The battle lines for our votes
It’s the economy, stupid. This phrase, coined by one of Bill Clinton’s wily campaign strategists, has done a crude but decent job of describing how elections over the past few decades have been won, and lost. But when it comes to this extraordinary election, I’m growing more and more convinced that perceived economic stability won’t necessarily carry the day.
This is in large part because the economic ground elections are fought on is shrinking.
Despite their ideological rhetoric, the major parties—relentlessly jostling for the swinging centre—agree on a lot when it comes to the economy.
Contrasting views on the role of the market made a lot of sense in the twentieth century, but things are trickier now. As commentator Danyl McLauchlan put it, “the current system is so complex and ideologically incoherent it compels intellectuals and political activists to make simplified maps, transforming it into whatever their ideology teaches them to oppose: neoliberalism if they’re left-wing or a vast socialist welfare state if they’re a neoliberal.”
National are doing their best to keep economic arguments alive; Labour are doing their best to avoid them. Bill English and Jacinda Ardern, neck and neck in the preferred prime minister polling, have made this clear in their respective campaign-opening speeches. The battle lines are clear—they just disagree on what they are.
National wants to fight on the economy. “Hard-working New Zealanders aren’t an ATM machine for the Labour Party,” roared English to an adoring sea of blue. National’s “clear message” was “if you want a growing economy…that can afford world leading hospitals, schools, roads and public transport – party vote National!”
Labour on the other hand, are focusing on a social vision. To an enamoured sea of red, Ardern stated her aspirational legacy was to “build a country where every child grows up free from poverty, and is filled with hope and opportunity.” English did touch on a social vision in his speech, saying that “ensuring every child who grows up in our country has every opportunity to succeed” gets him out of bed every morning, but this message was overshadowed by the economic arguments.
However Labour seem to be kicking the economic can down the road and hoping no one notices. Ardern has ruled out hiking income tax rates, but Labour have said they will have a working group that will “redesign the entire tax system,” but thus far have been determinedly vague on the details.
Most people, McLauchlan reckons, vote “for perceived economic stability or social identity affiliation or the leader they’d like to have a beer with.” If perceived economic stability is taken as granted for both parties, Labour is at an advantage and National will need to hope some of their economic mud sticks or risk playing catch-up on the vision front. English thinks “the stardust is still settling” on Jacindamania. I don’t think it will before the election.
The battle-lines are drawn. We’ll see who drew them in the right place in a few weeks time.