Bryce Edwards

Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at University of Otago

Bryce Edwards: Political roundup: Labour avoids a lurch to the left

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David Cunliffe. Photo / David White
David Cunliffe. Photo / David White

Labour's party conference has been portrayed by much of the media and the party's opponents as proof of a lurch to the left under new leader David Cunliffe.

But a more sober reading of what occurred in the weekend shows that the main features of the conference were compromise, moderation, and even a suppression of radicalism. Very few genuinely contentious policies were adopted and rather than driving the party leftwards, the Labour left was largely defeated on the biggest issues. Instead of a 'lurch to the left' there was more of a 'lurch towards liberalism' - epitomised by the adoption of gender quotas.

The suppression of division and radicalism

The most insightful analyses of the weekend are those that emphasise just how much effort was made to keep controversial and highly ideological issues from being debated and passed. The best summary of the conference is Tracy Watkins' Hottest topics put on ice. She salutes the very strong political management in action at the conference, which prevented the party adopting any radical policies or displaying any major disagreements. For example, Watkins says that 'by bumping many of the more potentially divisive remits effectively to the never-never - such as decriminalising abortion or holding a binding referendum on republicanism - commonsense prevailed and Labour was saved from itself.

More substantive arguments, such as whether to back the hugely contentious Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, were left for another day so they would not overshadow Mr Cunliffe's first conference as leader'.

Similarly, in the column Cunliffe heads off potential divisions, Watkins and Vernon Small say that 'David Cunliffe has used his muscle as newly-elected Labour leader to head off a potentially bloody clash between caucus moderates and the party's union factions over contentious policies'. Vernon Small elaborates on the compromises, arguing that 'Labour's annual conference honed it to an art form when faced with a handful of issues that threatened to spill over into nasty public division-airing. In the end it amounted less to papering over the cracks and more a sort of political "yeah, nah".' - see: Hard decisions kept in a can.

In contrast, other political commentators - including those from both the left and right - ramped up the idea that Labour was 'swinging to the left', see John Armstrong's Labouring under an electoral delusion, Matthew Hooton's How far left will Labour go? (paywalled), and Martyn Bradbury's Labour Party Conference 2013: The speech that will terrify National. Likewise, Labour's parliamentary opponents are keen to paint the party as veering off into 'socialism' - see, for example, Steven Joyce's Labour's leftward lurch continues.

The reality is somewhat more prosaic. Overall, there was actually very little extremism on display in the weekend. Gordon Campbell has blogged about this too, saying the new policy platform 'was hardly the Communist Manifesto' - see: On the Labour Party annual conference. He says, 'Without exception, the conference remits amounted to a mere modernisation of the party's traditional stances and founding issues'. Furthermore, 'Lorde's hit song "Royals" - and not the Red Flag - was the preface to Cunliffe's keynote speech. What I'm getting at is that - on the evidence at Wigram - the current Labour Party seems distinctly non-threatening. All claims to the contrary, Cunliffe was not installed by the unions, and nor is he being induced to lurch leftwards by their agenda'. Campbell mocks the media for its obsession with finding a 'swing to the left' or a 'lurch to the left' where such shifts simply didn't occur. In another column, Campbell says 'Though you wouldn't know it from some responses to last weekend's Labour Party conference in Christchurch, Labour leader David Cunliffe is not, in fact, planning a Bolshevik revival' - see: Labour back on to the front foot.

The Labour left's defeat on the retirement age and TPP

Most of the big ideological demands of Labour Party activists were either defeated or quietly neutralised at the conference. The prime example is Labour's highly contentious policy to make people work longer by raising the age of entitlement to superannuation from 65 to 67. Prior to the conference the Labour left was determined to abolish this rightwing policy. But in the end, the policy was only modified to become less explicit and give the leadership 'some wriggle room'. As Corin Dann put it, Labour has only 'softened its stance slightly' - see: Labour softens stance on retirement age. David Parker - the main proponent of raising the pension age - is clearly happy with the outcome, judging by his comments in Audrey Young's Labour conference gives Parker options for superannuation policy.

Will the compromise solution really stop the leadership campaigning for a rise in the retirement age? Unlikely. As Vernon Small and Tracy Watkins reported, 'soon after the deal was agreed Mr Cunliffe and finance spokesman David Parker made it clear they wanted to go ahead with a policy to raise the age, seen as giving Labour the credibility to spend more elsewhere' - see: Cunliffe backs gender quota. So, on this major issue, the Labour left was essentially defeated or, as discussed later, the Labour left chose not to pick a fight on this economic issue, preferring to concentrate on a social one instead.

