The lessons from the 2017 election … so far

Hey, we still don’t have a government! Nevertheless, the Wellington Fabians got together last night to hear Jane Clifton, Morgan Godfery, Mike Smith and me talk about the election aftermath. Here’s my speech notes.

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The 2017 general election is over, and we may or may not have a government by the time I’m talking to you. I’ve left myself a bit of wiggle room in my notes.

For me, the big lesson of the election is this: We still have a lot to learn.

People do not understand MMP. I’m not talking about the usual scapegoats – young people, unengaged people, migrants. I mean political nerds like us. We’re still psychologically attached to electorates, shown in the criticism levelled at the Greens candidates in places like Maungakiekie and Nelson and Ōhāriu – criticism levelled by experienced campaigners who absolutely know better.

We have to learn that electorate victories do not really matter; the party vote matters. A good electorate candidate should be able to turn the party vote out; a good electorate MP should be drawing a very clear connection between their work as a local representative and the party they represent. Instead of attacking Chlöe Swarbrick, Labour strategists might want to ask why we’re losing the party vote in some of our safest traditional seats.

We still have a First Past the Post mindset. Often this criticism is levelled at the media, who have perpetuated memes like the supposed moral mandate of the largest party – completely contrary to the spirit of MMP, which is about getting a government which represents a true majority of voters. But Labour is guilty of this too, agreeing to “major party leader” debates which perpetuate the idea it’s a two-horse race, or that the identity, competence and performance of one person, the next Prime Minister is more important than the debate of ideas.

It’s easy to put on the hindsight blinkers and say, but we do have two major parties and a couple of minor ones – now that Labour is up on 37%. But for a good proportion of this campaign they were polling closer to the minor parties than to National. Only ingrained bias really set them apart. That kind of thinking works for National, who have pursued a fairly successful strategy of devouring all their potential coalition partners. It does not work for the left.

There’s a good argument to be made that by trying to pursue the same strategy as National – by staking out traditionally Green issues like climate change as core Labour policies, for example – Labour weakened the overall position of the left in the election. However tremendous the individual result for Labour – and there are some amazing MPs coming in who will do fantastic work – the balance of Parliament has not really shifted. National remains a powerful force, and Ardern’s success came chiefly at the cost of the Greens. Some people within Labour probably think that’s a good thing. They are wrong.

Here’s my refrain: the left simply has to be better at communicating our values to people who aren’t already on our side. A significant part of the Labour surge, the Jacindamania, came from people already on the left projecting their values onto Ardern: she’s a woman, she’s young, she must represent a new way of doing things, a more progressive outlook, a fresh approach, if you will.

She was also aided I think by the brief period she had to make an impact, and time will tell if those values really shine through, and if they’re finally able to crack those “soft National voters”. Every Labour leader since Goff has enjoyed a bump of support immediately following their ascension; where it always falls away is when they weren’t able to deliver on the values and ideas people projected on them, and couldn’t build a broad, popular support base.

Sexism was and remains a major issue. Just yesterday a Herald article proclaimed “Comedian’s girlfriend enters Parliament”, and with no offence to Guy Williams, I think Golriz Ghahraman, as our first refugee MP whose work history includes the trials of Cambodian and Yugoslavian war criminals, is pretty deserving of her own headline.

Madeleine Holden at The Spinoff has written an excellent summary of all the misogyny, casual and calculated, which plagued the election, and gives special mention to the case of Metiria Turei. I know the accepted narrative is already well set: the Greens should have expected the literal witch hunt which ensued, and if only Metiria had grovelled more and worn a bit of sackcloth and ash on Checkpoint it would all have turned out differently. I reject that. Metiria Turei demonstrated exactly what she intended to: no one cared about social welfare. No one really wanted to talk about the fact women were being imprisoned and even driven to suicide by the hostile, harrowing attitude of Work and Income until a powerful, high-profile woman threw down a bombshell. No one wanted to address the fact that these issues are structural, and deliberate, and have been perpetuated by more than one government.

The reaction to Turei’s bombshell warrants some serious reflection by our media. It was fair to question her, to illuminate the broader issues in play – Mihi Forbes produced some amazing coverage of the reality for people living on benefits – but the point at which commentators felt okay making insinuations about Turei’s sex life, the point at which John Campbell of all people made the argument that life couldn’t be all that bad if she wasn’t forced into sex work – well. As Giovanni Tiso wrote at Pantograph Punch, “you knew it was as good as it gets” if even Campbell is doing it. It was unnecessary and vicious, and the message clearly sent was that poor brown women get no quarter, in a country where men like Peter Talley get knighthoods.

