Politics

The seven enemies of the centre-left – and how to beat them

Fear not, Labour and the Greens: everything is possible. And here in one simple post, Simon Wilson sets it out: why life’s got so hard for them, who their enemies really are and what they can do to win. 

The first thing to say about elections is that sudden changes of mood are possible. Single events can have a big impact. But as a strategy, if you were running an election campaign, you’d be a mug to count on it.

Why is the centre-left doing so poorly in the polls? One obvious reason is that many people feel reasonably comfortable with the way things are. Still, there are many who don’t. Another obvious reason is that among those unhappy with the government, too few have been persuaded there’s a better option on offer.

There are many reasons for that. It’s far easier to be the National Party in this government than to be a party in the opposition. Your world is made up of people who either like you or they don’t. You’re fighting all the other parties, but you’re fighting them as one. It’s us or them, that’s your message. But if you’re an opposition party you have to convince voters of two messages. First, that they don’t like the government; and second, that they should like you, in preference to the other options. So you have to fight on one front against the government and on many other fronts against the other parties. You’re fighting everyone, and you have to fight each of them separately.

The Nats made the most of this situation last election, with their brilliantly effective muddled rowboat advertising. Fear of that single metaphor has guided most of the Labour and Greens strategy ever since.

It’s a no-win, though. When Labour and the Greens present a united front there’s a chorus of commentators saying they’re too much the same. When they differ, there’s another chorus going, aha, a rift! They may not be able to get past this, in any real sense, until they have demonstrated what a coalition between them would be like in government. But how will they get into government without demonstrating…? Catch-22. Here, then, is a guide to the forces they must overcome.

The seven enemies of Labour and the Greens

Enemy number one is Steven Joyce, Paula Bennett and Bill English, quite possibly in that order: the National Party leaders who will do the most to stop disgruntled John Key Nats from drifting back to Labour or across to the Greens.

Enemy number two is Winston Peters, the guy who threatens to suck up quite a lot of those disgruntled John Key Nats, and may also suck up disgruntled Labour votes.

Enemy number three is the hard left, the very vocal sector who, strange but true, regard the fight against “neoliberalism” as more important than the campaign to get Labour and the Greens into government. Some are party members, but most are probably not. They have been emboldened by Jeremy Corbyn’s “success” and believe that surge of popularity for radical left politics can be replicated here. The Nats don’t have a ginger group like this: Matthew Hooton, for example, is probably the fiercest right-wing critic of the government’s centrist tendencies, but in election year, especially on twitter and in his NBR column, his focus is on discrediting the actual opposition, Labour and the Greens.

Enemy number four is the right-wing commentariat, whose general approach is ridicule. Laughing the opposition into irrelevance. It’s a two-way street, of course, but while left-wing commentators tend to see the government as having devil horns, the right-wingers treat the opposition as if they’re wearing clown suits. It can be pretty effective.

Enemy number five is Gareth Morgan. TOP might make a credible support partner for a centre-left government, but Morgan’s abrasive personality limits their appeal. If they get to five percent, a deal could well be on. But right now it looks like all they will do is suck maybe two or three percent of disgruntled voters away from Labour and the Greens, without getting into parliament.

Enemy number six is each other. This is incredibly difficult to manage. Labour and the Greens need to grow the centre-left vote between them, but each of them still has to appeal on its own terms, because the relative strengths of the two parties will be extremely important in any post-election negotiations. Ironically, if the Greens grow strong at Labour’s expense, that would likely also benefit NZ First.

Enemy number seven is themselves. Again, the Nats have it easy: their membership exists to get them elected. But Labour and Greens memberships exist to change the world. Almost everything each party does will disappoint one part or another of its core support, and those people are often reluctant to keep their disappointment to themselves. Both parties will tell you about the value of open democratic debate, but for all the merits of that idea (which are very real) it’s not terribly useful at election time.

Labour leader Andrew Little with Jacinda Ardern at the announcement of Ardern’s promotion to deputy leader. (Photo: Alison Bell/New Zealand Labour Party)

So what should they do?

Well, how about this. Both parties know their leaders need to be likeable, trustable and bold. But they need to work much harder at making them so. Let’s give up now the idea that Andrew Little might become a Jeremy Corbyn – it’s not going to happen and it doesn’t matter. There are many models of inspirational, appealing leadership and Little needs more help to find one that works for him. So does Jacinda Ardern: they’re using her for her appeal, but is she ready yet to go head-to-head with Paula Bennett?

The Greens also have to do this. It’s an often overlooked fact that their support has held up and in most polls they’re still ahead of NZ First. But that’s not good enough. With a tired government and an underwhelming Labour, they should be doing a lot better. Neither Metiria Turei nor James Shaw has yet shown they can appeal much beyond the party’s steady 10 percent support: they have work to do.


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Better leadership is the first thing. Second, both parties need bold cut-through policies that demonstrate both compassion for the vulnerable (which stretches way into “middle New Zealand”) and a focus on future planning, as opposed to the government’s crisis management.

But not having enough bold policies is not the heart of the problem. Labour actually announced just such a policy this week: its families package. And the Greens had one last week: light rail from downtown Auckland to the airport by 2021. They’ve both got others and there will be more to come.

Yet neither party managed to use the policy to reset the debate or its own appeal. Think about that. The Greens’ policy is at the core if its desire to solve Auckland’s absurd transport crisis – a crisis that exposes weakness in National like few others. But it didn’t get picked up that way.

Labour’s families package reverses tax cuts for the well-off, gives extra money to the more vulnerable and frees up $2.4 billion for direct extra spending on the frontlines of health and education. How did that not turn into very simple and very compelling take-home messages?

It’s not the policies, it’s the inability of the party leaders to sell them. It was a graphic lesson on why upskilling the leaders – let’s call it inspirationalising them – is now so critical for both Labour and the Greens.

Greens co-leaders Metiria Turei and James Shaw (Photo: Adrian Malloch for The Spinoff)

And with all those enemies, which ones should they focus on? That’s easy. It’s National, National, National, and also NZ First. Enemy number one is the guys they’re trying to beat. Voters have to believe that New Zealand must change the government or it’s not going to happen.

What about the other enemies? Winnie, at number two? Ridicule him. Seriously, laugh at him and move on. Numbers three to five, the commentariat including TOP? Ignore them. Number six is each other: both parties need two or three more high-profile policies that are unique to them. Number seven is themselves: the discord within. So what’s the best way to deal with discord? Be a winner. Project a winning way to your members and they’ll be right there at your side.

Back to the question of fighting National. It doesn’t mean being like National, because Labour and the Greens will never win that one. It means being a radical alternative.

But being radical doesn’t have to mean being radical left. Qualitatively better primary healthcare doesn’t have to be a “leftist” issue. Nor does good public transport in Auckland. Nor do clean water, preservation of the conservation estate, effective measures to fight climate change and making poverty history. These things are all centrist politics in New Zealand now – the great general swathe of voters believes they are desirable – but they are not being addressed with radical determination.

What about putting an end to the absurd advantages that property investment enjoys, causing so much misery for the people who do not benefit from those advantages? That’s a classic leftist issue, right? Maybe. Except it’s not only the left that cares about the lack of social housing and the difficulties of first-home buyers. Nor is it only the left that cares about the distortions to our economy and long-term savings caused by the favoured status of property. It should not be hard for a decent political party to generate support in most parts of the country, and most parts of the political spectrum, to fix this stuff.

Time’s nearly up, Labour, the Greens. Ten weeks to go, and you guys have to blitz this country with heart and soul and inspiration and determination. With a spirit that tells us all you’re going to win. You have to make us believe you. And you have to do it now.

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