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Nats could lose, but can Labour win?

Written By: - Date published: 9:59 am, November 18th, 2009 - 29 comments
Categories: labour, phil goff - Tags:

If you had told me a year ago that, just a third of a way through its term, this government would have lost a minister in secret circumstances, had a minister openly acknowledge that the Prime Minister “doesn’t do anything”, muddled its way through legislative debacle after debacle of policies that over-promise and under-deliver, and that the Deputy Prime Minister would be one of a dozen ministers caught rorting for personal gain, I wouldn’t have believed you.

National has done precious little to deserve re-election, and you hear the disappointment with this government regularly when talking to National voters, let alone ACT and Maori Party voters (UnitedFuture voters are just glad someone’s talking to them). But the polls reflect that people don’t see a better alternative. As r0b said the other day, National can lose the next election. But can Labour win it?

What does Phil Goff’s Labour stand for? I know what Labour stands for generally – full employment, higher wages, better public services, and (in theory) environmental sustainability. I see Labour scoring tactical victories over issues like ACE, the ETS, and ACC. But I don’t know what Goff’s vision for New Zealand with him as PM is.

The failure of Bill English’s leadership of National was a lack of vision. We just didn’t know what he stood for other than a return to the government we had just voted out. Goff at the moment is in the same place. What changed for National was when they stopped trying to defend their last government’s legacy, stopped fighting every inch of the retreat on issues as the government advanced its agenda and, instead, started to articulate a ‘beyond Labour’ vision. To do that, they used political research to identify issues where people were dissatisfied with Labour that National could offer a popular alternative, specifically one designed to wedge part of Labour’s core support away from it, while staying within its ideological framework.

Of course, in National’s case that manifested as ‘tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts’, the Orewa speech and Wayne Mapp – PC Eradicator. Labour shouldn’t and, of course, wouldn’t follow National down those specific paths but it should acknowledge the effectiveness of the strategy. National from that point on took the game away from Labour, it started to dominate the run of play.

Can Labour and Goff do the same? The elements are in place, there are already issues where the public is unhappy with Key and National where Labour could offer a popular alternative. In particular, Key is increasingly being seen as a weak leader, off playing around rather than running the country and his government. The public is deeply dissatisfied with the continual spectacle of government ministers and MPs being exposed ripping off the taxpayer. There is a growing sense that this government doesn’t listen, only pays lip service to consultation. The public anger at that was expressed at yesterday’s ‘bikoi‘, with thousands of bikers converging on Parliament.

I think this is Goff’s opening. If he were to present, in broad terms, an agenda for better government that addresses all three points – accountability, tighter controls on use of public money by MPs and ministers, and more transparent government with greater public say in lawmaking, citizen assemblies for instance, it would put Labour on the frontfoot and in the spotlight. Rather than talking about why the last Labour government wasn’t so bad, they would be talking about why the next one will be better than Key.

Update: I actually drafted this a couple of days ago before Goff’s appearance at Drinking Liberally – Auckland was announced. He’s meant to be talking about his vision for the 6th Labour Government then. Should be interesting.

29 comments on “Nats could lose, but can Labour win? ”

  1. Scribe 1


    Very good post. This is the kind of post that has been sorely lacking in recent months. I look forward to the discussion around it and will try to comment later in the day.

  2. Pat 2

    Elections are becoming more Presedential. Helen Clark framed it that way for all time when she insisted on only two party leaders debates. She wanted to go one on one with Key because she believed he would not be able to compete with her. She was wrong and the rest is history.

    Move ahead to 2011 and Key will be a formidable challenge for Goff. Like it or not a large percentage of people watch the leaders debates and make their decision from there, simply because between elections they pay only a cursory glance at politics.

    • Pat: I generally agree with the reservation that in bad times people do pay more attention…..if only because they want someone other than themselves to blame.

