To the innovations and novelties contributed to global politics by Australia — the government-issue ballot, exhaustive preferential voting, federal use of the Hare-Clark system, Senate one-above-the-line voting, abolishing Senate one-above-the-line voting — and the innovations of the Northern Territory — the 1-litre tinnie, the only AA branch to close down for lack of membership — comes a twofer.
In the current cycle of political upheaval and institutional white-anting, the NT has created a political first of recent times: a victory so comprehensive that there is no actual opposition. As it currently stands, the CLP will take two-three seats in the 25-seat Parliament, independents three, to Labor’s 18. That leaves the CLP behind or equal with a group of independents who form no unified politics. That raises questions as to whether they should have a privileged voice in the Parliament — and certainly makes it impossible for them to field a full shadow cabinet. Some jerry-rigged alliance will be struck, or the Speaker will need to play a very active role in directing Parliament.
Huge swings are not uncommon in the NT, and there were local reasons for the wholesale rejection of the CLP, but the result also formed part of the global trend towards great political shifts — motions that show a sudden crumbling away of support beneath parties that have persisted for decades, if not longer. In the US, Donald Trump is taking the Republicans to support levels not seen since the Barry Goldwater candidacy of 1964 — a man who more or less promised to start a nuclear war — and, state-by-state, it’s worse.
Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico were swing states in 2004 and 2008 — they’re +10% for the Democrats now. Arizona, North Carolina, and Georgia were safe Republican and are now well in play. The fall of these states would expose the thermal core of Republican politics: Texas, their only big state. The Democrats hold New York and California by more than 20%. The Republicans hold Texas by 6-10% on current polls. If the likely Trump thumping occurs, and the subsequent years bring a further rise in Hispanic voters and members of the wider professional/knowledge classes in big cities, then the Republican party is finished as a presidential outfit. They have no path to power. Such an atrophying would spread to their House and Senate vote. The Democrats become the maximally representative party — diverse, but patriotic, aspirational, but left-shifted towards mild US-style social democracy.
In the UK, it’s the reverse. Before the 2015 election, it looked as if the conservatives might be torn apart by the “Brexit” process, their internal contradictions mobilised. Instead, the “yes” vote took the steam out of the eurosceptic right and gave the pro-Europe centre the excuse to stand down — at the same time as the pro- and anti-EU factions of the Labor Party (read: party elite v rank and file), ripped a hole beneath the already shaky leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. That, added to the stoush over the membership-driven left turn of the party, has taken it to the brink of total dysfunctionality and split. Meanwhile the Tories have been able to present themselves as a post-Thatcherite party of right-shifted neoliberal social market politics.
In both cases, the legitimacy of the losing party — for a solid majority of voters — suddenly disappeared. A massive amount of power and legitimacy, hitherto shared, suddenly jumped over. Most importantly, one of the parties was of the left, one of the right. It is as if the people have decided that we really don’t need two parties to steer contemporary society. One will do.
Why would they do that? Some of this comes down to the structural nature of first-past-the-post voting and single-member electorates, but that alone cannot explain it. The clearer answer would be that, as a contested political system, Anglosphere capitalism has reached the end of the road. The mass belief, or personal interest in, a genuinely social democratic party has shrunk — but so, too, has the claims of a Reaganite-Thatcherite/social conservative formula, blending free-markets, state-enforced traditional values and Western assertion abroad. Whichever party better negotiates the current tangles of legitimacy claims the crown (an analogous process is happening in continental Europe, but its details are so different that it should not be assimilated here).
In essence, the politics of the last half-century has reached its synthesis. In the mid-1970s, the post-war socialist project collapsed absolutely, and “the left” became a social democratic movement offering a loyal opposition to capital. Into the vacuum rushed the New Right — Reagan-Thatcher/social conservatism/neoliberalism/Blairism. The Iraq catastrophe, the 2008 crash and the absence of a real Western recovery since undermined the New Right.
Interest rates at close to zero, trillions of dollars and euros of quantitative easing pumped in, and there’s no appreciable rip-roar restart of the sort of ground-level economic activity that would lift everyone up. Capital has no bragging rights. But revived high-tax social democratic proposals of the Corbyn type appear fanciful — and most people feel that, including many who would benefit from them. Bizarrely, the most accurate guide to the last half-century of Western politics is the Monty Python election night sketch, in which the “Sensible Party” and the “Silly Party” (Returning Officer: “Oliver F’tang F’tang Ole Biscuit Barrel … “, TV announcer, sotto voce: “Silly Party” Returning Officer: “No votes”) square off against each other.
Why is such a political meltdown/realignment occurring? Because left and right political parties are particular and differential ensembles of globalist/internationalist v parochial/communalist values — Labor, a cultural left/liberal party advocating market curbs, the right a free-market party advocating cultural-national curbs — which no longer mesh in a convincing way.
Whoever can reformulate their party in a way that promises some new synthesis of global v communal, open v closed systems, becomes the legitimate representative of modernity, and the trusted guide for the path ahead. The other party is then consumed by the contradictions: the Republicans a “free market” global business party with a nominal America Firster as their leader, offering both Christian civilisation and LGBTIQ outreach; UK Labour a rank-and-file party whose new internationalist left-wing leadership will not acknowledge that most of its supporters are firmly in favour of immigration curbs.
Why hasn’t that played out here? The answer is the same to the question: why is there no Australian Trump or Corbyn? Because there’s been no recession for a generation. For all the difficulties of the squeeze, the widening inequality, etc, here, there is nothing (on a whole country basis) to compare with the sense of despair and loss that has settled on large parts of the US and the UK — the idea that, with 10 years of no real recovery, and no prospect of one, one’s life is slipping away.
If you were 27 when 2008 hit, you’re 35 now, going over the hump of youth; 35, you’re 43 and whatever your job is, that’s it for you; 42, you’re 50 and, really, it’s over. Prolonged recession and stagnation — in a culture in which life must be forward moving to be meaningful — affects each cohort in a different way, but in the same manner, as a personal tragedy, an irrecoverable loss.
It is that social and personal annihilation that makes those on the high side of the line cleave to the “sensible” party, while those going under opt for Trump and Brexit, and Corbyn too (though I think supporting Corbyn is a rational, albeit high-risk, strategy for such people). Only this exceptional process — social annihilation dealt out in class form — makes such world disruptions of party politics feasible.
When, if, we get another recession, we’ll get that with a vengeance — possibly faster than elsewhere, since we have predicated cultural meaning on endless advancement. At that point, survival and crisis, and which party gets which, would depend on contingent factors — leadership, strategy, and a bit of plain luck. But it is quite possible to imagine one party being hit by a catastrophic set of circumstances, and our two-party politics tilting substantially. Not quite as substantially as in the Northern Territory. Gotta hand it to those gals and guys — they’ve shown the world just how much the political ground is shifting beneath our feet.