Labour has taken the centre. Is it a trap?

Labour’s winning strategy is built on rhetoric that seems to promise real change but never quite delivers, writes Danyl Mclauchlan. Perhaps soon it can give itself permission to do something truly transformational.

There is a pit of doom major parties in New Zealand can fall into, when their soft centre supporters abandon them for their centrist opponent and another cohort of voters on the fringe deserts them for a more radical and exciting minor party. This happened to National in 2002, and to Labour in 2014, and Judith Collins has spent her three months as National leader grimly hanging onto the edge of this pit, trying to claw her way out while Jacinda Ardern stamps on her fingers and kicks at her hands, all the time smiling beatifically while reminding the rest of us to be kind.

Ardern’s favourite line over the course of the campaign has been that “National is no longer the party of Bill English and John Key”. This is what political strategists call a permission structure. For many voters politics isn’t about ideology or policy: it’s an expression of their identity. They vote Labour or National because it’s part of how they see themselves. When asked in focus groups they’ll say things like “I vote Labour because my dad was a union delegate”, or “I vote National because everyone around here does”.

You can’t win people like that over with a policy launch or an aspirational slogan. But when a party disintegrates the way National has, its adversaries can present a suite of arguments giving its traditional supporters permission to vote against their own identity group. Boris Johnson used this technique to great effect in the UK’s 2019 election when he told working class Labour voters that he needed to “borrow” their vote to get Brexit done. “It’s OK to vote for me this time” is Ardern’s message. “You’ll get the same government you did when Key and English ran things, but my party isn’t tearing itself to pieces in the middle of the election campaign against a background of a deadly pandemic and global economic crisis.”

It’s a compelling message. Collins would like to disrupt Ardern’s permission structure. She’d like to highlight the points of difference between Labour and National: all the terrible radical left-wing things Jacinda might do if she’s given a second term. This is why Labour’s tax policy was such a bleakly cynical masterpiece. If Labour had no tax policy Collins could create uncertainty around Ardern’s secret agenda. By releasing a policy that was as close to nothing as possible – an increase on the top 2% of salary earners, some of whom will restructure their finances to avoid the new rate – Ardern and her finance minister Grant Robertson closed this attack off. And that’s been the main theme of the election. Ardern does not want house prices to go down. Ardern supports Act euthanasia referendum, just like Collins. But won’t say how she’ll vote on cannabis legalisation, which Collins is against.

The Newshub leaders’ debate, where Jacinda Ardern admitted she had smoked cannabis but refused to say how she would vote in the referendum (Photo: Michael Bradley/Newshub)

Labour will ban gay conversion therapy, cleverly wedging the liberal/conservative divide inside National. Labour will commit to inconsequential climate goals, and continue to frame themselves with rhetorically progressive but deliberately meaningless messaging like “putting people at the heart of everything they do”. Ardern has learned from her first term in government that if she promises anything substantive her caucus and the public service will fail to deliver it, so best to promise nothing.

Ardern’s silence on cannabis frustrates pro-legalisation supporters. If she had endorsed it the referendum would probably pass. Instead it looks likely to lose. But the Greens have also been weirdly circumspect on the issue, which is odd because it’s their referendum. It was a bottom line in their confidence and supply agreement. Their drugs spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick has fronted on it, but there’s no formal campaign that I can see: no web presence; no marketing collateral; no press releases during the campaign. Nothing on the front page of the website, and if you click through to the Greens’ “Election Plans”, the cannabis link is second to last and merely mentions that the Green Party supports it, just as its MPs support Act’s euthanasia referendum. It’s very strange. (The other pro-cannabis legislation campaigns seem to be pitched at people who are already likely to vote for it; the anti-cannabis campaigns are about terrifying swing voters in middle New Zealand).

If the referendum fails that’ll be it for drug reform in New Zealand for the foreseeable future so it’s strange to see so little momentum behind it. At least the gangs will be happy.

