Wednesday, 27 September 2017

ACT needs its own “Clause Four Moment”

With the ACT Party’s vote numbers now almost down to Libertarianz levels, the obvious questions are being asked about whether the party any longer has a purpose, other than simple being a reliable coalition appendage for what the party’s luminaries call “the centre-right.” (In other places, they would probably call it the “conservative” side of the tent.)

Digging out old files over the weekend, I came across the very first copy of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Newsletter from 1962, which throws some light on the woes of the ACT Party 2017.

Politics, she explains, is not a primary. Political goals cannot be achieved “without a wider ideological context."

Politics is based on three other philosophical disciplines: metaphysics, epistemology and ethics — on a theory of man’s nature and man’s relationship to existence. It is only on such a base thart one can formulate a consistent political theory and achieve it in practice. When, however, men attempt to rush into politics without such a base, the result is that embarrassing conglomeration of impotence, futility, inconsistency and superficiality which is loosely designated today as ‘conservatism’ [aka the ‘centre-right’].

Does that describe what folk here have seen of the ACT Party people this year? I fear so. Nice people, most of them, but having rushed into politics with little more than a naive and muddled utilitarianism they now see their party backed into the ghetto, every election, of explaining MMP to voters (three MPs for the price of one!) instead of being able to proudly and articulately promote their principles.

They might be reminded that, as Rand continued:

A half battle is worse than none: it does not end in mere defeat — it helps and hastens the victory of your enemies.

Is that not what we’ve seen?

A full battle might begin with tightening up those principles, and a programme of education so their candidates can articulate them.

They also desperately need troops on the ground. But both candidates and troops — and voters — may be more forthcoming if the other long overdue prescription for the party’s woes be undertaken. By which I mean dragging out the toxic carcasses of the former leaders still stinking up the political room, and very publicly euthanasing them.

How they do that is up to them, but if they wanted a model for how such a fumigation is done they could do worse than look at how and why Tony Blair dragged out the carcass of the Militant Tendency and undertook the battle over Clause 4 to make New Labour.

In short, they need their own “Clause Four Moment."

Without that they will just be rearranging deckchairs while the ship goes down. Neither voters nor spear carriers will be attracted unless those earlier sins be explunged. Whatever else may or may not be done, without that the party will guarantee its doom as a vital political force.


  1. I don't think proudly and loudly articulating your principles is entirely the answer. Politics is about gaining public support for specific policies and legislation. As I've articulated on this blog before, the only way to achieve political progress is to rachet these up progressively, via concrete proposals for change that a large portion of the population can support. I don't think there's any mutual exclusivity between this and what Ayn Rand pointed out. Both principle and concrete proposals have to work in conjunction for change to occur.

    But what is necessary in ACT, and what perhaps is still lacking is the confidence to fall back on these principles and defend them proudly when necessary, particularly when you're under attack and being accused of being nothing more than an 'advocate for the rich' (which is most people's perception of ACT). I think David Seymour has made some good progress, but I this his job is made harder than it would otherwise be because the ACT brand is tainted too much by it's earlier history.

    1. Nothing to disagree with there. (Except to note you can't ratchet up towards your political goals if you don't really know what those goals are, and know them down to the root.)

    2. I agree with your additional note. David does well, particularly given his age (and he should only get better with experience), but I too have seen his supporters fall back on "naive and muddled utilitarianism" when under pressure.

    3. Agreed. They had one moment in the limelight that could have either cured or cursed them: when the media tried the same 'gotcha' moment they tried before. Last time around it was Jamie Whyte (remember the 'incest 'moment?). Not to pick on her unduly, but his time around Beth Houlbrooke's comments landed in the media's lap, saying that parents who couldn't afford children shouldn't have them. Their ambush however delivered her a real opportunity to explain her point, explain the principle, and raise principled questions like: "why should parents who choose to be responsible and forego children until they can afford them be forced to pay for those who don, and so be delayed even further?" Not to say that's the only answer she could have made, but she could have taken the chance that landed in her lap and knocked the ball out of the park. Didn't happen, sadly, and instead the "nasty party" slurs just increased.

