Phil Quin: Inept Labour needs to aim higher

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Left-wing bloggers talk of a media conspiracy, but all the damage is being done from within, says Phil Quin.

Labour Party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Labour Party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / Brett Phibbs

To paraphrase US comedian Lily Tomlin, who was talking about cynicism at the time, no matter how dire Labour's political management reveals itself to be, it's impossible to keep up.

Last week, I broke a cardinal rule and spent some time wading through left-wing blogs, as well as comment sections on more mainstream sites.

It is clear the small number of Labour, Green and Internet-Mana Party activists who populate these dusty corners of cyberspace have convinced themselves the media are systematically rallying behind John Key's re-election and conspiring against the left.

I was unable to glean a coherent explanation as to why this might be, but my guess is that it has something to do with corporate interests and right-wing politicians uniting with a fierce determination to defend the prevailing political and socioeconomic orthodoxy that shapes New Zealand's capitalist system and delivers its beneficiaries ever-expanding wealth, power and privilege.

This kind of reaction is neither strange nor unexpected, because Labour is losing by 30 points and performing as badly as any major New Zealand political party since Bill English's hapless Nats of 2002.

Supporters and activists find it much easier to blame straw-men, presumably along with a mandatory 50 per cent of straw-women, than confront the painful truth that the political operation surrounding David Cunliffe is strategically misguided and tactically inept.

Proof points abound: the disastrous "manpology" to the Women's Refuge gathering, the poorly managed Donghua Liu debacle, an ill-conceived skiing trip (which was less about its effect on public opinion than the message it sent candidates and volunteers), as well as any number of bungled policy introductions and unforced errors - from dead trees to slow trucks to resurrecting moa.

To my mind, the Cunliffe apology for being a man was by far the most damaging of these. According to a Herald poll, only 9 per cent of respondents thought the manpology was a smart move, and yet the overwhelming preponderance of leftist commentary insisted either that Cunliffe was right to say sorry for possessing external genitalia, or that the apology wasn't a big deal.

My mantra during this pre-election period has been that Labour's strategists are misguided in their conviction that fewer than 30 per cent of the vote is sufficient to form a viable government.

With others, like Shane Jones and Josie Pagani, I have urged the party to lift its sights to become a 40 per cent party, capable of winning a broad spectrum of voters from all parts of the country.

In particular, we make the case that Labour has all but surrendered in provincial New Zealand, and that this is a strategic bungle of epic proportions.

These concerns have been met with hostility bordering on hysteria among the party's ruling elite.

Their behaviour in response to these latest gaffes, particularly their passionate and apparently sincere defence of the manpology, have made me wonder whether the party's ruling elites are not 30 per centers as I had feared, but 9 per centers.

This is the stuff of nightmares for millions of hard-working New Zealanders who rely on Labour governments to get the fair deal they deserve.

Labour members, busy putting up hoardings, talking to neighbours and delivering leaflets, are preparing for defeat, but they also know the work doesn't end on election day - the task of restoring Labour to its historical position as a viable, credible and appealing party of centre-left Kiwi values begins the morning after.

Of course, there will be calls for an organisational review, but too often these exercises serve to protect and defend the incumbent elites.

If Labour fails to break well into the 30s, the party president and general secretary should resign and party council members should convene urgently to consider their own positions.

It is not shocking in the context of New Zealand electoral history for John Key to win a third term; what is untenable is that he looks set to do so with a higher vote than either of the past two outings.

As for David Cunliffe, he should resign with grace and alacrity as soon as it becomes apparent he is unable to form a government, which might be far earlier on the evening of September 20 than any Labour voter would wish to contemplate.

Phil Quin is a former Labour Party adviser and a strategic communications consultant.

- NZ Herald

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