Homer: I always wondered if there was a god. And now I know there is. And it’s me.
Marge: You’re not a god, Homer.
Lisa: Remember Dad, all glory is fleeting.
Lisa: Beware the Ides of March.
-The Simpsons, Homer the Great.
In October 2003, as a member of Young Labour I attended the annual Labour Conference in Christchurch. The mood was full of jubilation: an incumbent government elected against a National Party who achieved 21% of the vote, major social reforms passed, and glee at the fortunes of Bill English featuring an over-saturation of “Kill Bill” jokes and condescension about the idea of Don Brash’s likely ascension to the National Party leadership. Four months later, Don Brash was level pegging or besting Labour at the polls and with Labour’s substandard response to the Orewa Speech as a final nail in the coffin, I stopped attending Labour meetings.
The dominant narrative of the New Zealand public, media, and political punditry is that of an inevitable National Party win. While not really direct from the party itself, this is more of a media-punditry narrative based mainly on comparative leadership.
National is aided by the most popular political leader who is personally likable, has excellent political instinct, is an excellent debater both on television and quick witted in the house, and knows how to manage caucus and employs good communications staff. Moreover, he’s been able to shepherd through controversial and often unpopular policies such as partial asset sales, banning offshore protests at deep sea drilling, overseeing cuts of thousands of public sector jobs, and maintaining unemployment rates above 6% and often above 7%. As a politician, he is clearly the equal to Helen Clark. Comparatively, media has concluded already that David Cunliffe has bad personal judgement, is corrupt, and gaffe prone – all over one issue.
This narrative is effectively supported by the efforts of allies, especially popular bloggers in their ability to gain traction in the media. Cameron Slater and David Farrar, whether purposefully or by accident, provide a highly effective “good cop, bad cop” routine: the tribal attack dog who relishes the fight against left wing corruption and knows how to create news, and the principled classical liberal insider who focuses on alleged Labour-Greens illogic and hypocrisy and Government “good news”. Both rooted in the National Party so they know networks and inside gossip. Slater especially has been a source of leaks from Labour and National sources, and Farrar especially appears to have good relationships with journalists and the Press Gallery. Labour and the left do not yet have any equivalents as capable, strategic, or well placed.
However, certainly there exists the likelihood for National Party overconfidence and complacency. National’s success relies on the continuation of the narrative of inevitability, the over-reliance on the leadership of John Key, and an ineffective opposition. If two or all of these change, the political dynamics change.
Helen Clark paid the price for the overconfidence of media narrative and expectations in the 2002 general elections. Despite consistently polling above 50%, this fell to the low 40s due to a combination of factors including the late tarnishing of her image due to Corngate. Similarly during the 2011 general elections, despite polling consistently over 50%, National gained 47% of the party vote. Similarly, John Key’s actions over the ‘Teapot Tapes’ distracted from the election. Judith Collins’ conflict of interest over Ovida could be one of a number of contentious conflicts of interest.
While John Key rates consistently high for preferred Prime Minister, it’s entirely possible for a less popular leader to provide a challenge. Key has relied on an ineffective opposition led by a series of ineffective leaders, which might change. Labour had five years led by the ineffective Phil Goff and David Shearer in which is was unable to develop a coherent post-Helen policy narrative to appeal and mobilise both party base and appeal to practical public needs, captive to internal politics that prevented authentic rejuvenation, and divided between pro-Cunliffe and the so-called Anyone But Cunliffe faction of the Labour old guard and allies. Cunliffe has been only in the job for four months and failed to make headway – so far. As a politician, the Nation interview last Saturday clearly showed Cunliffe as an improving communicator who mastered refined talking points and who’s obviously learned from the John Key school of talking over journalists. If Cunliffe can learn to best Paddy like Key bested Campbell, he’ll be a good politician. In that case, debates probably won’t be a major problem.
To address a series of gaffes and an arguably ineffective opposition, there’s signs that Cunliffe is attempting to run a tighter ship. Hiring Matt McCarten as Chief of Staff clearly indicates the intention of uniting party organisation, grassroots members, union allies, and caucus as a unified force. Perhaps McCarten is an indication that Cunliffe will either placate rivals with plum jobs like Clark did with Goff and Cullen or punish dissenters with lower list placings. Key and National have not faced an effective opposition, but this changes if Cunliffe and Labour can improve leadership, network, and cohesiveness.
A tighter ship then makes it possible for Cunliffe to launch coherent policies to potentially undermine Key’s popularity. Once Don Brash ascended the National Party leadership in 2003, despite initial guffaws from the left he and his staffers proved adept at fashioning an alternative narrative around Maori and affirmative action, the economy, and welfare to almost win the election in 2005. Brash never obtained the personal popularity levels of Clark, the policy and narrative were politically appealing. This was similar to Margaret Thatcher in the UK general election in 1979, who won despite being 19 points behind Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in the final preferred PM opinion poll. Though the heralded State of the Nation speech’s Best Start policy of $60 per week for parents of newborns wasn’t a game changer, Labour still has the chance to announce more substantive left-leaning policies, especially on employment, regional development, housing, education, and child poverty that will make a noticeable difference in peoples’ lives. Could be announcing the creation of specialist colleges and polytechs in regional cities, could be Medicare funding for health like in Australia. If it can run a convincing campaign on policy alone, it could provide the challenge to National that is not that far ahead in the polls and previously trailing earlier under Cunliffe’s leadership.
As a politics graduate, I generally don’t make long-term predictions. I’m reluctant to make short term ones. Getting drunk on 2005 election night at the Otago Uni Clubs and Socs building and conceding loudly and despondently at 9:30pm taught me that. The media has nothing seriously invested in these narratives and can change course in order to justify events within a new narrative. Same with pundits. Politicians have everything to lose through overconfidence. If these dynamics change, the election becomes competitive again. It was always going to be competitive, that’s why it’s called an election.