Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Politics round-up: Where is Labour going?

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David Cunliffe, new leader of the Labour Party. Photo / NZ Herald
David Cunliffe, new leader of the Labour Party. Photo / NZ Herald

David Cunliffe's Labour Party could well be governing the country in little over a year's time, and numerous commentators have pointed out that there is real momentum and dynamism in the party for the first time in ages.

This is reflected in today's remarkable opinion poll showing resurgent support for Labour at the expense of National - see Audrey Young's Labour rockets in poll, and the Herald's editorial: Labour does an Oracle in latest poll. So it's important to get an idea of exactly what the newly configured Labour Party represents. Where is Cunliffe taking the party ideologically? What will it campaign on over the next year? What would a Cunliffe-led government do? What factions and divisions will have most influence under Cunliffe's leadership?

Recently a number of profiles and backgrounders have been published on Labour's new leader. The most interesting and in-depth are Andrea Vance's 'Naked ambition' behind Cunliffe's rise to top and Audrey Young's Now he's running the show. And if you're really interested in the personal psychology of leaders, see Adam Dudding's Key v Cunliffe: What the personality tests reveal.



However a more substantive analysis of Cunliffe's policy preferences and ideas is needed. Many commentators suggest he's in a difficult position - while he promised the Labour true-believers that he will shift the party to the left, the common assumption is that elections are won in the centre. Andrea Vance touches on this in Cunliffe carries a huge weight. She says 'The weight of expectation is enormous, especially from supporters he whipped up into almost fanatical devotion with his hard-left promises on the recent hustings. So, how will he deliver at the same time as bringing lost centre voters back to the fold? David Cunliffe simply can't out-Key John Key'. Vance says that Cunliffe will 'go hard on National over inequality' but is also intending to leverage the latest leftwing intellectual theory: pre-distribution, which Vance says 'favours the taxation of wealth over income'.

Look out for this fashionable theory being bandied about by Labour. The British Observer recently published The Rules - a humorous and insightful translation of modern Labour-style jargon and theory. It defines pre-distribution like this: 'Trying to compensate for the failures of capitalism without raising the tax burden on middle-class voters too much'.

Note, however, not everybody agrees with the assumption that successful political parties need to hunt for their votes in the middle of the political spectrum - see Matt McCarten's Labour has found its mojo at last and Chris Trotter's Imagine if neoliberal revolution was reversed.

Leftwing critiques

Some on the left are still very cynical about the idea that Cunliffe is about to take Labour on a new left journey. For the best critique, see John Moore's blogpost, The left's new love for Labour, in which he argues that the leftwing rhetoric reflects a changing political economy, but ultimately any leftwing party is hostage to economic forces and Cunliffe will inevitably be forced towards moderate policies that bolster the status quo. Similarly, leftwing blogger Steven Cowan believes Cunliffe is already signaling his moderation and shift away from the more radical rhetoric of the primary - see: I Don't want to talk about it. And socialist John Braddock outlines all the ways in which the current Labour Party is still in thrall to conventional rightwing economics - see: NZ Labour installs new leader.

There's no doubt that Cunliffe is something of a political chameleon, and that is both a strength and weakness. One rightwing writer for the student newspaper Salient puts it well in his column, Who is David Cunliffe, Really?. He says: 'Just who is David Cunliffe anyway? The second coming of the Labour Jesus, Michael Joseph Savage? A right-wing new model Rogernome in disguise poised to launch Cunnlinomics? A South Seas socialist Hugo Chávez? The truth is, David Cunliffe is all of these things, at different times to different people. To the Labour faithful, he is the new Michael Joseph Savage. To the business community in the last Labour government, he was the rough, tough right-wing technocrat who gave the Clark cabinet business credibility'.

Cunliffe's answer: Regional development

Cunliffe's answer to the need to satisfy both left and centre political demands might be to focus on regional development as a way of differentiating from National. Tracy Watkins signaled this in her weekend column, Cunliffe faces balancing act, saying 'A key focus will be regional development, suggesting Labour's focus groups are reflecting back the same concern as National's - that the backlash to a perceived gap between the amount of government money being thrown at Auckland and Christchurch versus the rest of the county could quickly snowball'.

