• Can Labour Win Next Time?

    There are never any final battles in politics. No one should begrudge John Key his moment of triumph on Saturday, but – as he will be well aware – the campaign for the next general election has already started.

    A 48% share of the votes cast was, on the face of it, an outstanding achievement. But we should bear in mind that fully two-thirds of New Zealanders eligible to vote did not give their support to National, either failing to register or vote, or voting for someone else.

    This was not, in other words, a coronation. Not everyone loves John Key. Yet we can already see the “elective dictatorship” syndrome in John Key’s claim that he has a mandate for asset sales, despite the incontrovertible polling evidence that the policy is opposed even by National voters.

    The election campaign was at times an unhappy experience for John Key. It revealed to his supporters, both amongst voters and in the media, a politician whom many may not have seen before. The images of an uncomfortable and defensive John Key, clearly irritated at being challenged and having to answer questions he would prefer to have ignored, will remain in the memory for a long time.

    Nor is it the case, as some have suggested, that Labour’s poor showing means that the next election is already a lost cause. We should not forget that, in 2002, National’s share of the vote dropped to just 22%, yet three years later, under the leadership of that “strange fellow” Don Brash, National very nearly pulled off a win.

    None of which means that there is any disguising the mountain Labour has to climb if it is to mount a real challenge in 2014. The first casualty of their failure has been their leader – rough justice in a sense, since Phil Goff emerged from the campaign with an enhanced reputation.

    The lesson that Labour must learn, though, is that elections are rarely won on the strength of a four-week election campaign. Labour worked hard through the recent campaign but they made virtually no progress in undermining the image that John Key had projected over the preceding three years.

    The truth is that Labour lost the election because they were, for most of the parliamentary term, an ineffective opposition. They did not work hard enough. They left their run, such as it was, far too late.

    Labour’s new leader needs to think hard about the politics of being in opposition. If they are to do better this term than last, there has to be a carefully planned, developed and staged strategy so that, by the time the next election campaign starts, the groundwork has been properly laid.

    The first objective must be to help voters to look behind the smile and the photo opportunities, and to ask the hard questions about exactly what the government is doing, what it has achieved, and – above all – whether the Prime Minister can be trusted to tell the truth. The goal must be an electorate that is ready to examine John Key’s words much more critically, and media that do their proper job of ensuring that voters are properly informed.

    A classic example will arise early in the life of the new government. John Key has so far avoided giving a straight answer to concerns about the foreign ownership of the assets that he intends to sell – concerns that are hardly surprising in a country that has already sold a higher proportion of its assets into foreign ownership than any other developed country.

    He hints that he will somehow ensure that shares in those assets will remain in New Zealand hands. Yet John Key knows (and Bill English has tacitly admitted) that the trade agreement with the United States and others that is currently being negotiated in secret is almost certain to make it illegal to discriminate against foreign investors when those assets are sold.

    The task of an opposition is to make sure that, on this and other similar issues, the Prime Minister cannot simply smile and shrug – and make up an answer that doesn’t quite mean what it seems to mean.

    The Labour front bench must also think harder about how and when to launch policies that are needed but contentious – policies like a capital gains tax, raising the retirement age, and extending the emissions trading scheme to agriculture. Policies like this should not be launched at the last minute, leaving little time for them to be properly understood.

    The policies that should appropriately be launched near or during the election campaign are those that will have a wide and immediate popular appeal – policies like raising the minimum wage or using the dole to subsidise youth employment.

    There are, in other words, three stages in a successful campaign. First, changing – through hard work and relentless pressure – the public perception of John Key as a leader who can be trusted. Second, taking enough time – well before the election – to build support for policies that opponents can easily misrepresent. And third, launching vote-winning policies so as to generate momentum through the election campaign.

    A new leader and a strategy like this could make for a very interesting election in 2014.

    Bryan Gould

    28 November 2011

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 30 November

  • Will He, Won’t He?

    While much of the country is focused on the Rugby World Cup, there is at least one group of people with a quite different contest at the top of their minds.

    With less than six weeks till the general election, the campaign managers for the major parties will be scanning the horizon for opportunities to advance their cause. While much that will be thrown up by the news stories over that period is unpredictable, other events are already well established in the calendar. Plans will be already well advanced to squeeze every last drop of political advantage from each of them.

