Big Vehicle

The matters I discussed in the previous post to do with reality-adjacent campaigning are about targeting voters with messages they can grok about issues they care about. But empiricism is not much good for deciding a party’s ideological values or for developing policy. Parties made up of committed ideologues remain indispensable for that reason.

As is often pointed out to me, I am not such a person. I have never been a member of a party, nor involved in a campaign, and I have little desire to do either. For some people this means I obviously don’t know what I’m talking about; fair enough. As an analyst, I prefer the outsider’s perspective. I don’t feel any pressure to be loyal to bad ideas or habits, and I try to answer only to the evidence. Ironically, though, there isn’t much hard evidence for the arguments I’m about to make about the medium-term future of the NZ left. Nobody has any. It’s value-judgements all the way down. So my reckons are as good as anyone else’s, right?

“That doctrine of the Little Vehicle of yours will never bring the dead to rebirth; it’s only good enough for a vulgar sort of enlightenment. Now I have the Three Stores of the Buddha’s Law of the Great Vehicle that will raise the dead up to Heaven, deliver sufferers from their torments, and free souls from the eternal coming and going.”
— Bodhisattva Guanyin, Journey to the West

For mine, the major shift from the 2014 election — apart from the unprecedented dominance of the National party — is away from Small Vehicle politics and towards Big Vehicle politics. Only National and NZ First gained modestly. All other parties all failed to meet the threshold or lost support. The destruction of Internet MANA and the failure of a much-improved Conservative party demonstrates that there is no tolerance for insurgency, and the cuts to Labour and the Greens indicates that any confusion or hinted shenanigans will be brutally punished. National can govern alone; it is including ACT, United Future and the Māori Party as a courtesy, and to provide cover. This is Key’s money term. It should be a period of grand political themes and broad gestures, and the left needs to attune itself to this reality: Labour needs to take the responsibility of being a mass movement with broad appeal and capability; a Big Vehicle. The Greens will hopefully get bigger, but I think they will remain a Small Vehicle, appealing to relatively narrow interests, however important they are.

Assuming it doesn’t annihilate itself utterly in the coming weeks, Labour will be the core of any future left-wing government, but the strategies that served it poorly as a substantial party of opposition will be utterly untenable in its diminished state. Throughout most of the past six years, Labour has been the party opposed to National. They haven’t been a party that clearly stands for anything, that projects the sort of self-belief that National, the Greens, and even NZ First does.

Labour therefore needs to re-orient its conduct and messaging to its core values, and those are fundamentally about secure and prosperous jobs for the majority of working people, and those who rely on the state as the provider of last resort. But I am emphatically not calling for a retreat to doctrinaire materialism at the expense of superstructural considerations. The demographic groups that kept Labour alive this election were women (6.6 points higher than men), Māori, and Pasifika, and the party would be insane not to recognise the debt that they owe these voters. Of 11 MPs in whose electorates Labour won the party vote, only one — David Clark — is Pākehā, and in his electorate of Dunedin North Labour got 24 votes more than National. Five (Williams, Mahuta, Sepuloni, Wall, and Whaitiri) are women. The return of Te Tai Hauāuru, Tāmaki Makaurau and especially Te Tai Tokerau to Labour underscores the opportunity that exists to reconnect with Māori.

There will be enormous pressure to begin taking these voters for granted again, and it must be vigorously resisted. As for talk of reaching out to “the base” — a party’s “base” is who votes for it when it is at its lowest. Labour’s base as demonstrated by the 2014 election is comprised largely of working-class women, Māori, and Pasifika. So policy proposals that impact those groups more directly — parental leave, free healthcare, ECE, support for family violence services, social welfare — should not be neglected. By and large, though, these voters will also be motivated by many of the same concerns that speak to anyone else, particularly as the National government’s policies begin to bite. But the party’s appeal must expand well beyond this base into the centre ground. It need not be zero-sum. Labour cannot afford to be caricatured as a party that only cares about those groups, it must be a party that a broad range of people feels like it could vote for — like the party understands their needs, and would act in their interests. The key is framing messages and policies in ways that speaking to the base without alienating the broader public, and to the broader public without excluding the members of these base demographics groups, using separate channels and emphasis where necessary. The key term here is “emphasis”.

