Labour’s first 100 days

Labour’s ticked-off 100 Day Plan

Labour’s come under some fire as its (drumroll please) First One Hundred Days In Office has ticked over.

[The email from Labour] talked about how it had done what it had promised to do. It used words like “delivered”, “achieved” and “commitment”.

That’s called spin. It has massaged the truth. Massaged its promises. Embellished what has really happened in 100 days.

And that annoys me. Not just from a journalistic point of view, but because this Labour-led Government has promised to be open, honest and transparent.

I struggle with this too. I wanted a new government that would shake things up, kick ass, deliver all the goods. It’s frustrating to see “we’ve started this process” “we’ve initiated this review” “we’re looking into this issue” over and over. Just bloody do it, can’t you?

But I remind myself that it’s a start. There’s a hell of a lot to do, and it has to begin somewhere.

We’re stuck in short-term thinking. Remember how every year in the Budget, National would promise tens of thousands of jobs were just around the corner, or The Glorious Surplus was nearly here, and never mind that those promises had been broken time and again in the past or that inequality kept growing (or that the whole idea of a government budget surplus is a fairy tale)?

The Opposition bought into it too, and focused on the battles of the day over the ongoing struggle. We all mocked National for pushing back its promises to raise the superannuation age or make rivers swimmable (for a given value of swimmable), because we knew they were completely insincere; but I worry we unwittingly reinforced the idea that longterm goals themselves are pointless.

The problem isn’t having a list of things you want to do the minute you get into office. In actual democracies you just can’t do a lot the minute you get into office. Jacinda Ardern doesn’t have the executive power to simply dictate benefit rates or carbon emission targets or overhauling fiscal policy. This is a feature, not a bug.

Lloyd Burr’s right. The “first 100 days” deadline is a charade. It’s not one of Labour’s making. Over time, every politician’s picked it up (from the US, where all bad political ideas seem to originate) as a way of saying “I’m really, really serious about this” – not just “first term” serious, proper serious. And it handily gives journalists something to cover over the dullest period in New Zealand politics: the time between an election and Waitangi Day.

The problem is Labour hasn’t told this story well. It does come across as a little taking-the-piss to declare “we’ve done everything we promised!” when (a) you haven’t, and (b) you wouldn’t have been able to anyway.

The story should be: “we’ve made an amazing start. We’ve kicked off a huge amount of important work, and here’s some concrete things we’ve already achieved (pets for state housing tenants, first year of tertiary education free). We couldn’t do everything we promised, because this is MMP – and the strength of MMP is every party in government gets to contribute to the decision-making process. But look at all this! It’s going to deliver amazing results, and it’s creating the foundations for even more good stuff, because fixing inequality and injustice and making New Zealand the country we all want it to be is a big job.”

Labour has to be laying the groundwork now for the next three years and an even better result in 2020 (and beyond). That means emphasising the strengths of MMP – a range of voices get to be at the table deciding what happens. Emphasising the principles which underpin everything Labour does – making the case that good government means intervening, rebalancing the scales, ensuring everyone has a decent life.

That in turn shows consistency, so everyone who’s stuck on Labour as the scattershot party of disunity begins to see their integrity and reliability; and that relentless positivity, by establishing there’s more to their policies than just reversing the last two or three years’ worth of National Party bullshit: there’s an idea of what New Zealand should be and it’s one that everyone can be part of.

It seems like a lot of strategic importance to place on one mass email and a couple of Facebook graphics, but it’s crucial. If there isn’t one story, one strategy, one plan to build a coherent, powerful narrative about what Labour is doing and why, they risk achieving a lot of good without ever making people see that it’s by design; it’s not just stuff any government could have done.

Will voters understand that this good could only be achieved by a Labour-led government, because Labour is a party that stands for justice, equality and openness? Does that even matter, if the good is achieved anyway?

I guess that depends on whether you want voters to think, “Yes, yes, that’s nice. But I like that Simon Bridges, he looks like someone you’d have a beer with. Did you see him have a go at John Campbell that time? What a rascal!”

Has Labour kept its promise on the TPPA?

There’s a question I haven’t seen answered in the most recent coverage of the abysmally-renamed Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership: how does it line up with the five principles then-Labour leader Andrew Little announced in July 2015?