      When the budget cuts start next year and many people lose their jobs…and begin to compete with those who still have one….I think the last 12 months of this government’s life could be interesting to watch. The implications for the MMP referendum also are worth keeping in mind.

      For now, though…..National are riding high in the polls and can get away with pretty much everything until they comes they can’t.

  3. Olwyn 3

    The fact is, John Key doesn’t seem to stand for anything either, but in a way he has not had to so far. What he has had is very helpful PR and media support, the latter of which Labour is unlikely to get unless this government screws up spectacularly. What he had going for him from the outset is the same thing that underpins his present level of popularity: in the first instance, he was more moderate than Brash, which would not be hard to achieve, but with a bit of air brushing and a pretty tie, made him look very moderate. This little game has continued – put forward a draconian idea and then do something less draconian. The difficulty for any politician, particularly a Labour one, is this: we have become a very unequal society, and under those conditions it is very difficult to come up with a plan that serves NZ as a whole. Take just one issue, housing. If you come up with a plan to make housing affordable, you piss off the couple who have just taken on a third job to pay the mortgage on an overpriced house. If you do not, you leave someone else hanging in an unstable rental market. This dichotomy runs through many other issues, such as wages etc. So politicians cleave to some quasi centre while statistics for imprisonment, child poverty, etc, continue to grow.

  4. Greg Presland 4

    The Auckland Northland Regional Council of the Labour Party is also hosting a meeting for members with Michael Cullen and Maryan Street on November 27, 2009 at 3 pm. The venue is the Fickling Centre in Mount Roskill.

    The theme of the meeting is:

    “In 1935 Labour stood for Social Security, State Housing and Workers Rights. What does it stand for now?”

    Details are at http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=home#/event.php?eid=177375012020&index=1

    I agree that it is a good time for a philosophical discussion so that Labour can work out what it stands for. I suspect that the good old values will be agreed to again but the approach modified to take into account recent developments.

  5. gingercrush 5

    National has done precious little to deserve re-election, and you hear the disappointment with this government regularly when talking to National voters, let alone ACT and Maori Party voters (UnitedFuture voters are just glad someone’s talking to them).

    What a stupid piece of writing. Exactly what are you basing this on? The idea that by talking to a few people you can magically get an idea of how a whole group feels about a party is well stupid. Or are you reading the right-wing blogs? Surely if people weren’t happy the polls wouldn’t be so high over 50% for National. Nr would ratings that are very favourable for the government be high either.

    Anyway Helen Clark never stopped being popular and her government still rated well even if their poll ratings were falling. That’s the funny thing about politics. You can see an incompetent government doing many things wrong for the country and making many mistakes yet the rest of the country doesn’t seem to agree with you. As a National supporter I experienced that for nearly nine years. I found it irrational that so many could have voted Labour again in 2002 then in 2005 continue voting Labour. That is politics for you though.

    • Geek 5.1

      Actually as someone who has voted National the last 3 election and felt the same way as you do I am becoming seriously disillusioned with them.

      I voted for National expecting a change to a party that was open about spending and focused on making the public service more accountable for the money it receives. I thought we would get a government that listened to us rather than applied the “we know best so just do as your told” type of policy creation. I thought we would get a government that would be strong enough to not have to sell out on its primary principles to minor parties to pass law.

      Instead we get:

      a government full of hypocrites who dropped their snouts in the troff the moment it was put before them,

      more money going to fewer people in the public service,

      a government that brushes off the opinions of the people unless it is a specifically set up extreme used to make the real option palatable, and

      a government willing to sell key principles to a minor party just to pass a rushed and poorly thought out piece of legislation.

      I have never voted Labour in my life. That is as much due to the household I was raised in as due to my beliefs. Next time round if Labour can really provide a vision worth while I will make a first. However if things remain the status quo my vote will either go uncast or to Bill and Ben in protest.

      Many of my friends and family who are long time right wing voters are feeling the same way.