The party also has to be smarter and more pragmatic than it has been, especially in social policy. At a minimum, this means an end to opposing Whānau Ora on principle. The new MP for Hauāuru, Adrian Rurawhe, speaking to Radio New Zealand’s Te Ahi Kā on Sunday, has a strong line on this: to not attack the philosophy, to not attack the model, but to attack the implementation of individual schemes. There’s a distinction between cartelised privatisation of service delivery, and self-determination, and a party of Māori aspirations should work, even in opposition, to strengthen and entrench the latter so it can succeed. National has spent six years making policies targeted at Māori, run by Māori and under Māori delivery models politically and culturally acceptable, and has made enormous progress on Treaty claims. Labour must capitalise on these gains. They also provide an opportunity to reach out to the Māori Party, should they survive another term in government and remain viable.

The same imperative also means collaborating with the government on distasteful topics like RMA reform, regional and rural development, and charter schools. The battle over whether these will happen is comprehensively lost; the questions now are how badly are they going to be done, and how much political capital will be wasted in trying to unshit the bed later. Better for Labour to work collaboratively with the government to limit the damage and make the best possible use of the rare opportunity to reform entrenched systems. Let the Greens fight them. Don’t worry! There will be plenty else to oppose.

The Greens are here to stay, and Labour should not be reluctant to bleed some of its liberal-activist support to them, to make up bigger gains elsewhere. This will infuriate many in the activist community, and most everyone on Twitter, but my sense is nearly all of those folks vote Green anyway, and they will be in safe hands. Labour hasn’t been a radical or activist party in recent memory, except for 1984-1990, and we know how that turned out.

There is an opportunity to coordinate and make use of the temperamental differences between the parties, with the Greens taking a more vigorously liberal and activist role against Labour’s moderate incrementalism. The strategy that has been proposed intermittently for ages that Labour should attack the Greens directly is insane — the two parties, while allied, do not and should not substantially share a constituency. Labour, like National, is is a mass movement of the people, and should become more so; the Greens are a transitional insurgent movement seeking to influence the existing mass movements, and they seem intent on continuing in that role.

Of all the Small Vehicles, the Greens are best equipped to thrive in a Big Vehicle-dominant context. New Zealand First will struggle. While Labour should collaborate with the Greens, Labour should contend with NZ First, and aim either to gut it of its voter base or, more plausibly, to drive it towards National where the inevitable contradictions and ideological enmities will probably cause harm to both parties. ACT and United Future are wholly-owned by John Key and are effectively irrelevant.

The worst case for Labour, apart from continuing in the blissful ignorance that nothing is really wrong, would be a retreat into sullen populism, trying to out-Winston Winston or out-Key Key, or chucking the vulnerable passengers overboard so that the ship might float a little higher in the water for those who remain. The party has to have its own identity and its own motive force, and it has rebuild its own constituency. It can be done. I hope they can do it, because we haven’t had an effective Labour party for a long time now, and we really need one.


12 thoughts on “Big Vehicle

  1. A very well posited overview of what Labour needs to do survive Lew. Like you I’m a supporter and not a paid up party person.
    Totally agree with what you propose. Hope someone who counts reads this.

  2. And they have to look like a party that can rule
    This was the change that brought first Kirk and then Miss Clark to the Government benches

    At the moment most floating voters, who could have vote Labour, are on their knees thanking God they did not

  3. Agree with you and comment above. As a working class woman very sympathetic to Labour I too am not a member. I have considered becoming a member but will not join while those men who turned so publicly on their leader straight after the election think they can be better leaders. I found that appalling and indicative of a Labour Party I would not want to be associated with. I think their actions are turning off any future support they may gain – as it is just more of the same.

