Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: Political roundup: Labour's lurch to the left

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The three candidates for the Labour Leadership Grant Robertson, left, Shane Jones and David Cunnliffe. Photo / File
The three candidates for the Labour Leadership Grant Robertson, left, Shane Jones and David Cunnliffe. Photo / File

Labour's leadership contenders are tacking to the left in the primary campaign, but will almost certainly shift the party towards the centre for next year's election campaign and, if they get into government, govern to the right.

That's the historical and international lessons about ideological positioning in order to achieve popularity. Certainly over the weekend - during which there were three public appearances by the contestants, two national television debates, and numerous media interviews - there was a significant shift to the left, at least in rhetoric. David Cunliffe declared that 'The red tide is rising', while Grant Robertson vowed there would be no 'neoliberal or third-way' agenda under a government led by him, and that 'It's time to leave behind the dog-eat-dog free-market ideology' - see Stacey Kirk's New souped-up leadership race goes public.

The big surprise in the Labour leadership contest was the degree to which Robertson has shifted to the left in an attempt, it would appear, to outflank Cunliffe. Until now, the assumption has been that ideologically Cunliffe is the furthest left, with Robertson more towards the centre, and Shane Jones on the right of the party.

But Andrea Vance, reporting on the debut hustings meeting in Levin, said 'Robertson delivered a performance that thoroughly dispelled the idea he is not left enough to lead the party' - see: Grant Robertson has X-Factor. Vance said that although 'Robertson and Cunliffe's carefully crafted addresses came down to "I'm Left." "No. I'm Lefter"', it was Robertson that clearly won the first contest: 'Robertson went some way to breaking down those walls yesterday, with an electrifying speech that hit all the right notes of vision, policy and a taste of his self-deprecating wit'.

Robertson's newfound left-ness was also in evidence at last night's Auckland meeting, as reported on by Chris Trotter in Everything Has Changed: Ruminations on the first of Labour's Auckland Leadership Election Meetings. Trotter says that the ideological dynamics of the contest mean that 'Whoever wins this race stands to inherit a revolution'. Trotter was particularly impressed by Robertson: 'By far the best-crafted and coherent of the speeches came from the ever-competent Grant Robertson. The leadership contest has forced Robertson to shed his "beltway" skin of cautious moderation in all things and reveal to the nation the strongly left-wing light his close friends have always known he carried, but which he had felt it prudent to keep under a fairly hefty bushel. Outed Grant! But not, perhaps, in the way the pundits expected'. Trotter also outlines how far to the left the party is shifting under the contest, and playfully suggests - or hopes - that 'By the end of the two weeks of scheduled meetings party members could be looking at a firm promise to reintroduce universal union membership!'

Similarly, fellow Daily Blog author, Martyn Bradbury also highlights the shift saying 'What I am loving is how quickly Labour is moving to the left every time a candidate opens their mouth. Under these 3 Labour are [only just] to the right of Marx' - see: Ruminations on the second of Labour's Auckland Leadership Election Meetings.

The repositioning is not just wishful thinking on the part of leftwing commentators, but has also been picked up on by journalists and rightwing bloggers. David Farrar reported on the Levin meeting, saying 'What really struck me was how far left Grant was prepared to go to head off Cunliffe. This is in fact quite good for National. If Grant wins, he is on record at pledging to effectively increase the minimum wage to over $18, and to have a gender quota for caucus, plus full employment. I love how he pledges 40% pay increases plus full employment!' - see: A win for Robertson. Farrar explains why he thinks this leftwing repositioning is occurring: 'Grant obviously decided there is no way he was going to let Cunliffe be seen as the candidate of the left, so he pledged in quick order full employment, a living wage for all and a 50% female quota for caucus. They cheered and cheered. The living wage commitment was specific - he will give a date by which every state agency must pay every employee at least a living wage (over $18 an hour) and also every contracted company to them must do the same. This is basically a 40% pay increase for every cleaner. By no coincidence, the room was full of Service and Food Worker members, many of whom are no doubt cleaners. Grant also pledged to repeal National's employment law changes, which again went down well'.

