Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: Labour's surprisingly smart and successful weekend

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Labour Party leader David Cunliffe holds a press conference at his electorate office in reaction to the National Party polices announced at their Party conference. Photo / NZ Herald
Labour Party leader David Cunliffe holds a press conference at his electorate office in reaction to the National Party polices announced at their Party conference. Photo / NZ Herald

The Labour Party came out of the weekend looking surprisingly smart, and still in the game. The party's weekend congress, together with the various policy announcements, seem to have acted to keep alive the chances of an election win. Most of this comes from its careful targeting of middle New Zealand voters with well-crafted policies that will resonate. But not all went perfectly in the weekend, and there's still some important questions to be answered.

Education a potential winner for Labour

There's some consensus that Labour have been wise to concentrate big policy innovations in the education sector. This case is nicely made by Danyl Mclauchlan: 'Voters routinely tell pollsters that they consider education to be 'the most important issue'. It's an area where National has made themselves weirdly vulnerable... and they've chosen Hekia Parata to champion those reforms and stuck by her through a series of ongoing public debacles. It's a natural target for Labour in a way that the health system - usually the second 'most important issue' - simply isn't' - see: Makes sense.

Similarly, Russell Brown argues that education is 'the policy area in which the present government has, I think, done the most damage' - see: Now win the argument. Brown does suggest, however, that Labour still needs 'to explain how it will increase the performance of teachers, as well as the number of them.

It does bear noting that National has finally managed a policy proposal there that post-primary teachers, at least, support'.

Brown's point is a good reminder that National has - despite its vulnerability - already made some strong electoral progress in education this year. In fact, on some of the policy announcements, National was able to easily agree with Labour - see, for example, Vernon Small's Labour education ideas already in place, says National. Or, as David Farrar put it, 'It's not a bad thing that National and Labour are broadly in agreement on steps to modernise our schools to take best account of the opportunities for learning - see: Labour schools policy.

For a more non-partisan look into the issue of providing technology in education, see Adam Dudding's very good feature, Classrooms flooded with devices.

How distinctive are Labour's new education policies?

The idea that Labour's education policies aren't so different to the Government's is also argued by Rachel Smalley who says that 'there's not a great deal that divides these two parties and their policies'. In particular, she highlights the fact that Labour wish to keep elements of National's Investing in Educational Success programme: 'Labour also says they will introduce an element of 'cherry picking' to the teaching profession as well. They've essentially taken one of National's policies and modified it. Labour will single out good teachers and second them to other schools that need help. But unlike National, it won't offer bonuses or performance-based pay' - see: Labour's education policy similar to National's.

On the left, John Minto has a much more scathing verdict on Labour's education policies (and its economic agenda in general), making the point that the 'Technology in schools' policy is actually a relatively neoliberal 'user pays' idea - see: Putting some lead in Labour's pencil. After all, although Labour has a policy of reducing school donations, it is also essentially imposing another school fee of $3.50 a week for class technology. On Labour's class size policy, Minto accuses the party of being far too moderate.

Also giving Labour some critical leftwing evaluation is Dave Armstrong who criticises Labour for still being too moderate - if not, actually rightwing - and for being too concerned with liberal instead of leftwing issues. But Armstrong says policies such as attempting to stop school donations 'are a step in the right direction' - see: School donation policy appeals. Armstrong says 'what impressed me was that finally Labour released a simple policy, admittedly minor, clearly aimed at ordinary working people'.

Despite some of Labour's similarities with National in the area of education there will probably be a sense that Labour has finally produced some more differentiated policy. This can be seen in yesterday's Press editorial which welcomed the new policies from Labour: 'The policy at the heart of his speech unashamedly tackles National's education policy head-on and aims to demonstrate the differences between the two major parties' - see: Battle moves to the playground. See also, today's Dominion Post editorial, Clear choices in education policies.

Class sizes and education statistics - debated again

'Labour's plan to reduce class sizes may not be a game changer - but it is smart' says Tracy Watkins in Labour's education plan 'smart'. Electorally, the policy will be popular but it kicks off a mini-debate about the merits of different class sizes. You can get two very different educationalist views in TVNZ's Smaller classes a win for all - education expert and Michael Forbes and Olivia Wannan's Cuts only half the story - educators.

Debates also continue about the funding of education. David Farrar attempts to refute Labour's claim that National has cut spending on education by 2%, and shows instead an increase under National of 22% - see: Cunliffe being tricky with figures again. And on the class size debate see Farrar's We need better teachers, not more teachers.

Cunliffe's Man apology, and gender politics

David Cunliffe's unusual apology for being a man on Friday has raised many important issues about gender politics, domestic violence, and electoral calculations. On the latter issue, there's been some interesting debate on what the Labour leader might have been trying to achieve in terms of media coverage and electoral impact. For one interesting take on this, academic Geoffrey Miller argues that Cunliffe's supposed 'gaffe' was nothing of the sort, but was instead carefully designed to create a headline and produce electoral benefits - see: Three reasons why David Cunliffe's apology for being a man might have been a smart move.

