Friday, 13 April 2012

Woo Them, Or Lose Them.

Your Target Audience, Or Your Audience's Target? "Politics", if it means anything at all to the tens-of-thousands of young electoral abstainers, is generally construed as the sum of all their fears, and politicians, far from being regarded as the people they elect to do things for them, are seen as the people others elect to do things to them.

THE MANNER IN WHICH the Right took control of the Auckland University Students Association (AUSA) is really quite instructive.

From the late-1960s until the late-1980s, with some notable exceptions (the Green MP, Kevin Hague, being one of them) AUSA presidents, newspaper editors and executive members tended to hail from the Left. Then, as successive governments encouraged more and more foreign students to enrol at New Zealand’s universities, things began to change.

Given the New Zealand’s Left’s infatuation with all things “international”, one might assume that its candidates would be the first to reach out to this new and growing student constituency. But, one would be wrong. Their reputation for beer-swilling racist redneckery notwithstanding, the first student politicians to think of printing posters and pamphlets in the native tongues of Auckland’s foreign students hailed from the Right. In return for this rare gesture of welcome and recognition, foreign students consistently rewarded the Right’s candidates with a winning margin of votes.

The moral of this story is clear: “Never allow a new and growing political constituency to go unwooed. Because if you don’t woo ‘em, somebody else is bound to.”


IN THE LAST ELECTION just over three-and-a-quarter million New Zealanders were eligible to vote. On the day, however, only just over two-and-a-quarter million Kiwis actually made it to the polling booths. Or, to put it more precisely, only 69.6 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2011 General Election – one of the lowest turnouts on record.

Now, there will always be a hard-core of the more feckless sort of citizen who’ll just never be bothered taking their civic responsibilities seriously (a statistician friend of mine reckons the figure hovers somewhere around the six percent mark). There’s another group, however, whose refusal to enter the polling booth is a conscious political statement. These abstainers, and their  number has been growing steadily since the mid-1980s, have a blunt message for the political parties: “You don’t know me. You won’t help me. You don’t understand me. You can’t even speak my language.” A significant minority add: “You betrayed me.”

Overwhelmingly, these abstainers are young (18-25 years) poorly-educated and unskilled workers and beneficiaries, and most of them reside in electorates that, historically, have been Labour strongholds. “Politics”, if it means anything at all to these youngsters, is generally construed as the sum of all their fears, and “politicians”, far from being regarded as people they elect to do things for them, are seen as the people others elect to do things to them. They couldn’t tell you how they know, but they do know, and deep in their gut the knowledge festers like a malignant tumour: they are the ones who are being blamed; they are the ones who are being punished; for economic and social sins they can barely pronounce.


THESE YOUNGSTERS should be the apples of Labour’s eye. The ones for whom “Seddon and Savage”, James K. Baxter’s “Socialist Father”, returns in the poem Crossing Cook Strait. For, surely, these are “the angry poor” who are his nation? And surely it is their suffering, and the social and economic injustice which engenders it, that defines Labour’s “peril and purpose”?

They should be Labour’s people, but they are not. Indeed, it is the children of these young folk that Labour once again proposes to abandon by jettisoning its policy of increasing the incomes of beneficiary families.

That amounts to the purest political folly, because, given half a chance, this scapegoat generation, these angry thousands, possess the power to carry not only Labour, but this whole country into the future. The story of New Zealand’s tomorrow will be the story of how well, or how badly, Labour responds to the challenge of uplifting these alienated abstainers. Of how, or whether, a future left-wing government provides them with the education; the training; the housing; and, ultimately, the responsibility to keep our society whole.

And if the Left refuses to woo them? Then, be warned – somebody else will.

"Our Last Hope: Hitler" Nazi Party election poster from the early 1930s. In 1932 six million Germans were out of work. In that same year electoral support for the Nazis peaked at 37.2 percent .

This essay was originally published in The Dominion-Post, The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 April 2012.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Oh Chris, you have been posting some very good columns in the last few days. I hope David Shearer is reading them, regards from bob L

Anonymous said...