  4. While I agree with a lot of what you say, I feel that we need to be more empirical with regards to evaluating results rather than making casual observations that conveniently support personal reckons.

    A case in point…

    “Only National and NZ First gained modestly. All other parties all failed to meet the threshold or lost support. The destruction of Internet MANA and the failure of a much-improved Conservative party demonstrates that there is no tolerance for insurgency, and the cuts to Labour and the Greens indicates that any confusion or hinted shenanigans will be brutally punished.”

    The premise of this paragraph is neither an accurate depiction of the result nor a basis upon which to conclude the lessons regarding tolerances.
    I say this because the official results do not evidence such.

    When comparing 2014 against 2011, Nationals share of party vote was down by 4.55% in number of actual votes, as were most others by differing variables; Labour’s & the Green’s each by 15%. If anything that is a judgement on them, not the scapegoat Dotcom, as Mana in the new guise of IMP rose 10%, (though direct correlations are problematic).

    Correct, NZ First did increase over 2011, by 26%, but so did the conservatives at a standout 46%.

    A similar story is borne out by the Te Tai Tokerau electorate result.

    Almost all major parties decreased their Party vote, including Labour (-5%) despite the candidate’s success (a nationwide trend).

    Among exceptions were the Greens (7%) and more significantly NZ First (44%); among candidate votes the Maori Party lost more than Hone, over 2011’s result. It’s hard to accurately tell but it seems previous MP and NZF voters may have played a more significant electorate role than given credit for and the later became a bolt hole for disaffected Mana list voters (maybe).

    Internet MP dropped the most significantly but made up for that in the nationwide vote, which as a party vote strategy worked. However, when it came to anchoring that to a ‘Coat Tails’ electorate, perhaps the inverse is true.

    Regardless, my only question is was that due to accepting opponent’s representations of negative outcomes with consequential reflexive distancing and therefore failure to properly sell Dotcom to his electorate in terms of voter understanding of mutual self interest.

    I think this indicates that Labour’s candidate selection and electorate based focus is what cost Hone his seat, not the persona non grata of Dotcom.

    Either way, based on the same nationwide vote count, a different result wouldn’t have materially affected the left-right proportions in the House. But, in terms of public perception, it’s may have brought about the demise of a potential ally, or enemy, without any significant gain to itself; though it did inadvertently benefit Winston.

    That, I think, is at the core of Labour’s failings; poor vision and reflexive self defence; contrast that with the Nat’s and Epsom.

    Therefore I regard the proposition that the result demonstrates a public intolerance for ‘insurgency and shenanigans’ to be founded on a subjective belief, not any empirical proof. And, to conclude that the doubling of the Conservatives vote, against the tide of general decrease, constitutes a negative judgement upon them just seems counter factual.

    To conclude that the increase in both NZ First’s and the Conservatives vote indicate opposite judgements isn’t rigorous as it misidentify as public intolerance what are merely technically outcomes of the MMP electoral systems distribution of seats on party presence in Parliament.

    On any similar evaluation all minor parties prior to achieving the threshold are being admonished, until the point at which they make it, when presumably the narrative then turns positive despite the rise being constant.

    Inversely, the fact of ACT and United Futures return to Parliament despite their increasingly dismal voter returns, due to a technical qualification, evidences tolerance of style and Coat Tailing respectively; just one that is wholly inconsistent with the number of representations made to the MMP electoral review commission.

    Not to mention what success says about tolerances for Winston’s campaign style.

    Nor, should we blindly adhere to the notion of Labour as the only way forward for ‘the left’.

    Maybe its unique days are past it just as those of the Liberal and Reform parties before them.

    Let’s not misconstrue a natural transition, due to nostalgia and fear of change. With Labour the first questions should be, why preserve it and to what purpose?

