There’s been a bit of talk on the blogosphere/twitter about this column by Stephen Mills from UMR (they do Labour’s polling) about the future of the Labour Party:
The deaths of major political parties in Western democracies are often predicted but very seldom occur.
There was some talk after National’s 2002 election disaster that New Zealand First could become the major party on the right. That now looks really stupid.
In the last few years tens of millions of words have been written about the inevitable demise of the Australian Labor Party (ALP).
While the ALP has some problems it has been in front in every major Australian poll since the first Coalition Budget in May.
Whether New Zealand Labour has a future has been questioned since its terrible party vote result in the September election.
Labour will be encouraged that most voters do see Labour as retaining major party status.
Given a choice, only 13 per cent think the party “has no place in modern New Zealand politics and is going to fade away”; 78 per cent think “its current problems are just the usual political cycle and it remains the alternative major party political party that people will turn to when they get tired of John Key and National”.
I don’t know if Labour is a dying party. Looks like it to me, but there’s still time to turn things around. I do think there’s an important difference between National in 2002 and the Labour Party in 2014. After their 2002 election loss National realised that it faced an existential crisis and took drastic action. They bought Steven Joyce in to review the party, underwent a huge reorganisation and then united behind their subsequent leaders, Brash and Key. The sense I get from Labour is that they don’t have anything to worry about because hey, National was in big trouble a few years ago and now look at them go! Sure, Labour aren’t doing great right now but it’s just history; it’s political cycles. You gotta ride it out and wait until the tide washes you back into government again. There was a nice example of this from former Labour President Mike Williams on the Nine to Noon political segment last week. Williams announced that the leader of the Labour leadership contest will probably be the Prime Minister in 2017 because four term governments are rare. Forget all that hard work of somehow beating John Key, which Labour has no idea how to do, or even reforming the party. Fate will just return them to power, somehow, because that’s what sometimes happened in the past.
I don’t think Key and National see themselves as being circumscribed by fate, and that they should just resign themselves to losing in 2017. I think they’ve built a fearsome political behemoth that dominates New Zealand’s political landscape and which they hope will endure for a long, long time, even after Key finally retires in his fifth term (or whenever). Labour dying is not a worst-case scenario for the New Zealand left. Labour hanging around, slowly dwindling, occupying the political space of the center-left but not winning an election for another twenty years is the real and highly plausible doomsday scenario. I don’t know how much of National’s strength is an accident of Labour’s current weakness, but I do know that the new Labour leaders job will be reforming their party, and not beating Key. That’s not even an option for Labour until they somehow transform themselves into a modern professional political party, and figure out who they are and what they stand for.
What does that even mean? Let me make three points.
- Values. I agree with people like Josie Pagani when she says Labour needs to be a ‘broad church’. If it’s going to be a major party then it needs candidates that speak to many different groups of New Zealanders; it can’t just be a bunch of educated urban liberals shouting at everyone about what they’re allowed to think and say. But a broad church is still a, y’know, church. You need to believe in God, so to speak. Pagani endorsed Shane Jones for leader, and it was really obvious for a long time that St Jonesy’s values were basically ACT Party values. He said it himself when he left, that he wanted Labour to be more like the Lange/Douglas government. It was completely ridiculous to have a guy that openly hated the party and everything it stood for sitting on the front bench, and of course it worked out terribly for Labour. That’s not something that happens to functional political parties. New Zealand First doesn’t have an MP that hates old people. National is a ‘broad church’ party, but they don’t have John Minto in there talking about abolishing private property, and a whole bunch of National activists cheering him on and endorsing him for leader. Labour needs to articulate a meaningful set of values that MPs and party members agree on. How the hell are the public supposed to know what they’re voting for if the MPs can’t agree?
