In the spirit of this Stuff article, that combines several totally contradictory strategies for the new Labour leader (Move to the left! Move to the center!), here is my short take on what Labour should do to win in 2014, based less on my own preferences and more on simple observation of what successful opposition parties have done before:
Have a vision. I know, you already have a vision. A high value knowledge economy. Education. Finland. The problem is that we’ve been hearing this knowledge economy line for a long time, and the National Party has already identified the education sector as a target for reform.You’re not differentiating yourself from the government or critiquing it if you’re promising basically the same thing.
Your vision should be something that defines the government in a negative sense, and yourself in a positive sense, and that ties in with your flagship policy, which you should be signaling the broad details of at least eighteen months out from the election. Example: in 2008 National campaigned on growing the economy, which John Key and Bill English were experts on, and which they claimed Labour had mis-managed. Their policy was tax cuts. Closer to the election they signaled the details (‘North of $50 dollars a week for 90% of New Zealand workers! Wow!’), but from real early on in Key’s leadership everyone knew that he promised better economic leadership than Labour and strong growth through a policy of lower taxes. You should have a similar duel vision. This is what’s wrong with the country. National isn’t fixing it. We will. Here’s how.
Events, dear boy. Events bring down governments – but only if the opposition can wed them to something more meaningful. Currently Labour has no strategy around events – they happen in a vacuum. Nick Smith resigned last week, and that’s ‘bad for the government’ – except it isn’t in any enduring sense because the opposition hasn’t defined a vision of what’s wrong with this government, so they can’t tie events to it in a credible way. In the 1990s the Labour opposition under Helen Clark attacked the Shipley government as being about ‘sleaze and cronyism’ – which was brilliant, since all government is about sleaze and cronyism (Clark promised ‘open accountable government’ as her contrast). So every time some shoddy deal came to light it reinforced to the public that negative vision the opposition presented of the government was valid. Imagine how much worse the Nick Smith/ACC saga would have played out in that environment.
Some pundits claim that Labour shouldn’t be too negative. They’re wrong – you should be almost completely negative, until the election campaign itself rolls around. Then it’s government-in-waiting time. When you’re the opposition, negative is what you’re being paid for – but you do need to offer up that initial, positive vision in contrast, and you marry the negativity to events and ‘the vision thing.’
Explaining is everything: Some pundits love to repeat the phrase that ‘in politics explaining is losing’ – the subtext being that the public are too stupid to understand any complex political or policy issues. But the political science consistently shows that in matters of controversy the public looks to their political leaders (amongst other people) to explain what’s happening and to argue their case. This is something National is really good at – Key especially – and Labour generally doesn’t do at all, which means our window of political debate is constantly being shifted to the right as National wins almost every argument by default (Welfare and education being the obvious examples). The great exception to this phenomena: Capital Gains Tax. The conventional wisdom was that this policy was political suicide, but David Cunliffe went out, made the arguments and won them all. By the time the election came around public support for Capital Gains was roughly double the level of support for the Labour Party. Not explaining is losing.