Hot Topic NBR Focus: GMO
Hot Topic NBR Focus: GMO
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NZ POLITICS DAILY: The Fractionated and beltway Labour Party

Bryce Edwards
Thu, 02 Oct 2014

The increasing friction between the Labour factions is producing a ‘fractionated’ Labour Party. David Shearer used this term when he was on TVNZ’s Q+A in the weekend. It’s very apt, because there’s no avoiding the reality that the fighting is going to become more intense over the next two months, with sharp differences that had been suppressed for years now rising to the surface. 

For the most vivid account of this, see Duncan Garner’s blog post, Narcissistic Labour proves voters were bang on. He opens the box on what he believes is the ultra-factionism in the party, especially driven by the so-called ABC club: ‘Trevor Mallard is the life president, Clayton Cosgrove, chief plotter, David Shearer, general-secretary, Stuart Nash, head of communications, Annette King, camp mother, Grant Robertson the uncle, Phil Goff, kaumatua, and the errant ABC kids are Jacinda Ardern, Chris Hipkins and Kris Faafoi’.

The leadership battle is going to be a spectacle, with insults and sledging barely being contained anymore. For the best single report conveying the rising temperature of the fight, see Patrick Gower’s entertaining item, Labour leadership battle turns dirty. Similarly, continued stories such as Cunliffe's wife's Twitter attack account's first follower was husband, are merely symptoms of the increasing friction between the factions.

Left and right factions?
For the best account of the internal warring in ‘a race that is ugly and will only get uglier’, see Tracy Watkins’ Leadership battle may blind Labour. She explains just how bitter the leadership fight currently is, but makes the very important point that there is less ideological basis to the factions than in previous internal party struggles: ‘Warring factions in Labour are hardly new. In the 1980s Labour was torn apart by the David Lange – Roger Douglas split, which eventually led to a splintering of the party.  But that war was over ideology and direction; the outcome was fundamental to where Labour stood.  There is nothing so glorious about this latest  battle; it is mostly about personal ambition, popularity and hubris.  Cunliffe's appeal to the grassroots to give him the mandate to ride roughshod over his caucus is not about ideology; it's about seeking permission to get rid of those MPs who don't like him’.

In spite of this, there’s a common assumption that Cunliffe is the Labour-left option, and Grant Robertson represents the Labour-right. How true is this? Jane Clifton challenges it in her latest Listener column, Divided we rule (paywalled). Here’s the key part: 'Robertson’s ‘leadership is widely touted as a stalking horse for the party’s imagined right-wing faction, whereas Cunliffe is the guardian of its left-wing soul. Yet the campaign policy platforms Cunliffe presided over were assiduously moderate. On the pair’s rhetoric before the question of leadership arose, Robertson was much more traditional left than Cunliffe, who was widely assumed to be a surrendered Rogernome. It’s worth remembering that neither Cunliffe nor any other senior Labour MP has proposed unpicking any of the economic and fiscal reforms brought in under Sir Roger Douglas, so the whole left-right divide is largely mythological. Yet because the supposed “right” in the caucus support Robertson and reject Cunliffe, the contest is often being portrayed as a battle over policy direction.  It was salient that when Robertson, in an interview, said “Judge me on my policies,” no one could think of any’.

Many of those to the left of Labour also dispute the idea that Cunliffe took Labour to the left. Today, for example, John Minto blogs I feel sorry for Labour Party members and supporters. He argues that ‘one of the great ironies of Cunliffe’s leadership was that he went in to the 2014 election campaign with even less progressive policies than the right-wing Phil Goff as Labour leader at the 2011 election’. For similar arguments about Labour’s continued embrace of rightwing policy settings, see Philip Ferguson’s The election: a defeat for ‘the left’? and today, Dita de Boni says that it’s Time for Labour to embrace the left

The Fractious factions
The lack of ideological underpinnings in the different Labour factions means that we need to find other ways of making sense of the internal party differences. National Party columnist Liam Hehir does this best in his column, The trouble with Labour. Here’s his key point: ‘There are three factions within Labour. First are the parliamentary moderates - the Phil Goffs and David Shearers. They are the smallest faction but are well entrenched and can appeal to the wider public. Second are the young careerists, like Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern. While they predominate in the caucus, few have had any real experience in life outside of politics. Their public appeal also tends to be limited beyond the metropolitan borders. Last is the "Tea Party" faction of activists and union delegates. This faction is the weakest in the caucus but gets 60 per cent of the say in choosing the party leader’.

