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!”

Do National know they lost?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but do National know they lost the election?

The tone of National’s messaging hasn’t really shifted since the formation of the new government, nor from the days John Key was their leader. It’s still snarky, soundbitey attacks on Labour’s credibility which are designed to stick in the mind just long enough to create a sense of disquiet.

But it simply doesn’t work when you’re at the very beginning of a government’s term, and even less so when you were holding the levers of power just over one month ago.

I remarked on Twitter, “If only Steven Joyce had very very recently been in a position to seek official advice on such matters.” Because that’s the kind of line you trot out when you’ve been in Opposition for a couple of years; when the government of the day has presumably had time to staff up, plan their work programme, and start getting full detailed policy advice from their departments.

The balance of power does not flip overnight. Ordinary people are quite willing to understand when it’s your first day on the job, things are going to take a while to get up to speed – which is a significant reason that the new government’s swift and decisive announcements about te reo in primary schools, the three-strikes law, foreign land ownership, and equal pay have been so delightful. We’ve all become comfortable talking about “the first 100 days” but to be honest, no one expects the first week or two to be that interesting. And yet they have been. No wonder the Tories are scared.

This next tweet strikes a very different but equally odd tone – and given the fixation with fritters and fishing I start to wonder if someone on Bill’s social media team wants to chuck it all in and get out on the water:

Obviously “great gains” is up for debate and exactly which “NZers” have made them likewise, but have a look at the overall vague, managerial tone of the thing. This is the press release you put out when you’re still Prime Minister and you’re calling back to the “success” of your much more likeable predecessor to distract from the fact you’re one more junior MP’s police investigation away from implosion.

But this has been National’s double-sided problem since Key stepped down: they’ve tried to keep politicking as though he didn’t, and they tried to do it with Mr Managerial Boringness as leader. They’ve continued to market themselves in the same snarky laidback guy-you’d-like-to-have-a-beer-with tone, to horrible spaghetti-related effect, and they never figured out how to make English’s boring-but-safe managerialism into a campaign asset.

He’s great as a Minister of Finance who pushes through damaging rightwing policies as though they’re plain old common-sense fiscal management. He’s terrible as a fighting champion. He was meant to be above petty politics and throwaway insults about snapper quotas, but that’s all they’ve given him.

The bigger problem for National is this: ordinarily you’d say they’ve got three years to work this out, while the new government is busy finding the caucus rooms and pathfinding to their offices in the Escherian nightmare that is the Beehive.

But this is an activist government which is already rolling out strong policies and re-writing the story on employment relations, justice, education, and health, the very purpose of government and its relationship to people. And National is offering no serious critique, no alternative narrative, no vision (admittedly it would have been miraculous for them to find one between election day and now.) Add to that: voters like to back winners. Add to that: National has tapped all its possible reserves of support, sucking every other rightwing party dry. It has nowhere to go but down.

Maybe they’re worried about leaving any space for the new government to fill and mark out its agenda. But they’re only doing more damage to themselves by continuing to mis-market their leader, or acting like there’s going to be an election in a month and all that matters is getting points on the board.

They just end up creating exactly that space for Labour, the Greens and NZ First to demonstrate that there’s a much better way to run a country. Works for me.