    Is its continued existence a means to something, or just an end in itself; one with purpose, the other just an artifice?

    Nor do I see National’s ‘overwhelming result’ as at all a hallmark. It simply got a smaller vote that translates into a marginally increased portion of a shrinking pie.

    A ¾ percent increase in qualifying party share of MMP seat allocation doesn’t warrant the effusive hyperbole.

    There was no mass grass roots turn out in its favour, no swing and it made a nett loss of one in electorate seats.

    Whatever is happening with the ‘left’ and ‘alternative’ vote it isn’t going to National.

  5. Thanks all.

    Cat Weasel, this is an interesting way to frame the results but I think it misses two crucial points. First, only votes that are cast are counted; and second, votes under the threshold are irrelevant in the final analysis.

    All polling had the Conservatives within touching distance of the threshold; had there been any sort of reservoir of latent support for them, it would have rallied. The onlu meaningful conclusion is that there just aren’t 5% of people willing to chance a new small vehicle.

    Internet MANA, as I have previously argued here, should have polled north of 5% based purely on their per-vote spend compared to previous parties’s spending and success. But they collapsed. Again, no latent reservoir of support. And Labour and the Greens were punished by even the prospect of their being in Parliament. The fact that other coalesced against Hone Harawira is not a counter-argument to this claim — it is evidence to support it. They saw the risk, and a few days before the election, they acted to try to limit it.

    As for ACT and UF — I think people were prepared to stomach the coat-tailing on the strength of their faith in National, but only to the very minimum degree possible. Neither party was seen to deserve a list MP.

    The latter third of your comment is strange. Labour might be dead, but National aren’t really doing anything special? So who’s going to replace Labour, then, the Greens? And as for National, I think improving their party vote for a third consecutive election, from an already near-record high is nothing to be sniffed at.


  6. I agree with your view that Labour needs decent data on New Zealanders’ views, although I remain unconvinced about their willingness to listen to it.
    When John Key shrugs and says, essentially, “I don’t give a shit and neither do most New Zealanders” he has the polling data which tells him that most New Zealanders don’t give a shit. Labour seem to rely on what they believe New Zealanders should think. That would be fine if they had a charismatic leader who was willing to put in the time to change the cultural narrative but they don’t.
    The fundamental problem they have is that regular folk simply see them as either a champion of trivial late 80s PC issues or as a more boring version of National.
    Running the National Lite strategy would be fine if they had a leader who was able to be more charismatic than John Key, which they don’t and current media reports, sadly, indicate that they don’t have anyone like that to choose from.
    Compounding this is the fact that the wider party seems to be content to select electorate candidates like Mallard from the class of 84 year after year, rather than foster young charismatic talent to enter the ranks.
    Labour failed to do a clean out and to invest in its future in 1990 and we’re seeing the logical conclusion to that.
    Labour need polling data on those who didn’t vote, since that is where they really lost the last 2 elections. Why didn’t those people vote? What are their issues that are not being represented by the current political system? What is those folks vision for New Zealand? The answer to these questions are the keys to Labour’s future.
    All that said, I’m not confident that proper polling data will make any difference to Labour’s woes. I suspect that the problem is not so much that they’re not capable of getting the data but that they simply don’t want to know. They seem to be running on the logic of ‘this strategy should work..therefore it does work’ and no amount of losing elections, bloodletting, soul searching or polling data will convince them otherwise.

  7. National was in the same position that Labour is in now in 2002. Six years later it became the goverment.

    How did it do that? Can Labour do the same? Are tere any other options?

    Labour for a party, as the OP points out, that has a debt to non white males for still voting for it, seems singulary unwilling to step aside and let those groups have a shot at running the party. I only see white guys in suits making plays for the leader role.

    As for big or small style narratives which guide a party. Can the OP artiulate the Big picture for National beyond “steady as she goes” or Neo-liberal rhetoric?

  8. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my post. It’s appreciated.

