"Aww ... He's Good!" The public may have warmed only slowly to Andrew Little, but eighteen months into the job, familiarity is breeding not contempt but an almost reluctant admiration. Like the punters in the old television ad’, the voters have taken a tentative sip of Little, made a face, blinked several times, and then, with obvious surprise, pronounced him “good”.
IT’S A LONG TIME since Labour’s prospects have looked so rosy. The stumbles and falls since 2008 have been so numerous and so serious that Labour’s very survival as a party has been called into question. Such profound pessimism has, however, proved premature. The public may have warmed only slowly to Andrew Little, but eighteen months into the job, familiarity is breeding not contempt but an almost reluctant admiration. Like the punters in the old television ad’, the voters have taken a tentative sip of Little, made a face, blinked several times, and then, with obvious surprise, pronounced him “good”.
But, a thumbs-up for Little’s leadership, while necessary, is not a sufficient precondition for victory in 2017.
To win, a political party must have at least two things going for it. First, and most importantly, its opponents must be failing. Second, it must be able to offer a positive and believable alternative to the status quo. Labour’s already got the first, and its making steady and encouraging progress towards the second.
The Housing Crisis – especially in Auckland – is dragging National deeper and deeper into the electoral mire. Partly, this is the result of Phil Twyford (easily Labour’s best performing MP) keeping his boot firmly planted on National’s head. Mostly, however, the Housing Crisis is the obverse side of what, until recently, was the Government’s most valuable coin: Auckland’s crazily escalating property prices.
As the so-called “wealth effect” of rising Auckland house prices rippled out from their usual location-location-location in the city’s wealthiest suburbs and into the hitherto “modestly priced” suburbs of Auckland’s electorally crucial West, National’s fortunes rose with them.
“Waitakere Man”: that financially flush, but ideologically conflicted, member of a working-class grown increasingly accustomed to the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle; had learned how to appease his conscience by voting for Labour’s electorate candidate, while locking-in his outrageous property valuation by Party Voting National.
Auckland’s rising value has also been enough to keep those who, in earlier periods of New Zealand history veered towards racism and xenophobia, politically quiescent. The dramatic influx of immigrants from China and India was accepted by Waitakere Man because he understood that immigration pressures were crucial to realising, or leveraging, the capital gain of his increasingly valuable real estate.
Having set this voter recruitment and retention scheme in motion, however, National discovered that it could not be switched-off. The slightest downward trend in Auckland’s house prices would set off a panic that could only end in electoral disaster for the Right. By ensuring that Auckland’s property prices continued to surge upwards, the Government had excluded an entire generation of Aucklanders from the security of home ownership. Waitakere Man might be sitting pretty, but his children, “Generation Rent”, were not.
Even worse, the intensifying competition for scarce rental properties was driving the poorest Aucklanders out of the accommodation market altogether. The news that their fellow citizens, whole families, had been reduced to sleeping in their cars, pricked the conscience of even Waitakere Man. Homelessness, rack-renting, the diseases of poverty and overcrowding: these were the evils from which his parent’s generation had been rescued by the First Labour Government. Eventually, the grim realisation struck home. He could vote to increase his capital gains; or, he could vote for the restoration of social equity; but he couldn’t do both.
Cue, Andrew Little and the New Zealand Labour Party.
By a long overdue stroke of good luck, the Housing Crisis reached political boiling-point in Labour’s centenary year. Even the most cursory backward glance, by even the most historically-challenged voter, could not help but register the signal achievements of Labour’s 100-year-old history.
Somewhere, from deep in their knowledge store, New Zealanders recovered at least the salient details of Labour’s story. How a nation battered and bruised by the Great Depression had been put back to work; and how ordinary working families had been securely housed in sturdy dwellings, by the state.
Little’s challenge, now, is to devise a housing policy that meets the urgent needs of the homeless; offers Generation Rent their own homes at affordable prices; and ensures that property values across Auckland (and New Zealand) are not permitted to “crash”. Instead, Labour is hoping to gradually flatten out house prices, while incomes are lifted and price-to-income ratios reduced to more rational, and equitable, levels.
An explicit strategy of re-uniting the interests of the working and middle classes should lie at the heart of Labour’s re-election campaign. This cannot be achieved by restoring the fortunes of the former at the expense of the latter. Only a massive class alliance can generate the political heft required to secure massive economic and social progress.
When Labour deserted its working-class base in the 1980s it entered a moral wilderness. If it abandons the middle class in 2017 – it will stay there.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 12 July 2016.