hope won by a significant margin with a voter turnout of 57.1%. Two years later in the 2010 midterms, voter turnout was just 40.9% and the Republican Party took back control of Congress. This was at the height of the Tea Party movement pushing the Republican Party to the right. Much of Obama’s “hope” agenda was blocked by this newly energised rabid right-Republican Congress. Had everyone who came out to support Obama in 2008 once again returned to the polls 24 months later (and 22 months after his inauguration) he may well have achieved more.
But this is the second point, whichever party controls the White House, tends to do poorly in the mid-terms. The exception to this was President George W Bush in 2002, who the September 11 Terror attacks were able to keep control of both houses, a situation that continued until his second mid-terms in 2006. Most other Presidents, Regan, Bush Senior, Clinton and Trump all lost midterms to the other party.
The US Constitution is designed so that the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches of the United States government are kept distinct in order to prevent abuse of power. Whilst there is much wrong with the US Constitution, the theory behind the separation of powers is a good one. The problem is, in a First Past the Post two Party system choices are limited. The temptation is to give whichever Party is not in control of the White House control of the Legislature as a check and balance. But what if that other Party ignored scientific advice during a pandemic causing death and misery to millions? What if this other Party is anti-democratic and refuses to accept it lost the previous election and encourages its supporters to turn to violence? What if, rather than being the ‘Grand Old Party’ of the Conservative American right, the Republican Party of 2022 has become a Party of deranged Trumpians where truth and evidence are out and hate-fuelled rhetoric is in vogue? Is allowing a party like this to control the legislative branch of government, either by voting for them or by staying at home really preventing “abuse of power”?
The Judicial branch of government should of course be separate from the Legislative and Executive branches, but is this really the case in the US? The decision in June 2022 to overturn the 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision, which legalised abortion throughout the United States, was the result of Republican Presidents appointing socially conservative judges and Republication Legislatures doing their best to block Democrat Presidents from appointing liberal ones, as Republican Senators did in 2016. Despite the fact that a majority of Americans oppose the decision to overturn Roe V Wade, manipulation of the constitution by the Republican Party has meant the Supreme Court has a socially conservative majority which can be used to undermine abortion rights in the US.
It is easy to be dishearted by the US political system, indeed I have previously argued in relation to Gun Control the following:
The United States is further held back by a Constitution that is cumbersome and difficult to change. Trying to bring about any sort of serious change to allow Gun Control in the US, something that polls suggest a majority of Americans support, would require a change to the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. How can the US Constitution be changed? It requires 2/3 support for a proposed constitutional amendment in both the Congress and Senate (see above about how these houses are NOT representative). On gaining this, it then needs to be approved by the legislature of 34 of the 50 US states and then ratified by 38 of the 50 states (again the smaller conservative states get a much greater say than larger ones). A full explanation of this can be seen here.
In the above article I went on to mention Trump appointing anti-abortion Supreme Court Judges and that with the “country’s highest court is so clearly partisan, again a system protected by the constitution means one can have little confidence in this country’s justice system.”
Yet, as flawed and in desperate need of reform as the US political system is, it is still paramount that all eligible voters turn out to vote. The initial response from US voters to the Supreme Court decision appeared to be a backlash. In traditionally Republican voting states of Alaska and Kansas, Democrats made surprise gains. The coming mid-term elections could be an opportunity to send this message on a national level, but polls suggest there are several senate races which are tight and there is a projected national swing to Republicans. Of course, like all elections, there are many factors at play, but turnout will be a significant factor.
As already explained, mid-term elections generally go against sitting presidents. In the case of Biden, he faces low approval ratings due to the state of the economy, which is hurting incumbent governments globally and the lingering backlash from withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Biden has a track record of being gaff-prone, often making silly comments and going off script. But in terms of delivery, in the last 22 months, the United States Government has done surprisingly well. Since January 2022, Democrats and the Biden Presidency have achieved the following
Rolled out the $1.9 trillion COVID relief deal, rolled out the COVID vaccine and got control of the virus unlike Biden’s inept predecessor
Got both Congress and Senate to approve the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package which drastically increased investment in the national network of bridges and roads, airports, public transport, national broadband internet, as well as waterways and energy systems.
Made serious commitments to stopping climate change and unlike his predecessor ordered all government agencies to immediately halt the financing of new international carbon-intensive fossil fuel projects, and instead work towards clean energy use.
Has reduced the US unemployment figure from 6.3% under Trump to 3.9% today.
The current cost of living crisis and high inflation are hurting the American people, and it is understandable that there is anger at the US Government and the political and economic system that has allowed this to happen. But allowing the Republican Party, in its current state to control the Legislative branch would be a terrible mistake.
Last week Nancy Pelosi’s husband was the victim of a violent attack, a symptom of the increasingly volatile mood in the United States. The intended target of the attack was Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, something that should be quite shocking to anyone who supports democracy. The response from the Republican Party was a mixture of silence, baseless conspiracy theories or in the case of Donald Trump Jr, mockery.
