It’s not really my intention on this blog to analyse the qualities and performance of individual politicians.
Nevertheless, I am morbidly fascinated by the hash Phil Goff appears to be making of being the leader of the Labour Party. I didn’t see it coming. And now with Whale Oil and the Trans-Tasman reporting on Phil offering to step down less than a hundred days before the election, I feel compelled wonder what went wrong.
Both Phil and Annette King being from the right wing of the Party, I’d have thought that after Helen’s last term and its incremental nanny-statism, Labour could have made hay from a tack to the right under Phil. But instead, Phil has lead the charge of the Labour Brigade toward near oblivion on the left.
I’m not really sure why this has happened. Perhaps the shock of defeat has caused much of the Labour caucus to retreat to where they feel most comfortable. Perhaps they think they need to re-connect with their union support. Perhaps they think that National under John Key are so firmly ensconced in the centre that their only opportunity for differentiation is further to the left.
Whatever their reasoning, the polls are pointing to their having been sorely mistaken. To be fair, they’re not doing any worse than National in 2002, but that’ll be cold consolation to the MPs about to become unemployment statistics (some of them may even become youth unemployment statistics).
The fact that Phil is polling so much worse than his party does point to a degree of personal responsibility on his part. Indeed, to my surprise, Phil really hasn’t come across as the least bit engaging or charismatic.
Here’s where I think he, and Labour, have gone so badly wrong. Replacing Helen with Phil needn’t have been a bad move. He’s intelligent, centrist and (used to be) respected. Having elected him, however, the Labour Brigade embarked on a wild charge to the left. This, I think, would have been a mistake anyway, given the mood of the electorate. But their captain’s enthusiasm has been half hearted at best. He has lead them into the jaws of death and into the mouth of hell, but neither boldly nor well.
I think what voters are reading as a lack of charisma on Phil’s part is really a lack of sincerity. I suspect he believes in the principle of a capital gains tax, but probably not the final policy. I suspect he genuinely believes that asset sales are bad for the country. But then I think he knows in his heart of hearts that youth unemployment has spiked because of Labour’s abolition of the youth minimum wage, his defence of which has been flaccid. Likewise, he knows all to well that a $15 per hour minimum wage will harm the economy. I also struggle to believe that he can have been that enthused about defending the indefensible in the form of compulsory student union membership. So, I think that Phil is basically insincere in the pushing the policies he has been, and that this is why he can’t engage voters.
Don Brash is hardly the most charismatic man in politics, and yet he managed to lead a significant resurgence in National’s polling during Labour’s second term. While other factors were at play, I think that Don Brash’s sincerity in advocating policy positions about which he was clearly passionate resonated with voters, who would otherwise have found him a boring old man. Phil Goff, who can be charming, has been unable to convince people that he believes in his own policies.
If what I have described is a factor, the failure then is twofold. Labour opted to avoid a messy leadership battle, and in doing so elected the obvious candidate without taking the time to fight it out and find a contender who could effectively represent the direction of his caucus. Having been elected leader, Phil has failed to lead his party, instead following his caucus ever leftward.
Had Phil held his party to the centre, he would have risked looking like a National clone. He would probably have shed votes to the Greens. But Phil has characterised this election as a referendum on asset sales, when in fact it is nothing of the sort. It’s more a referendum on John Key. Does the electorate trust him sufficiently that they’ll allow him to proceed with what is a controversial and moderately unpopular policy? And when voters look to the left of National, do they see a credible alternative? Had Phil stuck to his principles, he might have come across as sincere and believable, and maybe even as an alternative.
Or, he might have been rolled.
But that must be looking like a pretty good option now.