The Common Good - parallels in the UK’s economy

The challenges faced by Labour in opposition here and in the UK are similar. Both face an economy that is entering a modest cyclical upswing, and right-wing governments wanting to claim it as their recovery.

In my (paywalled) Listener column this month I focused on National and Labour’s competing economic themes in election year. 

I wrote that National’s challenge is to make sure its fairytale of economic recovery doesn’t sound like a good story happening to someone else. Otherwise it’ll end up being what the UK newspaper, The Telegraph has called ‘a voteless recovery’. 

A recovery story is useless unless people believe they are the ones to benefit from it.

Anyway, for the National Government to claim it’s management is responsible for the recovery is an unearned narrative, and a claim only true if you think the modest business cycle upturn is somehow the product of ‘rock star’ economic management.

In 2008, in addition to spinning a fairytale that John Key’s experience as a money market dealer would make us all rich, National made some specific promises about jobs, debt and catching up to Australia. You can check in on their progress in keeping these promises on this website:

Now, instead of reminding us that they broke these promises, National is taking forecasts of the 12-month GDP figure as reason for its re-election.

Critics of the government have never claimed that the economy would not recover at all or that the business cycle has suddenly ceased to exist. We claim that the recovery is weaker and later than it should have been, and that the government has used the global crisis as an excuse to redistribute wealth and incomes from nearly everyone to the already privileged. 

Upwards redistribution is National’s deliberate policy aim. The substandard economic performance we have endured is the natural and inevitable outcome of taking from the many to give to the few. National’s refusal to pull growth levers other than those enriching their cronies has made most New Zealanders worse off than we could have been, and this will continue.

So I was interested to read in the same Telegraph column  about some parallels in the UKwhere an Opposition Labour Party is confronting an economy that is entering a modest cyclical upswing. Discount the Telegraph’s ritual nods to its Tory-voting supporters, but there are familiar approaches on each side.

Labour leader, Ed Milliband, slams the Conservatives for distinguishing the cost of living from their economic plan. He focuses on “how to ensure that the common good is served by the return of prosperity.” I like the left owning the concept of ‘the common good’ as a positioning for the ‘many not the few' theme David Cunliffe has made his own.

As in New Zealand, the immovable obstacle for the Tories is that most people are being left out of the recovery.

“George Osborne knows full well – wearing his political strategist’s hat – the return of growth is electorally useless unless the voters believe that he and his fellow Tories want its proceeds to benefit the whole of the country and not just the gaggle of bankers, Rotarians, golfers, hangers, floggers, Spode-alikes, blazer-wearers, bigoted birdwatchers, angry bloggers, global conspirators, and black tie enthusiasts.”

Conservative voters are everywhere the same, aren’t they?

There are some attacks the Conservatives can make on Labour that National can’t make here. David Cameron asks, “Do you want to hand the keys back to the people who crashed the car?” In contrast to UK Labour, Labour in New Zealand is in no way responsible for financial market deregulation behind the global crash. Even Bill English observed on taking office that Michael Cullen had the books in strong shape entering the global meltdown.

But UK Labour has a bigger swell of public resentment to draw on: The country has been through a bigger recession. George Osborne’s austerity economics look much more like Ruth Richardson’s disastrous slash and burn than Bill English’s sinking lid.

I am skeptical that any Opposition can win government by focusing on the Government’s past mistakes - on what Bill English ‘should have done’ differently. It risks sounding like an attempt to persuade voters they were wrong three years ago. And I reject the notion that governments lose elections rather than oppositions win them. 

For a start its a risky strategy to make your chances of victory dependent on the government making mistakes, or the voters deciding it's your turn. It’s also unprincipled. People want to hear a positive programme from oppositions, especially progressive parties on the Left. We always believe the status quo can be improved on, that things can be better for more of the people more of the time. We’re driven by a divine discontent that has brought about more changes in New Zealand than any other political movement, from votes for women and the 40 hour week, to free secondary education and paid parental leave.

The Right is generally happy with the way things and are happy to lay claim to less ambition. They just think they are the better managers of the status quo.

But dwelling on the recent past of the incumbent is useful as a narrative about the source of the country’s ills and to spot entrenched policy capable of being remodeled by a change of government.

The question David Cunliffe will need to focus on, then, is the same Ed Milliband is framing: ‘What kind of economic renewal does the country want?’ 

He’ll need to say that you cannot separate a story about economic recovery from the cost of living. If recovery isn’t impacting on your wallet, then whose recovery is it?

Until the global economy melted down in September 2008, Key and English expected New Zealand's economy would recover from a cyclical downturn without going into recession, so they asked whether the gains of growth would be distributed in the form of $50 a week tax cuts under National, or go to bureaucrats and beneficiaries under Labour. 

This was an effective framing of a choice about competing visions for running a recovering economy. 

The updated question has to be about whether the gains of prosperity will serve the common good, or be hoarded by National’s gaggle of bankers, blazer-wearers, bigots and angry bloggers.