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Will this be a Tweedledum and Tweedledee election? As Labour goes into its election year Congress meeting in Wellington this weekend, it is having increasing problems projecting itself as offering a genuinely different programme to the current National Government. The polling doldrums that Labour finds itself in are a reflection of this failure to inspire potential voters. In this regard, there are three must-read analyses suggesting the party is not up to the task of providing a necessary alternative electoral option. Duncan Garner says that Labour has become ‘a timid imitation of National’ – see: Labour’s tax proposals are actually timid. Chris Trotter sees Labour’s new economic policy as disastrously similar to National’s, lacking imagination or any real leftwing direction – see: Cramped and Conventional: Labour’s Alternative Budget fails to inspire. And Tim Watkin says that Labour’s economic policy is blatantly ‘National-lite’ – see: Labour's actions drowning out its words. So in this crucial policy area of economics, Labour’s troubles are epitomised, giving potential voters no great reason to offer up their party vote.
Education – a ticket out of the doldrums for Labour?
Labour is obviously searching around for another policy area that can provide it with a clearer differentiation from the Government. Hence this week – and over the next few days of Labour’s Congress – we’re seeing some more heavy-duty policy announcements about education. But even in this arena, Labour appears to be following National’s lead, as the Government has already decided to focus on education as one of its campaign issues.
Colin James writes that Labour desperately needs ‘a compelling set of “progressive” policies which resonate widely’, and he believes that education has a great potential to provide this – see: Labour’s big (self-)education job ahead. James points to Chris Hipkins’ progressive role in bringing ‘a new energy to an old portfolio’, pointing out that he has ‘assembled one of the party’s most extensive policy rewrites. It reflects his research before coming into Parliament and some wide-ranging consultation since’.
A focus on ‘technology in schools’ can be expected in the Labour announcements over the weekend. This is best covered by Vernon Small today in Labour's school policy due. He forecasts ‘two major education announcements, expected to include a plan to provide iPads or laptops to school students’. He points out that this is an update of Labour’s 2011 policy, and it is likely to shift from being targeted towards low-decile schools, becoming universal instead. More money for provision of digital technology in students’ homes might also come from cancelling the Government’s $359m plan for specialist teachers and principals.
Labour’s policy on student fees in primary and secondary schools has long been problematic, but a new announcement clarifies and possibly solves the problems – see Jo Moir’s $50m lolly dangled by Labour. There’s already been a lot of positive response to the policy – see, for example, Duncan Garner’s Labour’s school donations policy – what’s the bad bit? He is fully supportive and thinks it will resonate well with parents. Much less impressed is the Herald, which says that ‘Only ideological zealots are likely to be impressed’ – see the editorial, Labour policy on donations misses target.
There will continue to be questions about whether the $50m funded to replace the fees is really adequate or not. Also, when it comes to Labour’s new funding for technology in schools, it will be worth noting the level of actual new money involved. To properly resource schools for digital learning can be very expensive. For example, in Jo Moir’s article above, the principal of Wellington Girls' College complains that currently ‘operational funding was about $40,000 a year for IT expenses, but realistically the college spent about $750,000’. See also, Tim Watkin’s earlier advocacy of the free school fees policy in Memo to Labour: What about free education?
Economics and tax
Labour’s Alternative Budget announced last week seems to have been misnamed, as it had very little that was actually ‘alternative’ about it. The main feature of the budget was the party’s shift to the right on income tax – see Vernon Small’s Labour softens its tax stance. As Hamish Rutherford commented, what was proposed was ‘hardly the "true red" government that David Cunliffe promised when he campaigned to be leader’ – see: No shocks in Labour tax tweak.
Duncan Garner was amazed at how moderate Labour had become, saying that the tax policy is ‘timid and tame - hardly a great socialist tax package’. Furthermore, ‘They’re just doing the bare minimum so they can say they’re different to National. This hardly targets the rich, not in any meaningful way’ – see: Labour’s tax proposals are actually timid. Garner also pointed out that Labour wasn’t even providing ‘tax relief to those on low incomes by extending the tax-free threshold’.
Chris Trotter was obviously even more furious in his must-read blog post, Cramped and Conventional: Labour’s Alternative Budget fails to inspire. He said the new policy was ‘emblematic of everything that has gone awry with Cunliffe’s leadership. Elected on the promise of restoring the Labour Party to its core, democratic socialist, values (and being rewarded with a 37 percent poll rating by an electorate hungry for political substance) Cunliffe has failed utterly to build on the ideological momentum of his historic victory’.
For more indication of how much Labour has shifted towards a National-lite approach on economics, see Brian Fallow’s Tax initiative sets Labour apart. He points out the levels of tax and spend between the two main parties are nearly identical now: ‘Labour would have a slightly higher tax track but the key word there is "slightly". Over the three years to 2017/18 the net effect of its tax changes would be to raise the forecast tax track by 0.5 per cent, an average of $362 million a year on top of the average $74.1 billion a year projected in Budget 2014’. He also reports David Parker as admitting that some of Labour’s economic projects might have to be ‘trimmed’ depending on post-election coalition negotiations.
Even Labour’s own blogging spindoctor Rob Salmond expresses his disquiet about Labour’s jettisoning of a more progressive tax regime and the promise of tax cuts instead – see: Labour's fiscal plan: B+. And this shift to the right is also condemned by blogger No Right Turn – see: A less progressive Labour.
