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

Political Roundup: No frills or thrills in Labour at the moment

Labour’s annual conference in the weekend was the most boring in living memory. But maybe that’s their new winning formula.
Andrew Little said he was "no show pony" when giving his speech at the NZLP Conference. Photo / Supplied
Andrew Little said he was "no show pony" when giving his speech at the NZLP Conference. Photo / Supplied

Andrew Little is the "no frills" party leader according to his deputy, Annette King. It's a rather honest and accurate assessment. What you see is what you get with him. It might be boring, but he seems to be hoping that this will come across as "solid and dependable" rather than uninspiring and tired.

It's the same for the whole party, which in the weekend was looking fairly earnest and drab, yet more competent and united than in recent times. The reality is that this could be the necessary formula for having a chance of winning next year.

A bland but successful conference

Andrew Little declared "I'm no show pony" at the conference. And certainly there were few reports of wild enthusiasm or dynamism being on display. They're biding their time, playing a relatively cautious game.

This seems to be the authentic and honest Labour of 2016. And it's reflected in much of the media coverage.

For example, in summing up the leader's conference speech, Toby Manhire says: "I thought it was a solid speech. There were no wild rhetorical flourishes, but Little recognises that's not his metier" - see: Andrew Little rolls out the rug for a Labour tilt at power in 2017. Reflecting the low-key nature of the conference and party, Manhire also points out that the media coverage of the conference was rather low key - all the reports have been downgraded on the newspaper websites or pushed down the 6pm news agenda.

Overall, Manhire says there was a safe but solid feel to the conference: "The room didn't feel to me especially as though it was, to borrow a Keyism, on the cusp of something special. But... they are at least rowing in the same direction."

Similar observations were made by Vernon Small, who seems to have witnessed a successful and serene party, albeit not a "particularly exciting" one - see: Labour puts storms behind it as Little navigates into calmer waters.

Small says: "There was a strange sense of calm over Labour's centenary conference in Auckland over the weekend. Strange, as in unusual ... because in recent history they've been anything but. From leadership white-anting to passive-aggressive clashes over policy positions on superannuation, man bans or trade, conferences in the recent past have been a seething mess... This year, though, Little deserves some of the credit for the preternatural sense of order and relative serenity."

Ready to work - "Work for the dole"?

Labour's most interesting announcement of the weekend was its "Ready to Work" policy of giving long-term unemployed young people the chance of six months' work. It's been relatively well received, but vagueness from Labour about important details and costings has marred the policy announcement's success - see, for example, Newshub's Has Labour got its youth work scheme numbers right?

One question has arisen about whether it amounts to a more leftwing version of "Work for the dole" type schemes. Certainly Labour have been unclear about the degree to which the scheme would be compulsory, and whether Labour essentially is shifting to support National's sanctions against those not looking for work.

RNZ's Jane Patterson explains: "that's where the policy could get tricky for Labour as Mr Little said there were already sanctions in place for those on the Jobseeker benefit who did not fulfil their obligations; sanctions Labour has previously described as punitive. When Mr Little was asked about how young people would be made to do the paid work if they flat out refused, he referred to the sanctions, and in the next breath reverted to the criticism of them as punitive. Then he settled on young people being "actively managed" after their six months on a benefit, which left reporters none the wiser about whether those young people would have a choice about whether they would take up the six months work, or how much pressure they would come under to do so" - see: Does Labour truly believe it can beat Key?

The costings are also being challenged by Labour's opponents - David Farrar, for example, says, "At $15,860 per person and 10,000 participants that would be $158 million not $60 million" - see: Dodgy sums from Labour.

Labour's training/immigration levy

Labour's second most interesting new policy announcement was that it might impose a new levy on some businesses for training workers - see Claire Trevett's Labour considers levy on businesses hiring migrant workers.

Reporters and the party then argued about whether this was an anti-immigrant bid by Labour. Jane Patterson commented: "In his speech, Mr Robertson talked about local firms not relying too heavily on migrant workers. Despite the party having run hard on the issue of immigration, the high numbers of temporary work visas and the impact on the job market, Mr Robertson was decidedly reluctant to link the levy proposal to immigration" - see: Does Labour truly believe it can beat Key?

Claire Trevett details how Labour then had to try to rein back in the idea that it was focusing on immigration: "Grant Robertson was indeed in a form of hell as he tortuously tried to explain how a policy which looked, smelt and quacked like an attempt to penalise companies for hiring migrant workers was not that at all" - see: Devilish detail puts Grant Robertson in a fresh hell.

Trevett explained that Labour was using "dog whistle" politics, and the media was right to report the immigration element: "So it was a fair assumption the levy was aimed at promoting local workers over migrant workers. But no. Asked if it was a crack down on migrant workers, Robertson said companies would not have to pay the levy if the workers they were training were migrants either... Labour must have known the proposal would get some attention. It had not spoken simply of training young workers, but had thrown the concepts of migrant labour versus 'New Zealand workers' into the mix."

Labour is particular sensitive to allegations of immigrant-bashing, giving that it is currently fighting a by-election in which, according to Trevett, "half of Mt Roskill voters were born outside New Zealand and 40 per cent are Asian". She says "So the less said the better about immigration on the streets of Mt Roskill. Instead, [Michael] Wood's campaign material talks about everything except immigration" - see: Labour and how to win Auckland in 50 minutes.

Then today, Phil Twyford (who is now chair of Labour's 2017 election campaign committee); lashed out at TVNZ's Andrea Vance for her coverage of the conference and policy, tweeting: "Appalled by your biased story on @1NewsNZ last night. You were fully briefed on numbers but you chose to run Nat attack line", "Andrea's piece a lapse of professnl stds", and "Public deserves better than bias and hatchet jobs as we enter election year." You can see a screenshot of the exchange, with journalists' replies in my blog post: Politician Vs parliamentary press gallery journalists.

Departure of Labour's bolder ex-leader

Former Labour Party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Former Labour Party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Andrew Little's cautious and conservative approach is in strong contrast to his predecessor, David Cunliffe, who was rather more flamboyant when leading the party. Cunliffe's departure announcement last week was apt at a time when the party is now clearly going for a very different vibe.

For a re-cap on what made Cunliffe so colourful, see Toby Manhire's David Cunliffe is quitting politics. These are his Kodak moments, and Jenna Lynch and Isobel Ewing's The highlights and lowlights of David Cunliffe's political career.

The various political obituaries were widely varying in their sympathy or condemnation of Cunliffe's time in politics. The most positive was Chris Trotter's blog post, Radicalising, Renewing & Repositioning Labour: David Cunliffe's Impossible Mission.

Trotter says he isn't surprised that Cunliffe has opted to leave: "The toxic, soul-rotting environment of the Labour caucus is no place for a rational human-being. In fact, what really surprised me about Cunliffe was how long he managed to endure the company of those "colleagues" whose petty jealousies and unreasoning hatreds inflicted so much damage - both to him and the Labour Party he tried to lead."

Trotter paints a picture of Cunliffe as a radical politician of the left trying to reinvent a way forward for his party, but ultimately failing, and then having illusions that Andrew Little might be able to carry out the necessary task. And now, with Cunliffe's departure, and with the recent death of Helen Kelly, Trotter sees the Labour Party as having little hope for moving beyond cautious politics. He says that he normally goes along to Labour's annual conference to see signs of a bright future, but this year, "Labour's bright sunlit morning had turned into a grey rainy day" - see: Why I Won't Be At The Labour Conference This Weekend.

Finally, for a satirical take on the state of Labour, see my blog post of Cartoons about the Labour Party in 2016.

- NZ Herald

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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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