Monday, March 23, 2015

Small target strategy

In theory, elections allow the public to choose among (or, in proportional representation systems, the mix of) competing policy platforms. But not if Andrew Little has his way. In an interview with the New Statesman, he is clear that he will not allow the public to see Labour's policies in 2017:

Last year, one of Labour’s problems was drowning the electorate in policy detail. “What I’m determined is that for the 2017 election, we won’t do what we did last time, which was have 120-odd policies,” Little says. Instead the party will offer a pledge card highlighting five or six main policies, much like Tony Blair’s Labour Party in 1997.

Obvious snarks about the wisdom of reminding everyone that labour once stole public money aside, this is a deeply dishonest tactic. Its one thing to highlight your party's central policies, the ones that are a key part of your platform. Its quite another to offer nothing else. It raises the spectre of a hidden agenda, of policies the party doesn't want to share with the public. And because pretty obviously the Labour Party will have Ideas (and maybe even written policy - because it is the party which makes policy, not the caucus) on all those other areas, then the natural question will be why Little is trying to keep those policies secret. And if there's any surprises in those policies, then they will be that much more damaging for the attempted secrecy.

But in addition to questions about honesty, there's the simple fact that it won't work. Why? Because a blank space is an open invitation for the government and the media to fill it in. This isn't even necessarily hostile; a natural part of the process now under MMP is the media investigating the possible policy mix by asking potential coalition partners about each other's policies. And when Labour is asked whether it agrees with unpopular-minor-party-policy-X, it will be very difficult to credibly say "no" without something to point to with an alternative. And that uncertainty about what the party actually stands for and what it will agree to to gain power is unlikely to be a vote winner.

Honesty is the best policy. A party can be judged on its own policies, or it can be judged on other people's. Little's strategy pretty much guarantees the latter. Its not just wrong, its a mistake.

(Meanwhile, I'm also wondering if this is the latest bout in the struggle between the caucus and the rank-and-file, an attempt to take back the policy control seized by the party membership by tricking them into surrendering it as an electoral tactic, effectively giving the caucus a blank canvas. If so, the party membership may want to tell Little who is boss).