Monday 17 January 2011

What's The Story Labour?

Tell it like it is, Phil: Labour's story is the story of everything New Zealanders love about their country: its egalitarianism; its determination to give every citizen a 'fair go'; its willingness to take risks for what's right. If Phil Goff can find the courage to stand up and tell us that story - he'll win.

THERE’S THE BEGINNING of an interesting – and much needed – discussion over on The Standard blogsite about what Labour should be telling us this election year. Political scientists call it "framing the narrative". A cynic might say it’s all about Labour getting it’s story straight.

Shortly after Labour’s defeat in the 2008 election I met with Phil Goff and his sidekick, Gordon Jon Thompson, and, over a very palatable lunch at my local cafĂ©, offered them the following political parable – by way of understanding where Labour was at that moment, and how it might find its way back into public favour.

I asked Phil Goff to think of John Key as the Flash Harry who turns up to a neighbourhood barbecue at the local reserve. He and his mates arrive in a shiny new SUV loaded down with all kinds of gourmet food and boutique beer. Not surprisingly, they make a pretty big splash and most of the guests are soon crowding around the grill, laughing at Flash Harry’s jokes and drinking his booze.

The night wears on. The gourmet food’s all eaten and the boutique beer’s been drunk. By now it’s becoming pretty clear that some of Flash Harry’s mates aren’t very nice. They’ve started helping themselves to other people’s stuff. One of them is harassing the Solo Mum who lives in the state house down the street. Another is pushing around the teacher who lives next to the school.

People from the neighbourhood are getting pretty pissed-off, but no one’s willing to do anything until this little bloke, who’s been sitting quietly with his friends at the far end of the reserve, steps forward. He challenges Flash Harry to get his mates under control, tells them they’re ruining the party for everyone else.

Flash Harry’s mates try to shut him up, but the little bloke stands his ground. One by one the other guests move in behind him – he’s saying exactly what they feel, and he’s not intimidated by the rich pricks’ threats.

"Hands up all those who think this man and his friends should leave", says the little bloke. He looks around at the forest of upraised hands and nods. Then he walks straight up to Flash Harry, looks him right in the eye, and says quietly: "Why don’t you and your mates just FUCK OFF!"

Okay, okay, I know this would require a degree of fearlessness that Labour (let alone Phil Goff) hasn’t demonstrated for a very long time, but what other choice does the Opposition have?

Phil’s big problem is that he thinks it is still possible for Labour to get its message out through the news media. Let’s not forget that after the Mt Roskill voters threw him out in 1990, he got a job lecturing journalism students at what was then called the Auckland Institute of Technology (now AUT).

Phil’s model of the news media is that of a rational, disinterested, purveyor of more-or-less accurate information to the public. He believes that, providing they're honest and forthright in the presentation of their policies, most journalists can be relied upon to give politicians a neutral write-up. If the news media fails to fairly represent a politician’s policies it isn’t because they’re biased, it’s because the policies are in some way deficient. In Phil’s view, only a bad politician blames the media for not giving him a fair shake of the stick.

The biggest problem with this model of the media (apart from it being plain wrong) is that it turns politicians into timid little mice who are terrified of being given a fatal mauling by the assorted dogs, cats, rats and ferrets of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Or, to put it more crudely, it transforms Phil Goff into the political hostage of Guyon Espiner and Duncan Garner.

What Phil has got to realise (if he wants to reclaim his local reserve from the toffs) is that victory belongs to the political leader who makes the news, not the poll-driven fruitcakes who try to second-guess what Gallery journalists will think is news.

In the context of my barbecue analogy, the little bloke would not have won the respect and backing of his neighbours if he’d sneaked around asking everyone how they would feel if he criticised Flash Harry and his mates. Or, whether they would support him if he openly challenged them to stop their bad behaviour.

That’s not what heroes do.

Heroes step up to the plate. Heroes tell it like it is. Heroes don’t care if what they’re demanding is popular or unpopular – they only care that it’s right.

Deep down, most New Zealanders understand that the good things about their country; the things that people overseas admire and envy; are the things that Labour put in place. Workers’ rights, the welfare state, affordable doctor’s and free hospital care, and an education system dedicated to the proposition that "every person, whatever the level of his academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his powers."

