Win or lose, there are never any final battles in politics. A defeat simply means the firing of the starting gun for the next round in a never-ending struggle.
And, especially for the left, it is the struggle that matters. Without that struggle and the effort that has gone into it, the values of fairness, compassion and tolerance would be even more submerged than they are now. Keeping them alive and relevant in hearts and minds today will ensure that they will once again be re-asserted as the political tide turns tomorrow.
In fifty years of political experience, I have lost count of the number of times that a general election result – in either New Zealand or the UK – has been hailed by one side or another as signalling a watershed in politics; the winners’ confidence in the permanence of their victory is always revealed – in short order – to be the illusion it is.
It was as recently as 2002 that the National vote slumped to 21%, while John Key’s current victory does no more than replicate Helen Clark’s similar trio of successive wins. And, as a further antidote to the immediate triumphalism of the right, let us remind ourselves that fewer than two out of five of New Zealanders entitled to vote actually cast a vote in favour of National in 2014.
But let us also be honest enough to recognise the impressive political skills that have produced the National victory. John Key is an unusually personable, skilled and effective political operator; he is entitled to the plaudits for what has been a very personal achievement. We may not like him, and dislike even more what he stands for, but the fact that this has been a victory for him rather than his party should give us ground for hope.
In any event, winning the election is “just the beginning”. John Key, with all his presentational skills, now has to face a country in which half the citizens believe that he has lied to them on matters that are central to his integrity and that of his government. As a result, it can hardly be argued that the body politic he heads is in good health.
In the meantime, it is the opposition – and particularly the Labour Party – that is faced with the uphill struggle. The National vote may not be quite as monumental as it is portrayed, but it comfortably dwarfs a Labour vote that represents less than one in five of eligible voters.
A vote as low as this is fraught with danger for an opposition party with pretensions to forming a government. Even those who want to see a change of government will begin, in a fragmented political environment, to look elsewhere for salvation.
I faced this danger as director of Labour’s UK general election campaign in 1987, when the Liberal alliance with the newly-formed Social Democrats threatened to supplant Labour as the best hope of removing the Tories. Labour didn’t win that election, but the effective campaign we ran then saved the party and boosted our vote, re-establishing Labour as undoubtedly the principal opposition and paving the way to 13 years of Labour government.
If Labour is to avoid that danger in New Zealand in 2014, the task now is twofold. First, Labour must show themselves to be an effective opposition. That means they must, in particular, resist the efforts that will undoubtedly be made by a gung-ho right-wing government to “roll back the state” – code for cutting back on public services, further eroding benefits, wages and rights at work and for running the economy even more in the interests of the big battalions. They must demonstrate to public opinion that a policy that undervalues our people and wastes our resources produces not only a society that is less fair, but also an economy that is less productive and sustainable.
Second, they must prepare now for fighting and winning the next election. They must promote a strong team of leading spokespeople (including new faces) to support the leadership – and that support must be united and whole-hearted. They must work constructively with other opposition parties and provide the intellectual and policy leadership that others will follow.
But it also means, as a preliminary step, some real soul-searching. Why is the Labour brand so unappealing? Why does it not enthuse young people in particular? Why does so much Labour policy seem to constrain rather than liberate – and therefore provide reasons for not voting Labour? Why does the new thinking that is supported by informed opinion – on a capital gains tax, on the pension age, on making Kiwisaver contributions compulsory and using them as an alternative or supplement to interest rates as a counter-inflationary tool – gain so little traction with the public?
Why have the past six years meant that the successful nine years in government prior to that count for so little in the public perception? How, in other words, does Labour remain true to the traditional values it shares with so many New Zealanders while applying those values in forward-looking , innovative and appealing ways to resolve the problems familiar to all our fellow-citizens?
21 September 2014