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Chris Ford: Lessons for the Left in election result

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

I'm back again blogging after what has been a long election campaign. I chose to stop blogging as I had campaign related duties to fulfil for the Green Party. I can say, having been a list candidate for the party in last weekend's poll, there is much to digest.

To begin with, though, I must say that the Greens fought a principled, clear, disciplined and positive campaign. Our failure to reach 15 percent, the party's hoped for goal, is a complete mystery to me as it is to many of my fellow Greens. Over time, a clear headed analysis of the campaign will deliver some answers which aren't clear today. One of the earliest reasons I can discern for our managing to hold our ground at least - but no more than that - is that we experienced a polling day collapse. This has happened in the past when we have done well in the advanced vote but didn't get our voters on the big day itself. I say this because there was such a positive vibe I got on the streets and in my conversations with people as the day approached. So many people (even among those whom I knew and never thought would vote Green) said they were considering us, or had, or would vote for us. Therefore, what happened on Saturday night came as a complete shock to not only me but other Greens. As for the lessons we Greens can learn, I won't post them here as I will leave those for internal discussion within the party.

But what happened to Labour was the worst nightmare for them possible. They collapsed to their worst result in 92 years. Outwardly, David Cunliffe campaigned well during the four week official period. Apart from the engineered trap engineered by John Key against Cunliffe in the second leaders debate over the capital gains taxing of family trust homes, the opposition leader won most of the debates - yet he and Labour lost the overall war. Why? Well, I heard from admittedly a third party source who had spoken to a highly placed Labour official earlier in the year that Cunliffe's office was in real disarray in early 2014 - something that hadn't improved it seems by election time. Sensing this, the 'Dirty Politics' brigade of Jason Ede, Cameron Slater, et al, decided to launch a series of what proved to be devastatingly successful, albeit, nasty smears against Cunliffe himself. These smears (including the infamous one regarding Donghua Liu) caught the Labour leader and his team completely offguard. From thereonin, the Dirty Politics brigade were able to wreak havoc on the party's campaign due to the correct sense they had of this mood of disorganisation at the top, among other things.

Contrast this with how the Greens handled similar attacks. I remember, as a candidate and party member being impressed with how Metiria Turei and the party's media team (headed by the very talented Andrew Campbell) turned Judith Collins's comments about Metiria's parliamentary clothing choices and housing back on National. They did so in a well-received appearance by the Green co-leader at her Waitati home (where she showed them through her wardrobe and 'castle') on Campbell Live. This turned the tables in a very positive and Green way against Collins, the co-leader of the Dirty Politics brigade. By comparison, Labour spent almost an entire day trying to fend off the ludicrous allegations made against Cunliffe with respect to Liu.

And this lack of clear counter-messaging and strategy is what set Labour back massively. In fact, the lack of a coherent strategy or message is what truly set them back. Let me illustrate what I mean with a couple of contradictory policy choices they made. On the one hand they pledged to increase the minimum wage to $16.25 within months - a good policy. However, this was then contradicted by Labour's policy to use increased KiwiSaver contributions as a tool to take the pressure off interest rates during times of disinflation.  Before Labour Party members comment and complain about this point, I am perfectly aware that they would exempt low income workers from this requirement. However, National candidates (as part of their misleading 'five new taxes campaign') would have been able to raise the spectre of this policy as being one of the new 'taxes' a Labour-Greens Government would introduce, to low and middle-income potential voters. Besides, the policy would have acted in the same way as a rise in interest rates would have without tackling part of the real cause for us being a low wage economy - monetarist policies. All this means that despite some right-wing commentators saying that Labour had gone back to its roots (which they did in some respects) their economic policy prescriptions were little different than those of the Nats. Furthermore, Labour never backed down from its 2011 pledge to raise the retirement age to 67 which served as a real gift to one party - National - which supported the status quo.

I could name other policy areas (welfare chiefly among them) where Labour could have taken a more progressive stance than they did. Their refusal to do so probably cost them votes among some of the missing million voters who still didn't enrol or turn up despite all the excellent efforts of the union-backed Get Out and Vote campaign.

As for Internet-Mana, I am disappointed that Hone Harawira was ganged up on by the combined forces of National, Labour and New Zealand First. Regular readers of this blog will know that I personally don't have a lot of time for Hone given his some of his more outlandish statements. That's one of the many reasons I'm in the Greens and not with Mana. Notwithstanding that, Hone and Mana spoke up on issues to do with poverty and dispossession in a very powerful way during the last parliament. Sadly, that voice (which at times supplemented that of my fellow Greens on poverty issues) won't be there. And that's because of a selfish decision made by three of the main parties (National, Labour and NZ First) to turn on Hone.

Conversely, I don't think Hone and Mana should ever have aligned with the Internet Party. The lure of Kim Dotcom's millions would no doubt have acted as a carrot to Harawira and Mana to take the risk of going into coalition with them. No doubt this move galvanised the Right and also exposed Mana to the not unjustified criticism that, in so doing, they were getting into bed with an openly libertarian German millionaire. There was not only that factor at play - Dotcom faces allegations of not having treated staff or those who provided services to him very well at all which served as grist to the mill for National's Dirty Politics gang. If Mana and Harawira were serious about winning, they should have stuck to their flaxroots principles and not gone with the Internet Party. I know that small left-wing parties lack resources but for whatever they lack, they would have made up for in determination and the belief that principles matter more than anything - something which would have appealed to their core voter base. Thus, if Hone hadn't swung the deal with Dotcom, he would have had a greater chance of survival and given his party at least two additional seats to add to the Left's total.

Ultimately, though, it's Labour that will have to confront the ugly reality that it lost an election where - other factors being equal - they could have taken the Left to victory. Their rejection of the Greens offer to run a joint campaign was one mistake. I will concede too that while Cunliffe was an excellent debater and good campaigner, he just didn't connect with the party's voter base - a point that has been made to me in numerous conversations (and perhaps illustrated by his poor behaviour since Saturday). Still Cunliffe did not deserve the vicious attacks and smears he was subjected to but the Nats knew that to weaken him further would serve their interests - as it came to be.

Now, we are faced with three more years of National. I will write a seperate blog on the challenges that face a re-elected National and the reasons for their success (not least the tactics of the Dirty Politics gang). But for now, Labour and the Left (including my own party the Greens) have much to ponder and learn. We can't solely blame ourselves for what wrong but neither should we delude ourselves that we couldn't have done better when we could have.

Doing better is now the challenge and the goal for the entire Left in 2017.

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