A developed, progressive democracy has a moderate Labour government. They have won a record three general elections in a row, after years of unhappy toil in opposition. The foundation of their success has been a strongly performing economy, with stable prices and low unemployment. The government has done a pretty good job of keeping its income and spending in balance. Consumer debt has been too high over the years but that hasn’t done the government too much political harm. There have been many mistakes and missteps but, all in all, the prime minister and cabinet have seemed pretty competent, especially when you look at their opponents. And, as they have often asked, who wants to have the Tories back; they were such a disaster in the 1990s. For years, the electoral “middle ground” stuck with Labour.
Stay with me . . .
In the last couple of years, however, that’s all changed. The good times are over, prices are going up, the housing market has stalled. People are feeling the pinch, worried about their finances. The PM isn’t so popular now and is regularly savaged by the media. After all these years, ministers are looking tired and becoming accident-prone. As for the Tories, they have at last found an attractive, moderate-looking leader; a new kid in town, untainted by their past failures. To help re-brand his party, the Tory leader regularly makes forays into unfamiliar issue territory and ditches unpopular or risky policies. And he is from a younger generation than the Labour PM. To many voters, he looks “fresh” but safe. The conservatives are streets ahead in the polls. A fourth Labour term looks like a big ask.
Sound familiar? Well, the country is New Zealand, the Labour prime minister is Helen Clark and the National (Tory) leader is John Key. But the parallels with the UK are clear.
Facing very similar challenges as they try to take their respective parties back into power, David Cameron and John Key are telling people very similar stories.
Let's look at it terms of the steps for storytelling set out by Stephen Denning. Both have captured the public’s attention. Cameron uses “liberal conservative” rhetoric and campaigns on un-Tory issues like the NHS, climate change and worsening social inequality. Key started out by attacking the Clark government over the alleged level of poverty in New Zealand. He has shifted ground on some policies – such as on defence – to inoculate himself against Labour attacks.
Both Cameron and Key make the case for change, charging their Labour opponents with being past it, out of touch and failing to use the good times to make economic improvements and provide for the bad times. Both still push traditional Tory issues, especially crime and policing but they use softer, subtler language than their predecessors. Both talk vaguely about strengthening families and society and doing more on the environment. Above all, both offer voters a fresh start but without big, threatening policy shocks.
Both Key and Cameron face the same effort at a counter-story from their main opponents. Gordon Brown keeps calling Cameron a “shallow salesman”; Clark depicts John Key as a lightweight, out of his depth. She and her colleagues regularly mock his policy missteps, of which there have been several. He is a novice in foreign affairs. UK Labour and Lib Dem politicians should watch to see if this works on Key.
The two Labour PMs could be on to something. Voters in both countries may want the government out, but they are less sure about the main alternative. Last week’s Politics Home survey found that Cameron is seen as more “fake” than Gordon Brown – a rare crumb of comfort for the PM. Since the local elections, much of the commentariat has been on to David Cameron to provide a clearer vision of where he would take the country. Cameron says he is part of the progressive tradition in UK politics. But we have yet to hear specific plans to enhance social mobility.
The next step for both Tory leaders is to back it all up with what Denning calls “rational arguments”. I think that means that they need coherent, credible, interesting policies, framed in ways that the public can relate to.
David Cameron might learn a few things from John Key, who seems a little further ahead on the policy front. But then he has just a few months to go till the New Zealand election, while David Cameron still has two years to close the deal. Just as the genesis of Tony Blair’s New Labour can be traced back to the way both Australia’s Bob Hawke and New Zealand’s David Lange combined hard heads and soft hearts in the 1980s.
John Key has weighed in to what one NZ columnist calls “the debate on how to turn the country's two-stroke powered broadband system into a V8”. (See his speech here). Later in the year, he promises a spectacular research, science & technology policy. As the respected NZ political commentator Colin James explained:
“It's all about who is the future. John Key reckons he is and that fast broadband to every living room is a powerful symbol -- and, moreover, that he knows about these things better than Helen Clark because he is younger.
“The electoral strategy behind the broadband big bang is to draw a picture of Key in window-shopping voters' minds as an action Prime Minister of the future and contrast that with older Helen Clark, a 1980s minister and [PM] for nine years.”
James acknowledged that this is not entirely fair to the Clark government, who have implemented a lot of policies for innovation and have plans for more.
But the Clark government are at a disadvantage here, not least because they are widely perceived - also unfairly - as being tired and out of ideas. The NZ Labour economic narrative is that they are a prudent and fair manager of prosperity and the Nats were not in the 1990s. But that seems old hat now and, as Jafapete suggests, Kiwi voters may now have banked fairness and prudence after enjoying years of both. Likewise, I think that prudent fiscal management is the least that British voters expect. The test is who can deliver it, who are better managers. Otherwise, the political contest over the economy seems to be about who will secure the economic future.
Cameron is dabbling with his own economic big picture, speaking loftily about “the post-bureaucratic era” at last year’s Google Zeitgeist conference and, earlier this month, unveiling plans to work with Rolls-Royce on policies to revitalise the manufacturing sector. I suspect that some “securing the future”-type rhetoric isn’t far off. But he’ll need to come up with some specifics too.
It would be great if Nick Clegg could beat Cameron to this message and own it. In so doing, he could play to some Liberal Democrat strengths. For instance, there can be no secure economic future unless the UK has an effective strategy to tackle climate change and, with the EU, to lead developed and fast-developing countries to do the same. Cameron seems to have no idea whatsoever about he would work with our European partners. Nick Clegg used to do it for a living and the Lib Dems should be more credible than the Tories on EU relations. Then there are the big opportunities offered by the new clean and energy-saving technologies to create new jobs and wealth whilst also saving the planet. The Lib Dems could make more of these, to carve out a distinctive niche and, yes, tell a story.
How about it?
[thanks to Jafapete for his helpful suggestions on this posting]