Sir Michael Cullen discussed political strategy at the “Destination- Next Progressive Majority” seminars held recently by the Fabian Society in Auckland and Wellington. He started by sharing what he used to say to his students when they were facing a test – “never forget to state the obvious.” For a progressive majority that means get more votes than the others – you can listen to his speech here and the contents are summarised below.
So many people on the left ignore that simple point – my view is that we get elected so that we can do some good things and shift the balance over time and win the debate over the direction of society.
Don’t get hung up about language of left and centre-left: we lost the vast majority of the population because they are not interested. We are interested in the left’s language because we are part of it and the distinctions are sometimes useful. Even with the language of progressive and conservative we need to be careful because we need to attract the votes of people who consider themselves conservative.
In the modern world anything up to 50% of the population can be considered as swinging voters. We got 25% last time, National got 22% in 2002 and neither of us hit rock-bottom. To rephrase the obvious we have to persuade enough swinging voter to switch.
There are some facts we need to take into account.
First, John Key is a phenomenon – the modern-day Holyoake. We spent 12 years underestimating Holyoake to our cost – we’ve spent nine years underestimating Key. Every now and then we think the tide is turning but I see no evidence of that in the polling data. Key still has numbers which are stratospherically good by historic comparisons – we must recognise that, and the amount of time that we spend on attacking Key is largely a waste of time.
Second, Labour is well behind on leadership and economic credibility – no-one has ever won government by being behind on both. Labour is the core of any progressive government so those things have to change one way or another.
Third in spite of false dawns, there is still a high level of confidence in the government despite manifold problems with the excessively short-term focus.
What are the three things we have to do?
First establish emotional connection with swinging voters. In the Labour Party we are phenomenally bad at doing this – we see a swinging voter and whip out a manifesto. Secondly have credible policies that address the issues that voters care about – when we have identified the issues that voters care about we have to have answers that we believe in that they can believe in and are willing to vote for. Thirdly we have to develop an image and a reality of co-operative differentiation between the parties seeking a change in government.
Starting with co-operative differentiation. The parties are competitors. Excessive similarity will reduce the chances for a change of government. We can’t be identical twins or triplets – we have to maximise the total vote by maximising the vote each party can get. Labour’s vote is the key determinant but that creates tension – but we can also demonstrate that we can work together so there has to be some spoken or unspoken criteria as to how the parties can work together. This is being done well – symbols are important – the key moment in Labour’s win in 1999 was Helen Clark being invited to address the Alliance conference. Broad areas of agreement on policy – sustainability which for me is the unifying over-arching concept. Issues of inequality and poverty – but let us talk about levelling up instead of levelling down – that is why growth is important because we have to redistribute the dividends of growth – no government has every got elected by redistributing a static cake. Third area is independent foreign policy.
Second credible issues of policy. Labour in particular has to stop its tendency to look inwards to talk about itself all the time, instead of talking about what other people want to hear about – which is what Labour is going to do to help them. Both New Zealand First and the Greens are much better at doing that. Both Labour and Greens have tendency to drop into policy wonk mode and lose the emotional connection. Swinging voters are not that interested in politics, they have feelings but not great knowledge, and they are heavily influenced by popular media especially commercial talk-back radio most of which is very right-wing. Finally they are less rational than those committed to those who are committed to one party or another.
Third establishing emotional connection with voters. Policies can be a means to this but rarely the most important means. This is Key’s huge strength – he has enormous emotional connection with voters. The sloppy language we like to make fun of is the language most people speak, not like University lecturers like Helen, Steve and I. The casualness to turn things aside, not important, at the end of the day.
We have to understand that emotional connection but we have one significant advantage that he doesn’t have. We are three significant parties and Greens appeal to youth, NZFirst has affinity with elderly, Labour’s ability to work the business of government, the stable rock around which the government can be built. Which is why when Labour looks unstable we are all down the tubes.
In terms of Labour itself there are four things we nee to recapture. First is choice – for young people what they want to know is that we will enable all people to have choice. Second is aspiration – party that has stood for hundred years for opportunity has lost the concept that we help all people to get ahead. Need to be careful – attacking the super-rich easily turns into people feeling that we are attacking those who are trying to do well. Third responsibility, to connect with people who are looking for parties who will talk about reponsibility. Greens do that in the environmental area – one quick example Companies Act has exclusive focus on shareholder interest which focuses life purely on short tem profit making. It is completely different model to a stakeholder approach where the workers and society are also stakeholders. A small change in Companies Act and a Charter of rights and responsibilities – water rights – property right which people have had since 1840 – there are good progressive reasons fro charging for water rights for large users. Finally the notion of national pride and independence – we should be able to claim that concept away from New Zealand because we stand for an independent New Zealand. We should be holding out the welcome mat for Syrian Christians who won’t be able to go back. We should look at what we can do
Spell it out clearly and go out to the pople and say this is about us as a people and what we can do. Make and emotional connection as Winston did in Northland – an emotional connection not a policy connection.
Plenty of food for thought.