They know that even when they are wrong (as the backers of Rogernomics most assuredly were wrong) it is only the Labour Party that has the courage to reform the New Zealand economy, address the historical injustices of colonisation, and take an independent and ethical position on the world stage.

Labour gives. Flash Harrys take.

If Phil Goff has the wisdom to grasp what New Zealanders value; the wit to determine what New Zealand needs; and the courage to offer those things to the voters, then he won’t only make the news this election year – he’ll dominate it.

And, by midnight on Saturday, 26 November, the local reserve will once again belong to the little bloke and his neighbours.


peterquixote said...

This symbolic narrative is not very likely is it, in reality the little guy is in for a hiding. A major hiding. What is, is, and the little guy is unlikely to change his temperament successfully.
His best chance is to side up with someone who can handle the action.
Like Flash Winston,
then its two against one, much better odds.

Anonymous said...

The trouble is, our news media seem to be in love with John Key, who in their eyes can do no wrong. I get tired of the endless flicks of Key in the Herald, it's gotten so boring and predictable. He is such a showpony of a PM, it's quite sickening, that empty smile.

No matter what Goff does, the media cares not, he is only a cast member and not the star of the piece. So, Key has to be adored and constantly in the media, as much as possible. What does that tell us about the man? As for the MSM, what a bunch of bootlickers, gullable and weak. Can't they see the blandness, the hollowness, the bereftness of good ideas, the lack of courage and true convictions? Typical of this day and age though, style over substance, if you could call it that.

Phil has not a shot, and it's not his fault, it's the fact that John is a media poser. Politicians as celebrities. Who would have thought?


Anonymous said...

Labour gives.

..other peoples money.

Labour takes from the overburdened in order to give to the undeserving.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you to a point Chris. It's quite clear that Labour would get the media (and therefore the public's) atention if they stepped boldly up to the plate. Some of the 'story' you describe would begin to be heard. Problem is, that attention would be largely negative, particularly at first. I can't believe they, and Goff, don't know this perfectly well. The alternative, and one they have clearly chosen is to do nothing and hope that the electorate chooses them as a safer option when the effects of the recession are deeply felt by more than just those at the bottom - as the pain starts to move up to the middle. Those delicious middle votes that Labour sees as the key to the election. I think this is a disastrous strategy, and one far more likely to fail than taking positive action, and start setting the agenda.

However, you are assuming that, as in your parable, Labour is the good guy, Labour cares about the 'little' people. Labour, in short isn't just the previous flash Johnny feeling put out that the new guy is not only more popular, but screwing people over in a fashion that it could only have dreamed of doing.

The night wears on. The gourmet food’s all eaten and the boutique beer’s been drunk. By now it’s becoming pretty clear that some of Flash Harry’s mates aren’t very nice. They’ve started helping themselves to other people’s stuff. One of them is harassing the Solo Mum who lives in the state house down the street. Another is pushing around the teacher who lives next to the school.

A lot of Labour's mates haven't been very nice, including in the last nine year stint. They've made a lot more effort to seem like butter wouldn't melt, but Labour has been no friend to the little bloke, the little woman, or the reserve, for a very long time now Chris. I see nothing that indicates anything has changed in that regard, and I believe the public is accurate in seeing Goff and Labour as being beaten by National at what has been to date their own game, and deperate to be the flash harry's on the block once again.

Anonymous said...

I wish that Goff would do what you are suggesting, but I doubt he will because I think he basically agrees with most of what National are doing.

It also appears that NZers agree with most of what they are doing, and that our values have moved away from being truly egalitarian to wanting to be one of the "toffs".

In the NZ I live in people would be complaining if the little guy started protesting and saying he was just jealous of the nice car, good beer and fancy food, that everyone at the park, especially the solo mum, should be grateful that people like that are willing to share just a little of what they have with everyone else.

We're just Americans without guns, now.

Gooner said...

The only thing wrong about the backers of Rogernomics was they didn't back the reforms for long enough, and chickened out.

Cactus Kate said...

Nice thought Chris but sadly for you John and his mates are more likely to be the ones these days at John's private residence minding their own business. Who would be seen at a reserve for heaven's sake?

Itt is the Labour riff raff who have taken over reserves and public parks harassing and robbing little old ladies and kiddies.

Anonymous said...

You work hard all day and make enough to feed your family. You go home and have a barbecue.

A nondescript little guy on a tricycle arrives uninvited along with four mates who've been sleeping all day.

