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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)

OPINIONPoliticsJuly 17, 2023

We come to you live from the launch of an election slogan

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

As the Labour Party launched its new slogan yesterday, Chris Hipkins and Chris Luxon accused each other of lacking substance. Toby Manhire dives in the shallow end.

The very idea of holding a launch for a slogan is pretty funny. Like an ad about an ad. Gift-wrapped gift wrapping. The political equivalent of, I don’t know, a gender reveal party. At any rate, that is what the Labour Party did yesterday afternoon in Auckland. They staged the launch of a slogan. At least they didn’t call it an “activation”, I suppose.

Looking pleased as punch, Chris Hipkins rocked up to the corner of Upper Queen Street and Newton Road where a bevy of ministers, MPs, candidates, supporters and a couple of perplexed onlookers huddled in the breeze, gazing up at another Chris Hipkins, a giant Chris Hipkins, glittering in a million billboard pixels. Alongside him up there, the slogan, thereby launched, in white type on red: “In it for you.”

In his Political Dictionary, William Safire defines a slogan as a “rally cry; a catchphrase; a brief message that crystallises an idea, defines an issue, the best of which thrill, exhort and inspire”. There is not a lot of thrilling going on with “In it for you”, but that’s by design, in tune with the bread-and-butter zeitgeist.

Among the categories of slogan that Safire identifies are promissory messages, declamations of change and chilling warnings about the alternatives. Hipkins eschewed the first after reading the national room; he did say he was possessed by an “optimistic vision about the future of our country”, but in the “doing it tough” times, people don’t want brighter-future exuberance. As for the second, Hipkins does want you to see him as representing a different approach, but it would be unavoidably awkward for a two-term government to start exhorting change. 

Which leaves the warning option. The “don’t risk it” line has been a mainstay of incumbent National governments, from Muldoon’s dancing cossacks to the “strong and stable” mantra that Bill English belted out in tribute to Theresa May. Hipkins might have been tempted in that direction, and in revealing the slogan yesterday he did remark that “when times are tough, Kiwis need a government that provides stability and certainty”. You could hardly elevate that to the slogan, however, when across six months your ministerial lineup has been about as stable as the Hikurangi subduction zone. 

And so “In it for you” it was, four syllables that are clearly intended to invite – no, to raspingly beseech – you to wonder just who the other lot are in it for. National, meanwhile, are running with a promise of sorts. “Get Our Country Back on Track” has a distinct echo of Wayne Brown’s successful “Fix Auckland” pitch. Hopey changey it is not, but it undeniably speaks to a pervasive mood. 

After announcing some sort of pothole strike raptor force yesterday (tough on potholes, tough on the causes of potholes), Christopher Luxon was asked for his thoughts on “In it for you”. He sighed, “I don’t think New Zealand needs slogans”, and ended the sentence by promising National would “take New Zealand forward and get it back on track.” 

Hipkins said his rival’s critique was “ironic, given that so far all we’ve had from National is slogans”. That retort might have worked in 2022, but this year the opposition has been rolling out policies weekly – 26 so far, said Luxon, which is about 26 more than Labour.

It is fundamentally different, of course, when you’re governing – Hipkins has had six months to not just draft policy but legislate with the unique force of a single-party MMP majority. He’s devoted most of his attention, however, to chucking policy overboard. Asked yesterday whether he’d toyed with a continuation of the slogan theme of the last two elections – “Let’s do this” followed by “Let’s keep moving” – Hipkins sidestepped, saying simply, “look, it’s a different campaign”. In truth, though, if you were looking to complete the trilogy based on the year so far, it would be, say, Let’s Not Do This, or Let’s Curl Ourselves Up as Teeny-tiny and Abstemious as Is Physically Possible. Or, to update the Obama catchcry: Yes We Can’t. 

The risk with strategic minimalism, of course, is that you end up, well, launching a slogan. “People are going to hear a whole lot more from us,” Hipkins promised, and the first item of consequence could come as soon as this week, in the form of the Labour tax policy. But while that will provide plenty to chew on, we know already what it won’t be; in a statement issued from Stockholm, or was it Vilnius, to time with the release of documents from the leadup to the May budget, Hipkins announced he’d made a “captain’s call”, overruling his finance and revenue ministers, Grant Robertson and David Parker, and binned all prospects of any wealth or capital gains tax. 

These are straitened times, we know, and the severe mood here is hardly unique. In the UK, Wes Streeting, one of the most admired senior MPs in the opposition Labour Party, which is currently leading in the polls by miles, wrote the other day that boldness was off the cards. “The only thing worse than no hope,” he wrote, “is false hope.” Maybe? I don’t know, but it’s a bleak day when that is your pitch. 

Hipkins did, it bears repeating, speak of his “optimistic vision”. Yet for him and his party, burned by attacks around delivery, wary of antagonising with ill-timed “transformation” stuff and steadfast that anything fancier than bread and butter is highfalutin indulgence, the danger is you swing too far the other way, that you become plodding, prosaic, unhopeful. People might not want big, bold vision rhetoric, but that doesn’t mean they want gruel. Little wonder that the smaller parties, unencumbered by the rictus, hyper-cautious courtship of a median voter, have soaked up so much support. 

About 20 minutes after he arrived yesterday, Hipkins waved for photos, shook a few hands and departed the footpath corner event, slogan officially launched, leaving a few stragglers hovering in the red billboard glow. Up there, the massive illuminated prime minister gazed down at the intersection, his stare focused, just perhaps, on a pothole glaring insolently back from the very top of Upper Queen Street.

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