Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Labour's populist strategy

In the Independent today (offline), Chris Trotter takes a break from desperately pimping Phil Goff for the Labour leadership to talk instead about Labour's strategy. The announcement that Auckland Airport would be protected as a strategic asset, he suggests, wasn't just an attempt to wedge John Key, but also an attempt to make an end-run around a hostile (or just plain bored) media :

One way to do this is to announce policies of such boldness and populist appeal that with no more than the media's straight-forward reportage of the facts the government will win the support it needs to shore up (and hopefully increase) its dwindling electoral prospects. It's a difficult strategy for Labour's media foes to counter, because, short of point-blank refusing to print or broadcast any of the government's actions, Labour's message cannot be prevented from getting through.
That's one aspect, but I think there's another one as well: as a three-term government seeking a fourth, Labour has to offer more than just good political management and "a safe pair of hands" - they need to offer people positive reasons to vote for them, which outweigh their desire for change and disgust at the government's growing arrogance. This means not just serving up good, populist policy - but good, populist policy that the opposition will instinctively oppose (thereby giving people a positive reason not to vote for them). They need, in other words, the "vision thing".

As for what sorts of policies, my list of possibilities is pretty much the same as Trotter's: abolishing student fees and restoring living allowances, strong measures to remove the debt burden by those generationally penalised by student loans, buying back the trains (whoops, they're already working on that), a radical expansion of paid parental leave (I'd also add significant moves to boost the public health and education systems; Labour's slow and steady progress in these areas has been good, but has failed to deal with the fundamental problem of underfunding). These are all policies which are solidly left yet have broad public appeal beyond the groups immediately affected, which make our society more equitable, and which National can neither support nor oppose without paying a significant political cost, either with their own base or the more moderate voters whose support they are relying on to become government. One or two of these moves should help boost Labour's fortunes and make the election competitive.

Trotter's concern here is that having got on the "populist tiger", Labour might not be able to get off. My question is "why would they want to"? Unlike Trotter, or National, I don't think "populism" is a dirty word. In a democracy, governments should be responsive to the people. But clearly, the business audience Trotter writes for in the Independent would beg to differ.