Hehir makes another good point about why Labour’s factions are producing so much friction: ‘All parties have factions, of course. The trouble for Labour is that each bloc seems to be of equal strength. That means no single faction can dominate. No wonder the past six years have seen a Game of Thrones style drama of constantly shifting alliances, backstabbing and retribution’.

Another theory explaining the increased friction is put forward by Danyl McLauchlan in his blog post, Nash equilibrium. He argues that there is no particular incentive for party MPs to unify: ‘The problem is, the Labour Party’s caucus is filled with rivals who want to be the next Labour Prime Minister, or want their patron/faction leader to be the next Labour Prime Minister. There’s no incentive for Cunliffe or Shearer or Nash or any of Robertson’s other rivals in the caucus to unite behind him in the event of a victory.  Nothing bad happens to them if they plot against him, leak against him and campaign for the electorate vote during the next election while minimising the party vote. On the contrary, if they do unite behind the leader and ‘show unity’ and help boost the party vote then they lose, because then their rival gets to be Prime Minister instead of them!’

But wasn’t last year’s Labour leadership primary a relatively civil contest? Audrey Young explains why ‘This year's contest is likely to be more focused and more intense’ in her column, High noon for Cunliffe, Robertson. She says ‘There was a feelgood factor in Labour's last leadership contest that won't be there this time.  It was the first time a vote on the leadership had gone wider than caucus and the contest itself energised the party.  There was no sense of desperation. They were around 33 per cent in the polls, which still had the left bloc within reach. Neither Cunliffe nor Robertson had a track record in leadership to attack or defend.  Everything has changed. The mood is dark after losing three elections in a row and posting the worst result in 92 years.  This time there is a record to defend and attack’.

Labour’s ‘beltway’ problem
Patrick Gower’s TV3 report shows how Labour has a ‘beltway’ problem. There’s a sense in which the party is seen to be too inward-looking and focused on extraneous and marginal issues that are mainly of concern to insiders and activists. Although it’s Grant Robertson who is commonly seen as a beltway politician, Gower suggests that it’s actually a problem throughout the party that is hampering Labour being able to connect with a wider audience. 

But is the ‘beltway’ term really that relevant? Twitter – which is the ultimate ‘beltway’ forum – has been discussing these issues – see my aggregation of this discussion in my blog post, Top tweets about the Wellington/Labour beltway

Is the beltway term only related to Wellington? Martyn Bradbury seems to think so, and explains: ‘Let me be blunt, ‘beltway’ is a term used to describe a person who is a political apparatchik within the Wellington clique who manages to only express the most negative stereotypes of that political process. A person born and bred within the Party who has mastered the ability to climb the slippery poll of politics with no external life experience. Those championing Robertson can’t seriously claim he as the beltway king is the leader to reconnect with the middle NZ everyone says cost Labour the election. How on earth can a Labour leader not be an Aucklander? How can any Party hope to lead if their leader isn’t based in the largest city in the nation?’ – see: Party members and affiliates – the real losers in Labour’s leadership fight.

To get beyond the beltway, Bradbury suggests that Labour needs a leadership combo of Cunliffe with co-deputies of Stuart Nash and Louisa Wall: ‘The Cunliffe-Nash-Wall team is the symbolism Labour needs right now, I can’t see how any other combination doesn’t simply retread previous leaders or appoint MPs who only reinforce the disconnect perception Labour has with mythical middle NZ’.

Others have suggested that the beltway critique is less about geography and more about a focus on ‘special interests’. There’s a huge debate looming in Labour about how to reconnect with voters and become a ‘broad church’. Claire Trevett discusses such issues in her article, Labour MPs undecided over front-runners: ‘Both Mr Robertson and Mr Cunliffe have started trying to secure the support they will require from caucus, members and the unions through a combination of promises and subtle sledging. Mr Robertson has pledged to reconnect with New Zealanders, apparently reflecting concerns of MPs like Mr Shearer and Clayton Cosgrove that Labour was obsessed with sectional interests.  Mr Cunliffe responded by making a clear pitch for party members by saying he rejected the suggestion.  "I reject that - if you count Maori, Pasifika and our affiliates as sectional interests we'd be in dire straits without them. Those are the bright spots in an otherwise bleak election campaign."’

