23 Dec 2023

'Sometimes you lose' - Chris Hipkins reflects on 2023

6:17 am on 23 December 2023
Chris Hipkins

Hipkins said one of the few advantages of opposition was the extra time to reflect. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Two months on from Labour's election-night shellacking, leader Chris Hipkins still cannot pinpoint what the party could have done differently during the campaign to win.

It makes the task of rebuilding and repositioning for 2026 all the more difficult as Labour readjusts to opposition and a diminished caucus of just 34 MPs.

Speaking to RNZ in Parliament's final week this year, Hipkins said one of the few advantages of opposition was the extra time to reflect. But his reflections on the campaign thus far do not appear to have produced much in the way of meaningful lessons.

"Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose," Hipkins said. "The tide comes in and the tide goes out."

The months before voting day were dominated by a "vibe for change", he said. "I'm not sure that there's a lot that we could have done to shift that."

'A last-ditch effort'

Asked about his campaign regrets, Hipkins acknowledged its limp beginning - "I found myself at various points, thinking, I'm not really enjoying [this]" - but he was less willing to interrogate the substance of Labour's offering.

"I wouldn't pin this on any one factor. I think it was an accumulation of factors."

The story of Labour's crushing defeat has many potential starting points, whether the end of the Covid-19 elimination strategy, the lengthy Auckland lockdown, the climb of interest rates, or increasing profile of crime.

"When I took over as prime minister, I think it was certainly still possible for us to win the election. But it did require a lot of things going right for us, and many, many more things than that went wrong for us."

By mid-year, Hipkins said, the mood for change had firmly locked in, not helped by a scarcely believable series of ministerial mishaps.

"We didn't project the stability that we needed to if we were going to be re-elected ... that certainly cost us, but again, I wouldn't pin it solely on that."

Neither does Hipkins believe his party's manifesto was fatal to its re-election chances. He told RNZ it was unlikely a different policy mix would have changed the election's outcome more than "a few percent here or there".

"Campaigns like 2005, policy made a difference," Hipkins said. "I don't think that there was anything in this campaign that was going to do that for us."

Party strategists had hoped Labour's headline tax policy - GST-free fruit and vegetables - would capture public imagination and lift support, as interest-free student loans did in 2005. Instead, the proposal was universally panned by economists and made seemingly no impact on the polls.

Despite that, Hipkins suggested it was not necessarily the wrong idea, but rather the wrong time to debut it: "There was already a sense that we were on the way out, and it was perceived almost as a last-ditch effort to try and win back support."

'Time for a change'

Labour leader Chris Hipkins showing off his dance moves at a Zumba class in Mangēre, Auckland.

Labour leader Chris Hipkins showing off his dance moves at a Zumba class in Mangēre, Auckland on the campaign trail this year. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

The imprecise diagnosis will be a problem for Labour as it tries to find the right prescription. Two contradictory remedies were quickly put forward by the commentariat in the election's aftermath.

One is that the party must re-embrace its left-wing values and ideals. And the other is that it must listen to the public's verdict and adjust accordingly: the country moved right and so too must Labour.

But Hipkins does not think the party's positioning was the problem: "The voters that determine an election don't vote on a left-right continuum."

In this year's adjournment debate, ACT leader David Seymour accused Labour of living in denial, refusing to admit any error or need for change: "Until the Labour Party actually start to do some penitence... they are no danger."

To RNZ, Hipkins offered the obligatory maxim - "the voters are always right" - but added a caveat which betrayed a certain scepticism.

"I don't necessarily think that the change that voters had in mind when they voted for this government is the change that they're getting.

"I've had a lot of feedback from people who are already expressing some concern about the overall shift in tone ... even if they were themselves sympathetic to the idea that it was, quote, time for a change."

The question for Labour, then, is how much does it need to change, as opposed to simply waiting for voters to change their minds once more?

Hipkins said the opposition under his leadership would go hard after the new coalition - "it's a government full of contradictions, full of big personalities" - but that Labour would also explore and propose new ideas.

'We start with a blank page'

After being reconfirmed as leader by the caucus in November, Hipkins put the entire manifesto up for review - including the vexed question of a capital gains tax which has plagued Labour in elections past.

Hipkins told RNZ it was time for an "honest conversation" about the country's tax base.

"It's a very easy thing for an opposition or a government to rubbish alternative proposals around tax and to fearmonger about them. But the reality is our tax system isn't going to be sustainable, as it is now, into the longer term."

That ignores, of course, that Hipkins himself campaigned strongly on the status quo, ruling out a CGT or wealth tax after the election - "end of story".

Is it credible, then, for him to sell such a policy in future?

Hipkins argued he had been "pretty open" on the merits of a discussion around capital gains in the medium-term future.

And yet his media release of 12 July stated: "Now is simply not the time for a big shake-up of our tax system."

"We start with a blank page," Hipkins now says.

"We use the three years that we've got in opposition to reflect, to engage in new ideas, and to think about the things that are really going to drive New Zealand forward."

After all, plenty more time to reflect when in opposition.

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