Taking an equally fascinating, but opposing, view is Massey University's Claire Robinson, who paints a picture of Cunliffe adlibbing his apology: 'he walked into that room and immediately recognized he was a fish out of water. His fight or flight brain jumped to the conclusion that he was talking to a group of hostile man-haters (stereotypical assumption when confronted by a bunch of feminists). To reassure that he had come in peace he instinctively dialed up a number of clichés from his study of American political behaviour, and in one fell swoop conflated Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" remark (down-with-the-homies), with the political apology that American politicians frequently use when they have done something wrong and need to appear vulnerably human and remorseful. It wasn't a genuine apology; it was a cliché'd response to his own personal discomfort. Which is why so many felt that it lacked authenticity and sincerity, and why it came across as insulting - see: If it wasn't laughable, it would be a great first line in a bad romance novel.

Robinson also argues that the concept of apologising for being a man shows a poor understanding of sexual and gender violence, saying it is 'way too simplistic to attribute the cause of sexual/domestic violence to sexism. That David reducts the issue to the ignorance and inability of men to "man up", suggests a superficial understanding of what is a deeply complex, and insidious reality'.

For a good defence - and explanation - of Cunliffe's apology see Danyl Mclauchlan's On Cunliffe's apology for being a man. I also made this point on The Nation in the weekend that in order to understand Cunliffe's apology you have to understand the dominant ideologies on the left of 'identity politics' and 'rape culture', and how these are not widely subscribed to in wider society - you watch the 12-minute video: Panel: Willie Jackson, Bryce Edwards & Trish Sherson.

The producer of The Nation, Tim Watkin, also picks up on some similar issues in his blog post, Sorry, but ill-discipline still hounds Labour... Sorry. He outlines all of the recent discipline problems that Labour has had, culminating in the 'man apology', which Watkin describes as 'sloppy politics and lazy thinking. It takes Labour back into the identity politics territory that isn't what swing voters want them talking about. But worse for me is that it's just plain dumb. He's stereotyping men in a way he never would women, Maori, gays, immigrants or any other section of society.... Don't simplify a complex issue. And don't make lazy generalisations. Would he also apologise for being a pakeha, wealthy professional because they commit most white collar crime? Or being pakeha because all colonial theft and aggression was committed by pakeha?'

The recent resurgence of gender issues and feminism generally can be seen, not only in Cunliffe's apology, but a number of issues currently featuring in electoral politics. This is well argued in Rob Hosking's column, Soundbites, sanctimony and the Cunliffe apology (paywalled). Hosking writes that 'political party polling is picking up gender-related issues as a likely swing vote issue in election 2014. So here goes. Consider this the early warning bell. The Greens started it off, several weeks ago, by promising to change the abortion laws to provide full abortion on demand in law, instead of - as at present - de facto abortion on demand'.

Hosking also points out that National has recently been pushing harder on gender issues - especially on domestic violence, and including the announcement of a 'a new chief victims adviser for the public sector - an appointment which has the whiff of the kind of Helengrad-era tinkering National was scathing about when in opposition'. Hosking suggests that 'Both Green Party and National moves [on gender] put more pressure on Labour: hence that party's announcement in the run up to its weekend conference of a more aggressive approach'.

Some are also taking issue with Labour's new policy on rape, which has summed up on Twitter by lawyer Graeme Edgeler (@GraemeEdgeler) like this: 'Labour's policy is that: if the government can prove you had sex, that sex was rape, unless you prove it wasn't'. David Farrar elaborates the critique in Labour's official policy is you must prove you are not a rapist.

Positive Labour

Labour's new election slogan of 'Vote Positive' might be a strong one, and nicely fits in with what was a positive congress and weekend. There are signs that the party is in better heart than might have been expected - apparent in articles such as Vernon Small's Lukewarm Labour receives a pick up. And Labour even seemed to get much of its social media efforts right during the weekend, according to digital politics scholar Matthew Beveridge - see: Labour congress #forabetternz.

Labour-aligned commentator, Josie Pagani is also strongly positive, but warns that Labour's new aura of positivity also 'means rejecting the rhetoric that has New Zealand going to hell in a hand basket, and avoiding negative distractions that make Labour look like the party of dead trees, slow trucks and extinct birds' - see: 'Vote Positive' means sound positive too.

Finally, for some positivity about both Labour and its leader, see the first part of the Herald's major two-part biography by Phil Taylor: Unauthorised biography of David Cunliffe: The man who would be PM. It's a must-read, along with companion pieces, David Cunliffe: Me and John Key, and 10 things you didn't know about David 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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