Bryce Edwards
Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at University of Otago

Bryce Edwards: Political roundup: Labour's crucial annual conference

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Labour leader David Cunliffe. Photo / AP
Labour leader David Cunliffe. Photo / AP

Going into this year's party conference, David Cunliffe and the Labour Party are faced with all sorts of difficult balancing acts that will impact on the party's future. Despite Cunliffe being a bolder and more decisive leader than his predecessors Phil Goff and David Shearer, he is still bound by the need to continually compromise, moderate, and find balance between different factions within the party. Equivocation has become a key descriptor for Labour, with Cunliffe sitting on the fence on so many issues. And on occasions when he has been more ideologically bold he's had to temper his radicalism by telling different audiences a different story - as was the subject of an earlier column, Labour's shift from blue to red - or is it purple?.

Shades of Shearer

Vernon Small examines the conference balancing acts facing Cunliffe in his column, Important choices for adored Labour leader. Not only are there all sorts of issues dividing the party that need to be cautiously navigated, but the new leader also has to decide on the main message in his much-heralded conference speech. John Armstrong discusses this in his column Cooling polls leave Cunliffe at crossroads. Will Cunliffe aim his speech at core Labour activists with a bold leftwing message, or a more populist and centrist message for middle New Zealand?

Toby Manhire suggests today that no such decision is necessary for the Labour leader: 'Cunliffe needn't buy into the idea that a leader's speech must be designed to speak either to "the hall" or "the country".

For any half-decent party leader it should always be both' - see: Crucial month ahead for new-look Labour.

Audrey Young points out some of the many key issues that Labour equivocates on. For example, she says 'Most of Labour's positions on big projects being promoted unabashedly by National as jobs and wealth creators are heavily nuanced or have a set of conditions attached to them' - see: Cunliffe denies Labour's the 'No' party: 'We're pro-growth'. So on hot topics such as Anadarko's deep-water exploration or the Ruataniwha irrigation scheme, there are nuanced positions in which the party is neither outright for or against.

On some issues, however, Young points to the party being much clearer: it opposes the Milford Monorail, but it supports the 'Bathurst Resources' mining of the Denniston Plateau on the West Coast'. Clearly the party is attempting a more balanced approach to the environment and natural resources than what it sees as the extremes of National on one side, and the Greens on the other. A perception of balance and moderation might indeed prove very popular in this area.

Issues of free trade agreements are proving more difficult to find an inbetween position on. The Herald has a very good discussion of the tensions within Labour over the Trans-Pacific Partnership - see: Keeping peace between TPP factions first test for Cunliffe.

The struggle over the Government's SkyCity convention centre deal also illustrates Labour's attempt to sit on the fence while appearing not to do so - see John Armstrong's Key comes out firing to show who's boss. Armstrong outlines how there have been contradictory messages about whether Labour would axe the SkyCity deal: 'Facing his first real test as leader, Cunliffe vigorously denied the charge before deliberately ducking and fudging to such an extent that confused reporters drew completely different conclusions about where Labour stands on the matter'.

Using the SkyCity equivocation as an example, The Press has published a rather scathing editorial about Labour's vagueness, saying 'it points up a shallow opportunism and an unsettling lack of substance in what Cunliffe has so far offered' - see: Cunliffe needs better ideas. The editorial concludes, 'Cunliffe has not yet presented any reason for voters to believe a Labour-led government would do any better'.

Colin James discusses the dangers of moderation and compromise for Cunliffe in his column A sniff of victory but a long way to travel yet. After detailing some of the areas in which Cunliffe has 'softened' and become more 'incrementalist' rather than radical, James says 'More from Cunliffe of this incrementalism would frustrate some at Labour's conference this coming weekend'. This frustration might also extend to voters. By attempting to be 'all things to all people' parties and politicians can end up satisfying no one. Too much moderation and careful balancing can lead to electoral failure.

So, has anything about Labour really changed under Cunliffe? Not really, according to a critical analysis from Damien Rogers - see: Pressure to perform on Cunliffe. Rogers says, 'So far, little of substance seems to have changed from the courses charted by Shearer and, before him, Goff. This is mostly due to the lack of intellectual firepower needed to re-image the complex and dynamic relationship among the state, the economy, and society. Cunliffe has staffed key positions in the leader's office mostly with advisers from Helen Clark's era'.

Today's Herald editorial calls for Labour to be clearer about how it would be different in government to National. For example: 'In the field of education, for example, there have been rejections of charter schools and national standards. What is not known is what Labour proposes in arenas that are always important election battlegrounds. In the area of health, for instance, what are its plans, especially in troublesome areas such as care for the elderly and mental health? How does it plan to create jobs? What is its thinking on social welfare? And, if charter schools and national standards are not the answer, how does it intend to tackle the long tail of under-achieving pupils?' - see: Labour policy needs to have broad appeal.

Sleepwalking to victory without any vision?

