The great thing about being in cyberspace is that you can opine on topics that interest you without having to establish any credentials at all.
Hence my role as a political pundit. On this blog, and a couple of times in the media as a “commentator”, I’ve expressed opinions on the state of the world. But I have no better understanding about the world of politics than most other people. I also have little comprehension of the machinations that go on within political parties.
However, I’m a voter, and a reasonably moderate one, so I do know what kind of issues “middle New Zealand” (that centre-vote all main parties try to capture) are interested in. I may be just a rich wanker lawyer now (actually not rich - mortgaged, driving a crappy car and living in the burbs out west), but twas not always the case.
And thankfully there are many commentators whose qualifications and connections should make them eminently capable of making incisive comments about political strategy, and yet who talk complete arse. Like Chris Trotter. It seems the only person who quotes him with approval nowadays is David Farrar. What does that tell you?
Trotter and many others (including in the blogosphere here and here) have been contemplating what it will take for Labour to regain power. A number of theories have been put forward about why Labour lost in 2008, and it is suggested that Labour needs to address those before it can hope to win again. All sorts of things are being suggested to revitalise the party. Most ideas involve turfing out poor old Phil Goff.
Well, as a member of the middle class who voted Labour in 2008 but fully understand why many of his peers and colleagues didn’t, let me give you my take on why Labour lost popularity in ’08, and what it needs to do to find favour again.
In my opinion Labour lost in 2008 for a variety of reasons. It had been in power for nine years and voter boredom eventually set in. People were also promised tax cuts by National, while Cullen’s eventual promise of tax cuts after years of stinginess just looked too much like a blatant bribe and made it appear as if the Nats were right all along. Labour was also harmed by an association with Winston Peters when, in hindsight, it may have been better for Clark to have just sacked him and taken a punt at holding a government together. There was also a succession of scandals and stories about misbehaving ministers that developed into a narrative of a government that was prepared to do anything to cling to power.
And I think personalities came into it. People seem to like John Key, and he comes across as affable, whereas the public persona of Helen Clark was of someone quite aloof and stern. Maybe people just figured it was time to give this nice guy a go. Sometimes being clever and capable doesn’t matter as much as being the guy you can have a beer with.
But I do tire of the claim that Labour lost because of a “nanny state” perception. Some voters might have moved to National because of that perception, but I suspect the numbers aren’t decisive, and most of those who complained loudest about the “nanny state” wouldn’t have voted for Labour anyway.
These are all still issues of perception, rather than substance, which is why I flatter myself and say I saw through these things and stuck with Labour. But most people don’t share my interest in politics, and their only experience of politicians is what they read in the newspaper or see on TV. So perception trumps substance every time when it comes to electability. It shouldn’t, but it just does.
With any new government people are going to give them a chance. True, John Key’s ride until recently has been a smooth one, and he has been subjected to relatively little critical examination to date. But in the last few weeks the mood seems to have changed. A perception is starting to grow (slowly but steadily) within the media that National doesn’t seem to have any idea how to deal with the difficult economic climate or the challenges our economy will face in the future, and that the principles National stands by are entirely expendable. A year ago you’d have struggled to find anything negative of Key in the news. Now people are regularly dismissive. A couple of nights ago John Campbell was on TV openly laughing at something John Key said during an interview. Sure, Campbell may be closer to Labour in his sympathies, but I’d never seen him so openly derisory of Key before.And many on the right seem to think Key is too timid and has no spine.
So what does it all mean? Is Labour a chance in 2011? Probably not, unless Key or someone in his government does something spectacularly foolish. However, Key isn’t a Kevin Rudd, because he’s too nice and wishy-washy to piss his party faithful off in the way Rudd did. My pick is that, with our without a new leader or change of direction, Labour will come second next year.
So the trick will be to hang in and start rebuilding. Unlike many commentators, I don’t think Labour’s in terrible shape. Labour may have lost at the polls in 2008, but it was not massacred. There is a core block of 30-odd percent of the voters that won't defect, so it would really take a swing of about 10% or so to bring Labour back into the game. That will probably not happen in the next 12 months, but it's hard to see how Key can maintain his current popularity during a time of economic difficulty, and when his government is doing next to nothing about jobs and productivity, the two issues that matter the most.
So what does Labour need to do? It needs to hang in there, continue to criticise and attack, and present an alternative vision that distinguishes it from National. I disagree with those who say Labour needs to distance itself from the policies of the last government.
Where does Phil Goff fit in with all of this? In short he doesn’t. I wonder if deep down he already knows this. He hasn’t really done anything badly wrong, but he is the face of “Old
Labour” and may need to make way for someone more appealing to voters. Cunliffe is the most obvious successor at this time.
But this is all idle speculation, and I may be hopelessly wrong. And when I am proven wrong I will quietly delete this post and pretend it never happened. And you promise you won't try to embarrass me by looking for cached copies of it on the Net. Okay?