Sunday, September 21, 2014

2014 - Why the left lost, and what they should do

The results of election 2014 should be taken as an object lesson by both the left wing parties and the media. As I guessed the left were punished for both “dirty politics” and targeting the Prime Minister via the GCSB. These are not necessarily unimportant issues but they were not election winners. But let’s back up a bit and take a look at a successful Labour campaign so we can ‘play spot the difference’.


Helen Clark swept to power in 2000 having guided Labour back from the near terminal collapse after the Party split into left and right wings following its crushing defeat in 1990. Let’s look at what she did.
First she stared down challenges for the leadership. No Party can win playing musical leaders, as Australian Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd most clearly demonstrated when he toppled Julia Gillard in the lead up to the 2013 election where Labor was thrashed. Political infighting destroys any confidence in a party’s ability to govern.
Second Clark assembled a credible shadow cabinet, especially a credible finance spokesperson. Michael Cullen was essential for Clark just as Douglas had been to Lange and Birch was to Bolger. Her shadow cabinet was a tight five of experienced, and one has to say, very intelligent individuals who all gave the Party credibility in their respective portfolios.
Third Clark was patient. The result in 1996 was very very close, but rather than claim an unworkable victory she gave away the Speaker and prepared for victory next time.
But most important of all was Labour’s underlying philosophy. It campaigned that it was a party for employment. Cullen spent years talking to business leaders finding out what they wanted and building rapport. By the time 2000 rolled around he had a huge backing from business leaders who had actually met him and been impressed with his practicality and stability. In other words not so many people in business were scared what would happen if Labour won.
Then National did two stupid things. In a spiteful and pointless gesture Jenny Shipley toppled Jim Bolger and Bill Birch said he was retiring. Second Maurice Williamson aired “Better Transport Better Roads” a plan to corporatise road ownership out of district council hands which the privitisation battered electorate saw as a stepping stone to privitisation. And that was it. The Government of the day looked ugly and out of touch  Labour looked capable and a better alternative. Result: a convincing victory that sent National into the political wilderness Labour has been exploring lately.
So that is the recipe. Labour has done it before so (theoretically) it can do it again. But the real question is, in practice, can it?


Now let’s have a look at election 2014. First there is no getting around the fact that the leadership coup by David Cunliffe cost the Labour party four seats.  The disingenuous praise by the election winner, John Key, for his opponent should raise alarm bells with the Party. But should Cunliffe go? Probably not. Another round of leadership cannibalism will only make things worse, and in fact Cunliffe did make a reasonable fist of fronting the Party in the television cage fights with an almost over-relaxed John Key. In my view Cunliffe needed this excruciating boot up the arse in order to make him a better leader. Only when his bullshit optimism was finally called by the electorate did he drop the unctious righteousness which completely failed to connect with male voters in particular. Standing practically naked in the bright lights of defeat hopefully he has learned the crucial lesson he needed to learn – it is not about the leader.

Oct 28 Postscript. I am no fan of Cunliffe, as are a good many of the Labour caucus but sadly it seems the ego grudge-match is back and the Party is having a new round of leadership maulings. If Grant Robertson thinks he is any improvement over Cunliffe his head is wedged so far up his own arse he can't see daylight. He has no charisma. In fact none of the potential labour leaders have any charisma. But at least Cunliffe has had exposure. What the party desperately needs is continuity. It took Clark three successive losses before she was ready to step into the Prime Minister's role. If Labour had switched leaders after each loss she never would have got there.

For that was the fundamental flaw in the left’s strategy – if it can be called that. The strategy went like this. Pile up a whole bunch of shit on the head of the other leader (John Key) and then call upon the electorate to “Vote Positive”. The mistake Cunliffe made was his own arrogance. The assumption that the leader matters. It doesn’t. We don’t have a president, we have an elected cabinet running the country. It is the team that matters and Cunliffe didn’t have one. David Parker is no match for Bill English. Phil Twyford is no match for Steven Joyce. And both had profiles lower than earthworms.
Plus the other problem is shit sticks. In theory Labour had nothing to do with Nicky Hager’s book, “Dirty Politics” and nothing to do with Dotcom’s “Moment of Truth”, but by talking about both it got dragged into the shit-storm and was tainted in the process. By default it let the news agenda be set by these events because it didn’t have anything else to contribute. It didn’t have events and challenges of its own and just rode along on the coat-tails of the muck-rakers. If that was deliberate (Wellington is a small town and people talk) it was a very dumb strategy. If it wasn’t it was incompetent campaigning. By contrast in his heyday Winston Peters has raked his own muck on governments and he has been very accurate and clever with the way he’s dispensed it too. People respect Winston for holding the government of the day to account by himself. Simply saying “Yeah, when I’m Prime Minister I will call for inquiry” is weak from every angle.
The internet may excite some people but for most it isn’t important. Most people don’t care about political shenagins. The only people who do are the media.
There is no question that in an election marked by the failure of egotists (Cunliffe, Dotcom) to realise it was not about them, the media has acted like another bunch of egotists. Nobody much out there cares about Cameron Slater and Nicky Hager. They are only important if you are a gallery journalist. The huge distraction of “Dirty Politics” etc was only because political journalists are even more out of touch with ordinary New Zealanders than politicians are. They have no point of contact and the result is distorted editorial decision-making. My contention is that this isn’t just a problem with political journalism, but a problem with all journalism, but I’ll leave that debate for another day.


