Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: Labour's leftwing dilemma

54 comments
Labour Party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour Party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Compete or cooperate? That is the electoral dilemma facing the Labour Party in 2014 as it surveys a crowded marketplace of parties eyeing the left-leaning vote.

It needs to decide whether or not do electorate deals (in some form or another) with minor parties, or compete furiously with their potential coalition partners. Tracy Watkins' piece Internet-Mana creates a crowded Left sums up the quandary facing Labour: 'David Cunliffe's strategy on taking the leadership was always assumed as starting with a tack to the Left to shore up the core constituency, followed by a tack back to the Centre to leave room for allies like the Greens. But with the polls showing no sign of National losing its dominance in the political centre-ground, Labour remains stuck on the Left, competing for many of the same votes as its closest allies, the Greens. Harre's appointment creates even more churn'.

The 'coat-tailing' rule to be abolished?

David Cunliffe came out today on TV3's Firstline with a definitive sounding statement: 'In the first 100 days of a government that I lead, we will introduce government legislation to remove coat-tailing by changing the Electoral Act' - see the video interview: Scrap 'coat-tail' provision - Cunliffe. Cunliffe was referring to the exception in New Zealand's version of MMP for parties who win an electorate seat but which do not cross the 5% threshold.

The effect of such a move would be to knee-cap the chances of various minor parties getting their full representation in Parliament. The strong statement will be popular with the public, but not necessarily Labour's allies.

The strongest response to Labour's announcement has come from leftwing blogger, No Right Turn - see his must-read post, Labour promises a less representative Parliament. He makes the obvious but important point that the coat-tail rule is not the real problem but merely the symptom: 'Fundamentally, the problem is not the electorate lifeboat. The problem is the threshold - an arbitrary and anti-democratic barrier to representation. If we removed it, or lowered it to a derisory level (1%), then the one MP rule would not matter and parties would not play these games. Instead, they would rise or fall on their popularity with the voters'.

Cunliffe's statement also drew a quick rebuke from the National-supporting Kiwiblog author David Farrar: 'This is absolutely appalling. A Government that will ram through major electoral law changes under urgency, probably with no select committee hearings, and without consensus, is dangerous. Labour have form for this' - see: Cunliffe pledges to change electoral law under urgency with no consensus.

The coat-tailing question has arisen because of Labour's decision over what to do in the Maori seats now that the well-resourced Internet Mana Party has been launched. The focus in particular is on Hone Harawira's seat of Te Tai Tokerau, where Labour's Kelvin Davis has been selected as a candidate. Harawira had a relatively slim majority of 1,165 votes over Kelvin Davis in 2011 in the seat, so Labour has an important decision to make.

Should Labour try to kill off Mana altogether - and in the process nip an incipient leftwing competitor in the bud - or should Labour allow Harawira and the newly-formed Internet Mana Party (IMP) to flourish in the hope that it grows the leftwing vote?

Commentators on the left are divided in their views on Labour's choice. In favour of allowing the IMP to grow are left-leaning commentators Gordon Campbell and Chris Trotter. Campbell writes: 'Logic and political nous in an MMP environment demand that Labour should now quietly decide to run a fairly token effort in Te Tai Tokerau, and put a good recruit like Davis into a safe position on the Labour list' - see: On the rise of Laila Harre.

Trotter is more forceful in his criticism, which focuses on a combative radio interview given by Davis: 'His outburst on Radio New Zealand's Morning Report this morning was way beyond embarrassing. The ill-considered slagging of Hone Harawira and the Internet-Mana Party (IMP) not only reflected poorly on his own political skills, but it also raised doubts about Labour's overall ability to read what is happening in the run-up to 20 September' - see Authoritarian Labour: Why Kelvin Davis needs to STFU - and soon!. (Incidentally, Trotter throws further salvos at Labour with: Labour in denial on election, and Truth Or Dare? Why David Cunliffe needs to come clean with the Labour Left).

