A stale approach

The irony of Labour’s “A Fresh Approach” slogan is that it couldn't be staler. In fact, I'm fairly sure I used the exact phrase running for school council in the sixth form. Worse, it reveals how Labour concedes they have failed to mount a case for meaningful change. “A Fresh Approach”, promising that a Labour-led coalition might come at things somewhat differently, is a terribly low stakes pitch “Bored with the same old faces? We have new faces!” might cut it against a time-serving regional councillor, or justify shuffling your breakfast TV lineup, but it hardly makes for a compelling case to change government.

Of course, like it or not, we will be bombarded with this wheezy, asthmatic battlecry for months to come, thanks to focus groups who have clearly told Labour there is no appetite for a more ambitious change pitch. I've been on dozens of campaigns, and “A Fresh Approach” invariably makes the shortlist of potential slogans. Eyes might roll at its lack of originality and substantive emptiness, but it comes in handy when that same blandness is the strategic goal. It's what you say when you've got nothing.

Not all elections are high-stakes, and, at this late stage, Labour would be remiss not to align its messaging to whatever insights they have gleaned from research. You can't fatten a pig on market day, and Chris Trotter’s notion that the public would rally to a Corbynesque agenda strikes me as dead wrong. Without animating issues like Brexit and Tory austerity, voters would be confused and alienated if Little’s Labour reinvented itself into hard-charging reformers weeks before the polls. It would backfire spectacularly. So “A Fresh Approach” it is.

Labour has failed to make a persuasive argument that the country needs a crew change beyond “surely by now it must be our turn”.

This is not to say Labour’s failed to develop policy during their time in opposition. They have; oodles of it. Some of it is good, too. The mental health stuff is a small but positive step on a daunting trek to mend that particular basket case. Others, such as immigration and their suffocatingly constrained tax plans, are considerably less so.

What is glaring by its absence is a narrative that coheres around a resonant critique of the government, creates a sense of urgency, and offers an optimistic path forward. Without the benefits of a cratering economy or a seriously scandal-plagued incumbent, Labour needed to do all three things.  They did not one of them.  

Instead of building a winning message, Labour has mostly stalked the news cycle, picking at and inflaming areas of perceived aggravation for voters like house prices and foreign surnames.  Playing at politics that way, you have good days and bad -- but, by definition, you are never setting the agenda. Like all incumbents, National, the levers of government, not to mention a healthy surplus, at their fingertips, have an entrenched advantage in this kind of spot-fixing approach to politics.  Whenever Labour succeeds in making noise around an issue, English and Joyce are neither fiscally nor ideologically reticent about doing what it takes to make it die down. They have a deck stacked with trump cards.  

By abjuring nation-building as a central plank of Labour’s vision for New Zealand, the party has missed an opportunity to redefine the terms of the election.  (Winston, mind you, is not making the same mistake).  While the Nats talk up their fiscal chops and promise voters money for nothing in the form of tax cuts, hidden deficits are piling up: run down schools; underfunded hospitals; decrepit roads and bridges; entrenched, intergenerational poverty; woefully inadequate addiction and mental health services, untenable incarceration rates among segments of the population.  Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, nominating Bill Clinton in 1992, made the case in these terms: Conservative politicians, he argued, are quick to find the will and resources to act, but “not for children. Not for jobs. Not for drug treatment or for the ill or for health care. But hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out failed savings and loans. Billions for war. Billions for earthquakes if they strike...if we can do all of this for these spectacular catastrophes when they occur, why can we not find the wealth to respond to the quiet catastrophes that every day oppress the lives of thousands.”

Parties understandably loathe unsolicited advice like this (I know I do), but I’m convinced, especially after spending time in the Far North, that a rhetorically pared-down version of this argument -- that National has failed to properly maintain and upgrade New Zealand’s economic infrastructure  in such a way as to expand opportunity, equip future generations with the tools to thrive, and reduce inequality.  Make a case like that, and every candidate and MP has any number of ready-made local campaigns on fixing the consequences of National’s neglect: every school making do with prefab classrooms, every community denied reliable broadband, every crumbling road, every depressed shopping strip.  I can think of no better example than Labor in Victoria who made their promise to remove the state’s most dangerous level crossings the centrepiece of their winning campaign in 2014. It was an inspired move, and Labor understood that it represented more than just reducing fatalities and improving traffic flow.  Fixing level crossings demonstrated Labor’s commitment to fixing stuff that make tangible improvements in people’s lives -- as well as highlighting the Liberal-National coalition’s failure to do either.  

The die is cast for 2017, I fear, but, as strategies go, that’s a “fresh approach” Jacinda’s Labour should eagerly adopt.