National Lite

It’s been almost a year since I wrote anything here. Things have been complicated. Anyway, this will — I hope, and circumstances permitting — begin a return to participation. All thanks due to Pablo for holding things together.

Answer: Nobody. That’s the problem.

Today was budget day. The carnage in Australia with Joe Hockey’s first budget two days ago was worse than even the Abbott government’s enemies had predicted, with deep cuts to education, welfare, superannuation, science funding and many other fields, including the imposition of a $7 surcharge for GP visits. The contrast here could not be more stark: a return to surplus not immediately thrust into lowering taxes, modest cuts in some areas, increased entitlements in others, particularly in support for young families, and notably the extension of free GP visits to children under 13 years of age.

I’m no big-city economist so I’ll stick mainly to the political aspects. But it basically looks like Bill English’s sixth budget — somewhat like the preceding five, but to a greater extent — does a little good and almost no evil, and that basically ruins the opposition’s game plan, which relies on Bill English and John Key being terrible ogres that eat babies, rather than supporting their parents with leave entitlements. When the man touted as the Labour party’s most left-wing leader in a generation is reduced to complaining that John Key has stolen his party’s policy — as if that is supposed to be a bad thing — things are pretty dire. The opposition’s increasing desperation over the past six years, continuously prognosticating doom over the horizon, simply looks ridiculous when the doom never arrives. The government has snookered the New Zealand left by simply doing what it said it would do, and as Pablo argued persuasively at the start of the year, that makes clear how lacking the New Zealand left is in its strategic vision. They — Labour especially — are relying on the government to do their heavy ideological lifting, and when the government declines to be explicitly evil, the opposition is left with nothing to say.

When your enemies move to occupy your ideological ground, it is an opportunity to extend that ground, replacing what they claim from you with more advantageous ground deeper within your ideological territory. The trouble for Labour is that National has moved towards them, and Labour are still trying to fight them for the same ground rather than staking out more ground of their own. Six years after the “Labour lite” campaign that saw them ousted in the first place, they haven’t learned. Today’s budget has been tagged Labour lite by commentators including Bryce Edwards and Labour’s own Rob Salmond.

Due to assiduous work by National, and a conspicuous lack of it by Labour, “Labour lite” is now more or less indistinguishable from “Labour”, and Labour has offered no sort of “Labour heavy”; full-cream Labour, deep-red Labour, or whatever other metaphor you like. Because of this lack of difference, the electoral decision comes down to competence: of these two groups of mendacious grey technocrats, which is the least likely to inadvertently screw things up, or intentionally, as Jan Logie puts it, f&%k people over? That’s an easy answer: Labour demonstrates its lack of general competence every single day. If it’s not clear by now that they’re simply not as good at being the Nats as the Nats are, when will it ever be?

It’s too late, now, to change this ahead of the election. The die is cast. Labour has — again — decided to rely on political meta-strategy like syllogising failures of judgement or conduct by individual MPs out to the wider government, and it might have worked had they any sort of foundation to build upon. But they don’t. Far from full-cream Labour, Labour itself is Labour lite. Light-blue, even; 98% Ideology-free. If they’re going to play the National-lite game, they at least need to get good at it.


14 thoughts on “National Lite

  1. Great point Lew, and I especially take the point that the contrast to the Australian budget couldn’t be greater. Abbott and Hockey could certainly take a lesson from Key and English in terms of political management – and I don’t say that out of national pride, either.

    I’m not sure if your last para already acknowledges this, but I think it’s only possible for National to occupy so much of Labour’s ideological ground because during the 80s and 90s Labour did the opposite, matching many of National’s policies.

    I’m not sure Labour’s moving deeper into ideological territory works from a winning-elections standpoint, though. That territory is already pretty thoroughly colonised, in public perceptions if not in reality, by the Greens. There is a substantial left-of-Labour vote, but I don’t know if it would be willing to start voting for a Labour government after all this time, not when the alternatives are more palatable.

    And as an aside – great to see you blogging again.

  2. I’d call bollocks on this Lew.

    In Labour’s policy bag: changes to the Reserve Bank Act, Capital Gains Tax (and top tax rate), the Work & Wages policy, KiwiBuild, KiwiSure, proper responses to Climate Change / RMA /EPA…

    Sure National’s now offered a heavily watered down version of Best Start and Paid Parental Leave, but why wouldn’t you want to vote for the full-flavoured Labour versions?

    There are very big policy differences between the two big parties. National doing a little of a couple of Labour policies doesn’t change that.

  3. Hugh,

    Thanks. Yes, the Nats are able to tack towards Labour because 30 years ago Labour swallowed their agenda whole, but this really just underlines the first point I’m trying to make. The second point — re territory — is a bit different. Yes, the Greens increasingly occupy the left-of-Labour space, and they must continue to complement each other, but a strategy like this relies on carving out constituencies where they didn’t exist before, as NZ First and ACT did so well or, better in this case, in bringing them with you, rather than alienating them by blowing raspberries at a government that just did something unexpectedly nice for them.