    That work – as I know from my own experience of election campaign management – will have been going on throughout the World Cup tournament. The Prime Minister’s campaign team, during what John Key laughingly described as an election-free zone, has most reason to feel pleased with what they have achieved over this period.

    The rugby has provided not only a feel-good factor, but also a number of photo opportunities for the Prime Minister to confirm his role as the nation’s cheerleader. Not everything, though, has gone his way.

    The NRL Grand Final did not quite deliver the triumphant climax that the Prime Minister’s trip to Sydney demanded. And there have been difficult moments; the bungled attempt to put words in the mouths of Standard and Poor’s on the credit downgrade did not play well, and the public concern about the apparently ineffectual response to the Rena disaster must be placed on the debit side.

    The government has, not without reason, argued that the Rena is an operational matter, and is the responsibility of the appropriate authorities. The problem is, however, that a Prime Minister who succeeds in basking in the reflected glory of things that go well will sometimes find it difficult to skip away from those things that go badly.

    The campaign team will have been pleased, though, at their success in shifting the blame for the World Cup opening night transport fiasco on to Auckland local government; and they will now without doubt be eyeing up the possibilities presented by what we all hope will be a triumph on Sunday night.

    The stakes here for the campaign team will be high, and warrant a big play. But so will the risks if they get it wrong.

    They will be encouraged by an earlier success in the World Cup scenario. The match against Japan at Waikato Stadium presented an entirely appropriate occasion to recognise – through a minute’s silence – the terrible natural disasters suffered by both countries this year.

    It also allowed the Prime Minister, accompanied by the Japanese Deputy Prime Minister who may or may not have been aware of his supporting role in the drama, to walk on to the field and – having been unable to resist a cheery wave to the crowd as he did so – then be televised standing next to Richie McCaw and the All Blacks as the national anthems were sung. Of such moments are successful election campaigns made.

    But Sunday night is a different proposition altogether. There is, after all, a precedent, and one which will tempt the Prime Minister’s team greatly.

    Many people will remember the 1995 World Cup final in South Africa. The most enduring memory of that occasion is not necessarily Joel Stransky’s drop goal that won the match in extra time, but the appearance of Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springbok shirt, to greet the South African players and wish them well.

    The moment was full of symbolism. Here was the father of the nation, the newly elected President of the whole of South Africa, the man who had represented through a lifetime of sacrifice the ultimately successful struggle against apartheid, wearing a uniform that symbolised for most South Africans the hated minority that had oppressed them for so long.

    It was confirmation of the great generosity of spirit of the man that Nelson Mandela should choose to signal to his supporters in this way that South Africa was now one country – the rainbow nation. Here was one of the greatest men of the century showing huge magnanimity to his former oppressors and leading his new-born country to a new future.

    Does John Key dare to emulate this example? Would the NZRU and the All Black management play ball? Would the television companies cooperate? Is a politician seeking votes quite the same thing as a Head of State celebrating and confirming the birth of a new nation which he had brought into being? Nelson Mandela was after all giving something of himself to the Springboks and his country, not expecting to get some benefit for himself.

    These are the questions the campaign team will be agonising over. There will of course be thousands of supporters wearing the All Black jersey to signify their support on Sunday night. Why shouldn’t the Prime Minister do likewise? But how far can he push it? There will be more than one issue to be decided on Sunday night.

    Bryan Gould

    18 October 2011

  • The General Election Judgment

    A three-year electoral cycle may have its detractors – and, many would say, with good reason – but it is usually popular with first-term governments. The record shows that three years is not really long enough for voters to reach a definitive view that a recently elected government has failed, and the benefit of the doubt will usually mean a second term.

    Add to that a Prime Minister with an unusually acute instinct for the popular gesture and the 2011 election might reasonably be thought to be a shoo-in. There is, however, one possible fly in the ointment.

    “It’s the economy, stupid,” might not be such an obvious determining factor as it was claimed to be in Bill Clinton’s run for the presidency, but the way Kiwis feel about their economic situation on election day will clearly have a bearing on how they vote. And on that issue, the government’s record may not bear too much close scrutiny.

