Bryce Edwards Analysis: Labour’s sleepwalk towards defeat
[caption id="attachment_13635" align="alignleft" width="150"] Dr Bryce Edwards.[/caption] There’s still hope for Labour being able to put together a coalition government after the election. But there do seem to be a lot of barriers at the moment – especially as opinion polls point to the apparent decline or stagnation of support for the party and its leader, Andrew Little.
Why isn’t Labour doing better? A large number of voters must be asking this about Labour’s current polling and performance. Certainly, there are quite a few political commentators trying to explain Labour’s problems and doldrums. Much of this commentary focuses on Labour’s lack of boldness or willingness to take risks. All this means is that for many voters, Labour doesn’t appear to be proposing any sort of superior society and economy if they win.
In fact, there’s an element of staleness in Labour at the moment, and perhaps even complacency. And their general approach of “business as usual” clearly “isn’t working” according to Labour Party member and activist Laila Harré, who went on TVNZ’s Breakfast programme to say that “It’s a bit grim” for Labour at the moment, given that polls show the party struggling to get traction – see: Labour needs ‘bold policy move’ to ‘activate the younger vote’ – Laila Harré.
In this short interview, Harré says: “There needs to be some disruptive element to their campaign – something that is particularly, I think, focused on activating a younger vote. And that will require some bold policy move, perhaps in relation to tertiary education costs”.
[caption id="attachment_635" align="alignright" width="300"] Labour Party leader Andrew Little attracted only five percent support in the recent TVNZ leadership poll.[/caption] Of course Harré was responding to the latest TVNZ poll result which had Labour dropping to 27 per cent support and their leader to just 5 per cent support – see: Andrew Little drops to fourth as preferred PM in latest 1 NEWS Colmar Brunton poll that sees both major parties take a hit.
This poll result was very close to other polls, as reported by Colin James, who aggregates the averages of all those polls published, and says that “Labour dropped from 29.4% in May to 26.5% in June” – see: Poll of Polls: Winston Peters remains kingmaker.
Business as usual for Labour
There are plenty of others – particularly on the left – who are critical of Labour’s rather mild and centrist election campaigning. This criticism comes in the context of international upsurges in radical politics, as well as disenchantment with the status quo – some of which has also been evident in New Zealand.
Perhaps the most damming criticism is that of Rhodes scholar, Andrew Dean, who says that “Promising not to change things too much is not an inspirational message for the political Left to be running” – see his opinion piece, For the Left, more of the same won’t cut it.
Dean says the “business-as-usual politics” promised by Labour (and the Greens) is most obvious in terms of the “budget responsibility rules” they have committed themselves to, which means that in economic terms “voters are being shown that under a Labour-Green government, they would get more of the same” as under National. And in other policy areas, Labour is also being conservative – especially on immigration.
Picking up on these arguments, leftwing blogger No Right Turn says “If Labour and the Greens want to win this election, they need to actually offer something. Mere managerial politics – Grant Robertson and Gareth Hughes getting Ministerial salaries rather than Nick Smith and Anne Tolley – does not cut it. It does not inspire support, because at the end of the day it makes no difference, means nothing to us” – see: If you don’t fight, you don’t win.
And similarly, Gordon Campbell has recently argued that Labour (and the Greens) are making a big mistake in all their attempts to de-radicalise their election manifestos and move towards the centre – see: On the twists in the UK election.
Campbell says the left here in New Zealand is failing to pick up on the lessons from elsewhere: “It has been a wisdom echoed here by NZ Labour and by the Greens, who seem to be preparing for this year’s election in September by planing away almost anything – eg a capital gains tax sufficient to deter housing speculation – that the mythical centre ground might find offensive, or threatening. It has been taken for granted that moving leftwards would be suicidal. Sounding like a nicer, gentler version of the Tories on economic management – and taking ‘strong’ stances on immigration and law’n’order that echo New Zealand First – has been embraced as the only savvy, realistic route to power available to the centre left. Well… at the moment, Jeremy Corbyn is showing Andrew Little that there has always been another way.”
And it’s not just those on the left suggesting that Labour might need to loosen up. Today, former National Cabinet minister Wayne Mapp argues that To offer a real alternative, Labour and the Greens may need to tear up their fiscal pledge.
Labour’s election pitch – fresh or stale?
Labour’s approach is stale, according to former party activist Phil Quin, who despairs at the irony of the party’s chosen campaign slogan “A Fresh Approach” – see: A stale approach. He argues that the choice of this banal slogan “reveals how Labour concedes they have failed to mount a case for meaningful change.”
Quin explains: “I’ve been on dozens of campaigns, and ‘A Fresh Approach’ invariably makes the shortlist of potential slogans. Eyes might roll at its lack of originality and substantive emptiness, but it comes in handy when that same blandness is the strategic goal. It’s what you say when you’ve got nothing.”
