Friday 27 January 2012

Labour's Kodachrome Moment

The Nice Bright Colours: Eastman-Kodak has been forced to close its doors because it failed to grasp that the business it was in was the business of preserving people's memories - not making colour film. The Labour Party makes a similar mistake. It thinks it's in the vote-gathering business when, in reality, it's in the business of selling a more secure today and a more exciting tomorrow.

KODACHROME’s gifts, according to Paul Simon’s 1973 hit single, were the “nice bright colours”, the “greens of summer” and a magical ability to make all the world “a sunny day”. The Eastman-Kodak corporation’s eponymous product, for which Simon’s snappy little ditty acted as a world-wide advertisement, was indisputably one of the hottest technological properties of its day.

Sad to learn, then, that in January 2012, America’s colour-film colossus is finally closing its doors. The nice bright colours and the greens of summer no longer require a Nikon camera loaded with 36 of Eastman-Kodak’s exposures. Unlike the songwriter, the world’s great pioneer of popular photography failed to read “the writing on the wall”. It wasn’t Mamma, but the instant images of the new digital technology that took Rhymin’ Simon’s Kodachrome away.

My friend, the photographer and artist, Barry Thomas, reckons the manufacturers of Kodachrome and the New Zealand Labour Party have a lot in common. Both were once at the cutting edge. Both had something to sell which masses of people were happy to buy. And both, by failing to keep pace with a rapidly changing world, have seen the power of their “brand” dwindle and fade.

Eastman-Kodak believed it was in the business of manufacturing photographic film, when it was actually in the business of preserving ordinary people’s memories. When film was no longer required to capture those special moments, the makers of Kodachrome should have been there with the digital technology that was fast replacing the photographic process. Nikon, Nokia, Samsung and Apple made the transition. Eastman-Kodak didn’t.

The Labour Party believes that it’s in the business of attracting electoral support. But the vote a person casts for a political party is only the last in a long series of decisions and commitments he or she has already made to its “brand”.

When Paul Simon considered Kodachrome what was in his mind? A tube of tightly-rolled, unexposed film in a chrome yellow box? No. What he saw were the “nice bright colours” and the “greens of summer”. When a voter thinks about Labour his or her mind should be flooded with similar positive images.

It was once. Mention Labour to the voters of the 1930s and 40s and the image of Bob Semple driving a bulldozer over the picks and shovels of the hated work schemes would spring to mind. Or a row of brand new state houses gleaming in the summer sun. Or smiling children clutching their bottles of state-provided milk. They’d recall pictures of hydro-electric dams, and the friendly faces of Labour’s leaders opening yet another school, hospital or factory.

Reassurance, Security, Optimism: When people thought of Labour in the 1930s and 40s it was an image like this, of Mickey Savage carrying furniture into the first State House, which sprang to mind. What is the image of Labour in 2012?

Back then Labour understood that its core business was offering New Zealanders reassurance, security and an optimistic vision of the future. Once people were persuaded that these were the things Labour stood for, collecting their votes became a mere formality.

But speak the word Labour to a voter in 2012 and what – if any – images spring to mind? Architectural drawings of the new housing estates Labour is committed to building? No. The Labour leader arguing about how best to put an end to inequality with Occupy protesters? Hardly. Standing in solidarity with the Maritime Unions? Perish the thought! Unveiling a graph indicating how quickly Labour’s new tax policy will reduce the share of New Zealand’s income currently claimed by its wealthiest one percent. Never. Announcing Labour’s “Grow New Zealand” scheme for putting unemployed Kiwis to work. Nope.

Mention Labour in 2012 and most New Zealanders will struggle to conjure-up any images at all, apart from a succession of vaguely recognisable faces and a sorry string of embarrassing headlines.

The Labour Party Opposition should be in the business of displaying courage, thinking the unthinkable, searching for the root causes of the nation’s problems and coming up with solutions that require the voters to discard their prejudices, step away from past failures, and take the risk of committing themselves to something new.

A successful Opposition doesn’t waste time attacking the Government, it devotes itself to enlisting the electorate in a great adventure.

If a vote for Labour is anything less than a decision to join that great adventure then the party will share the fate of Eastman-Kodak. It neglected its core business: preserving people’s memories. Labour’s core business, in 2012, must be stimulating New Zealanders’ imagination.

Using digital, colour, and, if necessary, black-and-white.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 27 January 2012.


Anonymous said...

a party of social engieers and refromers, with Marxist ideals and hard left leanings, but no longer the ordinary workers'party, they need to go further right.
The Greens look more in line with National right now.

Anonymous said...

Again, it isn't Labour's fault. They are the remnants of a reality based political party operating in a postmodern society where reality is whatever individual voters want it to be. Your article more or less concedes this by holding that Labour's problem is an image problem because they don't make people feel good. Facts don't matter at all, of course.

You can't have a political party based on genuine solidarity in a hyper individualist world – particularly when this has led to the abandonment of public reason – because solidarity requires a shared conception of the real.

Politics is now just a kind of advertising. There is nothing behind the images, since the image itself is the commodity. In practical political terms the idea of a reality behind this serves no political purpose.

Why not just give it up? Democratic politics has become silly. Have you watched the news lately? It's a circus.

Paulus said...

Yes, yes again yes.
The art of positive thinking, not negativity.