This idea is elaborated on in an excellent blogpost by Tim Watkin: Go West young Cunliffe... & South, North or East. The regions are calling. Watkin reflects on the fact that the new leader has awarded himself the regional development portfolio, which is 'an aggressive and significant strategic move. Aggressive, because the provinces belong to National and this is a signal Cunliffe thinks he can take votes off the centre. Stategic, because it moves Labour's focus away from the urban voter, and Aucklanders in particular'. We might well see a number of 'visionary projects' announced for the regions: 'I suspect Cunliffe is signalling he's got a big idea or two up his sleeve and sees a chance not only for a Labour government to spark jobs and growth in the regions but for it to regain some lost votes there as well'.

There's no doubt Cunliffe's Labour Party will focus on economics over the next year. This is a sensible decision according to Fran O'Sullivan, who writes today that the Government is vulnerable on employment and economic development and growth (especially in Christchurch) - see: Plenty of areas to mine for Cunliffe. Interestingly, O'Sullivan also defends Cunliffe against 'a fatuous allegation' by Matthew Hooton. For more on that, see Andrea Vance's Lobbyist: Cunliffe claim 'untrue'. But for the latest allegations, see Vance's Cunliffe faces fresh CV claims.

A successful caucus reshuffle

Cunliffe's first major test - reshuffling the caucus - has been judged a success by most commentators - see, for example John Armstrong's Labour leader's portfolio reshuffle ticks most of the important boxes and Andrea Vance's No blatant utu dished out in new Labour crew. But the most insightful commentary on this was published on The Standard: Cunliffe makes space for the Greens. The argument is made that Cunliffe has cleverly distributed portfolios in way that will enable him to integrate the Greens into his post-election Cabinet, because Green-oriented portfolios have gone to MP who are unlikely to be in a new Cabinet. Economic Development will got to Russel Norman, Health to Kevin Hague, Energy to Norman or Kennedy Graham, Climate Change to Graham, Conservation to Eugenie Sage, and Transport to Julie Anne Genter.

The reshuffle is also being heralded from some other interesting perspectives - see Morgan Godfery's Current reckon: the Maori Party should be worried, and Gay NZ's New Labour line-up includes gay & pro-gay MPs.

Cunliffe's reshuffle was particularly notable for it's lack of - or at least limited -bloodshed, a point which is well made by Russell Brown in No Red Wedding and Adam Bennett in Cunliffe sings from Clark songbook.

Gordon Campbell argues that the reshuffle was not only relatively blood-less, but it was also very much based on merit. He too draws attention to the regional development focus ('Mr Metropolitan Auckland will be taking responsibility for issues facing provincial and rural New Zealand, which should be a useful platform for Cunliffe for the 2014 election') and the fact that Cunliffe is involved in devising 'a coherent template for a post Third Way, post-GFC, post neo-liberal set of economic policies' - see: On the Labour reshuffle.

But not everyone is so sure that factions and divisions are melting away. Duncan Garner has blogged that the Labour factions alive - and kicking. He says 'It's abundantly clear David Cunliffe is in charge of a divided, wounded and openly factionalised party'. Leftwing blogger Denis Welch is in agreement - see his post, What's wrong with this picture?. He presents a future scenario based on the idea of the suppressed dissent eventually rising back up: 'With this present line-up in Parliament, all frozen smiles and gritted teeth, Labour simply cannot survive credibly as a united party. One entirely fanciful scenario is that some MPs will migrate to the Greens, which over time will become the more centrist middle-class social-democratic party, leaving Labour more to the traditional left'.

For other interesting analysis of the reshuffle, from the right, see David Farrar's The full Labour rankings and The portfolios and, from the left, see Chris Trotter's Cunliffe's Shadow Cabinet: Magnanimity in Victory. Finally for an important understanding of where Cunliffe's Labour Party is going, see Trotter's Top Picks for the Top Floor: Who's doing what in David Cunliffe's. Trotter points to key personnel supposedly being hired by Cunliffe - including Jennie Michie - and explains the impact that they might have.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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