Can Labour win?

Therese Arseneau of Canterbury University muses on “Is Labour’s success beyond its control?” for OneNews (Hat-tip: Idiot Savant).

She’s not giving Labour much hope: “Unfortunately for Labour the elements beyond its control are likely to be decisive in 2008.”

First she’s sees a “perfect storm” of hunger for change and pain in the hip pocket driving voters away from Labour. We could argue about what’s behind the hunger for change; Arseneau speculates that, “… governments simply have a natural life cycle, and the public wants to maintain a healthy turnover to keep governments accountable and in touch with voters.”

I’ve argued before that this government has increasingly given the impression of being out of touch, if not arrogant, in its approach to unpopular issues like the EFA and anti-smacking reform. This hauteur is sometimes quite tangible when talking to members of the government, whether elected or not.

Labour’s best chance, thinks Arseneau, is to paint National as risky. This worked in 2005. But then, Don Brash was never going to be convincing as a moderate, was he? The problem this time is that National have figured how MMP works — only took them 12 years — and are concertedly following the MMP script.

That’s what makes last week’s serial taping so important. Two, maybe three or more MPs let their guards down and almost gave the whole game away. Much more of this and Labour gets very competitive. My guess is that National have learnt from last week’s close call, and will be more disciplined from here on in.

Arseneau also thinks that Labour’s chances are improved if there is a large overhang due to the Maori Party securing the electorate but not the party vote and supporting Labour in government. It’s supposedly a heresy on the left to even consider the possibility that Maori Party might do a deal with National, but…

And finally Arseneau thinks that the Greens’ support of a Labour-led government depends on a smallish gap between the two main parties. There’s something in that I’m thinking.

I think that the range of scenarios boils down in the first instance to those with NZ First in Parliament, which probably means NZ First getting more than 5% of the total vote, and those without.

In the not-at-all unlikely event that Labour finishes second, it’s not close, National/ACT falls short of a governing majority and NZ First is returned, then I think that the Greens and the Maori Parties are in a difficult position, as Arseneau says. They must balance what the public will accept, and the extent that they are prepared to accept those National’s policies that are hostile to the environment and the low-paid.

In sum, Labour’s chances hang by some pretty slim threads.

Idiot Savant thinks that this “overstates the case somewhat.”

“Labour is not a passive victim of whatever other parties do, a “log floating down a river”. Even more than the bully-pulpit of government, an election is a chance to shape our political conversation and shift the political ground. If National is pretending to seek the centre, then Labour should be seeking to define it, by staking out ground in popular policy areas where National can never compete – things like universal student allowances, paid parental leave, housing, and privatisation (though they already have the latter firmly in hand).

“In other words, if National is going for the centre, Labour should exploit the fact that centre is well to the left of what most National supporters want, and force National to wedge itself against its own base.”

I’m not sure that there is ever enough time in an election campaign for moulding attitudes at that level. That boat’s left port and is fast disappearing over the horizon. There was a chance to build a narrative around the future, to supplement the great work Labour did in repairing the damage to the social fabric wrought by the neo-liberals in the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, some fine principles were pursued, and the narrative building didn’t happen.


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5 Responses to “Can Labour win?”

  1. Inventory2 Says:

    Interesting post JP – there’s a lot to take in!

    But on the subject of heresy:

    Hone Harawira, Maori Party MP for Tai Tokerau
    13 August 2008

    All options on the table, says Harawira

    “When Dover says his mind is boggled at the possibility of the Maori Party working with National,”said Hone Harawira, Maori Party MP for Tai Tokerau, “folks up home just smile and say ‘yeah – don’t take much to boggle our Dover’.”

    “But the truth is that the Maori Party is looking at all the options at the moment,” said Harawira. “The problem for Labour though, is that they’re looking more like a corpse than a partner at the moment. ”


  2. Anita Says:

    If NZ First misses out, then the overhang issue becomes less critical.


    I’ve counted on my fingers (twice) and I still can’t see why NZ First failing makes the overhang less significant. 🙂

    Anita, Serves me right for doing the sums in my head. Have removed that sentence, as it didn’t add much to the argument, anyway.

  3. Inventory2 Says:

    Perhaps what JP is meaning Anita is that if NZ First dips out, Labous has no show of cobbling together a coalition.

  4. ak Says:

    Good post Pete – but I wouldn’t despair just yet. “A week’s a long time…yadda yadda” (as evidenced by last week) – and “turnaround” among floating voters has got much quicker over recent years.

    The current tory poll lead is very flimsy – as evidenced by the high “refusal rate” – and as Arseneau notes, largely based on normal “voter fatigue”. I would add as a factor the general low-level misogynic demonisation of Helen led by a handful of talkback egoists and adopted (and thus legitimised in the minds of the crucial dilettante voters) by depleted and lazy privately-owned media – a very transitory factor that will shrivel like it’s proponents’ appendages in the face of the serious competition ahead.

    All previous elections in my memory (one or two!) have been defined by distinct policy differences – and the fact that Nact has adopted in toto all of Labour’s core policies has only recently gained widespread public acknowledgement. Faced with eenie-meenie in the policy choice, experience and proven capability will count for more than effete sales patter in an increasingly serious world.

    Labour has a huge base of substantial and genuine achievement yet to be presented: and you can bet there will be more ammo with which to build a compelling narrative by November. Nact is now an increasingly nervous one-man-band that a single banana skin could topple – and maintaining poise while defending those massive flip-flops will require Olympian gymnastic skills.

    I’d still put money on Winnie getting in, and on MP holding the key: unlike IV drip’s wishful thinking, I believe MP supporters know better than any the lessons of history and the very real results of core political belief and motivation – and that any accommodation with NAct would fatally doom their massive new-found potential. Hone’s just doing exactly what he should – maximising the advantage and stymieing another Orewa One.

  5. just visiting Says:

    Provided National agree not to upset the Greens, the Maori Party, or Winston, they can win.

    How long National’s supporters would put up with this is another question entirely. About five minutes, I would think.

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