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

Bryce Edwards: Politics round-up: Labour's shift from blue to red - or is it purple?

Labour party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / Paul Taylor
Labour party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / Paul Taylor

Labour is now 'red, not pale blue', declared David Cunliffe in his bold speech to the CTU conference yesterday. It's an evocative and highly symbolic declaration that speaks strongly to the core base of unionists and radicals who have long been disenchanted with a party that has too often been, not just blue, but distinctly beige.

For years now, Labour has cleaved to the middle of the political spectrum and sought to be as inoffensive and bland as possible. Cunliffe's arrival suggests that those colourless days are over, and Labour supporters can now wear their socialist red with pride. But how deep is this new red? The best reports on yesterday's CTU speech have Cunliffe splashing the red paint around to unions wanting to see socialism, but underlining his statements with a cautious blue pen when talking to the media.

The three must-read political columns dealing with Cunliffe's speech all emphasise his mixed red and blue messages, as well as just how many caveats Cunliffe applied to his bold promises to unionists. John Armstrong says that 'It seemed as if two David Cunliffes had turned up', and he sums up the speech like this: 'One passionate and stirring message for the workers; one politically sanitised version of the same message for everyone else' - see: No place for lolly scrambles if Cunliffe is to broaden his appeal.

Claire Trevett emphasises that Cunliffe was at pains to give himself some wiggle-room in his commitments to the union movement, but only quietly for this audience: 'Only occasionally during his speech did he add his caveat of "as the country can afford". Even then, it was said in the same manner as the hurried voice at the end of advertisements that adds "special conditions apply". Details, schmetails'. She says 'It wasn't until afterwards when he was speaking to media that more emphasis was put on that big "but" of fiscal conditions' - see: Cunliffe full of thanks and promises, with caveat. John Armstrong elaborates on this point: 'It was a rather more restrained Cunliffe who fronted to the media after the speech. His language was suddenly peppered with conditional sub-clauses and stipulations as to when some of these things would happen. Provisos such as "subject to the provisions of fiscal responsibility". Or "once we have seen the financials". Or "depending upon exactly what shape the books will be in".'

This dual red/blue message was detected by Tracy Watkins, too: 'Cunliffe turned up yesterday with two messages to deliver; the one to the union faithful was that help was on the way with a living wage, paid parental leave and union-friendly laws once Labour was in power. The other, once he was outside the room, was that there were still strings attached, and any promises would have to meet the test of being fiscally responsible first. It may be a case of different messages for different audiences' - see: Cunliffe's message likely to resonate with middle NZ.

Cameron Slater has also picked up on Cunliffe's heavy use of caveats, saying 'Get used to the phrase "subject to fiscal responsibility". As in, "This Christmas, new iPads, smartphones and wide screen TVs for everyone..... subject to fiscal responsibility". In other words, we're back to empty promises that politicians make to people that only listen to the bit that sounds good - not the escape clause' - see: Here it is: Cunliffe's backpedalling has started.

In the latest Metro magazine, Matthew Hooton writes about Cunliffe's ideological ambiguity and Chameleon-like demeanour, suggesting in his column 'The double life of David Cunliffe' that his radical leftist pose is a smart ruse. Hooton seems to believe that Cunliffe is a sheep in wolf's clothing, and that nothing much will come of his apparent anti-capitalist and anti-business rhetoric delivered to unionists and socialists. Hooton admits that under a Cunliffe-led government there will be some changes, but nothing out of the ordinary, and perhaps quite business friendly. For example: 'There would likely be more of the "hands-on" government that Key and Steven Joyce are already too keen on, a la MediaWorks, SkyCity, The Hobbit and the Bluff smelter subsidy. Even more than now, big business could expect to privatize its profits and socialize its losses'. Socialism for the rich rather than the poor then? Hooton also reports that business leaders 'are convinced he would offer a programme only marginally to the left of Key's'. And Hooton concludes by counselling his rightwing readers not to be too concerned: 'The likelihood is that the Herne Bay and corporate-box crowd probably have little to worry about in a Cunliffe prime ministership. It's his New Lynn admirers who risk a big disappointment'.

Colour is an important part of communicating ideology. This week's Listener includes a discussion of the colour choices at the British Labour Party's recent annual conference. New Zealand doctoral researcher in political theory at the University of Oxford, David Hall asks: 'Why pink? The main stage features stylised Union Jacks, their royal blues and imperial reds faded to azure and French pink. Are these the new colours of the centre left? Is a watered-down socialism intersecting with a diluted conservatism? Is Labour leader Ed Miliband trying to shake off his nickname, "Red Ed"? Or is this the final trampling of New Labour's red rose, the emblem of the Blair years? Such questions may seem trivial, but you can be sure many hours were spent in Whitehall, agonising over colour charts' - see his paywalled column, Labour pains.

Although the New Zealand Labour Party tends to be more purple or pink than deep red, Cunliffe is definitely painting over the beige. There should be no doubt that under Cunliffe's leadership the party is shifting leftwards, and despite the array of caveats yesterday and the potential inconsistencies in his message to different audiences, it was still an impressively bold speech. Tracy Watkins put this very well in her column: 'Cunliffe yesterday managed to serve up something that has been lacking from the party's narrative since the Clark years - a big picture vision to wrap around the grab-bag of policies and key messages that the party has been wheeling out for the last couple of years. More importantly he managed to deliver it with the conviction and sure-footedness that his predecessor David Shearer lacked'.

