The curious confidence of Labour
So long as the Key government continues to enjoy wide support, the public has little reason to seek answers elsewhere to their problems.
The polls remain dire for Labour. Yet at the party’s annual conference a feeling that the tide may be about to turn seemed to be based finally, on something other than wishful thinking.
The recent local body election results certainly helped to foster an upbeat mood – new Auckland mayor Len Brown received a standing ovation – but there was also a sense of optimism that Labour could fight well (and even perhaps, win) an election battle next year based on the state of the economy.
By the end of 2011, party strategists are starting to believe enough voters will feel that prices are higher, job security poor, and economic growth low-to-non-existent. The Government may then be copping much of the blame for that state of unease.
It remains to be seen whether voters feel Labour could do any better, in the circumstances. So far, it has not looked like a credible contender.
Before it can even begin to compete on policy, the centre-left grouping will need to break the grip on voter affections that John Key still largely enjoys. Belatedly, Labour strategists have come to realise that this cannot be done by calling Key names, or by disparaging his wealth.
If Key is vulnerable at all, it is on questions of managerial competence. Arguably, any skills Key exhibited in his prior career as a financial wizard have not carried over to how his government has been handling the nation’s economy.
At some point, blame for New Zealand’s economic stagnation will come home to roost. And as Kevin Rudd found, positive impressions can change in a twinkling, once the public gets a sense that you’ve lost the plot.
While Labour believes the state of the economy offers its best hope for 2011, it faces obvious problems in capitalising on the opportunity. As party leader Phil Goff says, Labour needs to broaden its appeal, yet without turning off the grassroots activists who were so crucial to the centreleft getting out to the vote in the local body elections. Problem being: the policies that inspire the faithful tend to frighten off the middle class battlers.
At the party conference, for example, the activists nearly scored the kind of own-goal that Goff will be trying to avoid, when it almost passed a remit to lower the voting age to 16.
Last year, Goff cited the anti-smacking law as an example of what had cost Labour the last election and he will be trying to stifle any polarising stances in future.
Certainly, the populist policies highlighted at the party conference – ie, taking GST off fruit and vegetables, spending more on childcare, limiting farm sales and foreign ownership – could have been dreamed up by Winston Peters. Labour is hoping such policies will finally put Goff onside with the Kiwi battlers.
Essentially, Labour is counting on a victory by stealth next year, through keeping the focus firmly on management of the economy. Any controversial policy will be outsourced to the Greens. Right now, Labour activists just seem overjoyed that a genuine contest may finally be on the cards this time next year.
Gordon Campbell is an experienced political journalist and columnist who has written for The Listener and Scoop.