The squeeze on National

Jacinda Ardern is not Judith Collins’ only problem. National has spent the last three years trying to figure out who its future potential coalition partner would be. The much longed-for blue-green environmental party? This was at 0% in the last Colmar Brunton poll. A religious social conservative party led by Alfred Ngaro? The dream of a conservative party that wins religious Pasifika votes off Labour is one of the reasons Judith Collins has been shouting “talofa” at all the debates, and foregrounding her devout religious beliefs, which I don’t recall ever coming up in the 18 years Collins has been a high profile MP and minister.

Turns out National’s future coalition partner is its old coalition partner, the Act Party, to which it is haemorrhaging votes. It’s a little weird to see Act flourishing this year. Partly because Collins is a quite right-wing, Act-adjacent National leader who held a memorial in her office when Thatcher died, but mostly because all the countries that performed well during the coronavirus outbreak did so because they had effective state capacity to do things like border closure, contract tracing and lockdowns, and the core mission of Act is to severely shrink the public sector and correspondingly constrain its ability to do any of those things.

Act leader David Seymour, August 04, 2020 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

There’s a theory that minor parties under MMP have their core constituencies – the Greens’ seems to be about 5%, Act’s has been around 1.5%, although it appears to have picked up some former New Zealand First supporters and might keep them – but most minor party support on top of that activist base comes from voters who are punishing their major party for poor leadership, or caucus infighting, or both.

That would help explain Act’s success this year, and also some of the votes bleeding from National to minnow parties like Advance New Zealand and New Conservative (which is also doubtless benefiting from the decline of New Zealand First). If National loses votes to Act, those votes still count towards a right-wing coalition in parliament. But there’s a possible nightmare scenario in which National loses 5-6% to the assorted minnow parties, all of which are wasted votes. The seats for those lost votes then get proportionally redistributed to the parties that make it into parliament.

The biggest winner of that will be Labour. It’s not impossible that wasted fringe conservative votes will end up handing Jacinda an outright majority government. (I’m not sure what the high early voting numbers mean, but it might be that we get a high turnout election. Maybe people feel politics is more relevant to their lives this year, or maybe there are just more New Zealanders in the country right now. A high turnout is probably bad for the Greens and could easily push them under the 5% mark, so if you were thinking of voting for them if only to keep them in parliament that might be a good idea.)

About that transformation

There was a lot of talk about transformation during the early months of the Ardern government. Under Jacinda we would transcend the dreary compromises and disappointments of status quo politics and deliver… something else, a radiant new reality, the exact nature of which was always very vague. The wellbeing budget had something to do with it: the idea that the state would care about people instead of economic growth. Then the government’s year of delivery failed to deliver very much and the talk of transformation died away.

But transformation happened anyway: we closed our borders; put the country into lockdown; put most of the nation’s workers on the wage subsidy, all at enormous cost. It was a transformational change to preserve the pre-Covid status quo. When Ardern was asked during the leaders debate how we’d pay back the public debt that paid for it all, her answer was that we needed more economic growth.

Growth is not inherently a bad thing, contra Greta Thunberg. Economists like it because during the 19th and 20th centuries growth correlated with longer life expectancies, lower infant mortality, higher life satisfaction. This is still the case across most of the world. But high GDP countries have high carbon footprints (although they also have the wealth to develop low carbon technologies) and over the last 40 years the main benefits of economic growth in the developed world have gone to the rich.

Coronavirus seems to be accelerating that trend, with many forecasts predicting ‘k-shaped recoveries’ in which the fortunes of those at the top trend up and everyone else trends down. It’s nice to imagine that after they’ve finished kicking Judith Collins into her pit of electoral doom, Ardern and Robertson will take their majority government, or uncomplicated Labour-Green coalition, and give themselves permission to deliver growth that’s distributed and sustainable. Even though that’s not what John Key or Bill English would have done.



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