Clark's fourth term challenge: to get voters in the frame

Helen Clark casts her third term as doing the right things to earn a fourth term. She might usefully add: thinking and saying the right things.

Thinking is commonly supposed to be a Labour specialty. In political folklore the “left” doesn’t get round to doing — and so doesn’t connect with voters.

The left’s been at it again. Some years back some young Labour sparks set up what they call the “summer school” to promote new thinking. This twanged nerves on the ninth floor. When I explored in this column an article by a Scottish MP studied at the 2003 summer school, that triggered a ninth-floor witchhunt for the leaker — as if thinking was to be done only in secret and with guidance from above.

But this past weekend the Prime Minister herself was at Labour’s summer school. Perhaps thinking is no longer seditious. If so, the change of heart comes none too soon.

Helen Clark’s first two terms were devoted primarily to two activities: “correcting” what Labour considered the more egregious errors of the 1984-99 governments (the “failed policies of the nineties”); and fighting the brushfires that periodically sweep through a government’s territory.

This was managerial government.

Yet Clark claimed after last year’s election that she had won it on “values”, that Labour’s “values” prevailed over National’s.

Don Brash’s concessions last week on race and women provide some supporting evidence. But a sceptic might point out that an economy rollicking along at 5 per cent should usually be expected to ensure voters re-elect the incumbent.

The economy won’t be rollicking in 2008. If Clark is to win then, she must do it on “values” — or luck.

Some call for a “vision”. And every now and then Clark has a go at that. But she is thoroughly unconvincing. (Brash is not much, if at all, better.)

In any case vision is not the key. Words are.

If Clark is to get a fourth term, much will hang on whether she can frame Labour “values” in language with which voters connect and — critically important — themselves use when thinking or talking about political matters.

She could do worse than take a lead from an item in this year’s summer school’s ringbinder of background reading. This item was drawn from a book by George Lakoff, an American “progressive” (that is, leftish, or at least liberal, Democrat), titled “Don’t think of an elephant” and subtitled “Know your values and frame the debate”.

Lakoff argues that “conservatives” in the United States have gradually, through research and reports by think tanks and assiduous proselytising and public relations, coupled with disciplined submergence of their differences, changed the “frame” in which the voting majority thinks about political issues.

Not many New Zealanders would recognise the “frame” he describes: a “strict father model” of a world of good and evil and good and bad individuals, the bad confirmed in badness by an indulgent welfare state. Rather more Australians would recognise the model because John Howard has been edging his Liberal party down this route, which may account in part for his electoral success.

Lakoff says progressives must construct a similarly tough and unified frame and thereby win back the language of politics and so primacy for their values. In part, he says, that depends on imitating conservatives’ disciplined focus on what can be agreed.

The aim is to get voters to adopt the same frame through which to view the world, to identify with the party whose frame it is and identify the party’s values as their own values.

On this analysis, politics is not “the economy, stupid”, to quote Bill Clinton (and Clark this week). It is “the identity, stupid”. “People vote their identity,” says Lakoff.

Clark’s challenge is to get voters to identify with Labour, to frame events and issues the way Labour does.

Put another way, her fourth term depends on Labour commanding the language of politics.

She has long understood this, as this column has long noted. And being in office a long time may go some way toward winning command of the language, just because people get used to a government. But it is not enough.

Labour spent much effort in 2004 on its “brand” to encapsulate its “values”. But a brand has no value if voters don’t value it. Waffle words like “fair and inclusive” are not likely to frame the way voters think. A “fair go” might. Getting voters to see tax as an investment, not a drain on good people’s good times and a dole for wastrels, might.

If Clark doesn’t toughen up Labour’s words and create a convincing frame, a fourth term is unlikely — especially now that National is hungry to learn and has Howard as a guide.

Can Clark make such a frame? Sam Neill, a medium-good actor, did a much better job of phrasing values than she at Labour’s election launch last year. Her managerialist instincts constrain her.

But she has said “values” won in 2005. She did turn up at the summer school. The Lakoff analysis was on the agenda. And she does evolve.