Building support for transformational policies crucial to Labour's vision - Jessica Berentson-Shaw

7:56 pm on 20 October 2020

By Jessica Berentson-Shaw*

Opinion - To achieve their bold vision this Labour government is going to have to campaign for it.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern at the Auckland Town Hall on election night.

Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Before the October election, Jacinda Ardern laid out her vision for the New Zealand we could have by 2030 if people voted for Labour. It was hopeful and compelling to many New Zealanders. Labour's own experts say that to achieve this vision, they need to lead some major policy shifts.

On election night Labour won a huge mandate. One in two voters wanted the Labour party to govern. The prime minister told us Labour would "govern for ALL New Zealanders". Which can be interpreted two ways. Either Labour will put in place transformational policies to right imbalances across our communities, including in those communities that have always supported Labour. Alternatively, the prime minister was reassuring the flighty middle voter who swung their way that Labour will not be doing anything to challenge them.

Such a strategy - one that doesn't scare the horses - puts Labour in a bind. Because it leads to tinkering around the edges of existing policies. Tinkering doesn't solve big problems or achieve bold visions. Bold visions need leaders to persuade us that the necessary pathway to change, while challenging, is in our best interest. They need to campaign for the transformation that is required throughout their tenure. This is a skill we know the prime minister has at her fingertips. Will Labour put it to use this term? Looking at Labour's last term, they could go either way.

Why an elected Labour government needs to campaign for transformation

There are two significant reasons elected politicians, even those with large majorities, need to constantly build support for transformational policies as opposed to just waiting for the public to come around to the idea that change is needed. First, we all have significant cognitive biases that protect our existing thinking about big problems and the best solutions to those problems. Second, the narratives that dominate our information landscape tend to protect status quo thinking and action.

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Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Mental shortcuts are a useful adaptation to lighten the daily mental load. These shortcuts, or cognitive biases, protect what we already think and believe. They mean we don't need to reevaluate everything we know whenever we receive new information. Take normalcy bias, for example. A bias that means when most of us (up to 70 percent) receive information about a threat (climate change, pandemics etc) we will deny it is going to happen. We will find it hard to think about the change required, and then we will fail to act.

Mental biases, like these, make it hard for people unaffected by big problems to see the need for change. These biases interact with public narratives and hold status quo thinking in place.

Our public narratives contain implicit and explicit explanations about how the world works, how and why social, economic and environmental problems have come about, who is responsible and how we can best address them. While public narratives can be very diverse, research shows particular narratives can dominate the information landscape.

For example, it is well documented that some people and industry bodies pay for and engage in organised false information campaigns to protect the status quo. This false information is created and spread to undermine support for evidence-based policy changes that would erode the power, influence and wealth of certain people and groups. These false ideas get laundered through social media, politics, advertising and into our interpersonal conversations even. Narratives that contain false, alarming and over simplistic information can come to dominate because our social and technological structures and our cognitive bias all smooth the way for them to enter our discourse. These narratives have a significant influence on public thinking.

The effect of these cognitive biases and dominant - often false - narratives is that waiting for the public to develop an appetite for significant policy shifts is not a pragmatic approach. What does work is using more effective strategies to help people think and act in support of the evidence. Labour has used both of these strategies in the last term.

Two big issues, two different strategies

In 2019, Ardern ruled out a capital gains tax under her leadership saying, "While I have believed in a CGT, it's clear many New Zealanders do not. That is why I am also ruling out a capital gains tax under my leadership in the future." Effectively, she announced she wouldn't try to get people to think about this differently. Ever. In this election campaign Labour people were at pains to dismiss a wealth tax.

Jacinda Ardern

Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

At one point even James Shaw sounded like he was talking it down. Tax is an effective tool to deal with inequality, poverty and a housing system that our policy makers broke. But the strategy from Labour on tax has not challenged status quo thinking or attempted to counter the existing narrative at all. As a result, critical policies have not changed and people are suffering.

Contrast this with the Covid-19 strategy. Many analysts have talked about the masterful communications of the prime minister and government. Far more than good communications, people across government and science used a strategic and disciplined strategy. One that drew on what we know about deepening people's thinking about complex issues.

It was a strategy that surfaced the types of values, thinking and decision-making needed for people to support the policies the evidence pointed to. Ardern and others lead the public thinking to achieve the vision we had for New Zealand. Now that we are living the fulfilment of that vision, I am grateful for such a proactive approach. I hope they do more of this.

What is the hope for the new government?

Covid-19 has shown us the prime minister has the skills, intelligence and power to lead a campaign for policy change. This change is necessary to achieve the Labour government's vision. Experience should give the Labour party confidence that it is an approach that does work. It is certainly a strategy they are going to need to use if they want to get anywhere near achieving their vision.

* Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is co-director of the research and policy collaborative The Workshop and is a research associate of the Public Policy Institute at University of Auckland.

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