I would have to disagree with much of this post. The success of the right in wooing immigrant and foreign students to vote for them was in my experience little to do with neglect by the left, but much more to do with the (in many cases) extreme conservatism they brought with them. For example, I knew many Asian students around that time (some as peers, some I ended up teaching), most of them nice people, but most of whom had hair curlingly conservative views on politics. Sometimes this was because they had been dumped in New Zealand by very wealthy parents, and had the typical view of the bourgeois about unions and welfare; other times it was because they came from places with no tradition of social welfare, where you had family support instead.

I'd also place some of the blame for low voter turnout on something that you and other NZ political bloggers seem unwilling or unable to write about, and that is disaffection with democracy itself. People assume that democracy is a transparent system that exists only to enact the will of the voters. I don't think that's true (and there's quite a bit of scholarship to demonstrate that).

Take the following analogy: the capitalist system of property rights we live under makes it easy to exercise rights over medium sized dry goods, and less easy to do so over other things. The result is that we have an abundance of medium sized dry goods, and rather less of some other goods. Similarly, democracies are relatively good at providing short term individual goods, but rather bad at providing long term collective goods. In just the same way that the modern economy is great at providing people with personally tailored consumer goods (whereas in the old days people had to put up with having the very same stuff as others – in my class most people wore identical shoes), modern political polling and branding is great at providing people with political brands they can identify with as individuals. Hence, the nebulous feel-good politics we have, and its inability to accomplish anything substantial and affirmative. Voting is fraught with collective action problems that just make it even worse.

So, if your political tastes tend to long term collective goods (like doing something about the climate problem), democracy has not much to offer you. In other words, democracy can solve every political problem except itself.

That's why I stopped voting. I reckon Adam Curtis is right: we are stuck in our own version of the Brezhnev stagnation because our political system cannot effect the necessary change. Just what to do about this, I have no idea. I'm certainly not going to waste my time voting for the inevitable right wing government we will get whatever brand it is packaged as (coming soon to an election near you: "Nanny Whip" Collins versus "Richard Briers" Shearer – vote for a smacked bottom or a weak cup of tea...).

andrewmahon1234 said...

Hopefully the Green Party will extend WFF to beneficiaries. A vital idea.

Coquecigrue said...

You're right. And we've been there. The result of it ? National Front at 15%. And most of those young voting first choice. When NZ First will be at 15, believe me, it will be too late to regret. It will be there to stay. We know.

Steinberg said...

***challenge of uplifting these alienated abstainers. Of how, or whether, a future left-wing government provides them with the education; the training; the housing; and, ultimately, the responsibility to keep our society whole.***

I think if you talk to some family and criminal lawyers they'll note the need to make contraception a condition of welfare. Otherwise the number of dependents will simply expand to the point it becomes unsustainable.

Otherwise, NZ will need to continue to import human capital from Asia to prop up a decline in productive workers along with a growing beneficiary class.

Or if you look at Professor Steve Hsu's research with Beijing Genomics Institute there may be the prospect of improving human cognitive ability, which may alleviate the problem of a growing underclass. Will be interesting to see how that pans out.

mel said...

@ Steinberg
I think if you talk to some family and criminal lawyers they'll note the need to make contraception a condition of welfare. Otherwise the number of dependents will simply expand to the point it becomes unsustainable.

Of course anecdotal evidence from people you have chatted to is always more important than facts. It is much simpler to blame the poor for the lack of jobs by labelling them (name calling and bullying actually) and therefore re-writing the discourse away from the wealthy and the greedy, and away from the inactions of the Government to ensure meaningful and well paid employment for people.

I believe that in order to engage our disaffected youth we have to offer them a 'real future' and a meaningful role in society.

Further, we need to ensure that voting is as easy as buying consumer goods. Let's make it electronic and available through the internet.

Tiger Mountain said...

