Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

OPINIONPoliticsDecember 8, 2022

Campaigning on economic security sounds dull, but it might be Labour’s best option

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

‘Security’ looks likely to be a big theme of Labour’s re-election campaign in 2023, writes Max Rashbrooke.

I was once told, by someone who would know, that there are only two political campaigns: “time for change” and “don’t put it all at risk”. Every opposition campaign boils down to the former; every incumbent campaign, the latter.

Labour, as it looks towards a general election next year, has struggled to tell voters a convincing story about what they would be putting “at risk” if they switch to Christopher Luxon’s National. In recent months, though, a clear theme has begun to emerge: economic security. Delivering her party conference speech last month, Jacinda Ardern claimed that “the question” next year would be, “Who is best to help New Zealand navigate these tough times? Who can provide the security and certainty New Zealanders need?” In a recent newsletter to constituents, finance minister Grant Robertson wrote: “Our economic plan can be summed up in one sentence: to grow a high wage, low emissions economy that provides security in good and bad times.”

Compared to such rallying cries as “freedom” and “equal rights”, this appeal to economic stability can sound like dull stuff. But it has a strong pedigree in the Labour movement – and among reforming governments more generally.

For well over a century, New Zealanders have been acutely aware of the threat that economic instability poses to their well-being. Living in such a small country, buffeted by global economic winds like a rowboat in a thunderstorm, and possessing few organisations of any scale, we have often looked to the state to cushion economic shocks.

While the left tends to frame its past victories, including the world-leading introduction of tax-funded pensions in 1898, as triumphs of rights or equality, those achievements make just as much sense viewed through the lens of security. The first Labour government could hardly have made its intentions clearer when naming its landmark 1938 legislation the Social Security Act. Turning a patchwork of benefits into the foundations of a recognisably modern welfare state, and offering state support “from the cradle to the grave”, it was a direct response to the devastating economic precarity of the Great Depression.

Tapping a similar source of inspiration, one of the era’s leading intellectuals, the nation-building public servant Bill Sutch, titled his 1942 history The Quest for Security in New Zealand. Through an active state, the country had, Sutch argued, “do[ne] more in providing social and employment security than any other Western parliamentary democracy”. The historian W. H. Oliver, writing some decades later, described the growth of “a national social security consciousness … at two critical periods shortly prior to 1898 and 1938 when the country was recovering from, and still had memories of, very severe economic crises”.

Because the state is now far better at managing such crises, Covid has wreaked nothing like the havoc of the Great Depression or the little-remembered Long Depression of the 1880s and 90s. Nonetheless, Ardern and her team clearly spy a chance to tell a similar story: Labour brought you, the voter, safely through Covid, and can do so again; Luxon, with nothing similar on his resumé, represents a risk.

As an overarching theme, economic security has intuitive appeal. In a world wracked by war and menaced by climate change, it is clearly something voters crave. Rhetorically, it would unite otherwise disparate Labour achievements and plans – notably, Fair Pay Agreements and Social Insurance – into a coherent story about the state being there for families in tough times, preserving wages and guaranteeing peace of mind. It could also serve as an organising theme for other initiatives Labour might launch as it targets swing voters: policies to mitigate climate change, for instance, or boosts to early childhood education – a crucial element of parents’ return to the paid workforce and thus their economic security.

Potential pitfalls await, however. One Labour activist canvassing voters in the Hamilton West by-election says the mood is not one of gratitude for the government’s Covid stewardship but anger at still having to deal with the virus, despite all the sacrifices made. Much of the public felt secure during the pandemic, but that sensation may be a little like one’s virginity, irrecoverable once lost. The cost-of-living crisis, whoever is to blame, adds to a sense of instability.

To ensure the security theme resonated, Labour would have to stop committing political own goals and ruthlessly divest itself of off-message policies. Only then could it turn the spotlight onto National. Luxon has already demonstrated toughness by ditching his deeply unpopular policy of abolishing the 39% top tax rate. But for as long as he equivocates on his other policies – including tax breaks for landlords and property speculators – he will remain vulnerable to a “don’t put it all at risk” message. If his tax cuts, which would cost billions of dollars each year, remain on the table, Labour will argue that he can’t square things off just by cutting the examples of government “waste” National has identified: he’ll have to carve deeply into core services like health, education and welfare, or borrow more.

It’s open to Luxon, of course, to prove otherwise; but until he publishes a set of fully costed policies, Robertson will happily repeat the “Bermuda Triangle” attack that resonated at the last election: National can’t simultaneously maintain services, cut taxes and pay down debt, so its economic plans are fundamentally suspect.

Labour’s base would undoubtedly prefer a more activist and inspiring campaign than an appeal to security. But Robertson has signalled that budgets will be tight; meanwhile, public stimulus becomes harder to justify in times of high inflation, and – crucially – some of the government’s poorly targeted spending has left voters cynical about big-ticket, high-cost packages. Economic security isn’t sexy, but it might, to a Labour strategist, seem like the best option left.

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