Yes, it’s “about the economy, stupid.” However, there are different views about how that translates into electioneering.
Former NZ political whiz (now resident in London) Neil Stockley blogged recently about what this means in the British and US context. He argues (as I understand him) that it is not just about having detailed economic policies designed to tackle specific economic issues, but about the narrative that frames and makes sense of economic conditions and issues.
Neil quotes John Helleman of New York magazine:
“What everyone remembers about Bill Clinton’s race in 1992, of course, is that he focused on the economy ‘like a laser beam,’ as he put it. They remember ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ What they often forget is how cohesive, compelling, and even daring was the story he told about the source of the insecurity so many voters were feeling … Clinton also laid out an ambitious agenda to upgrade the nation’s store of human capital, enabling anyone willing to make the effort to ‘make change their friend’.”
Last month Colin James identified the foundations of just such a narrative. Discussing National’s broadband announcement he wrote:
“The electoral strategy behind the broadband big bang is to draw a picture of Key in window-shopping voters’ minds as an action Prime Minister of the future and contrast that with older Helen Clark, a 1980s minister and boss for nine years.”
Later in the year, wrote James, the Nats will roll out a spectacular RS&T (research, science & technology) policy. In short, “It’s all about who is the future”.
The Government is at a disadvantage here, not least because it is widely perceived as old and tired. Further, if it has an economic narrative it is that it is a prudent and fair manager of prosperity.
To be fair, economic and social justice was a major concern in 1999, after more than a decade of punishing (for the working poor) neo-liberal policies. Part of Labour’s electoral problem, one might argue, is that its very success in looking after the working poor has obviated this as an issue of voter concern.
Also, as James notes, the Government did make the right noises about the knowledge economy, the importance of science and research, and so on. But it failed to follow up the rhetoric with sweeping reform. Too often, initiative dissolved in the swamp of bureaucratic inertia. (The never-ending restructuring of the Department of Labour over much of the 2000s has been a sorry saga of missed opportunity.)
So, what does “the economy” mean for voters this year, if not distributing the fruits of limited growth a little more fairly? Does it mean, as the egregiously one-eyed Fran O’Sullivan writes in today’s HoS, a “lolly scramble”, where voters weight up their personal advantage from tax cuts?
O’Sullivan’s view seems too narrow. The media, in case anyone hasn’t noticed, have been ferociously pushing the “we’re falling behind” story. It’s near impossible to predict economic trends — ask The Treasury — but by November interest rates may be falling and the economy showing signs of recovery. However, the trans-Tasman wage gap will not have disappeared.
Should we therefore be looking for what Stockley would call an integrated “political story, with good and bad characters, a narrative flow and, crucially, a central myth and morality”? If so, National seem to have stolen the march. Labour has one last chance to build such a narrative, and that may be the most important message to come — or not — from this week’s budget. More prudence won’t do it.