OPINION: Thirty Percent Doctrine dooms Labour
Delusions have consequences. If Labour persists in the belief it can somehow stitch together a governing coalition with a fraction over 30% of the vote, and that this is possible through a deft combination of coattail trickery and unprecedented turnout among non-voters, what can possibly persuade them to change course?
The problem with redefining defeat as almost-victory is that you deny yourself the urgency that comes with the prospect of imminent humiliation; you eschew bold risk taking for careful equivocation when the former is badly needed; and you end up with a great deal more bathwater than baby.
Labour needs to act like a party that knows it’s losing, starting with an acknowledgement it as failed as yet to make the case that National under John Key has run its course. There’s no point blaming David Cunliffe, even if it’s true he has proven no more capable than his predecessors of denting the PM’s formidable popularity.
During the race to replace David Shearer, Mr Cunliffe’s supporters made much of his superior debating skills and media polish. But the notion that sharper presentation alone could rescue Labour’s fortunes was always far-fetched. As excuses for losing go, it’s a fallacy as pernicious and commonplace as that which holds voters to blame for refusing to know what’s good for them.
Among rivals for the Labour leadership, only Shane Jones seemed to understand the gravity of Labour’s predicament, or sense a way out. Before making a credible claim on the Treasury benches, Mr Jones argued that Labour would need to set the bar at 40%, not 30%. Mr Jones, admittedly a flawed candidate in many respects, attracted close to no support among party and union elites who saw his call for a broader church as more evidence of unreliability.
Populism has no home in today’s Labour Party, a proposition Mr Jones made sure to test one last time before quitting Parliament altogether. His departure was calamitous for Labour for two reasons: it looked like a vote of no confidence in Labour’s chances and, just as importantly, reinforced a growing perception the party has become inhospitable for a Greens-baiting, unashamedly pro-growth populist.
And yet, the activist clique which governs Labour and adheres most stringently to the Thirty Percent Doctrine couldn’t have been happier with Mr Jones’ exit if they had overseen the purge themselves.
To thirty-percenters, popularity of the kind Mr Jones courted is deeply suspect. They fear, in order to replace National as New Zealand’s dominant political party, Labour would be forced to embrace unacceptable positions and recruit unpalatable candidates. Imagine, for one thing, the influx of new electorate MPs immune to the machinations of the central list selection panel!
Far preferable to plug the gap between 30% and 50% with the Greens, Internet Mana and, ugh, Winston if we must. Meanwhile, any concessions the Greens win as part of a formal coalition deal will further smooth off Labour’s reactionary edges (and, fingers crossed, keep undesirables like Clayton Cosgrove out of Cabinet). And thus, you see, Socialist Utopia dawns.
This is all a stupendous psephological fantasy, of course. For it to work, the Labour left and its Greens allies would have to reverse their position on genetic modification and start cloning voters pronto. There just aren’t enough Wellington Central voters to go around (even in Wellington Central itself, where Labour came third in the party vote last time).
To bridge the shortfall, the thirty percenters have cleverly conceived the theory that Labour and sundry can make it across the line by persuading the “missing million” non-voters to get off the sofa. This is nonsense but brilliant nonsense nonetheless. If Labour loses, the question won’t be why actual voters chose not to come out in support but why the party wasn't righteous enough to attract notional voters who theoretically could.
Phil Quin is a former adviser for the NZ and Australia labour parties and a strategic communications consultant