Labour got the campaign horribly wrong

The implications for education of the resounding National Party victory are profound, but more on that in later postings.

Labour got the campaign horribly wrong – yes, David Cunliffe was not the one for the job, but above everything, was getting the campaign horribly wrong.

Two parts of the election political context need to be appreciated.

1. I was at the Wales versus Samoa World Cup rugby match in Hamilton. John Key walked on to the ground and the crowd made a noise I had never heard before, just before the applause, a visceral, atavistic grunt of recognition and approval. Key is a phenomenon in New Zealand politics, though not a unique one, either in New Zealand, or elsewhere. Robert Muldoon was also a phenomenon but with a charisma of a different category – more the category of Silvio Berlusconi, the tough guy category. Key is of the Reagan category. Key is a far more complete phenomenon than any political  phenomena from the left, for instance, Norman Kirk or David Lange who had weaknesses in controlling their environment.

Huge numbers of people have invested emotionally in Key as well as politically. People are responding to him as tribal leader – they resent criticism of him as a criticism of that investment. Having, in a sense, surrendered their judgement to Key, they follow those judgements even at the expense of their own interests, their own well-being, and the future country. As a strong man in their eyes, he provides a sense of security. By giving him their trust he removes the need to engage with economic and moral complexities of issues facing New Zealand. People feel he is on their side – they feel that someone with such an engaging manner must surely be worthy of their trust.

2. The economy is going reasonably well. It is based on high dairy prices; insurance money for the Christchurch rebuild; increased government borrowing; Chinese investment; a further form of borrowing in Public Private Partnerships especially to build schools and hospitals; and the increased value of houses. A fairly shaky economic foundation but people felt good about things, only too willing to accept  Key’s assurance that the country ‘was on the cusp of something special’.

In other words, the Labour Party was up against it. But having made the two points above, I don’t intend to address them directly, preferring to address the fundamentals of any political campaign anywhere, anytime –  fundamentals that  will vary in emphasis but will always be there whether a political party chooses to address them in a campaign or not, and in the case of the Labour campaign not.

The fundamental of a political campaign should be fear – fear of the future if the other party gets in; and on the obverse (the positive side of the argument), hope and inspiration for a better future based on national values and aspirations. Fear is just another way of expressing hopes and values but in reverse, so should not be viewed as necessarily terrible. Election campaigns, like leadership, function at various levels of visceralism and atavism. When you have a leader who is strongly visceral and atavistic in appeal, also charismatic, heading a party which is matchingly so – you have a winner.  This visceralism and atavism is, of course,  tempered, layered, and pointed,  and can come out Ayn Rand or Hannah Arendt or various gradations below or above.

A number of people being interviewed, including David Shearer, have said that Labour should move from the left to the centre-left by dropping left policies and interest groups – they never specify what left policies or interest groups these might be. And they won’t because there really aren’t any. The best commentary on the election so far has been in the NZ Herald, 23 September, 2014 editorial. It gave high praise to Labour’s manifesto and policies.

The problem with Labour was not in the manifesto or the policies it was in the campaign.

1. The campaign was lost right from the start with the campaign motto: Vote Positive. I know in a tortuous fashion it can be justified, but campaigns are not into tortuous. You can get voters to think positive after you have made them fearful: fearful about jobs, wages, education, abuse of power, the environment, about giving control of the country to the USA and China. Fear is a basic emotion and a legitimate one for matters of protection, security, and concerns for the future. Without fear as a part of the campaign, Labour went into it with one hand tied behind its back.

The campaign was lost then.

2.  Hope and a sense of excitement for the future was never set out effectively. The way to generate that hope and sense of excitement, I suggest, is to coalesce many parts of the  manifesto around the concept of national identity – the idea of a country being able to solve its problems in a New Zealand way. Labour probably had the best and most detailed manifesto ever put before the voters of New Zealand but much of it was neglected or fragmented in presentation. National identity should have been used as a regular reference point, a cohering concept. Home ownership, education the New Zealand way, the environment, public broadcasting, support for the arts, clean rivers, supporting entrepreneurialism, regional support, improving and extending  railways, climate change support, controlling immigration, restrictions on land ownership, funding for green technology, keeping key industries under New Zealand control, Maori language in schools, and so on – should have been continually referred to as ways to protect and develop New Zealand identity.

I believe these two approaches: balancing fear and the positive and cohering policies around the idea of national identity for an exciting and sustainable future would have been successful in pulling National back from majority government.

The advertisement for Labour typified the campaign – bland, abstract, and boring – it was a visual expression of all that was wrong with the campaign. And where was Cunliffe’s adumbration of the policies to be introduced in the first 100 days? This old standard  was entirely absent. Oh dear!