These are deeply troubling times and the stakes could not be much higher. Mid-term elections are a time to send a signal. In response to Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, Trump has described Putin’s actions as an “act of genius.” In light of this, what message does it send voting Trump-aligned Republicans in charge of Congress? Trump continues to deny he lost the 2020 election, or accept responsibility for his part in the violence on Capitol Hill on January 6 2021, should people who condone these actions be given a majority in the Senate? Given the recent decision to overturn Roe V Wade, should Republicans be allowed to control many state legislatures and block women’s right to choose?
At a campaign event last week President Biden said that in these mid-term elections “democracy is on the ballot”. This is absolutely true, and the outcome will be decided by those who show up to vote.
Britons woke up to the news today that inflation in the UK has hit a 40 year high of 9%. Recent increases to power bills, fuel and groceries have in no small part driven this inflationary pressure and indications are that prices could increase further. The bank of England governor has called for wage restraint fearing that this could drive inflation even higher, though with the cost of living rising so quickly this call will likely fall on deaf ears. The recent losses in local body elections and lacklustre polling for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives is in part due to the rising cost of living. But is this all just a case of bad economic management by the Conservatives?
My usual reference point is comparing and contrasting the UK and New Zealand situations, having lived in both countries. New Zealand’s inflation rate is at a 30-year high hitting 6.9%. A friend in NZ recently asked if I could send petrol over from the UK as the cost had gone up too much over there, the joke soon fell flat when I told them how much a tank of petrol costs here in the UK. In New Zealand, the opposition has been quick to blame the Labour Government in New Zealand for this, at a time when support for the government is falling fast. Having won a record majority in 2020 for their handling of the pandemic, Ardern’s government now faces a backlash over coronavirus restrictions and is taking the blame for current economic challenges. Commentary in the New Zealand media also tends to focus on inflation as a domestic issue, as such much of the commentary is often wide of the mark.
In Australia, the country goes to the polls for their first federal election since the pandemic. Whilst polling numbers are still fairly close there is a real possibility the right of centre Liberal Coalition Government led by Scott Morrison may lose, in no small part due to inflation and the rising cost of living. Whilst there are plenty of good reasons to vote out the Coalition government, not the least their inaction on climate change, like in Britain and New Zealand, is the cost of living increase in Australia really down to the federal government?
In the US, President Biden and the Democrat controlled House and Senate are facing an uphill battle in the November midterms against a Republican Party now very much aligned to Trumpian politics. For the Biden administration there appear to be few options to control inflation in the short term. I have previously blogged about the limitations of the US political system and it is no surprise that many Americans yet again feel frustrated. However, it is clear that this is not a crisis limited to any single nation-state, what we are dealing with is a global inflation problem.
Previously, I have written about the importance of global governance and how our current global governance institutions are not up to the challenges we face in the 21st century. The current crisis illustrates this more than ever. At the current time, we turn to the nation-state and in democratic countries we as voters can hold our leaders to account for what happens, including economic management. In reality, how much can Jacinda Ardern, Boris Johnson, Scott Morrison, Ursula von der Leyen or Joe Biden or any other world leader do? When finance Ministers do the national budget each year, many of the key economic factors are determined by external factors, not by their government’s decisions. Likewise, we can beat up the Bank of England, the Reserve Bank in New Zealand or other central banks for not controlling inflation within the targets they have been set, but they did not cause a global pandemic, invade Ukraine or control many of the key drivers of international inflation at that time.
This is not to let governments off the hook, as they still have the power to mitigate the effect of high inflation. Governments have the power to reduce or remove sales taxes, regulate pricing or support people on low incomes through benefits or policies that help lift wages. On the global stage, finance ministers when they attend the yearly Davos meeting, or leaders who attend the G20 meetings, need to be doing more to develop a global economic strategy that can protect against these sorts of shocks. Further, they need to create global governance institutions that can ensure a stable global economy that delivers for everyone, not just now but into the future. This is what we should be demanding of our governments.
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s the big push was for globalisation, which in reality was a push for removing tariffs and international market liberalisation. The anti-globalisation movement of the time often took the position that this agenda weakened the nation-state and undermined democracy. The problem, which neither side really understood, is that in a world where we for a long time have depended on international trade but also on the movement of people, relying on national governments to resolve this will inevitably fail. Margaret Thatcher, in the introduction to her memoir The Downing Street Years, claimed the following:
An internationalism which seeks to supersede the nation-state, however, will founder quickly upon the reality that very few people are prepared to make genuine sacrifices for it
Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street years, page 11
Yes, in terms of consciousness people still hold nationalism and their own country in high regard. But where we increasingly see countries with governments of all different colours struggling to control the cost of living, at some point we must face the fact that an international response is required. People may not believe in current global governance institutions or be “prepared to make genuine sacrifices” for them. But they may do if these institutions were in fact giving people a better quality of life by controlling inflation and the cost of living. At the time of writing, this all seems somewhat academic, with there being little likelihood of an international response, other than some short term cooperation to control the immediate crisis without looking at the underlying long term problems. Yet it is clear that we will continue to face these economic challenges with tools that are ill-equipped to face the problems. Only a truly international response can create an economy that delivers for all.