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NZ POLITICS DAILY: Advice for the Labour Party

Labour is suffering in the polls. So what advice should they follow in order to turn things around? 

Wed, 20 Apr 2016

Labour is suffering in the polls. So what advice should they follow in order to turn things around? 

The advice has been flowing freely to the Labour Party in the wake of last week’s awful TVNZ Colmar Brunton poll, which showed a drop in its support to 28 per cent. As always the advice for Andrew Little has been contradictory: move left, move to the right, be more like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, be more like John Key, focus on positive issues rather than just criticising, and go harder against the Government.

Labour’s identity crisis

Audrey Young has a more positive account than most of Labour’s reaction to the poll, saying the party leadership was “disappointed” but “not spooked” at the result – see: Labour's new focus is all about the leader. As Young tells it, Little accepted responsibility for the poor result, but looking at the longer-term polling problem, “so did other members of the caucus collectively, as they should. Their mix of personal ambition, factional behaviour and short-termism led to the steady turnover of leaders and a sense that the party puts its own interests first. It was that that did the damage, not the individual leaders.” This acceptance of wider responsibility and Little’s skill in managing factions means there is “no doubt” in Young’s mind that Little is safe as leader until after the election. Should he then fail, “it will be Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern's turn.”

The Labour leader certainly exacerbated his party’s “long-running identity crisis” with recent scattershot policy pronouncements, says Young. Labour has apparently now come up with a solution: “The quickest way to deal with Labour's identity problems over policy is to forget the policy and make it about the leader. So… he was mandated by colleagues to rely on his own judgment more, to be bolder and make an impact, instead of trying to achieve consensus within the party.” Young explains part of this is a Key clobbering strategy, which may not always be rooted in fact and could easily backfire. Although deeply risky, with 18 months on the clock, she says Little is willing to take that chance.

Of course none of that addresses what Heather du Plessis-Allan says is Labour’s central problem: it is a party fundamentally unsure of what it stands for – see: Labour needs a hero and a cause. She says, like leftwing parties around the world, Labour finds itself adrift, struggling for legitimacy now that it has “mostly succeeded” in its historic mission of addressing unjust working conditions. 

“So what does a political party do when its mission is accomplished?” asks du Plessis-Allan. She suggests they figure out what they’re about, pronto, and try some honesty while they’re at it. The public can sense that Labour has been acting opportunistically rather than authentically, as the party’s recent rhetoric is not anchored in genuine and deeply held belief. In contrast, du Plessis-Allan points to Jeremy Corbyn’s healthy polling in the UK and says while in many ways he is the most unlikely of heroes, he appeals to voters because “he's authentic. He says what he means and will do it.”

Symptomatic of the contradictory advice dished out to Labour, a recent Herald editorial held up the likes of Corbyn as a warning of the “dangers” when a “major party slips below 30 per cent” and turns to “extreme” or “fringe” politicians and policies. Instead, the editorial emphasises New Zealand’s recent “stability” and says “The aim of every successful government is to take up so much of the middle of the road that, as David Lange once put it, their opponents have to ‘drive in the gutter’. That is Labour's problem, as it was for National when Helen Clark ruled the road.” The paper concludes Labour will just have to stick it out, and its time will eventually come.

But, the ongoing theme from many commentators is that such success will be evasive – and instead, many distracting controversies will occur – as long as Labour fails to articulate a strong story about what it stands for. See, for example, Chris Trotter’s interview with Paul Henry about the “foreign chefs” debacle: Little's comments show Labour's struggle with identity – commentator

Therefore, Labour and Little need more coherence. Unleashing righteous anger on popular issues is not enough if it isn’t underpinned by a unified and consistent message – see Tracy Watkins’ Is Andrew Little getting angry about all the wrong things?

And this is a point nicely illustrated by Toby Manhire in his column, Ghost of Muldoonism comes back to haunt Labour. In this he concludes that “they just look a bit lost. For the time being, Labour still come across as the party barking at every passing car, making it up as they go along.”

The Tyranny of the centre

In his blog post, Colmar Brunton Polls, Danyl Mclauchlan argues that for the Labour Party, this cyclical theory of politics is a “comfortable thing to think, because if true it ends with them being swept to power again sooner or later. And part of National’s rebirth involved a move to the far right under Don Brash. Shore up the base and then attack from a position of strength! So they keep trying the inverse of that.” 

But Mclauchlan believes Labour has now moved too far to the left, perhaps in a misguided attempt to emulate the likes of Corbyn and Bernie Sanders in the US. Mclauchlan argues that Labour needs to understand that “those guys are operating in polities totally different to anything like the conditions in New Zealand.” The problem with Labour’s move left, he says, is “there don’t seem to be many voters available to them there, and plenty of voters available in ‘the centre’.” 

But does the tyranny of the centre still exist in 2016? Actually, writes Colin James, “eruptive populist forces feeding on anger, frustration and distrust have eroded, and in some countries ended, the dominance in liberal democracies of the big, old parties spanning what used to be the ‘centre’.” And far from workers’ rights being a redundant cause, “fragmentation and uncertainty of work is compounded by the separation of the richest 1% and their elitist hangers-on from the rest who depend on that undependable, often poorly paid, work — a division highlighted by last week’s Panama tax haven revelations” – see: Deep social change’s reform challenge to Labour.