The four mates demand 39% of your barbecue but there isn't enough to go around so your family goes hungry. When the food's all gone the four mates demand 12.5% more of it anyway.

When you don't give them the food the four mates rape your wife and kill one of your children. The nondescript little guy on the tricycle explains to you that this is your fault for not making more barbecue.

The nondescript little guy on the tricycle then gives his four mates your barbecue in compensation for their pain and suffering and issues you an infringement notice for cooking your food 5 minutes faster than the posted cooking limit.

Anonymous said...

Anons at 8.05 and 8.10 said it all. We have the New Zealand that the majority of voters want. People seem quite happy to have NZ turned into a third world country where the rich are very rich and the poor are forgotten. Just as long as they are among the rich themselves. It will be interesting once the pain of peak oil really starts to be felt and middle NZ voters realise they are not going to be among the flash harry winners. They might then regret the loss of the egalitarian New Zealand they so happily voted away. I rather despise the NZ middle classes.

After several decades of voting Labour, I am unlikely to ever vote for them again and they can stay in opposition forever as far as I am concerned. Looking at the promotions and selections Labour have made in the last couple of years I am of the belief that the parliamentary Labour party is merely the career advancement wing of their rainbow membership. Labour have moved so far away from their roots they would be unrecognisable to the founders of the party.

Next year I will be probably be voting for Winston. All he has to do to get my vote is to make the end of the selling of NZ land, houses and assets overseas a bottom line in any coalition negotiations. I don't care who he goes into coalition with either, just as long as he is true to his campaign promises.

Chris Trotter said...

To Anon@12:10

I've included your comment in the interests of forensic political science.

It would be difficult to manufacture a better example of the intellectual pathologies afflicting the Far Right than this all-too-revealing piece of polemical prose.

Those Bowalley Road readers who can be bothered are invited to more thoroughly dissect Anon@21:10's arguments and metaphors so that their many flaws and aberations can be laid bare.

Personally, I don't have the nose for it.

Monty said...

You have so many of the facts wrong. For starters There was no food or Drink at the BBQ in the first place - The previous gust - Slick Mick had taken it all and basically thrown it away. The other guests at the BBQ still have a lot of distaste for the behaviour of the previous guests and their arrogance and the thugs sitting out in the carpark (Winston) and the bad food brought by the vegans who tried to preach to everyone about how they should all run their lives.

John Key and his mates realised the BBQ was not what it promised to be so they got stuck in and cleaned the place up, did the dishes, organised some music nearly everyone enjoyed. The BBQ ended as a great success, and John Key and his mates were invited back time after time.

The sulking and bad behaviour of Slick Mick was eventually forgiven. They learned to be constructive, and not steal from the generous guests, but rather realised that the old rules no longer were valid and that bring a bottle of Tui and pack of cheap sausages yet eating the steak and drinking the champagne was not acceptable.

Chris - like so many on the left you continue to under estimate John Key, and over estimate the Labour Party. The game is changing and until Goff realises this he is dooming Labour to the opposition benches.

Victor said...

For Labour to succeed, it needs to change the terms of the current debate.

On the one side are all those, such as Chris, who rightly dislike the way the poor are driven to the margins, whilst the broad mass in the middle suck up to the fat cats, who are gradually selling them down the river.

On the other hand, there are those who simply shrug their shoulders and say 'TINA', "There is no alternative"!

Meanwhile, there's a vocal variant of this latter group who think that the current mob aren't doing enough to drive the poor to the margins or to sell us down the river.

Few sensible people would want the whole country to go to the wall just to help this, that or the other group of people who can't apparently help themselves. But that's how National and its allies have posed our economic dilemmas.

It follows from this that Labour has to do more than convince people that National is unfair, inhumane and generally less nice than it appears to be. It also has to make it clear and obvious that National's alleged 'realism' is anything but that.

I get the impression that David Cunnliffe understands this necessity. So, probably, does Phil Goff.However, neither of them possesses the demagogic gifts needed to reset the terms of the economic argument.

That's not to demean their abilities. It's just that 30 years of constant neo-liberal propaganda have seeped into the very fibre of our culture and civilization and help to define the way we live now.

A counsel of despair? I hope not. But nor am I filled with optimism at the moment.

Olwyn said...