For the real problem with the election was the left didn’t have a strategy. It had a circus and the electorate punished them for it. Kim Dotcom should now realise that his egotistical bid to carry his fight against John Key to the political realm has been a disaster. It has probably cost the Mana Party its seats. But that was a sideshow to the event that was conspicuous by its complete absence.
There was no question that Labour had no chance of governing alone. It needed the Greens and it needed New Zealand First. Everyone knew this. So where was the announcement of the Policy Accord between the three which detailed the areas where the three parties agreed on a single coherent policy? Where was the alternative government in waiting? Right, there wasn’t one. All the three parties had was a promise to reflect the policy concerns of their own base. That’s not coherent. It’s certainly not a potential government. It was a potential nightmare. That isn’t a “positive” vote.


Now let’s have a quick peak over the fence at National. National has factions in it, to be sure, but they unite for the purposes of winning elections. They are coherent. They look in charge.
They are also very cheeky. They are poaching Labour policy and territory forcing themselves into the centre and Labour to the extremes. National’s catchphrase “Working for New Zealand” could have been the Labour catchphrase.  That’s the cunning way National is dominating the centre of politics and that is where elections are won because right in the middle of the electorate are people who aren’t in any base and will vote Labour or National. It is they who decide elections.
Because the fundamental problem for any political party is that it’s base is usually a liability when it comes to extending its appeal. The way the National Party hung the Conservatives out to dry was very smart. While it may have cost them Napier (where Sensible Sentencing Trust’s Garth McVicar split the blue vote letting Labour steal it) it signaled to the centre that National was not interested in lurching right. If it had done that, things may have gone very differently on polling day.
The problem with Labour’s base is it’s unbelievable hatred for National and John Key in particular. The idea that the son of a poor single mother could work himself up to become a significant fund manager at Merrill Lynch and then come back and lead the National Party seems to assault something deep in the psyche of Labour’s supporters. Perhaps it is the sell-out to the unprincipled world of mammon, or perhaps it is that Key is a direct assault on the ego protection that a person’s poverty is not due to their own lack of work ethic and determination but because “the system” sucks. Labour’s base is all about changing the system to suit those who aren’t winning in it. Unfortunately for those in the Centre that looks a bit like the losers voting themselves a win rather than doing the work. It was what the Austrian economist Joseph Shrumpeter thought would ultimately destroy the socialist governments of Europe. It was also the what led the British to vote for Thatcher.
By contrast Bill English has been saying some quite extraordinary things about deprivation lately. As a professional policy researcher I had realised that one of the main challenges facing New Zealand was the growing gap between rich and poor potential. Automation could eat up many jobs that the poor have traditionally relied on. The danger was the creation of large ghettos (especially in South Auckland) which essentially poison the rest of the country. To my surprise when I started exploring what could be done about this English was already there. The Nats have recognised that benefit dependence is a long-run cost and that if that long-run cost can be obviated by up-front investment the whole country wins. For a Party that has traditionally associated with beneficiary bashing this is an extraordinary bit of enlightened self interest. But it’s also invading Labour space and taking aim at the Labour base.


So what can Labour do?
First it needs to recognise that the problem isn’t a leadership one, it’s a team one. The team is weak and needs work. A Cunliffe – Norman team could work but it would mean a completely new way of working for the Labour and Green Parties.
Second the Labour Party needs do what National is doing and extend its reach beyond its base and woo business.
Third the Labour Party needs a far more coherent common policy platform with its potential allies which it can present to the electorate. It was the Greens that cost Helen Clark her fourth term in 2008. If the Labour-Green alliance isn’t coherent and credible Labour’s vote will remain weak. For this to work Russell Norman’s efforts to mainstream the Greens have to continue.
Finally Labour needs to recognise that if it keeps doing the same thing with the same people, the same way its going to get the same result. New people, new ideas, new approaches are needed. Dyed in the wool Labour Party supporters will have to get over their post 1990 suspicion of a more rightist stance and recognise that if Labour is about work it needs to work with job creators. That means recognising the difference between the financial pirates who infiltrated the party in 1984 and employers who bring and keep sustainable work in this country. It means unions helping business, and business helping skilled employees. If Labour can develop a profile which reflects its commitment to employment then it has a reasonable crack at winning.
Eventually, as John Key and Bill English have both said, the electorate will get sick of them. But without the Labour Party offering a credible alternative Labour will not necessarily benefit. If they don’t get their acts together National will sleep-walk into fourth and even fifth terms without interruption.

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