James also believes that the “deep social change these factors reflect will in the next decade or two require deep reform” and that is the challenge confronting Labour. As part of this, the party has to figure out how to attract support for reforms from fluid and “politically porous” social groupings because its “quasi-tribal” support base of old no longer exists.

Labour’s red-sky thinking on UBI

Of course, Labour has been responding to the increasingly radical times with some radical thinking of its own. In fostering debate about, and giving serious consideration to, introducing a universal basic income (UBI) it has been carrying out some “blue sky thinking” of a fairly ideologically red hue. 

The radical UBI thinking received plaudits from newspaper editorials. For example the Dominion Post declared “Labour deserves some credit for starting a useful debate”, and “It is also a sign that the Opposition is not all grim poll numbers and populist witterings, but that it is looking to produce bold ideas” – see: Labour's 'universal basic income' idea deserves consideration

The Press saw the UBI debate as a sign that Labour is shifting into issues of greater substance: “It is pleasing to see some long-term, future-based thinking in New Zealand politics. It is sometimes said that Labour has spent too much of the past decade mired in identity politics and relative trivia, playing games of reactive ‘gotcha!’ politics rather than tackling big issues that will actually change lives” – see: It is time to think about the future of work

Former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, Tim Murphy reported on Labour’s Future of Work conference and was impressed – see: The Future of Work, and of Labour. He suggested that Labour should be proud of pushing new ideas in an era when political parties tend to be vacuous and pragmatic: “It is too rare for oppositions to come up with entirely new approaches to major policy challenges. Before 2008, the National opposition seemed happy to throw previously unpopular policies overboard and to coat-tail into power by adopting successful Clark government measures.  While the future of work does go to the heart of Labour’s purpose, that is the very reason it should be the political force trying to find a new way to support those now facing change.”

But ultimately Labour didn’t seem up to the task, and backpeddled furiously when the UBI started to get public attention. For an explanation of Labour’s flawed political process with the UBI, see Joel McManus’ Universal Basic Income: Labour Attempts Blatant Pr Stunt, F***s It Up.

It seems that Gareth Morgan was correct in predicting Labour wouldn’t be brave enough to carry through on the UBI idea – see Blake Crayton-Brown’s Gareth Morgan says Labour doesn't 'have the balls' for a coherent UBI policy

And unfortunately for Labour, the party wasn’t able or willing to robustly defend the policy in public. Once the UBI exploration paper was published, commentators and opponents – quite reasonably – attempted to argue and debate the potential. At one extreme, John Key used the figure of $38 billion to cost the policy – see Isaac Davidson’s John Key: Labour's universal income idea 'barking mad'. 

David Farrar labelled it Labour’s $38 billion bribe!. But it wasn’t just the political right – Danyl Mclauchlan costed the UBI at “about $20 billion dollars a year. To put that into perspective, last year the healthcare system and education system combined cost $27 billion” – see: Labour’s UBI

But some Labour figures argued there would be virtually no cost. For example Rob Salmond disputed Farrar’s figures, and argued: “Once you also factor in tax change… the cost can be near zero, with many wage-earning taxpayers coming out ahead, only a few coming out behind” – see: Home-spun non-truths.

Labour’s continuing ideological evolution

Clayton Cosgrove announced last week that he would not stand at next year’s election, and Isaac Davison chalked it up as another loss for Labour’s right wing faction – see: Labour MP Cosgrove won't stand againGood riddance to Clayton Cosgrove was the response from blogger No Right Turn as he listed some of Cosgrove's political transgressions.

However Joe Stockman sees Cosgrove’s departure very differently saying while it was minor news compared to the Colmar Brunton result, it is “more indicative of the state of the Labour Party” than a poll result. Stockman argues that Cosgrove’s announcement shows “Labour’s battle with identity politics claims another scalp” – see: Et tu Clayton?

The departure of Cosgrove is, according to the NBR’s Rob Hosking, just the latest in a long line of losses for Labour of those with a strength in economic matters, which leaves Little’s caucus with a “worryingly shallow” talent pool – see his paywalled column, Little choice for Labour leader in economic area

Hosking cites the departure of other key economic-focused MPs such as Shane Jones and Phil Goff, together with the sidelining of David Parker. He thinks that David Clark has “unfulfilled potential” but “is inclined to involve himself in the kind of sledging antics and political silly beggars that do not distinguish him from his colleagues”. Meanwhile Hosking has some praise for Grant Robertson’s abilities, but suggests he’s still not cut out for being the finance spokesperson. Such inexperience and ignorance of economic matters is leading Labour to make too many simple errors.

And for details of Labour’s latest “rejig” forced on it by Cosgrove’s departure, see Claire Trevett’s Faafoi elevated into Labour's shadow Cabinet

Finally, Guy Williams says it’s time for extreme action, and declares Let's scrap the Labour Party, and start again

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NZ POLITICS DAILY: Advice for the Labour Party