Discussing sexism inescapably brings us to TOP, and one of the enduring questions of New Zealand politics: will we ever see another election without an egotist millionaire white guy deciding he knows what’s best for everyone and it’s himself? Last time I spoke at the Fabians there was some support for Gareth Morgan. I stand by what I said then: he should never have been the frontman of the party, because that made it look like an ego trip. The fact he chose to be the frontman of the party showed it was an ego trip.

His association with a man like Sean Plunket, who think it’s really clever to tweet disgusting things and then say, “Look how toxic Twitter is, people attacked me for tweeting disgusting things!” demonstrated that TOP was never about promoting serious evidence-based policy or altering the way politics is discussed in New Zealand: it was about a couple of guys deciding they were the smartest men in the room and that entitled them to be in charge. They didn’t have to persuade people, because anyone who questioned them was just an idiot who was never going to vote for them anyway. The only good news is, hardly anyone did.

A final question that’s been popping up: do coalition negotiations take too long? I feel very strange about this because I was twelve in 1996 and I apparently remember those six long weeks without a government better than actual adults! This is what happens when you have fewer parties (partly a result of National’s cannibal strategy) and only one of those parties can feasibly work with either side. This is what happens when you have Winston. This is what happens when both National and Labour try to have their cake and eat it too, denouncing NZ First’s more objectionable policies and statements but never quite ruling them out. It’s the players, not the game, and I think we’d be better served if the press gallery found something else to report on until an actual announcement gets made – if anything, denying Winston the opportunity to grandstand on the telly every evening would probably speed up the process!

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In the Q&A a number of questions came up around who Labour’s base is these days, why the tax message was so poisonous to them (again), and how to get cut-through with their messages, which was a great excuse for me to re-state my very strong opinions on values and framing; instead of repeating myself again, here’s some previous posts I’ve done on tax, values, and Labour’s base. Also: buy this book.

So … what’s next?

Election night was, well, a bit anticlimactic, in big-picture terms. The utter loss of the Māori Party was a shock, and a few seats changed hands, and Labour thoroughly shook off its dismal 2014 and 2011 results, yes; but what fundamentally changed? After everything that happened, after three major parties changing or losing leaders in the twelve months before election day (plus Peter Dunne), after Jacindamania and the desperate search for a youthquake narrative …

National are still on 45%. Winston is the kingmaker. As all bar one or two rogue polls stated he would be. The status quo is pretty damn quo.

Personally, I wouldn’t bet money one way or the other on where Winston will go. In strict policy terms, NZF is much more aligned to Labour and the Greens than National, and polls showed NZF voters wanted them to go with Labour. But National are supremely pragmatic when it comes to retaining power, and unburdened by any broader principles which might get in the way of making a deal.

A side note: The repeated line of questioning about whether there’s a rule, convention, or expectation around the largest party forming the government demonstrate how we’ve really failed to grasp the core function of MMP: delivering a balanced one which is the most appealing to the broadest number of people, not an all-powerful one based on arbitrary geographical lines. Whether we end up with a National/New Zealand First government, or a Labour/Greens/NZ First one, or Labour-plus-one-with-the-other-on-the-cross benches, our country will, at least theoretically, be governed and laws determined by politicians representing a majority of voters.

Of course the theory all gets very messy once you’re dealing with real human beings, and especially when the one holding most of the cards is Winston Peters, but that’s politics for you.

Anyway: it feels like there’s little to do but wait.

Except.

Now more than ever, we need to remember that parliamentary power is far, far from the only power there is. Whoever forms the next government, they answer to the people.

It was people who forced the government to pass proper health and safety laws, abolish zero hour contracts, shut down the sealing of Pike River mine, deliver equal pay for aged care workers. It was people who made mental health and our horrific suicide rates a key election issue.

People coming together with a common cause – in unions, in neighbourhoods, in the streets, in the courts, and yes in goddamn Facebook groups too – wield, or should wield, the real power.

Be suspicious as hell of anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.

No matter whether our next Prime Minister is called Bill or Jacinda, it is on us to hold them to account. Hell, especially if it’s Jacinda, because the centre-left did not serve the country well by spending all nine of the Clark years going “shush, don’t make a fuss now we’re in government!!!”

Whatever campaign is close to your heart, it doesn’t stop now. We can’t hit pause for three years before talking about these things again. So many people spent the campaign lamenting the lack of education, engagement, how ill-served voters were by the parties or the media or the education system (because introducing compulsory civics would magically fix everything, obvs). So keep it up. Push the issues that matter to you. Rock up to your new MP, if you’ve got one, and demand they represent you. It’s their job.