David Cunliffe was reasonably effective in the set debates but he was lugubrious away from them. There was a lack of quick wit and winning expression. He looked and talked too much like the stereotypical politician. A posting I put out during the campaign bemoaned David’s unwillingness to spit out policy. There was an unwillingness to go for it, at times he seemed to act as if he was the incumbent prime minister. Policy became blurred – I still don’t know what his policy on land ownership is. He bought into Key’s argument that voters weren’t interested in Dirty Politics and, put like that, he was probably right, but they might have been more interested in abuses of power. I think he should have built into his campaign the implications for New Zealand of abuses of power.  As it worked out, David got the back flow of Dirty Politics and none of the momentum that was available.

In a nutshell, Labour has to get a whole lot smarter and quick-witted, it is not about left or centre, it is about realpolitik mixed with its adverse, a kind of idealism that is both basic and inspiring. The Labour candidates for leadership that come to mind are Stuart Nash, Grant Robertson, and Jacinda Ardern (destined, in the first instance, to be deputy, I suspect). Meanwhile, I am girding myself for more years of education attack to defend. Oh dear!


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11 Responses to Labour got the campaign horribly wrong

  1. Shirley says:

    Hi Kelvin – I get so annoyed when I go to log on and try a few passwords and don’t get the correct one.!! GGrrrr! So a personal reply will have to do. A wonderful summary, Kelvin. Thankyou. We worked hard on Andrew Little’s campaign here, and I learnt a great deal in the hours of phone-ups I did. Strange things like engineers, care-workers, cafe workers, drivers, mechanics unemployed etc etc weren’t going to vote Labour!! Would love to research these things.

    BUT I think it is quite wrong to be laying all of the blame on David Cunliffe, even though we attended the Primary and gave him our vote. He seemed to me to be being tweaked here, there and everywhere – and from the day he spontaneously appointed Matt McCarten his Chief I had doubts. It seemed just a hunch that he had and in a few hours conversation he’d made that decision – was Matt being really consistent with his advice? So many strategic decisions have to be made and there is a lot of guess-work. The choice of giving Peters an option to be part of a Coalition meant the dissing of Mana; actually Hone, John and Laila are excellent lefties.

    Still, easy to pick and snipe from the sides. I would love Stuart Nash to get the nod. He is articulate, energetic, smart, wonderful orator, knows the Beehive inside out; a good-looker (I kid you not – that does help!) and has proved himself with his Napier fight to success. The family connection is a nice little back-grounder but he doesn’t push that. See his 2008 maiden speech on YouTube.

    Last question; who is pushing for Grant R so consistently? He is excellent in all sorts of ways, but some serious thinkers think that NZ is not yet ready for a gay PM. What do you think of that, Kelvin? It is rather ‘the elephant in the room’ isn’t?

  2. I think you’ve pretty much nailed the primary issues, Kelvin i.e. I agree with you! I think, too,that John Key is quite a unique phenomenon. I don’t personally trust wher he comes from, but it’s clear that most people are won over by his particular set of characteristics – calm manner, easy and ready smile, open face, and unflappable way of responding – and he’s rich! Wealth has always been attractive. Apart from the ‘I wish I could be rich!’ feeling, there is the belief that his wealth is the result of being a successful business man. Nobody is very interested in the way he actually made his money (gambling with other people’s money) – they’re like the serfs of old,tugging their forelock at the rich man on the hill.
    As for David Cunliffe and Labour,their joint incapacity to put forward a coherent vision for the country was a major disappointment,and was epitomised by the extremely lame slogan “Vote positive.” I don’t know who their campaign advisers were but they were light years away from the slick and polished National outfit.
    So, thanks,Kelvin! I enjoyed reading your insights!

  3. Shirley Knuckey says:

    “Where he comes from” Philip is a figure of speech I think. I’m thinking “Oh the irony!” That easy manner and the ‘ordinary guy’ persona that comes across and makes the populace feel He’s Our Man, must in part derive from the fact that he was nurtured in a State house, with a mother a State beneficiary, with the bonus of an excellent grounded State school education at Burnside co-ed. Those elements are all legacies of Labour wisdom and foresight. The tragedy is that all that heritage will be further systematically eroded under his National/Act government now with a License to Destroy. The appalling device of a little Actee getting snuck into a semi-Cabinet post in Education is the last straw.

