The election is approaching and I don’t know who to vote for. This is not unusual for me, I find voting difficult. Occasionally there is an election where the implications of one outcome over another are so clear that voting becomes a simple matter, but mostly I find the opposite to be true. It’s tremendously difficult, or so it seems to me, to work out exactly what the impact of one vote or another will be.
One way around this difficulty is to indulge in what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to as problem substitution. When faced with a very difficult decision (which party’s stance to the Reserve Bank Act is most likely to help low income workers in the regions?) it is not uncommon for the human being to substitute a much simpler problem (which of these two leaders’ smiles do I find most engaging?) The remarkable thing about problem substitution is not that we do it, but that we do it without realising. Talk to any of the very great number of voters who have apparently returned to Labour in recent weeks and they will concoct any number of respectable reasons why they have shifted even though, despite Labour’s protestations, very little has changed on the policy front. They’re still substantially the same party, offering the same solutions, to be implemented by the same personnel. The thing that has actually changed is the thing those people who designed the new billboards understand very well. A huge shift in the ‘would I like to be friends with that person?’ instinct. And that’s fairly depressing.
The other way around the difficulty of judging political competence is simply to think tribally, aligning oneself with that group who most feel like your kind of people. This is the ‘shares my values’ test also much exploited by political operatives. It works best if one is prepared to stick doggedly to cheap stereotypes (The Greens hate progress, Act hate the poor, National don’t care for the workers, etc). We then find some easy term of dismissal for the groups we don’t like (neo-liberals, socialists, fascists eco-freaks etc) and rest secure in the knowlesdge that ours is a vote for righteousness. The problem is readily apparent to anyone with even a passing interest in New Zealand politics. So-called conservative governments have supported progressive social agenda (yet are never accused of nanny-stateism), so called workers’ parties have been responsible for the greatest rise in inequality and so forth. As a school teacher and union member, it has always been easy to believe that teachers are better supported by Labour than National governments. However, plot real teaching incomes over the last five decades against flavour of government and the results are challenging to say the least. Tribalism, along with personality politics, are clearly useless guides to pragmatic outcomes, and one can argue that a disaster like Trump is possible only because of the popularity of these two approaches to vote choosing, and yet how else is one to decide?
It is easy to pontificate on the importance of policy, and how we should be having informed policy discussions in the lead up to an election, but as one who has spent the last little while attempting to locate and analyse various political parties’ policies, I must report this is much harder than it looks. In the case of the incumbent government, I have a fair idea what their policies look like, because they’re doing them. I know roughly speaking where their spending priorities lies, what their approach to education and health provision is, the way they want to target welfare spending and so forth. Some of it I like, much of it I don’t, but I know what I’m getting at least.
But wander into the oppositions territory and it’s not hard to discover what their leaders look like (on a good day, in favourable light, with their chin up) or which tribe they seek to engage. Had enough? asks Winston from his billboard. Enough of what, exactly? Let’s do this, urges Jacinda. Okay, do what? The Greens were great together, but now they’re not, and so forth. Finding out what they’d actually do is less simple. I fully understand that not every small party has the resource to flesh out policy on all fronts but if you think of something as basic as fiscal policy, those mechanisms for raising and distributing funds from which all government policy ultimately flows, then I do actually expect at least a sense of where they stand, and what they’d do. The Greens are clear on some things they’d like to spend more on (the bulk of which is social rather than environmental spending, fair enough, I support that, but it does suggest why they find it hard to solidify their support base.) What I can’t find, beyond a pledge to fiscal responsibility, is exactly where the money for the initiatives come from. I’m prepared to accept theymay have worked out the nuts and bolts of a wealth tax, or capital gains tax, or transaction tax, or they’re interested in relaxing monetary policy or whatever. They may have a plan. But I don’t know what it is, and if it’s on their website, they’ve made the detail hard to find. So is it okay to vote for them because I agree with their priorities, when I don’t know how they’d achieve them? I’m not sure it is.
Labour have had nine well-funded years in opposition to come up with an approach to fiscal management. So, where do they stand on capital gains tax? We don’t know, because they say they don’t know. Seriously, their idea is to have a working party on it after the election. They can’t say what its recommendations will be, nor whether they’d follow them anyway. Is it okay to vote for that plan? I’m not sure it is. It seems to me, if you can’t get policy together during a nine year stint, it’s reasonable to worry about your ability to function on a day to day basis. This isn’t a one-off. Their policy on National Standards in primary schools is similarly vague. Yes, standards will go (or least won’t be compulsory) but may be replaced by something, not sure what.
Gareth Morgan got in trouble for making this policy point about Labour (and indeed he was being typically and unhelpfully belligerent in his choice of metaphor) yet his point is a good one. Voters do want a sense of what might happen under a particular party. And, for all the things there are to grumble about with TOP, I must say their website was the most informative. There’s plenty to criticise there, for sure, but that’s because there’s plenty there. The broader point is this. It’s all very well to lambaste the media for not focusing on policy, but in many cases it’s because the policy simply isn’t there.
Just as frustrating as the difficulty with discovering policy, is the fact that even with the best of intentions, parties still need to choose their headline policy acts. That means that the things an individual voter might care most about might simply never appear on any policy statements. As a teacher I have grave misgivings about a number of social directions we’re taking. Our cultural endorsement of alcohol addiction is a blight, the rise in anxiety illnesses in adolescence speaks to an complete inversion of values within our education system, the casual and widespread acceptance of the pornification of society to my mind threatens our capacity for intimacy (and so social stability), the enthusiastic embrace of all things digital in education strikes me as dangerously misguided, and so it goes on. But, because none of the political parties have a policy on education or youth that even vaguely reflects my values or aspirations, no matter how interested in policy I am, it won’t help me in the election in this regard.
The other element to consider is that policy isn’t the only game in town. If government is likened to a sport, then policy is essentially the team tactics. And one can have the best tactics in the world, but without the skills to implement it, it’s worth nothing. Politics occurs against an ever-moving backdrop of social and economic circumstance, and a great deal of what politicians actually do in power will be about reacting, and inventing solutions on the hoof. A government with excellent policies but bumbling practitioners is a disaster. So, while it is true that personality is overrated in politics, it is not necessarily fair to say the same of character. Calm, smart, hard working, fair minded folk with control of their egos are exactly the people we want in government, and it’s entirely irrational to care about that just as much as policy detail. Again, as is the case in almost all arguments in 2017, Trump stands as the perfect warning against paying too little attention to character.
So, who to vote for? I really have no idea.