NZ POLITICS DAILY: Corbyn’s success highlights NZ Labour’s inadequacies

Should Andrew Little be taking any lessons from the success of Jeremy Corbyn's British Labour Party?

The global anti-establishment political mood seems to have struck once again, with the surprisingly strong electoral result on Friday for the British Labour Party and its radical leader Jeremy Corbyn. While Corbyn didn’t succeed in becoming PM, his campaign is being hailed by the political left as an amazing achievement. Against all the odds, and all the predictions, Corbyn took his party to its highest vote count – 40 per cent of the vote – since 1997. 

This naturally leads to comparisons with the New Zealand Labour Party and questions about whether Mr Corbyn’s success has any lessons for Labour here. Thus far, the NZ Labour Party seems embarrassed by Mr Corbyn. Labour Party MPs here appear both discomfited by his success – which over time they have continuously downplayed or disparaged – and by Mr Corbyn’s left-wing authenticity that shows up the Labour Party here as being insipid, uninspired and opportunistic. 

Mr Corbyn’s success highlights how poorly Andrew Little and his party are faring – not only in an electoral sense, but also in their ability to build something that resonates with the part of the electorate looking for an authentic alternative to “business as usual”. 

On Twitter leftwing activists and commentators have lauded Mr Corbyn’s success and concluded that NZ Labour suffers by comparison. For example, political writer Branko Marcetic‏ (@BMarchetich) tweeted his advice: “NZ Labour & Greens could learn a lesson from UK labour: providing a real alternative isn't a death knell for a party, quite the opposite”. 

Just prior to the election, journalist Finlay Macdonald (@MacFinlay) tweeted a link to very left-wing election advertisement for the British Labour Party (directed by film maker Ken Loach), asking: “Can you imagine NZ Labour doing anything this bold and unequivocal?” For more, see my blog post: NZ left Twittersphere on Corbyn’s success

So here are the four problems Mr Corbyn’s success creates for the New Zealand Labour Party.

Problem #1: Corbyn’s success highlights NZ Labour’s inauthenticity
Political commentators have wasted no time in pointing to the stark contrast between the “real deal” that Mr Corbyn is, and the centrist, focus-grouped, spin-doctored version available here. Blogger Graham Cameron says Mr Little’s Labour Party could learn from British Labour that all the elite-style attempts to be respectable and moderate are counterproductive in this age of authenticity – see his must-read blog post, Polling won’t help you find courage: lessons from the UK for NZ Labour.

Here’s his key point about the difference between the two Labour leaders: “his supporters and opponents agreed that he believed in what he was saying and believed he was speaking truthfully. Corbyn comes across as fundamentally sincere. It led to a few gaffes, but it meant that there was no gap when he was answering questions about his values and beliefs. Conversely, we’ve all heard that gap on National Radio where Andrew Little is planning his response in his head to a question on values and beliefs on the basis of what his advisors told him polls well with voters, rather than answering sincerely.”

There have been some acknowledgements from the NZ Labour leadership that Mr Corbyn’s success is based on his authenticity and direct communication style, though it’s unclear to what extent Labour leaders here wish to emulate such an approach. And writing in the weekend about the lessons from the UK election, Tracy Watkins seems unconvinced that Andrew Little is in any way like Mr Corbyn: “When Little has got into trouble lately it's for dodging questions by sticking to patsy answers and one-liners rather than speaking to the heart of an issue. This is not because Little lacks authenticity or doesn't know the answers; it's a deliberate strategy from the Labour team. Little has even explained it to me. It's about staying on message apparently” – see: Expecting the unexpected the new situation normal

According to Tracy Watkins, Labour are failing to emulate Mr Corbyn’s bold and authentic approach: “The Labour team seems to think this [staying on message approach] is the same as the Corbyn strategy, or for that matter the Bernie Sanders strategy, of running a campaign around a small number of big, bold ideas. But as May showed, there's a big difference between big ideas and trite sound bites. Little had the advantage of having little political baggage as a relatively new MP and being able to run on the anti-politician ticket but seems to be squandering it.”

