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

Political Roundup: Labour languishing outside the zeitgeist

The Labour Party is still lost, neither tapping into discontent nor managing to successfully forge a competent, centrist reputation.
It seems unlikely that Labour leader Andrew Little will be New Zealand's Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. Photo / Suppied
It seems unlikely that Labour leader Andrew Little will be New Zealand's Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. Photo / Suppied

Labour is struggling to get in touch with the zeitgeist. The party, its MPs, and its message just don't seem to matter to enough people at the moment. In particular, Labour seems incapable of tapping into any anti-Establishment mood, remaining dogged by perceptions of political correctness and social liberalism.

The latest opinion poll only reinforces the trouble the party is in - see Corin Dann's National up, John Key down in latest 1 News opinion poll, and watch: At the moment Labour is struggling and not getting their message across. Labour remains in the doldrums - up 2 points, but still only at 28 percent. The Greens are also languishing on 11 per cent, down 2 points. Meanwhile National is on 50 per cent, up 2 points.

And unfortunately for Labour, the history of polls shows just how hard it will be to turn things around and win next year - see Claire Robinson's Who will win the 2017 election and why? She reports that "Since 1998, the party leading the opinion polls in July of the year preceding the election has gone on to win the highest proportion of the party vote come election day.

I'm prepared to make a similar prediction for the 2017."

Today's Transtasman MP poll results don't help either - see Stacey Kirk's The best and worst of New Zealand politics: National, Labour and the rest, The good, the bad and the ugly: the political issues that shaped our MPs performances, and Our best and worst MPs: 'Quiet achiever' Amy Adams takes top gong.

The Transtasman's ratings are notoriously biased against the left, and have other peculiarities that suggest they should be taken with a bucket of salt. But even so, they serve to remind that Labour hasn't had a stellar year.

Most Labour MPs probably have a legitimate grievance about their low scores in this report. Phil Twyford, for instance, seems particularly undervalued in his 5.5/10 rating. And for a very interesting account of Twyford (and one of his recent scraps), see Stacey Kirk's Attack dog or liability? Phil Twyford's thin-skinned reaction to reports on Labour omission.

Labour can't or won't tap into any anti-Establishment discontent

Labour must try harder, according to TVNZ's Andrea Vance. She says that the party is missing opportunities, and is fluffing the ones that it takes - see her column, Labour lacking edge as National reaps earthquake reward. Vance asks: "What kind of wake-up call does Labour need?"

She argues that Labour's recent problems have been caused by their "own goals", and draws attention to two opportunities that should have given Labour a boost: its annual conference and launch of "their thoughtful and substantial Future of Work report". Vance suggests there the Future of Work project gave Labour a real chance of tapping into the mood of global discontent over economic changes: "With their Future of Work Commission, Labour has tapped into a zeitgeist. It's the same civil instability and job insecurity that fuelled the TPP protests, tipped Britain towards Brexit and saw Donald Trump elected. The globalisation movement has peaked, and the free trade movement is beginning to unwind. And with the FoW commission, Labour were trying to come up with some honest and worthwhile solutions - instead of the reactionary anti-immigration recoil seen in US and UK politics."

According to Vance, Labour had the opportunity for "to stick the boot in and harness that anti-globalisation mood - and recapture some of the ground lost over their hesitant and confused opposition to the TPP. But, they missed it." She argues the party allowed such strong points to be overshadowed. Part of the problem, she says, is Labour's inclination to push a much more socially conservative or reactionary type of populism.

And Vance also addresses this in an earlier opinion piece, arguing that Labour has joined "the race to the bottom" of reactionary policies, promoting "More cops on the streets, bigger prisons, fewer immigrants" - see: And they're off! Here come the lowest common denominator election policies. She laments the choice made by the party: "Labour could be arguing that not spending on infrastructure when interest rates are rock-bottom and economic growth is strong is improvident. Instead, it chooses a rhetoric that demonises migrants."

Of course lately the party has been in the difficult post-earthquakes political zone, in which it can't really be too aggressive. Audrey Young explains this in her column, Labour forced to navigate the hazards of disaster politics. She says: "Such is the nature of disaster politics, when the Opposition is expected to shut up and allow the Government get on with it in the early stages of disaster response."

And if there is a growing anti-Establishment mood, does it really have any potential to help the left? Chris Trotter thinks not. He writes a reply to my previous column (Will Trump effect be felt Downunder too?) suggesting any anti-Establishment mood can only favour the political right, and that National and John Key have already taken ownership of that type of populist politics - see: The National Community: Why Populism in New Zealand is a Right-Wing Thing. In reply to this, see leftwing blogger Steven Cowan's Reclaiming populism.

