“The many, not the few”
Posted on 13:05, January 28th, 2010 by Lew
It’s a sound speech full of bread-and-butter Labour appeals, not too heavy on the wonkish details, and it doesn’t spare anyone who oughtn’t be spared, targeting a range of elites: Finance company sharks, big business shysters, benefit fraudsters, nearsighted property developers, the honours list, public sector CEOs. Also obligatory references to education, justice and community systems failing young people, which ties into a small serve for the māori party (not named) about the Foreshore and Seabed Act and Tino Rangatiratanga flag, although wisely appealing to Kelvin Davis’ mana rather than Phil’s own, which shows that while he still doesn’t really get tino rangatiratanga, he at least realises that it’s a topic to be treated carefully. Also the absence of a direct attack on the māori party or its principals themselves is a good sign for future reconciliation; an indication that Sharples’ hints of recent weeks that the two parties retain much in common have been understood.
It speaks to the continuing narrative that the government is coasting on a gradually improving economy which has turned out to be much less dire than predicted — a good choice given the same chord has been struck by people like Matthew Hooton in the past week, and playing into Key’s “relaxed” persona. This narrative will stick.
It’s a solid speech, but not a great one. I didn’t hear it, perhaps you had to be there, but this is largely pedestrian stuff, and while “the many, not the few” is an excellent platform for any social democratic leader, this needed to be a speech which burned bright, not one which smouldered. The biggest reason it didn’t, for me, was because it wasn’t clear about who its audience was.
The collective noun of choice, something over which important battles have been fought in recent years, was generally “all new Zealanders”; sometimes “(hard)working New Zealanders” or “working families”. I’ve argued before that the first (“all New Zealanders”) is too broad except as a rhetorical device, and this was an opportunity for Labour to drive home it’s “the many, not the few” focus by telling us who it stands for, to clearly frame of who “we” are to Labour, and to oppose it to who is meant by National’s “we”. You can’t win 100% of the electorate, and you shouldn’t try: if your position isn’t pissing a fair chunk of the polity off (your ideological enemies) then it’s probably not doing much for your friends, either. Mealy-mouthedness is the bane of effective political engagement.
If Labour represents “all New Zealanders” then, by definition, it represents the few as well as the many, and you can’t base a political appeal on that. You can’t represent both the interests of the minimum-wage workers and the stuggling middle classes and the disenfranchised urban poor and the sharks and speculators and fat cats you claim are leeching off them: you need to distinguish one from the other and say: “we work for you, not for those guys”.
This is implicit through the speech, but it must be explicit, and must be repeated over and over, forged as a bond of identity with a Labour party from whom the electorate feels disconnected. All the good policy initiatives in the world won’t save Labour unless it reconnects and re-engages its base, and it can’t do that until it sorts out who its base is, and lets them know. This speech could have done that, but it didn’t.