    • National didn’t win the last election by much. Though high in the polls today, that could easily change. National are still essentially running Labour’s policies….and funding them.

      Once they cut the spending – as they say they will – and the damage to various sectors and groups begins to accumulate, then their poll standing will sag.

      There is almost certainly going to be recession Part II in the latter half of 2010. I can’t see it working out any other way. The stimulus is running out of cash everywhere…and our local version (continuing labour’s policies) is shortly going to see the plug pulled.


      Then we go vote.

      The worse this government does, the better it is for MMP. They were going to go softly-softly…..but have allowed the polls to seduce them into thinking they can do whatever they like.

      The reality of the new un-democratic, corporatist Auckland will be sinking in right about polling day in 2011.

      Could well be bub-bye, National.

  6. tc 6

    Excellent post but will the labor spin doctors and backroom strategists pay it any attention.
    Goff’s a fine politician with the history and rhetoric to go toe to toe on pretty much any issue but he bores people with overlong answers and has the spectre of Helen about him…..that can’t be changed.
    Swinging voters tune out long before any point is made so unless Phil develops a short punchy ‘gotcha’ type delivery to nail the obvious ACC/ETS/Education/Energy gutting then Labor can enjoy another term on the opposition benches.
    NACT are doing a great job of providing all the material an opposition need which together with all the broken promises, courting the redneck voters etc but can labor keep the message simple and stop intellectualising it beyond the comprehension of swinging voters.
    So far the answer is not a good one for labor……Goff’s not concise enough and apologising for good policy in Rotorua and having the likes of King/Mallard still around……albatross !!

  7. randal 7

    Labour will win and not because of any backroom manouevres but because this government is basically dishonest and the lack of principle and ability to determine its own mistakes is becoming only all too obvious.

  8. Pat 8

    Plenty of bold predictions. What odds would you put on 2011? I’d say:

    National/ACT/MP $1.20 favourite

    National alone $18.00

    Labour/Greens/NZF $25.00

    Labour alone $100.00

    • Bored 8.1

      Bit like the horses it depends a bit on the track conditions and the jockey.

    • gobsmacked 8.2

      National alone $50

      National/ACT $10

      National/Hone Harawira Party $2

      National/Labour $1.05

      Labour/Greens/ACT/Hone … just couldn’t happen, so that’s what we’ll get.

  9. Brett 9

    In the past year I haven’t see a lot that has pissed of your average voter enough to vote Labour in the next election.
    Anyway why would you vote labour, same faces, same ideas.When people think of Labour they think Helen Clark , nanny state,sticky beaks,know it alls etc.
    It’s going to take a while before people forget that.

    • Geek 9.1

      I think that is the crux of the initial post.

      There have been a number of things done in the last year to piss of your average voter. The problem is that they look at Labour and wonder if they go that way will it be straight back to what we had in Labours third term.

      National are providing opportunities for Labour to really step in and show that they are a valid alternative. That they have listened to what people have said and that they do have a fixed way forward. At the moment we aren’t seeing that.

      I don’t know if notional will keep offering them this gifts but Labour has to start taking them. As the initial post says, National are putting them selves in a position where they could loose, but only if Labour put themselves in a position to win.

      Otherwise I could realistically see the next election having some of the worst voter turn out numbers seen in a long time. That would more than likely result in a second term of what we are seeing now.

      • Pascal's bookie 9.1.1

        Agreed on all counts.

      • gobsmacked 9.1.2

        I agree on turnout, Geek.

        Ironically, National could be hurt if the polls don’t change. A foregone conclusion = don’t bother voting.

        In 2002, Labour went from over 50% in the polls to 41% at the election, in the last three months of the term. There were various reasons (Corngate, Dunne’s worm etc) but the media declaring “game over” was definitely one factor.

    • prism 9.2

      Brett –
      When people think of Labour they think Helen Clark , nanny state,sticky beaks,know it alls etc.
      It’s going to take a while before people forget that.