Labour's class and identity divisions

Labour is still seen as the party of political correctness. And Labour does have a habit of reinforcing this imagine. So perhaps, in part, Labour's ongoing woes relate to what I wrote about in Friday's column, Trumpocalpyse for the NZ left. As with the broader left, Labour is having trouble navigating the issue of identity politics versus class politics. Or to put it more bluntly, it still appears to be bogged down with political correctness and tinkering at the margins in a time when its natural audience is wanting a focus on the things that matter - which is mostly around the economy, people's real life living conditions. Working people are increasingly divorced from a party that appears to be a liberal elite more focused on social issues.

Within the Labour Party, former candidate Josie Pagani has written recently about her experiences and observations of the growing chasm between working people and the more middle class liberal identity politics elite who are increasingly dominant - see: How the left should respond to Donald Trump's elected-presidency.

Pagani characterises this political class divide like this: "The 'smoko room' has been pulling away from the 'university common room' for years", and argues that liberals have turned the party into one that is unappealing to, or receptive to, more working class people. She says: "progressive parties decide to purge the 'smoko room', either by actually excommunicating working people with unacceptable views on women (in the case of John Tamihere) or by making it uncomfortable for them to stay, in the case of Shane Jones."

Pagani also makes the point that the working class is very diverse, especially in New Zealand, but the narrowness of Labour's liberalism is off-putting: "The working class in New Zealand is less likely to be white than in Britain or the United States. But working class Pacific and Maori voters have similar disconnections with the metropolitan liberals who dominate social democracy across the globe: while their economic mobility has been low and falling, they are uncomfortable about social liberalism. This is not an argument against liberalism, but you have to ask why Maori are much less likely to be Labour today than they were in 1980. Pacific Island voters are Labour's staunchest supporters, and also least respected within Labour's networks, where they find disdain for their church values and lifestyles."

Pagani argues that New Zealand's working class "deplorables" are less and less likely to vote Labour, and that the "left hasn't developed a narrative and economics that makes a better, more obvious emotional connection with these voters. Until it does, it'll keep losing."

Willie Jackson, the former Mana Motuhake Party leader and Alliance MP, now turned outspoken broadcaster, is also blaming the Labour Party for being incapable of focusing on class and economics: "Some Labour Party MPs are suffering from the same problem the US election exposed with the Democrats: they are obsessed with the politics of culture and identity rather than the real politics of jobs, income and security. And not just jobs making coffee for tourists - real jobs so people can raise a family. Grant Robertson could not help wading into Brian Tamaki's gay quake-causing sideshow last week. You are supposed to be Labour's finance spokesperson Grant... shut up! You have a wealth of material to work with on inequality. There was no value in getting involved with that, you should have left it alone. Have you noticed people living in cars in your area? Forget the rock-star economy nonsense. It might be better than ever for Key's mates but for the rest of us we are a low-wage economy."

Jackson points the finger at Labour's liberals who have shifted the left away from class politics. He says he detests Trump, but hopes that a progressive version of him emerges here to stand up for working people - see: Key will get Trumped if he's not careful.

In another column he elaborates on how working people have been let down by liberals: "I completely understand the Trump appeal. Your average working class person had a gutsful of politics, the establishment, political correctness and being totally forgotten in their own country" - see: All go for the Trump train.

He points to voting statistics showing that decent number of ethnic minorities and women voted for Trump, which "shows you that many Americans didn't care about Trump's dubious past with women or the racist and sexist taint that was attached to his campaign. What they value most are jobs and opportunities, and Trump is promising to deliver for them."

Others on the left are also uninspired by the type of policies Labour is coming up with - see Dita de Boni's National no fans of the young, but is Labour any better? She says "Labour needs to do a Jeremy Corbyn", by which she suggests they need "to overwhelmingly target the youth, excite the youth, and get them signing up to be party members and ultimately, voters. It needs to provide a bold alternative, one that plainly spells out to young people that it knows the future is looking bleak, because it is for many of them, and it has their concerns uppermost in mind."

And for more on the state of Labour - and the other parties - see Martyn Bradbury's 1 year out from 2017 election - the Political Parties. He suggests a more radical, and class-focused approach: "Houses for first time buyers, 6 months parental leave and Living Wage. Labour's greatest support is from working people, women, Pacific Island and Maori voters and first time affordable homes, a living wage and better parental leave are the issues that those voters can immediately identify with and budget weekly. Those are tangible benefits in their every day life."

Can Labour be anti-Establishment?

So, can Labour turn around and become more anti-Establishment? It seems unlikely that Labour leader Andrew Little will be New Zealand's Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders according to Matthew Hooton - see his paywalled NBR column: Who is best to deal with Donald Trump? (paywalled).

