It’s been a bad twelve months for the supporters of Labour in New Zealand and the UK. The similarities between Cunliffe and Miliband’s failed campaigns have already been covered by, among others, Buzzfeed. Both crushing results saw defeated leaders step down, although with some reluctance in the case of David Cunliffe. New Zealand Labour went on to elect Andrew Little in November 2014 while Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham, representing the two faces of Blairism, battle it out in the UK.
Much has been made about how the campaigns of both parties failed to connect with the electorate. But the accusations have often focused on how they, Labour parties, were too left wing or relied upon the perennially unpopular governmental tool of taxation.
Some of these criticisms have been put forward by ambitious successors to UK Labour’s Ed Miliband, others from more traditional opponents of politicised Labour. Many of them focus on the idea that the only way to win against the centre right is to be more like them. Given the scale of their defeats it’s not hard to understand why they think that. But is playing a game the way your opponents want you to play really the way to win?
Let’s rewind first though. New Zealand Labour lost against a two-term, six-year, National Government which had weathered the Global Financial Crisis through tax cuts and asset sales. The Christchurch earthquake of 2011 had the odd but welcome side effect of helping drag the economy out of the worst of the crisis. There had been reductions in government support as, strangely, cutting taxes meant social programmes became suddenly unaffordable. Dirty Politics exploded like a fart in a lift, managing to make everything smell without any visible shit sticking.
And yet the message from National wasn’t policy-specific, but an emotional appeal to ‘Keep the team that’s working’. They were of course aided by the remarkable phenomenon that is John Key, a Prime Minister whose grasp of authentic communication, and deception, left Labour floundering. A surplus was just around the corner, and changing course would prevent New Zealand from being on the ‘cusp of something special’.
UK Labour lost against a one term, five year Coalition Government. The Tories and Liberal Democrats came in well after the frantic days of Lehmann and RBS and actively campaigned on cutting the cost of social security, lowering taxes for the rich and eliminating the deficit.
They managed one of those, to the relief of those people in the top tax brackets of the UK. On everything else though, they failed. Debt expanded and the deficit remained stubbornly resistant to austerity. Surplus however, was potentially there at the end of Parliament, and would require another twelve billion pounds cut from the social security budget.
Their message too, was one of continuity. David Cameron announced that instead of a cusp, Britain was on ‘the brink of something special’. I suppose if you employ the same election strategist, you're bound to get some duplication.
Remarkably, in the aftermath of the utter failure of low-regulation market-based economics, both Labour movements managed to find themselves not so much on the wrong side of the argument, but completely and utterly mute. The necessity of states having to bail out first private financial sector institutions within their borders and then, internationally, entire nations who found themselves unable to pay private financial sector institutions was not a victory for those who criticised rampant capitalism. Instead, parties of the centre right, parties of business and capitalism did what they were ruthlessly brought up to do. They capitalised.
Suddenly the fault was on lefty liberal Governments for both using the benefits of unbridled capital excess to attempt to remedy societal inequality, for not regulating the banks effectively and for bailing them out. The pre-crisis ‘spend the tax’ ‘too much regulation’ and ‘pro-bailout’ stances of these parties evaporated as they sensed weakness in their opponents.
Suddenly the financial mismanagement was not in the private sector, but in the public sector. The role of the finances of Government were recast as those of the household, a surefire way to spark concern and fear as low wages and job insecurity crept into everyday life. The resonance of that analogy became sufficient cover for a recasting of the role of Government in both New Zealand and British society.
Instead of reforming the system, National and the Conservatives decided that the best way to avoid further turmoil was to simply restart it. Corporate tax cuts were introduced to jump-start business and good old fashioned trickle-down economics made a comeback as the top rates of tax were reduced. The already unsustainable housing market became a driver of GDP, and was therefore left to swell and bloat. The problem had shifted from the situation which led to a dramatic reduction in the tax intake, preceding the tax cuts, to the uses to which that tax was put as part of administering education, health and social security. You know, the business of being a Government.
