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September 16, 2013 | by  | in Opinion |
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Winning Elections for Dummies

On Sunday, the New Zealand Labour Party elected its 14th leader, the first to be chosen by an electoral college composed of affiliated unions, members and caucus. A battle of ideas determined who would fight to take Labour into government. This battle reinvigorated the party and forced candidates to the left. It has shown Labour at its best. With the election over, Labour needs to refocus on the real goal of ousting the National Government, but how?

During the election, we saw the two main contenders, Robertson and Cunliffe, veer left on wages, jobs, housing, and the economy. For party members, the narrative was a delight: finally seeing MPs aligning themselves with the views of rank-and-file members. However, for ordinary New Zealand voters, the position on the political spectrum that the new leader occupies matters little.

For decades, the dominant political dialogue, especially in election years, has been around “economic management”. In the 2011 election, we saw National set the agenda of the campaign, derailing all attempts by the Greens or Labour to introduce new policies by simply asking where the money was coming from. Labour, by lack of fortitude or lack of vision or both, fell into the trap of attempting to answer these questions. The answers were fine, but by responding, they constrained their campaign and policy within the neoliberal box of rating policies by how much they cost, rather than the way it changes the lives of New Zealanders.

Sure, being able to afford to implement a policy is crucial, but letting the price tag define everything that you do is a distraction from the real job of government helping its citizens. This problem is compounded when the neoliberal agenda and the fear of taxes prevents you from raising government revenue. David Shearer’s leadership of the Labour Party saw the announcement of radical housing and power policies. They were true left policies, and, more importantly, they addressed the issues that New Zealanders cared about. By talking about the things that really concerned voters, Labour made the right-wing cries of costings futile. By being bold from the outset, the agenda was shifted. The numbers had been done and the ideas were affordable, but that didn’t matter anymore—New Zealanders were finally hearing about policies that would create a difference for them, not just comparing the price tag of each party come each election year.

So, what does Labour need to do now? It needs to continue what Shearer, Kirk, and Savage all did—talk about the issues that matter to voters. With a leader able to communicate clearly and a focus on things that matter to New Zealanders, they will be unstoppable in 2014.

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