- Performance: Having said all that about values, grasp what Key grasps: that the majority of those centrist voters Stephen Mills talks about in his column aren’t morons – as Chris Trotter alleges – but valence voters who look for qualities like competence rather than policy or ideology. Labour does not present itself as a competent, credible party. Take last election: all that phenomenal policy work in the lead-up to the 2014 election campaign was pointless: whenever the policies were launched all the MPs either went on holiday or started talking about anything other than, say, the education policy they’d invested months developing. That’s not down to factionalism, or media bias, or any of the other problems Labour contends with (or thinks it does). That’s just a badly run political party. Stop purging high-performing staff whenever there’s a leadership change. Don’t replace them with random unqualified people who can’t do those jobs.
- Winning. In 2005 Labour won the party vote in Nelson with 43% of the vote. In 2008 high-ranking list MP Maryan Street became the Labour candidate, and by 2011 Labour’s party vote in Nelson was 27.3%. That’s a huge decline but not, weirdly, a reason for Labour not to run her again in that electorate in 2014 or give her a high position on the list (albeit not high enough to return her to Parliament). Why did the party select someone with no apparent connection to Nelson as the electorate candidate and then keep running them even through their result just kept getting worse and worse? That was a really dumb thing to do. The ability to run campaigns that win party votes is the key performance indicator for politicians in the MMP system. but half of Labour’s candidates repeatedly run electorate only campaigns and the rest keep getting re-selected and back in on the list irregardless of how they perform. (Nelson isn’t the worst decline, either. Mt Albert, Dunedin South and Auckland Central have seen even larger drops in party vote support). MPs and candidates need to understand that if they’re not winning party votes for Labour they need to go and do something else with their life.
Those problems are symptoms of institutional dysfunction. I don’t know what the core issues are, or how you fix them, but that’s what the next leaders main job is. ‘Beating Key’ is way down the list. The danger is that the next leader starts to reform the party which freaks out and fights back, white-anting and leaking against him (or her) and they get rolled because they’re down in the polls.
I don’t know which candidate for leadership is best suited to run the party. I thought Cunliffe would be a good leader! But here are my brief thoughts:
- Gracinda. The urban liberal dream-team of Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern. Will be popular and effective in Auckland and Wellington. Will make Labour attractive to soft-Green voters. I find it hard to imagine them winning many National or New Zealand First voters, not just because Robertson is gay but because I can’t see two childless career politicians being wildly popular with ‘middle-New Zealand’. Clark was though so maybe I’m imposing my own subconscious bigotry onto the voters, or something. Also, as a Green voter I question the strategic value of trying to win votes off the Green Party, but there’s a strong consensus in Labour that the Greens need to be knocked back (Mike Williams talked about this on Monday as well), and a historic precedent for it – National consumed ACT before they moved to the center – and ‘Gracinda’ is the best leadership team to go about this.
- Andrew Little. Hasn’t won an electorate. Neither did Brash though, and he came pretty close to winning in 05 (which goes to show that leadership isn’t everything, since Brash was pretty shocking at it). Little seems to be keen to ‘Clause IV’ Labour and provoke a fight with the party by rolling back various policies that are near and dear to the hearts of Labour’s activists. Apparently Little was a very formidable operator when he ran the EPMU, so maybe he has the organisational abilities to reform Labour?
- Nanaia Mahuta. She did well in the Nation’s Labour leaders debate. I don’t think she’ll win, but I can’t help contrasting her treatment by mainstream media commentators, who seem to regard her as a bit of a joke with that of St Jonesy, who was hailed as a superstar and Labour’s last chance to reconnect with real voters, given that Mahuta managed to win and hold an electorate seat, and be a Cabinet Minister without constantly disgracing herself, feats Jones never quite pulled off. I wonder if Maori Labour MPs like Mahuta are told to focus on Maori media and winning Maori votes, and then when they stand up in a contest like this they’re greeted with bafflement by Pakeha pundits?
- David Parker. I have no strong opinions about David Parker.
I have no idea which of the three blokes will win, or which of them should win. But if I was a Labour voter I’d worry less about ‘who I’d like to have a beer with’, or which faction they championed, or even whose policies and values I identified closely with, and more with which of them has the qualities to fix the deep, structural problems within Labour and turn it into a modern professional party.