New Zealand Labour spent the post-2008 period realising that the long reign of Helen Clark, as leader and Prime Minister, was based around ensuring any potential successors were not too talented to be a potential challenger to her. UK Labour found itself firmly blamed for the entire global financial crisis and utterly, utterly failed to attempt to counter the narrative in any way. What both parties did next hugely contributed to their recent defeats.
UK Labour tried to gain a reputation for fiscal responsibility by echoing the Conservatives ‘tough on welfare’ rhetoric and eliminating the deficit. NZ Labour looked over the successes of its nine years in power, and went hard on the prospect of surplus. In doing so they both tacitly accepted the idea that it was the Government that needed to demonstrate fiscal control, rather than the private financial sector.
This created a break from what UK Labour had traditionally offered to the electorate, and what their new ‘fiscal responsibility’ or ‘surplus focused’ agendas required them to. In the case of NZ Labour, their abandonment of the party's ideological tradition in 1984 gives them both a breadth of political ideas within the party, but incoherence in their presentation. Which also presented their opponents with another clear opportunity to attack.
For UK Labour, it was failing to effectively rebut the claim that their spending had caused the deficit to rise. A key moment in the election was Ed Miliband denying that the last Labour Government had spent too much, to the disbelief of a studio audience. And yet the financial crisis was due to a sudden collapse of global capital, and the deficit ballooned because of a falling tax take rather than any increase in expenditure. In the five years Labour had been in opposition, they couldn’t get that message across. Approaching an election with promises of both increased public spending then combining an election campaign shift based on fiscal competency was too much for the electorate to believe.
New Zealand Labour went through three leaders, the third being elected fewer than twelve months before an election campaign. Their campaign review took nine months to go public, citing disunity within the caucus, fundraising concerns and bulky policy packages. That it took nine months to deliver that message, in itself, should be concerning in a three year election cycle. The subsequent ‘Future of Work Commission’ is an effective can kick into 2016, while attacking National for failing to deliver a surplus creates more problems in the long term than any short term political benefit.
Here’s why. In both hemispheres Labour attempted to adopt the very successful economic narrative of their opponents to augment their offer to the electorate. In both instances they were wholly rejected by their respective electorates. The ‘household finance’ presentation of Government simply does not fit the sort of policies a centre-left party needs to implement in the aftermath of the GFC.
It is equally misguided to commit themselves to the idea that surplus and deficit measures the success or failure of a Government. In the UK there have been just six budget surpluses since 1979, usually during times of economic boom. In New Zealand the vaunted Cullen surplus run in the first decade of the 21st century occurred in the boom period, ending immediately after the GFC took hold. It’s manifestly clear that, post-GFC, we are nowhere near the domestic or international stability which produced those past results. To believe that we have somehow smoothly returned to economic ‘business as usual’ is to swallow the reality distorting ‘golden days’ propaganda of the centre right’s cheerleaders.
Playing the game by the rules laid down by your opponent is a sure-fire way to lose, lose and lose again. Failing to learn from repeated losses, failing to attempt to change your strategy only creates the conditions for further setbacks, further losses. Sometimes it is necessary to stop, take stock and recognise what it is you are supposed to be good at, so that you can focus on the basics. Trust me on this one, I’m a Blues fan.
If either Labour party wants to win, in 2017 or 2020, they have to be able to present a case for governing which does not depend on the principles which underpin their opponents politics. This is by no means a simple task, as it requires clear direction and the courage of conviction. But the reason for developing an independently consistent and authentic narrative for governing is the same as that for which the two Labour parties were established; because it is the right and necessary thing to do to prevent the societal, moral, ethical and economic impoverishment of their countries.
Otherwise if they continue to merely offer to be a different flavour of the incumbent centre-right party, they are demolishing their intellectual and ideological integrity, and prompting voters to choose the honest bastards, rather than the dishonest cowards.