  4. Ewan Hyde says:

    Kelvin, I think you got it partly right. Certainly the ‘cult of Key’ played an enormous part in the psyche of the nation. His ability to weather the Nicky Hagar and the Dotcom storms should have been a warning to us all…they left nothing but a dirty ripple which will soon fade from the collective political memory. Labour, I think, made the mistake of being caught between campaigning on National’s perceived bad luck and campaigning on their own policy platform. National’s bad luck was, as I have said, not as durable as the ‘cult of Key’ and the Labour policies were not well thought through – who in regional NZ was ever going to vote for a capital gains tax?
    No doubt there will be a multitude of postmortems to trawl through over the coming weeks. However for Labour to recover as a credible opposition and then a real competitor for the 2017 election they need only return to their roots for inspiration. If they can some how return to the party that supports the working man – a fair wage for a fair days work, employment legislation that encourages both workers and employers and really focusing on the child poverty issue that seemed to be slung around by all the parties with none really showing a real commitment to helping these families. There is a lot of good political ground in there for a strong Labour Party to exploit.
    Education is a good place to start. We all know how bad National policy is in this area and with such a huge mandate I can’t help but think Key will push on with the worst of his reforms. What has fascinated me, as an outsider (a former – recently sacked after 17 years and 16 of those as Chairperson) is how badly the opinion of teachers is taken. Surely they are the front line professionals, most with a tertiary qualification and better than average intelligence and yet whenever figures are produced that show the smallest deviation from the desires of the Government it is the teachers who are immediately blamed. Not only that they are made shoulder insane workloads and are scrutinised by an organisation that Himmler would have been proud of, ERO! It has always been a marvel to me that teachers maintain any sort of morale at all and then you throw Novopay into the argument and their dedication to their profession is inspirational. I know where I work we all agreed we would have walked off the job had that debacle occurred in our workplace. Surely a Labour Party standing up for the working man (and woman of course) could put up a credible fight based on some old fashion labour reforms?
    Anyway, just my thoughts post election.

  5. Kelly-Ned says:

    Well said Kelvin. I’m currently reading a new book titled something like ‘Beyond the free market economy’ It is such a good read and sets out the shocking state we are in and how it has been so smoothly achieved by National along with where we need to develop responses etc.
    Highly recommend it.

  6. thinkingthis says:

    Kelvin you have hit the nail on the head. Personality is a driving factor in how the average kiwi is voting. I have outlined it as clearly as possible here

  7. Not long ago you wrote this;

    If the zeitgeist hath grasped the populations emotional core, then it will require the fall of the emperor to the low of being seen disrobed, by other than mainstream press. Others will need to do this.

    Or the rise of a superior force to gasp the national psyche and steer it to a new point of realisation.

    I like Shirley Knuckey’s comments and the others about Labour’s need to ditch the neo-liberal baggage and get back to basics. I agree with your assessment, especially I took notice of the reference to the crowd at the rugby game.

    Also for your information are you going to be at the following meeting in Hamilton Saturday 27th September?

    Hamilton Residents & Ratepayers Association Inc., will be holding their monthly meeting at Celebrating Age Centre, 30 Victoria Street (South), Hamilton at 10am until 12 noon on Saturday 27 September 2014. Special guests are:-

    Audrey Durose spokesperson for residents in Hamilton City Council Pensioner Housing units speaking on the potential sale of Pensioner Housing;

    Greg Rzesniowiecki from Port Motueka speaking on the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement and the serious implications to all New Zealanders if signed by government.

    Door charge $2 -All very welcome.

  8. “Labour has to get a whole lot smarter and quick-witted” – that’s it. Right there.

  9. Kelvin says:

    George Burrell writes:

    Funnily enough, I have been thinking about the “Vote Positive” slogan as well. It was quite inappropriate for an Opposition party, and it led to a benign “we know better” attitude rather than a “time for change” attitude. It may even have led to the “victory” speech by David Cunliffe on Saturday night. Coming out of the opera on Saturday night, it was the first thing I heard – and with all the hysterical applause and Polynesian drums I thought he must have pulled off the miraculous.

    The reality was that National was standing on its record, and it was Labour’s job, above all else, to at least cast serious doubt on the value of what National had done, but better still show that National had made the wrong decisions.

    They were handed a golden opportunity with “Dirty Politics”. As Stuart Nash said, this book attacked National, not Labour! The idea at that point was to find ways that the information could be turned to advantage. In my own electorate, the sitting MP Sam Lotu Liga was named as a right-wing MP coached by Simon Lusk. Yet only those who read the book realised this. (Not sure if the Labour candidate locally did!) Sam quite irrationally opposed marriage equality too – nothing about that.

    The Green vote of 10% was probably a given. The National Party vote of at least 45% this time was also probably a given. The NZ First Party is currently hogging the protest vote to a much greater extent than it needs to.

    Unfortunately I don’t think a different leader would have helped. Jacinda Ardern is miles short of where she needs to be. Phil Goff and David Shearer too passive.

    Nash may be an interesting prospect, genetically if nothing else. He had better be!

    Other points: RE Education – let us not forget Chris Hipkins’ PATHETIC effort against Hekia Parata of all ministers on The Nation.

    What a trouncing he received, quite unnecessary if only he had known his stuff and got out of this vote positive mode!

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