Only 68% of potential voters bothered to vote in New Zealand’s latest election. Commentators have already given various clichéd responses to this record low turnout including the likes of: ‘the 32% who didn’t vote failed in their duty to participate in our democratic system’; ‘the 1 million non-participants represent the apathetic and apolitical’; and ‘those who didn’t vote shouldn’t complain about the government we now have’. In contrast to such patronising words of wisdom, guest blogger John Moore argues that not voting is in fact a rational and sensible response to bland politics. In light of an election where most of the parliamentary parties promoted ‘strategic’ voting to bring about either a Labour-led or National-led government, turning away from mainstream politics in disgust or out of sheer boredom should be seen as a legitimate action. The fact is that for many eligible voters neither of the ideologically similar two major parties seem particularly likeable, and so abstaining from this election clearly seemed like the most sensible thing to do. [Read more below]
The bored and the disaffected
The 1 million eligible voters who didn’t vote in this election obviously ranges from people who find politics a complete turn-off through to those who are politically engaged but find the lack of real choice alienating.
People’s boredom with politics can be easily dismissed as a sign of increasing levels of indifference and apathy shown towards societal concerns. However, boredom can also be seen as a legitimate response to what is in reality bland and indifferent politics. Would anyone for example seriously claim that either John Key or Phil Goff make politics exciting?
Mainstream politics no longer concerns itself with big questions around concerns such as inequality and poverty, and ‘How should society be run?’. Instead modern day politics has been reduced to electing the best managers to run national capitalist economies. The question of who should govern is then reduced down to who are the most qualified, the most trustworthy and the most likeable politicians to act as governmental technocrats. Serious discussion around policy and ideology is usually absent from modern political discourse. In light of such superficial politics, is it no wonder that so many potential voters switch off and see politics as boring.
Up until relatively recently most eligible voters in New Zealand were politically engaged. New Zealand had had one of the highest voter turnouts in the developed world, and politics – at least at election time – was commonly touched upon at workplace breaks, in bars and in homes. So the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have suddenly switched off from politics can be partly explained by a growing sense of alienation and disaffection from the parliamentary system. With the fact that the two major parties largely agree on how the economy should be run, and with the political difference between major parties being largely manufactured and false, a lack of real choice logically leads to voter turn-off.
New Zealand’s electoral system of democracy continues to be a faux-competition where the government alternates between being a Labour-dominated or National-dominated regime. The reality of this effective political duopoly is clearly off putting for many potential voters. However, this begs the question of why MMP has failed to shake up the two-party party system?
One answer to this is the failure of the minor parties to attempt to break this duopoly. So, all of the minor parties accept and in many cases promote a political system limited to a choice between two forms of government, either one dominated by Labour or by National. With the reality of strong ideological similarity between the major political parties, for many such a choice seems like no choice at all.
The failure of the left
Many on the left seem aghast that workers and beneficiaries didn’t take up their advice to vote out a National-led government. Constant scaremongering about the supposedly rabid right-wing nature of John Key and his colleagues has failed to resonate with the left’s traditional constituency. Such Chicken Little style discourse (‘The sky is falling!’) is righty treated cynically by most potential voters who accept the centrist and cautious nature of the current regime. Equally much of the electorate clearly sees little to differ between the major parties. This is highlighted by the reality that a large proportion of votes are now cast on decisions based around the trustworthiness and likeability of political leaders, rather than being based on the political programmes and manifestos of parties.
Yet despite this growing cynicism towards politics, the political left reverted to form and rallied behind the promotion of a Labour-centred government. So, for example, Matt McCarten, a central influence on and leader in the leftwing Mana Party, called for a strategic vote for Labour candidates. The Mana leader advised left voters to 'strategically' vote for certain Labour MPs as well as to vote for Tory candidate Paul Goldsmith. He even argued for left voters in Waitakere to give their electoral vote to Labour’s Carmel Sepuloni instead of Mana candidate Sue Bradford! McCarten’s rationale for voting for Labour candidates is clear – he sees the party as progressive and as increasingly pro-working class. However for left voters who want a real alterative to Labour and fail to see the party as truly leftwing, McCarten’s advice would be off-putting. McCarten, and his leftwing allies, had a chance in this election to promote an independent working class alternative to Labour. Their failure to do this partly explains continued disaffection with politics amongst the left’s traditional working class constituency.
Many on the left are looking for a political alternative to Labour, but neither McCarten nor the rest of the Mana left offered such an alternative to voters. All we got was unconvincing propaganda promoting the need to get rid of the Nats and to vote strategically for bringing about a Labour-led government. Such cynical ‘pro-Labour/anti-Tory’ politics only feeds growing levels of cynicism.
Alternatives to parliamentary politics
What alternative is there to this bland and boring parliamentary politics? Is the only option for those with a distaste for realpolitik, to simply turn away in disgust and get on with one’s life? Such an option clearly seems the right one for many, but the danger of course is that major decisions that affect our lives are suddenly left in the hands of an unrepresentative political elite. How then to make politics seem exciting and worthwhile for the politically disaffected? The left especially has a potentially important role to play in promoting a form of politics that goes beyond the machinations of parliament. To some degree the Occupy movement is highlighting a politics that transcends parliamentary democracy, and equally promoting a form of politics that is open to direct participation.
Whereas the actual election has led to little interesting discussion on any big ideas, the Occupy movement in New Zealand has actually allowed the media to engage with some pressing political questions. For example the Dominion Post had a pre-election special on inequality in New Zealand, which was a clear reference to the concerns of the Occupy movement here in New Zealand and overseas. The TV3 documentary on child poverty equally raised issues of concern raised by the anti-capitalist protesters, but only superficially dealt with my politicians. Clearly the presence of radical protesters in New Zealand’s urban centres has acted to challenge some of the orthodoxies of political wisdom and has either forced or allowed the media to tackle political questions that go beyond the soap opera of parliamentary politics. So, while the election centred on personalities, teapot conspiracies and endless polls, a more real and relevant form of politics was coming out of protest camps from Dunedin to Auckland. If these protests continue to grow then their message can resonate with the growing numbers of the politically disaffected. Equally the presence of the Occupy protests allows an engagement with radical alternatives to parliamentary politics and capitalism, including ideas stemming from Marxism and anarchism. The best of both traditions have presented a politics that sees parliamentary democracy as a sham and promotes direct democratic participation and radical system change through militant unionism, workers councils, and revolutionary organisations.
The danger for the Occupy movement of course is that it will succumb to the allure of parliamentary politics and possibly become a partial adjunct to the Labour Party, to the Greens or to Mana. Of course, the Mana Party would seem a logical party for the Occupy protesters to support. However, Mana’s role now seems to be to promote the desirability of a Labour-led government, and so support for Mana unfortunately amounts to support for a continuation of New Zealand’s political duopoly. If the movement resists such a temptation to align itself with parliamentary parties, a portion of the 32% who didn’t vote this election could be drawn into an exciting new form of politics that transcends boring and bland electoral politics.