The Labour left also accepted a major compromise on the issue of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Labour's affiliated unions have a position of outright opposition to the free trade deal, and party activists were attempting to make Labour adopt such a stance. In the end, an agreement was brokered behind the scenes that means Labour will neither support nor oppose the TPP until further information comes to light allowing it to back the deal with confidence. The motion passed by the conference is described by Richard Prebble as 'weasel words', which will eventually result in Labour supporting the TPP if one is agreed upon. Prebble points out that, 'A real lurch to the left would have been for Labour to abandon its three decade long support for free trade' - see: Insight into Politics - David Cunliffe. For more detail on the TPP compromise see Gordon Campbell's On the Labour Party annual conference. For a contrasting view, see Audrey Young's Labour's new TPP limbo still a big shift.

The 'big left policy': KiwiAssure

The one major announcement by Cunliffe at the weekend - KiwiAssure - has been characterised as a 'big left policy' but, in reality, is relatively moderate and minor. The announcement of the policy was vague, but the details suggested it was going to be a very cheap policy - Labour declared it would commit far less than $80m to this.

More importantly, Labour said that it would be a private scheme - albeit owned by NZ Post - which would operate under a purely commercial model. KiwiAssure is, then, more an example of 'rightwing social democracy' than any kind of socialism or even state control. The company would not necessarily sell cheaper insurance than its competitors, and it would be entirely profit-oriented and without any particular social obligations. This is the gist of Chris Trotter's disappointment with KiwiAssure, which he says appears radical but is actually deeply conservative - see: Labour's policy less than it seems. John Minto has similar reservations about this and other new Labour policies - see: Labour can't be all things to all people. And for a report on the reservations of some experts, see Dave Burgess' Doubts cast on KiwiAssure's influence.

Newspaper editorials are making strong pronouncements on KiwiAssure. The most critical evaluation is the Herald's Taxpayers should be wary of 'KiwiAssure'. The scheme is painted as a pork barrel, cynical, policy-on-the-hoof intervention by Labour into an industry that is not suited for nationalisation. The Christchurch Press is similarly critical: 'A state-owned enterprise required to lower its prices or be more generous towards customers than competitors could only do so at the expense of taxpayers. As for the implication that a state-owned enterprise might provide a better customer experience in general than a private company, that only shows how far Auckland is from Christchurch. There are many in Christchurch who have dealt with EQC who could put Cunliffe right on that point' - see: Big ideas need detailed look.

For a much more positive editorial evaluation, see the Dominion Post's Risks of a state-owned insurer. Other provincial editorials are equally enthusiastic - see the Waikato Times' Mixed bag for Cunliffe and the Southland Times' Emotive for good reason. John Armstrong has also argued that KiwiAssure could be very popular - see: Soft target in the sights.

The Christchurch housing announcements were relatively mild and have been heralded for their basic common sense. This doesn't mean, however, that there aren't some good questions being raised about the proposals - see, for example, Charles Anderson's article, Housing policy 'questionable'. Similarly, a spokesperson for the Christchurch Council for Social Services suggests Labour is wrong to only make the new housing available to first home buyers - see Radio NZ's Labour's housing plan for Christchurch questioned. See also today's Press editorial Revival plans need thought.

Other neutralised policies

In terms of a headline, Labour agrees vote on Queen seems rather radical. But again, the detail is much less so. Instead of Labour adopting the policy of a binding referendum on republicanism, a decision was made to shunt off the issue to Labour's Policy Council. As many commentators have said, this makes it extremely unlikely that it will see the light of day before next year's election. As with Maryan Street's euthanasia bill, it's likely to be quietly killed off.

Similarly, the left of the party - especially some younger activists - have been determined to push through abortion reform. The proposal was made to decriminalise abortion. At the moment, abortion is illegal except when, according to the Crimes Act, a woman is deemed by a doctor to be endangered, mentally or physically, by the continuation of the pregnancy. But the proposal for radical reform was shelved by the conference in favour of backing a Law Commission review of abortion laws.

The gender quota tradeoff

There was really only one highly contentious policy to come out of Labour's conference - the gender quotas for Labour's election candidates. If Patrick Gower's coverage of the issue is accurate, then the issue will be extremely polarising. He says, 'The new party rule means Labour's men may have to give up spots in parliament, earned on merit, to female MPs.... It means Labour's party list will be stacked if required, with women put ahead of men to meet the quota' - see: Labour votes for gender quota system. In line with this view, Claire Trevett has said that the reform is 'likely to lead to increased pressure on males such as Phil Goff and Trevor Mallard to quit Parliament to make way for fresh male talent' - see: Labour conference: Goff, Mallard to feel pinch to resign.

