Labour must steer clear of the ‘copy cat’ trap
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