Whenever a political party ceases to be relevant and loses its core reason to exist – effectively losing its ‘political soul’ – all manner of bizarre and dysfunctional personal behaviour arises and dominates the internal life of that organization. That’s what we’re currently seeing with the meltdown of the Act Party. For some time now within Act the focus on the ‘political’ has been replaced with that of the ‘personal’; what once was an intellectual powerhouse of the right with a coherent political goal and idealism has been transformed into a petty, personality-driven, feudal-like competition between ambitious and narcissistic individual egos. Instead of ideology, vision, and cohesion structuring such a party, we now see Act driven by desperation, bitter rivalries, free-flowing allegations, infighting and dirty tricks. Without a political soul, talented individuals in Act have been transformed into heavily flawed and unlikeable politicians. Without the dynamic of a higher-vision, the now extremely pragmatic Act has become an empty shell of a party, and what we’re seeing is the remnants bouncing around inside it. [Read more below]
An ideological schism
Somewhere at the core of the dramatic schism within the Act Party there has actually been an important ideological difference. As I’ve explained numerous times in the media over the last week – for example on TVNZ here, RNZ Checkpoint here, and RNZ Morning Report here – there are two overwhelming ideological factions battling things out to try and find a way out of the party’s popularity problems.
In the purist-neoliberal-radical wing, Roger Douglas and Heather Roy represent those that want the party to go back to its original goals that it was set up to further – neoliberal economic reform involving more deregulation, privatization, significantly reduced tax, etc. They also want the party in Parliament and government to be a bit more visible and outspoken. Such a strategy of being more independent of National, would involve admonishing the National Government for not doing enough, for not pushing through economic reform, and for not being bold and rightwing enough. So this is clearly the more rightwing faction within the dispute. Other key individuals that orientate to this faction obviously include Peter Tashkoff and Simon Ewing-Jarvie. John Boscawen once also seemed to this way inclined but seems to have swapped loyalties. Stephen Franks has now left Act, but is obviously still closely connected. Other key sympathisers outside the party probably include Matthew Hooton and Don Brash.
In the pragmatic-populist wing, Rodney Hide represents those that have always been willing and keen to moderate Act’s more radical policies and philosophies in the desire to stay relevant and gain a bit more power. In this sense, Hide is merely continuing to take Richard Prebble’s political direction to its ultimate conclusion. Prebble had taken over the leadership of the party in 1995 and quickly moderated the economic liberalism to make the party electable (see here), and he then encouraged the party to move in a social conservative direction (see here) for purely pragmatic reasons. This was the beginning of the slow death of the party’s political soul. Since becoming leader in 2004 Hide has merely ramped up this approach, finally killing off the party’s ideological quintessence.
In their heart-of-hearts, such individuals might be just as economically liberal and radical as Douglas and Roy – perhaps even more so – but they essentially are more pragmatic and willing to compromise. So they agree with all the neoliberal theory, but are more mindful of ‘political reality’, and more driven by opportunism and the desire to ‘make a difference’ even if this requires ‘toning things down a bit’.
This ‘realism’ means that they are more willing to work cooperatively, compliantly, and relatively quietly with the senior National Party in government. They’ve jettisoned the ‘old Act’ operating style of confrontation with other parties, of negativity, of criticizing, and want to be seen in a more positive light. This has been part of Hide’s reinvention as a more likeable and lightweight constituent MP – a prerequisite to being able to win and retain the support of swinging voters and moderates in his Epsom electorate. Hide also wants to play the ‘stability card’ – to show the public that Act can be a responsible and mature junior coalition partner.
It should be no surprise that such fervent ideological battles exist in the Act Party. After all, the party has always been inhabited by highly-ideological people and as I’ve detailed elsewhere (see here, here, here and here), Act has always been plagued by factions. Yet despite the ideological schism at the core of the current meltdown, this ideological battle has been somewhat distorted and deformed by other developments in the party. In particular, we can see that the Act Party has transformed into quite a different sort of organization to what it was in the early-to-mid 1990s. It is now a top-down organization where the leadership is rather less concerned with ideology or policy advancement and more concerned with its own interests.
As I’ve written elsewhere, we are witnessing the development of a ‘political class’ in party politics. Parliament is a place for an increasingly self-referential group of career professionals who develop an independent understanding of goals and objectives. Consequently, the leaders become divorced from party principles and their members, activists, and even their own voters. Act’s own leader, Rodney Hide, has even confirmed that this is the case: ‘We bump into our opposition parties in the airport all the time and you end up actually chatting away. There’s a sort of public thing of being against each other politically and all the rest of it, but there’s also a camaraderie in the sense that you’re in the same business’ (quoted in Evans, 1995: p.18).
Also instructive in understanding the death of Act’s ‘political soul’, is the work of Italian political sociologist, Robert Michels who published his book ‘Political Parties’ in 1911. Michels suggested that in any party its orginal ideals will eventually be corrupted because of the inevitable emergence of a powerful, autocratic elite to whom power became an end in itself rather than the means of achieving ideological goals. This was a universal tendency he identified as ‘the iron law of oligarchy’. Such a leadership structure would ultimately be conservative as it develops its own special interests and aims which are inevitably self-serving - as more and more such interests come to represent the organisation’s survival rather than the purposes for which the organisation was established. Michels asserted: ‘By a universally applicable law, every organ of labour, creates for itself, as soon as it becomes consolidated, interests peculiar to itself’ (Michels, 1949: p.196). These interests are inevitably self-serving - as more and more such interests come to represent the organisation’s survival rather than the purposes for which the organisation was established. Michels argues that once the leadership is established at the top of the bureaucratic pyramid, its primary concern becomes the maintenance of its own power.