Cunliffe in trouble
Numerous heavyweight opinion leaders are coming out against Cunliffe’s bid. For example, today John Armstrong calls for senior Labour figures to intervene and convince Cunliffe to pull out of the race – see: Cunliffe's bid a non-starter

Cunliffe has suffered a number of other blows since announcing his re-election bid. Most notably, his previous deputy, David Parker has publicly announced his lack of confidence in Cunliffe. Tracy Watkins comments: ‘That now raises serious questions about how a Cunliffe-led Labour could take the fight to National in 2017. Losing Parker as deputy might be survivable; losing him as finance spokesman is not. It should all add up to Cunliffe’s cause being hopeless. It is a sign of how bitterly divided the caucus and wider party have become, however, that no-one is writing him off yet.  Cunliffe may have the support of between five and 11 MPs in caucus – either way, it is not a majority’ – see: Moveable feast for leadership

Another blow came from the publication of a scathing blog post about Cunliffe from one of Cunliffe’s electorate candidates, James Dann – see: An Open Letter To David Cunliffe. This showed the level of bitterness inside the party.

For an equally scathing – but much more amusing – assessment of Cunliffe, see Danyl MacLauchlan’s blog post, Is New Zealand ready for an openly inane Prime Minister? There are plenty of other critiques of Cunliffe’s performance – a good example is Brian Edwards’ Long run or short season for David Cunliffe? The mainstream media also had damaging items, such as Adam Bennett’s 13 bizarre things Cunliffe has said in the past 24 hours.

On top of these negative assessments came the Karen Price Twitter micro-scandal. Once again, Patrick Gower boils it down best, showing how much friction there is in the party – see his report: Cunliffe's wife was 'incredibly stressed'. And Andrea Vance elaborates with her analysis: Twitter attacks herald a bitter contest

But perhaps the saga isn’t as damaging for Cunliffe as is assumed – see Brian Edwards’ Shock! Horror! Wife defends husband!!!! and Jono Natusch’s @Tarnbabe67: Cosgrove’s conspiracy theory backfires. Some other interesting points and questions are raised by Matthew Beveridge in his blog post, Karen Price, Tarnbabe67 and David Cunliffe

But while much of what was happening in cyberspace was damaging to Cunliffe, there have been some other interesting accounts in social media that are at variance with the above – see, for example Laura McQuillan’s Social media support for Cunliffe and TVNZ’s Robertson is in dreamland say Facebook users

Who will prevail?
According to the iPredict website, there is a 78% chance of Grant Robertson to be next Labour Party leader. And today Tim Watkin suggests that ‘If you were to place a bet, the most likely outcome is that Robertson wins after a bruising contest’ – see: What Labour needs to hear: the 4th voice

But could there be another candidate? There’s still talk about Stuart Nash standing. But could acting Labour Leader David Parker end up running Labour? John Armstrong pushes this idea: ‘As Labour's caretaker leader, [Parker] has a golden opportunity to prove himself in coming weeks without the intense pressure and expectation that comes with the leader's job.  Last week Parker said he would not be seeking the leadership. He keeps saying he has not changed his mind.  And he has not - not yet at least’ – see: Party's way out of leadership quagmire unclear.

But perhaps, as one commentator suggests, Parker and his economic policies were a big part of Labour’s electoral disaster: ‘The three biggest problems: a capital gains tax as the answer to the country's misallocation of capital; raising the pension age to 67, and an electricity policy so complicated it left power company executives begging for price regulation instead’ – see Pattrick Smellie’s Memo to Labour: it's also the policy.

Finally, for a visual idea of the state of the Labour Party and the leadership contest, see my aggregation of cartoons and photos – Images of the post-election Labour Party.

