Clark hints that Labour will pin its re-election hopes on a new housing scheme for first home buyers
It's been clear for months that Labour was going to need more than a steady-as-she-goes platform to win this year's election. Behind in the polls for so long, they needed a circuit breaker. The global financial crisis has given them one, and in these first few days of the campaign Helen Clark has used it to great effect, ramming home her message of experience and competence. But while that has given her an opening, it doesn't nearly close the deal.
Kiwis may be fearful, they are also fed-up. As important as they are in this campaign, voters want more than improved government services and the wisdom of experience before they'll give their ticks to Labour; they want something financially tangible that puts the rewards of nine prosperous years in their own pockets. Voters needed a sensible reason to vote Labour, something convincing to tell their friends. The 'experience in tough times' argument gives them that. But so does John Key's 'time for a change' pitch, so at best that's a neutraliser. What Labour has lacked, what it needed to give voters this campaign, was a selfish reason, something they could use to convince themselves when they're lying on bed worrying about whether their family will be better-off in the future.
So Labour was always going to deliver an October Surprise–some fresh, big piece of spending that would give the voters something new from an old government. Yesterday's universal student allowance was a good taster, but was never enough to be the main course.
I have long argued that the real circuit-breaker, this year's interest-free student loans, would be in housing (Just ask the Act activist I was lecturing on the subject at the Epsom candidates' debate last week!) And it looks like I may be right. Helen Clark positively glowed when she said on tonight's One News/YouTube debate that there would be "more to come" from her party when it comes to helping first-home buyers into a house of their own. I wouldn't like to say whether it will be in the form of low interest, help with deposits, some rent-to-buy scheme, or what, but given the pressure on the government books now it presumably has to be a policy that spreads the cost over the long-term.
For the Labour it's the perfect mix of ideologically consistent with Labour party tradition, and it's potentially a huge vote-winner with young families and, just as importantly, their parents and grandparents. Perhaps just as importantly, Labour strategists will hope that this could make a nine year-old government look like the one with the fresh ideas.
Where I was wrong was timing. I assumed they'd let the momentum from the weekend build, let National hang now that it seems to have made all its big policy announcement, and then release their big carrot about two weeks out. But Clark mentioned an announcement "tomorrow", so it seems that after the right jab of guaranteeing bank deposits and the left uppercut of universal student allowances, she's going for a triple whammy. Labour is too far behind on points to be able to deliver a knock-out punch, this will be a close points decision come November 8, but this housing announcement will be the most telling blow of the campaign yet. Can John Key shake his head, clear his eyes, and come back swinging?