Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Labour losing sight of its working class roots

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Labour Leader David Shearer. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour Leader David Shearer. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Last Sunday I wrote that a slide for National was imminent. The TVNZ Colmar Brunton survey later that night contradicted me, showing National inching up 1 per cent.

My critics were amused. But that particular poll traditionally favours National and underestimates other parties.

For example, it found NZ First support has halved since the election. Does anyone believe that? Nevertheless something significant did show up. John Key's support slipped 4 points. Experienced pollsters know that when the leader drops, their party surely follows.

On Thursday, my assumption was confirmed. Key must have wondered what had happened while he was away hobnobbing overseas.

The more reliable Roy Morgan Poll showed the National Party has dived a whopping 4.5 per cent to 44 per cent. This would normally be ecstatic news for Labour, but its support barely moved. The Greens, who have been doing a superb job since the general election, soared to a stunning record high of 17 per cent.

Most of us focus on the gap between National and Labour, still a huge 13.5 per cent. But a Labour-Green combo hit 47.5 per cent. For the first time in years their combined support beats National's 44 per cent.

Throw in their likely support parties, NZ First and Mana, and a David Shearer-led coalition easily defeats the current government and its allies.

Shearer's strategy of moving into the centre is understandable but some of his utterings are alarmingly right wing. Any centrist ground he may be gaining seems to be lost on his left flank to the Greens. Before some of his advisers panic and attack the Greens, they shouldn't.

The Greens have increased their support because they have been better performers against the Government, not because of any competition with Labour. At present, even Winston Peters on his own is a better opponent of the Government than almost the entire Labour front bench.

The Greens' success is that they're consistently on the front foot. They respond faster to any government missteps and they promote their policies whenever they get an opening.

Labour seems sluggish at times. And because Shearer says many of its policies are up for review, it often can't offer clear alternatives.

Labour's problem is it is too cautious and risk averse because it isn't sure what it stands for. The Ports of Auckland dispute is an example. The Green and Mana parties from the start attacked the tactics of the port against its workers and strongly supported the wharfies' fight for decent pay and secure jobs. Even when it seemed unpopular, the Greens held firm on principle.

With the honourable exception of MPs Darien Fenton and Phil Twyford, Labour was all over the place. Labour needs desperately to reconnect to its working-class constituency.

Shearer, I assume, was trying to protect its party's mayor Len Brown, but saying Labour was essentially neutral was counterproductive.

When the wharfies this week jubilantly marched through the waterfront gates returning to work, they rightly reserved their contempt for the mayor. But those workers and other New Zealand workers won't forget Labour's lacklustre support, either.

Labour shouldn't take its working-class support for granted. Although the Green Party has always presented itself as outside the left-right prism, it's not naive when it comes to understanding its constituency or its potential constituency.

Therefore the Green Party caucus appointment of Laila Harre to head its presence in Auckland comes at a critical political moment. Harre is a popular former Alliance cabinet minister and a formidable campaigner.

The odds of a change of government at the next election are high. After this week's polls, Labour's current wooden performance and the appointment of Harre, the idea of a Green-led government isn't so difficult to consider.

After all, Labour is barely 30 per cent and the Greens are currently 17.

If Labour doesn't lift its game, it may have to get used to the novel idea of its leader being "co-prime minister" with a Maori woman or an Aussie redhead.

- Herald on Sunday

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