Can Labour add substance to style?

By   /   August 4, 2017  /   5 Comments

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The installation of Jacinda Adern as Labour Party leader is the last throw of the dice for Labour in terms of trying to achieve a greater resonance with voters by simply changing the leader.

The installation of Jacinda Adern as Labour Party leader is the last throw of the dice for Labour in terms of trying to achieve a greater resonance with voters by simply changing the leader.
The fact is they have tried this trick four times in the last nine years with uniformly dismal results.
Labour has stuck at around 25% in the polls since 2011.
Each leader since they lost office in 2008 was undermined by those on their own side, but the simple fact was that none of them was able to establish a connection to people as someone who people could see as representing them in a meaningful way.
This was in part on a personal level. There was a lack of authenticity about them. Speeches and media appearances appeared to lack an emotional and political connection. But it was fundamentally a policy problem. The thin gruel on offer didn’t resonate.
On policy, there was an attempt to tack left under Goff in 2011 but he was ill-fitted to articulate those positions. Quite simply no one believed him. Why would he suddenly be in favour of policies he opposed in the past and didn’t implement when in government for nine years. The legacy of that disbelief still stands.
Labour quickly tacked back to the disappearing centre in 2011 and 2014 with “responsible” policies like that to raise the age for national superannuation. Every working person in a physically demanding job, and most Maori, looked at their lives ahead and figured Labour was going to take their slim chance of a few years retirement away from them.
Labour Party leaders continue to lecture working people that they need to pay high taxes to support good education and health services when working people are already heavily taxed and resent that fact because they know they don’t get value for money in this country. That is not true in some Scandinavian countries with high personal taxes because they get genuinely free education, health and other benefits from the government. We pay high taxes and still get extorted for “voluntary” fees at schools, and denied help by ACC and WINZ when we need it – so naturally, we feel ripped off in this country.
Labour does this because they are too scared to simply say we will shift taxation from incomes to wealth.
Everyone is aware that people with wealth treat taxation as a voluntary activity and do not pay their fair share. Everyone knows that foreign corporations manipulate the system to avoid tax. The wealth divide is huge. Billions of dollars a year could be obtained by a government determined to challenge the rich and powerful in our society.
There is no sense that the current crop of Labour MPs are equipped for that task. They are not fighters from the coal face of life who have become politicians to advance people’s struggles. Even the former unionists who became MPs seemed to treat parliament as a retirement home.
Labour MPs, are overwhelmingly middle-class in origin and simply are often not aware of the reality of life for many working people.
The huge salaries paid to parliamentarians is part of the permanent inbuilt systems of corruption for anyone who may become a genuine people’s representatives.
There has been a lot of hope generated by Labour’s change of leader. Jacinda Adern is a popular political figure. She is smart, articulate, has charm, a nice self-deprecating sense of humour. Good looks and a wide smile help in any role in life including politics – look at Winston Peters.
But people will want to know if there is any substance behind the smile.
Winston achieved his reputation, in part, as an anti-establishment politician. But he also had “wins” that were long-lasting and identifiable. That includes keeping national superannuation from age 60 and the “Gold Card” that ensures free public transportation for pensioners.
The first Labour Party had the creation of the welfare state as its legacy until the betrayal of the 1980s.
The 1999 to 2008 government is barely memorable beyond a few policy wins of the Alliance Party in its first three years. There is simply not much excitement around “achieving a budget surplus every year for nine years”. Who cares?
I want a change of government. There is more chance of preventing privatisation of state housing and boosting the minimum wage under such a government. That is a fact.
But to make sure that happens Labour needs to push its vote from 25% to 35%.
But that is unlikely happen unless Jacinda follows up the leadership change with a policy direction change. Working people want a government that will actually make a difference. They don’t want more of the same. People won’t get out and vote unless they actually believe the leaders mean it when change is being promised. Vacuous appeals to progressive values won’t cut it.
There is one policy change that would immediately signal she means something more than being a more “attractive” leader than the blokes that preceded her.
She should immediately pledge the introduction of free tertiary education in the first term of a new government.
The current policy for “free tertiary education” says that a Labour Government will only pay for one year’s free education in each term of government up to three years maximum. So it would take up to nine years to bring in three years free tertiary education. It looks and smells like the slight of hand of a con-artist. If you believe it is worth doing, just do it. “We” can afford it if we shift the resources from wasteful spending (take your pick) and increased taxes on the super rich.
Then you can dump the stupid “A Fresh Approach” slogan which simply underscored the fact Labour had nothing new to offer with something like “Change you can believe in” “For the Many Not the Few” or variations of those themes.
The Greens appear to be making some gains by being bolder in their policy announcements rather than pretending to be another centrist alternative which seemed to be the direction co-leader James Shaw had been taking them. Whether it was by accident or design, the other co-leader Metiria Turei’s recent announcement on welfare reform that highlighted her own position as a former solo mum, has had a positive impact.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago that NZ First will be in the next government and Winston Peters will be Deputy Prime MInister. That remains true.
Labour can win if they get to at least 30% and the Greens and NZ First get at least 10% each and both parties are willing to support a Labour-led government.
But if Labour is stuck at 25% then the combination of Labour, Greens and NZ First is problematical even if the Greens and NZ First lift their votes to 12% or more each. This will give the three parties a combined majority of MPs in parliament but the relative weighting makes it more fractious and unwieldy. NZ First could use that fact as an excuse to go with National.
I suspect NZ First is going for 15% (or at least more than the Greens) and hoping that if Labour can get to 35% then NZ First can force Labour to dump the Greens as a coalition partner. That would certainly be their first preference for most NZ First members and supporters. In that circumstance even if the Greens are included in the government with ministerial responsibilities then their votes would not be needed to pass legislation. This would allow Labour to get the votes from NZ First alone if that was needed to pass legislation.
These scenarios are possible – but it all depend to some degree on NZ First agreeing to be part of a Labour led government.
On most policy issues, I think there is a more natural fit between NZ First and Labour. But NZ First will balk at forming a government with a critically wounded Labour Party and a resurgent Green Party.
Labour can improve their standing significantly in eight weeks. Bob Hawke did it in Australia without much in the way of policy change but he was already seen as a battler, a man of the people. Jeremy Corban also did it in the recent UK election and took the Labour Paty from 25% in the polls to 40% of the vote. But he had a radical, hopeful, policy to inspire people to vote.
A new fresh personality may work for a short while. But to guarantee success in the short and long term, we need a new approach being taking by the Labour leadership. I am sceptical on that score – but want to be proved wrong.
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About the author

