“The many, not the few”

This is the theme of Phil Goff’s State of the Nation speech today, according to early coverage. And would you look at that: it’s even up on their website.

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.


11 thoughts on ““The many, not the few”

  1. Pingback: Goff speech hits mark walloping bludgers at both ends « Life and Politics

  2. To my mind, the idea of a “base” is the biggest thing wrong with electoral politics. If you think there’s a core demographic you MUST appeal to, it tends to skew policies in extreme directions. To put it another way, when pandering becomes the point rather than a means to an end, you end up with the Republican party.

    I agree Goff doesn’t seem to know which demographic he’s trying to appeal to (grumpy working class pakeha; working class everyone; urban liberals?), but I’m loath to criticise anyone for not pandering enough.

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  4. Puppies are nice.

    So are kittens.

    I’m sorry, but if this is the great “agenda-setting” speech of the year for Goff, I’ve got to ask WTF John Pagani does all day? Last year, it was not very well disguised race baiting. This year, it’s vaguely genuflecting towards populist rage over… I’m not sure what.

  5. I think the ‘recovery’ talk is a tactical mistake. Could have talked about jobs jobs jobs and protecting the incomes of the many without basing it on the alleged recovery quite easily.

    If there is a double dip, (entirely possible), Labour cannot now hammer double dipton for not picking it.

  6. Eddie, what you call pandering is always a means to an end: getting (re)elected. It’s more charitably described as letting the electorate know who you are and who/what you stand for, and instilling in them the confidence that you can be trusted to represent them on topics they don’t/can’t have specialist knowledge about. Think of it as collecting proxy votes.

    It’s not a matter of not pandering enough, it’s a matter of not pandering clearly, which yields all the costs of pandering (such as your disquiet) and few of the benefits (not actually convincing anyone to grant you their proxy).


  7. Good start to the year from Labour and a welcome return to first principles.

    Way too late of course – the second that the Smiling Snake slithered pre-election into “me-too” mode was the time to violently slough the toxic 4th Lab legacy, move leftwards and reclaim its proud and accepted progressive heritage – but better late than never.

    Consistency and purity of motivation are key, as always: “born-again” Phil may yet pull it off, but not without fullsome and turbo-charged support and initiative from the young cleanskins in his caucus.

    Step up and around, young tigers-of-the-many; study your history and legacy: double-dip disappointment is the zeitgeist expectation and absolute certainty this very year.

    Kiwis-of-the-many (and especially Maori) inevitably re-recognise the buttered side of their bread and media manipulation – a denouement long overdue, and the current entrails indicate a refreshing appetite for rationality and humanitarian progression.

    Who’ll it be, when the used-vehicle salesman hits the ever-approaching wall? Darren? Jacinda?

    Mark these words: it’s them or Winnie.

  8. The 25 cents increase to 100,000 workers from National (when employers were ready to accept a 50 cent increase), has helped Labour re-connect with low wage workers. This has provided a political opening.

    When one looks at the gains being proposed for the high income earning few from income tax cuts … will John Key get an extra $25,000 in the hand – the total gross wage of some 100,000 workers (not 2% but all 100% of it) and they get no tax cut!

  9. Pingback: Kiwipolitico » Blog Archive » Great prospects

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