    The government inherited an economy which had already been in recession for most of a year, and which had then been assailed by the global financial crisis. Dealing with that recession and building an economy which would – as we emerged on the other side – reverse our decades-long comparative decline, was surely the most pressing task facing the new government.

    How, after three years in office, will the government be judged to have done?

    They have, after all, had their fair share of good luck. Record commodity prices have underpinned the economy and helped the balance of trade. Our banking sector has remained, by world standards, remarkably stable – though the same can’t be said of our finance companies. Our major export markets – Australia and China – have been beacons of light in the recessionary global gloom.

    Yet – our unemployment remains stubbornly high, the retail trade is flat on its back, the housing market has stalled, business confidence is low and business investment equally so, the protections that the vulnerable depend on in tough times have been reduced, and the talk is all of further cuts.

    The early flush of energy and enthusiasm – remember the “jobs summit”? – seem to have evaporated. The recession has lingered on well beyond what the forecasters predicted. There is precious little to show that the government has done more than hold the ring. We look in vain to see where the lift in demand and employment is to come from.

    And, most seriously, if and when we do recover, there is no evidence that anything will have changed. The problems that have dogged us for decades will remain unresolved.

    That, after all, was the central point made by Standard and Poor’s before Christmas. When they warned of a credit downgrade and placed us on negative watch, they pointed the finger specifically at the prognosis that, as we eventually do emerge from a protracted recession, all of our entrenched problems will also re-surface.

    They predicted that we would return to our bad old ways of failing to save and invest and wondering why our productivity does not improve faster, of bingeing on artificially cheap imports and expecting to be able to borrow overseas to fund our excessive consumption, of wringing our hands while our counter-inflationary policies force up interest rates and an already over-valued exchange rate.

    It was the prospect of the resultant deficit – the country’s rather than the government’s – and our reliance on overseas borrowing, that caused them real concern. Unusually, a credit-rating agency seems to be taking a longer-term view than that of our own government. Their message seems to be that, unless we grapple with those long-term problems, our credit rating is at risk.

    If all of this remains true on election day, if the remnants of recession still linger on and we are poised to resume the unsustainable rake’s progress that has held us back for so long, how will the voters mark the government’s report card? It has to be said that, as the outcome of three years in office, it would not look good.

    The government would surely not want to face the voters with a record that shows that nothing had really changed. Changes to the tax system, a renewed and welcome emphasis on research, and largely administrative fiddling with the delivery of education and health services may have their proponents but are hardly the stuff of fundamental economic reform.

    The Prime Minister is nothing if not a pragmatist. As he approaches the election, he will figure that he has most bases covered. He would be uncomfortable, therefore, with any vulnerability on his government’s economic record. Can we expect that he will understand the need – however belatedly – for an “agonising re-appraisal” when something isn’t working and to strike out in a new direction?

    Bryan Gould

    18 January

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 24 January.

  • The Election the Parties Lost But the Country Won

    The general election of 2010 was the most complex, fascinating and important British election of modern times. In one sense, it was the election that no one won. In another – and perhaps more significantly – it may have been the first election of a new twenty-first century era in which Britain has at last come to terms with the end of empire and abandoned the pretension to a world role.

    For Labour, it was undeniably a defeat, but a defeat on a smaller scale than might have been expected, and one that at least suggests that there is another day to live for. The result should certainly lead to a clear-out of a leadership that led the party down a cul-de-sac and wasted the greatest opportunity offered to a potentially reforming government since the end of the Second World War. The shocking invasion of Iraq, the obeisance to the excesses of the City, the tolerance of widening and damaging inequality in British society, the complicity in torture, were betrayals of principle that were not easily forgiven. A leadership that chose to identify itself by claiming “Newness” cannot complain if the passage of time exacts its toll. Nothing is now more past its sell-by date than “New” Labour.

    For the Conservatives, the result was bitter-sweet. David Cameron is in Downing Street and heads a government in which Tories hold the great offices of state. But the failure to win a majority was a fatal blow to any belief that Britain was about to return to its Conservative roots. If the Tories could not command a majority after thirteen years of a discredited Labour government headed by a deeply unpopular leader and off the back of the most severe recession in seventy-five years, it is hard to see the new Tory-led government as anything more than a default option.

