What negative campaigning National has done has been very effective. Within 30 seconds of any political debate, someone will start droning on about 'nanny state,' 'state control,' 'being told what to do' and 'political correctness' - all signs of a complete lack of cerebral function in the entity speaking (take a bow, Jock Anderson, on the Panel yesterday), but it is also an indication of how difficult Labour's position is. National haven't engineered this mood - it is the inevitable result of one party being in government too long. They have, however, managed to identify themselves as the sensible alternative to more of the same, rather smartly.
So Labour have to find a way to actually make people want to vote for them again. This won't win the the election, in all likelihood, because the gap is too wide. But it might force National into releasing policy, making statements and, crucially, making mistakes.
The worst thing Labour can do is try to play National's game. Attacking John Key will have a marginal effect, at best. It might make a difference if it was a handful of point seperating the parties, but when the gap is a gulf, shooting squibs at the leader will fall a long way short. Unless they have something that would destroy Key in the yees of the voters, they need to find something else. The impetus isn't with them on this one. People aren't going to vote Clark because they dislike Key - the deep seating dislike of Clark and hergovernment is ensures that only works one way.
The other part of the National strategy - be vague, vague and then vaguer still - also won't work for Labour. Given the choice between an unpopular adminsitration that is promising nothing much, and a popular opposition that is promising nothing much, it is obvious who is going to win. Labour can't damage Key enough (child eating revelations not-withstanding) and they can't simply smile and nod their way to victory - or anywhere near it - from 20 points back.
I hate the term vision, because it always makes me think about George Bush I wittering about the "Vision thing" and it also smacks of Michael Laws, but Labour need something that will actually get people a bit excited about the party - persuade enough of the defectors to come back so as to give the party a chance of getting within grabbing distance of Key's shirt tails. THEN the slow accumulation of doubts and questions about Key and National will start to be important. Do we really want to look at that smirk for another three years? Can we really trust him? Is he competent? At this stage, none of these things matter, because large parts of the electorate would vote for anything other than Labour - but if Labour can claw back enough support, it might make a difference.
The other factor is the possibility that National will have to rethink their strategy. If they see their poll lead shrinking they may risk putting policy out there to be attacked. If people start getting interested in another three years of Labour, National will have to say, "No, we're different and interesting! Vote for us!" and at that point they become vulnerable, because Labour will be able to critique their policy and there is a very strong liklihood (given the staggering uselessness of most of the National front bench) that they will cock up in some way.
Labour can't squat on the centre ground, however. National has taken it over, albeit under false pretences. Labour needs to present some real, interesting, social democratic ideas trhat will get people excited about voting for them again. Totlally off the top of my head, here are some of the things they could do that might work for me:
- Kiwisaver for all. Every child born in New Zealand is automatically enrolled in Kiwisaver and given their thousand dollar start up - plus, perhaps, a further annual addition from the public purse. This would have some massive, positive impacts down the line - first, making all New Zealanders into good savers from birth, and giving many more people the chance to own their own home, if they decide to use their savings for that.
- Free public transport. Encourage people to take the bus or train by making it free. People can apply for a travel card (perhaps a one off or annual fee) which allows them to use buses, trains, trams within urban areas. Perhaps each citizen is allocated a certain number of miles they are entitled to use free of charge - which would give people the motiation to use up their miles each year.
- 'Opt out' unionisation. All employees are automatically enrolled in a union of their choice unless they specify non-membership (in which case, obviously, they will be paid less). This might conjure images of Britain's Winter of Discontent, but in fact large union membership tends to diminish radicalism, not encourage it. The anecdotal stories I've heard show that voluntary union membership doesn't work - the owners are against it, and will use all manner of dirty tricks to prevent it.
- Free education. All these 'voluntary' fees need to go. Pay through taxation instead, which is fairer and at least does get paid. And further ...
- Educational allowance from age 16 onwards. People leave school to get jobs because they need money. It seems treasonable, soince education is a desirable goal, thet those between 16 and (for argument's sake) 18 are compensated int he short term for doing something that will benefit us all in the long term - staying in education, building up qualifications and then going on to becoming more effective tax payers. The obvious way is simply to pay 'em for remaining in school.
- Renationalise electricity. Just like buying back the railways makes sense in the era of climate change, it make sense to have state control over electricity generation. It is absurd to have profiteering the primary motive behind electricity supply. It should be providing clean, sustainable power. Lets not give Bolger control over it though, otherwise he'll start putting on all sorts of airs and graces and start calling himself King Jim, or something.
- Compensation for victims of crime. A lot of crime is a symptom of social ill - it flourishes in societies that are rotting. As society has allowed or even encouraged these problems (take a bow, Richardson and Douglas), society owes something to the victims, just as employers owe something to those hurt ithrough unsafe workplace practices. We deal with the latter through ACC. There should be something similar for victims of crime to help them deal with the consequences of their misfortune.
Obviously, all of the above would not be an option, but some of it might be. And it would give people positive reasons for voting Labour - positive big government. It strikes a chord because it runs contrary to the modern, miserable individualistic trend - the idea that we are a society and we can make communal decisions like that almost has the sniff of dangerous radicalism about it.