Political stereotypes

Tracy Watkins looks at political stereotypes:

Sue who? A tweet by a relatively unknown MP might have gone unnoticed by most people if it was not for one thing. It ticked all the boxes on Labour stereotypes. Sue Moroney tweeted a picture of the losing flag design flying outside an expensive looking house and commented: “Just “is you’re a flash bach owner doesn’t mean you get to decide our flag”.

Moroney’s opponents labelled it mean-spirited and nasty. But that was not what did the real damage. It’s what it supposedly said about Labour that will hurt the most – Nanny State, telling people what to think, anti-rich, anti-success. Take your pick.

The Nanny State label stuck when Labour was last in power and introduced a raft of changes, like the anti-smacking law. Five leaders later and Labour still can’t shake it off. The likelihood of it doing so is slim, for the simple reason that it’s not unique to New Zealand. Worldwide the “Nanny State” label is shorthand for parties of the Left. National, in Opposition, was quick to exploit those stereotypes by tagging things Labour did as either too “politically correct”, or Nanny State gone mad. It even appointed a spokesman for political correctness, to police the excesses.

Stereotypes abound about National as well, of course – the party of the rich, friends of big business, environmentally unfriendly, socially uncaring. Again, take your pick.

Yeah, but Labour’s stereotypes are real because MPs like Sue Moroney prove it. She epitomises the Nasty party label I invented for Labour and it has stuck, mainly because of fools like Moroney.

But political stereotypes can be positive, too. National benefits from the traditional Conservative Party stereotypes of being strong on the economy and strong on issues like law and order and national security. Left-wing politicians benefit from being stereotyped as more empathetic, more caring, stronger on the environment, and better at looking after the vulnerable.

Except Labour aren’t any of those things. When was the last time you saw news about death threats towards Labour MPs by National supporters? That’s right, never. ?The nastiest and most vitriolic emails I receive are from the left-wing. Caring and sharing? Not so much.

A creeping Nanny State label has attached itself to National over various health and safety law changes, which have sparked an outcry from everyone from builders told to put on safety harnesses before climbing a ladder, to school principals who refuse to take their children on school camps any more.

Frustrated workplace safety boss Gordon MacDonald has done his best to dispel some of the sillier fears, like the one about kids being banned from climbing trees, or the bowling club that removed all its coat hooks because they might hurt someone.

But where there is smoke there is fire and not all of the stories about the law changes are exaggerated or complete nonsense.

The fallout hasn’t hurt National as much as it might have hurt a Labour government, however, and for more than one reason.

After the Pike River tragedy, people can accept there is a need for beefed up safety laws, given the litany of workplace safety breaches uncovered by a subsequent inquiry into the fatal mine explosion. The criticism is that the pendulum has swung too far.

National has also been quick to dump some of the headline grabbing changes and will happily shift the blame onto officials when they occur (like the one about worm farms being classified as a dangerous occupation). Ironically, people will willingly accept that one because public servants carry plenty of their own baggage in the form of stereotypes about pen pushing and form fillers.

But National is also saved by the fact that the Nanny State stereotype about Labour has barely dissipated with time.

Because while people might grumble the “Nanny State” has gone mad under National’s law changes, they tend to take the view that under a Labour government it would be worse.

Labour can hardly engage in debates about nanny-statism when they wanted to control shower flows and light-bulbs. The socialists have control-freakery in their DNA and we know it.

Labour is hamstrung, meanwhile, by the fact that its base expects it to take a strong stand on workplace safety. That constrains it from ripping into the Government too much on the issue, or playing up the law changes as a nonsense.

To do so would only give National licence to soften the laws and Labour would be stuck in no man’s land.

Yep, smart politics…National can say we’ve changed the law to make us safer but we haven’t gone as far as Labour who wanted kids wrapped in bubble wrap.

Which is why I try and label politicians all the time, with something that might stick.


– Fairfax