At some point in 2018, after the next census, there’ll be a Māori Electoral Option, so if you qualify to be on the Māori roll and want to switch one way or the other, you have to do it then.

In 2019, there’ll be local body elections, which are even worse in terms of engagement, turnout and public interest, even though local councils have immensely important responsibilities. Run for office! Get your neighbours rarked up about a local issue! For god’s sake, vote!

In 2020 we get to go through this malarkey all over again. But we can achieve a hell of a lot in the meantime.

Here’s an old favourite to wake you up.

On the M.O.U.

I’m a bit late to the party on the Labour/Greens M.O.U. but letting the dust clear a little before passing judgement is perhaps not such a bad thing.

The M.O.U. had to happen. And the sooner the better. Not because it means a lot in terms of the Green and Labour working more closely – they already were – but because that relationship is now publicly codified and it’s now very clear that there’s a forty-percent-plus block that balances out National’s vote.

Some in the commentariat have made a big deal about how this is Labour giving in.

It isn’t.

If anything it’s Labour getting stronger. It’s a given now that not only will Labour’s machine work to make Andrew Little the next Prime Minister, but the Greens’ machine will as well.

Effectively Little is now leading a voting block that is within striking distance of becoming Government.

And that’s something Winston Peters is now going to have to deal with.

Because despite the pundits claiming this makes Peters stronger, what it actually does is put him into a corner. When, for example, he dogwhistles against a minority such as Muslims, he’s whistling in the wind – because whatever argument he’s making goes nowhere if it’s not backed by either Labour/Greens or John Key’s National party.

A Labour party at 29% could feasibly kowtow to Peter’s cynicism (I don’t think they would, but desperation makes anything possible). But a Labour/Greens block at 43% doesn’t have the same pressure. When you represent nearly half of all New Zealanders it’s much easier to say no. And it carries a lot more weight.

That creates an uncomfortable situation for Key. The numbers are most likely going to mean a fourth term National Government will be a National/NZ First coalition – that’s received wisdom.

That means that if the Green/Labour block – particularly Andrew Little – knock back Peters’ headline grabbing, there’s going to be more and more pressure on Key to engage with it. That’s pressure Key doesn’t want or need – he’s busy enough trying to put some shine back on his ailing liberal brand without getting caught up in debates about Muslims, or Asians, or Māori or whatever drum Peters is banging for attention this week or next.

Now I know there’ll be some within Labour who are afraid of upsetting Peters by pushing back on him occasionally, but they need to get over themselves and start thinking like price makers instead of price takers. Headline-grabbing cynicism aside, New Zealand First’s policy platform aligns a lot more closely with Labour and the Greens’ platform than it does with National. And Peters is a professional – he’s been around and he’ll make the decision on who he goes with based on the numbers post 2017 and what leverage they give him to get what he wants.

Anyone who doubts that should remember that it was only a few years ago that John Key’s dirty politics team ran a rabid and personal attack campaign on Peters that saw him exit politics for a term. A campaign that presumably had the Nats’ sign off. Key’s people humiliated Peters yet Winston can’t and won’t rule out going with them – if he did he’d lose the illusory power he has.

Things have changed with the M.O.U. They’ve changed because Andrew Little has re-staked his claim as leader of the opposition and has brought together a power base that rivals the Prime Minister’s in terms of the number of New Zealanders it represents. Having watched Little throughout his time in the union movement and in politics, I’m expecting he’ll use that power well to create change – it’s something he’s always done.

What that all adds up to, despite what some pundits have claimed, is a harder time for Winston and bad news for Key.

Rob Egan is an ex-senior advisor to two Labour leaders and co-owner of public relations firm Piko Consulting.

The Labour/Greens deal

Well, that all seems straightforward enough.

There are varied opinions on the value of a formal Labour/Greens arrangement. Like: it’s superfluous because it’s so obvious they’ll work together post-any winnable election, and they’ve already done things like announce joint policy before. Or: it’s absolutely necessary to send a clear signal to voters before the next election, and frankly they’re all a pack of dunces for not doing it sooner, or in 2014, or 2011, or the minute the result was announced on the second MMP referendum in 1993.

It’s either: exactly like the Epsom cup of tea deal because you want to attack the Opposition for being undemocratic and conniving, or: it’s nothing like the Epsom cup of tea deal because you want to attack the Government for being undemocratic and conniving.

It’s either: a terrible idea for Labour because they’ll lose votes aligning themselves with those wacky pot-smoking weirdos, or: it’s a great idea for Labour because it sends a strong signal to the left base. And it’s: a terrible idea for the Greens because they’re selling out to the mainstream, or: strategic genius to show they’re ready to sit at the grown-ups table.

