Brand-leader or brand-party: a 2010s challenge

Labour goes into its conference on November 1 with its fourth leader in five years. What does that say about its brand?

Go back 40 years. Loyal Labour voters thought it stood for social security, free education and health care, progressive taxes and a managed economy. Then the Lange-Douglas government radically freed the economy, slashed income tax and imposed co-payments for social services. Labour voters got confused, then angry. Labour split three ways. Its vote plunged.

Under Helen Clark from 1993 to 2008, Labour tried the “third way” brand which aimed to accommodate the deregulated, free-trading economy within Labour principles. David Cunliffe was of that breed.

The third way was a brand between two brands, that is, a non-brand. It appeared to work for Labour in the Clark years because Clark became a brand in herself: in-command, brainy and a winner. That brand became Labour’s brand.

When Clark went, she took her brand with her, leaving Labour brandless. Phil Goff was a third-wayer, without Clark’s presence. David Shearer was the leader to have when not having a leader: impressive in his offshore roles but being offshore left him with too little knowledge of his country, its politics and his party.

There were some gropings towards a policy-based rebranding. In 2010 Annette King unveiled a children-based social policy based on the evidence from Sir Peter Gluckman’s epigenetics and Professor Richie Poulton’s Dunedin longitudinal study that shows tight linkages between early childhood experience and later achievements and failures.

That might have given Labour a modern base for restating its social inclusion principles in 2010s terms as the litmus test for all its social policy and might thereby partially rebranding what the party, as distinct from its current leader, now stands for. But the children-based policy got miniscule airtime in the 2011 election and Jacinda Ardern, the shadow minister since 2011, did not have Shearer’s backing to develop and promote it.

More prominence was given to a switch in economic policy to “active government” (notably in monetary policy, electricity and house building). This both evokes the 1930s mixed-economy model and seeks to draw on international rethinking of economic theory in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Current leader Cunliffe and deputy leader David Parker have been active in that rethinking. There is no doubt a Labour-led government post-2014 would be much more interventionist and hands-on. Greens and New Zealand First, in different ways, are “active government” parties. Strategically-thinking businesses are now factoring in that potential policy switch.

Now that Cunliffe, a capable communicator, is leader, he may begin to develop into a brand voters respond to. He has a year to do that.

He will be against National’s brand-Key which has, for most voters, veiled a decidedly rightwards policy shift behind John Key’s affability. When Key goes, National will face a similar challenge to Labour’s: how to revive in a modern form the moderate, inclusive conservative brand that underpinned its zenith 1950s-60s decades and was derailed by Sir Robert Muldoon’s 1970s populism and Jim Bolger’s 1990s radical turn.

The risk for Labour is that a brand-Cunliffe-v-brand-Key election might eclipse brand-Labour. That would leave work to do to re-attach voters to a strong party brand that is well recognised and loved (or hated) through politics’ thicks and thins.

Can the Cunliffe upper-X cohort, now into its 50s do that? Or, picking up 42-year-old Grant Robertson’s leadership campaign “future” theme, is that a task for the under-45s X-Y cohorts, which include Ardern with children’s policy, Chris Hipkins (education), David Clark and Megan Woods?

This question will not be on the formal conference agenda, which will be targeted to the 2014 election. But it will be an unspoken subtext.

And on the other side? National’s post-Key-English under-45s have yet to show they might rethink moderate conservatism and reinstate it as a strong party brand.

In both parties leader-branding will do for now.