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Home Opinion Labour must steer clear of the ‘copy cat’ trap
State of the Left New Zealand

Labour must steer clear of the ‘copy cat’ trap

Josie Pagani - 13 December 2016

New Zealand’s conservative PM may have bowed out on a high in the polls, but to challenge his successor Labour must adopt a very different tack

Completely unexpectedly, New Zealand’s prime minister, John Key, has resigned. He wasn’t pushed, there was no coup. This was not a tearful David Cameron or humbled Matteo Renzi bowing out after losing referendums they never should have promised. He simply had enough, and quit with his conservative National party still hitting 50 per cent in polls after three terms in government, some 20 points ahead of Labour. Perhaps power is easier to give up when the reasons for exercising it are few.

He will be remembered as our most politically successful leader, but not for any substantive achievement. John Key’s small-c conservative government managed the economy through the global financial crisis, thanks largely to a stimulus-creating rebuild after a devastating earthquake.

He didn’t change very much because Labour’s nine consecutive surpluses between 1999 and 2008 left headroom for National’s eight subsequent deficits. Transformational policies of Helen Clark’s government were largely left alone: a retirement savings scheme; a tax credit for working families; interest-free student loans; a publicly-owned bank; improved annual leave and parental leave entitlements. Not only that, John Key adopted Labour policies – free visits to the doctor for under 13-year-olds, an increase in benefit levels, and more apprenticeships. 

Labour won the contest of ideas, but its strategic position has been difficult because it has struggled to own those intellectual victories. If you criticise a popular leader you look like you’re criticising voters. If you don’t criticise him you look weak. If you talk about the successes of past Labour governments, you’re fighting the battles of the past, but if you don’t mention them then the new government gets all the credit.

First Labour tried to demonise Key. He was ‘shallow’, ‘untrustworthy’, and ‘a money man’. But voters saw questionable deals with favoured businesses as evidence of a wheeler and dealer who got things done.

Then Labour argued more radical policy would attract the support of a disillusioned missing million voters. Labour would win office by building improbable coalitions with Greens and an anti-immigrant New Zealand First party. Voters rejected this algebra three times, while the strategy arrested hard thinking about why Labour isn’t more popular in its own right.

Voters want the government to provide public services they trust, and particularly health and education services that are effective, excellent and which spend their money wisely. They want to feel secure in their homes and streets. They want an economy that provides fairly for everyone, and gives everyone a fair go in return for a fair effort. Nothing on this list is alien to a Labour party.

What's missing are fresh and convincing ways to deliver our values. Too often, we make Labour values subservient to entrenched positions, like ‘trains good, cars bad’ or to wacky sidebar preoccupations like taxing sugar.

John Key maintained his popularity largely by avoiding pressing questions, which can be successful for a while because default management of the status quo is built into the conservative brand. But ultimately it fails, because the status quo is never really stable.

Labour therefore can’t succeed by copying conservatives. But we do need to focus. Negatively bashing the other side, avoiding big issues and being distracted by their agenda is a trap.

We don’t need to abandon our values, but we do need to modernise the way we adapt them to the world as it is today. Everywhere in the developed world Labour is being asked to re-think how working people can have a fair share of a global economy. 

Our economics should begin with Thomas Piketty’s observation that returns will flow increasingly to capital rather than to working people in the absence of intervention. That reality creates political territory on which conservatives will never be able to compete. We should own devolution of decision-making, because power to the people is a progressive idea. But we should not surrender what is true and moral – for example we must not blame foreigners for taking what is ‘ours’. When progressives are promoting the same anti-trade, anti-globalisation goals as Donald Trump, fads have got in the way of our priorities. These are fault lines that a politically successful conservative leader has exposed for us.

This week Labour is popping champagne because their popular rival is gone. Internal polling shows voters agree that ‘it’s time to give someone new a go’. But in the absence of fresh thinking, voters are just as likely to see the new National party prime minister as the change they are looking for.