    The election result suggests, in other words, that Conservative Britain is no more. Something less than a quarter of all those eligible to vote cast their vote for a Tory government. David Cameron cannot rely, as his predecessors have done for so long, on a substantial bedrock of conservative sentiment. Even the Sun and Lord Ashcroft’s millions could not swing it this time. We can no longer assume that Conservative government is the rule and other options are the exceptions.

    This is not to say that the outlook for the Conservatives is necessarily bleak. All depends now on Cameron’s ability to construct a new Tory support base, and he does at least – in addressing that task – have the advantage of being in government. Apart from all the other difficulties faced by his government, however, the one most likely to undermine his efforts to re-build Conservative support will be the refusal of his colleagues to understand their true situation. Too many of them will mistake the electorate’s impatience to dismiss a discredited Labour administration as an enthusiasm for the return of a Tory government, and will blame Cameron’s reforming moderation for failing to deliver a Tory majority. They will not understand that the constraints placed by the voters on the new government are a reflection of Tory weakness which only an acknowledgment of that weakness can hope to remedy.

    For the Liberal Democrats, though, these are heady days. They may not, however, last long. The euphoria following Nick Clegg’s revelatory contribution to the first leaders’ television debate was short-lived and did not translate into votes and even less into seats. The elevation of the Liberal leader to the role of kingmaker was a function of the failure of the two larger parties to secure a majority rather than of any sudden transformation of the Liberal Democrats’ electoral fortunes.
    A Difficult Hand for the Lib Dems to Play

    The Lib Dems, however, will prefer to look to the present and future, rather than to the immediate past. For once, the electoral system has worked to their advantage. They have been dealt an exciting but difficult hand. All will now depend on how well that hand is played.

    The dangers are all too apparent. The relationship in government between two parties which have on the face of it little in common and one of which is six times bigger than the other, at least in terms of seats, will always be difficult. For the smaller party, there is a tricky line to walk between on the one hand pushing for too much and being slapped down by the larger partner, and on the other being so subservient as to lose any separate identity.

    It is in the nature of the political struggle that both parties, however well-intentioned they may be at the outset of the coalition agreement, will have a careful eye on the end game. For the Conservatives, the aim will be to keep the Lib Dems on side for as long as possible, so that the new Tory-led government can establish a record of responsibility and achievement, before going to the country with the plea that the time has come to dispense with the exigencies and limitations of coalition politics and to provide the larger party with a full mandate.

    The Lib Dems on the other hand will want to support the coalition arrangement for long enough to demonstrate their fitness of government while at the same time maintaining a sufficiently separate identity as to allow them eventually to appeal to the electorate as a viable alternative to their erstwhile partners. Whatever his current and no doubt genuine commitment to the newly struck deal, Nick Clegg will inevitably be looking for issues on which to strike a different posture from that of the Tories – and perhaps even an issue on which he would be able to end the agreement and ask the voters to say that he was right to do so.

    The Lib Dems will not accept a future for themselves as permanently junior partners in a succession of coalition arrangements. They will inevitably aim to offer the principal progressive alternative to the Tories, even if the Tories succeed in presenting themselves as reformed and moderate. Their long-term game plan, in other words must be to supplant Labour as the main alternative to Conservatism. That is why a coalition with the Tories, quite apart from the fact that they had the most votes and seats, was a better option than doing a deal with Labour. It will be easier to establish a distinctive identity by breaking with the Tories than it would have been with Labour.

    These differing pressures will of course be played out in a context determined not just by the two party leaders but by their supporters as well. Those hinterlands are populated by many who are nastier and tougher – more committed party warriors perhaps – than they are. Both leaders, in other words, will have to face in opposite directions at the same time – towards their coalition partners and to their own party ideologues. That Janus-like stance is sure to become more difficult as time goes by.
    Policy Issues for the Coalition Government

    All this is to say nothing of the genuine differences of principle and policy that induced Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to join different political parties in the first place. The coalition deal required both parties to abandon at the outset policy objectives and prescriptions that had been regarded in both cases as central to their differing stances. While many both within the Lib Dems and outside will welcome Nick Clegg’s abandonment of the anachronistic commitment to joining the euro-zone, those differences – over Europe, immigration, economic policy, tax and public services – will still be there.