– Pharmac must be protected
– Corporations cannot successfully sue the Government for regulating in the public interest
– New Zealand maintains the right to restrict sales of farm land and housing to non-resident foreign buyers
– The Treaty of Waitangi must be upheld
– Meaningful gains are made for our farmers in tariff reductions and market access.

(Are we even allowed to know? Wasn’t the TPPA’s secrecy another major sticking point for a lot of people?)

Professor Jane Kelsey suggests that, besides a token attempt to address the issue of investor/state disputes, we’ve achieved none of those points. The best that free trade fanboy Stephen Jacobi can say today is:

“I wouldn’t expect the dairy farmer to be jumping all over the place, but it’s better than it would have been otherwise.”

… which could be interpreted as “meaningful gains are made for our farmers” if one were feeling extremely generous. One is not.

On the Pharmac issue – maybe? Those of us who aren’t Stephen Jacobi are still having to read between the lines here – Stuff reports:

Fully 22 provisions of the original TPP agreement have been suspended, up from 20 frozen in November last year. These provisions include controversial pharmaceutical changes and would only be reactivated after renegotiations and if the United States re-entered the pact.

Does that mean Pharmac is protected … until the US enters the deal? If we sign this and a new President comes along in 2020 and says “Yup, we’re in” do we even get to discuss what happens, or is it gone by lunchtime?

Tens of thousands of people marched against the TPPA, and expected Labour, especially Labour-in-government-with-the-Greens-and-New-Zealand-First, to actually be different to the last lot. But I don’t know if Labour really understood this. If you go back to the July announcement, Labour declared:

Labour will carefully consider the impact of the draft TPP agreement on New Zealand’s interests, and we will not support the TPP unless it protects New Zealand’s sovereignty and is in the best interests of New Zealanders.

… in the last paragraph. The first four words of the announcement, though, are:

Labour supports free trade.

So it has been: at every opportunity, as New Zealanders protested and organised and challenged the very idea that “free trade” is good for all of us, you couldn’t get a statement out of a Labour spokesperson which didn’t begin with, “Well of course Labour has always supported free trade agreements, however.”

Labour has been unable to detach itself from the idea that trade agreements are Good Proper Governance. They’re what you do when you’re in power, and while of course there are some domestic issues to work through like basic human rights and the ongoing legacy of unilaterally self-immolating our manufacturing sector, y’know, Trade Agreements Are Good. They must be, or we wouldn’t keep signing up to them, and those nice men in suits from the big banks and think-tanks wouldn’t keep saying how great they are.

Even when New Zealanders took to the streets saying, this secrecy is undemocratic. This provision for companies to sue our government over lost profits is obscene. Pharmac is too precious to give up for undefined economic gain, Labour dithered, giving Phil Goff leave to cross the floor over it and looking not entirely cohesive when David Shearer wanted to do the same.

I don’t think Labour have ever understood that those specific complaints (which they haven’t actually fixed!) about a specific agreement weren’t the whole of the argument. That people weren’t blockading motorways just because of one particular instance of investor/state dispute resolution clauses.

The world is changing. More and more people are starting to think, maybe “free trade agreements” aren’t the universal good they’ve been sold as. Reconsidering what “free trade” means: who gets to be “free”? Free from what – job security? Affordable housing and healthcare? The power of their own elected governments to pass legislation for the public good? Things that matter more than profit margins?

And maybe, after thirty years of this being the status quo, we’re ready for an alternative. A genuine change in direction. We see a new government formed of parties who (more or less) said that the TPPA was not OK, who promised a new way of doing things. It’s the old organising model of Anger, Hope, Action. People are angry. Jacinda Ardern gave them hope. Action?

Apparently not. And I don’t know how thrilled people are going to be about that – or the government’s message that actually they should be happy because that’s the way the world works.

I could be wrong. It could be as my comrade Giovanni suggested:

Maybe they won’t face a backlash over this. But either way, this will be a massive lost opportunity for Labour. And I worry it won’t be the last.

2017 rewind: Why fiscal responsibility is the Bog of Eternal Stench

The fourth-most-read post on Boots Theory last year questioned a pretty strongly-rooted tenet of modern Labour Party faith. People have said to me since the election result, “see, it worked!” Yet National still gained 44.4% of the vote, and Labour’s boost came directly from Jacinda Ardern’s amazing personal appeal. And the question now becomes: is winning one election worth it if we don’t actually change the status quo?

