Wednesday 1 July 2020

Labour Will Not Win With A Yeah-Nah Strategy

Heroic Evasions: Labour needs to be unequivocal in its communications with the electorate. Either it has a plan to prevent their fellow New Zealanders from falling off the economic cliff, or it doesn’t. Either it has a fiscal policy equal to the task of funding that plan, or it hasn’t. Either it will task the citizens of today with stepping-up to their responsibilities, or it will kick the can down the road for future generations to deal with – just as National does.

“TRIANGULATION” – Bill Clinton loved it; Tony Blair loved it; Gerhard Schroeder loved it. Hell! – Since the 1990s, all God’s social-democratic children have loved it! Question is: will Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson declare their love for it by adopting a tax policy that hovers harmlessly halfway between National’s “no new taxes” and the Greens just-released policy of welfare reform and making the wealthy pay their fair share? Given the Prime Minister’s rather snooty comments about the Greens making “some fairly heroic assumptions” about the fiscal gains to be expected from their two new steps of Income Tax and their proposed Wealth Tax, I would say that Labour’s getting ready to triangulate like crazy.

Which, if true, should be filed under: “Extraordinarily Short-Sighted and Disappointing Decisions Political Parties Have Made.” Labour cannot win this election by playing it safe. If it tries it will fail. We are not living in the 1990s – when, as Helen Clark liked to say, “a rising tide lifts all boats” – we are living in 2020, when tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders, and millions more around the world, are staring down the barrel of the most devastating economic downturn since the 1930s.

This is no time to play Goldilocks: triangulating frantically to produce a set of policies that are “just right”. This is a time for the righteous language of the Gospel of Matthew (5:37) “But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.”

Labour needs to be equally unequivocal in its communication with the electorate. Either it has a plan to prevent their fellow New Zealanders from falling off the economic cliff, or it doesn’t. Either it has a fiscal policy equal to the task of funding that plan, or it hasn’t. Either it will task the citizens of today with stepping-up to their responsibilities, or it will kick the can down the road for future generations to deal with – just as National does.

Maybe that’s why Jacinda sounded so grumpy on this morning’s Morning Report? Because the Greens policy announcements on welfare and tax have made the whole triangulation process ten times more difficult.

For the tactic to work, the distance between the two political poles needs to be relatively modest. When the whole political colour-chart is made up of boring shades of grey it’s hard for the voters to get all that excited. Who’s going to die in a ditch for dark- as opposed to light-grey? That’s the beauty of triangulation: it’s all about limiting the range of electoral choices – not expanding them. Giving voters real and exciting options only complicates matters.

But that is exactly what the Greens have done. They have borrowed from the Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s report to produce a radical programme of income-support which, if properly presented, has the capacity to get young, poor voters up off the couch and into the polling booths. It has also borrowed fiscal ideas from TOP – The Opportunities Party – to construct an alternative to the electorally radioactive Capital Gains Tax. In doing so they have aggressively expanded the distance between the Right and the Left – replacing all that National and Labour grey with a dazzling in-rush of primary colours: red, blue, and bright, bright green.

Poor Jacinda: I’m pretty sure that her own, and Grant’s, preference was to approach the looming economic crisis in the spirit of a military surgeon charged with deciding who should be categorised as walking wounded; who should be treated immediately; and who is clearly beyond help. Economic policy-making in the grim spirit of battlefield triage: heart-wrenching but unavoidable.

But now, with the Greens promising to keep all those without adequate paid employment afloat, being seen to allow whole sectors of the economy to simply bleed-out in a corner, while Labour’s surgeons struggle bravely to save what sectors they can, will start to look pretty damned heartless. Especially when – as they always do – the National Party will borrow every last dollar they can lay their hands on to avoid raising taxes (except, of course, the regressive GST) leaving the matter of debt repayment for the poor schmucks of some future government to sort out.

From Labour’s point-of-view, the most scary aspect of the Greens’ radical renaissance is that it may not stop at welfare and tax reform. What if, between now and the General Election on 19 September they unveil their own version of the Green New Deal? What if they offer the voters something pretty close to a complete re-prioritisation of all the activity that makes up the New Zealand economy? What if they give expression to the widespread hope of people all over the world that the Covid-19 Pandemic will stimulate a fundamental rethink about where we are and where we’re going? What then?