    They will have to be negotiated in a context that is as difficult as any faced by any post-war government. The over-riding priority has to be the recovery from recession and the re-structuring of a British economy in serious and long-term imbalance. The immediate policy issue to be resolved is the response to be made to the government deficit – itself, ironically, the consequence of the massive failures of the private sector.

    The Conservatives will regard the size of that deficit as anathema and its reduction as the most urgent priority of the new government. There will be many Lib Dems, but perhaps not including Nick Clegg, who will want a more Keynesian approach, recognising the deficit not only as the price to be paid for past errors but as providing the essential breathing space to allow for a recovery that will be all the stronger if based on building rather than cutting; and the stronger the recovery, the quicker the deficit will come down. And the pain suffered mainly by the most vulnerable as a result of unnecessarily and ideologically driven deep and immediate cuts will not ease the path of either coalition partner to electoral success at the next election.

    While building a stronger and fairer British economy may top the list, there is a second objective of scarcely less importance – the restoration of faith in democratic politics and of Britain’s reputation in the world. Riding shotgun to George Bush’s out-of-control sheriff did enormous damage to our standing. A return to something like Robin Cook’s “ethical foreign policy” is desperately needed, but is likely to commend itself more to the Lib Dems than to the Tories.
    Electoral Reform – Is It Really A Game-Breaker?

    Many Lib Dems, however, will be ready to accept almost anything as long as they secure delivery of their central goal – electoral reform, which they have persuaded themselves will transform their prospects. The commitment to a referendum on the Alternative Vote may not, though, deliver that to them. Quite apart from the need to secure the legislation for a referendum, the Alternative Vote is not the most obvious or effective form of proportional representation and there is no guarantee that the voters would support it. And even if PR is achieved, the consequences for the Lib Dems may not be quite what they expect.

    The experience of New Zealand, which changed from first-past-the-post to a proportional system fourteen years ago, is that voters have a surprising ability to maintain the fundamental choice between a left-of-centre government and a right-of-centre government, even under a proportional system. PR may, in other words, mean that every vote gained because the Lib Dems are newly seen as serious contenders for power might be matched by the loss of a Lib Dem vote that had previously been cast as a form of protest. Fortunately for democracy, we know little about what determines the way people vote.

    This is not to say that there is not a good case for electoral reform. The New Zealand experience is again informative. The real significance of abandoning single-party government is the change that it brings to the process of government. The New Zealand experience of minority-led government has been that Ministers are constantly engaged in a process of negotiation; each piece of legislation, each major policy decision, has to be preceded by discussions to ensure that a parliamentary majority exists to support that particular measure.

    Curiously, this does not seem to have meant that the government’s programme is hopelessly delayed or frustrated. It has meant, at times of course, that legislation cannot be introduced until the necessary deals have been done, but the corollary is that the passage of more thoroughly prepared and carefully drafted legislation – once introduced – is smoother and takes less time. An even bigger plus is that the legislation – appealing as it must to a wider constituency than that represented by just one party – is often more soundly based and widely supported, with more of its contentious rough edges rounded off.

    The psychological change is also important. There is less of Quintin Hogg’s “elective dictatorship”. There is less obsession with doing down the opposition parties at every opportunity, since their support might be needed on the next item in the government’s programme. Governments are not only freer, but are required, to think more about broad-based positions than about the immediate party battle. There is a greater understanding of the value of broad public support and keeping in touch with public opinion. And Parliament itself is more widely representative of the range of opinion, and its members have a greater interest in and understanding of the processes and responsibilities of government.
    Welcome to the Twenty-First Century

    Perhaps the most significant long-term consequence of the 2010 general election, however, is that it may herald the demise of a dominating aspect of British politics for 200 years or more, the sense that in electing a British government we are also electing an administration that will play a significant role in governing the world. The oft-repeated need for “strong” government is in many ways a hangover from an imperial past when British education, public service and government were directed at providing able administrators to run large parts of the globe. Certainty and authority in decision-making were everything.

