Saturday, April 13

New Zealand needs a more working-class Parliament

In recent decades the New Zealand Parliament has become more representative of some of the historically neglected demographics in our society. As I told TVNZ’s Q+A programme in the weekend, it’s become browner, younger, more female and more gay, and this is good progress – see: New MP intake heavy on farmers, light on unionists.

But at the same time as Parliament has become more diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, and sexuality, it has become significantly narrower in terms of socioeconomics, occupation, or social class. Ordinary working-class people have been squeezed out of politics.

The trend reflects the professionalisation of politics that has occurred since about the 1980s, when all political parties increasingly became staffed and represented by people from the professional managerial class. Gone were the manual workers, the wage-earners, and in came the managers and higher socio-economic professions. Candidates and MPs were much more likely to be lawyers, public servants, accountants, and businesspeople than even teachers or nurses.

In the 2023 intake of 40 new MPs, ten are business owners, nine are former local government politicians, eight are lawyers, four are from media backgrounds, three are accountants, and another three are former parliamentary staffers. There are no union workers, classroom teachers, clerical workers, and certainly no blue-collar workers among them. Such occupations are seemingly unwelcome in today’s professionalised political parties.

At the same time, we have seen the rise of career politicians, with much younger candidates coming into Parliament after rising through the ranks of student associations, working as Parliamentary staffers, or even as local government politicians.

Labour’s professionalisation

A big part of Parliament’s changing demographics is due to the transformation of the Labour Party. Although the party was expressly established as a vehicle to get working class people into Parliament and Government, Labour has long since ceased with this aim and has become similar to National in terms of the backgrounds of the MPs and people at the top of the party.

The original Labour Party was based in the trade union movement, but by the 1980s it was a middle-class party – which is why the Fourth Labour Government was so easily captured by the neoliberal economic reform programme.

According to leftwing political commentator Josie Pagani, the middle-class bias of modern leftwing parties means that more liberal or social issues are prioritised instead of fixing the problems that most materially impact working class citizens. She argued earlier this year that parties of the left still promise a lot to the working class, but once in power “they reflect the priorities of the college-educated middle classes – who now run these parties. Ban plastic bags. Subsidies for EVs. Cycleways, ban hate speech” etc. Pagani argues that although Labour is inclined to sneer at the working class, what the party really now needs to do is “recruit more candidates who are comfortable in the smoko room, not just the university common room.”

Labour currently has a contradiction whereby the party’s caucus is mostly made up of middle class or wealthy individuals, yet they are seeking to win office on the votes of largely working-class people, with whom the party doesn’t have much organic connection. Increasingly Labour is seen as a creature of the Wellington central bureaucracy rather than ordinary people in provincial or working New Zealand. This isn’t helped by the fact that a quarter of the new Labour caucus live in the capital.

Conservatives reorientate back to farmers

The National Party has also been professionalising in recent decades, bringing in more of the professional managerial class as MPs and moving away from some of its original base in areas like farming. Whereas Federated Farmers was once known as “the National Party in gumboots” this connection dwindled after the 1980s, and farmer representation in Parliament declined too.

However, after National’s shock 2020 defeat the party has been rebuilding, which has involved bringing farmers back into the party, including as candidates. Hence the new National caucus has an influx of MPs from a farming background.

What’s more, Act and NZ First have also brought more farmers into Parliament. In the new intake there are, on current votes, going to be seven new farmers in Parliament. In fact, amongst the conservative parties there will now be a total 18 MPs with a farming or horticultural background.

This shift is in line with a global public mood that is against technocrats, insiders, and cosmopolitan elites. National, Act, and NZ First have grasped, to some degree, the populist Zeitgeist away from the professional managerial class, and have been electorally successful because of it.

Parliament’s working-class democratic deficit

Working class voices were largely absent from the recent election campaign. Instead, the contest was mostly just a debate between different elements of the educated classes and the wealthy.

Democracy suffers when politics is so narrow. It means our representatives simply don’t have the lived experience of ordinary people. They don’t have to worry about paying the bills, they don’t have to worry about the housing crisis.

Josie Pagani has recently pointed out that although only about nine per cent of the general public own more than one house, nearly two-thirds of Parliamentarians do. And while only one in four New Zealanders have a tertiary education degree, in Parliament it’s nine out of ten.

This means that our political system excludes most of the population – those who don’t have capital, great wealth, or aren’t highly educated. So, this large part of society is increasingly feeling disenfranchised. Pagani says: “If a group of people don’t see themselves – or their concerns – represented in their parliament, trust in government declines. Our country gets more divided.”

Furthermore, the fact that our Parliament is made up of the wealthy property-owning professional managerial class helps explain why governments do so little for working people. As Pagani points out, under the new professionalised model of politics the “share of the nation’s income going to wage earners, which had sat at around 70% in the 1970s, fell to under 60% by the late 2010s. If it had stayed at 70%, the average wage today would be $12,000 higher.”

The dominance of middle-class professionals also means that politicians do little to fix the many crises that disproportionately impacts those at the bottom – from the housing crisis through to the cost-of-living crisis, poor public transport or public health services.

For example, the current Prime Minister and Labour leader, Chris Hipkins, who was previously the Minister of Health, pays for personal private health insurance which means that unlike most citizens, he’s not so reliant on the underfunded and crisis-plagued public health system. It’s the same for most politicians, regardless of which party they are from – they’ve used their wealth and professional abilities to separate themselves from the travails and difficulties that most voters face.

Can the left bring working people into Parliament?

Perhaps, therefore, it’s time for the New Zealand Parliament to get an injection of working-class politics. National and the other conservative parties will always bring businesspeople into Parliament, and now we are seeing them return to their traditional constituency with more farmers too.

Looking at the left, it’s unlikely that the Green Party can foster any sort of working-class politics, as their voting constituency is very much the professional managerial class. It’s no coincidence that the Greens now win electorates like Auckland Central, Rongotai, and Wellington Central.

Perhaps it’s only the Labour Party that can bring working people into Parliament. And just because Labour has been failing on this doesn’t mean that the party can’t change. Certainly, after the party’s big defeat at the ballot box, and arguably its failed record in government, Labour is going to need to do some soul searching. This should involve questions about why the party exists, and who exactly it represents.

Although it might not be a popular proposal amongst the current Labour caucus, the answer to the party’s current woes could well lie in ditching the middle-class approach. Of course, all of this is more easily said than done. And ultimately, even if Labour decided to put more working people into Parliament, there’s a big question about whether such people would be ready to embrace a party that long ago abandoned the working class.

Dr Bryce Edwards is the Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished for free under a Creative Commons copyright-free license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project (https://democracyproject.nz)

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