Hard News by Russell Brown


Local Heroes?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the high point for Phil Goff's Labour Party was the by-election that secured a replacement for the previous party leader. Labour ran an effective campaign grounded in the networks it had built up over years in the Mt Albert electorate. Even allowing for the hapless performance of National's candidate, it was a good look.

Most of what's happened since has been anything but a good look. At times Labour – which does actually have a pretty good stock of relatively fresh talent -- has just looked broken.

So now Labour faces as many as three by-elections this year – to replace Winnie Laban, George Hawkins (if he's elected to an Auckland community board), and Chris Carter (if he decides he doesn't want to be a caucus of one) – can it bring back the magic?

Mana and Manurewa at least aren't remotely likely to be leaving the fold. It's hard to imagine what sort of screw-up could lose those races. Carter's Te Atatu seat, where National won the party vote last time, is a different matter, especially given that the existing electorate organisation seems so closely tied to Carter.

And what should the message be? I have some sympathy for Danyl's reasoning:

You let me down, National. Really, what kind of unbelievable assholes stand around doing nothing while unemployment surges and wages stagnate and then decide that what the country needs is tax cuts for the rich and ‘radical welfare reform’? Fuck you. Yeah, you have some pretty great Ministers of a calibre Labour can’t match – but you also have some mind-blowingly bad Ministers and I think I prefer a regression toward the mean.

If not entirely for his proposed pitch as a means of "inoculating themselves of the negative associations that the Labour brand raises in the public mind":

• Nanny state: Goff just needs to announce that under him a Labour government will focus on jobs and the economy, not social engineering and telling Kiwis how they should live their lives. Would require party discipline – a huge proportion of the Labour caucus are enthusiastic proponents of social engineering and telling Kiwis how to live their lives – but National weren’t happy when their leader promised not to sell any assets in his first term and with the notable exception of the Finance Minister they’ve toed the line.

• State spending and bureaucrats – because of the dire economic yadda yadda ‘the government will have to tighten its belt’; Labour will cap the size of the core public service and limit public spending until the crown accounts are returned to surplus.

Prudence should, naturally, be part of the rhetoric. But as a branding strategy, it ignores what's about to happen in Auckland, where, for all his whoopsies, Len Brown seems on track to win, and to bring with him a council that looks more like South and West Auckland than Auckland City. John Banks' amazing attempts to rebrand himself as a campaigner for social justice bear witness to that.

It seems to me that, for now, Labour would be better to style itself as a champion of local democracy than to propose a match in Wellington that it would struggle to win. It's a message that would resonate beyond Auckland. Christchurch, remember, had its regional council take away by central government fiat. And by-elections are, after all, local elections.

It should hammer the likes of Anne Tolley not just because she's a spectacularly poor Minister of Education, but because she represents another effort by the government to force central reform on local communities.

Whoever is responsible for these things should see about making Phil Goff intelligible. I've had the repeated experience of hearing him speak in the media and wondering exactly what he has said. On pressing-the-flesh duty, he seems distracted and unengaged.

And mood swing or not, the party needs to develop a long-term message around unemployment, flush out stories about real people, and depict the current government as complacent. Or, better yet, relaxed.

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