My sense of Labour’s campaign strategy, to date, is that it was all supposed to hinge on presenting Jacinda and her colleagues as compassionately competent pragmatists. The contrast with National: willing to promise anything and risk everything for political power; was supposed to make people opt for the safer pair of hands. That meant “solid” policies – not inspirational ones. If the Blues are threatening to push the country into the red, then grey doesn’t seem so bad.

It all depended, of course, on the Greens not being able to rise above their interminable squabbles over human identity. Seeing their hapless coalition partners as woke and out of touch with Covid-19’s grim realities, Labour was hoping that voters would glance in their direction, register their disappointment, and turn back to Labour. Frustratingly, the risk is now that the opposite will occur: the voters will register Labour’s all-too-obvious intention to play it safe and, disappointed, turn to the Greens for policies worth voting for.

If Jacinda is wise, she will reposition Labour quite a bit further to the left than she was planning to originally. The resulting triangle might look a bit lopsided, but a left-leaning red-green triangle has a lot more going for it than a boring and blurry blue-grey triangle that robs progressive voters of the will to live.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 30 June 2020.


Kat said...

And Labour won't succeed if it allows the label "tax and spend" to stick. The mechanism to spend tax wisely must be working like clockwork and be 'seen' for Labour to keep the electorate onside with any change in the tax structure. It sounds obvious but just banging on about raising benefits goes nowhere.

Kokila Patel said...

I'm not sure Clinton or Blair did love it. Arguably they took their parties back to the centre to steal ground from their conservative opponents. Jacinda is rightfully skeptical as she ruled out a capital gains tax (echoing John Key's stance on Super) The Greens were greatly reduced by Labour in the last election, so it looks like they are getting their mojo back. Globally, centre left parties are diminished by centre right parties resulting in further left parties and leanings. The Greens will benefit from this and they need to do something, because Jacinda already announced climate change as her generations nuclear free moment. It is sensible for them to compete with Labour in representing lower paid earners.

Wayne Mapp said...

Triangulation is exactly how Labour will campaign. The current high support that Labour has came from National. If Labour wants to keep this support they won't have radical policies that will scare these voters, such as high wealth destroying taxes aimed directly at these voters.

However, I suspect these voters that have currently shifted to Labour might tolerate some modest tax increase, perhaps 36% income tax above $120,000.

This article, and others like it that you have penned, seem to be your advocacy aimed directly at Labour's strategists. However, you never have to test them through debate in front a caucus policy committee.

However, Labour won't get elected if they campaign on policy that would fit fit more comfortably with the Greens, or the Alliance, as it once was.

Of course you already know all this. Maybe these articles are just intended to tweak the dial just a little more left.

Jens Meder said...

Congratulations Chris for acknowledging that some austerity (higher tax revenue) is needed if we choose to be responsible enough not to finance all our current welfare expenses with debt to be repaid by our descendants.

But higher taxation for more welfare consumption will be an economic and political disaster - and it would be economically sound and might be politically successful if it is explicitly for wealth and jobs creation, such as e.g.for increased contributions into the NZ Super Fund, for then invested into needed infrastructure construction and maintenance, for which our descendants are expected and will be willing to pay for the amenities built by their elders (us) for them to benefit- and these repayments would not go to some "money bags" or foreign investors, but to our own NZ Super payments assisting cash flow.

austringer said...

Well listening to the general debate in the hoos of lies, manipulation, broken promises, to day,hearing the Green co leader,speaking from her known social care upbringing, sounded like a old proper socialist, of care of our compassion our humanity,could have been speaking at a proper, only proper and the oldest on our planet World Socialist Party meeting,and seeing the speaker of the house turning, sitting turning aloof,who do they think they are,well (duck) you may have turned one of your not so deaf ears away,as without doubt,your hearing deficiency has the best ever afford hearing aides implanted that so many unable afford would dearly to be gifted.

Win,maybe,its never a given,though first term, history, voters general give another,though there is always,whats our friends up to.

David George said...

The unasked question is how big is this voting block, the "progressive voters" at risk of loosing "the will to live" over a continuation of centrist economic and social policy.
The Greens have been busy alienating vast swathes of the electorate: men, motorists, feminists, farmers and anyone not ethnically Maori.
People have a need to be respected, by themselves as much as anything, playing the victim has the opposite effect and I think most people know that, at least on some level. Appealing to the whining victim cohort seems like a loosing strategy, there simply aren't enough people, thankfully, wallowing in that toxic delusion.