Originally published 25 March 2017

Labour and the Greens have announced a cornerstone coalition policy for the 2017 general election: a set of Budget Responsibility Rules which will, per the Greens’ website:

… show that the Green Party and the Labour Party will manage the economy responsibly while making the changes people know are needed, like lifting kids out of poverty, cleaning up our rivers, solving the housing crisis, and tackling climate change.

It feels like I’ve been banging my head against this brick wall for a decade. The short version is this:

Labour and the Greens cannot credibly campaign on a foundation of “fiscal responsibility”. It is anathema to genuine progressive politics. It isn’t a vote-winner. It’s a vote-loser.

I’ve heard the defence: but we ARE the fiscally responsible ones! Look at our surpluses in government! Witness our detailed policy costings! BEHOLD OUR GRAPHS!

If empirical evidence worked, we’d already been in government and this conversation wouldn’t be happening, and I know I for one would be happier for it.

Everyone knows this is crap. No one really tries to defend it by saying, “but fiscal responsibility is the most important thing in government”. They say, “but we need people to believe we’re fiscally responsible.” They say, “but the media always ask how much our policies will cost!” They say, “we need to win or we can’t achieve anything, learn to count Stephanie.”

We know we’re selling our souls, but only for the right reasons. The tragedy is, we’re not. Fiscal responsibility is the Bog of Eternal Stench. Once you dip so much as a toe in, it makes everything else you do reek.

Don’t just take my word for it – after all, we’re all rational creatures making objective decisions based on evidence, right? Take it from someone who has the evidence, my favourite American Anat Shenker-Osorio:

Peer-reviewed psychological studies show that money-primed people … become more selfish. They are, for example, much less willing to spend time helping another student pretending to be confused about a task. When an experimenter dropped pencils, money-primed subjects elected to pick up far fewer than their unprimed peers. Also, when asked to set up two chairs for a get to know you chat, those who had money put on their minds placed the chairs farther apart. Money-primed undergrads showed greater preference for being alone.

The results of these experiments should give progressives pause and serve as lessons for how we do our messaging. Talking about money first makes the whole subsequent conversation start in a mean and selfish place — the last thing we want when we’re talking about the common good and our national future. …

Those politicians who actually believe in the institution in which they serve would do far better to speak of what government does for us — and trust that we’re smart enough to know that good things don’t come cheap.

If we prompt New Zealand voters to think about money first, they aren’t going to think about common good, about ensuring their neighbours have a good life too. They’re going to think “actually, getting another block of cheese each week does sound good” and the right’s fourth term is secured. They don’t even have to work for it, because when we explicitly buy into their values, it weakens our own.

It cuts out the heart of our politics. Our critics are absolutely right: Labour and the Greens are not trusted to be good fiscal managers. THAT’S THE POINT. No one wants us to be good fiscal managers – except for the right, who are thrilled that we not only want to play in their playhouse but will obey all the rules they’ve made up to ensure they always win.

It’s like some people watched Mean Girls and thought, “well of course we have to wear pink on Wednesdays and throw out our white gold hoops, how else will we get Regina George to truly respect us?”

Pink is not our colour. Fiscal responsibility is not our strength. The economy is not the most important thing in the world – HE TANGATA, HE TANGATA, HE TANGATA.

We’re meant to be the ones who care about people, and make sure everyone in our communities is taken care of, whether they’re sick, or old, or exploited by a shoddy employer or having a baby or building a life in a new country. These are the areas where we’re strong. These are the values which we must promote – not just because we hold them dearly, but because doing that is the best way to fuck up the other side’s message of greed and self-interest and exploitation of people and our planet.

People want change. They don’t want poverty and housing crises and public services stretched to breaking point. They know these things cost money! But they’ve been told for decades that government must be small, and the private sector runs things better, that the only metric that matters is that sweet surplus. They know it doesn’t feel right, but there doesn’t seem to be another way of doing things, because we keep telling them we agree with it. And they vote for the party they “know” are the better economic managers, because that’s National’s brand, and not all the graphs and spreadsheets we throw at them are going to convince them otherwise.

We’re never going to win while we keep playing in the right’s playhouse and skinny-dipping in the Bog of Fiscally Responsible Stench because we want to smell just like our enemies. We have to be an alternative. Stop talking about the bloody money and start talking about people.