Robertson's leftwing credentials are bolstered by the personal endorsement of unionist and ex-Alliance activist Rebecca Matthews who outlines Why I'm voting for Grant Robertson. Matthews argues that Robertson is the true leftwing leadership candidate: 'Grant is very progressive and there seems to be no basis to claims that Cunliffe is the more leftwing candidate, despite a lot of internet rhetoric to the contrary.

Leftwing commentators and supporters of Robertson and Cunliffe might, however, be disappointed when the inevitable tack back to the centre occurs next year, and then towards the right if they gain power in the election. Internationally, in primary leadership contests - such as the US Democratic and Republican presidential primaries - the various candidates always manoeuvre themselves temporarily towards their party's core support base, taking on relatively radical policies. These are watered down or jettisoned when the winning candidate then attempts to win over the swing voters in the middle of the political spectrum. And in government, Labour parties are inevitably more rightwing than when they campaign for election, with no exceptions in recent New Zealand political history.

Despite the attempt to appeal to Labour's activist base, it's worth noting that candidates are actually backpeddling on some policies. For example, although Labour has promised to repeal the Voluntary Student Association membership law, Robertson now offers a far less radical approach, suggesting that some sort of compromise is required: 'What I would like to do is sit down and work with student groups on the kind of law that would have some durability, that won't chop and change with a change in Government' - see Zane Pocock's Critic magazine interview with Robertson. In the interview, Robertson also declares that the song he'd like to use to send a message to voters is Don McGlashan's 'I Will Not Let You Down'.

There is also, of course, very good reason to doubt the authenticity of the left turns at the weekend. Today, Morgan Godfery casts a critical eye on Robertson's leftwing credentials and concludes that Cunliffe is still the genuine left option. Looking back over recent years, he says, 'While Cunliffe was rejecting neoliberalism Robertson was propping up a leader who demonised beneficiaries' - see: Will Labour Take The Third Way?.

Scepticism about leftwing authenticity also extends to Cunliffe. John Armstrong's weekend column (What if ...? Pitfalls in Labour's new rules) suggests that Cunliffe's leftwing lurch is a smart and pragmatic manoeuvre, and his explanation is worth quoting at length: 'Cunliffe is also being touted as some kind of heir-apparent to the iconic figures of Labour's past and thus someone capable of resurrecting and revitalising Labour's long-dormant left-wing tradition. This personal transformation has been greeted with both astonishment and scepticism in what might be termed the "Wellington Beltway" element of the party - or perhaps more aptly "Robertson Country" - who assumed Cunliffe was far more at home on the party's right. Having instead cleverly positioned himself on the party's left which is under-represented by senior MPs, Cunliffe and his supporters are seeking to make his campaign an unstoppable force which makes it impossible for him to be denied the leadership for a second time and which will thus force MPs and union affiliates to shift their support away from Robertson'.

Even Shane Jones has been attempting to radicalise his message - especially with his attack on supermarket companies, likening them to the Nazis - but also with his idea of extending the housing 'foreigner ban' to Australians - see Claire Trevett's Jones promises to take on Aussies. After some strong speeches at the weekend Jones' bid is now being taken more seriously. Although his chances of winning still appear to be close to zero, it does make him more powerful, especially since the leadership selection is carried out under a preferential voting system - a point well made by Tracy Watkins in Popularity not policy key to contest. David Farrar says 'I used to think Jones would get say 5% only, but I'd say he is picking up significant support, so that no candidate will win on first preferences. It will come down to who his supporters rank second' - see: The earth, moon and stars. And Martyn Bradbury's report from the Auckland meeting said, 'Lots of gossip afterwards and the question the smart punters betting on the leadership is who Shane's second preferences will be, because who they decide to back will be the king maker in this giving Shane a vast amount of influence over proceedings'.

