From my view in the cheap seats it seems that there’s been plenty of tension in the last couple of weeks between two different “visions” for Labour and its policy direction.
Option one, coming up from the grassroots, is moving to the left. More actively reaching out to and standing up for the disadvantaged. In political terms this has the advantages of a strong narrative and of mobilising the activists, and the disadvantage of possibly not capturing enough of the mythical “centre”.
Option two, coming from current policy advisors, is moving to the right. Representing the opinions of the “swinging voter” that swaps allegiance at whim (and en masse wins or loses elections). This has the advantage of making the party more accessible this crucial population, and the disadvantage of losing ground on the left.
One of the big unknowns in the equation is the non-voter. Do they lean left, as many have assumed? Or are they more evenly distributed on the political spectrum, as some have lately argued? Either way they are the elephant in the room. Turn out the non-voter and you win. They are much more numerous and more powerful than the swinging voter. But only if they change their habits and vote.
So much for background. Labour is looking for direction, a narrative to take in to the next election. What should Labour do?
In my opinion Labour should take neither the first nor the second of the options described above. Instead it should recognise them for what they are. A false dichotomy. A limiting trap for limited thinking. Either path is certain to alienate some group of voters. So choose a new path, and never never never buy in to the right-wing framing of any debate.
Labour should stay where it is, a party of the center-left, pragmatic, but true to its history and its activists. The direction for policy (the “vision” if you like) should not be defined by left or right, but by three words. Fair. Inclusive. Positive. Every policy, every speech, every cunning plan, should be benchmarked against these three words, and presented to the public in these terms. Tell us how your position is fair. Tell us how your position is inclusive. Tell us how your position is positive. Everything else will take care of itself.
Let’s try a couple of case studies.
The first is the problematic roof painting beneficiary Mr X. In Shearer’s recent speech he went with option two, a telling off for Mr X to appeal to the swing voter. It was buying into the right-wing narrative. It wasn’t fair, because we didn’t know anything about the circumstances of Mr X. It wasn’t inclusive, because it tries to turn some of us against others. It wasn’t positive in any way at all. If confronted with Mr X again I’d like Shearer to say something like this:
“We can’t make a fair decision about Mr X without knowing the facts of his case. Labour believes that everyone who can work should work, we won’t stand for rorting the system. But those with genuine illness or need are entitled to our full support and understanding. Any one of us might need the support of a benefit one day, and our country as whole is much better off when we take care of our most vulnerable people.”
Here’s another case study – proposing increased taxes (on personal income, capital gains or whatever). That’s always a difficult sell, and the right will try and paint it as unfair, the politics of envy, and so on. Don’t accept that narrative by being defensive or timid, look for fair, inclusive, and positive. I’d like Labour to say something like this:
“Labour’s tax increases will be fair. Top income earners can afford to contribute more because they get more, and polls show that most of them are happy to do so if it results in better services. We’re all in this together. We all suffer when the country doesn’t have the resources for decent health, education, transport and the like. But we all benefit when the country can afford these services, and lift the standard of living for everyone.”
One last one, on parents and teachers’ unions. The right-wing is playing nasty wedge politics, trying to pit one against the other. Don’t let them get away with it. I’d like Labour to say something like this:
Labour is a union party. Unions are not some anonymous machine. Unions are people. Your neighbour. My neighbour. Families trying to feed their kids. Union expectations must be realistic and reasonable. When they aren’t Labour will say so, and when they are Labour will listen. Parents and teachers are working together on the most important job of all, raising and educating the next generation of New Zealanders. They all deserve our support and respect.
Yeah I know, sorry if I’m not leftie enough for you. And these case studies will be pulled apart, be gentle with me, I don’t write speeches for a living! What I can tell you though is that this approach has many advantages. It lets Labour be true to itself, without impossible arguments about moving left or right. It provides a simple strategy and litmus test for presenting policy. And I think that it is the best way of reaching out to a sizable chunk of the non-voting public. Fair, inclusive, positive. You’ll win the next election, and the two after that.