Anonymous said...

"Displaying courage."
I'm very glad you mentioned that phrase, Chris, because courage is what it takes to revamp welfare in this country. For far too long, governments have neglected to mention that as well as having "rights", those receiving benefits (i.e. money from taxpayers) have *obligations* as well.

For example, the obligation to look for work or training. The obligation to not have more children than you can afford to look after.

Very un-PC of me to say that, Chris, yet you and I know that this happens, and happens very often.

Simple question - why should the state (i.e. taxpayers) pay for poor people to have children, when this will almost inevitably result in poor outcomes for those children?

Is that lack of responsibility not a key cause of poverty, Chris? Yes or no?
Of course it is.

Simple, common-sense stuff - heck, advising low-income people not to have too many children (more than say, three) is *good advice!* However, you will never see Labour mention such things.
Why would they?
Why would they want to see their core constituency disappear?

On the other hand, why would National NOT want to help those on benefits become better-off? This would eventually *add* to their constituency, after all.

I don't believe that the country is at all well served by saying that welfare is untouchable. That people should be on benefits for life.
That people should be in state houses for life. Such an "abandonment" attitude doesn't help those people, and it sure doesn't help the country as a whole.

Dave Kennedy said...

I agree, Chris, Labour has not been able to successfully communicate its vision of where they want to take New Zealand (if they have one). In fact the clean green future Shearer has begun to articulate appears to parrot the Green party's election campaign.

The fact that the Greens have been leading the debate on key issues (child poverty, water quality, job creation, mining and mine safety, and industrial relations) should be a concern for Labour. It almost appears as if they let the Greens test the public waters on an issue before stepping in and pretend to take a principled stand once they know it has support.

Already it is the new Green MPs that have hit the gound running on the POAL crisis, the lignite mining in Mataura and the concerning food bill. I guess Labour will not make a strong appearance until after they have checked public opinion and carefully chosen the issues that resonate best with voters.

Victor said...


"Why not just give it up? Democratic politics has become silly. Have you watched the news lately? It's a circus."

Because any conceivable alternative is likely to be so much worse and even more dominated by imagery, lies and delusion rather than by reason.

It was not, after all, a democratic regime that invented 'Potemkin villages'.

Anonymous said...

@ Victor

I'm suggesting that Chris and anyone else who values rationality, fact based discourse and traditional political virtues just stop bothering – they're all tilting at windmills, and it seems to be making Chris more miserable with each passing month.

Although I don't see much in your rather shopworn defence of democracy, I am not trying to make any suggestions about what New Zealand should or should not do.

I'm suggesting that reasonable people should find something else to do with their time. Worrying about politics is a deeply masochistic activity. It's about as sensible as hoping that the top ten singles chart will one day be filled with music of good quality on an ongoing basis.

Watching good people flog themselves in the hope that it will get better just makes me sad.

Victor said...


As you don't have a view over how things should be run, you'll just have to put up with the 'shopworn' ideas of others.

Besides, I never made any claims to originality.

paul chalmers said...

re your comment

"Standing in solidarity with the Maritime Unions? Perish the thought!"

You demonstrate a poor understanding of the makeup of the Labour Party - the Maritime Union is an Affiliated Member of the Labour Party and its officials are senior members of the Affiliates Council. The Party doesn't need to 'stand in solidarity', it is there because the unions members are the rank and file of the Labour Party.

Chris Trotter said...

Oh, come ON, Paul! That sort of sophistry ill becomes you.

rouppe said...

"The Labour Party Opposition should be in the business of displaying courage, thinking the unthinkable, searching for the root causes of the nation’s problems and coming up with solutions that require the voters to discard their prejudices, step away from past failures, and take the risk of committing themselves to something new."

Errrr... Shouldn't they have been doing that in government?

Anonymous said...

Labours’ problem is the ghost of HC still in the back ground and the nanny state just waiting to re-emerge – patronisingly, forgiving us for throwing them out. They were and are a party of NO - no gst on vegetables, no Assets sales, no creditable debt reduction and no future vision – their campaign only reinforced their perception of nastiness. They are not a party of inspiration and vision. Their brand was so negative over the election campaign, unlike the Greens fresh and exciting promising a “richer future”.
They need to re-brand and develop a strategy beyond simple one-liners that appeals to the 3 out of 4 voters that deserted them. Expel those who linger for the past and the social engineers that promote policies such a WFF for beneficiaries, otherwise they are destined for another three years in the wilderness.
To old guard need to be purged out and reminded a Labour MP is not a meal ticket for life. Promoting causes that reflect ideologies thirty years old is a slow cancer, advocating for 300 greedy wharfies are not going to en-dear them to the rest of us that work our butts off and don’t suck of the welfare teat. Where is their rebuild vision for Christchruch? Silence! That’s why we sung national.
Sooner the pinko lefties self destruct the better, Chris Carter was right Labour is un-electable until its reforms it’s self and stop telling us how to live our lives, stop playing the man and not the ball.

James Gray said...

I know labour's goals are to solve the problems that should be the peoples' to solve, by appropriating the resources of those who take initiative to solve them and redistribute them among those that don't, But even to me they seem very directionless in doing that lately...

Victor said...

Anonymous@4.07 & James Gray

And National's vision and direction are?