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A New Strategy for Radical Change under MMP?

A New Strategy for Radical Change under MMP?

Philip McKibbin

The last general election, in 2017, doesn’t feel that long ago - but our next election will take place next year, in 2020. If that seems like a long way away, consider that the last U.S. election took place in 2016, and that numerous candidates, including Senator Bernie Sanders, have already announced that they will be running in their parties’ primaries.

Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, those of us on the Left got what we wanted in our last election. A Labour-Green coalition was the best we could realistically have hoped for (even if almost all of us would have preferred to do it without Winston Peters). It wasn’t enough. Our government has failed to make significant progress in addressing homelessness and child poverty, and it seems unlikely that inequality will be significantly reduced by the next election. Many of us were expecting more.

We need radical change. The triple crises of neoliberalism (with its attendant inequality, and all the social harms that that entails), ongoing oppression (of Māori, of women, and of non-human animals), and climate change, require resolution. We must accept that even a left-wing government - even one that strives to be ‘focused, empathetic, and strong’ - will not rise to these challenges without radical influence. We need a new strategy, and we need it now.

What do I mean by ‘radical change’? I mean policy that fundamentally transforms our country, so that Aotearoa New Zealand is a more just, caring, and exemplary nation – the very nation we want to be. I believe that it is still possible to achieve radical change through our democratic system.

In their book Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything, Becky Bond and Zack Exley, senior advisors to Bernie Sanders’ campaign, explain that big ideas not only inspire voters, but can prompt people to volunteer on campaigns:

‘[I]n big organizing, volunteer leaders emerge by the thousands from every classroom, family, office and work area, neighborhood, and prison block. The movement doesn’t need to awaken or even train them - these leaders emerge ready to make change, and they bring their full selves and life experience to the task of building an election that works.’

In order to mobilise people, we need a meaningful message and big goals, they write. ‘Instead of asking for the change that politicians think is possible, we have to ask for the change that is actually needed to solve problems.’

It is unlikely that we will convince a majority of New Zealanders to defy traditional politics and eschew both Labour and National - and the already-established minor parties - in favour of a new Radical Party… But we might just be able to rally enough people around a defined set of radical policies - enough, even, to ensure a new balance of power.

What, exactly, am I proposing? I believe that a minor party campaigning on a platform of three radical policies could spark transformational change here in Aotearoa New Zealand, and that MMP could facilitate this strategy. This party - let’s call it the Change! Party - would propose three policies. Each of these policies would be well-defined; it would be connected to one of our three crises (neoliberalism, ongoing oppression, or climate change); and it would have been painstakingly planned. Crucially, each of these policies, if implemented, would contribute toward radical change in one of those areas. On all other issues, the party would remain neutral.

A radical policy need not be ‘extreme’ or far-fetched. What qualifies a policy as radical is its potential to transform our society. One such policy might be to make te reo Māori compulsory in schools - a proposal which there is currently a lot of public support for. This policy would address the crisis of oppression, focusing on tāngata Māori (Māori people) and te ao Māori (the Māori world). The main aim of this policy wouldn’t be to revitalise the language - teaching it in schools won’t, in itself, accomplish that - but to foster understanding between Māori and tauiwi. Although this policy would not completely solve the problem of oppression, the understanding it generated would have profound implications for the future of our society. With an understanding of te ao Māori, our citizens would be better equipped to dismantle white supremacy, and together we would be able to construct a society that is truly inclusive and that draws on the collective strengths of our peoples. There are, of course, those who say that such a policy is unfeasible - but at least one academic has estimated that, if the political will was there, we could develop the capacity to teach te reo to all students up to Year 10 (i.e. fourth form) within six years.

The Change! Party would choose three such policies, develop them fully, and then campaign on them. Voters would know exactly what they were voting for. The party would commit to enacting two of those policies ‘as is’ (that is, exactly as they were being presented during the campaign) should they enter into a coalition. Why only two? Because this would give the party negotiating power, allowing them a much better chance of enacting radical change. They would then work with their potential coalition partner, or partners, to determine which two policies would be enacted. If it so happened that the Change! Party gained enough votes that no party could form a government without entering into a coalition with them, they would be in a position to insist on all three of their policies - and they might even be able to negotiate a coalition that would secure even more radical change than their three policies would achieve, provided they were given a mandate for it (they might, for example, secure promises of binding referenda on further radical policies, within guaranteed timeframes).

There are a number of risks involved in this strategy. The first objection that will be levelled at it is that the Change! Party might not secure enough support to enter into a coalition. But really, this is the risk that every voter always takes: the defeat would be no different to that which the National Party suffered in the last election, even though they gained more votes than any other party. The bigger, and more serious, risk is that the Change! Party would secure enough votes to enter into a coalition - but that, in order to enact two of its radical policies, it would have to work with a party whose other policies would do a lot of harm. (All of us can think of at least one party that we wouldn’t want in a coalition.) I think that enough voters would take this risk, though. No single policy will solve our crises, but the right policy could motivate radical movement - and two such policies could achieve more positive change than many parties accomplish even with a comprehensive agenda.

Another risk is that the Change! Party would further contribute to the fracturing of the Left - exacerbating the problem, and taking votes away from parties like the Labour Party and the Green Party, who are better-positioned to realise change. But there is no reason for thinking that the Change! Party need present itself as left-wing, or even that those who would vote for it would be left-leaning. If it chose the right policies, this party could secure support from across the political spectrum. Significantly, a party that promised to address climate change would encourage young people to vote - just as other radical policies might engage those who, traditionally, do not vote. If this party chose its policies carefully, in consultation with those groups who do not usually vote, it could help to ensure that the next government is more representative of Aotearoa New Zealand’s population, thereby fulfilling one of the promises of our MMP system: greater, and more diverse, representation.

As it would have a platform of only three policies, the Change! Party would be able to forgo campaigning for electorate seats. One weakness of this approach is that it would be relinquishing the opportunity to generate community support for its policies: while electorate seats would not be necessary for enacting its policies if the Change! Party got 5% of the party vote, putting forward electorate candidates, however slim their chances of being elected, would help to ensure that the party’s policies were being talked about during the campaign. In my opinion, this cynical strategy should be avoided – especially seeing as those candidates would not be able to promise anything to their electorates. I am in favour of an organic approach, one which would avoid giving the false illusion of ongoing consultation with respect to its three policies. (The Change! Party would seek a mandate, but the consultation informing its platform would have taken place before it was presented to the general public.) I believe the party could secure enough support without it. In their book, Bond and Exley emphasise the importance of conversations between supporters and potential voters. If the Change! Party managed to get its policies right, its campaign would emerge organically.

It is likely that the Change! Party would be painted as a protest party, but it must not be that. While it might push established parties toward radical policies, simply putting issues on the agenda should not be the main aim of this movement. In order to realise radical change, the Change! Party would need to get elected. (If this was not the case, we would already be seeing radical policy from our Labour-Green-New Zealand First coalition.) It is vitally important that, if this party is formed, it is - and presents itself as being - determined to get into government.

This radical strategy would only be successful if it embraced a positive, collaborative approach. In order to rally enough people around its platform, and in order to implement its policies, the Change! Party would have to encourage people to see past our differences. We would need to be willing to work with each other - even if that meant working with people who, historically, we have seen as our opponents. This would require maturity. We must unite for radical change.

So, what is to be done? If you believe that this strategy has potential, get behind it and make it happen - by establishing the party, by organising around it, or by supporting it financially. And if the Change! Party does get its policies right, vote for it in 2020!

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