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.

Comments (10)

by Eliza on October 23, 2014
Come on Wayne, capital gains tax isn't hard left! It's centrist. The IMF thinks we need it. Most OECD countries have one. And it's a good policy precisely because so much money is tied up in housing. National is right though, a comprehensive capital gains tax would include the family home. Labour could bite this bullet and campaign on tax reform to address inequality and promote innovation  - for example cutting middle income and company taxes, paid for by a capital gains tax and a new top tax bracket.  Yes, a lot of boomers own multiple properties, but a lot of young people own none, and may never own any. The last census found that from 2001 to 2013, there was more than a 10 percentage point drop in people aged 30-39 owning their homes (from 54.6 percent to 43 percent). As you say, where is the middle? 
by Wayne Mapp on October 23, 2014
Wayne Mapp


I was not suggesting the capital gains tax was hard left. Rather I was picking up on the comments by Andrew Little (perhaps I should have explained this), that it looked like it attacked middle New Zealand, or at least it was capable of being seen in this light. It does seem to me that New Zealanders have a much greater aversion to a capital gains tax than other OECD countries where they are the norm. And in part that is because we invest in property in preference to other investments.

But I agree with you, the smart approach would be to tie the captial gains tax to a reduction of bottom and middle rates, so that it looks like a comprehensive package. And you make the reductions the centre piece of such a tax reform package.

The Nats did that quite successfuly with the increase in GST to 15%. So while people did criticise them for not fully compensating the lowest income earners, even the opponents accepted that the Nats were at least trying to show that it was fiscally nuetral.

The housing issue will remain a hot topic, unless younger New Zealanders can see an easier path to ownership. By 2017, we will know whether the Nats initiatives have made a difference. If they do, that will strenghten their claim to a fourth term, but if they don't, well the opposite applies.

by Andrew Geddis on October 23, 2014
Andrew Geddis

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

  • National Standards
Not sure on this one - there seems a real disconnect between what the people in the educational sector think of National Standards and what parents think they are doing. I suspect Labour might be able to finesse things by keeping the form in place, but making them without substance.
  • Ninety day trial periods 
Agreed - they are pretty much standard fare across the world, and haven't caused the sky to fall in.
  • The Hobbit provisions
I'm not sure anyone really knows what these are/understands their point. They struck me as trophy legislation that scratched one man's itch ... but I guess you could argue that Labour shouldn't piss off Peter Jackson.
  • Roads of National Significance
Well, the horse may have bolted on that one by 2017! It's pretty hard to tear up a road once it's built, and insofar as contracts will have been signed to build more, future Governments are pretty much committed.
  • RMA reforms
I don't know if anyone really knows what these are going to do ... they rely too heavily on how the Environment Court (and higher general courts on appeal) interpret and apply them. So let's wait and see if National accepts the outcome of its own legislative changes before declaring that Labour has to, too!
  • TTPA - if it happens
Agreed - once it is signed and in place, the costs of withdrawal become too severe. But I have real doubts as to whether it'll ever come into being (at least in the kind of overarching, complete form that was first envisioned). 
  • Whanau Ora
Agreed - in fact, if Labour were smart, they'd be pushing for this to be expanded!
by mikesh on October 23, 2014

"capital gains tax isn't hard left! It's centrist"

I guess nobody likes taxes, but, once in place, a tax is usually tolerated; introducing a new tax is politically difficult. From this point of view the fourth Labour government's abolition of the land tax would have to be seen as a mistake, since, if it were still on the books, it might easily have been fine tuned so as to discourage property investment. However trying to introduce it anew would, I imagine, be just as difficult as trying to introduce a capital gains tax.

by Charlie on October 23, 2014

A few thoughts:

Capital gains tax: The problem wasn't the principle of CGT, it was the hamfisted Labour implementation of it.

National Standards: Fundamentally, you can't manage things you can't measure. The teachers union hates them for obvious reasons.This underscores the problem that Labour has with unions 'wagging the dog'.

Wayne: Add Charter Schools to your list because by the time Labour get's their next chance to win an election they will be entrenched.


by Nick Gibbs on October 23, 2014
Nick Gibbs

If National Standards becomes national testing for primary school children, then I think Labour will have found the policy they can undo. NS as it is, is innocuous.

by BeShakey on October 23, 2014

One of the few advantages Labour has is that they don't need to make all of these decisions early in the term. Some very smart people think Charter Schools won't be able to achieve the things promised of them. Labour can afford to wait to see whether they actually succeed before announcing that they'll support them.

The only worse thing than swallowing the dead rat of (e.g.) charter schools would be having to regurgitate it if there was a really serious failure that made seious change/abolition inevitable.

by Alan Johnstone on October 23, 2014
Alan Johnstone

If dead rats require to be swallowed, then it's better to do so early so people can get over it.

by Patrick T on October 23, 2014
Patrick T


National Standards: Fundamentally, you can't manage things you can't measure.

Totally agree, as I incidentally do with the Strategy and Accountability recommendations of the Children's Commission report on Solutions to Child Poverty in New Zealand. And while Key has made a few mentions of doing *something* here, including - quite cynically in my opinion - in a headline grabber immediately after the election, there's been nothing of substance on a measure.

On National Standards you could argue the point about whether in fact the titular standards are in fact 'National', as in evidently can and do mean the same in Kataia as it would in Bluff.

This one I think could easily be finessed by a more able Minister of Education than we've had in the last two batches.

Also, everything AG said.

by Charlie on October 24, 2014

Patrick: You make a good point. I agree with the concept of National Standards for all sorts of rational reasons but that doesn't mean the the details of the implementation aren't flaky or that teachers have learned to game the system, as it seems they have in the US.

As regards 'Child Poverty', the whole thing is a political football. I'll vote for the first party that places the children before short-term political point scoring.


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