    Well, you would. I agree the social policy mix here is well short of what Labour proposed, and they’ve stolen nothing of the housing affordability or monetary policy. On the latter two, you have grounds, On the former — which is the main thing — the differences are of scale, not kind, and are going to be hard to sell as meaningful.


  4. Hi Lew,

    Good for you getting back in the blog-saddle.

    I agree with much of what you write, but I think you’re misunderstanding just what Labour are and what they’re trying to be.

    They are a mainstream neoliberal party. It’s not surprising that they’re struggling to get traction against a competent opponent who also wants to employ 3rd-way style social interventions to knock the roughest edges off.

    Key’s policies today of free healthcare for under-13s and extending paid parental leave are “leftier” than any policy wins that Clark achieved in the same spaces.

    As for Labour now – with Cunliffe at the helm they are unquestionably the most full cream of any Labour Party in my lifetime. I wasn’t around to see Kirk’s departure but Cunliffe is to the left of Clark and Lange-Douglas.

    What I think you are seeing is that National have figured out that the Overton window has shifted.

    If we say that Bolger’s last two terms were centrist, Clark pushed it slightly to the left. Key has pretty much held steady in direction from Clark – lefty policies like free healthcare for kids and WFF, weak-right policies like partial power company sales.

    But if the right wing party is running Helen Clark style policy, I think this is no bad thing. Rather John Key than Don Brash in other words.

    As for Labour – I don’t think they themselves know right now. The lack of a left wing ginger group definitely hurts them – there’s no mainstream media voice out there advocating for compulsory unionism and landlord taxes.

  5. Here was me thinking Labour had been slowly making a case for goverment intervention in a whole lot of ways National is not prepared to consider and has forced National’s hand with very successful campaigns on things such as paid parental leave. To say that 4% unempoloyment or less is dreaming certainly shows a clear point of difference.

    I haven’t heard a whole lot of doom and gloom- that’s a bit of a straw-man, which is something many many commentators have been doing to both Labour and the Greens. (Here for example, but here we got someone able to call BS on the allowed narrative) I have heard- ‘the recovery hasn’t been getting to everyone’ and ‘not everyone is getting the benefits of the ‘rockstar’ economy’. As well as they’ll fight for themselves, their friends and family and their donors,- but will they stick their neck out for you?’

    This is a clear attempt to play cover defence and paper over cracks in the areas they have ignored or failed in. It’s another version of the ‘underclass’ speech and I’ll guess we’ll wait and see if it is considered as sincere in its intents as that speech was.

  6. Busby,

    I generally agree with this analysis. I realise Labour is a mainstream party — social democratic consensus rather than socialist or radical — party and have generally argued that’s right for them. But it’s only right for them if they can do it convincingly, which it appears they can’t.

    Part of their problem is mismatch between personnel and circumstance — I think Cunliffe actually could be a vision guy, but can’t be in the current context. I guess I’m arguing that since what they’re doing isn’t working they might as well try something else. After six years of sucking, they might keep sucking, but they can at least stand for something while they do it.


  7. What kind of vision do you think he should be articulating Lew?

    As Ben has stated above we’ve seen Labour announce a raft of policy that would address the nasty side effects of trying to cool the housing market, restoring the rights of workers, aim to create jobs and the living wage all of which begin to address the inequalities we have seen. As well as the checks and balances on resource use.

    It seems you are slagging off Labour for the fact that NZ is not the country it used to be when Sam Cash was running around it. They seem to have a different vision about how we develop our environment, our cities and value people in our society. There is not the same post-Alamein Kopu like mood for change, though a case is being made about influence and cronyism.

    So what kind of thing are you suggesting? We’ve seen some innovative monetary policy, solid social policy, sane transport policy and more to come.

    Welcome back btw!

  8. I spent much of 2009-2013 reckoning what I thought Labour ought to be doing and much of that still applies. But more important than any specific set of policies or ideolical vision is that they do something congruent with who they are and what they believe, that they can credibly articulating stand behind.

    The most depressing thing about the past five years is that seems to be exactly what they’re doing.


  9. The trouble for Labour is that National has moved towards them

    Only one question: Why is it so easy for them to do this?

  10. “Part of their problem is mismatch between personnel and circumstance”

    You see, this I really, really disagree with. Changing leaders wasn’t the solution in 2012, it wasn’t the solution in 2013, and it wouldn’t be the solution in 2014 either.

  11. James,

    A couple of overlapping reasons. John Key and Bill English have built so much credibility that they can do damn near anything they like and it will be tolerated by the Nats’ support base because they win. And also because they don’t have to move very far because the two main parties mostly agree about the problems.


  12. There is another thing here, 12% vote for Green say, but of the other 88% half of us will vote decidedly against Green. The negative votes are not counted but are there.
    Thats why Cunliffe [ and before him Clarke ]rejected proposal from Green for a formal coalition. Another reason, NZ First who would not go near Green with a barge pole unless with an axe on the end of it.

  13. There is no such thing as a negative vote in our democratic system, and any conjecture about proportions of anti-some-certain-party votes are just fanciful nonsense.


  14. @paul: What you’re saying may or may not be true, but the logic can be applied to a lot of parties. How big is the anti-NZ First vote, do you think?

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