He also points out what is missing from Labour’s campaign: “What is glaring by its absence is a narrative that coheres around a resonant critique of the government, creates a sense of urgency, and offers an optimistic path forward. Without the benefits of a cratering economy or a seriously scandal-plagued incumbent, Labour needed to do all three things. They did not one of them. Instead of building a winning message, Labour has mostly stalked the news cycle, picking at and inflaming areas of perceived aggravation for voters like house prices and foreign surnames. Playing at politics that way, you have good days and bad — but, by definition, you are never setting the agenda.”
Therefore, Quin doesn’t see much hope for Labour getting into government this year, but instead envisages Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in three years time – see his earlier blog post, Labour in box seat — for 2020.
Some similar points are made by Labour’s Josie Pagani who laments that Labour’s vision is clouded by “promising bland taskforces and working groups”. But her bigger point is that the party has failed to focus on the things that matter, preferring to campaign on National’s scandals, such as with Todd Barclay – see: Scandals dog government and opposition in New Zealand.
Her main point is worth quoting at length: “If you are attacking the government for a political scandal, then it sounds like you don’t care about everyday voters’ priorities: their jobs, families, homes, their lives… Policy matters. Voters want political leaders to take risks, to set out authentically what we really believe. They want politicians to talk about their priorities and to set out a plan, and be cheerful too. When we play politics as a horse race, when we hold a contest over who can inflict the most embarrassing scandal, we distract our opponent and draw them off message but we also signal that we are more interested in the insider game than the stuff that people really care about. It chips away at trust in the government, but it also chips away at trust in Labour. And as faith in the incumbent crumbles, if the left has failed to make the case for a principled alternative, the only other option becomes a populist wrecking ball.”
Is Labour’s family package enough?
Labour will be hoping that the families package announced this week will turn around any narrative that the party doesn’t have a real alternative plan to that of National. For the best explanation and analysis of the new policy see Shane Cowlishaw’s Labour’s family package counterpunch.
There have been some tributes to the policy. For example, today the New Zealand Herald’s editorial says it’s a bold announcement: “Credit where it is due. It takes courage to say that if elected, you will cancel a tax cut. That is what the Labour Party has announced with its promise to direct the money instead to additional spending, particularly on assistance for low-income families. In doing so it has presented the voters with a clear choice which, for those without young families or earning above the income limits, will mean deciding whether to take the tax cut or give the benefit to children of the less well off” – see: Labour could spend all National’s tax cut on the needy.
Others aren’t so convinced, saying the policy won’t create any real enthusiasm. Vernon Small says: “it is no surprise there is no baying from the crowds in the stands. Because in the big scheme of things, the argument is really being played out in a very small ball park. Neither party is exactly breaking the bank or splashing cash they don’t have. And neither is running a significantly looser fiscal policy than the other as a result of their packages” – see: Labour may have tacked too close to National to spark voter ardour.
Small also suggests that Labour is actually failing to capitalise on any mood for change in the electorate. The difference between Labour and National’s tax and spending plans is simply not big enough: “Labour may have a problem; that the two plans are not only similar, they are too similar to make a difference. That while they have different ideologies at their core, those different world view have not taken them far enough to energise the voters… It may just be that he and Labour are not offering change that is significant enough to energise them – and that Little doesn’t personify the change they want.”
Has Labour lost it historic role?
According to senior political journalist John Armstrong, Labour is now even in danger of losing its place as the main party of opposition – see: Labour is fast becoming a political cot-case. He also points out that, in terms of its plans to cancel National’s tax cuts, Labour might not even be able to do this – even if Labour leads a coalition government, it might not have the numbers to get its way on this.
For Chris Trotter, it seems that Labour’s electoral demise runs in parallel to its demise as a party of creating radical change for working people. In his column, Hard to imagine Andrew Little inspiring Corbyn-like passion, Trotter suggests that Labour has faded in this role. Compared to the past truly innovative and radical party, “Today’s social-democratic politicians are middle-class professionals who are, by-and-large, as disdainful of the electorate as they are uninterested in its inner emotional life. Not only have they forgotten how to dream dreams and see visions – they don’t see the point.”
In another column, Trotter says: “Labour’s current electoral strategy seems to involve: waiting until the National Party runs out of puff, and then presenting itself to New Zealand Capitalism as a temporary alternative government while the exhausted Nats get their breath back” – see: Labour ‘a seething cauldron of thwarted ambitions, petty jealousies and unresolved grievances’.
And some of this argument about Labour’s failing to focus on working people is confirmed by survey data, which shows that at the last election, for the first time ever, Labour lost its monopoly on manual workers. David Farrar explains: “More working class voters in 2014 voted for National than Labour. I think this illustrates what Chris Trotter has often said – they have lost touch with many working class families” – see: Labour no longer the preferred party of working class voters.
Finally, for an overall evaluation on the health of Labour – with some much more positive conclusions – see Jenna Lynch’s State of the Parties: Labour report card.