This is a biggie. Who could blame young’uns for hating us older folk that helped create (often by lack of action in the face of neo liberalism) the steaming pile of a world they face today.

Student loans, high unemployment, unpaid internships (aka slave labour), pizza delivering grey beards taking their entry level jobs etc.

But; I can blame some of the skinny jean wearing, 24 hr texting me me’s for being straight out thick. If they are meant to be individualist and self centred would not a $2 per hour pay rise ($15 min wage) be of some interest? Apparently not. So yes, internet voting may have to be implemented to tempt some of the recalcitrant non voters, but the vision of some digital “hanging chad” or crooks spiking the software remains a concern.

Brendan said...

Chris wrote:

"it is the children of these young folk that Labour once again proposes to abandon by jettisoning its policy of increasing the incomes of beneficiary families."

I suspect they have jettisoned this policy because it was downright foolish to begin with, and they rightly recognized that most New Zealanders intuitively know this.

You cannot eliminate poverty by increasing the value of benefit payments. You simply increase the pool of beneficiaries.

You cannot eliminate 'child poverty' by paying their parent(s) larger benefits as typically those children who are in real poverty are neglected by their parent(s) in the first place.

Increased payments don't reach the children.

We should be thankful that these folks by and large don't vote. It would / will signal the end of democracy when it's constituents can vote for themselves, ever large sums from the State purse on the premiss that 'someone else' will pay.

Libertyscott said...

So the opposite of socialists - people who believe the state should have a strong interventionist role in the economy (and indeed in discourse and property rights) are fascists - people who believe the state should have a strong interventionist role in the economy?

For shame.

National socialism is not the opposite of socialism. Libertarian pro-capitalists are.

Just because you don't like them is not an excuse for intellectual laziness and Godwin's law. Stalin and Hitler were only different in their scapegoats and vision of what eggs they were willing to break (kulaks vs Jews) and what their ideal omelette was.

Where do you put people on the political spectrum who believe in a minimal state? or do you really think there is some parallel between anarcho-capitalists/libertarians and Nazis?

Victor said...

Chris

I concur with your general sentiments.

However, a look through Bowally Road's now copious archives would reveal a thread from last year, in which 'Markus' argues against the notion that unemployed youth in the late Weimar Republic were disproportionately drawn to Hitler.

Markus is a mean man with a statistic and his argument quite coinvincing. So, unless I've mistaken your purpose, your chilling reproduction of a Nazi poster might not be completely apposite.

I also think that today's disaffected youth are a pretty diverse bunch, with disaffection certainly not restricted to the economically most deprived or even the socially most marginalised.

Common sense suggests that their very diversity would prevent them cohering politically. But common sense may be wrong.

In my now distant youth, we were warned never to trust anyone over 40 and it seems to me that we're now into a similar period of cross-generational disenchantment.

Meanwhile, I'm troubled by the recurrent disaffection with constitutional democracy evident amongst some posters to this site.

Anonymous@11.35 has provided the most lucid example so far of this trend.

A sense of history leads me to shudder at this shift in attitudes.

However, the fact is that, in country after country, Democracy no longer seems to either offer effective choices or to bring people of substance and integrity to power.

I'm still largely in agreement with Churchill that "Democracy is by far the worst system of government, apart from all the others".

But it's becoming surprisingly harder to make even this minimal case in a world of Bushes, Blairs, Sakos, Camerons etc and, in which, a no doubt intelligent and well-intentioned man, such as Obama, is reduced to a cifer.

Robert M said...