Other commentators in favour of some kind of deal with the Hone Harawira and the Internet Mana Party are blogger and lawyer Scott Yorke in How to win an election, and Stephanie Rodgers in The coat-tail rule and democracy.

Against Labour Party cooperation

Former Labour candidate Josie Pagani, who comments from a Labour centrist position, has come out unequivocally against any deal - see: Say no to the Cup of Te. This Pagani's main point: 'Labour's job is to advocate and organise for Labour. For Labour values. Labour principles. When they do that, they're capable of getting 50%, not because they're being "National-lite" but because Labour principles are popular; opportunity no matter where you come from, fairness, social justice, active management of the economy to create jobs and distribute wealth. If Labour's not at 40-50% it's because people either don't think we can deliver on those principles, or they think we're not prioritising them'.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, fellow opponents of an electoral deal seem to come from the fabled 'ABC' faction of the Labour caucus - the label given to opponents of David Cunliffe's party leadership bid in 2013. MPs Phil Goff, David Shearer and Chris Hipkins have all voiced their disapproval of any deal via social media - opinions summed up and explored further in Andrea Vance's Labour MPs not happy with Mana-Internet. An example of the hostility towards any deal can be seen in a tweet from Chris Hipkins, which is cited in Vance's article: 'The good old days, when political parties formed from movements. Now all it takes is a couple of million and some unprincipled sellouts'.

Writing today in the Herald, another more centrist Labour supporter, Phil Quin argues against the party being too cooperative and too leftwing - see: Jump to left puts Labour on rocky road. Quin criticises 'Labour Party cheerleaders' who 'seem to think Labour can afford to play nice with the Greens, play wordless footsies with Internet Mana, and avoid direct combat with National over the centre ground'.

The Strategic calculus

Some of the most interesting items on the prospect of any deal come from commentators who are not taking a firm position but who can see the advantages and disadvantages of any deal-making - and the inherent dilemma. One of the most honest is provided by Labour adviser Greg Presland: 'Of course this problem would not exist if Judith Collins had accepted the recommendations of the MMP review. Paddy Gower has described the arrangements as a dirty deal and at one level he is right. But National set the rules and should this mean that the left should not use them to their maximum advantage? The situation creates a dilemma for Labour. Does it stick to the spirit as well as the letter of our electoral laws in the hope that it will be praised for its principled stand or does it do a deal which shows it is no different to National?' - see: Labour's Mana Internet Party dilemma.

Other important commentators currently surveying the lay of the land include blogger Danyl Mclauchlan - see: On the logic behind a strategic loss, Pundit's Tim Watkin in That's the price I pay for hating Key the way that I do, and pollster Stephen Mills in The deal with the Conservatives.

While Mills' piece canvasses mainly the right, rather than the left, the same quandaries about deal-making apply. Mills, who is executive director of polling company UMR, provides some interesting polling data on voters' opinions of deals: 'A poll by UMR late last year showed 71% wanted the electorate vote triggering party vote representation to be abolished and only 13% retained. The implementation phase can also go wrong. The sacrificial main party electorate candidate is subject to derision through the campaign as they evade endless questions on whether voters should support them. Just as National attacks Labour through the Greens these deals also open up the prospect of National being challenged by the centre-left on what is their position on the more extreme and unpalatable aspects of the minor parties' policies'.

In the end, however, it's likely that Labour will find a way to strategically both compete and cooperate. The electorate deals will be done, but will be behind the scenes rather than overtly in the public eye. For more on this, see Chris Keall's Cunliffe: no pre-election deals; insider: deals under the radar.

Finally, to see some of the strong debate on Twitter about Labour's strategic dilemma, as well as Cunliffe's announced intention to abolish the so-called MMP coat-tails rules, see my blog post, Top tweets about Labour's MMP strategies.

- 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.

Read more by Bryce Edwards

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf01 at 18 Dec 2014 19:12:20 Processing Time: 562ms