Labour is clearly still having great problems communicating to the public what it stands for. Colin James discusses this in his Management magazine column, Brand-leader or brand-party: a 2010s challenge. James suggests that Labour has been left 'brandless' and has to resort to relying on 'leader-branding', with policy-related branding still uncertain in the party. Nothing yet has (quite) come to replace Labour's 'third way' thinking.

Toby Manhire also discusses the party's struggle for ideological direction: 'The big challenge, however, is to articulate, both to the membership and the wider public, the shift in Labour thinking, mirroring much of what's going in UK Labour, away from the Blairite "third way" and towards interventions at the distributive end of markets, rather than trying to remedy problems - of inequality, mostly - at the other end' - see: Crucial month ahead for new-look Labour.

Meanwhile, the original New Zealand proponent of Third Way politics, Steve Maharey, has written a defence of this ideology and argues for Labour to retain it - see: Which 'way' for Labour?.

Today's Herald editorial says, 'Labour cannot rely on National suffering the sort of erosion in support that typically affects a second-term government. Indeed, whatever National's travails and the individual problems of Act, United Future and the Maori Party, it continues to poll well. Mr Cunliffe cannot afford to think he will sleep-walk to victory. Innovative policies in key areas that resonate widely, not least with voters who have left the party in droves for National or New Zealand First, will be essential. Therein lies the key to further boosting Labour's prospects'.

There will be continued demands for Cunliffe and Labour to start providing greater detail about its ideological direction and policies. The Manawatu Standard's Michael Cummings has written this week about Labour's rather vague regional development policy, and reflects upon Cunliffe's promise to workers in Shannon to set up a community taskforce: 'It sounds wonderful, but it also sounds decidedly vague. What magic wand will this task force be able to wave to create jobs where before there were none? What powers will these task forces wield? Most importantly, how much money is a Labour Government prepared to invest in the regions to ensure these good intentions are actually realised?' - see: Cunliffe needs to provide details.

Policy debate and controversy

Labour's weekend conference will be full of lots of interesting policy debate and discussion. For a summary of the 'controversial remits', see Vernon Small's Radical proposals will put heat on Cunliffe. Small says that these remits 'will turn the focus on Labour's social agenda'.

One of the more sensationalist debates at the conference concerns the 'identity politics' remit to change the constitutional selection of Labour candidates - which is best explained in Audrey Young's Labour to look at 'fairly representing' gay members in Parliament. David Farrar has provided the best critique of this in his blogpost, Labour looking at quotas for everything!. While supportive of having a more representative Parliament, Farrar questions the logic and necessity of such a rule change for Labour.

One of the most interesting discussions of this comes from Mark Blackham - a PR professional, who worked for years in Labour's leaders office - see: Labour's feel-good list. Blackham argues that the issue is Labour's propensity to manufacture social outcomes from above, and a factional power struggle within the party for influence and control: 'A stacked list shifts the Party firmly into 'symbolism politics'; where support is gained by appealing in symbolic ways to special interest groups. It moves away from holding values and policies designed to appeal to people who share a common ideology'.

But the best defence of the proposed changes is probably achieved via satire - see Scott Yorke's Fears mount that gays will soon be ruling the world. For another defence, see Greg Presland's Labour Party proposes radical idea that Parliament should be representative.

Labour's rightwing retirement policy

Labour went to the 2011 election with a retirement policy that was well to the right of National's. This appears to be changing - see Vernon Small's Labour revises pledge on later pension age. The conference will discuss this policy further this weekend.

The leadership can expect vigorous opposition from the left of the party - see Tat Loo's blogpost on The Standard: Delegates: vote down the NZ Super age increase. Others on the left see this policy a litmus test for the future of the party - see Steven Cowan's Work until you're dead.

Polls and popularity

A number of opinion polls out this week suggest Labour is struggling to maintain the popular momentum it received from the change of leadership. Some analysts have suggested that such polls will be demotivating for Labour activists going into this weekend's conference. Alternatively, the poll results could be seen as a timely wakeup call for the party. Going into the conference Labour needs to know that it cannot sleepwalk to victory next year, and the party needs to do much more if it wants to win over New Zealanders. Complacency will now be less evident at the conference than it might have been. Delegates would be wise to read Tracy Watkins' analysis of the polls and the continued strength of the National Government - see: Rising economy may take National with it and More think NZ's on the right track - poll.

There will be renewed energy and motivation at Labour's conference this weekend. As Stuart Nash writes, 'The leadership contest has enabled and empowered members like never before' - see: The 2013 Labour Party Conference. He says 'The level of energy and engagement from key participants will determine the mood of optimism at the conference and beyond'. That's why this conference is a crucial one. Unlike other annual party conferences - which are usually stage-managed non-events - this one will set the pace for Labour over the next 12 months.

Finally, for a look at how cartoonists are portraying the state of the Labour Party under Cunliffe and the challenges facing the party, see my updated blogpost Images of Labour under new leader David Cunliffe. The twittersphere will also be alive over the weekend with coverage of the conference. I will be regularly updating my new blogpost, Top tweets about the 2013 Labour Party conference.

- NZ Herald

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