      Surely that just a government governing in the manner that reasonable citizens need and desire. Helen Clark did seem to act as spokesperson a lot of the time, so was often the dominant voice and wet blanketing things also so I can understand some antagonism. The rest is silly, the job of a state is to help things run better, reasonable controls are essential, just letting everyone do whatever is a sign of a deteriorating society.

      • Brett 9.2.1

        Prism this may come as a bit of a shock but most people don’t like to be told how to run there lives.
        This is the main reason labour lost.
        People really don’t give a shit about global warming, the UN, or how we are perceived by others what they get worked up about is what affects them directly.
        Being told how to run your family or what to eat really makes people bristle.
        How would you like if some Christian extremist got into power and started telling everybody they had to go to church every Sunday, no you wouldn’t and neither would I.

  10. Rich 10

    When I came out of the Michael Moore movie, my main thought was how great (albeit bloody confusing for historians) it would be if Moore could move to NZ and lead the Labour party.

    I haven’t come across a single instance since Goff became leader where he’s made a telling criticism of government policy. Much of the time, Labour either simply agree with National or offer some token griping before lapsing into passive acceptance.

    Where’s Goff while National (with the help of their Maori Party mates) are stealing $105,000,000,000 from the ordinary taxpayer and giving it to big business? Shouldn’t he be backing an armoured truck up to Fonterra’s loading dock and demanding they give our money back?

    My only hope is that Goff’s crapness convinces the smarter politicians in Labour to either leave or change the party to a new, radical direction.

    [BTW, we *could* get Moore as Labour leader. He could migrate here to fill the clear occupational shortage in the “effective left-wing leadership” category and be eligible to be an MP within one year of residence]

  11. randal 11

    in the end it all comes down to who can whip radio ritalin and radio spud and teeveewun into a froth.
    at the moment the meedja in new zealand is controlled by and idiocracy who are only interested in style and looking hip rather than the issues.
    as long as they have the power to whipsaw the populace then we are doomed to a kneejerk poitics oversseen by manques(thats not spanish for monkeys but it might as well be) like gluon espineless and someone callow who have the right hair and teeth but not much in the iq department.

  12. graham 12

    Your drugs must be great if you think national are going to lose the next election.I would be surprised if any of you lefties know any national supporters let alone talk to them without abuseing them

  13. mike 13

    If I was a labour voter I would be calling for goffs head mid 2010. The NZ public will never ‘go back’ to the old face of labour after it was so badly stained by the goings on around 2008. C/T will also be chaffing at the bit come 2011 if the boring old career polly is still there.

    As a tory I certainly hope they do persist with Goff as National will drive home more traditional policy in their second term.

    • Pascal's bookie 13.1

      I dunno, cutting taxes at the top end while raking up debt, eliminating services and generally being incompetent with the public sector, subsidising farmers, and failing to show any sign of actually having any of the ideas they hinted they had to solve NZ’s problems…

      Sounds like traditional tory policy to me. Or did you think Ruth Richardson or Don Brash were traditional tories?

      Poor wee mike.

    • The Voice of Reason 13.2

      Spot on, Mike, you’ve really got your finger on the pulse of the nation. Getting cheers and a standing O from thousands of voters on the steps of parliament is new low for Phil Goff. Yep, Labour really should dump him just as the first signs of voter revolt break out. That makes sooooo much sense.

      Naff as the March against Democracy is, that’ll be another physical demonstration of why Key is kaput next polling day. His government seems totally focussed on pissing off their support base, while smugly lining their own pockets. Bet they don’t see out the term, let alone win another.

      • Geek 13.2.1

        To be fair TVR Sue Bradford could have gotten cheers from that crowd if she had stood up their and told them they were right. It is however exactly the image that Labour needs to impose Phil into. He needs to be seen as a popular choice. As much as We want someone with more substance than Key you still need to beat him in the image stakes if Labour want to win the next election.

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