If Labour wants to win some votes it should make schemes universal

Labour leader Andrew Little is in a polling rut.

Labour leader Andrew Little is in a polling rut.

OPINION: Labour is in a rut.

It can't seem to get its polling out of the mid-20s. 19 in 20 of us would rather have someone else than Andrew Little as PM. And none of its election year policies have really stuck - yet.

This is despite the fundamentals of a solid election for the left. Wage growth is low. It's extremely difficult to buy a home. National's invincible leader has been replaced by a guy who they have thrashed in the past, and polls show Kiwis are ready for a change. They just don't want Labour to lead that change.

This week's family package was a perfect example of Labour's problems. There is plenty of stuff in the package that plenty of people will like: a winter heating supplement for retirees and beneficiaries, a boost for Working For Families, the return of the Independent Tax Credit, and an almost universal $60 a week payment for anyone with a baby.

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Yet it is also, as poverty expert Susan St John and National's Steven Joyce joyfully declared, very complicated.

Helen Clark understood the value of giving all voters something for nothing.

Helen Clark understood the value of giving all voters something for nothing.

Most people don't know what an abatement threshold is - a key plank of both their Working For Families and baby boost policies. A lot of people who are eligible don't get their independent tax credit. And the winter fuel payments won't go to one of the groups that could use them the most: poor students in crummy flats. 

Seriously. Just try reading the explanation for the Best Start payment's details without falling asleep. And remember that you're here reading a politics column - most people are just catching snippets of news on Facebook and at 6pm. 

Now compare it with a tax cuts National promised in its budget. If you make over $22,000 a year you get an extra ten bucks in your pocket every week. If you make more than $52,000 you get an extra $20.

That's it. You don't have to apply for anything, worry that you might be declaring something wrong and committing benefit fraud, or have kids. It's just there, and it's universal as long as you are in something approaching fulltime employment.

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Compare this to the now-popular schemes that have won both Labour and National the trust of voters in the past and you notice one striking thing: everything popular goes to everyone - it's universal.

Interest-free student loans? Only for students, yes - but for every single student. While National fought it tooth and nail when it was announced, now even ACT wouldn't dare take them away.

Superannuation? Introduced on a universal basis first by Labour in the 1930s and again by National in the 1970s. Now, the only politically feasible change anyone can really make to it is moving the age around - you still have to make it for everyone.

Free healthcare? Again, Labour in the 30s, and absolutely impossible to touch now. Even at its most daring in the 90s, all National would do was introduce private competition to ACC.

These policies were not necessarily popular on arrival. People now decry them as "middle-class welfare," because they give money to financially comfortable as well as the afflicted. But that's exactly the point. The financially comfortable and almost comfortable vote a whole lot. Offer them something - even if yes, they don't need it as much as the most needy - and they'll take it.

The criticism of universal schemes is obvious - tax dollars end up going to the rich as well.

Some 66-year-old with three investment properties collects super, and a kid with a trust fund uses his student loan money to party with. This feels viscerally unfair to Kiwis, and you can understand why, but in the larger scheme of things it doesn't really matter.

Rich people are well placed to hide their income enough to get means tested benefits anyway, and if the price of a popular government scheme that helps millions is that a few hundred thousand wealthy people take the same money, Labour can probably get over it. 

Don't get me wrong. I don't think Labour would do better in this election if it suddenly announced a universal basic income. But if it sanded off some of that technocratic means-tested edge to the policies that it already had they could sell them a lot more effectively. 

Take the Best Start policy. Currently it would pay parents $60 a week for the first year after paid parental leave ends - universally! - and then for the next two years, abating for people earning $79,000 of household income at a rate of 20.8c/$1. The solution is simple - delete the second part of that sentence. Everyone who has a baby gets three years of $60 a week if they want it. The first year is already universal so it's hard to argue that the other two shouldn't be.

Will some rich people claim it? Yeah, probably, but who cares. You can put it on an ad that everyone understands immediately. It might cost you more but you won't get a chance to even think about spending that money until you win an election.

To be fair to Labour - it does have some universal policies. Their three years of free tertiary education helps everyone. But it's one policy among many.

This doesn't mean everyone should end targeted welfare policies. With a few well-placed policies for everyone you can still do all the tightly-targeted stuff behind the scenes - both National and Labour are tinkering with the complicated Working For Families scheme for that reason.

But do get a few headlines out with something for everyone. It doesn't even have to be your Best Start plan or even any other kind of welfare. Throw some more paid annual leave everyone's way.

Over 800,000 people voted for Labour last time the party faced Bill English. Most of them haven't died. They should have a go at winning them back.

 - Stuff


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