I understand there’s a bit of a following of George Lakoff in the Labour Party caucus. Now I’m not a great exponent of his but consider this “frame”:
“Labour is no longer the party that supports Maori.”
This is a very familiar meme that has been driven in by Laboour’s opponents and some pundits for a few years now.
Now consider this from a story covering yesterday’s Ratana gathering:
Church secretary Waka Palmer told Mr Shearer that just as the party wanted to rejuvenate itself, its relationship with Ratana needed work.
“It is timely, then, that we must also review the Labour-Ratana alliance. Much has happened over the decades, we must acknowledge, but more importantly move on, for Maori diversity has changed and we are in the 21st century.”
People today faced many challenges, especially the growing gap between rich and poor, Mr Palmer said. Politicians must follow through on their talking.
Mr Shearer acknowledged Ratana’s message and said Labour had to put more work into the relationship.
What we see here is Shearer accepting the frame that has been placed on him and his party and thus reinforcing it.
How strong is this narrative getting? Let’s have a look at John Key’s response:
Mr Key said he believed National had done more to improve the lives of Maori than Labour had done. “I think the links between Ratana Church and the Labour Party are well and truly gone in reality.”
Yes, that’s right. The Prime Minister that has overseen a massive increase in Maori unemployment, who’s party has been behind just about every anti-Maori act of state in the last fifty years, can claim his party is better for Maori. And the media didn’t even blink.
Now I know there are Labour members (and members of parliament) who will say that’s the media’s fault for not asking Ratana what they think of Key’s ridiculous statement. But why would they when Labour’s leader has more or less implicitly agreed with it? Surely that makes it a common wisdom?
That’s how this framing lark works. Now I know that Labour wants to show it’s moving on but accepting your opponents’ narratives doesn’t make you look like you’re moving on. It makes you look weak.
And if Labour thinks Kiwis will vote for a weak leader just because they like him they’re delusional.
My concern is Labour will accept other, more important, narratives from their opponents such as the need to crack down on beneficiaries and get tough on crime in some failed bid to grab the mythical “centre”. They tried this early in Goff’s tenure with his Maori bashing speech and it didn’t make him look tough because calling “me-too” never does. Instead it make you look weak for buying into your opponent’s line. Weak and opportunistic. With the added bonus of alienating your base. It will be no different if Shearer does it.
My hope is that Labour will stop all of this hand-wringing and buying into their opponents shtick and instead find ways to articulate strong progressive values in the language of winners. Because until they do that they’ll never be taken seriously.