Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: Can Labour still win?

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Labour Party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / NZ Herald
Labour Party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / NZ Herald

David Cunliffe and Labour are still in with a chance to form a government after 20 September. On the face of it, this might seem far-fetched. After all, recent opinion polls suggest that Labour is trailing far behind National. Also, according to iPredict, there's currently a 74% chance of National leading the government after the election leaving only a 26% chance of Labour leading the government after the election.

Yet the election is far from over. For five key reasons Labour might still win, see Andrea Vance's Can Labour win it? Yes, they can. It all boils down to Labour's hope that the Greens will boost the left's numbers, New Zealand First will die away, a good portion of the million potential voters missing from the last election can be attracted by Labour, and David Cunliffe can prove to be 'more than a match for Key on the hustings'. However, Vance's list looks to be inspired by the rather less optimistic parody list published earlier by Scott Yorke - see: Chin up!.

Labour's healthy leftwing bloc

Part of Labour's optimism relates to the fact that it has much healthier coalition options than National. Under MMP, you can't just forecast election results by looking at the polling support of the two main parties. The minors must be taken into account as well and, on this basis, Labour plus the Greens is indeed not far short of what National is polling.

However, TV3's Tim Watkin warns against taking this MMP-arithmetic too much for granted.

He argues that the psychology of one party (National) being so far ahead of the other major party (Labour) can have an important influence on the electoral competition: 'even under MMP 15 percent between the two major parties is a large gap. No party has had that kind of a lead under MMP and not formed the next government, so for the centre-left to be contenders - and for swing voters to feel turning out and voting for change is worthwhile - it has to be closer. And that goes for making the volunteers work hard and even the MPs to pull their fingers out. It's just psychology' - see: Does the Labour-National gap even matter under MMP? You bet. See also Watkin's Underlying perceptions and the Cunliffe crisis: Poll analysis.

It's worth pointing out that Labour's support levels might also be underestimated by the current polls - see Gavin White's What do political polls tell us about the election?.

Labour's new and interesting faces on the campaign trail

Labour is hoping that once voters start to look seriously at its candidates, and they start meeting leader David Cunliffe on the campaign trail, perceptions will turn around. Colin James endorses the view that Cunliffe could still win, based on such factors: 'At a first meeting Cunliffe has attractive charm: intelligent, personable and not bad with the gab. Many will meet him for the first time in the first leaders debate and elsewhere on the campaign trail. That could make up some percentage points. Add in 1 or 2 per cent from a campaign targeted at 2008 and 2011 non-voters. At his best, Cunliffe could get Labour-Greens there' - see: David Cunliffe's long, hard leadership challenge.

Labour also has some interesting new candidates around the country. Tamati Coffey will make a real difference to Labour's perceived freshness. For another example of a vibrant new face, read about Labour's Whangarei candidate, Kelly Ellis, in Steve Kilgallon's Wannabe MP's gender change 'humbling'.

In Ilam, it looks like leftwing blogger James Dann will be the candidate against Gerry Brownlee, although the selection process has been less than perfectly organised - see Glenn Conway's Labour's first shot backfires.

Labour's 'fair share' campaign

How can Labour turn around its fortunes in the competition against National? The party is hoping that its ongoing emphasis on inequality is going to pay dividends, especially if the economy starts to boom during election year. Although this may seem counterintuitive, John Armstrong outlines how Labour is attempting to tap into voters' fear or perception that they're not receiving their 'fair share' from the improving economy: 'Labour's strategy involves getting people to ignore the statistical evidence of National's success in moving beyond the politics of recession and instead question whether they are benefiting from the recovery - and if they ever will under National. It is trying to weave a "narrative" which prompts voters to ask themselves whether New Zealand can still claim to be an egalitarian society and whether they are worried if it is not. Labour is thus appealing to more base instincts by getting people to ask themselves another, more direct question: do you believe you are getting your fair share?' - see: Key fights glare of incoming brighter future.

For an example of this, last week on TV3's Firstline Cunliffe had this to say: 'I think inequality is going to be the biggest issue this year, and in terms of economic recovery, the question on so many people's minds is, 'Well, have I got mine?' Have you got your fair share of the so-called boom? Because most New Zealanders haven't"' - see the 4-minute interview and article, Cunliffe promises election cliffhanger, despite polls. See also, Vernon Small's Rallying Labour's lost loves.

It's certainly the case that Labour cannot simply campaign negatively on 'doom and gloom'. This is addressed well by Grant Duncan in his blog post, Gotta feel sorry for Labour. Here's the key point: 'And then, last week, just to really piss the left off, an international social-indicators agency rated New Zealand as the world's 'most socially progressive nation,' beating even the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland, not to mention Australia. That's ironic news, coming while National is in office. Aren't the Nats supposed to be the scourge of all good socially-responsible and progressive policies?... Any talk of how our social well-being is going down the gurgler thanks to neo-liberal policies and the accompanying poverty and inequality is now going to sound hollow'.

