One of the more vexing problems in politics is to turn opposition to something into a virtue. Being anti-something is reactive and defensive rather than a path with which to move forward. It is the antithesis of a proactive, innovative posture where the power of a better future is conveyed in order to secure implicit agreement to the unspoken “Yes” latent in the electorate. The latter is a positive reaffirmation, often couched in crude nationalism or other symbols of consensus and collective identity. In contrast, the implicit or explicit “No” embedded in negative campaigns carries with it connotations of obstructionism, obstinacy and lack of vision.
The negative connotations of a “No” campaign suffer from a structural disadvantage when it comes to mass political psychology. All things being equal, it is harder to successfully engage in “No” campaigns rather than “Yes” campaigns, especially when the former is confronted by the latter in electoral competition. Negative campaigns can also be a sign of defeat. Although all political challengers must attack incumbents on their record, there are ways to do soÂ in addition toÂ simple rejection of the opponent’s policies. In practice, opposition parties that fail to cloak their campaigns in a positive and proactive message are often conceding the outcome and using the electoral process for party rejuvenation rather than truly competitive purposes.
Yet it is possible for negative campaigns to convey a positive message. An example of a successful negative campaign is the opposition to the 1989 referendum on the nature of the Chilean regime. After 16 years of market-oriented military-bureaucratic authoritarianism, General Pinochet sought to continue as a civilian president in a “guarded” democracy installed by “controlled” elections. He and his supporters formed a political party to that effect, relaxed restrictions on the political opposition, and held a referendum that proposed that voters say”Yes” to constitutional revisions that would guide the installation of the “guarded” democratic regime. Pinochet and his followers banked on their control of the media and relative economic successes to ensure that the “Yes” outcome would prevail. The language of the referendum spoke to this fact by asking voters to vote “Yes” or “No” on continuing the unfinished process of national reconstruction under a Pinochet presidency.
Opposition to the “guarded” democracy plan came from a diverse array of groups, who preferred a full transition to democracy and the removal of Pinochet from politics. It did not necessarily have the support of the majority when the referendum campaign began, and besides the advantages accrued to the Pinochet regime, it was hampered by tight campaign regulations, lack of access to publicity, restrictions on public gatherings and the fact that many of its leaders were in exile.
Even so, the Opposition campaigners phrased their negative message so that a “No” vote was a vote for democracy as well as a vote against authoritarianism. It played on the knowledge that most Chileans understood that whatever its successes, the Pinochet regime was an aberration rather than a model, and that the price for its success was not worth the benefits supposedly gained. This organic understanding of Chilean “good sense” in the face of elite-purveyed common sense shifted popular perceptions of the referendum, and the “No” vote won a commanding majority. Confronted by defeat, Pinochet was abandoned by his supporters and the stage set for a fuller transition to democratic rule (I say “fuller” because the terms of the foundational election and the character of the political system for the first post-authoritarian decade were fixed by post-referendum constitutional reforms made by the outgoing Pinochet regime under executive fiat, which were heavily weighed in favour of the elites who benefitted from the Pinochet regime and which was backed by a military commitment to defend them. It was not until the 2000s (and Pinochet’s death in 1999) that Chilean democracy was fully consolidated, and even then the structural and institutional changes wrought by the authoritarians and their successors skewed socio-economic and political power in favour of those who prospered under Pinochet).
Regardless of what happened later, the “No” campaign on the 1989 referendum succeeded in shifting the terms of the Chilean transition to democracy away from those preferred by the authoritarians and towards those of a long-repressed opposition. It is therefore a good example of turning a negative stance Â into a political positive.
The success of the 1989 Chilean “No” campaign might provide some insights for Labour as it enters the final phase of the 2011 election. Labour has staked its campaign on opposition to National’s economic policies, epitomized by the “No” on Assets Sales plank. Â A little more subtly, the proposal to raise the retirement age is an admission that not all is well in Aotearoa. In other words, it is an admission of a negative, which is also the case for the repeated references to job losses via immigration to Australia. Most importantly, although Labour has “positive” planks in its electoral platform, these appear to be overshadowed (at least to me) by the negative aspects of its campaign. For its part, National can play the role of positive campaigner, using the upbeat character of the Prime Minister, the hopeful nature of its policy message (however devoid of positive content that it may be) and incidentals such as the All Blacks WRC victory to cement its pro-active and affirmative image in the eyes of voters.
Given the late stage of the campaign, it might be worth considering how Labour might cast its “negative” planks in a positive light. The key is to use the implicit “No” as an affirmation of Kiwi (as opposed to class or ethnic) identity, be it in its quest for economic and political independence or in its reification of Â individualism as a national trait. Here differences can be drawn with National on issues such as security policy, where National has basically subordinated its military perspective to those of Australia and the US, or on foreign investment in an increasingly deregulated domestic economic context, where National would prefer to ease restrictions on foreign capital flows into the country regardless of their impact on strategic assets, local capital or the integrity of resident labour markets and environmental conditions. Saying “no” to such things is not being obstructionist or reactionary, it is about reaffirming who we are.
I have no expertise in political marketing, but it seems to me that if the 1989 Chilean opposition could turn a negative campaign into a positive statement given the severe restrictions and disadvantages under which it operated, then Labour might consider how to cast its campaign in a way such that its opposition to National’s policy proposals becomes a reaffirmation of Kiwi autonomy and independence. Other than that, it has little else to go on.*
* I am well aware that on economic fundamentals Labour and National are two sides of the same slice of bread, and that many National policies are mere continuations of those originally set by the 5th Labour government. My point here is to show that there is a way, however improbable, for Labour to rescue its election campaign.