During Labour's last nine years of government, there was good reason for attempting to modify the neoliberal status quo without fundamentally challenging it. For one thing, people had endured quite a lot of radical change, and may have been reluctant to face more. For another, it seemed possible then for Labour, by taking a moderate stance, to establish itself as the natural party of government. One columnist, I think it was John Roughan, observed that just as NZers tended to vote in National to administer the previous Keynsian program, so they may well prefer Labour to administer the neoliberal one, in each case aiming to curb the dominant philosophy from going to extremes.

That possibility, however, is now gone. The neoliberal program has made too many inroads, and it is difficult to see how one could now leave things more or less as they are while confining oneself to blunting the sharp edges. The only realistic path for Labour is to present a realistic challenge to the status quo,and, as Victor says, change the terms of the debate.

Victor said...


Drinking Champagne with steak has never been acceptable.

Jack said...

Chris, many years ago, I was grumbling to my art history tutor about a politician that wasn't doing what I thought he should be doing. My tutor let me rant on for a while, and then she said: 'Jack, you wouldn't ask a one-legged man to run up stairs would you?'

'Of course not,' I said. 'That would be pointless.'

'So why are you expecting this MP to do something of which he is clearly not capable?' she said.

Mr Goff is not capable of winning the country. The Labour Party should recognise that, and ask someone who is capable of running up stairs to take over.

Anonymous said...

When I was a freezing worker there was an ethic such that they would refer to slackers (eg) "he's a real tired c***".

Unlabouring labourites try to link labour with the slack.
I'm not saying all beneficiaries are slackers but to the left they are all wheat and chaff is minimal. To those who live in working class neighborhoods, they see differently.

Anonymous said...

Anon@21:10's arguments and metaphors so that their many flaws and aberations can be laid bare.

Personally, I don't have the nose for it.

Shame, I suspect that I might have enjoyed it.

The fact is Chris that my extended metaphor resonates, as one can witness from the subsequent comments -both those that you deigned to publish and those that you've Clare Curran-ed, in that Stalinist approach to dissent that the Far Left is so fond of employing.

(Okay that's not entirely fair, your editorial approach is far more supportive of free speech than the rest of the Left is prepared tolerate.)

Your fantasy narrative most definitely does not resonate. And this is one of the reasons why you're not going to witness another Labour-led government in your lifetime.

It's an example of the cognitive dissonance and cultural disconnect that exists between the Labour Party politburo, its apparatchiks and the Zeitgeist of New Zealand society.

That nondescript little bloke on the tricycle isn't discriminated against by the mainstream media, he's simply not saying anything that those of us who actually contribute to society are prepared to countenance.

Jennifer said...

I agree with your sentiments Chris, and I wish dearly that you were right, but sadly Phil Goff is still linked (perhaps unfairly) to the Rogernomics era which destroyed the heart of Labour in the first place. Phil Goff spoke to my class at AUT once and I was very impressed with him - he seemed passionate, knowledgable and ethical. Unfortunately none of that magic seems to come over on the TV screen, I just don't know why. The media doesn't give any of the other parties a fair go either, the poor old Greens are barely ever mentioned - so much for the brave new world of MMP, someone forgot to tell the journos that. They're a bunch of bigoted, unprofessional muppets!

I supported Helen Clark during her first two terms, but I think she just unnecessarily pissed everyone off with the prostitution and anti-smacking laws (which didn't work anyway - loads of illegal prostitutes and street walkers in Auckland these days, and look how many child abuse cases we still have).

Until Labour has purged itself of its closet right-wingers and started focusing on economic revitalisation strategies - instead of welfare treats like extending paid parental leave - the voters will not trust them in govt again. Personally I'd prefer to see a minimum weekly income set for all New Zealand workers, and free dental health care, funded by increasing taxes on the rich, then leave families and individuals to get on with their life, instead of so many complicated benefits.

As a former Alliance/Progressive supporter, this year I'm giving my party vote to NZ First and my electorate vote to Labour. I don't have high hopes that Labour can win so I want National to be stonewalled by Winston at every opportunity!

Victor said...


I think the point is that any leader Labour would be painted as incapable of running up stairs by our hopelessly biased media.

Let me suggest a diverting mental exercise to you.

Block out from your brain every snide comment made about Goff by radio shock jocks, over-hyped TV reporters and Tory newspaper scribes. Instead, just listen to the man and observe him in action.