This was the one major victory for the party activists, as it was the one policy that they were not prepared to compromise on and moderate. This is an important point. Essentially the Labour left decided - consciously or otherwise - that the issue of 'gender quotas' was the one fight worth having. It's important to pick your fights of course, because party conferences and policy-making in general is all about trade-offs. Activists know that they can't afford to hold to a hardline on all policy disputes, and they therefore have to prioritise what is important to them. And so for the 2013 Labour Party conference the priority was deemed to be gender quotas, and issues such as keeping the retirement age at 65, opposing the TPP Agreement, abortion reform and republicanism, were ultimately expendable. This tradeoff is reminiscent of a much larger one - the Labour left's tolerance of Rogernomics in the 1980s in return for the introduction of an array of social liberal reforms - see my older blogpost, Identity politics vs class politics: The neo-liberal/social-liberal tradeoff in the 4th Labour Govt.

Whatever the merits of the gender quota, and regardless of how radical it might be, its adoption does not indicate any sort of 'lurch to the left'. While obtaining greater female representation in politics is a positive achievement, regardless of whether it's done via mandatory quotas or other methods, it's no more inherently leftwing than Jenny Shipley becoming New Zealand's first female prime minister. Identity politics is not the same thing as leftism, and having more Labour (or National) women MPs is not likely to upset the established order of things.

Having a 50/50 MP gender quota is the type of policy that is bound to be lampooned by cartoonists, and this has certainly happened over the last few days. For example, the cartoon by the Herald's Body suggests that New Zealand's Establishment is entirely happy for Labour to shift in the direction of identity politics, especially if it means the party doesn't shift to the left instead. Another cartoon, by Hodgson in today's Dominion Post, suggests also that Labour and Cunliffe have left the more radical and divisive policies (or 'cans of worms') up on the shelf, in favour of concentrating on the gender quota 'can of beans'. You can see these and other cartoons and photos about Labour's conference here: Images of Labour under new leader David Cunliffe.

Another critique of Labour's focus on gender quotas comes from a female blogger, who says 'A gender quota won't make me vote for a party; policies will... Labour has said that the quota is about ensuring equality for women, but their policies and other actions don't put their money where their mouth is.

For this, see their failure to vote to decriminalise abortion, instead going for the watered down 'review' of abortion law. Sorry, but in my world, 'reviewing' a law that deprives a woman of the ability to legally make medical choices about her body doesn't cut it' - see: Gender quota.

Other female voices have been more positive about the gender quota. Broadcaster Rachel Smalley says she's happy to see the dominance of 'white men' challenged, and also says that this is a problem beyond politics, including in her own profession: 'It's the same in the media - it's dominated by white men too. Shaping our news agenda, influencing the way we see an issue, governing the way we report political issues, doing the lion's share of the interviewing. Gender balance is absolutely not an issue that's unique to politics' - see: Labour gender quota prompts debate about 'representation'. On the Idealog website, Hazel Phillips says Sexist comments illustrate exactly why the supposed 'man ban' is sorely needed. For a different view entirely, see Brian Edwards' Reflections on a 50:50 male:female quota for Labour Members of Parliament.

Cunliffe's strong political management and speech

The conference showed just how in command of the party David Cunliffe is. Much of the success of the conference - and it was a huge success for Labour - was due to his shrewd political management which created a conference almost without embarrassment or division.

Yet despite the reports of a highly united conference with few policy divisions, Chris Trotter observed at the conference that the Labour MPs were visibly less happy, displaying 'surly, sulky behaviour'. No doubt still not enamoured with David Cunliffe being forced upon them as leader. Trotter says, 'a distressingly large number of Labour MPs put on a display of childish pique that bodes very ill for the party's future' - see: Labour's policy less than it seems. Similarly, Claire Trevett points to the sulky MPs in her column (New leader struts his stuff before the party faithful; not online), noting that 'They put their energy into trying to restrain the sulking to tacit shows of objection. When it came to the parts of his speech where clapping was required, some clapped in lacklustre fashion, or not at all. None quite dared risk the slow clap'.

Cunliffe's keynote speech was widely viewed as excellent. John Armstrong labeled it 'a tour de force in terms of tone, content and delivery' - see: Energised the new buzzword. And although blogger Martyn Bradbury is a 'true believer', his breathless commentary on the speech probably contained more than a grain of truth: 'honestly, it was the best political speech I've ever seen. Cunliffe looked incredibly comfortable on the stage, he threw convention by walking around the podium, confident & looking every inch the PM. He engaged with the audience in a unique manner and the content and range of manifesto presented was articulate with an intelligence that wasn't aloof or arrogant, it was honest and authentic.... I think David Cunliffe just became the next Prime Minister' - see: The speech that will terrify National. For a measured and thoughtful evaluation of Cunliffe's political rhetoric see Morgan Godfery's The mechanics of Cunliffe's conference remarks.

Finally, my blogpost, Top tweets about the 2013 Labour Party conference records some of the more insightful and amusing commentary about Labour's conference and policy changes. And for much more entertainment, see Ben Uffindell's blogposts on The Civilian: Live Blog: The Civilian goes to the Labour Party Conference and Hope and Heartbreak at Cunliffe's Conference.

- NZ Herald

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