But not all is entirely bland in Labour’s economic policy. Its capital gains tax – although a relatively mild version of the policy – is getting more public support. Adam Bennett reports that about 41% of voters are ‘either strongly or moderately in favour of the tax. That's up from just under 38 per cent in July 2011 and more than 10 percentage points higher than the number of respondents who said they would vote Labour in September’ – see: Labour's gains tax becomes a winner.
Is Labour focused on ‘the things that matter’?
Much of Labour’s campaign focus this year has been on throwing mud rather than projecting a positive alternative to National. Hence, one of the lessons of the tawdry Liu scandal has been that Labour has been damaged by this approach. And, of course, more continues to come out on this issue that is embarrassing for Labour – see Jared Savage’s Liu case: MP intervened three times. And for some further questions about this, see David Farrar’s Liu granted residency by O’Connor the day before the 2005 election.
Labour is now heavily pushing the slogan that it is ‘focused on the things that matter’ but it’s unclear that it really is. Even its own supporters are challenging this idea. See, for example, Porirua Mayor Nick Leggett’s Labour's sins of omission.
One Labour-leaning voter blogs also about her grievance, saying that the party’s bigger problem ‘is Labour’s failure to articulate an alternative vision for New Zealand’s economy and society. No trucks in the fast lane and compulsory KiwiSaver have not only failed to ignite our imaginations, but at least one of these will entrench and deepen the inequalities that Labour claims to be concerned about’ – see: Why Labour will lose this election, why they deserve to, and why the rest of us are screwed.
Critics have also been stunned to see Labour focusing on moa this week. Blogger No Right Turn says ‘If this is their idea of "talking about the things that matter", then it’s no wonder they're losing…. If you don't want the media to stop focusing on this sort of thing, you should stop offering it to them on a silver platter’ – see: "Talking about the things that matter".
Elaborating on this today, Mike Hosking outlines the extent to which Trevor Mallard ran with this non-issue this week, and points to some other issues Labour is pushing that might not ‘matter’ – see: Labour pains – Why it's failing.
So what other ‘matters’ can Labour campaign upon that might give it an electoral boost? The party has gone hard against immigration in recent month, but is now backtracking. For possible reasons for Labour’s recent shift, see Andrea Vance’s two items, Immigration fails to raise voter anger, and Immi-what? Hysteria over immigration falls flat.
Other ethnicity-based issues could be considered. Already David Cunliffe has announced that ‘the party got it wrong for Maori with the Foreshore and Seabed Act a decade ago’ and if elected could make a formal apology – see Radio NZ’s Foreshore and Seabed apology possible. Now there are calls for more substance on this – see Radio NZ: Cunliffe's apology not enough – lawyer.
What’s happened to ‘Red’ David Cunliffe?
David Cunliffe has spent the week doing photo opportunities in a socialist-red scarf – but it’s becoming more and more apparent that Cunliffe is now less keen on such ideologies. This shift is discussed in Jane Clifton’s Listener column this week: A bridge not far enough (paywalled), which is worth quoting at length: ‘Cunliffe seems to have lost the ability, or perhaps the confidence, to deliver on his early rhetoric, but doubts he has a party mandate either for the milder agenda he is now marketing. In the perverse reward system politics often operates, the party’s overall policy is so nuanced and it’s attracting little attention. There wasn’t much to debate in last week’s tranche, which was almost meticulously non-horse-frightening. A low-impact capital gains tax and a slight upwards nudge for the top tax rate are not going to get hearts racing in either anger or excitement. That’s no bad thing. But it’s confusing for voters who remember the red-flag rhetoric of Cunliffe’s election as leader last year. The finance policy is as big an admission as we’ll get – for no one in Labour would dare say it out loud – that the major reason the party is not firing is that a large number of voters are content with the way things are and threatening the status quo is not going to win them over’.
So what’s happened to the bolder and redder Labour leader? Chris Trotter attempts to answer this in the column, Cramped and Conventional: Labour’s Alternative Budget fails to inspire. Trotter says that Cunliffe’d boldness has been the victim of the desire to unite the Labour caucus: ‘It is now clear than in the months following his win Cunliffe spent most of his time attempting to pacify his caucus colleagues. Rather than using the inevitability of constructing a left-wing coalition government to bring obstructive Cabinet aspirants to heel, the new leader attempted to construct some form of policy consensus. Parker’s Alternative Budget is proof of just how successful his caucus colleagues have been in forcing Cunliffe to abandon his democratic socialist promises. The brutal fact of the matter is that Labour will go into the 2014 election with an economic policy package considerably to the right of its 2011 manifesto. In trying to unite his caucus “team”, Cunliffe has abandoned the very principles that had caused the Labour Left to embrace him as their champion’.
Similarly, in the NBR today, Matthew Hooton suggests that Labour has an ‘identity crisis’, not being sure whether it’s left or centre-left. He writes that ‘Mr Cunliffe’s rhetoric and his close ties to thestandard.org.nz appear to suggest he is from the far left. On the other hand, his policy announcements have been mild, not even matching the boldness of David Shearer’s NZ Power and KiwiBuild initiatives. A 36% top tax rate and a capital gains tax excluding unrealised gains and the family home are hardly Venezuelan’. In the end, Labour’s best chances of electoral success will probably come when it resolves this ‘identity crisis’ and boldly states how it might be truly different to the status quo.