Today’s content

Labour Party and leadership

Duncan Garner (RadioLive): Narcissistic Labour proves voters were bang on

Jane Clifton (Listener): Divided we rule (paywalled)

John Minto (Daily Blog): I feel sorry for Labour Party members and supporters

Jono Natusch: @Tarnbabe67: Cosgrove's conspiracy theory backfires

Matthew Beveridge: Karen Price, Tarnbabe67 and David Cunliffe

Susan Wood (Newstalk ZB): Karen Price should take a leaf out of Bronagh's book

Nick Grant (NBR): Labour limbers up for leadership runoff, self-immolation

John Armstrong (Herald): Cunliffe's bid a non-starter

Claire Trevett (Herald): Bottled-up venom leaking into leadership battle

Dita de Boni (Herald): Time for Labour to embrace the left

Lynn Prentice (The Standard): Cosgrove, the whining MP

Andrea Vance (Stuff): Cunliffe: I'm not into gutter politics

Stuff: Embarrassing political families

Andrea Vance (Stuff): Twitter attacks herald a bitter contest

Isaac Davison (Herald): Twitter denials provoke fresh attacks

Newswire: David Cunliffe used his wife for Twitter attack – Clayton Cosgrove

Tim Watkin (Pundit): What Labour needs to hear: the 4th voice

Fundamentally Useless: Guest post: The Labours of Left-wing Leadership

Sebastian Klinkum (Beehive Mandate): Labour leadership process cannot be disrupted

John Armstrong (Herald): Party's way out of leadership quagmire unclear

Patrick Gower (TV3): Cunliffe's wife was 'incredibly stressed'

TVNZ: Cunliffe 'unaware' of wife's Twitter attacks

Rachel Smalley (Newstalk ZB): Time to stop attacking Cunliffe

TVNZ: Cunliffe's wife 'signed his political death warrant' with Twitter rant

RadioLIVE: Nash reconsiders Labour leadership bid – reports

Andrea Vance (Stuff): Cunliffe: No knowledge of wife's Twitter account

Brian Edwards: Shock! Horror! Wife defends husband!!!!

Herald: Karen Price: the lawyer who isn't comfortable being a politician's wife

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Why not Gillard for Leader

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Cunliffe’s wife behind anonymous attacks on Labour MPs

Cameron Slater (Whaleoil): It’s time for a new kind of Labour leader

Barry Soper (Newstalk ZB): David Cunliffe's missus takes to Twitter

Stacey Kirk (Stuff): New Labour leader by November

Radio NZ: Robertson calls for honest debate

TVNZ: David Cunliffe has 'very, very little' support in Labour caucus

Pattrick Smellie (Stuff): Memo to Labour: it's also the policy

Philip Ferguson (Redline): The election: a defeat for ‘the left’?

Steven Cowan (Against the Current): A pig headed refusal to look facts in the face


TV3: PM nervous about NZ troops fighting 'grotesque' IS

Anthony Robbins (The Standard): NZ troops to Iraq?

No Right Turn: Parliament should decide

Maori politics

Herald: Editorial: Free entry to Treaty site nation's right

Joe Trinder (Daily Blog): Mana Maori alliance

Brian Rudman (Herald): Forget the myth, let's talk about Waitangi charge

Voting and MMP

ODT: MMP changes needed

Felix Marwick (Newstalk ZB): MPs to present MMP paper in Sydney

Shomi Yoon (ISO): If you didn’t vote you can still complain

Eric Crampton (Offsetting Behaviour): Electoral lotteries

Economy and Inequality

Max Rashbrooke: New Zealand set for rising inequality, new data shows

TVNZ: New Zealand '10th best country to grow old in'

Gordon Campbell (Scoop): On the last rites for the TPP


Lynn Prentice (The Standard): The Standard’s last two months

Pete George (Your NZ): Standard blog banning spree

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Latest crime stats

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Lobby groups should not be taxpayer funded

No Right Turn: Fundamental incomprehension II

Janine Rankin (Stuff): The Rankin Files: City democracy lined up to take a hit

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Kiwiblog now a member of Online Media Standards Authority

John Weekes and Grant Bradley (Herald): Oil protesters disrupt event, scale building

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Can National win a 4th or even a 5th term?

Bryce Edwards
Thu, 02 Oct 2014
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NZ POLITICS DAILY: The Fractionated and beltway Labour Party