    However I think I’ve already addressed some of the points you raised and will attempt a response to the others.

    “…misses two crucial points. First, only votes that are cast are counted; and second, votes under the threshold are irrelevant in the final analysis.”

    The first point is an excellent one, just not one relevant to my particular post since I reviewed only actual votes cast, making no mention of the non-vote.

    The election commission data provides no information about those, especially whether or not they would have voted any differently.

    All we know presently is that they are disconnected from the process, and can only provide anecdotal evidence and personal reckons on whether it’s due to disaffection, disinclination or even acquiescence.

    That certainly would be a potential area for the left to focus on, perhaps agitating for reform of the voting process e.g. online voting. Though it would be somewhat problematic, since if it were to be perceived by the incumbent parties that benefit from the current system as having potential negative vote outcomes for them, then I suspect their enthusiasm for such would dwindle as rapidly as did that of Judith Collins for reform of the MMP Coat Tailing provisions.

    Your second point I obviously disagree with. I don’t regard them as irrelevant to the analysis for reasons already stated and those below.

    Saying those votes are irrelevant is not an empirical but a subjective evaluation of analysis, for me the entire data set is relevant to understanding the dynamics of the whole.

    Vote exclusion has a measurable effect on the remaining distribution of seats, in this instance 6.19% (130,149) of counted votes had to be first excluded before seat allocations in the House could be calculated e.g. elevating Nat’s share from 48.5% of actual party vote to a 51.23% share of the remainder that then translates into 50.41% of the seat allocation.

    That is a relevant effect.

    This is what I meant by the technical effect.

    If the threshold had been lowered to 4% then ACT would be absent from the House and the Conservatives most probably be in coalition with National; with the postmortems and media speculation veering off on a different track accordingly.

    The next objection, regarding the Conservatives, is a counter factual observation, the nature of which I think I addressed prior. Suffice it to say, I think the fact that they almost doubled their support does seem to indicate a ‘reservoir of latent support for them that rallied’.

    The fact that the pollster’s predictive measure was made inaccurate by the actual result makes their measure irrelevant, not the inverse.

    The following on point regarding IMP seems to be saying that an expectation frustrated is a proof of something other than just frustrated expectations, though I’d dispute whose.

    The two parties’ symbiotic alliance was forged, as publicly stated, in expectation of not making the threshold of 5% but of leveraging of the coat tailing provision.

    It was always going to be a 50/50 prospect, reliant as it was on Hone retaining his seat against Kelvin Davis. He stood the same chance either way, hence his punt.

    His electorate support had been diminishing ever since he left the MP and Labour was always going to attempt to reclaim it.

    IMP was a first time up venture and if you dovetail its nationwide party vote with that of Mana in 2011, it increased against the trend, as I said above.

    That is a measure of support.

    To say its vote collapsed because it should’ve been much more is circular reasoning, as the conclusion both derives support from, and provides it to, the proposition, that in turn relies on an unproven, i.e. the dollars equals votes determinative, that curiously remains true even when contradicted by outcome.

    “And Labour and the Greens were punished by even the prospect of their being in Parliament.”

    I remain unconvinced of this for reasons already stated and those below.

    Because it’s hard to disprove absent proof, I’d ask those that advance any notion to provided not only correlative anecdote but demonstrate causation, which can then measured.

    Was this really the Anti Dotcom election? And, if so, why didn’t the reactive vote go to the object of DC’s attentions, and how do we account for Labour’s abysmal showing prior to the emergence of the Dotcom effect?

    Surely the continuation of a trend should be given the greater weight?

    I’m sorry; I just don’t see empirical evidence for this ‘scapegoating’ effect. The evidence seems to exist only in the assertion of it, both by opponents and those seeking to excuse their own deficiencies.

    The reasons given for coalescence against Hone could be taken at face value, as corroborative, but only if one ignores the self interest of the parties that did so.

    Did they really exorcise the beast motivated by a real need to expunge opposition critique or was it just cover for political expediency?

