After rummaging through leaked property data for Chinese sounding names (then mightily bungling the aftermath), Labour pivoted to oppose changing the New Zealand flag, and then to stake out protectionist ground on the TPP. Taken alongside Andrew Little’s baffling decision early in his tenure to ditch the capital gains tax even when the policy was more popular than the party at the last election, this embrace by Labour of 'small-c conservatism' is as transparent as it is disheartening. How has Labour become the party of 'turning back the tide', abetted by age-old tactics of exploiting fear and anxiety?
However clumsily executed (and the clumsiness is impossible to overstate), the transformation of Andrew Little’s Labour into a reactionary political movement may yet pay off electorally. But early signs are not promising: the One News Colmar Brunton poll gave Labour a mere one point boost after the surname stunt, dismal when you take into account sharply declining economic sentiment. At this point in any government’s third term, it is without precedent for the incumbent party to maintain a consistent lead over its main opposition of between 15 and 20 points. Yes, there are smaller parties who add to Labour’s pile, but the last election must surely have eradicated once and for all the dangerous fantasy that Labour can plausibly win office with thirty percent support.
In my resignation letter over the surname stunt, I cited my three years living and working in Rwanda to explain why I consider the trawling for ethnic sounding names out of bounds. Very quickly, party boffins attempted to discredit me by claiming, absurdly, that I was comparing Phil Twyford’s antics with the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. Even after the party president, Nigel Haworth, conceded in an email that this was a mischaracterisation, asking me twice to reconsider my decision to resign, a paid employee of the party continued ad-hominem attacks unabated. Rather than engage with the sincerely felt objections of party members and activists, this freewheeling staffer heaped scorn upon them. Point-scoring over principle. I shouldn't have been surprised since exactly such thinking lay behind Labour’s decision to scapegoat Chinese New Zealanders in the first place.
In search of silver linings, there is this: Labour seems to have finally remembered it needs to compete with the National Party for the middle-ground of the New Zealand electorate. This suggests the destructive and self-defeating delusion that a ‘missing million’ of non-voters would rally triumphantly to the party and its allies has finally been debunked beyond resuscitation.
Little, Twyford and co probably believe their recent manoeuvres on Chinese surnames and flag preservation are exactly what’s needed to persuade centrist voters to abandon John Key. Little even said he knew accusations of racism over the housing data were “likely”, yet authorised their release anyway. Why? Whatever support they lose, he must have calculated, will be overwhelmed by a wave of new voters who will relish Labour’s sticking it to the Chinese.
This is a crude and misguided assessment of what Kiwis want from Labour. They're not looking for NZ First sans twinkle. In fact, watching Labour experiment with populist race-baiting is cringe-inducing, like seeing your Dad dance to Hip-Hop.
Labour’s role in New Zealand’s political life is to bring about progressive change that reflects the hopes and aspirations of ordinary Kiwis and moves the country forward. It should never adopt a defensive crouch towards the future. It will win again when voters see that the party has reconnected with that mission and demonstrated the wherewithal to manage the country’s finances.
If Labour believe that Kiwis will reward them for abandoning core values whenever they sniff a headline, it shows how little regard they have for the people whose support they seek.