My impression is the brightest students are fleeing NZ for a more exciting social life, probably in many respects the possibility of a more exciting less observed sex life and freerer drug taking.
In terms of who elected the National Socialists in Germany, they got virtually zero vote from the unemployed or working class. The electorate was perfectly split with the working class voting only social democrat and KPD. The Nazi message in l930-33 was hostility to the unemployed of more than get on your bike approach. Whatever the socialist leanings of Hitler, Goebbels or Bornman their sort of militarised socialism would never have attracted support from more than about 2% of the electorate. The Nazis got massive support from taking a standard hard right approach somewhat similar to Vidella, Pinocchet and Milosovich.
The basic message was they would pauperise the working class and exterminate the Communist supporting proletariat- that is what the middle class in Germany, UK and USA supported and it is indeed the real reason the Nazi concentration camp was planned by those ex AirForce and Navy officers Heydrich and Goring. That is what it was really about. Hitler was the only anti semetic fanatic.
The camps were actually built to destroy the European hard left and proletariat.

Chris Trotter said...

To Victor:

Strange though it may sound, the electoral support of the large numbers of unemployed workers in German cities such as Berlin and Hamburg actually ocillated between the NSDAP and the KPD.

Historians suggest it was actually the Nazi and the Communist engagement at street level, and their social support activities, that attracted the support of young unemployed workers in particular.

There are modern echoes of this in the conduct of Islamist organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Nick said...

@Libertyscott You say "National socialism is not the opposite of socialism. Libertarian pro-capitalists are.

Just because you don't like them is not an excuse for intellectual laziness and Godwin's law."


That to me reads like the standard tagging of an ideologue whose intellectual laziness cannot conceive of anything other than absolutes.

Lets just examine who bank-rolled the Nazis, those same self capitalists (maybe even libertarian proto capitalists...its all the same shade of grey to me) who thought to advance their property rights and exploit labour by way of the Nazis. They dont sound in the slightest to me like hardline Soviet socialists.

It would appear to me that ideologues dont ever think about the balance between polar opposites and how there may be a tension keeping balance. Its just tag and label, which in the case of extremes creates extreme results, like concentration camps and gulags.

Victor said...

Hi Chris

I've located Markus's comment on the thread relating to your item about John Galliano in March of last year. I quote:

"One particularly interesting piece of research employed the most up-to-date multiple-regression software to compare the proportion of different social groups voting Nazi in July 1932 - the election in which the Nazis reached their absolute electoral apex with 38% of the vote nationwide. (of course, they took 44% in March 1933 but historians discount that election as little more than a sham).

"So, from memory, the July 1932 Nazi-voting percentages specifically for those social sectors most immune to Hitler's appeal were (bearing in mind, the point of comparison here is the nationwide Nazi vote of 38%): (1) People who had voted for the German Communist Party in one or more of the previous 3 General Elections (about 4% of whom are estimated to have voted Nazi in July 1932), (2) The Unemployed (9%), (3) The unionised industrial working-class (16%), (4) People who had voted Social Democrat in one or more of the previous 3 General Elections (18%), (5) Residents of Germany's largest cities (20%)."

If these figures are correct (and Markus was citing memory), then sometime Communist voters and the unemployed were considerably less likely than other Germans to have voted Nazi in any of the elections that accompanied the fall of the Weimar Republic.

I must admit that these statistics surprised me as, like you, I had been under the impression that there was much movement between Brown and Red and vice versa in the fevered atmosphere of that period.

Markus's figures don't include an age break-down. But, even if we assume that the Nazis were generally more attractive to the young, we can also probably assume that youth were disproportionately represented amongst the unemployed, who remained one of the cohorts least likely to vote for Hitler.

Of course,not everyone who voted Nazi or Communist participated in the street armies. Perhaps there are statistics available concerning active Red Front fighters who became Brownshirts and vice versa. When I get time, I will burrow away and see what I can find.

In the meantime, can someone please find Markus and get him to comment?

Chris Trotter said...

I guess, Victor, that what it boils down to is whether you place your trust in the "latest multiple-regression software", or in the experience of those who were there.

I know who I'm putting my money on.

Victor said...

So whom are you citing?

Chris Trotter said...

I'd have to revisit all the basic texts: Bullock, Fest, Kershaw, Flood, etc; and check their footnotes.

Something for a day when I've got more time, Victor.

Victor said...

Fair enough.

Likewise.