Where is the Middle?

Labour needs to work out whether they go for the "missing million" or the middle voters. And if they get it wrong they could be looking at another 6 years in opposition

When Labour decides who will be the next leader, it is of interest to all of us involved in politics. After all the person chosen could be New Zealand's next Prime Minister. So the debate on the nature of the choice is not one that is the sole preserve of those who actually get to vote in this contest.

The potential leaders and their supporters are still wrestling with the choice between going left or going to the centre. When National had this same debate (except it was about going right) in 2006, the answer was pretty obvious. Choosing John Key after Don Brash meant going to the middle, and that was clear to the whole caucus.

I know that many on the left harbour fantasies that John Key is just itching to slap down a hard right agenda as soon as he gets the chance. But surely it is obvious by now, that it is just that, a fantasy. John Key by instinct, and I suspect by upbringing, is a politician who naturally cleaves to the centre. And it obviously works.

So what does Labour do in response, go after the same ground or find fresh ground? It seems pretty obvious to me that Labour has to win over some of the voters who are currently voting National, say around 5 to 10%. This would reduce National to between 37 and 42%. At 42%, National could still form a government, especially if the Conservatives get over 5%. So it really has to be the higher figure. 

So how is it done? Well, people currently voting National are unlikely to be won over by a hard left agenda. So one of the 2014 flagship policies must be up for question.

Capital gains tax scares these voters, precisely because New Zealanders have so much money tied up in real estate. A lot of middle New Zealanders, by the time they are in their 50's and 60's, own a flat or two for future retiremement income. Capital gains taxes will directly affect them. No wonder Helen Clark never went there in her 9 years in office. You would think that might be the first lesson for aspiring Labour leaders; learn from those who succeeded.

But more specifically one of the things you have to do in Opposition is work out why people are voting for the other side. Promising to undo all their evil works is unlikely to impress the electorate. After all some of these evil works are precisely the reason why your opponents got elected.

So what has National done that Labour now just needs to accept? My list is as follows:

  • National Standards
  • Ninety day trial periods 
  • The Hobbit provisions
  • Roads of National Significance
  • RMA reforms
  • TTPA - if it happens
  • Whanau Ora
I am sure other lists could be constructed.

Winning elections is mostly about setting the new agenda, not about the reversing everything the previous government has done, although there does need to be one or two symbolic things just to show how bad the previous government was. For Labour in 1999 it was the ECA and ACC. But in both cases they did not go all the way back to the way it was, they moved the debate on. Similarly National in 2009 did not entirely repeal all of the Electoral Finance Act.

As yet, it does not appear that Labour has done this hard thinking. All too often they look like they want to pretend that the last 6 years (now 9) did not happen.

However if they don't do it now, the electorate is likely to give Labour another 3 years beyond 2017 to reflect on why they are in opposition.