The opposition always said it was “time for a change”. According to legend, Jo Grimond, leader of the British Liberal Party from 1956 to 1967, once said there were really only three campaign themes.The government always replied, “give us more time”. The third party was left inviting voters to cast “a plague on both your houses” – a protest vote.
Sure enough, in the run up to New Zealand’s general election, to be held this Saturday, National, the lead party in the governing centre-right coalition, has used a “more of the same” narrative, in a soft-focus, reassuring kind of campaign.
But Grimond led his party a generation ago, in an era of two party politics, under first past the post voting. New Zealand in 2011 is political light years away from his political world. One basic difference: my home country uses the mixed member proportional (MMP) voting system. The opposition Labour Party, who started the campaign as much as 20 points behind in the opinion polls, have defied Grimond’s maxim. Their campaign has told many stories, but none of them is really about change.
Take their widely praised campaign opening broadcast. The 20 minute documentary style video re-told the party’s myths, using black and white archive footage to highlight Labour’s beginnings on the West Coast and the achievements of the first Labour government. Free milk in schools, free healthcare, thousands of state home . . . it was all there. (Hey, I was raised on these stories!) The grainy images were a series of cues designed to spark myths (stories) in the minds of the audience. The video was a political version what Annette Simmons calls “values in action” stories. A record is so much powerful than rhetoric.
Labour politicians set out to embody the party’s narrative about itself. Party leader Phil Goff and his 87 year old father Bruce tell the story of how, after the death of Goff's grandfather, a boost in the widow's pension helped the family to survive.
Other Labour MPs told personal, “who I am” stories. Damien O’Connor is well anchored in the West Coast Labour tradition. Jacinda Ardern took us on a drive through her home town of Murupara, a shadow of its former self after the big economic gales of the 1980s and 1990s.(I wonder if someone in Labour’s advertising agency has watched John Major’s famous 1992 drive through Brixton?) And Stuart Nash is the grandson of former Labour prime minister and icon Sir Walter Nash.
But there were no “vision” stories. The video canvassed Labour's plans for a capital gains tax, tax free first $5000 of income, and retaining state owned assets, but on the whole it was policy light.
This is, after all, a party that does not seriously expect to win the election. Labour has been in the polling doldrums since they lost office in 2008. Earlier this week, Roy Morgan found that 49.5% of voters said that New Zealand was heading in the right direction and 31% said it’s heading in the wrong direction.
Even if there is little appetite for change, Labour wants to be a credible contender in 2014. This time, the best way to avoid a wipeout is to shore up and bring out the core vote. Hence the invocation of the party’s myths and legends.
Labour has plenty of policies. They have promised to raise the pension age and to make KiwiSaver compulsory. These are bold and, in many ways, risky stances, but then the party had nothing to lose. And remember, “attracting attention” is the first of Stephen Denning’s key steps for inspiring action.
Labour has not been able to move on to Denning’s next two steps – “stimulate desire for change” and “back it up it with reasons”. Before making the case for the Labour alternative, they needed to tell voters why the National-led government should be sent packing after just one term. The ad attacking National’s economic record contain some killer stats – but they are lists, not stories, and are less memorable as a result. (For a devastatingly effective “case for change” advert from New Zealand’s political history, click here.) Moreover, the tea tape argument – what did National Party PM John Key really say, and why wouldn’t he release the tape – dominated the penultimate weak of the campaign and deprived Labour of media oxygen.
In the final week, with its poll ratings hardly moving, Labour has gone back to its on-going theme – “stop asset sales” - and tried to turn the election into a referendum on National’s unpopular plan to partly privatise four state-owned energy companies and Air New Zealand. That sounds to me like an appeal to cast a protest vote. Labour’s closing broadcast is really another list of policies. And what's with the academic telling everyone how to think?
I'll finish with a brief comment about the Greens, the third party. At the general elections since 1999, between six and nine Green Party MPs have been returned, but they have always sat on the opposition benches. This time, however, the Greens seek greater influence in the new parliament, using a smart new campaign pitch that promises "jobs that work for our environment, our economy and our people . . . for a richer New Zealand”. You’ve got it: it's a positive narrative, about change, rather than a "plague on both your houses".