    But today, Britain’s role is as a medium-sized country which needs to focus on creating an effective, inclusive and prosperous democracy at home, rather than on wasting resources and energy on pretensions to a world role that is now beyond us. Other comparable countries, in Europe and elsewhere, have done very well without our particular obsession with “strong” (for which read “tribal”) single-party government and a winner-takes-all electoral system. A sustained experience of coalition government and a more representative Parliament, with all that that means in terms of inclusiveness, responsiveness and taking the wider view, might help us to that realisation.

    Bryan Gould

    15 May 2010.
    This article was published on the Newnations website www.newnations.com on 18 May

  • The Real Story of the 2010 Election

    Let us make some entirely plausible assumptions about the outcome of the general election. Let us assume that the Conservatives attract the largest share of votes, but fall short of a majority either of votes or of seats. Let us assume that Labour comes second or third in terms of the number of votes but might actually win the greatest number of seats, though still well short of a parliamentary majority. And finally let us assume that the Liberal Democrats score well – and perhaps substantially better than was expected at the outset of the campaign – in both votes and seats and, as a necessary consequence, hold the balance of power.

    The first issue will be for the Queen and her advisers. In such circumstances, who does Her Majesty ask to form a government? Do her advisers stick to precedent and advise that Gordon Brown, as the incumbent and commanding the greatest number of seats, should get the nod? Or do they pay attention to the pre-election assertion by Nick Clegg that, as a proponent of proportional representation, he would support only the Party leader who had gained the biggest share of the vote?

    I suspect that the advisers would initially stick to precedent and that Gordon Brown would be asked to give it a try. I further suspect that, unless he were prepared to give a guarantee of a referendum on electoral reform, his attempt would founder on Clegg’s determination to stick to his guns. The failed attempt could, however, take some time before the failure became definitive.

    The Queen would then ask David Cameron to form a government. He would seem to have a better chance of success, being able to argue that he had won the greatest share of votes. Nick Clegg would again try to extract a major commitment on electoral reform, but Cameron would refuse to accommodate him. Clegg would, however, be compelled, for fear of being accused of irresponsibility and of forcing a second and unwanted election on the country, to do some sort of deal to allow Cameron to form a government.

    That deal would probably fall short of a formal coalition but might take the form of an undertaking to support the new government on issues of confidence and supply. It might be time-limited, but whether or not the deal included any such formal provision, the issues of how long it might last and of the circumstances in which it might be brought to an end would constitute the real story of the 2010 general election.

    The parties to the deal, both Cameron and Clegg, would have clear but conflicting strategic objectives. Both could imagine scenarios which would greatly advance their parties’ interests.

    Cameron would hope to emulate the experience of other leaders of minority governments who had used the prestige of government to underpin their electoral appeal and to push on in a second election to achieve an overall majority. Harold Wilson pulled this trick off twice.

    But it might not be so easy this time. Cameron has to grapple with urgent and desperate issues. He either begins to deal with them effectively and accepts the pain that will inevitably attend such an enterprise, or he ducks the issues and is easily attacked as failing to attack the country’s all too obvious problems. A year or two into a new Tory government, and the voters could be – one way or another – badly disappointed. The honeymoon this time might be a very short one.

    For Nick Clegg, the issues are almost equally daunting. His task will be to pull the plug on the new government at a time when he won’t be accused of irresponsibility and of plunging the country into further electoral turmoil. He will want an issue which will, from both a position of principle and of prospective electoral advantage, allow him to go to the country as the alternative government. He will argue that while he had played his part in providing stable government he could no longer support a Tory-led administration that was heading down the wrong path. But his long-term objective would rest on the assertion that the Lib Dems were now the only party that could both defeat the Tories and form a stable majority government.

    It is now 100 years since Labour began its push to supplant the Liberals as the alternative to the Tories. The Conservatives, like the poor, are always with us (and some would argue that there is a causal connection between the two propositions). The perennial question in British politics is as to who will constitute the alternative. Today’s Liberals have their sights on the real possibility of reversing 100 years of history.

    Bryan Gould

    4 May 2010

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 5 May.