Perhaps imagine you're a newcomer to New Zealand and not awash in the interminable character assassination that passes for political debate in this fair land.

And then try identifying a better qualified potential Prime Minister than Goff from the admittedly not over-talented front ranks of our two major parties. I think it would be a tough call.

That doesn't mean he's another Michael Joseph Savage or even another Helen Clark. But who, at present, is?

Anonymous 9.15 pm

You may be right, you may be wrong.

But, ultimately, New Zealand's future does not depend on how much money we spend or don't spend on beneficiaries.

Despite recession, we still have (partly thanks to Michael Cullen) some of the best public accounts in the OECD. It's our private indebtedness and our lack of skills-based export potential that are threatening our future.

It's one of National's favourite ploys to keep harping away about beneficiaries when there are more important and urgent issues to address.

Smile, wave and put the boot in does not constitute an economic policy.

Anonymous said...

I just want Poster Boy gone, and a PM with vision and morals in his place. I agree with the above commenter, HC just went too far with her social engineering agenda, and it's made no difference when it comes to child abuse, and yes, made the streets of Auckland and Wellington, just to name a couple, far more seedier than they already were.

I'm also going to vote NZ First for the party vote, and possibly Kiwi Party or Act for the Electorate. Anything to see the back of Smile and Wave, I just think he is there for the sake of it bascially, not because he really deserves to be. Even Bill English would be an improvement, cause he's earned his stripes.

Jack said...

Victor, I don't disagree. But the media loves a new star, a star it believes it has 'discovered'.

Whether Tony Blair was the right choice for Britain in 1997 (I was living in London at the time) is questioned by many. But he was seen by the media, and then by the British electorate, as being able to run up stairs.

Mr Goff may well be a good man. I’m not disputing that. But I don’t believe the media is going to take up his banner and portray him as a champion. It just won’t sell enough advertising.

Like it or not, we live in an environment in which the media – including the shock jocks and others of their ilk – has a role way beyond simply reporting the facts and offering help in interpreting those facts. The media needs a ‘star’ as much as the country needs a viable alternative.

As you have probably deduced, if I was advising the Labour Party, I’d say stop grumbling about the uneven playing field and find a (Labour) star the media will support. Sorry, Mr Goff. Nothing personal.

Anonymous said...

David Cunliffe. The media would love him and he has the chutzpuh. He just has that X Factor that Key seems to have, he's not as flat and dull as Goff.

Second. Shane Jones. For the same reasons as above. Labour need an equal to Key, an equal star figure. So true, the media run the elections these days, and often, the outcomes. It's not really about what is promised, it's about celebrity status, sad as that is!

Victor said...

Jack and Anonymous 9.23

I don't disagree with your basic premise about the importance of star quality in contemporary politics.

However, I can't agree that David Cunliffe possesses this quality, much as I respect his intellect and much as I personally would like to see him succeed.

If he achieved stardom, it would probably be of the temporary sort that Obama enjoyed before the voters saw through the sheen and hype of newness and caught up with the obvious fact that their newfound populist hero was actually a studious, measured, pointy-headed intellectual and anything but 'one of us'.

A hostile media would have a field day with someone like Cunnliffe. His poem about Harvard would be trotted out thrice weekly and cartoonists would vie with each other to emphasise his less than distinguished mouth and jaw.

As to the vainglorious Shane Jones...his accession to leadership of the Labour Party is probably the only conceivable event that might lead me to consider voting National.

There have, of course, been some recent political leaders who have possessed both persistent star quality and genuine ability. Lula da Silva was one such and, to my mind, Bill Clinton another.

But spare us the Blairs, Berlusconis and Sakos! In the long run, their only contribution to the public weal is to plant a jungle of cynicism and despair!

So, my advice to Labour would be to stick with Goff and seek to reset the terms of discussion.

In electoral terms, it's not a particularly promising recommendation....just better than any others currently available.

Moreover, if it actually succeeded, it would provide us with a competent, experienced and internationally respected politician as prime minister.

KjT said...

Phil Goff is actually growing on me the more I hear him speak. I have some glimmerings of hope for New Zealand for the first time in 35 years.

At last some coherent policies that may take us away from the path of failed States like the USA and UK.

A quiet competent leader is what we need. We have had too many flash Harry's and egotists.

Another three years of National will be a total disaster as they sell every income earning asset that is not nailed down.