• Politics, As Well As Personality

    As the election campaign gets into its stride, it is already apparent that the 2017 contest is going to be very different from its three predecessors in 2008, 2011 and 2014.

     

    Those three earlier elections were all dominated by the personality of John Key – to such an extent that opposition parties despaired of their chances of overcoming what was seen as his virtually unique ability to appeal to uncommitted voters.  The elections became mere popularity contests – the hard issues of politics hardly reared their heads, ugly or otherwise.

     

    But 2017 is different.  In place of the easy assurance and relaxed manner of John Key, Bill English presents a much more uptight and less confidence-inspiring image.  He presents as a safe pair of hands, but there are times when he seems to be having to work very hard just to get that message across.

     

    With the cameras on him, he struggles to seem relaxed.   Even a simple statement seems to require every muscle in his face to work overtime – and not always in sync with each other – just to get the words out.  And he seems unable to suppress an expression that suggests that he is enjoying a private joke at the expense of his interlocutor.

     

    And that is not the only change from earlier elections.   Labour leaders, from Helen Clark to Phil Goff to David Cunliffe, each had excellent qualities, but none was able to match Key’s capacity to take the politics out of politics.  But 2017 offers the chance to a new Labour leader to change all that.

    For the first time in a decade, in other words, the personality factor has at least been nullified and, at best, turned into a Labour advantage.

     

    If the polls have it right, a fresh face and a different approach mean that Jacinda Arden may well lead quite decisively in the personality stakes, and that means that – for once – the election is not decided even before it has started.

     

    This reversal of what had threatened to become the natural order means, in other words, that the 2017 election could become one in which politics – by which I mean principles and values as well as policies – really do matter.  Jacinda Arden seems to understand that, however well received she has been for her personal qualities, it would be unwise for her to rely on that to carry her through to victory on polling day.

     

    The very qualities which have so far intrigued and pleased the voters – her relative youth, her gender, the departure from the norm that she represents – will also mean that she is likely to come under greater scrutiny than a more conventional candidate for the Prime Ministership would expect.

    That is not to say that she will not handle that scrutiny very well, as she has done so far.  Her launch of the policy on water was well done and the policy itself was well-judged, combining as it did two issues on which voters are known to have strong views – the controversial concession to foreign companies of the right to obtain fresh water for free in order to bottle and sell it overseas, and the imperative need to clean up our rivers.

     

    But policies – even those which make a particular appeal to particular groups of voters – do not, on the whole, win elections.   What really does determine the way many people vote is whether they are happy with the way their country is going.

     

    That is usually thought to mean, as Bill Clinton’s campaign of some years ago had it, “it’s the economy stupid.” – and of course the economy quite rightly matters.  But the economy is about more than Gross Domestic Product.  It’s also about full employment, opportunity, equality, and how well and on what we spend tax revenues.

    It is here that Jacinda Arden has the chance to lay out a vision of an economy – and more importantly, a society – that is moving in a more socially and environmentally aware and responsible direction.

     

    This is territory that is tailor-made for a young leader in tune with the hopes of those whose lives lie before them.  If she can convincingly articulate a set of values which will guide her on issues yet to be confronted, she will have taken a huge step towards winning, not just on personality, but on the hard issues of politics as well.

     

    Bryan Gould

    20 August 2017