The cu­ri­ous con­fi­dence of Labour

Kapi-Mana News - - OPINION -

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.

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