In order to come to a sober assessment of the extent and true nature of Labour's shift to the left, it's certainly necessary to look at some of the policy fine print. In terms of the commitment to extend paid parental leave from 14 to 26 weeks, Cunliffe admitted 'but we don't know exactly what the state of the books is going to be yet and we're having to balance that with the need to be fiscally responsible which we will be' - see Adam Bennett's Labour reaffirms support for unions' agenda.

The living wage will also only be introduced for certain state sector workers, which means 'core government employees'. Labour will hold off applying the living wage to those in Crown entities such as hospitals and the aged care sector. Government contractors also won't be subject to the living wage. Eventually, Cunliffe says it might be applied in these areas, but this all depends, as usual, on the future fiscal situation. The number of workers who will benefit is actually quite low, a point pushed by Cunliffe himself: 'Frankly there are only a limited number of civil servants who are currently below the living wage which is why it is an affordable commitment to make at this point'.

So, is this radicalism on the cheap? Cunliffe is only going to spend $30m on the living wage in his first budget. That's pretty inexpensive actually. The Green Party is less than impressed by this moderate stance - see Radio NZ's Greens say Labour's living wage policy 'misses the point'.

Also, while the leftwing blogger No Right Turn is impressed by Labour's latest industrial relations announcements in general, he also warns of their limitations in his blogpost Good to hear. He says, 'But all that does is restore the status quo ante. What's interesting is what comes after (and on that front Labour looks pretty positive as well). One thing worth noting though is that the totemic $15/hour minimum wage which Labour has promised to meet was set five years ago, when the minimum wage was much lower, and has been effectively eroded by inflation. Rather than being a significant increase (as it was when first pushed), its now a slightly-above pathway one'.

Cunliffe is certainly providing Labour with a way out if the party can't deliver on its promises to the wider labour movement. But more importantly, Cunliffe is acting to reassure the business sector, as well as swing middle-income voters, that he will lead a government that is fiscally prudent and 'responsible'. That is, he is sending a message to middle class voters and corporate leaders that they should not be frightened by his red rhetoric.

Labour is also looking distinctly blue when it comes to its retirement policy, which is actually to the right of National's. For the latest, see Stacey Kirk's Labour pushes retirement age hike. The party is roughly in line with the Retirement Commission, which has proposed reducing entitlements through a variety of measures designed to save money. Unfortunately for Labour, the union movement is strongly against such fiscal conservatism, especially because it will impact very negatively on its members. Other leftwing activists also oppose this shift to the right - see No Right Turn's Against indexing the retirement age. And for a useful analysis of the proposals, see Rob Stock's Pros and cons of planned super changes.

The current trade negotiations could also prove to be ideologically difficult for Labour. Many leftwing supporters and activists are hostile to or suspicious of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal currently being negotiated by the Government. Labour is therefore torn about its support for such deals, and even some of the detail - see, for example, Audrey Young's TPP draft text probably not possible - Goff and David Farrar's Goff vs Cunliffe on trade.

Cunliffe's lurch to the left and his strong alignment with the union movement shows just how much contemporary politics is changing. For decades, the language and policies seen from Cunliffe have been deeply unfashionable. At the CTU conference he even declared that once elected his Labour government would be part of the 'labour movement'. In today's context, that's quite a radical statement. Most Labour leaders stop well short of that, instead suggesting that in government they would be separate from the labour movement and 'govern in favour of all New Zealanders'. But Cunliffe talked the language of unionists and radicals, referring not to the usual 'swing voters', but to 'workers'.

Suddenly there's a real demand for this type of bold leftism. The class struggle appears to be returning. This of course is being seen all over the world, and it relates to the global financial crisis. All sorts of changes in the economy are making traditional left-right concerns more salient - see for example, Simon Collins' More Kiwis feel insecure about work - study and Laura Walters' Low worker engagement holds NZ back: study.

Cunliffe's championing of the living wage in some ways simply reflects that the campaign has been wildly successful and it now resonates with a large section of the public. After all, there are now plenty of public figures, mayoral candidates and councils who have committed themselves to the living wage. For a very good examination of how the campaign has made its way into Parliament, watch Rebecca Wright's Campbell Live video item, The Parliament cleaners living on $14 an hour.

Not surprisingly, voices on the right are unimpressed - see David Farrar's Cunliffe pledges $18.40 an hour for 16 year old state sector office assistants. For a more general rightwing critique of the living wage concept, see Kim Campbell's The 'living wage' and what it really means.

Finally, for a visual survey of the state of the Labour Party, see my blogpost, Images of Labour under new leader David Cunliffe.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

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.

Read more by Bryce Edwards

Have your say

1200 characters left

By and large our readers' comments are respectful and courteous. We're sure you'll fit in well.
View commenting guidelines.

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 31 May 2017 00:50:11 Processing Time: 766ms