Gordon Campbell on Labour’s last stand

163bad501a4a5f8409cfThe surge, the surge. It was within the margin of error in one poll, and the increase in Labour support in the other poll still wouldn’t change the outcome. Yet to the relief of the mainstream media, the surge has provided a hint of drama to talk about in a campaign where the victory of the centre right bloc has been generally agreed to be a sure thing quite some time ago.

Still, let’s assume that there truly has been a small uptick in Labour’s fortunes on the brink of Judgement Day. Why might this be happening? One factor might be that Chris Hipkins has finally been talking like an aggressively Labour Prime Minister instead of just peevishly counter-punching at the worrisome details of a campaign agenda that National has been allowed to set.

In recent days, Hipkins has been loudly promoting Labour’s values and Labour’s list of achievements, while also punching holes in the centre-right’s obvious lack of credibility as an alternative government. If only Jacinda Ardern and Hipkins had taken this approach from day one of Labour’s second term, had bet on Labour’s ability to take the country along with them, and had promoted a fresh set of left wing policies consistent with Labour values. Most days, the Greens looked more like what Labour is supposed to be.

Labour frittered away its once in a lifetime opportunity. It relied on its focus groups and internal polling to chart a skittish, easily frightened path to its own demise. In the midst of a cost of living crisis, the public barely noticed the incremental gains. In media terms Labour has consistently buried the lede of its own achievements.

The fact that Hipkins may now be reaping some rewards (too little too late) should tell us something about who the “undecideds” are that Labour has been trying to rally during this last week of the campaign. Some are young, and simply can’t be bothered to take part in a voting ritual that seems to have no relevance to them. Some belong to the same phantom band as the “one million” non-voters that David Cunliffe talked wistfully of mobilising nearly a decade ago.

The rest are not “undecideds”.They’re the “disappointeds” on the left who didn’t feel Labour’s second term is worth fighting to sustain, especially when the outcome seems like a foregone conclusion. Faced with a choice between the three-headed monster on the centre right, and a Labour Party that has spent the bulk of its second term looking scared of its own shadow, these “undecideds” were going to sit this one out. In Labour’s hour of need, Hipkins has been pitching familiar left wing messages to scare and inspire the missing faithful to (a) get into the polling booth and (b) become re-involved on Saturday in Labour’s once fabled “get out the vote” machine. Slumping motivation among its own activists is a real concern for Labour.

Hipkins, BTW, has not had a conversion experience. He still belongs to the conservative wing of the party, and his tenure as PM has essentially been a damage limitation exercise, aimed not so much at winning the election but at scrapping (or blocking) controversial policies and thereby limiting the carnage. Ardern stepping down when she did was a similar exercise in limiting Labour’s losses.

Saturday night’s alright for fretting

With all that in mind, most voters on the centre left will not be expecting miracles on election night. Any good news is likely to be gleaned from what the centre left didn’t lose, rather than from what they won. The signs of doom are widespread. Ultimately, centre left voters will be relieved if Labour holds onto Christchurch Central, if Nanaia Mahuta survives in Hauraki-Waikato, if Kieran McAnulty hangs on in Wairarapa, and if the likes of Nelson and Hutt South stay red.

Looking ahead, one unfortunate aspect of the Labour list is that some mediocrities (and Hipkins allies) like Jan Tinetti and Willow-Jean Prime have been vaulted into safe positions. Jo Luxton and Georgie Dansey are other members of Team Hipkins placed at high positions on the list relative to their apparent talents.

The list is a perilous place to be for Labour MPs, this time around. Keep in mind there will still be some core Labour electorates that will survive the blue tide. Yet those electorate victories will be occurring this time in the context of a relatively low Labour party vote, thus making election night extremely nerve-wracking for any Labour MP reliant on the list for their survival. On the night, it will only gradually become clear just where the cull of the Labour list will begin. Some of the party’s brighter talents (eg Camila Belich) will probably not make it home.

Footnote One: Having thrown mud all year at every aspect of the government’s competence and performance, and having dissed ordinary Kiwi strugglers here at home (“bottom feeders”) and while having dissed this country overseas ( “whining, miserable” ) it has been pretty rich to see National spending the past six weeks feigning a Victorian fit of the vapours at the dreadful, dreadful “negativity” of the Labour campaign.

Pretty typical though. The centre right – be it farmers, employers or National Party politicians – is remarkably thin–skinned when it comes to taking the criticism that it routinely shovels over everyone else. It’s also a tactic meant to exempt National from criticism. For example: National claims to be innately superior at running the economy. Yet instead of answering the entirely legitimate concerns being raised about the gaping flaws in its economic projections, National has ducked, dodged, and cried “negativity.” Mate, if you can’t take the heat, best to stay out of the kitchen.

Sailing and bailing

Of course, that small surge being detected by sensitive polling devices may also be explained by some centrist swing voters deciding at the last minute not to climb on board the SS Centre Right. Wise call. Who wouldn’t have second thoughts about boarding a ship that has Chris Bishop as navigator, and Christopher Luxon at the helm? To extend the metaphor, this Toughlove Boat also has David Seymour as the cabin boy and Winston Peters as the surly old first mate.

Chances are, it is going to take quite a while for the coalition talks to reach agreement on the course, let alone decide on what bits of the campaign cargo will have to be jettisoned. Nothing seen on the campaign trail suggests that National is capable of steering the country to the safe harbour of stable, responsible government. We seem more likely to be marooned, and put on hard rations for the foreseeable- while harbingers of doom like Ruth Richardson flap around the mizzen mast, and the crew begin to look hungrily at the cabin boy. All ashore who were going on board!

Footnote: Talking of that surly old first mate, the sentimentally inclined will find it fitting that in the twilight of his career Winston Peters will be returning home to the bosom of the National Party that gave birth to his political career. Given that Peters left that home in 1993 in rebellion against the very same neo-liberal policies that the Luxon/Seymour team are intent on re-enacting, it is also a sad admission of defeat that this should be the place where Winston Peters has ended up. Right back where he started.

Wishing you were stoned

With the election playing out on Saturday night and the All Blacks having a “do or die” encounter with Ireland on the very next morning, this song seems appropriate: