The Left must learn from the political techniques deployed so successfully in this budget.  Unless we ask ourselves the hard questions the right ask themselves, and are prepared to prioritise and make some tough decisions, we will maintain poll ratings bleakly far behind the Government's. 

Having chucked red meat to its base and changed the Employment Relations Act at the expense of working people, the National government used this budget to show it isn’t hostage to its far right factions. Turns out the problem with the economy isn’t that we’re all taking too many tea breaks ('quelle surprise') and - the real surprise - National is now prepared to do something about child poverty.

When the Budget increased child benefits, my first reaction was that National was just being cynical and  responding to focus groups showing rising concern about child poverty. I commented at the time in the NZ Herald, that the benefit increases would help some people in poverty but not help anyone out of poverty. 

But this is more than tactical politics. In giving more cash to beneficiaries, the Government has been prepared to confront its own ideological blindness. 

Most righties I know either deny child poverty really exists in New Zealand ("you should see Africa"), or they offer a version of Not My Problem: "It's just bad parenting"; "They spend it all on smokes and booze". Or they say voodoo will fix poverty: "We just need to cut benefits to widen the gap between wages and benefits, and the layabouts will see the error of their ways and respond rationally to the market incentives."  

Boosting benefits, National has ignored all this conservative dogma and left the Opposition in the awkward position  of trying to argue that the benefit increase was too miserly, prompting Matthew Hooton to ask for examples where either Labour or the Greens have called for higher increases in benefits. My frequent sparring partner's point is clever and excruciating. His aim is to depict the government as "socialist" (direct quote) , so that any further help for kids in poverty would seem extreme. 

But he has made a strong point that the Opposition has been  loud in its references to child poverty and simultaneously timid about the fiscal consequences of reducing poverty through transfers.  

Confronted with the same question, Bill English did something he has preached for a long time: He looked for a way to fund a benefit increase from spending that, for him, was a lower priority: The $1000 incentive to join KiwiSaver, and a reduction in the time a parent is eligible for DPB before being required to seek work. 

Politics is about choices and priorities. You don't have to accept the substance of the choices National made to recognise that it made hard decisions that meant some desirable policy was rejected in favour of a more desirable one. 

The reason the Government gets much better poll ratings on economic credibility than the Opposition is not because voters recognise hard choices need to be made. Even when voters are uncertain the government's priorities are right, they get credit because they are prepared to make decisions. 

In contrast, it's too easy for us to argue as if hard decisions were not required.  When we argue that the government has a responsibility to reduce child poverty, we are certainly right - and conservatives who try to dodge their responsibility to their fellow citizens are wrong. But we have to make priorities too, just as much as anyone else. If we want to reduce child poverty, we have to be prepared to be explicit about what we would cut to pay for our relief. 

Saying we’ll raise taxes doesn’t get away from the fact that spending has to be prioritised. Saying ‘create more jobs’ doesn’t mean you can avoid making hard decisions about where best to spend a limited welfare budget.

And, to be frank, no future Labour government is going to say, 'we will cut benefits for families with children to fund a KiwiSaver kickstart', which is prima facie evidence that any future government agrees with English's priority ranking. The policy consequences are unmissable: If we want to say in the future that KiwiSaver kickstart should be restored, and that benefits should be increased to alleviate child poverty, then we need to be explicit about what lower priority spending will be cut.

The public need to see Labour making those tough decisions. There are many causes that may be worthy of our support, from child obesity to campaigning to help kids get access to books at the National Library. But the Labour party can’t be a different NGO every week. It has to get on with the job that no-one else can do - being the Labour party.

That means creating an environment where we have strong communities and strong civil society groups who can campaign for these issues and be heard.

But Labour’s priorities have to be different. A series of micro-policies strung together don’t make a compelling story about why people should support Labour. 

Labour has always had a divine discontent with the status quo, and a drive to make people better off  and reward merit over the luck of birth or postcodes. Now it needs to own the next generation of ideas and policies, just as it did in the 1940s when it built the dams and the roads and came up with the welfare system, and build thousands of state houses.  That will mean making tough choices. 

I wrote a NZ Herald column after the 2011 election where I argued that if Labour wanted to increase benefits, then we also had to be prepared to reform welfare because, if you get more people in work who can work, then you can be more generous to those who can't work.   At the time, this was seen as a Labour heresy. Yet what has now happened is that the National Party has been able to achieve a benefit increase by cutting a policy priority the left would not have chosen. Winning is important not because we get to not make tough decisions, but because we get to make the ones we want.

But in order to win, we first have to make some tough calls, and we need to do it now in opposition to earn back the trust of the public.

What we have seen from Bill English's policy combo are two profoundly important political tactics: A willingness to confront National's own ideological blind spots, and a willingness to make hard choices. No one can hope to govern unless they are also prepared to do the same.

Comments (13)

by mickysavage on May 31, 2015
mickysavage

Sorry to disagree with you but ...

This was not English and National making a hard choice about child poverty.  This was all about pin, getting the media to report the $25 per week increase message when abatements mean that it will either be less or in some circumstances disappear.

The "ideological blind spot" was addressed by bring out another stick.  As soon as a child is now aged 3 their parent (usually mother) will need to seek non existent work.  The utility of this policy is marginal at best but it was offered up to assuage those who enjoy a bit of beneficiary bashing.

The gutting of Kiwisaver is another blow against our young.  Like the other Kiwisaver cuts and the attack on the Cullen Fund the effects will be gradual and their effect will be felt stronger as time goes by.  But by then John Key will be sunning himself in Hawaii so why should he worry?

This was not a hard choice.  This was a short sighted cut done for political purposes.

And nowhere do you criticise National for its failure to make a surplus.  Sure this is in reality not so important economically but National has pegged its economic reputation on attaining this goal so there should be a punishment.

This was not a "hard question" budget.  This was a simpering budget with modest resources being transferred from one area to another while the major issues we face were not addressed.

by Alan Johnstone on May 31, 2015
Alan Johnstone

Great post Joise.  I'm an instinctive Labour voter but the quality of the present offering is woeful, the movement isn't doing the hard yards in opposition.  It leaps at the issue of the week, opposes all restraints in spending then wonders why it lacks fiscal credibility at election time. 

Here's a great example, @mickysavage, do you really believe the removal of a non-means tested subsidy of $1000 amounts to "the gutting of Kiwisaver" ? 

by mickysavage on May 31, 2015
mickysavage

@Alan

<i>do you really believe the removal of a non-means tested subsidy of $1000 amounts to "the gutting of Kiwisaver"</i>

Of itself not necessarily but it is the seventh or eighth cut to Kiwisaver that has been made.

And the party has on the last two occasions presented two fully costed budgets.  And it di run 9 budget surpluses last time it was in power.  The claims that National is somehow more fiscally credible is an elegantly scripted CT line that progressives should not repeat.

by Josie Pagani on May 31, 2015
Josie Pagani

Greg - I agree cutting KiwiSaver is wrong, unfair to the next generation and misguided. Labour in government would not have made that trade off. But you're missing my point, which is not to critique National's trade-offs, but to realise that we need to be clear about ours. Because unless we are prepared to say how we would pay for benefit increases (which I support) we will not win the trust of the public to govern. And worse, National will win again  - and again, they will cut stuff that we wouldn't.

by Josie Pagani on May 31, 2015
Josie Pagani

Alan - You're right! We need to earn fiscal credibility to stand a chance of being the next government and we will only do that my being prepared to face our ideological blind spots and make tough decisions. Whether we like it or not Greg - the Nats are beating us on economic confidence. That's what we have to change.

by Alan Johnstone on May 31, 2015
Alan Johnstone

Of course Labour ran surplus whilst in power, and we don't hear about it enough.

Yes, Labour presented fully costed budgets in the last two elections, but you can't fatten a pig on market day.

A fully costed budget 60 days out after spending 3 years aligning itself with public sector producer interests and calling out for additional spending lacks credibility. Labour needs to be focused on this now, not yapping at every passing bus.

by Alan Johnstone on May 31, 2015
Alan Johnstone

I think Tony Blair, speaking about UK Labour made points that are just as relevant for NZ Labour

“Labour must be the seekers after answers, not the repository for people’s anger”. “In the first case, we have to be dispassionate even when the issues arouse great passion, In the ­second case, we are simple fellow-travellers in sympathy; we are not leaders. And in these times, above all, people want leadership.”

by Brendon Mills on June 01, 2015
Brendon Mills

So Josie -- for arguements sake -- there have been a series of resignations retirements, by elections and other events and somehow, you are now leader of the Labour Party.

 

What policies would you adopt or dump to get your party electable?

 

If you want to play Alan, you can as well. Seeing as you are hard right as well.

by KJT on June 01, 2015
KJT

The throwing of scraps to people in need is in response to John Campbells, programme. To assuage the conscience of well off voters without really doing anything.

The reason why John Campbell had to be removed. Because he was successful in drawing attention to our Government's "Poverty of Spirit", since 1984..

by KJT on June 01, 2015
KJT

The left should use smear campaigns, propaganda, misuse statistics, hide the unfavourable facts, outright lie, and threaten peoples jobs, or income, if they show them up, just like National?

Great.

by Ross on June 04, 2015
Ross

And, to be frank, no future Labour government is going to say, 'we will cut benefits for families with children to fund a KiwiSaver kickstart', which is prima facie evidence that any future government agrees with English's priority ranking.

Guess what, Josie, a Labour government might attack poverty AND reinstate the Kiwi Saver kickstart. For some reason you seem to think it's impossible to do both. The only reason Bill Engish canned the KiwiSaver kickstart is that he wanted to maximise his chances of achieving surplus. I thought you might have had something to say about that.

by Ross on June 04, 2015
Ross

And, to be equally frank, canning the KiwiSaver kickstart has simply made changes to superannuation more likely. Not by this government of course and probably not under Andrew Little. 

by Charlie on June 14, 2015
Charlie

Hi Josie,

A very good post. Something that the Labour Party needs to listen to but clearly isn't at the moment. The union hacks will not let go and may ultimately strangle the party. Best of luck pushing that wheelbarrow!

A point I'd like to pick you up on is the subject of 'Child Poverty'. In my view it's a term used by the international Left as a slogan. Since children cannot earn money I presume you mean 'children living in poverty'.

Both sides of the political fence point at the other and accuse them of seeing the problem in simple terms: The Left wants to throw endless amounts of taxpayers money at the problem whilst the Right would rather they starve.

Both are untrue.

The reality is that it's a messy business and we all need to realise there are many causes to this problem:

Under achievement in education resulting in many people being unable to ever earn more than the minimum wage. Our education system has let far too many people fall by the wayside and for decades nothing has been done about it. The resistance of teacher unions to much needed change needs to be seen in this context as well as an ineffective department of education. Labour is dying in a ditch over Charter Schools despite the fact that they're working in many cases - just because teacher unions don't want to lose their hegemony.

The real and global economic constraints to what we can make the minimum wage without chasing those entry level jobs overseas or seeing the automated.

A welfare system that has encouraged (or at least not discouraged) women to get pregnant as a rather sad lifestyle choice, thereby perpetuating the problem. Look at the charts of DPB numbers since its inception and tell me that's not true. The Law of Unintended Consequences rules!

The welfare system has also encouraged minimum wages earners to produce large families which I certainly can't afford, so I'm dead certain they can't.

The lack of lifestyle skills of many minimum wage workers and their propensity to get into debt, spend unwisely, hand it to the church or send it to relatives in the islands. We have given them a handout instead of a 'hand up' and hoped they'd go away. Instead they've bred.

If Labour wants to be seen as credible, they need to face some of these real issues instead of viewing the world through out dated slogans.

 

 

 

 

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