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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: From one preacher's son to another

An open letter to new Labour Party leader David Cunliffe

Enough of the rhetoric, David. Your task is to put Labour on the upward curve. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Enough of the rhetoric, David. Your task is to put Labour on the upward curve. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Dear David,

Or do you prefer Dave? Is it a case of David the Herne Bay boulevardier, and Dave when you're singing along with the rank and file out in Boganville? ("Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we'll keep the red flag flying here.") Nothing wrong with that: most successful politicians are chameleons.

You and I have a couple of things in common. As kids we both lived in South Canterbury hamlets, although I'd have to say my hamlet (Otipua) was smaller than yours (Pleasant Point).

And both our fathers were men of the cloth. Rather than speculate on how that shaped us, I'll just point out that it puts us in the distinguished company of Vincent Van Gogh, Carl Jung, Martin Luther King and Katy Perry, among others. In your chosen field you share that background with two US presidents (Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

(As a child I was consternated to discover that Stephen Ward, the society doctor and pimp at the centre of the Profumo scandal, was also one of us. Being born the year the scandal unfolded, you wouldn't have had to deal with that.)

Anyway, as one son of a preacher man to another, here's some gratuitous advice to add to the torrent you've no doubt already been inundated with.

Firstly, don't react defensively to the latte leftie jibes and references to what your house is worth; you don't have to apologise for your - and your wife's - success in life. More to the point, you should use it to emphasise that Labour isn't the party of envy.

In fact, Labour's all for social mobility, people getting ahead through hard work and enterprise. That's entirely compatible with believing in fairness, strengthening the safety net and ensuring that those who have a lot contribute much more than those who have little.

On that theme, I suggest you and your colleagues go easy on the "John Key, capitalist hyena" rhetoric. It's water off a duck's back; I just don't think it works.

Key's persona of typical Kiwi bloke who just happens to be a multi-millionaire will be hard to break down. The more you try, the greater the risk of coming across as the party of envy.

You might want to play down ideology altogether. Declaring that the red tide is coming in might galvanise the true believers, but they're going to vote for you anyway. By and large, Kiwis aren't interested in ideology. We're a practical, pragmatic people interested in what works and sceptical of claims that the way to resolve 21st century issues is spelt out in 19th century manifestoes.

Key says the next election will be a battle of ideas. In other words he's going to try to portray you as the left-wing puppet of far-left puppet master Russel Norman, a Labour dog wagged by its Green tail.

Don't give him ammunition, which means putting the Greens in their place. We all agree that green is good and some Green Party ideas are worth considering. But like their counterparts elsewhere in the world, they have this King Canute-like tendency to think they can stop the markets doing what comes naturally. The difference being, of course, that Canute knew he couldn't stop the tide coming in.

History suggests that multi-term governments that preside over good economic times or at least don't stuff things up get voted out when their downwards trajectory and the opposition's upward trajectory intersect.

The downward trajectory is powered by the political cycle, the law of diminishing returns and familiarity breeding contempt. The upward trajectory is powered by a developing public perception that the leader of the opposition and his/her colleagues are up to the job of running the country.

An effective opposition can accelerate the downward trajectory by portraying the government as out of touch, energy and ideas, but this part of the process tends to have a life of its own. Your core task is to put Labour on that upward curve.

Your predecessor never got beyond the warm-up stage of persuading the public that he was prime minister material and the leader of a unified, disciplined, competent team that was ready to govern. Your party and, for that matter, your country need you to do much better.

You could start by pointing out that in recent decades left of centre governments here and in the other English-speaking democracies have made as good, if not better, a job of managing capitalist economies as the conservatives who wear their unalloyed devotion to free enterprise on their sleeves.

Good luck.


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