Go local, Phil - you may be pleasantly surprised

Last updated 14:12 15/10/2010

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What's going on? At the local government level voters execute a sudden lurch to the Left, while nationwide opinion polls show them simultaneously clinging to the Right. As the Lost in Space robot used to say: "That does not compute." Let's try to make it add up.

OPINION: A former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Tip O'Neill, said that: "All politics is local."

In other words, unless there is a real connection between politicians and voters - in the places where they live, and at the level of their day-to-day lives - electoral success is likely to prove elusive. It's not enough to simply offer the public what they want, they've got to be convinced you can deliver it. Nor is it sufficient to simply reflect the voters' concerns, you have to make them believe that you share them - that you, in the words of the "great empathiser", US president Bill Clinton, "feel their pain".

As Labour Party members gather together in Auckland for their annual conference, it is sobering to reflect that, while the city's newly elected mayor, Len Brown, ticks all of Tip O'Neill's boxes, Labour's leader, Phil Goff, does not.

What lies behind Phil's lack of connection with the voters? His working-class background and his obvious political competence should both argue strongly in his favour. And yet there are doubts - and an obvious reticence on the electorate's part to invest emotionally in the Labour leader's quest for the top job.

As a historian, my instinct is to explain the present by looking into the past. Phil's past is very instructive.

He's one of a whole generation of young Labour politicians (including Mike Moore, Richard Prebble and Roger Douglas) who took away from Labour's disastrous 1975 election defeat some very painful lessons about the acute political vulnerability of radical governments.

One of the most important of those lessons was the need for economic credibility.

The fate of both Bill Rowling and Australia's Gough Whitlam convinced Labour's "Young Turks" that, if the leading elements of the business community, the civil service and the news media remain unconvinced by your government's economic policies, they have the power to undermine and, ultimately, destroy it.

The faction to which Phil Goff attached himself in the early 1980s was absolutely determined that the very same forces which had stood in front of the third Labour Government would be standing behind the fourth. Nothing which he has said and done so far as leader of the Opposition suggests to me that Phil has abandoned this objective.

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He has had no "Greenspan moment", no dramatic public admission (as there was by the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve) that the economic policies he and his colleagues adopted to secure the backing of big business, Treasury and the nation's editors have now been tested to destruction.

On the contrary, Phil still believes that "a well-functioning market system is the most effective and efficient way of organising an economy". For those on the Left of New Zealand politics, indeed for all those who've voted Alliance, NZ First or the Greens because they simply could not bring themselves to vote for the party of Rogernomics, this is profoundly disappointing. More importantly, it's disconnecting.

On Sunday morning, CTU president Helen Kelly will come to Labour's conference bearing the trade union movement's alternative economic strategy - a document based on the principles of fairness, security and participation.

Assuming Phil comprehends the importance of atoning for the sins of his neoliberal past, he could use his own keynote speech to Labour's annual conference to reassure his base that the distilled ideas and aspirations of organised labour will once again constitute the bedrock upon which the Labour Party assembles its policy platform.

The CTU's strategy contains a host of fresh solutions to meet all those "simple, mundane and everyday concerns" that Tip O'Neill understood to be the prime drivers of politics.

Reconnect with the local, Phil, and by Christmas next year you'll be prime minister.

- The Dominion Post

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