    4. One of Jamie Whyte's biggest issues was being unable to address the 'incest question'.

      Sorry Peter - there's no point being smug about principles if, applied to policy, they would result in legalising incest & bestiality.

  2. I received an ACT leaflet in the mail just before the election and was disappointed to see the only policy it outlined was to pay teachers more. It was as if their marketing people had told them that to emphasize any other of their policies would turn voters off. I doubt ACT converted even one voter (not even a teacher) with that leaflet, so what was the point?

  3. Agreed, Peter.

    Got into the emoting booth, on the day, however, and after threatening to put my vote elsewhere to get euthanasia and legalise cannabis in, gave my party vote to ACT because every other party is so God-awful.

    1. Ha. I'd intended to stay home until David Seymour told me that refusing to stand for the only classical liberal party in the country would just be spiteful. That showed balls. (Well, that and CP expressing sympathy for David's plight of being the one honest man in a tarpit of 120.)

    2. I also decided at the last minute to party vote act but I have thought for some time that the voting public want a nanny state that will hold their hands and wipe their bums for them and the type of political parties we have are a reflection of that.

  4. I attended the recent ACT conference in Auckland, and walked away rather disillusioned. The only policy mentioned was paying teachers more than their union agreement, via the taxpayer!

  5. "When, however, men attempt to rush into politics without such a base, the result is that embarrassing conglomeration of impotence, futility, inconsistency and superficiality which is loosely designated today as ‘conservatism’".

    Have to say this description fits both NZ First and National more than ACT.

    Anyway, now David is in opposition maybe we (freedom lovers) can rally around to help make the case. ACT needs (and I have said it so often) spokespeople outside of parliament. Their List can provide one or two for starters.

  6. nice to see someone offering a suggestion for how to correct the poor standing. Don Trashed the party's collective vote, and still works to ebb support over to National. Little else they are trying currently is working, so giving way to the Gen X-ers and motivated millenials is indeed the logical step. A prciples based approach will work with the echo boomers, or youtube generation, they already have quite adept political ideologies, and the percentage I interact with, are decidedly not so keen on being milk cows for the gov't dairy. If I am reading their comments correctly, there is going to be a taxpayer rebellion, with that generation telling the oldies to get a haircut and get a job, even if it cleaning their self drive ubers/ lyfts.

  7. ACT can also learn a lot from the rise of Donald Trump (and to a lesser degree Winston Peters). Not by copying their pragmatism and populism, or the content of what they say (which is often flawed), but observing their willingness to take on the media and PC establishment, say things many consider outrageous - and the fact it helps rather than hinders their popularity. There's a growing backlash against PC, and Trump's election and popularity can be explained almost entirely by him tapping into that.

    By contrast I think ACT were too focused on trying to appear 'reasonable' to everyone. The extra pay for teachers policy was a case in point - sensing there was an appetite for more government spending, they tried to direct it where it was most needed. But I think it was a big mistake in terms of undercutting the main message. Not that I disagree with the policy by itself (given the states dominance of the education sector), but it was not what they should have been focused on.

    Better off to provoke outrage amongst the media and PC crowd, get some publicity, and use that opportunity to promote the right policies that incrementally move us in the right direction. I agree with Peter that their was a huge missed opportunity in the 'parents who can't afford children shouldn't have them' comments. Instead of going into defensive mode, Beth should have doubled down on those comments and come out swinging. What she said exactly would have been secondary, she needed to come out strongly and gone on the attack against the entitlement mentality. Yes that would have provoked outrage, but only from those who would never vote for ACT anyway, and would have won a lot of respect and votes from the silent majority who aren't dependents.

    The policies they advocate can be moderate, and incrementally move us in the right direction - but the rhetoric behind them needs to be more radical and confronting. Of course it will provoke outrage against the media and PC establishment, but they need to see that as positive rather than negative, and I guarantee it will win them votes.

    In my view a winning combination would be:
    1) A Trump-like attitude
    2) A few well chosen specific policies that don't effect huge change by themselves, but start to move us in the right direction
    3) A sound understanding of the common principles that unite all those policies, and ability for all ACT candidates enunciate them clearly and confidently when required.

    I think they've sort of got 2 right, more on 3 is needed, and 1 requires a complete change in attitude.


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