Sunday, 28 September 2014

"Reclaiming the centre" - a toxic narrative

Maharey blames Labour's recent electoral woes on having drifted too far to the left.

All I can say to that is NO, NO, a thousand times NO. It worries me to see this narrative getting so much traction, because this stuff is really important.

In 2008 New Zealand had seen nine years of Labour government, one which had overseen New Zealand's highest growth rate since WW2 and had been highly popular throughout most of its tenure. They were defeated after their third term by a National party with a wafer-thin policy platform, who had campaigned on public distrust in the government after a series of minor scandals, and effectively branded themselves as "Diet Labour", promising to keep in place the socially progressive policies implemented by the Clark government (despite their ideological opposition to them).

The Clark government had shifted the political centre in NZ significantly towards the left during their tenure, partially reversing the rightwards trend seen over the 80s-90s. National's need to move their brand towards the centre to win in 2008 is proof of this, and signalled, to me, a significant victory for the left in winning over hearts and minds, if not elections. While there were certainly some lessons to be learned PR-wise (It's about trust? Seriously?!), taking into account the rarity of four-term governments in NZ, it seemed to me we'd done rather well.

Yet the party at large immediately went into panic mode. Why didn't NZ love us anymore? What had we done wrong? The answer trickled down through the party hierarchy (being pushed, I suspect, by certain factional interests) - Labour had moved too far to the left. We cared too much about social justice issues, we were too focused on minorities, and not enough on middle NZ. To be electable, it was said, we had to move back towards the centre.

I suppose the appeal of such an explanation to the membership was that it presented us with a clear problem which could be easily corrected going forwards, and was more satisfying in that sense than the idea that swing voters tend to shift their allegiance every few years, we ran a pretty dysfunctional campaign and middle NZ was hyped up on the "time for change" rhetoric after an historic US election. We were swimming against the tide in 2008, and we'd forgotten how to swim.

That overwhelming propensity for self-flagellation by the Labour party and the failure to learn the real lessons of the campaign was a large factor in my decision to leave. So it's saddening to see, six years on, that very little has changed.

Here's the rub: modern elections, for better or worse, are not won or lost on policy. It matters, certainly - radicalism will be punished by the media and by voters - but the kind of moderate centre-left platform advocated under Cunliffe's leadership is well inside acceptable political norms. The criticisms I have been hearing of Labour over the past few years - both in the media and among my acquaintances - are not about policy, but about negativity, inconsistent messaging, an incoherent platform, internal dysfunctionality and apparent incompetence. Now I do think that the party lifted its game dramatically during the campaign, but those few weeks couldn't undo the negative impression the last six years have left in voters' minds.

Reclaiming middle NZ is, indeed, essential for victory in 2017. Doing so means presenting a credible image of a competent government-in-waiting. It means stable leadership and consistent messaging. It means articulating a clear egalitarian vision for NZ's future which resonates with voters, and a sound, coherent policy platform which works towards that end. Most importantly, it means doing *all of these things* for long enough to solidify voters' trust, which has been undermined by years of in-fighting and directionlessness.

Labour can continue on the path that it has, swinging wildly about the political spectrum and playing musical chairs with the leadership, but it won't make an iota of difference in the polls unless they get the PR basics right. In my opinion, capitulating rightwards is both totally unnecessary and totally counterproductive if the left actually wants to shift the broader narrative away from the neoliberal dogma that been force fed to voters since the 80s, which is essential if we want any "social democratic project" to succeed in the long-term.

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