Latte Sipping, Mac Using, Prius Driving, Liberal Elitists Need Not Apply: So long as Labour's policies are framed according to the priorities of the metropolitan elite, its chances of reclaiming the 150,000 to 200,000 suburban and provincial votes it needs to once again become a "40 percent party" are negligible.
WHETHER THE UNITED KINGDOM has a Labour Prime Minister by the end of this week remains to be seen. What cannot be disputed, however, is that among Labour’s traditional working-class constituency, much of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Government’s programme remains surprisingly popular.
Four out of five trade union members, for example, told pollsters that they thought the £26,000 cap on benefits was a good idea. Indeed, Matt Ridley, Member of the House of Lords and author of the bestselling book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, reports that “Tory candidates out canvassing tell me they are finding that welfare reform, while horrifying the metropolitan elite, is most popular in the meanest streets — where people are well aware of neighbours who play the system.”
If this wasn’t true, it is hard to explain how, after five years of swingeing austerity, the Conservative Party is polling neck-and-neck with Ed Miliband’s Labour Party.
To hear the British Left tell it, the last five years have been an unmitigated social disaster. It’s a claim which, if true, would be propelling Labour towards a landslide electoral victory. But, if the experts are agreed on anything about the 7 May election, it’s that, outside of Scotland (where the Scottish National Party are poised to win every one of Scotland’s Westminster seats) it’s not going to be anyone’s sort of landslide.
What horrifies “metropolitan elites” has, however, come to dominate the policies of both the British and New Zealand Labour Parties. Highly educated and socially liberal, the party activists of both countries would rather see their parties split in two than endorse the “reactionary” views of their working-class supporters. That these views might be shared by sufficient voters to materially boost Labour’s chances of winning general elections deters them not one bit.
Take, for example, Phil Goff’s “Nationhood” speech of December 2009. Designed to undermine the Maori Party by driving a wedge between its elite backers in the Iwi Leadership Group and ordinary working-class Maori, Goff’s speech immediately drew sharp internal criticism from his party president, Andrew Little, and the new MP for Wellington Central, Grant Robertson. Rather than see the Labour Party flare into open factional warfare over its leader’s alleged appeal to the redneck vote, Goff’s strategy was quietly abandoned.
And yet, six years later, Andrew Little is being advised to woo precisely the same redneck vote which he and his current finance spokesperson were so quick to disavow back in 2009. Not in so many words, of course, but under the oft-quoted objective of restoring the Labour Party to its former status as a “forty percent party”.
To lift Labour from its shattering 2014 result (604,534 votes or 25.1 percent of the popular vote) to the 41.1 percent it received in 2005, Little will have to locate an additional 375,000 votes. In other words, he needs to lift Labour’s game by at least 15 percentage points.
Now, 15 percentage points is a very large gap to make up, but it’s not impossible. In July 2002, the National Party’s vote fell to just 20.9 percent, and yet, on 17 September 2005, led by Don Brash, National polled 39.1 percent – an 18.2 percentage point recovery in just 38 months! It can be done.
But, if Labour believes it can haul itself back into electoral contention without, as a vital part of that process, playing to the “reactionary” views of the 150,000 – 200,000 voters who have, in the nine years since Labour last won a General Election, crossed over to National, then they’re dreaming. And if they were to convince themselves that such massive losses could be made good without offering these “reactionary” turncoats a full-blooded “Orewa Moment”, then they would be even more misguided.
At Orewa, Brash spoke over the heads of the “metropolitan elite” to National’s angry electoral base, reassuring them that their instincts about the country were sound and would be heeded. Andrew Little, at a place of equal symbolic resonance (the Michael Joseph Savage memorial?) needs to do the same. Labour must reassure its remaining – and potential – voters that it is determined to be guided, once again, by the needs and aspirations of ordinary, hard-working, law-abiding provincial and suburban New Zealanders.
For this to work, the fundamental power of decision must be returned to the communities in which the problems of social and economic deprivation manifest themselves. In matters relating to employment, welfare, education, health, policing and justice, local citizens must be given much greater choice; a much louder voice; and much more security.
Labour needs to stop seeing the existing state bureaucracy as the answer to all of society’s problems. Instead, it must convince the ordinary voter that his/her problems can only be addressed effectively by equipping society with a new kind of state.
And if that horrifies the “metropolitan elite” – too bad.
This essay was originally published by The Press of Tuesday, 5 May 2015.