Problem #2: Mr Corbyn’s success highlights NZ Labour’s continued embrace of the Establishment
Mr Corbyn’s anti-establishment politics appear to have played a strong part in his appeal – he’s managed to show that he’s opposed to “business as usual”, and therefore to the status quo and political class. 

This is one of the main lessons from the election result according to the NBR’s Rob Hosking: “voters, increasingly, are reacting against politicians who are inclined to patronise them. That is a big lesson for New Zealand's upcoming general election. The more broad, general lesson, is less that ‘populism’, however, defined, is on the rise, but more that people in democracies are in an obstreperous mood and feel like giving the political establishment a good kick in the Niagara's” – see: Voters punish patronising politicians – and they will do it here too (paywalled). 

Mr Hosking also sums up what he believes might be the impact of the British election result here in New Zealand: “It will embolden New Zealand’s Left, both in and outside the Labour Party, there is no doubt about that. And – hopefully – it will provide a much-needed bucket of cold water on what appeared to be a growing complacency in the governing National Party.”

Problem #3: Mr Corbyn’s success highlights NZ Labour being centrist
The main local impact of the success of Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party, might be simply to highlight how very moderate New Zealand Labour is.

Blogger Martyn Bradbury celebrated the Corbyn result, and contrasted it with the fact that the local left parties had signed a very conservative fiscal responsibility pact: “When you consider the spineless ‘we won’t spook the bosses of neoliberal capitalism’ surrender note Grant Robertson and James Shaw signed in order to look respectable to our Corporate Overlords, our political left is a million miles from Corbyn’s policy dynamism and popularity. The warmed up cold grey gruel of Green and Labour policy in NZ compared to the 7 course Dégustation offered voters by Corbyn is obvious enough to force Labour and the Greens in NZ to buck up their ideas and actually start providing some radical policy rather than the safe crap they’ve been safely trying to bait us with so far” – see: UK Election – winners and losers

Similarly, Steven Cowan suggests the British and New Zealand Labour parties are entirely different in approach: “while Jeremy Corbyn was able to attract British folk back to the polling booths because Labour offered a clear and unequivocal progressive alternative, Andrew Little is offering nothing more than the same market -driven policies Labour has always campaigned on. We're not talking change, we're talking business as usual” – see: The change you have when you are not having change

Mr Cowan also took issue with Grant Robertson’s tweet claiming that it’s “worth noting UK Labour top 10 policies very similar to ours”. He responds: “This was a surprising claim from someone who had previously rejected Corbyn' s policies. But since Labour has yet to produce an election manifesto, Robertson could claim whatever he liked. But don't expect Labour to be campaigning on policies that reject austerity, that call for the nationalisation of the power companies, the creation of a state investment bank and a substantial increase in benefit levels, as well as the axing of benefit sanctions. These were just a handful of the policies that Corbyn and Labour campaigned on.”

Of course, Andrew Little’s strategists have been very upfront about their desire to keep Labour in the centre of the political spectrum. Labour’s chief strategist, Rob Salmond, has blogged about this in the past, suggesting Mr Corbyn’s approach is an unpopular “hard left” one, and that elections are still won in the centre – see: In defence of the centre

Problem #4: Mr Corbyn’s success highlights NZ Labour’s failure to engage
Mr Corbyn’s relative success in the UK is partly organisational – the party sought to broaden out beyond its parliamentary offices, engage more meaningfully with voters, and involve their members more in the party. It’s not apparent that similar approaches are occurring with the New Zealand Labour Party.