And judging by the way the press conference yesterday went, whether the cat is alive or dead depends entirely on What Winston Will Do.

I just wonder how much of the handwringing is really relevant to anyone who isn’t a political nerd. I really don’t mean that in an ivory tower/Thorndon Bubble/”wake up sleepy hobbits” way – the simple fact is the vast majority of people don’t have the time nor inclination to watch historic political Memorandum of Understanding announcement livestreams on a Tuesday afternoon.

Most people would already assume the Greens would naturally work with Labour to form a government. Anyone whose primary political concern is keeping the Greens away from the levers of power probably haven’t voted Labour since 1999 and aren’t going to start now. And most people really don’t give a toss about the daily shenanigans of Parliament – certainly not about anything involving the phrase “Memorandum of Understanding”.

Most people have checked out of politics. It’s just not relevant to their lives.

So some will say this agreement is a killing blow to National’s chances in 2017, and others will declare it hands National the 2017 election on a platter. But the important thing isn’t whether Labour and the Greens have a silly handshake, an MoU, a concrete coalition deal, or a blood oath sworn on Grabthar’s Hammer. It’s whether they look like a credible alternative. It’s how they get a clear message to the nation: this is what’s wrong and this is how we fix it.

That’s how you cut through the spin and busyness and apathy. Give people a reason to believe things don’t have to be this way – people don’t have to live in cars, social support doesn’t have to be a pittance, the rich don’t have to get richer by screwing workers over, healthcare doesn’t have to be measured in waiting lists, education isn’t a business, jobs don’t have to be sent overseas, we don’t have to fight each other for the scraps after the bankers and speculators and CEOs have had their fill. The market isn’t our master. The economy isn’t our god.

If Labour and the Greens can work together to show New Zealanders there is a real, credible, caring alternative – that’s what will make the difference.

Labour’s reshuffle announced today

Andrew Little is set to announce a new Shadow Cabinet today  -I know, I know, the phrase Shadow Cabinet is so #ukpol but it’s also too cool not to use:

Tracy Watkins has some reckons:

Some big movers are tipped in Labour leader Andrew Little’s first big reshuffle.

“We’ve got to think not only about the portfolio allocations, we’ve got to think about chief whip and junior whip in a new government, and positions outside Cabinet, positions available for potential coalition partners.


The reshuffle is an important positioning move for Labour as the year rolls to a close. While the party’s poll ratings are up on the election result, Labour continues to trail National by a large margin.

Little said next year would be about “knuckling down” and refining policies that were “definitive enough and bold enough” to give voters the “measure of who we are in 2017”.

The long and short of it – according to Watkins – is:

  • King to remain deputy but gain an “understudy” in health, with her eyes on a diplomatic posting early in the term
  • Ardern and Davis to get some good meaty roles – no surprise given their respective profiles and some damn fine campaign work on Serco and Christmas Island
  • Twyford vs Shearer for trade – which could influence Labour’s position on the TPP
  • Good things for Sue Moroney who’s done great work on paid parental leave
  • Possible bad news for Mahuta and Cunliffe
  • Nothing for Goff for obvious mayoralty-related reasons

Little also confirmed this is the “last reshuffle” he’s planning before the election and

I have no inside information on the new rankings myself but if this is going to be the team to take us into 2017 – including some indication of what portfolios might be up for grabs for the Greens (and/or NZ First) – I’m looking forward to it being an exciting one.

UPDATE: Radio Live are Periscoping the announcement.

New rankings and portfolios are now up on the Labour website. Scoop has a PDF of the caucus rankings here.

Labour’s media release:

Labour line-up to take the 2017 election
 
Opposition Leader Andrew Little has today announced a strong and talented shadow Cabinet to take Labour into the 2017 election.
 
“Labour had an impressive intake of fresh faces after last year’s election and newest MPs have now had a year to show what they’re made of.
 
“This reshuffle rewards hard work and continues my drive to renew our Caucus line up.
 
“Kelvin Davis moves up after he shone the spotlight on Serco scandals and the treatment of detainees in Australia. He will now take on Māori Development.
 
“Megan Woods joins the front bench in recognition of the important work she is leading in Canterbury and on climate change.
 
“Newer faces Jenny Salesa and Peeni Henare move into the Shadow Cabinet, along with Meka Whaitiri who takes on local government.
“High profile MP Jacinda Ardern moves up along with Phil Twyford who adds Auckland Issues to his bow.
 
Stuart Nash moves into the Shadow Cabinet and picks up Police. Her tireless campaigning on paid parental leave sees Sue Moroney promoted.
 
“Today’s reshuffle is a strong mix of new talent and experience – and builds a solid team to win in 2017,” Andrew Little says.