    Why bother to coalesce in order to neutralise an opponent that you’re already convinced is alienating its own vote?

    Is it the more likely that they realised the challenge it laid down in terms of being able to capture media attention and possible threat to, or opportunities for, vote share and sought only to tactically counter or exploit that.

    Labour has been playing a much longer game in recovery of the Maori electorates lost to it’s 2004 F&SB debacle.

    In that endeavour it has been greatly assisted by the MP’s relationship with National, and it’s only possible to understand the significance of both the MP’s and Hone’s demise against that backdrop.

    That Labour may be passing and that the Nat’s aren’t anything special was my point, and, obviously, I indeed think that National improving their party share in the House by only .75% ‘is to be sniffed at’.

    Who Labour may merge with or be succeeded by is a relevant question but I think why the more pertinent one.

    I can only submit personal reckons on what ‘the left’ or Labour might do.

    They could attempt a herculean self renaissance or merge with the Greens to reclaim the past and attempt a broad tent party akin to that of National, or, alternatively initiate a hostile takeover of the left vote, even NZF’s.

    The former involves self realisation and mutual cooperation, the later a mutually disastrous competition.

    The Greens own recent history with Labour indicates they’ll be reluctant to sacrifice their own future just in order to rescue Labour from its.

    It’ll need to be a convergence towards something and not just an unseemly competition for a shrinking living space.

    I don’t think it can just be the Labour party with the Greens tacked on for buoyancy.

    They could attempt a Social Democrat party but that in turn raises questions for Labours Raison D’être and the potential orphan of any such relationship, the Union movement.

    It remains to be seen which party, of any wing, benefits the most from either.

    This brings me to a current pet peeve with regards to repetitions of a point without examination of what’s actually being referenced.

    “This is the worst defeat since 1922”, except 1922 wasn’t a defeat but instead a victory for a Labour party on the rise, in a three way FPP contest.

    It’s a statistical relative in search of a dramatic phrasing, not at all correct in its connotations or of any appropriate value to contemporary understanding.

    But the period may provide some lessons.

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  10. Pablo , Trotter unlike you, is trying to pull himself together. He is a chameleonic wage sucker ; a preacher to his readers.
    A chameleonic preacher while you have substance .This will be is a difficult transition to reality for you to make .
    You say Pablo
    Quote “ Parties made up of committed ideologues remain indispensable for a reason.
    As is often pointed out to me, I am not such a person. I have never been a member of a party, nor involved in a campaign, and I have little desire to do either.
    For some people this means I obviously don’t know what I’m talking about; fair enough.
    “ unquote
    Well, in my world Pablo you are the analyst class ,and it does not work. Believe me Pablo the people do not respond to analysis ,either you or
    the crazy preacher trotter, you are just whimsical brother, you are at the 38th parallel and there is only you ; but wait
    Good point here Pablo about the NZ, but also
    Quote “ Assuming it doesn’t annihilate itself utterly in the coming weeks, Labour will be the core of any future left-wing government, but the strategies that served it poorly as a substantial party of opposition will be utterly untenable in its diminished state. Throughout most of the past six years, Labour has been the party opposed to National. They haven’t been a party that clearly stands for anything, that projects the sort of self-belief that National, the Greens, and even NZ First does. “ unquote
    Pablo analysis is always behind ; NZ Nat has now devalued our lives 10 per cent in the last few months.
    Anyone inside the Opposition could alert New Zealanders, Don’t you know, we have Matt Nolan, and David Farrar and Eric Crampton and Paul Scott saying this is quantitative easing, and you are talking about losers, the sick labour party and the 38th parallel.

  11. Paul: The post was written by Lew. Rest assured that he does not have any desire to emulate Mr. Trotter in thought or practice. Interestingly, Lew does reside a bit closer to the 38th parallel S than the 36th parallel S where I live, but we are both of the “South” in any event.

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