Over the weekend David Cunliffe gave a speech to the Young Labour conference. Nobody reported it because ‘doomed leader gives speech to doomed youth’ isn’t much of a story. But someone in the National Party read it and fact checked it so thoroughly they discovered Cunliffe’s claim that his grandfather won a ‘military war medal’ was technically incorrect, and the actual medal awarded was called a ‘British war medal’. This was duly published on WhaleOil and Kiwiblog, and you can just imagine the gallery journalists sitting down at their desks this morning to digest Labour’s new monetary policy, scowls on their faces, when someone in the hallway screamed, ‘Cunliffe made a gaffe about his grand-dad’s war medals!’, followed by a flurry of footsteps leaving behind a row of empty rooms with spinning chairs and copies of charts and tables of figures slowly drifting down to the floor. The story led the Herald web site for most of the day and made the tv news tonight.
Because National’s media management is amazing. Rumour has it that this kind of ‘black ops’ stuff is run by a guy called Jason Ede, who was Don Brash’s press sec back when Brash was party leader in 2004 and 2005. Maybe it wasn’t him, but my point here is that a lot of National’s people have been doing what they do for a long time now, and they’re very, very good at it. By contrast, most of Cunliffe’s senior staffers started working in Parliament this year. If Labour stumbled across some trivial error Key made over war medals they’d put it out in a press release with some dumb quote from a Labour MP, and elite political media commentators would be sneering at Labour for such a clumsy smear. ‘Nice to see Labour focused on the issues that really matter,’ etc.
When people bemoan Labour’s poor performance they insist that Labour need to ‘move to the centre’ or ‘renounce neoliberalism’ or connect with ‘blue collar workers’, or find some other magical combination of words and deeds that will instantly connect them with the public. Those words don’t exist. Labour’s real challenge is much harder: they need to defeat an opponent who is just far more competent and experienced and better resourced than they are.
And yet: I don’t think that’s an impossible task. (Let me qualify that. It’s an impossible task this time around. Short of a miracle nothing Labour can do can win them this election). But National has this awesomely competent and well resourced media team because they don’t have any policy or vision they can put up against Labour’s. They have to release trivial smears to disrupt Labour’s policy launches, because its not as if they have solutions of their own they can throw out there in competition. Their policy achievement for their second term was partial privitisation of the energy companies. That’s their big win, and it was a dismal failure. In aspirational terms their grand vision for New Zealand is . . . what it is now but with different dates to signify the passing of time.
I’m not that impressed with Labour’s monetary policy, but at least they’re looking at problems and coming up with solutions instead of directing all their energies into leaking trivial meaningless shit to WhaleOil and leading the press gallery around by their noses. Eventually that’s going to pay off.