Gently worn laundry

Comes in varying colours, none of them blue.

There has been further discussion this week about how Labour should approach this parliamentary term. Mike Smith at the Standard hopes this can form “a reasonable discussion about how well [Labour’s plans are] working, and what else might work better.” I am happy to participate.

1. Big picture looks cautiously positive.

Pundit’s poll of polls currently has Labour sitting on 31.5%, up from 27.5% at the election, and the Greens on 12% up from 11% at the election. Gaining five points as a putative bloc within eight months isn't bad. So over the sweep of the term thus far, I think you have to say there is some success there for Labour and the left.

To be sure, that success was aided by a poor government performance over that same period, and I agree with those who say Labour will have to tighten up its act, especially in non-policy areas like criticizing your own team publicly, to make those gains continue. David Shearer himself made that point, very publicly, this week. In political science, we call this the “valence” dimension of politics, and there is robust evidence that it matters.

2. A successful tack to the centre?

More recently, and to the dismay of some, Labour has made an apparent pitch for some of the people who voted Labour in 2005 but have voted National since. There are over 100,000 such people, and winning their votes back in a sense counts double, because it increases the left bloc and also decreases the right bloc. Convincing 100,000 centrists is as valuable in terms of seats in parliament as mobilizing 200,000 previous non-voters.

So, did that strategy work? I haven't the faintest clue.

It is, of course, enormously too early for anyone to tell, let alone those of us who rely only on headline poll numbers. And I would be pretty surprised if the strategy consisted only of an anecdote in a speech, so we also need to give Labour time to implement their plan properly before we try to assess it. I do not think we will know for a year or more.

3. What else might work better?

I take Mike’s asking of this question to mean that any strategy, no matter how good it already might be, can always be improved. I do not think he is simply assuming the answer to his first question “how is the centrist thing going?” to be “terrible!”

The first answer Mike offers is to “have something relevant to say to voters.” Yes! I expect nobody, down to a person, in Labour’s caucus would disagree with a desire to say something relevant. But this idea lacks specificity. What might that relevant thing be? Given you can't say persuasively say 100 relevent things at once, which one do you want to say first? And given that not everybody reacts the same way to all relevant things, will the relevant thing you choose to say first be more likely to appeal to a committed left voter, a sometimes left voter, or a previous non-voter? Mike’s idea is nice but it isn't a plan, and it is also implied in all the other options I suggested on Tuesday. How do you change people's perceptions of National? Say something relevent to them. Etc.

Mike’s other suggestion was:

The next election is now a little over two years away. At some stage Labour has to look and sound like an alternative government, with relevant policies and messages that resonate with the teacher, the truckdriver, and the beneficiary. Right now would be a good time to start getting it together.

I am sure the caucus and boffins in Labour are working on these things (“starting to get it together”), but they will need more time before it is all ready to go public. August 2012 is not a good time to publish the 2015 Budget. The virtue of patience is never truer, nor harder to enact, than in political opposition.

And in the mean time, oppositions have another job, the one they are paid to do even if Mike thinks it comes off sounding too negative. As Danyl put it:

When you’re in opposition, the best way to not look like an idiot is to do a good job at making the government look like idiots.

4. On shooting our own feet

I think sometimes our productive discussion is undercut when people start to create boxes for others. For example, Bryce Edwards in the Herald says that many poli-nerds think “political parties are 'hostages' of the fixed ideological preferences of voters,” and that “Parties do not exist to put forward policies to change the world, but to respond to the views of the electorate.”  He says I “epitomize” that view. Bryce contrasts this with the very reasonable idea, clearly also Bryce’s view, that “ideological preferences of the public are far from fixed and are shaped by the actions of political parties.”

I think Bryce is creating a straw man. Can anyone look at political parties and say they have no desire and no ability to change the world? Can anyone look at voters and say that none of them ever change their minds? Of course not.

When we start creating boxes for one another, we stop engaging constructively.

For the record, political parties can and regularly do change both the minds of voters and the world. That is why I am a member of one! I do think, however, there are real limits on how broadly and how far one political party can alter public opinion in one go. There are some issues where political parties have an easier time changing minds, and other issues where it is harder. New issues are easier. Issues that have had the same basic contours for ages are harder. Issues that affect might someone’s own back pocket are usually harder, while issues that only affect other people’s back pocket are easier.

In my view, welfare falls on the more difficult end (established issue, established contours, affects everyone's back pocket), which is why I think Labour reading and – partially – reacting to public sentiment makes sense. But as I said in my last post, there are also limits in how much a party can do this and remain a party that stands for something. Work for the Dole schemes are very popular, but I do not think Labour should propose one.