It's The Feathers That I Hate: Having misjudged the nature of Labour's election strategy, and heaped premature scorn on her strategists, it's only fair that I eat my due portion of that most ill-omened of birds - the Crow.
WELL, I’VE EATEN CROW before and, really, it’s not that bad – tastes like chicken. Even so, I’m pretty sure Labour’s strategists will derive considerably more enjoyment from the experience than I will. They’ve had to endure some pretty harsh criticism from this particular commentator over the past few months, so the sight of Chris Trotter with grease and feathers on his chin is likely to be a very pleasing one.
I can’t deny that it’s been a surprise. The apparent passivity of the Labour Opposition over the past few months had me well and truly fooled. All I could assume was that they’d given away this year’s contest, and that those best-placed to make a difference were more concerned with “succession planning” than winning the election.
Clearly, appearances have been deceptive.
Labour’s strategy recalls Napoleon’s strategy at the Battle of the Pyramids. The French general’s opponents were Egypt’s warrior-rulers, the Marmluks. Mounted on Arab horses, gloriously arrayed, they were supremely confident of victory. And, had Napoleon chosen to meet them on their own terms, he and his army would have been cut to pieces.
But Napoleon was not about to make that mistake. What he saw before him were lightly armed horsemen imbued with an indefatigable belief in their own superiority and a hunger for personal glory. Decimated by thirst and dysentery though they may have been, Napoleon knew that his men still constituted the most formidable fighting force of the Eighteenth Century. They were a highly disciplined army of experienced veterans, fully conversant with the most effective weapons and tactics of their day.
Napoleon configured his army into vast hollow “squares” of infantry, placed his artillery at the corners, and his cavalry in the middle. Then he sat back and waited for the Marmluks to come to him.
Their charge was a sight to behold. In a vast crescent formation they galloped straight for the French lines. Napoleon waited. On came the wave of horsemen. Still the French waited. It was only when the Marmluk warriors were almost upon them that the front ranks of French infantry coolly raised their muskets and fired. The artillery joined them, firing grapeshot and canister rounds into the horsemen at point-blank range. The splendid horses and their even more splendid riders were cut to ribbons. The speed with which the Napoleonic infantryman was able to fire, reload, and fire again was legendary. The Marmluks ornate muskets could be fired once from horseback and were then next to useless. As wave after wave of cavalry hurled themselves against the French formations the slaughter escalated. By the time the smoke cleared, the warrior ruling-class of Egypt was in headlong retreat.
The Battle of the Pyramids, 21 July 1798
Labour’s strategic insight is identical to Napoleon’s. National may look invincible, but, in policy terms, it is only lightly armed. Prime Minister John Key’s popularity and the Government’s soaring poll numbers are the equivalent of the Marmluks’ splendid armour and eager stallions: they look impressive, but in the cut-and-thrust of modern political warfare they are actually rather useless. What counts for much more, once battle is joined, is the quality of the contending parties’ policies; how they are presented; and when they are released.
National’s fatal assumption was that Labour would attempt to fight them on the ground where their man was strongest. That Floundering Phil Goff, wearing nothing but his low preferred prime minister scores, would ride out against John Key, the resplendent Pasha of the Polls, and get slaughtered.
This is where Labour’s experience and discipline have been so effective. They know that big policies, announced during the campaign can produce startling changes in the balance of political forces. (Grant Robertson, in particular, has experience of this; it was his policy of removing the interest from student loans that made such a difference during the 2005 campaign.)
By holding back their announcements on Superannuation and Kiwisaver until the campaign got underway, they have succeeded in inflicting maximum damage on the Government. Key can offer nothing substantial in return. Like a hapless Marmluk warrior he can brandish his rhetorical scimitar and fire-off the occasional (largely ineffectual) round from his ornate musket – and that’s about it.
Key will close with Phil Goff in the Leaders’ Debate on Monday, 31 October. His only hope of evening up the growing imbalance in “serious” policy releases will be to unveil National’s welfare plans to the party faithful at the Government’s official campaign launch on Sunday.
But even this may not be enough. Goff’s and Labour’s achievement has been to re-frame the electoral debate by offering policies which may not be immediately popular but which are unquestionably in the nation’s long-term interest. A punitive, “beneficiary-bashing” welfare policy runs the risk of being dismissed as pandering to the most disreputable elements of the electorate, but contributing nothing useful to the “big issue” discussions which Labour has forced on to the political agenda.
As Labour’s campaign unfolds, we should expect to see more television ads featuring the friendly-but-firm Phil Goff we met in the party’s first sally on asset sales. These will play to Goff’s strengths – his competency, his experience, his safe-pair-of-hands reputation. In all likelihood John Key and his government will barely rate a mention. The focus will be on what has to be done to secure New Zealand’s future, and on Labour’s willingness to take the hard decisions required to make it happen.
Phil Goff and his advisers are betting everything on the voters’ willingness to concede the need to make such difficult choices; and on their readiness to reward the Opposition for its courage in grasping so many stinging policy nettles.
If they’re right, and the voters respond as Labour hopes they will, then National will suffer the same fate as the Marmluks.
“Forward!”, cried Napoleon, as he ordered his troops into position on the melon fields adjoining the distant Pyramids of Giza. “Remember that from those monuments yonder forty centuries look down upon you.”
Phil Goff’s appeal is not to monuments of stone looking down, but to future generations of New Zealanders looking back. The test that lies ahead of us now is no longer just a test of Labour’s leader, it has become a test of ourselves.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.