Labour's missing million voters

Labour is also counting on winning back some of the so-called missing million voters who chose not to vote in 2011. Much will depend on the success of this strategy and you can see how strongly Labour is organising itself for this battle in Claire Trevett's article, Cunliffe hones tactics in war room.

The problem for Labour, however, is that many of the missing million are also disatisfied with what Labour has to offer. This is starkly illustrated by Cunliffe's experience last week with an angry heckler who clearly felt that Labour is part of the problem not the solution. For such alienated voters, Labour appears to be too similar to National. Cunliffe's 'angry man' said Labour had played its role in helping produce the status quo of unemployment, arguably helped kill the unions, and may as well join National in coalition - watch the 45-second video: Cunliffe abused by drive-by heckler.

As Tracy Watkins said in her column, Labour needs sense of urgency: 'It speaks volumes about David Cunliffe's bad week that on the day John Key delivered his pre-Budget speech, it was the Labour leader who copped it on the street over the Government's failure to make a big dent in unemployment'.

An interesting new blog, Fundamentally useless, elaborates on the problem of Cunliffe's angry disaffected voter: 'This man is a prime candidate for being one of the missing 800,000 voters that Labour wants to reach. I've always been sceptical of Cunliffe's/Labour's claim that they can turn out a significant chunk of non-voters, and this guy showed why. He was uninformed, a little incoherent, and really pissed off. He showed Cunliffe that a lot of people are deeply angry and disenfranchised by the political system, and that Labour does not have a strong claim to their votes - see: Labour and the 'coalition of f*ckwits'.

Hamish Rutherford points to Labour's differentiation problem in his column about macroeconomic policy: 'Labour, for its part, appears to be buying into the same argument, promising to repay debt with similar haste to National, and hinting that while it will seek to gather more revenue by way of tax, it would be less than 1 per cent more. Since Key's speech, Labour finance spokesman David Parker has attempted to portray National as the tax-and-spend government, citing the surge in spending and debt since Key took office' - see: National's fiscal lockdown a risk.

Pacific support for Labour under threat

Other parts of Labour's traditionally core support base are also under threat at the moment, with many Pacific Island clergy in South Auckland pushing their followers to shift from red to blue - see Michael Field's Clergy switch from Labour to National and Tova O'Brien's 2-minute TV3 report: Labour may lose south Auckland stronghold and Politicians chase Pacific vote at church service.

This is clearly a potentially serious problem for Labour's strategy of getting its numbers up in places like South Auckland. The best analysis of this comes from Dave Armstrong who argues today that Labour's Pacific MPs have become too conservative for picking up the most alienated young Pacific voters: 'Their Pacific MPs are hardly radical: conservative Su'a William Sio railed against marriage equality, and the amiable Kris Faafoi sits on the Right of the party. How many disenfranchised Pacific youths see Sio and Faafoi offering a radical policy alternative to that dished up by National minister Sam Lotu-Iiga and list MP Alfred Ngaro? Not many, if any. Christchurch East MP Poto Williams is currently Labour's only female Pacific MP and hasn't had much time to establish herself. But if Labour wants to motivate its heartland Pacific voters to mobilise this time around, they could do with more young, radical Pacific voices. After all, it's Pacific people who are suffering under many of this Government's policies, far more than chardonnay socialists in Herne Bay mansions' - see: Backing of Pacific voters not assured.

For more from Dave Armstrong on Labour's problems, listen to his latest 7-minute satirical episode of Radio New Zealand's weekly Down the List.

Labour's problems - from the superficial to the substantial

Labour's digital campaigning still has much room for improvement according to social media-researcher Matthew Beveridge - see his critiques: Labour's problems run deeper, David Cunliffe "talking jobs", and Labour, McDonalds and Intellectual Property.

For a more ideological view on why Labour is currently struggling, see the blog posts at Fundamentally Useless, which argue that the party has not resolved whether it stands more for liberal 'Identity Politics' or leftwing working class concerns - see: Labour's progressives co-opt kiwi workers, Behind Labour's hollow claims to represent workers, and Workers vs. Progressives: the elephant hidden in Labour's room.

On the right, Matthew Hooton takes issue with Labour's new forestry and wood-processing policy, which he says amounts to the type of 'crony capitalism' that Cunliffe accuses National of: 'Labour can't explain how its forestry initiative is any different from National's in the movie industry. It wasn't just Sir Peter and Warner Bros who benefited from those changes, but everyone making movies. With just one so-called industry strategy, Labour has abandoned the moral high ground on crony capitalism and corporate welfare' - see: Labour abandons higher ground on corporate welfare (paywalled).

Finally, for some humour and insight, see my blog post Recent images of Labour and Cunliffe.

- 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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