Hooton suggests that Little is far too beltway to appeal to the masses: "having been a politician all his life, as president of the NZ University Students' Association in his 20s, a union boss in his 30s and president of the Labour Party in his 40s, Mr Little cannot possibly claim to be an outsider. He owes his place in Parliament and his leadership entirely to the machinations of the Wellington union elite rather than any popular appeal. He has never won an election involving ordinary voters, Labour Party members or even his own colleagues."

Instead, Hooton alleges that Labour politicians are keen to "tar John Key with the Trump brush, based on his success in business, the ponytail incident and his lack of traditional oratorical skills. But Mr Key's okey-dokey style of politics is the antithesis of Mr Trump's and there is no doubt the prime minister is more comfortable in the company of liberal democrats such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton than he ever will be with Mr Trump." For details of Hooton's allegation, see David Farrar's King goes nasty.

On Friday Hooton wrote on Labour again, arguing it faces "an existential crisis", which the more centrist MPs in the party have decided to deal with by just waiting for Little to fail at the next election, providing them with a chance to refashion it in a new look - see Labour MPs resolve to hang together (paywalled).

According to Hooton, Little is safe as leader because the right of the party know they can't displace him, so they have decided against attempting to dislodge him or work against him, and instead will simply let him take the fall in 2017: "Moderate Labour's last chance is to demonstrate conclusively to the swivel-eyed activists and Wellington union bosses the disastrous electoral consequences of choosing a leader as attractive to them but as disconnected to the public as Mr Little. The centrists have therefore resolved to be seen to do - and in fact do - whatever they can to help Mr Little become prime minister."

Disconnected Labour MPs

Some remain convinced that former leader David Cunliffe might have been best placed to channel discontent. Certainly Cunliffe's recent political messages seem more in line with Corbyn and Sanders than Little. Here's how he responded to the Trump victory: "As we all pick up the pieces from 8 November, there is also an opportunity to learn. Our people are crying out to be heard. The want bold solutions. To feed and house a family. To repair torn social fabric. To give everyone a chance and a stake. To hope for a better future. Actually, to save capitalism from itself: to manage boom/bust cycles and to set boundaries so that competition benefits all stakeholders, without pillaging our planet. Rumination on the lessons of this US election will go on for some time. Platitudes and shows of unity have already begun. But an enduring lesson will be that voters are crying out for truly different ways to address rampant inequality and alienation, and that progressives must rise to this challenge" - see: Waking up to the Donald - Sometimes our shared future hangs by a slender thread.

In any case, Cunliffe is departing and it's not clear who in Labour is best placed to champion working class discontent. Instead it is possible that Labour has become too ideologically narrow and uncritical. This is Rodney Hide's belief, and he argues "Their narrow and insular outlook prevents them reaching out. Little wonder it's not attractive to new recruits. It's astonishing that National is now the vibrant party looking to the future and open to diverse views. Labour is the narrow party that has shut itself off from the great bulk of New Zealanders" - see: Left lacks puff and policy.

Hide says it wasn't always like this, and it used to be the left, not the right, that was expansive and dynamic: "What ails the left? They lack puff and policy. They were once vibrant, challenging and full of ideas. The right were the dreary, backward-looking ones. The left now suffer from closed minds and moral smugness. They are moribund and backward-looking. They run from ideas. Opposing philosophies distress them."

Part of the problem, according to Hide, is that Labour no longer recruits regular working people as candidates: "Labour would benefit greatly from having members who have actually experienced work and know what they're talking about... The best thing Labour could be doing for itself and the country is recruiting people who have actually been in the workforce Labour says it cares so passionately about" - see: Labour shows why it isn't working (paywalled).

Although a lack of MPs from working class or low-income occupations is a problem for all parties, it's particularly problematic for a party named Labour. In this regard, it's useful to read Geoffrey Miller and Mark Blackham's John Key New Zealand's only bulwark against 'Trump effect'

Here's the key point: "By failing to forge careers unrelated to politics, the current crop of MPs largely lacks genuine insight into the lives of New Zealanders who live outside the Wellington political establishment. The insight they do have is handicapped by political and media machines that smooth out language and ideas. Populists like Trump are extreme reactions to these very real inadequacies of the current political choices the machines generate. Voters are disgruntled with ideology driven by politicians' agenda rather than by the reality of ordinary lives. They prefer the sincerity of Trump-like passion to the crafted emptiness of professional politicians."

Finally, for an interesting take on how Labour's main opponent is perhaps closer to the anti-Establishment zeitgeist than Andrew Little, see Geoffrey Miller's John Key v Donald Trump - the five similarities.

- NZ Herald

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