Thoughts on the election

Last night’s election result was a huge disappointment. We’re set for another three years of National slowly eroding the public service, doing nothing on climate change and child poverty, and letting the New Zealand economy continue producing low value primary products.

There’s been a lot of recriminations already about how exactly this happened. I think it’s important to keep in mind that noone really knows why National has done so well. It’s impossible to have proper answers, and professional pundits are clutching at straws like the rest of us. Solid analysis will come with time and hindsight. With these provisos about the difficulty of saying anything about the election, I just want to suggest a few points about how we can come to terms with what has happened.

What I think is important to remember is that overall the fundamentals were always in National’s favour in terms of both inertia and the economy. People tend to stick with the status quo: “National has done okay in two terms, why not give them another?” The so-called ‘rock star’ economy is also a major selling point for the Nats. Things are looking okay at the moment — and the left’s message that it’s not going to be that great in the future is a pretty subtle message to sell. With those general points in mind, I’m also going to delve into a few other specific questions.

Why did the left do so badly?

What’s particularly dispiriting about this election is that Labour and the Greens have done such a lot of work preparing policies for the election to little avail. Pundits sometimes comment that opposition parties need to present a host of policies to show that they’ve done the work. But Labour and the Greens have done exactly that, yet the public have punished them in the polls. What’s going on?

One of the problems might be that the policies just don’t appeal to people. Regardless of whether it’s the right thing to do, does the public actually want the retirement age to be raised, or for a capital gains tax to be introduced? Labour and the Greens have nobly persevered with these policies, but maybe the public just doesn’t want them. The other big policy announcement which Labour and the Greens made was the NZ Power whereby the state would become the sole buyer of electricity (and hence sole seller to consumers). While I think it’s mostly a good policy, it does seem potentially a bit out there even to a leftie like me, which means that probably for most of NZ it’s way too extreme. People probably thought: “Yes, I would like my power prices to be lower, but is the government stepping in and taking over the whole thing really the solution? That’s practically communism!”

Quite a few people I know seem to think a big factor in Labour’s defeat is that people just don’t like David Cunliffe. Personally, I think despite his somewhat large ego, he’s grown into the role of Labour leader, and he didn’t do a bad job over the election campaign. I’m not sure if he’s really the problem. That said, I think he probably should have taken slightly more than no responsibility for the election defeat. It will be interesting to see how the leadership stuff turns out over the course of the next few months.

What was the role of Dirty Politics and spying allegations?

Fundamentally, I think the issues raised by Dirty Politics and the Snowden/Greenwald/etc revelations were too complicated to really sink in for most of the population. I heard a few in the media saying Key may have even been deliberately clouding the spying stuff to confuse people, such that they might just throw their hands up and say it’s too much to untangle. Apart from the (large) issue of Key failing to inform the public about what’s happening, there’s not much New Zealand can really do about the US spying on us. Taking a step back, spying is a long way away from most people’s lives — and I think the mantra of “if you have nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear” is enough to assuage people’s doubts.

The media is kinda annoying

Watching TV3’s coverage last night made me pretty angry at times. First of all, Paul Henry should be outlawed. He didn’t even try and present remotely balanced analysis — the whole night he was relentlessly negative about Labour. The other pundits on the panel wildly pontificated and spouted nonsense at every twist and turn too. Josie Pagani’s line that Labour’s strategy of winning by coming second was just absurd — I think that was more a statement of reality rather than a deliberate strategy. I don’t see the value in pundits at all.

I did enjoy the good humour of the journalists though. Most of them seemed to have been driven slightly delirious by the exhaustion of covering the campaign, and were just having a good-natured laugh.

What I didn’t enjoy was some of the intrusiveness of the reporters. For instance, Lisa Owen covering the Labour results party, who looked pissed she’d been sent there the whole time, and got right up in Cunliffe’s grill when he arrived and immediately started asking him questions about whether he was still going to be leader. I know it’s her job — but I don’t think she had to be so insensitive. I’ve generally liked her to-the-point style in the past on the Nation, but when she’s out the studio it seems way too abrasive. The same thing goes for the woman who covered the Internet MANA function. When Laila Harre arrived and the reporter started asking her combative questions Harre looked quietly furious and sort of looked like she was about to give her a shove. These politicians have just had a shit time working really hard to get a terrible election result, and I think it’s not too big an ask to just let them have a bit of space for a while. That said, I did thoroughly enjoy the reporter pestering Winston outside the lifts — that was just gold.

Further reading

Nandor Tanczos’ wrap up is one of the best I’ve read.

Gordon Campbell reflects on just how badly things have gone for Labour. In terms of my point about policy not appealing to people, he makes a good point about the capital gains tax (which is harsh but fair):

Essentially, Labour added a capital gains tax to social spending without convincing the public of the rationale for either, thereby leaving itself wide open to the old ‘tax and spend’ stereotypes. What it was too timid to promote – and too beholden to its Plus Winston strategy to consider – was an aggressive attack on the current economic settings, crony capitalism, concentrated wealth and workings of privilege. Labour completely failed to get across the message that its capital gains tax was a fairness issue – instead, the policy was largely presented as a technocratic fix to a structural imbalance in the economy, and argued by a Finance spokesperson so “responsible” he was virtually interchangeable with Bill English.

Hayden Eastmond-Mein, a social media advisor at the Green Party, writes about “Being Gracious in Defeat“.

Giovanni Tiso writes about the rebuild after the election defeat, and how the media needs to change.

Edited 22+24 September

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