Leftwing columnist Gordon Campbell says that Mr Corbyn’s relative success with getting young and alienated public to vote, highlights the inability of Labour here to mobilise the missing million: “Corbyn and his Labour team ran an inspirational campaign that did in seven weeks what the New Zealand Labour Party has talked about doing since 2011, but never remotely looked like accomplishing. Corbyn inspired the young and drew back into the fold communities that had previously deserted Labour and were hitherto divorced from the entire political process. Corbyn offered – and crucially, he embodied – a clear and inclusive alternative policy programme” – see: On the lessons from Corbyn’s campaign

There’s a policy element to this contrasting success in mobilisation: “Labour and Greens have chosen to pursue the same centrist, moderate line – conservative on the economy, liberal on social issues – advocated by Corbyn’s Blairite enemies in the British Labour Party, who got hammered by the voters last Friday. Like the Blairites, the tentative Labour/Greens coalition are pursuing the line of least annoyance. The centre left parties may be lamenting the consequences of government neglect, but they are also promising — via the absurd Budget Responsibility Rules document – to maintain the economic settings causing all that social misery. In addition, Andrew Little’s Labour team has been trying to outbid New Zealand First (eg on immigration and law’n’order) for the votes of the reactionary right. As in Britain, the public are much further to the left on social issues than the centre-left parties that claim to represent them. Unlike Corbyn, the parliamentary centre left leadership here seems afraid to stand up in public for the agendas they profess (in private) to hold dear. It won’t end well.”

The necessity to mobilise the public is also discussed today in the Dominion Post’s editorial, Corbyn finds a way to connect, which emphasises that the British Labour Party innovated with digital media, and campaigned in new ways. This ability to engage could be useful here, says the newspaper: “There are lessons here for New Zealand's political strategists. There are 750,000 non-voters in this country. Many are younger people currently disengaged from the political process, but almost certainly connected to social media. In New Zealand's MMP system, where every vote counts, there are potential dividends for any party that can find new ways to reach them and persuade them to get to the polling station.”

However, Labour might be about to answer this criticism, with former Chief of Staff Matt McCarten about to launch a new campaigning organisation – not officially connected to the party – focused on the “missing million” – see Pete George’s Matt McCarten leaves Labour

Past pronouncements on Mr Corbyn
Mr Corbyn’s rise in fortunes, has led some to go back and revisit the views of various politicians and political commentators on his leadership. The best item for this is Toby Manhire’s 2015 aggregation of views on Mr Corbyn – see: Corbyn Blimey – Jim Anderton, Judith Collins, Bryan Gould and More on Jeremy Corbyn’s Big Win

Some of the comments now seem prescient. Many don’t. But perhaps the most interesting is by political writer Andrew Dean: “Who is New Zealand Labour’s Corbyn? There is no serial dissenter – unless we count Damien O’Connor, I guess – in part because the NZLP is no longer able to hold such figures within its ranks, a transition that I cannot help but see as a weakness. What I think the leadership election over here has shown is how narrow the NZLP has become: bereft of its mass-membership, without a strong union movement, and with significant challengers to its left, it no longer seems capable of staging the kinds of debates that have taken place in the British left over the last few months.”

Interestingly, the politician most excited about the rise of Mr Corbyn was actually Judith Collins. Back in 2015, she wrote: “Thanks to Corbyn, the British Labour Party now has 260,000 new members. These people were galvanised into action because they saw something worth getting out of bed for. For them, Jeremy Corbyn is a breath of fresh air offering an alternative viewpoint, even if he is deluded. And that's what politics should be about – a contest of ideas, policies and views – even crazy ones” – see: Centre voters just the core, the action is on the fringes

Collins said that, although she might disagree with Mr Corbyn’s policies, she admired him: “at least he has not been afraid to frankly share his thoughts and honestly answer questions. Corbyn has clearly listened, and for the first time in years hundreds of thousands of Britons are feeling heard. Politicians of all stripes need to be fearless, creative, interested, questioning and most of all listening to the electorate.”

In true Corbyn style, she foresaw that winning elections was no longer as simple as chasing the centre vote: “Winning elections is about engaging people and actually presenting an alternative. Galvanising the centre to be interested enough to vote will not happen simply by prescribing more of the same, albeit with a different coloured tie.”

Finally, reflecting on Mr Corbyn’s popularity, one political commentator has suggested that perhaps Mr Little “should grow a beard to get a boost?" – see Simon Maude’s By a whisker has Jeremy Corbyn revived beards in politics?

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