Generational change

This paragraph in a eulogy for Jim Anderton on Newsroom, got me thinking about generational change in politics:

Trapped in near-perpetual opposition since the first Labour Government of 1935-49, with only brief single-term governments in 1957 and 1972, younger members of the party, the so-called ‘Vietnam Generation’ were desperate to modernise the party and reform it into an organisation capable of establishing a lasting government. To this generation, commitment to the party’s union origins was less important than social justice and, ultimately, power; compromise was needed.

It’s been clear for the past decade or more that a significant change is needed in progressive politics and activism. Centrism has drained the passion out of the left; the old ways of organising workers don’t apply to a casualised/”gig” economy; and the problems of poverty, inequality and injustice just keep getting worse (no thanks to the “compromises” the Vietnam Generation decided to make to achieve power – instead of driving genuine democratic and political change through the unions and other progressive movements of the day.)

It’s easy to point at the election of Jacinda Ardern as our second-youngest-ever Prime Minister, with new faces like Grant Robertson and Kelvin Davis at the Cabinet table, and say “things are obviously going to be different.” That thinking certainly drove a lot of Labour’s last-minute poll boost, which came from the disillusioned left, not “soft” National voters.

But it’s more complex than that. We have to reject the kind of “logic” which insisted in the early 2000s that having women in multiple important roles – Prime Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker of the House, Governor-General – proved sexism was dead, or more recently in the USA, where Barack Obama’s election “proved” racism was over, even as more and more black people were murdered by the police at “routine” traffic stops.

There’s always a system, a structure, a machine behind the fresh young faces. Hence rightwing pundits crowed at the news that Heather Simpson, who achieved legendary nemesis status as Helen Clark’s chief of staff, had been brought into the new administration and was exercising a high level of control over its setup. Other Clark veterans like Mike Munro and GJ Thompson were also announced as senior members of Ardern’s team.

Never mind that the same rightwingers would have hammered Labour equally hard for its lack of credibility (and did, over issues like the allocation of Select Committee seats) if the new PM hadn’t picked anyone with previous experience in government.

It would be worrying if Labour’s strategy were driven by people still operating in an early-2000s mindset, both in terms of policy direction and campaigning strategy. Especially with the Greens not delivering a strong election result and thus not in a position to exert as much pressure or provide cover for ambitious, progressive policies. The government sits on a knife-edge; even if you don’t necessarily agree with the need to push a strong leftwing, socially liberal set of policies, it’s a simple matter of survival. National know how to bounce back from defeat and adapt to new political circumstances. Once they’ve figured out who’s going to knife whom for the leadership and who’s going to strategically defect to ACT with a safe seat, they’re coming on hard. A Labour-led government which tries to focus-group and commission-of-inquiry its way through not offending anyone will not survive.

But it’s also a trap to think that progressive change requires youth, and there are no better examples than Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

Yes, little centrists, I know neither of them “won”; but I also know – as I suspect they both do – is not about single short-term election campaigns. It’s about changing the world and changing what’s achievable in politics, and if you want to argue that Corbyn and Sanders haven’t fundamentally altered the political activism of their respective countries, you’ll need to let me get a glass of water so I don’t choke on my cackling.

Sanders’ run took the word “socialist” from being a Fox News epithet levelled at anyone who suggested healthcare was a nice thing people should have to a badge of honour; combined with Trump’s victory, the Democratic Socialists of America have gained 27,000 members and seen their average age drop from 68 to 33. In 2017, socialists kept winning elections.

Corbyn – who we all know is totally unelectable except for all those elections he keeps winning or increasing Labour’s vote share in at almost unprecedented levels – is embracing new styles of campaigning, at the cost of traditional party structures:

If Corbyn gets his way, when you think of Labour, you won’t imagine rows of MPs on green leather benches, or a smartly suited minister chatting to a reporter. Instead, you’ll think of activists reinvigorating their estate’s tenants association, while others organise their co-workers and stand with them on picket lines.

The fly in the ointment for us is that a pillar of Sanders’ and Corbyn’s success is in their respective decades of unwavering commitment and activism, which gives them a credibility young up-and-comers can’t get; but there’s no one I can think of in New Zealand politics with similar bona fides.

Ultimately, it’s simply too early to say which way our new government will go. In the most refined managerial terms, there are risks, and there are opportunities. There are other obstacles to be overcome – like entrenched ideologies and ass-covering instincts among our public sector leaders, or the simple inertia of any large organisation which is used to doing things a certain way.

But age doesn’t determine whether you’ll change the world: what does is having the will to do it and the skills to do it well.