“It was twenty years ago today,” according to the famous Beatles’ track, that “Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play”. Unfortunately, the files on my computer don’t go back quite that far. What I can show you, however, is how “the one and only” Helen Clark taught Labour’s band to play exactly fifteen years ago today. Read this excerpt from my “Politics” column, published in the weekly business newspaper, The Independent, on 19 December 2001, and you’ll be amazed at just how dramatically Labour has gone “in and out of style” between then and now.
“WITH FIFTY-ONE PERCENT SUPPORT in the latest CM Research poll, the Labour Party is cruising towards the Year’s end on an enormous wave of public support. What is the secret behind Labour’s winning political formula – a formula which has so far eluded all of its competitors? To hear Helen Clark, or Michael Cullen, or Steve Maharey tell it, the story of Labour’s success is a simple one: “Under-promise and over-deliver”.
According to this theory, New Zealanders no longer believe in big promises – so don’t make any. Nor do they expect “the gummint” to do very much of anything to help them out. So, keeping those small promises, and, even more astonishing, actually doing a little bit more than you promised, leaves the voters feeling pathetically grateful.
More cynical observers point to Labour’s utter infatuation with opinion polling and focus groups. Its apparatus for taking the public pulse is state-of-the-art, and provides the political leadership with more-or-less instant feedback. Knowing how the electorate is responding to Government policy allows Clark and her ministers to remain in lock-step with public opinion. As the French revolutionary, Danton, is supposed to have remarked, seeing a throng of Parisians passing below his host’s window: “Excuse me, I am their leader – I must follow them.”
But these explanations are simply not sufficient to explain Labour’s almost effortless domination of New Zealand politics. Somehow, Clark and her colleagues have plugged themselves – or perhaps that should read “found themselves plugged” – into the zeitgeist of the early 21st Century.
Nothing else can really explain Labour’s apparent imperviousness to 2001’s political disasters – and there have been a few: the Hobbs and Bunkle allowances scandal; the Peter Davis brouhaha; the scrapping of the Skyhawks; the fiscal implications of Michael Cullen’s Super Fund; the underwhelming impact of the Knowledge Wave Conference; the Colonel’s letter and the General’s shredder; Air New Zealand; the war in Afghanistan; Bathgate-gate. It’s a pretty long list, but in spite of them all Labour remains 21 percentage points ahead of its nearest rival. Clearly something else is going on here.
The French would call it ennui. Throughout 2001 a feeling of enervation has pervaded New Zealand society, a listlessness that renders outrage and anger altogether too exhausting. It’s almost as if the past fifteen years have left the population feeling numb, shagged-out, too tired to care. Political life is seen as being vaguely ridiculous – filled with people who very badly need to get out more. Political emotion – in particular – is almost universally seen as ersatz, fake, phoney, and too transparently manipulative to be taken seriously.
This is where Helen Clark comes to the fore. Her dry - bordering on bored - approach to the business of government perfectly matches the public mood. Politics is a bloody silly business, the Prime Minister seems to be saying, but since somebody has to do it, it might as well be somebody intelligent, experienced and unflappable - like me. To which nearly four out of ten New Zealanders consistently respond “Amen.”
Clark’s ministers take their cue from “The Boss” – presenting a public face of stolid competence almost totally devoid of colour. Like the rest of New Zealand, they seem resigned to just getting on with it, and as far as most of the electorate is concerned, that’s just fine.
The whole essence of this style of government was summed up by one of the Prime Ministers spin doctors at the recent Labour Party Conference: “Sure it’s dull”, he said, “but that’s okay. Dull is good.”
Fifty-one percent of the country seems to agree.”
I’m just not sure whether all of that is “guaranteed to raise a smile” … or a tear.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 19 December 2016.