The Customer is Always Right
Labour needs to stop blaming the voters.
Shortly after 3pm on the day after the election, Prime Minister John Key strolled into a meeting room at the Stamford Plaza Hotel in Auckland. It was a press conference, and wrap-up sound bites were to be the order of the day. Key wore a dark jacket and open-necked shirt with beige pants and a pair of brown suede brogues, and he said, among other things, “You only gain support when you accept the public are right.”
True that. You can’t win unless you reflect public opinion. To put it in subtler political terms, you can’t win unless the public believe you share their point of view. Labour doesn’t understand that, and nor do some of the other parties on the centre-left. The subtext of a lot of their responses to their defeat on September 20 is that the voters got it wrong. It wasn’t the parties’ fault, they ran good campaigns; it was the people to blame, because they let themselves be tricked, they didn’t understand… Labour will get nowhere, thinking like that.
Another lesson was articulated that same morning by Steven Joyce on TVNZ’s Q&A when he said, “The public believe we’re doing okay. The economy is moving in the right direction.” A million-plus people voted National, and there is not much any Opposition can do when the general mood is one of confidence.
Yet almost as many registered voters didn’t vote at all. Labour’s “missing million” remained missing, and it’s reasonable to assume many of them have little confidence in the economy. It’s also reasonable to assume they have little confidence in Labour. And yet it is striking that the only two constituencies in which Labour did well are South Auckland and the Maori seats.
That single fact speaks volumes about what must be the core of any Labour regrowth. The bellwether will be Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis: if he has a senior leadership role, the party will signal it’s back in the game.
I wrote last issue that, historically, Labour brings change and National beds it in. And yet, while voters did not feel the need to change the government this time, on one big issue there really does seem to be a consensus for change: child poverty. This is not, fundamentally, a question of school lunches or free GP visits, although those things are important. It’s about housing. The foundation for a good start in life — the thing on which health, education and all manner of childhood dreams and achievements can be built — is a warm, dry home. That’s got to be a government priority, and John Key seems to be suggesting it will be.
Key himself is the third factor in National’s success. In any country, large or small, there are very few outstanding leaders at any one time. Labour doesn’t have one right now, and that does explain a lot of their confusion. But cometh the time, cometh the person: someone, sooner or later, will rise and surprise us all. Besides, National doesn’t have another one. When John Key retires, all bets will be off.
Key, as others have observed, is a social liberal who also manages to project a convincing “anti-PC” appeal. It’s a trick we may see the next Labour leader trying to emulate — although Helen Clark never felt the need. Labour’s David Shearer has been talking about politics as a “contest of ideas”, which is true but misleading: it is, far more, a contest of leaders. Winston Peters knows that, and he’s been good with the rhetoric: “The purpose of politics is to increase the happiness of the people,” he said, channelling both Jeremy Bentham and Thomas Jefferson. And, this election, I have deeply missed the voice of David Lange. He’d have known how to make the most of the mess of this campaign. As able a leader as Key deserves as able an opponent as Lange.
Wouldn’t that be something?
There’s a fourth factor: the vote on September 20 was a vote for democracy. A lot of people will be horrified at that. In the wake of the revelations by Nicky Hager and Edward Snowden, isn’t National’s record on democratic processes badly stained?
That may still prove to be true, but it wasn’t uppermost in voters’ minds. What they did was punish everyone they believed was trying to rort the electoral system. Many of the votes for National, and many of the stay-at-homes, were cast against Kim Dotcom and every party that might give him any influence. This was predicted: in this magazine, and by disgusted Mana Movement member Sue Bradford, and by others.
The vote against Act was just as decisive. This ridiculous little party has no support and it would be a continuation of the political rort that put it into Parliament if Key allows it any influence on his government. National now desperately needs a credible future MMP partner, and the voters of Epsom deserve some reward for the pain of those nosepegs they’ve been wearing these past two elections. What about a new blue-green party? There’s a gap, and nowhere better to base a party to fill it.
Which brings us to Auckland. The election has big implications for this city. Steven Joyce has already talked about a new focus based on economic growth. He’s right to do so. But the conflict continues over strategic planning of transport, and the Housing Accord merely splutters along. National says it will fix that with its reforms of the Resource Management Act, which means we’re set for more urban sprawl — something the Unitary Plan easily allows despite what many people think. That would be a tragedy, in my view.
All eyes will now be on Len Brown, missing in action most of this year but still, incredibly, keen on a third term. Will the left fail to organise his succession, and thereby fail the city as badly as they just did the country? And on the right, who will they promote? A progressive thinker in tune with the new city, or a throwback to the bad old days? Stand by.