So, with Bill English and Paula Bennett now anointed by the National caucus as our new leaders, the pre-campaign is now off to its start. In the drivers’ seat, we have the man who lead National to its worst-ever loss, and beside him probably the second-most despised woman in National’s caucus, which is more of an achievement than it sounds because Judith Collins.
On the other side of the aisle, Andrew Little can’t help but being pleased by the news of who he’s up against. (And I imagine Annette King and/or Metiria Turei are keenly eying Paula Bennet’s seat for 2017…) With Labour taking back the Wellington Mayoralty from a Green-aligned independent, (basically by default, as no Green was running, and Wellington is basically the most left-wing liberal place in the country right now) and it winning the latest by-election in what was essentially a straight contest between National and Labour, Little probably feels resurgent right now. And that’s a dangerous feeling.
There is an opinion piece on the Herald that is just close enough to being right on this that it’s worth linking. Heather correctly points out that while English is a record-breaking loser, (performing even worse than Labour has during its constant leadership struggles) he lost to an ascendant Helen Clark coming off her first term. Little might have the chops to be Prime Minister, but he’s no second-term Clark just yet. (and hopefully, he won’t try to be- while Clark was a successful Prime Minister, she set a precedent as PM that has infected the Labour Party with careerists who are unwilling to step aside and accept a renewal. Little needs to be his own type of leader if he’s to succeed) This is still an election Little can lose, even though English makes even Little’s off-days look vibrant and interesting by comparison.
Heather is wrong to say that Labour can’t snag some of the fleeing National voters who will, inevitably, leave the party fold after Key’s resignation. In fact, I suspect Labour will likely get a 1% bump even without trying from the news, as there were many Key supporters who had come from Labour’s tribe and supported Labour values. At least some of those people will look at their options and conclude that now is the time to re-enter the fold as Labour supporters. It could even be more than a 1% bump if Little can come up with an appealing positive vision for Labour heading into 2020. But Heather is absolutely right to imply that much of the loss from National is likely to either head towards NZ First or simply into the non-voter pile, at least in the next couple of polls.
Speaking of polling, all the 2016 trends before now are essentially out the window. (And we’ll have no way of knowing if the recent surge for National after a slow trend towards Labour and the Greens for much of 2016 was temporary or semi-permanent, as we’re now all expecting a noticable falloff in the Government’s polling this month anyway) We are looking at a different government now, no matter how much National wishes to maintain continuity. Heather is wrong to keep bashing Labour over the head with recent polling. We should be waiting and seeing where they poll after Key’s resignation in terms of looking at horse race results, and those numbers aren’t going to be out until we’re well into the holiday season, so there’s really no room for numbers-based reporting until then.
Nick Legett’s defection, seen by mainstream pundits as somehow a reflection on Labour, really says a lot more about what a centrist sell-out Nick Legett is, and why Wellington so soundly rejected him. He belongs in the National Party, and always did as far as I’m concerned. Good riddance to bad rubbish, the Left doesn’t need pretenders taking up space in its ranks, and National needs more moderate liberals to adjust to the new political consensus John Key has forged, where National can no longer win by selling themselves as a purely right-wing party. John Key’s political legacy, arguably, is ceding the war to the Left in order to win the battle: a concession that conservative right-wing governments in an MMP era is asking too much of a liberal, centrist electorate.
Heather’s also wrong to take issue with Little’s comments about “not knowing what the centre is.” He’s actually being reasonably savvy here- Centre voters love to be talked about in terms of being politically unlabelled, defying the conventional wisdom, and being just ordinary people. In its full context, Little was actually pandering to the centre while simultaneously saying he’s not trying to and managing to sound honest at the same time. By the standards of new-millennium kiwi political rhetoric, (hint: those are pretty low thanks to our former Prime Minister, and his predecessor wasn’t exactly one for rhetoric even though she was an excellent politician) this was practically masterful.
Little should also know that the advice to go hard for the centre is bad advice. Labour performs its worst when it’s self-conscious about where it is positioning itself. If it wants to be the nexus of a left-wing government in 2017, Little will need to lead Labour towards its own electoral identity, one with a populist appeal to working and struggling New Zealanders, that can plausibly say it will do better for ordinary kiwis than National. It should be picking policies that resonate with Labour’s identity, not because they think they will sell well to the centre. If Cunliffe showed anything positive about New Zealand politics, it’s that people are willing to be persuaded to policies they disagree with if they’re told how they’ll benefit the public, and that the electorate does have respect for politicians who will tell them things like they are.
Little doesn’t necessarily need the politics of the Centre to win, although he’d be wise to keep a big tent. He needs a politics of honesty and integrity. There are missing and demotivated voters out there who have been waiting to hear a left-wing message from Labour too, and if Little can get them without scaring away the centre as well, then his confidence may not be misplaced.