According to Michels, the self-preservation interests of the bureaucracy will not just be conservative, but ‘in a given political situation these interests may dictate a defensive and even reactionary policy’ (Michels, 1949: p.373). In order to gain power, retain it, or just survive, political organisations need to win support beyond the confines of the party activists, which invariably means moderating their ideologies and policies – ‘original objectives are surrendered in the interest of increased organisational strength’.
The exhaustion of Act’s ideology
A central part of Act’s current problems lay in the exhausted ideological state of the political right. Hence on the right of politics conflict is not often driven by political principle but more often conflict driven by pragmatism or electoral calculation. This is a reflection of wider trends in parliamentary politics in New Zealand were there is not only an increasing ideological convergence by the parties, but also by an ideological exhaustion – a situation in which the ideological component of the party is less important or prominent. Act’s loss of its political soul is therefore just another example of how New Zealand parties have become the ultimate ‘catch-all’ organisations, watering down their policies in order to offend the fewest voters. In their quest to occupy the mushy centre ground, they have become less political and programmatical. In the absence of ideology, then, internal party fights have clearly become less about manifestos, programmes and policy, and more about leadership and trivialities. In every party we see a predominance of ‘scandals, defections and in-fighting’.
This increase in trivial politics – often erroneously attributed to MMP – is better understood within this context of the ideological convergence and exhaustion of party politics. Obviously in the absence of any real principle, policies or meaningful debate, other more trivial issues come to the fore and parliamentary politics has transformed further into a ‘circus’ than ever before. The narrowing of the political therefore also means its trivialisation. Furthermore, that these splits usually contain little substance indicates a general ‘internal weakness’ rather than ‘a dynamic political struggle’ going on. In line with party fragmentation, individuals or coalitions of individuals are often emerging as the key players, quite separately from their parties. The actual extra-parliamentary organisations and memberships are now less central. We’re certainly not seeing much involvement in this current meltdown from the membership – mostly because the Act Party seems to be a hollow shell, and the most independently minded members and activists have long since departed. It seems that although the party once claimed to have the second highest party membership in New Zealand – 14,000 members in 1999 – it now apparently only has about 1000.
Instead of coherent parties organised around programmes, political life is becoming a contest between personalities, cliques and factions that stand for little. For example, it is difficult to believe that many of the players in the current meltdown actually stand for anything much more than themselves. It seems that the weakening and incoherence of ideological vision means that the conflict between most of the individuals no longer structures debate in the party, and instead it is the trivial issues and personalities of individuals that matter most. It’s not surprising therefore that we have also witnessed such political fluidity and unpredictability in Act. Without the coherence of ideology, political policies are unstable, irregular, and fast changing. This is partly because the policy-making processes are now firmly in the hands of the highly pragmatic leadership – who make it up as they go along. What is deemed to be unpopular is quickly and quietly modified. Quite simply, because the Act party is not firmly anchored in any principles or even a movement outside of Parliament their policies are prone to dramatic changes overnight.
Part of this relates to the broader lack any policy dynamism on the right of politics. While parties of the left have largely given up on their traditional visions and policies, and have arrived at an accommodation with market capitalism, those on the right of politics are also yet to construct any new framework of big ideas with which to move forward. So it needs to be pointed out that it is not just leftwing ideas which appear to lack relevance today, but also rightwing ones. The dynamic Rogernomics and Ruthenusia crusades have long since passed and the once confident rightwing agenda is exhausted. The National Party has now been in search of self-definition for a decade and a half, and under Shipley, English, Brash and now Key has failed to come up with any new ‘big idea’ or coherent party identity. The party inspires few as it has lost steam as a party of change.
The role of individualism in Act's meltdown
The dysfunctional and somewhat unappealing human dimensions that we’re currently witnessing within Act have obviously always existed within the party – it’s just that previously such elements have been more successfully suppressed and kept in check by a unity of purpose, idealism, and a forward momentum. This is the case for most political parties. When the party is strongly focused on ‘changing the world’ or whatever ideological goal it is pursuing then the human frailties and flaws of the individuals involved are organically suppressed. Essentially the common pursuit of the ‘greater good’ by party activists and leaders leads to some self-regulation of personal ambition and narcissistic politics. In such a healthy organisation that is focused on policy and on building the party, the individualism of all involved is not respected, rewarded or tolerated.
However, Act, of course has always been prone towards the sort of behaviour we’re currently seeing due to its strong philosophical belief in individualism. As a party of the neoliberal right, it propagates the idea that individualism is a powerful and positive model for organizing all of society. It wants the New Zealand economy to be based on individuals in dynamic competition with one another, believing ala Adam Smith that this is what creates the most ideal situation in which everyone ultimately benefits from individuals pursuing their self interest. With some poetic justice or irony, the party also practiced what it preached, and the Act Party itself has always modeled itself on a corporate entity made up of individualists pursuing their own self-interest, and hence it’s not surprising therefore that the party has always been riven by schisms and infighting.
The current meltdown in Act is fascinating. But once you cut through all the minutia of the drama you realize that much of it isn't really that important. But the bigger picture is. The lesson is that what we're seeing is the absurd personal stuff that comes to the surface when a party loses its soul and direction – it becomes a cesspit of personal failings. Although there are some important ideological divisions at the core of the split, much of this ‘ideological’ fight is somewhat distorted by the fact that the party is now an empty shell rather than any sort of healthy, ideological movement involved.