Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Labour: Some Difficult Questions

Years ago I was involved in a car accident. I was sitting in the front seat as a passenger in a car controlled by an erratic person, driving like a ball bearing in a pin ball machine. I saw a car on our left pull out from a parked position. The driver did not. The ensuing seconds felt like minutes as my adrenalin heightened senses observed almost in slow motion the carnage that ensued. I remember grabbing my seat belt and swinging my legs up onto the seat as the engine bay sliced guillotine-like into the front seat, where my legs once were.

Thoughts of watching a car accident in slow motion unfortunately returned to me in the weeks leading up to and culminating in last Saturday's election results. It was apparently Labour's worse result in ninety two years. What to do? Blame the leader? Start a period of introspection and navel gazing? Does Labour need to rebuild and how?

I should declare at the outset that I support the Labour Party and have stood as a candidate in an electorate seat in the past. I gave the Party over a year of my life, and practically gave up paid employment for a year as I campaigned full-time. I also sought a position on the party list. I can say now that while I support Labour, I have no wish to seek nomination as a candidate again. So in writing my thoughts in this particular blog I have nothing personally to gain.

It is pretty evident that there are a number of divisions within the Labour Party. The first one is over the leadership. Simply put it appears that most the Labour caucus do not want David Cunliffe as Leader and have never wanted him. A large number of the Labour membership however do, or at least did. There is a call to replace David Cunliffe with David Shearer or some other individual, of which there seem to be three eager to grasp that chalice.

Mr Shearer was leader before Mr Cunliffe. Now away from the pressure of that role he has performed reasonably well. With respect while leader, to my mind he did not distinguish. We now all know that before his incarnation as an MP, he helped take school books to children in a war zone, but you need more than that as part of your story. Additionally Mr Shearer was extraordinarily inarticulate and garbled when it came to his ability while leader to use spoken English. To my mind he will be forever be remembered for one of his last appearances in the House as leader, when he stood up and in a desperate attempt to make a point, held a dead fish in each hand. His leadership slept with them shortly thereafter.

Today we have presidential style campaigns where there is a focus on the leader of each political party. When you appoint a leader a number of things are important. They must be able to galvanise the Party, be intelligent, but more importantly they must be able to front foot it in debate with the Prime Minister, John Key. I just do not think Mr Shearer could even hold a candle to Mr Cunliffe in that regard.

Also important is the ability of the leader, but also the Party and especially the caucus to be identified with and accepted as credible by the electorate. This is where I think the Labour Party is missing the mark.

Without doubt the Labour Party had an impressive array of policies. They were so impressive that the National Party stole some of them as part of their attempt to brand themselves as National lite and centrist. The National Party has occupied the centre and has adopted a strategy of appealing to "middle New Zealand" with a range of policies built upon an appeal to prejudice (e.g taking the vote off inmates and beneficiary bashing) and tokenism (e.g. a possible tax cut sometime in 2017) while advancing larger systemic moves that favour corporates and the business sector.

The important point being that the National Party has made an art form out of appealing to middle New Zealand, while to all intents and purposes the Labour Party appear to ignore them. In saying this I am not advocating being hard on beneficiaries or even jettisoning Labour's socially progressive policies, rather I am saying that Labour needs to look at the core voting block and understand how they tick.

I think the Labour Party can be justifiably proud of their attempts to bring gender equity to political representation for example. However, in doing that you must also carry the voting public with you. It is no use inventing an iPhone 6 two centuries ago, if the technology and market are not there to support and accept it. You may be advanced and ultimately correct, but as with most things in life politics is the art of the possible and unless you can gain the Treasury benches you will languish. Believing that you are the only ones who are correct will not take you very far in politics.

Well known blogger Morgan Godfrey sat in on Labour's 2011 Wellington list selection meeting and as an outsider observed what he saw as a culture of "poisonous patronage that pervades the Labour Party." Of the actual list, when it was released, he wrote: "Overall, a pretty shitty list in my opinion. The Labour Party needs to stop rewarding service with political patronage. Internal politics is always at play with this sort of thing."

Therein to my mind lies one of the Labour Party's problems. There has been a perception that Labour does not reflect in its composition middle New Zealand. I recall for example the Labour list selection process for the Wellington Region for this year. We had only one male put his hat in the ring. I am advised that potential male candidates were told that they would be wasting their time. As the New Zealand Herald reported on 5 September 2014 in a nationwide poll Labour's support among men has fallen to 18.4 per cent, while 28.9 per cent of women support Labour. Overall support came out at 23.8 per cent, which was not too far removed from the actual result on election night.

While the outcome of the list selection process may reflect the best of intentions, it underscores the fact that it does not and has not carried the electorate. In saying these things I am not underrating the women that put their names forward. They were articulate, intelligent and would each have much to add to any caucus.

The list selection process may accord with Labour's constitution and reflect where New Zealand should be heading. But processes like this play into the hands of the right who spin it as an example of the "man ban" and we are seeing a withering of Labour's party vote. If the electorate are rejecting where Labour wants to go, is it not time that Labour started listening?

Imagine a yacht race where the crew on one boat are battling over who will be captain and who will perform what function. Worse still imagine a race, where the rival teams are out sailing around the course, while this yacht remains at its berth arguing over the composition of the crew. At times with Labour it appears that there are so many vested interest groups not willing to cede ground that it seems they would rather lose the race, taking comfort that they at least have their people on board. In short I think Labour is in a state of vested interest gridlock. This has to change. This will be difficult as it will involve a cultural shift, from years of manoeuvring by niche groups, to the realisation that to effect political change, you have to be in Government and that means appealing to the majority of New Zealanders.

As a lawyer I have acted in numerous jury trials. I have won more trials than I have lost. One of the biggest battles in a trial is over getting the jury to identify with and to believe in the person you represent. Labour has to start taking real steps to get the electorate to identify with and believe in them.

On a practical level the Labour Party has to start doing deals in advance with the Greens. This is common sense and should have been done as long ago as 2011. That the Labour Party refuse to do this is frankly stupid. The National Party do it with Act and United Future, to great effect. At the last election if the Labour leadership had a discussion with the Greens and the Greens agreed to give their electorate votes to Labour, there were possibly four extra seats that could have have gone to Labour. Two examples will suffice. In Ohariu, which is Peter Dunne's seat, on election night he received 12,270 candidate votes, Labour's Virginia Andersen received 11,349 and the Greens 2,266. Another example is Auckland Central. On election night National's Nikki Kaye received 10,040 candidate votes, Labour's Jacinda Adern 9,303 and the Greens just 1,537. Given current figures the Greens will never win those seats.  Labour's intransigence to embrace MMP in this way is costing it seats.

If the Labour Party does not start appealing to middle New Zealand, by choosing people and adopting an approach that the majority of voters can identify with, then they run the risk of abdicating the largest voting block to a right wing party led by a multi-millionaire currency trader who most appear to think represents them more than the Labour Party. Unless these issues are actually addressed, in the near future the Labour Party risks becoming an irrelevance.


  1. Please text me some time. 021 069 4542 Phil

  2. "the Labour Party has to start doing deals in advance with the Greens."

    Mr Cunliffe did start doing deals with the Greens in the month prior to the election. The deal was how little he would work with them, what positions they wouldn't get and how little their influence would be. At 27% polling, a leader has to pull people together, not apart. You should never get to make that king of mistake twice.