Labour launch strong on personality and positioning

Jacinda Ardern. Photo NZ Herald
Jacinda Ardern. Photo: ODT files
The good news for Labour at its campaign launch on Sunday was Jacinda Ardern: sure-footed, traditional-and-modern and an overflow crowd ranging from fired-up to goggle-eyed.

For that crowd Ardern personified the change they want and sense but thought 'til three weeks ago was beyond the horizon.

She asserted Labour tradition, invoking Michael Joseph Savage, Peter Fraser, Norman Kirk, David Lange and Helen Clark (in the audience supporting her former staffer).

But she also staked a distinct position for herself in that tradition. Her stern pronouncement of climate change as ``my generation's nuclear-free moment'' linked her generation to Clark's on-the-way-out generation while pitching to the 30s and younger in a way upper-50s like Bill English cannot.

Throughout she sounded like a Prime Minister (-to-be) - as she did last week in managing her first micro-crisis (Chris Hipkins) and a Foreign Minister's improper interference in our election attacking Labour over the citizenship fiasco in her government (Julie Bishop).

And the speech was Ardern's, not some swizzy political consultant's. The staging was by event-managers, but she wrote her words.

This is for now Ardern's Labour Party, as it has been no leader's since Clark.

But will she boldly go where no other Labour leader has gone? Her launch was positioning, not policy.

She did talk of ``wellbeing'' in relation to the economy, which points to her building in government on the Treasury's exploration of wellbeing economics.

I am told she still intends to tax wealth - which is at the heart of the inequalities she says she wants to fix - even though the debate has recently slid sideways on to capital gain tax, which is income tax, not wealth tax.

And, while there is a timing issue, agriculture is still on her ``all gases'' climate change agenda.

Revolution or evolution? The Greens see light between their climate change policy and Labour's. The Opportunities Party, averaging 2.5% in polls and rising, see much light between its tax policy and Labour's.

Still, both those parties would make workable policy partners if in government.

The Greens are bleeding after Ardern's filching back of Labour deserters and their own reopening of the deep rift within their ranks.

Opening that rift causes periodic havoc.

In the early 1980s ``socialists'' or ``neo-Marxists'' battled the ``environmentalists'' for the soul of the Values Party, the Greens' predecessor, and won. Values disappeared.

In the early 1990s, after getting 7% in the 1990 election, the Greens went into old-socialist NewLabour's Alliance. Many deserted. They returned when the Greens exited the Alliance.

The Greens then built themselves a stable base of around 8% before adding those Labour deserters in 2011 and 2014.

Then in July the party re-ran those 1980s/1990s fights. Social welfare grabbed the conference headlines. Metiria Turei unapologetically owned up to welfare fraud as a young mother. ``Environmentalist'' Ken Graham and Dave Clendon objected and left the list.

The executive backed Turei, excommunicated Graham and thereby, given Graham's extraordinary achievement in pulling together an all-party group on climate change, transgressed a much trumpeted party tenet of democratic consensus.

The reopening of that rift exposes a deeper question for leader James Shaw. Are the Greens nearing their use-by?

Labour is now nearly as green as many Greens. For Greens, is it now easier to be far more socialist than Labour than to be far more green than Labour?

Are the Greens now just a useful fringe coalition partner for Labour?

Transition is not just for Greens or Labour. National, too, faces change despite its asserted continuity.

The raft of 30-somethings taking over safe or near-safe electorates this election will (most of them) bring a more attuned view of ``green'' issues from the askance view of English, Steven Joyce and their contemporaries.

English so far has been projecting a straight line ahead for the country: steady governance, budget surpluses and swags of bridges, roads, hospitals and schools.

He will need to project as well on Sunday at National's launch a sense that he can be relevantly up with the pace in 2020.

He and campaign manager Joyce also need to somehow both ignore (play down) and not ignore (spread alarm about) Ardern.

There has been a whiff of fear in English's sudden wish for an end to loan-to-value ratios (in case some of middling voters go ``underwater'' on house loans), his unconvincing conversion to boot camp treatment for the worst young criminals (clearly in part a pitch to Indian dairy owners) and former president Michelle Boag's wildly imaginary numbers on television on the cost of charging the use of water for profit.

That points to rough stuff over the next few weeks, directly by National and/or by outside support-groups operating through social media.

Happy Labour supporters, damage to Greens, edgy National: all in three weeks. Quite a phenomenon - so far - this Ardern.

Colin James is a leading social and political commentator. ColinJames@synapsis.co.nz

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