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Chris Hipkins launching Labour’s election slogan in July (Photo: Toby Manhire)
Chris Hipkins launching Labour’s election slogan in July (Photo: Toby Manhire)

OPINIONPoliticsSeptember 12, 2023

Chris Hipkins enters the last chance saloon

Chris Hipkins launching Labour’s election slogan in July (Photo: Toby Manhire)
Chris Hipkins launching Labour’s election slogan in July (Photo: Toby Manhire)

This morning it sounded like a concession speech. What can the Labour leader do now?

Listening to the prime minister do his media round this morning, for a moment I thought I must have slept for several weeks and woken the day after the election. “I accept there is a mood for change,” said Chris Hipkins. He said: “I take responsibility.” Such statements – and this was no accident, he said them over and over – are what you’d expect to hear in a concession speech from a defeated and departing prime minister: that’s the way the wind was blowing, ultimately it’s on me, thank you and goodbye. 

Hipkins was not resigning. He continues to insist that people have not yet tuned into the campaign – a thesis that strains by the day. He is determined to run hard to the finish line. But the state of the race was laid bare last night in a Reid poll for Newshub, which was in turn the prompt for this morning’s interviews. 

The poll didn’t just confirm that Labour has returned to the terrible 20s (26.8%, specifically) but that National was in the 40s, on 40.9% – the first time this year that any party had passed that mark in any pollster’s results. No wonder Christopher Luxon was wearing a wraparound smile. 

Hipkins had already declared Labour, despite its historic 2020 majority, the underdog for October’s election. As I explored this morning, the election of 2005 has been seized upon as an example to galvanise the faithful, but with the polls as they are it would take a comeback of altogether more dramatic proportions to win a third term this time round. 

It’s too late for a big kahuna in policy terms – a reversal on, say, tax policy would look downright desperate. And there’s hardly a surfeit of next-generation talent to thrust into the foreground. If you were looking for that six months ago, the first names on the list would have been Michael Wood and Kiri Allan, and Hipkins can hardly be blamed for what happened there. 

Given all of that, beyond stick the course and making the case, what else is left for Labour to try? Here are seven thoughts, with varying levels of feasibility and mutual contradiction …

Set out a three-year plan

In acknowledging that there is a mood for change, Hipkins declared, “we are also offering change.” It’s not altogether clear what that change looks like, however. Given the number of pledges that come to fruition in 2026, Hipkins could lay it all out, call it a road map, and plot out the plan of travel. 

At his Bloomberg Address in Tāmaki Makaurau last week, Hipkins was upbeat about the economy, citing “reasons to be optimistic about coming out the other side”. What he hasn’t done is lay it all out, identify the green shoots (it is spring, after all), start telling a story of change, of – as another prime minister was known to put it – the brighter future.

Target the debates

Christopher Luxon is taking the debates so seriously he is reportedly flying back to Auckland every night to swot up. While he’s shown a strong penchant for campaigning, the setpieces less so – he is, after all, a relatively novice politician. That came uncomfortably to the surface in Sunday’s appearance on Q&A, which offered plenty of Q and stuff-all A; it was, as Herald savant Claire Trevett put it, an “interview of no answers”.

There will be many more eyeballs on him a week from today, when TVNZ hosts the first leader debate. It runs for 90 minutes, which can feel like a week if it’s not going well. Luxon has some expert debate coaches in his team, but Hipkins has decades of experience at this sort of thing. There is of course a risk of overdoing it in terms especially of aggression, but Hipkins needs to chalk up victories in this and the three subsequent debates. And he might as well start telling everyone who will listen that they’re vitally important. 

Shake up the campaign

Pledge cards? Come on. And they’re not – neither National nor Labour’s efforts – the wallet-sized numbers of a classic campaign, they’re flyers, listicles on gloss. 

Hipkins has run a conventional campaign so far: policy announcements, electorate walkabouts, meeting robots, tasting ice cream, placard waving. Good. But in the current circumstances, he needs to throw something unexpected into the mix. In reading about the 2005 election I was struck by a comment by Anthony Green, the legendary ABC elections analyst, about being in Auckland on the eve of polling. 

“With two Australian colleagues, I had gone for dinner at one of the stylish eateries in Ponsonby Road,” he said. “Here was the prime minister of New Zealand, campaigning hand to hand down a main street with a rolling maul of supporters after 9pm the night before the election … She appeared to be having the time of her life.”

Can Hipkins summon some of that desperate endurance energy? Is it time to unleash the Chippy Express, driving from one end of the country to the other across a week, with eight stops a day? 

A big new idea

If they had one, we’d probably have heard it by now, but can the brains trust conjure something up? There is the not insignificant problem of having minimal slack in budgets, so it would need to be something relatively inexpensive. 

An example? In 2019, Boris Johnson (remember him?) presented as part of the Conservative campaign for re-election a pledge for a programme called “Levelling Up”, designed to redress economic disparities between different groups and geographical pockets of the country. It was criticised as sloganeering, but continues to this day, and Labour says it will keep the project alive should it win the next election. 

Stop stopping talking about Covid

The rationale is sound enough: people are sick of, as well as sometimes sick from, Covid-19. It was a messy reopening of the border, and a messy reorientation of the economy after the pandemic. Yes, it might have won Labour the 2020 election in a landslide, but no one wants to hear about, let alone dwell on, that recent history.

And yet, at the Bloomberg event last week, Hipkins let slip: he mentioned Covid in a context other than explaining why the government had been distracted or weighed down or whatever. In response to a question about whether he is a beltway politician, Hipkins said: “I think I’ve got a demonstrated record of getting things done. The global pandemic response was the largest undertaking any New Zealand government has been asked to do in a generation. And we managed to do that very successfully.”

He continued: “If I think about some of the things we did and the time frames in which we did them, they were spectacular examples of getting things done very, very quickly. I think we need to take a bit of that sense of urgency to some of the other challenges we’re facing as a country. But we did show during the pandemic that when you’re single-mindedly focused on getting things done, you can actually do that.”

Such a line is not without risk – after all it sends a literal shiver down some spines to talk about Covid – but as a senior minister and Covid minister during what, for the most part, was a successful response, why should it be off the table? 

Pray for a National implosion

It’s a little late probably for Hipkins to become a religion man, but needs must. 

Lead the Warriors to victory

It’s do or die for the NZ Warriors against the Newcastle Knights on Saturday evening. Hipkins needs to pull on the shirt and burst out of the tunnel at Mt Smart, before buzzing around like Gary Freeman reborn, leading the Wahs to triumph. Admittedly, there may be some logistical and physiological challenges here, so perhaps instead a three-way handshake.

Keep going!