Oct 11, 2012

Free advice: framing the fundamentals

It’s fashionable to comment on and critique Labour Party strategy. On Twitter this morning Lew Stoddart added his thoughts:

(the) NZLP need to find ways to inspire the same public enthusiasm in other areas as we saw for marriage equality. It can be done. Framing matters.

Well, it’s hard to disagree with that. However, Craig Ranapia and Giovanni Tiso argued that framing is a secondary concern when the “picture inside is crap” and when “the party has nothing to communicate”.

Without wanting to cop out, I agree with both views. Framing is important, but not possible where there is nothing to frame. Having said that, I think we’re missing the point here. Framing does not have to be understood in terms of policy, but on a more basic level.

Essentially, Labour has failed to draw a meaningful contrast between themselves and National. National stands for cutting the deficit and, well, so does Labour. Labour wants to target beneficiaries and, well, so does National. National wants to boost employment and, well, so does Labour.

David Shearer needs to position Labour against National on the fundamentals. Yes, Labour can stand for cutting the deficit, but that idea needs to be presented from a left wing perspective. For example, Labour will grow our way out of the deficit. Shearer must then juxtapose Labour’s position against National’s ‘let’s cut our way out of the deficit’. An unsophisticated example, I know, but it illustrates the point I’m trying to make.

Helen Clark drew an interesting contrast between Labour and National in (I think) the 2005 election when she told Breakfast, and I paraphrase, that the National Party doesn’t stand for anything except power. It was a powerful contrast (ignore the pun). Clark painted National as unprincipled and willing to push divisive policy for the sake of power. On the other hand, Labour was painted as the party of principle - the party of Working for Families and so on. Framing on that fundamental level matters, framing policy comes second. Labour might be running on a different policy platform, but it makes little difference when the party stands, or is seen to stand, for the same goals as National.

In August Kelvin Davis wrote that “It's like they're more comfortable being ignored than criticised”. Correct: Labour fears being seen as different on the fundamentals. They don’t want to risk offending the orthodoxy. To use the above example, they fear being seen as opposed to deficit reduction – or the orthodox approach to deficit reduction (i.e. cuts). The party fear being seen as a party for beneficiaries. However, if the leadership had more political nous they would frame themselves as the party for the poor. Instead, in a clumsy attempt to inoculate himself against beneficiary sympathising David Shearer delivered the infamous beneficiary on the roof speech.

Unless Labour reframe themselves on the fundamentals, there’s little reason to vote for them. In this respect, Labour can take their lead from John Tamihere. This may seem counterintuitive, but Tamihere has taken a lead role in attacking the government’s “shonky economics”. On Q&A last week Tamihere explicitly rejected neoliberalism. Tamihere contrasted himself against National on a fundamental point – the economy.

At the moment Labour looks like the National Cabinet in red ties – I don’t want to vote for that and I suspect most on the left don’t want to vote for that.


  1. "Without wanting to cop out, I agree with both views. Framing is important, but not possible where there is nothing to frame."

    I don’t mean to quibble, but this means you agree only with one of the views: mine and Craig's. We never said framing wasn't important. However this myth that Labour is bad at communicating really needs to be busted. The trouble with
    Labour is the lack of a coherent political strategy. The 'being bad at communication' part is simply a consequence of that.

    It looks to me like we’re heading for a repeat of last term, where a weak leadership unable to provide the party with its political and strategic direction was overtaken by the policy process going on in the background. The result is that Labour ended up with a bunch of policies – some fairly bold – but with no coherent framework to attach them back to, which made it harder to persuade the public. After the election some critics concluded that Labour had done too much politics and not enough communication, but the reality was that they had done too little political work. Policies and politics aren’t the same thing. Shearer is clearly terrified by politics, which is why he waited months to even open his mouth after getting elected, and then went along with Pagani’s nonsense. It’s important not to mistake these fundamental failures for failures of communication.

    1. I may have misunderstood your point in the rush to write this, but it looks like we agree more broadly.

      I think you're right in your assessment. Labour has and had no framework to attach their policies too. Policy work shouldn't, and in a decent party doesn't, occur in isolation. However, you attach your policies to a narrative. Political narratives are an aspect, if not the central aspect, of political communication. In that sense wasn't and isn't the Labour Party's problem a communication failure? I would be curious to see how David Cunliffe would approach this problem.

    2. Cunliffe is such an interesting politician at the moment because all of his speeches are just grand, sweeping gestures. They're all leader's speeches. Frankly I'm not surprised they hate him. So yes, he provides the narrative as well as the analysis, and even when he doesn't point to specific solutions he frames problems in such a way that you feel like you'd know how a Cunliffe-led party would tackle them.

      Counter-example: I follow education more than any other portfolios, and yet before Shearer’s big speech on education last month I had no idea what he was going to say. None. And judging from the before and after political commentary, I wasn’t the only one. This is not a good sign. Politics isn’t about keeping the public guessing. When you give a speech people should be able to go yes, that is a forceful and compelling vision consistent with the party’s opposition to National in this area and with its philosophy. But for a narrative to be formed, for communication to be possible, there needs to be coherence between political goals. This is not already the job of communicators - it's the job of politicians, it's about what they want to do, how passionate and lucid they are about the problems facing the country. It's about what they believe. The direction needs to come from the leadership.

  2. Seems like a pretty sound assessment from both of you.
    But what is causing this strategic and narrative vacuum? It seems to me that it's due to a party with clear, and as yet unreconciled, divisions.

    National may be a power-for-power's-sake party, but since the departure of Clark there seems to be no uniformity in what Labour actually values and how they might realise those values.

    Until their caucus can form a consensus amongst themselves [and hopefully with the party-at-large], the framing and general strategy is moot. What do they need in order to find agreement? My guess would be strong leadership - something they clearly do not have. Something's got to give though, and surely their caucus members need to compromise their differing values and approach the election with a pragmatic plan to win support from the middle, or resign.

    A sound message would be, following their upcoming conference, that the party is going with Cunliffe and are united behind him (heads will need to roll to substantiate that - Shearer, Mallard and King).

    This would be a rejection of their current failure-to-engage, and a clear signal that they are heading in a new, more palatable direction (with a leader who does have some charisma and gives voters a sense of what Labour's approach to policy will be.



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