Fifth Time Lucky? After trying, and failing, four times to make an emotional connection with the electorate, perhaps Labour should look for a leader who got himself re-elected to Parliament the old-fashioned way - by raising heaps of cash and then persuading "mainstream" New Zealanders to vote for him. Napier MP, Stuart Nash (above) addresses a provincial business audience.
THE LATEST ROY MORGAN POLL has cast a deep pall of gloom over all three Opposition parties. Among Labour supporters, however, a growing sense of utter futility is palpable. Support for the party has crashed back to the abysmal figures of Election Night. Barely a quarter of the adult population is willing to identify Labour as their first electoral choice.
The corollary to Opposition gloom is, of course, Government elation. And, with the Roy Morgan poll showing National on 54 percent, who can blame its MPs and supporters for breaking out the bubbly? Remember, this latest poll was conducted when Amanda Bailey’s ponytail was dominating the headlines. Did it damage the Prime Minister’s reputation? (As so many of John Key’s enemies were hoping.) Not appreciably. “Teflon John” continues to shine.
At around the same time as Roy Morgan’s callers were working the phones, Sir Michael Cullen and the NZ Fabian Society were attempting to rally Labour’s dejected troops with a presentation entitled, rather hopefully, “Destination: Next Progressive Majority.” Arriving at that destination, says Sir Michael, will depend on whether Labour is able to re-present itself as the party of Choice, Aspiration, Responsibility and National Pride.
For that re-presentation to work, Sir Michael stresses, Labour must re-connect emotionally with the electorate. “Policies can be a means to this”, says the former Labour Finance Minister, “but rarely the most important means.” In saying this, Sir Michael is echoing the advice of Lynton Crosby – the man who, earlier this month, won the UK General Election for the Conservative Party. Policy matters, says Crosby, only inasmuch as it expresses the less tangible and more visceral reasons for supporting one political party over another.
“This is Key’s huge strength”, Sir Michael observes, “he has enormous emotional connection with voters. The sloppy language we like to make fun of is the language most people speak, not like University lecturers like Helen, Steve and I. The casualness to turn things aside, not important, at the end of the day.”
It is National’s huge strength, as well, because there is no other politician in the Government’s ranks who connects with the ordinary Kiwi voter in the manner of John Key.
And it is here, on the question of leadership, that Sir Michael’s otherwise sober and sensible analysis falters.
In order to sell a Labour Party based on Choice, Aspiration, Responsibility and National Pride; a credible, likeable (and because, historically, Labour is coming off such a low base) a frankly inspirational leader is required. Someone with a personality powerful enough to rekindle the love Labour lost in the 1980s and 90s – and only fleetingly recovered in the early noughties. Someone capable of sparking-up the old flame. And, more than this, someone fresh and fascinating enough to attract and hold the attention of Generations X, Y and Z. Someone to warrant a selfie – and a vote.
Does this sound like Andrew Little? Does it sound like anyone in Labour’s post-2014 caucus? If the answer is “No”, then, even with Sir Michael’s sage advice, the party’s in a pretty pickle. It has tried, four times, to pick a winner: twice by the judgement of the Caucus alone; twice according to the judgement of the whole party. Every single one of them failed to fire. And whoever heard of fifth time lucky?
Something has to be done, however, or, like Sir Keith Holyoake, the New Zealand political leader he so closely resembles, the Prime Minister will lead his party to its fourth consecutive election victory.
To prevent that from happening, Labour is going to have to take a leaf out of the campaign maestro’s, Lynton Crosby’s, playbook. It is going to have to learn to listen to its pollsters and heed their focus groups. Not to discover what the public wants, and then give it back to them as Labour Party policy; but to learn which lines of argument work, and which don’t. Democratic politics is not about giving the people what they want, it’s about persuading the people that they want what you want. “When in doubt”, says Lynton Crosby, “stand for something!” And then, he might have added, convince a majority of voters to stand with you.
If Labour can’t find a leader to do that for them, then, for God’s sake, let them hire a campaign manager who can!
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 May 2015.