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It was ‘Joe the Plumber’ in the last US presidential elections, and the British Labour Party had ‘Mondeo Man’.
These are the personalised manifestations that political parties often attempt to imbue their political messages with.
New Zealand Labour has (so far): ‘guy sitting at his kitchen table in West Auckland doing his GST return’, ‘Rangitikei truck driver’, and now ‘neighbour of sickness beneficiary painting his roof’. Apart from the obvious need to choose one and give him a more usable handle (Chris Trotter calls him ‘Waitakere Man’), finding an acceptable characterisation of the all-important swinging voter is proving troublesome for Labour.
This mythical voter is usually male, middle aged, straight, has kids, is invariably of European descent, unlikely to be tertiary educated and either self employed or earn a modestly above-average pay packet. While this group has not lost as much economic ground as beneficiaries and the working poor over the last thirty years, their real incomes have still gone backwards or stagnated, and they have increasingly been shut out of many previously universal state benefits – having to fork out for their kids tertiary education for example.
But this group has also lost ground in other ways. Our society used to orbit around this demographic – both at home and in public. Social change over the last forty years has seen everyone else assert their rights and place in the sun: women, gays and Maori in particular. Amongst this group this has caused a level of resentment and anxiety that mainstream parties orientate towards because it is a powerful motivator, and this demographic not only vote, but change their votes from one election to the next. The trick for politicians is to make the right noises, indicating that they understand and share their concerns without actually stating it openly (thereby alienating a huge number of other voters). Hence the ‘dog-whistle’ tag – inaudible to some but the target audience knows exactly what they mean.
David Shearer’s roof painting incarnation broke one of the basic rules of this (quite old and worn) political strategy. The negative attack on beneficiaries was actually audible to all – particularly Labour’s activist base – and as a result it has backfired badly. The neighbour has been forgotten and the focus has gone onto the beneficiary. Scott Yorke has a well-written piece that exemplifies the reaction – see: I'm The Guy Painting His Roof.
Labour activists are being far too precious thinks Claire Trevett, and they should be careful what they wish for if there is another leadership contest –see: Bare-faced cheek imagined in Cunliffe's naked chin. Ignoring or attacking those with loud digital voices on the left is a mistake says Martyn Bradbury – see: If I was running Labour Party strategy. Josie Pagani isn’t listening, instead taking to Facebook to continue the debate, but also openly attacking The Standard – see: Cameron Slater’s Pagani on Dole Bludgers and Roofing. Rob Salmond and Mike Smith continue the debate in a far more constructive way, finding some common ground – see: Gently worn laundry and Strategy and opinion. Salmond takes issue with my categorising of his position yesterday. He points out that the dichotomy of ‘parties as hostages’ versus ‘parties as shapers of opinion’ amounts to extremes on a spectrum. Salmond thinks that it is just too hard for Labour to overcome existing opinion on some issues, such as welfare.
Other important or interesting political items today include:
• The clear message from editorial writers on the MMP review is that the politicians should keep their sticky fingers away and let the Commission get on with the job – see: Philip Temple’s Neutrality of voting system must be retained, today’s Herald editorial Govt probably rueing MMP review pledge, the ODT’s The MMP review and the Nelson Mail’s Hard choices ahead over MMP changes. Blogger Will de Cleene largely agrees but adds his voice to the call for further reducing the threshold – see: Another stab at MMP.
• Land sales are back in the news with the Greens’ proposed legislation seeking to restrict sales. The bill lost by one vote in Parliament, and the Greens came under sustained attack from government parties – see: the NBR’s Banks lays into Green's "xenophobic" bill to restrict land sales to foreigners and Danya Levy’s Greens hit back at 'xenophobic' tag. Mai Chen thinks we have got the balance about right – see: Close to having cake and eating it, but there was an embarrassing admission that enforcement of the rules may need some improvement – see: John Hartevelt’s Investors bought farms without approval.
• Paula Bennett’s privacy breach saga seems to be over but there is still little agreement on who was right or wrong – see Claire Trevett’s No apology from Bennett over leaked income data. Labour needs to look at itself when a minister can so easily break the rules and get away with it says Lew Stoddard in Double impunity.
• Have the Australians cleared the legal path for New Zealand to have plain packaged cigarettes? – see Isaac Davison’s Ministers take heart from Oz tobacco win.
• Nothing to do with me says John Key about the $15 an hour claim by cleaning contractors at Parliament, but their employment agreement guarantees them a raise if Parliamentary Service is willing to pay for it – see Danya Levy’s Parliament's cleaners seek pay rise.
• Laws that name specific individuals or groups always raise many civil liberties and freedom of speech objections. The trick for lawmakers is to choose your targets carefully – terrorists and gangs are a safe bet – see John Hartevelt’s Gang patch ban 'hiding the problem'.
• Finally, even with the modern blurring between bloggers and journalists it is still unusual for reporters actions to be at the centre of the story. John Hartevelt has put himself dead centre in the school league tables debate writes Russell Brown – see: And so it begins.