You would get short odds predicting the NZ Labour party are analysing the British election like Game of Thrones fans analyse the Season 7 trailers. I can’t recall one column, opinion piece or interview from anyone in the NZ Labour party prior to the British election that suggested it was possible a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party could win or even that their manifesto was laudable. That was left to Martyn Bradbury, and I hope he wouldn’t be offended if I was to comment that he is not super popular in the Greens and Labour parties. Hell, not even Chris Trotter would defend Corbyn.
The result in the British election is almost the best possible result for Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. The Conservatives may form a government (and one day from Theresa May trumpeting the stability of their relationship with the DUP, they’ve already come close to derailing) but it is punch-drunk and reeling across the political landscape. That Conservative government has to enter into Brexit negotiations with Europe, and their weakness insures that deal will prove to be incredibly unpopular and costly for British voters. Labour is an effective, large and energised opposition for the first time since they lost power who get to oversee a Conservative party eating itself. Finally, by being in opposition but holding enormous momentum and public confidence, Corbyn can clear the decks of the undermining, backstabbing Blairite conspirators who spent the last years stabbing every item they could find into his back. Goodbye the legacy of being run by that war criminal corporate sycophant and his clones.
Our NZ Labour party will be trying to understand what parts of the strategy and the trigger points may be replicable here and what are not. A few commentators have given it a go: Hayden Donnell wrote an amusing piece that concluded that there really is nothing to learn from the UK because it’s different; Martyn Bradbury advised Labour to go left and be a counter to neoliberalism; Peter Dunne and Whaleoil are just very angry about the Labour party, any Labour party, for essentially existing; and other activist blogs I’ve read are angry at NZ Labour for not learning the lessons of UK Labour, which seems a bit premature given no-one in the NZ Labour party has said anything yet.
Overall, Corbyn’s win is being put down to some -isms: populism; socialism; neoliberalism. He did the first, he promised the second, he attacked the third. Potentially that was a real strategy, but I don’t think any of those -isms are relevant to our NZ Labour party. However, I think there are two essential aspects to the success of Corbyn and his Labour party in the UK that the NZ Labour party need to given due consideration to: sincerity and committing to fairness in society and the economy.
Whether people disagreed with him or not, whether they thought he was deluded or not, I think it is fair to assert that his supporters and opponents agreed that he believed in what he was saying and believed he was speaking truthfully. Corbyn comes across as fundamentally sincere. It led to a few gaffes, but it meant that there was no gap when he was answering questions about his values and beliefs. Conversely, we’ve all heard that gap on National Radio where Andrew Little is planning his response in his head to a question on values and beliefs on the basis of what his advisors told him polls well with voters, rather than answering sincerely. Most of us are very good at detecting the little cues in communication that indicate sincerity; you’d struggle to fake it and it is even more unlikely in our media given the saturation coverage of interviews.
The NZ Labour party needs to value sincerity in communication above branding and messaging. As voters we are surrounded by spin and by brands every day in every part of our life. We are deeply distrustful of spin and brands, even despondent. Sincere communicators are effective because they cut through and speak to our humanity. People can potentially be convinced to meet and engage with Andrew Little, Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson; they aren’t interested in meeting Labour party messaging and branding dressed in Little, Ardern or Robertson’s clothing.
I do not think the secret to Corbyn’s success was the resurgence of socialism. I suspect that UK Labour voters wouldn’t be able to describe socialism any better than NZ Labour voters could. However, I think UK Labour voters understood that they are working hard but not getting ahead, that the services and goods they rely on to make ends meet were becoming more and more expensive, whilst a small group of people were getting very rich. So at the heart of Corbyn’s policies was the principle of balance: if you earn more than other people, you contribute more, so that everyone can reasonably engage with their community and society. Also, Corbyn very clearly situated Labour as a party with a preference for the poor; in the midst of many choices, Corbyn said that the choice they would take is the one that benefited the poor the most.
NZ Labour has overcomplicated their policies because they seem unwilling to firmly align themselves with the poor and oppressed. They want to both please the wealthy, those who benefit from our economy, and the poor, but you actually can’t do both. You cannot protect the wealthy from paying more taxes and having their activities and investments regulated, and also address the significant economic and societal disparities. You cannot allow the wealthy to opt out of our social contract (Indeed, many do not want to). NZ Labour need have the courage to say both that if you earn more than other people, you contribute more, so that everyone can reasonably engage with their community and society, and that as a party they have a preference for policy that benefits the poor the most.
If it is a choice between an incumbent National Party with economic policies that benefit the wealthy with a frayed social net that is acceptable to middle class voters because they don’t have to rely on it, versus an untested Labour Party with economic policies that benefit the wealthy with a slightly less frayed social net that is acceptable to middle class voters because they don’t have to rely on it, then National wins a fourth term. But a Labour party led by people, not brands, that speak about fairness in the economy and the wealthy having to pay more because they have obligations to the social contract may speak to the malaise in our democracy. Can NZ Labour embrace the courage demonstrated by Corbyn for itself, or is it back to the polling tomorrow?