Mike Treen

National Director of Unite Union

5 Comments

  1. CLEANGREEN says:

    “Labour needs to push its vote from 25% to 35%.
    But that won’t happen unless Jacinda follows up the leadership change with a policy direction change.”

    YES MIKE i BELIEVE YOU ARE CORRECT HERE.

    JACINDA STEP UP AND TAKE CONTROL OF THE ABC’s (NATIONAL – LITE) WHO ARE LURKING IN THE LABOUR SHADOWS AS THEY MAY KNIFE YOU IN THE BACK AS THEY DID TO GEOFF, CUNLIFFE, AND LITTLE.

  2. John Stroh says:

    Can Labour add substance to style? YES. My hope is that Labour will pick up some of TOP policy. Is Adern ready to be PM? Yes. She has ruled out a deal with Peters that gives him any time as PM. That for me is the game changer. I’m in the Selwyn electorate and am now thinking about how to vote strategically. It would be nice to replace National electorate seat – but Adams’ 20,000 odd lead looks unassailable- so best just vote on policy – TOP’s Nicky Snoyink for me. So, whom do I give my party vote to without wasting it? Probably Labour.

  3. Marc says:

    “But that won’t happen unless Jacinda follows up the leadership change with a policy direction change. Working people want a government that will actually make a difference. They don’t want more of the same. People won’t get out and vote unless they actually believe the leaders mean it when change is being promised. Vacuous appeals to progressive values won’t cut it.”

    I agree, it is all up to Jacinda now, to show whether she learned anything from the likes of Sanders and Corbyn, but so far, we hear and see little if anything of that.

    She is popular with women and many of the younger generation, which can gain Labour new votes and win back lost ones that went to National. But if the policy direction continues more or less as it has been for years, she will not bring the change as leader that Labour needs.

    Yes, free tertiary education, that will surely win Labour many votes from young ones, but not all young people, particularly the less well off, often discriminated youth of South Auckland and similar places will be able to access study at uni or even traditional technical institutes.

    It does also not help when Jacinda rules out full stop that Winston Peters may in a coalition or supported minority government have a role as Deputy PM or PM for a term, as Winston would expect to play a senior role, ideally as such, in a Labour led government that NZ First is part of.

    http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/ninetonoon/audio/201853547/jacinda-ardern-rules-out-peters-for-pm

    That should rather have been answered differently this morning, neither confirm nor deny would have been the diplomatic approach.

    I wonder though, is she perhaps not even that serious about getting into government, but rather determined to stop the vote losses and regain a bit of territory in the electorate?

    She said repeatedly she was not keen on becoming leader, now she is, perhaps feeling she had to step up and do it, to bring back votes. Maybe she is just going to rescue Labour from more losses and disaster, and after the election will step down, so that Grant will get his chance to get at the helm of Labour?

    Nothing in politics is ever as clear cut as most of the public see it.

  4. The Chairman says:

    “We have a fiscal plan, I’m committed to that, that does place limitations on us” –  Jacinda Ardern.

    Well, that says it all really. Just another repackaging.

  5. Marc says:

    Going by the few comments, here, many seem happy with the style, rather than substance.