Josie Pagani is a political consultant and commentator


Geoffrey Pieterson
15 December 2016 11:29

@Luc: You are quite profoundly wrong on several things. First of all, Michael Cullen did in fact repay debt. He ran nine consecutive surpluses. That money didn't just evaporate. Every dollar of each of those surpluses paid down debt. That's by definition a surplus. GDP growth also helped the debt-to-GDP ratio, but at the end of the day it was the nice straight surpluses that did it. Second of all, I reject your notion that paying down debt is purely a property of the right. Keynes himself, the founding faster of demand side economics argued that in good times governments should use surpluses to pay down debt, allowing them to borrow in the bad times. Arguably New Zealand should not pay down debt right now, as interest rates are so low, and infrastructure spending is badly needed. However, the notion that debt repayment is a right wing "meme" is economically ignorant, and will only tarnish the Left's economic credibility in the eyes of the general public. Finally, the TPP. The notion that the TPP is not a trade agreement is nonsense, It is simply a broader agreement than the typical *tariffs* focused agreements of the past. The TPP puts much focus on behind th border protectionism. For example, putting in place a regulation that every washing machine needs to be made from NZ steel, makes it impossible for Chinese washing machine firms to compete, without actually putting a tariff in place. Much of the TPP's focus is to rid the agreeing countries of such policies, to allow interstate companies to trade freely is a key feature of being pro trade. What is more, while I am no fan of increasing copyright law, it is another trading advantage to negotiate international norms for international copyright law. In the same way that having a standard unit and measure of time between countries allows communication and transport to be made easier, having standard laws for IP makes investment in these areas significantly easier. Just as the Euro makes purchasing goods in Marseille more convenient for a firm in Hamburg, having the same law for patents in New Zealand as in the USA, Brunei and Japan makes investment from firms with intellectual property significantly easier. This is a necessary step towards supporting trade between the pacific partners. Even if you are not a fan, extending copyright is a concession made to other countries to get our own concessions from them (behind the border protectionism and tariff reduction), a normal feature of any trade agreement is compromise. Finally, the ISDS clause is a perfectly reasonable expectation. It does NOT allow corporations to sue the government on policy (and in fact specifically prevents toxic industries such as tobacco from having ANY legal rights. It is simply a means of enforcing contracts within the agreement. For example, if I were to sell you a chair for $10, and we sign a contract, then I give you the chair, but you don't give me the $10, I have every right to sue you for the $10. That should not change purely because you are the Ministry of Education rather than a private firm. The ISDS clause simply allows parties (government or no) to sue for breach of contract or the agreement (a contract in itself). It does not prevent laws being passed. The point that I am making is that it is foolish to claim to be pro trade, yet reject the most important trade agreement since the GATT.

Luc Hansen
14 December 2016 09:06

Generally a nice post, but I do have a couple of comments. The first relates to this: "When progressives are promoting the same anti-trade, anti-globalisation goals as Donald Trump," Which progressives? Labour is avowedly pro-trade. Andrew Little made that quite clear, while Helen Clark's government, of course, negotiated the 'free trade' deal with China. But the TPPA, incorporating the ISDS procedures, is not free trade. The trade provisions are preferential only, and will adversely affect the poorest countries who desperately need free access to rich country markets. The IP protections are hugely beneficial for the US, since it is the owner of the vast majority of global IP, and it's ironic that voters in the US (and Trump, at least for now) are too misinformed to recognise the benefits of that fact for their own country. My second comment is that National have replaced a small 'c' conservative with a big 'C' conservative, and, factor in Joyces' Trumpian tendencies of goodies for business interests, opportunities to weaken this new government will abound. And a bonus comment for you, Josie, is this: you should stop buying into the nonsense of repaying government debt. Modern, advanced economy countries do not, in general, repay debt, says this B.A (Econ). The last NZ government to do so was Bolger's, and Labour inherited a public service in desperate need of funding, remember? The current debt service burden is so low, that, as a percentage of GDP, more than doubling the debt inherited by National from the Clark government, it is only slightly above the Clark level, for more than twice the nominal amount of debt. It's a great time to borrow and invest! As an aside, it's a common conception that Michael Cullen "repaid our debt." That is untrue: nominal debt was held roughly constant while healthy (sans natural disasters recovery) GDP growth plus a healthy inflation rate simply overwhelmed the debt to the point of it fading into insignificance. The problem is, when progressives such as yourself buy into the big 'C' government debt meme, you encourage the decline in real, percapita government spending Bill English has (quietly, with an assassin's smile) imposed on the most vulnerable. To close, one more snippet of info: I put in an OIA request for the literature behind a 20% net debt target, and got reams of political statements in return. That is, it's bullshit. And government forecasts show net debt reducing to close to zero in the future. if we have a government hellbent on surplus and a chronic current account deficit, who do you think has to make up the shortfall. It's households, through borrowing. But hey, I'm on your side! And thanks for the forum. Cheers.

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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