Guest Post: Why Labour Can’t Win

A guest post by Mike Kirk:

Why can’t win.

The dominant discourse of modern Western democratic politics, since 1985, has been neo-liberalism. This hegemonic discourse shapes what the news media and public see as “realistic” in policy terms. The primary belief and “policy” of neo-liberal governments is non intervention, or as Reagan put it “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Essentially National and Conservative governments do not believe in government action, except for the staples of law and order plus ‘free’ education and Health Service. State provision or policies invoking State actions to improve society, are not legitimate to this mindset. Left wing agendas for changing society are dismissed out of hand by John Key, as out of date and a threat to prosperity . Markets must receive primary obeisance. Andrew Little has fallen into the man-trap, laid by the Right: don’t scare the horses. The anodyne result is a turn off.

Labour’s political lifeblood is the idea that the power of government can act against capital in favour of the have-nots, or/and the majority of “wage-earners”, or what used to be called the working class. This is a collectivist perspective. Labour has a big challenge to pit this philosophy against the individualist approach that occupies centre stage in cultural socialisation in Western capitalist democracies. A related problem is that the target of media communications is the individual consumer, plied with inducements to see himself as special and unique. The polarity of ‘separate’ v ‘communal’ is thereby culturally skewed in favour of Right wing economic and political messaging via the suffusion of consumer messaging.

The Right (National in this instance) make psychological appeals to the electorate based on self interest. The message sold is “we are more competent to run the economy than the other lot, don’t risk change.” Meanwhile, Labour seeks to sell a message which requires the listener to see themselves as part of society – a well-meaning enterprise for the greater good. Right wing messaging taps straight into individual psychology of “I.” Labour, however, has to jump extra hurdles putting the “I” in the context of “we” – in terms of sociological perspective. This requires more time and, – significantly – makes more demands on the cognitive capacity of those it seeks to reach and persuade.

For many years neither National nor Labour has made any attempt to sell their Party as a vehicle for making society a better place to live (as opposed to straight materialistic appeals to individuals.) No appeal is made to imagine the possibility that there might be a better way of living than being slaves to mortgage payments, consumption and commuting. As the economy is the dominant discourse, discussion of the society we live in is occluded.. The pretty exclusive domain staked out for debates is economic – who will raise GDP most? This is a passionless political landscape devoid of meaning, inspiration or charismatic leadership.

John Key has a further advantage – he is seen by the non political voter as easy going and having a sense of humour (as related to me by a service clerk in Kiwi Bank last year.) Personality sells, policy doesn’t and the Labour leader is no salesman. Policies need explaining and reading. The news media caters to what they see as punters’ short attention spans. News likes superficiality, pictures and personality: policy requires analysis, time and thinking, things that “flicking” viewers are not thought to be keen on. Policy is not sexy.

John Key is the incumbent: potential swing voters need a reason to switch. Policies need to be simple, clear and distinctive from those of the existing regime. Little tacks too close to the orthodoxy set out by National. Leaders are given sound bites and little time to elucidate on TV. Looking unconfident or hesitant, and saying that the Party is working on new policies, as Little repeatedly has, 17 months after a crushing electoral defeat, is lame and instantly forgettable. Labour supporters tend to be younger and poorer. They have a lower propensity to vote than older, National voters. The younger, poorer voter needs incentivising (perversely) to vote. Labour cannot win on the economy , which is National territory. They must inspire by inviting people to think about what sort of life and society they want and how Labour can assist in that. That requires passion and vision addressing concerns of the bottom 75%, not crying over the bottom 20%.

Labour “policy”

  • TPPA – clear as muck.
  • Capital Gains Tax – – running scared
  • Personal allowance or redistributive ideas? Silence.
  • Addressing poverty inducing high rents? Tumbleweed blowing down the street.
  • Eye-catching rail investment from Auckland to Warkworth? No risk approach.

Oppositions don’t win elections unless they lead in mid-term by at least 10%. Labour is still 16% behind. At the last election they trailed National by 23%. Labour needs about 7% of National votes. It shows no sign of getting them. National votes will not be peeled away by banging on about worker rights and poverty. The middle third of the electorate (by wealth and income) want to know what is in it for them and where “it” will come from. So re-distributive policies need careful costing. Why not suggest a tax free allowance? In the UK this means people do not pay tax on the first $26,000 of their earnings. This might be paid for by CGT and/or ACC surpluses and a restoration of inheritance tax on estates worth more than $2m.

National has two further advantages. Firstly, much of the adult population is getting better off, especially in the last 3 years. This is down to terms of trade – basically what NZ imports is getting cheaper and what NZ exports has increased in value and quantity. Wages may not rise much but costs fall. Secondly, NZ seems pretty proud of itself and a party called “National” tends to benefit from that. This may be seen as anecdotal but rugby obsession and success, concerns for outdoor living and relaxation as cultural themes, as well as ‘she’ll be right’ do not chime with Labour’s hand-wringing routine re poverty and what’s wrong in NZ.

A much more positive and inclusive approach needs to be projected. Labour seems to have no electoral strategy. More dangerous, they have no image-promotion strategy. Perhaps they think it is beneath them to sell themselves. That is what Labour thought in the UK in the 1980s: it cost them 18 years in opposition. Little is inarticulate and lacks charm. People vote for people, not Parties, especially in NZ. Labour needs Jacinda.

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