In 'racing to shore up their credentials on the Left', the candidates could be damaging the longer-term electoral interests of Labour, says Tracy Watkins in Policy deals may come back to bite. She reports that 'all three of them are proving adept at making policy on the hoof. The first day on the hustings had the candidates vying to gazump each other on policy including a living wage, repealing the Government's industrial relations law changes, a Pacifica TV channel, raise taxes on the wealthy, regulate food prices and raise the minimum wage'. For this reason, many commentators are using the term of 'pork barrel politics' to describe the contest, suggesting that each candidate is attempting to outbid each other in making generous promises. This approach is, unsurprisingly, being mocked by the political right - see, for example, David Farrar's blogpost, Roll out the (pork) barrels, in which he suggests, 'If one of them declared that they will nationalise the banks and ban all foreign investment in New Zealand, I suspect the other will have pledged to do the same by the end of the meeting based on how loud the cheers are'.

The promise to introduce a 'living wage' is the most contentious of the new policies announced by Robertson and Cunliffe. Cunliffe appears to be pushing the more radical option, promising to extend this to not only public employees but the private sector as well. This has led the Institute of Economic Research to cost the policy at $4 billion a year - see Radio New Zealand's Leader hopefuls promote 'living wage'.

Grant Robertson's lurch is not only to the left, but also towards social liberalism (or 'identity politics') - with the promise to make his caucus a perfect 50/50 gender split after the next election. Cunliffe promises the same, but suggests it will take a bit more time that that - see Tova O'Brien's Cunliffe, Robertson promise 50/50 male/female caucus. She says that 'Labour's failed man ban is back, but in disguise'.

David Farrar analyses how Labour might possibly achieve that goal in his post, Pity Labour's male MPs and candidates. He calculates that the top eight list positions would have to be reserved for women, and he catalogs the likely losers: 'First are the current male List MPs. Basically they're outski. Little, Jones and maybe even Cosgrove are gone. If O'Connor doesn't hold his seat he could be gone also. The other losers are new male candidates. The message is that there is no chance of a winnable list spot if they are male'. He also points out the possible ramifications of this policy for the leadership contest: 'This makes it very interesting for Andrew Little. If either Robertson or Cunliffe win, he may end up being out of Parliament under their quota policies. So who will he support? Could Jones pick up vote in caucus by pointing out to the male List MPs that many of them are goners if the other two win?'

Discussion continues around the appropriateness of bringing the candidates' family lives into the contest, with Tracy Watkins and Andrea Vance publishing this profile: Labour of love for the partners. Cunliffe appears to be the most reluctant to participate in such an approach, being reported as saying 'Shane's got a different approach to this; that's fine; Grant and I have got a gentlemen's agreement we're not going to showcase family and that's partly out of respect for his circumstances and that's that'. And Robertson is said to be 'privately' angry about some of the personal coverage. The feature was accompanied by photos of the respective couples, leading Brian Edwards to ask, 'Why did the paper choose these particular photographs, what was it trying to convey by that choice, and what, if anything, do you think the photographs tell us about the candidates themselves?' - see: If a picture is worth a thousand words, just what are these three pictures trying to tell us?.

Finally, for humour or light relief, check out the following items: Steve Braunias' is merciless once more in his column, Secret diary of David Cunliffe, Matthew Hooton observes a satirical future of November 25, 2020, just prior to an election, in which Robertson has taken the leadership over from Cunliffe - see his (paywalled) NBR column, The makeup room before the 2020 debate. Hooton also mocks Cunliffe, and describes his election leaders debate downfall: 'Who can forget Mr Cunliffe's opening line: "I am Mandela! I am Obama! I am Me!" "Mate, you're a dick," said Mr Key', Will de Cleene has re-written the Blur 'Parklife' song as 'Cunlife' and I've updated my own blogpost, Images of the Labour leadership contest.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

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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