Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Don't let the garage door hit you

And so, it has come to an end, as obnoxiously as it began: with a short press release, in which the leader and owner of the Opportunities Parties declared the organisation disbanded and bid a fond farewell to the voters, those morons.

A lot has been said and written about the personalities involved – the good, Geoff Simmons; the bad Gareth Morgan; the ugly, Sean Plunket – and for good reason: it was an entertaining bunch, and made for a colourful diversion in a campaign that, from the moment Metiria Turei stepped down from the co-leadership of the Greens, was fought entirely on personality and on the narrowest of terms. It was, if not exactly fun, at least comparatively novel to chart the boastful acts of self-mutilation of these upstarts.

However, I’ve seen comparatively little political analysis: what kind of project was the Opportunities Party? How did it connect and compare with similar organisations overseas? Why did it ultimately fail? Alex Brae tried his hand in the Spinoff, arguing that with the demise of TOP the New Zealand protest vote has lost its home, and that the conversion rate of 1 in 40 voters was in fact an astonishing success.

Morgan offered his own post-mortem, in an interview with Duncan Greive: his party, he insisted, was based on ‘policy excellence’ and said policies were offered ‘on a take-it-or-leave-it basis’ to an electorate that ultimately proved too ‘fat, content and complacent’ to endorse TOP’s excellence. At the very end, Morgan even found the time to disavow his former communications director, Sean Plunket, who called in a tweet for other folks of good will to come to the aid of the party.
Sean was hired by TOP and then by me to provide strategy advice. As we all discovered he has this predilection to get himself embroiled in controversies along the way. They have nothing to do with me or TOP.

Morgan’s narcissism, as always, is so breath-taking and Bond villainesque (‘in essence [I] have returned to doing what I’m bloody good at: making money and shitloads of it’) that one almost forgets to question the premises of his argument: chiefly, that TOP was about ‘policy excellence’. This is a common claim of self-styled post-political parties, such as the Internet Party at the 2014 elections, or the far more successful 5 Star Movement in Italy. All of these new formations claim to be interested in policy alone, not politics, as if that was even a thing.

As a matter of fact, all parties have policies which seek to appeal to social formations that exist among the electorate. TOP was no exception: it just tried to slice the electorate differently. Of particular note in this respect is the fact that, while it was by no means pro-worker, TOP was the only party that sought to shift the balance of taxation away from wages and towards capital, including capital tied in real estate. That Labour and the Greens have abandoned any serious attempt to shift this burden – or even admit, in the face of record levels of unaffordability, that a fall in house prices may be a good thing – is one of the New Zealand left’s most enduring shames. And if there is a useful challenge to carry forward from TOP's failed experiment, it should probably be this.

It may seem that Morgan’s abrasive personality, coupled with Plunket’s pathetic taste for the worst kind of limelight, may have served as unwelcome and self-defeating distractions from TOP’s excellence-soaked policies, but I suspect this not to have been the case. The pair’s strategy, rather – while leaving Simmons in charge of projecting an air of technocratic competence – was to follow the playbook of the likes of Berlusconi, Trump and other contemporary populists. Beginning with chapter one, which instructs to seek controversy, always, in order to monopolise the news cycles and bamboozle the political debate. This, and not patiently promoting its programme among the social actors it was designed to appeal to, was actually how the party hoped to get into parliament.

Don’t get me wrong: I am quite sure that Morgan and Plunket are genuinely unpleasant people. But I doubt that they are stupid. And if Morgan’s contempt for voters and Plunket’s seeming ability to put his foot into everything were part of a calculated approach that worked elsewhere, then we should ask ourselves why it didn’t work here. Alex Brae thinks it sort of did, but one voter in 40 is a good conversion rate only if measured against the remarkable stability of our political landscape. Berlusconi converted one in five on his way to winning the 1994 election mere weeks after entering the fray, and many other post-political parties have enjoyed similar success in Europe since. The objective failure of TOP, then, can be seen as a modest success only if we compute the same factors that made the failure of Dotcom’s Internet Party so easy to predict.

Simply put, the New Zealand body politic is in rude health. And it doesn’t matter that our parliament has become an engine for increasing inequality, for the victims of our economic system are also largely excluded from the democratic process: so populists simply have no-one to appeal to – at least no-one who can be relied upon to vote. These are the very same conditions that stand in the way of genuine progressive alternatives. That self-styled smart man Gareth Morgan and his equally smart collaborators failed to understand this speaks of their inability to carry out the most rudimentary political analysis.

Things, of course, may change, as they have elsewhere, and in relative haste – given the right shocks to the system – paving the way for more successful post- or anti-political projects. Until then, millionaires who boast about pocketing the heating supplement or using their New Zealand super to buy a new motorcycle will fail to reach the status of statesman and continue having to settle for the more traditional one of tosser.

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