Gordon Campbell on Labour’s campaign launch

Back in the days of street protests against the Vietnam War, the mainstream media could usually be relied on to systematically undercount the numbers taking part. So, with that prospect in mind, what were the crowd estimates for yesterday’s Labour Party election campaign launch by Jacinda Ardern? In the NZ Herald, the main story had ‘more than 1,000’ at paragraph four. But in a section of the same report about paragraph 40 sub-headed “Earlier” the crowd had more than doubled:

“Numbers have now reportedly swelled to 2200 – filling the Town Hall and the Q Theatre.”
Interestingly, Newshub went with exactly the same crowd estimate:

“An incredible 2200 people spread across three venues, while hundreds had to be turned away.”

Numbers aside… no worries for the government though, because Stuff had these words of re-assurance to offer:

“And National’s campaign launch next week in Auckland will be every bit as euphoric and likely even bigger…”

To be fair, the same Stuff story did underline the danger for National in responding by simply reaching for its cheque book. Yesterday the government was stressing its plans to spend billions on provincial roading, and it is still holding out the prospect of a tax cuts announcement at next week’s campaign launch. Meaning: while an energized Labour is pushing all the aspirational buttons, the government has been promoting the fear of change, and an all too familiar package of (a) tax cuts and (b) spending up large on the eve of the election.

One of the key motifs of Ardern’s speech was her repeated use of the phrase – “ Now, what?” Cleverly, that looks like being Labour’s response to National’s ‘steady as it goes’ warning against not putting the economic ‘gains’ at risk. On the economy, Labour isn’t arguing that things are particularly bad – but that things can be better, especially when it comes to the delivery of social outcomes. (In themselves, GDP numbers don’t feed, or house, children.) Now, what – in the workplace, in schools, and in health? After nine years, so Ardern is arguing, voters can’t rely on this lot in government for much in the way of credible answers. Is there any social problem facing New Zealand where three more years of Steven Joyce, Nick Smith and Bill English looks like being the solution?

In her speech, as many have already noted, Ardern made a strong pitch to the regions (the New Zealand First vote) and on the environment, she pitched Labour’s tent on the Greens home ground. Right now, Labour has to raid votes wherever it can find them. There will be a huge psychological advantage if Labour can get to level pegging (or better) with National, by any means necessary. It can worry about the Greens falling below the MMP threshold later. Ultimately, Labour has to have its nose in front of National on election day in order to win first bargaining rights with Winston Peters, post election.

One obvious problem for the government is that it can’t risk attacking Ardern directly, lest this should antagonizes its own female supporters on the centre-right. The backlash evident yesterday against Gareth Morgan over his tweeting of the “lipstick on a pig” crack at Labour shows the risk of mixing misogyny with policy criticism. The jibe may play well with the blokes. Yet quite a few women voters who had been thinking of voting for the Opportunities Party may now be reconsidering that option.

No doubt, the same steroidal flexing about market solutions and ‘credibility’ (as defined by bank economists) may see National doubling down on its economic credentials – but that kind of messaging has always polarized voters along gender lines. In that respect, Labour’s plan to expand the Reserve Bank’s inflation targets to include the annual numbers of children rescued from poverty will no doubt be greeted with scorn by the testosterone-drenched denizens of the financial markets. Yet that’s beside the point. Women voters who feel concerned about how those GDP numbers are being managed – and how that is affecting the social outcomes in communities around the country – are Ardern’s immediate target.

Footnote : there’s an interesting history of the ‘lipstick on a pig” jibe here.

The term was relatively gender-free until John McCain used it in 2007 (in his early presidential positioning) against Hillary Clinton, over her plans to reform healthcare. A year later, the term was tossed back at McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin by Barack Obama. Meaning: when the target is a woman, the jibe isn’t simply about bad policy in a fancy wrapper, or about a used car hiding its defects under a fresh coat of paint. When people who actually wear lipstick are involved, the inevitable suggestion is that the person concerned is a pig. To some extent that frisson is quite deliberate, given how the term has evolved as a political metaphor.

Footnote Two: The attack line that Ardern is just the new face of the same policies doesn’t carry a lot of weight, either. Given that most of Labour’s previous problems were due to the dire succession of blokes – Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe, Andrew Little – formerly tasked with selling the policy, you could argue that Labour have now finally solved their core problem. Arguably, Labour could well retort, the policy wasn’t wrong before, and it isn’t wrong now: and many voters are now hearing the policy for the first time.

Its (sort of) the same old song

Talking about the same old structures going through generational changes… One musical example I can think of is the 1950s rockabilly classic “Somethin’ Else” by Eddie Cochran:

In the 1970s, David Bowie and Mick Ronson revamped the same rockabilly motifs on the “Hang On To Yourself” track from Ziggy Stardust…

Come the 1980s… and much the same rhythm pattern drives Wayne Smith’s “Under Mi Sleng Teng” classic. This was the first digital reggae track, and reportedly it dropped like an atomic bomb on the previous decade’s worth of dub/version experimentation, rendering it virtually obsolete overnight: