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!