Editorial: Double-edged sword in Labour arsenal

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Matt McCarten. Photo / APN
Matt McCarten. Photo / APN

David Cunliffe is attempting to upend the chessboard by appointing Matt McCarten as his chief of staff and key strategist. It is neither exasperation nor desperation, but the Labour leader has been making no visible progress using conventional political tactics so seeks disruption and a reshaped game.

It is a bold move and boldness sometimes has its own appeal to an electorate. Mr McCarten has been highly effective in organising trade unions and political campaigns and relishes conflict. His working-class credentials from the orphanage through the Alliance and back into unionism are unimpeachable. He brings a dash of Prime Minister John Key's personal political motto - "whatever it takes" - to the Labour side's strategy for an election that should fall within seven months.

On one level, the position Mr McCarten will fill is administrative. Few knew of his predecessor, who resigned because of serious illness. On another, he is a symbol of Mr Cunliffe's determination to break Labour out of its centre-ground fight with National and to find instead votes from working people who did not turn out at the last election.

Labour believes there are up to 800,000 people who fall into that category and if it can inspire a good number back to the ballot box to give it the tick, it puts itself in position to form a government with the Greens.

But that presumes Labour's existing voter base also favours a move to policies aimed at attracting the lost tribes of the left. There is a risk surely that some working, non-unionised, moderate social democrats will see a Labour Party raising taxes, advancing union interests, expanding the state and redirecting wealth to support beneficiaries and the poor as altogether less appealing.

Mr McCarten's personal brand, from the days of NewLabour, the Alliance and lately the Mana movement of Hone Harawira, will be a double-edged sword for those in the middle. That includes some Labour MPs, who will recognise Mr Cunliffe's stark gamble.

Labour's result in 2011 was its worst for generations. Its poll rating now, under Mr Cunliffe, has not increased much at all from its early-30s standings under David Shearer, despite promising expanded paid parental leave and a baby bonus for all those earning up to $150,000 a year. Mr Cunliffe, still too formal and a little aloof in manner, is marooned just into double figures in the preferred Prime Minister polls. New Zealand First and Winston Peters remain in the middle, an anti-National force waiting to mop up those who do not wish to go with Labour strongly to the left.

Labour is largely silent on new ideas in education and health. The electorate knows what the party does not like in schools, from ending national standards to stopping charter schools. What is missing are new ideas that parents of young families can embrace as sensible alternatives to lifting achievement. In health, despite Annette King's parliamentary pressure on Health Minister Tony Ryall, Labour has failed yet to identify priorities that will resonate with middle - or even lower-middle - New Zealand.

The party is mapping out its year, holding back some policy developments until voters are switched on to the election.

But as its momentum in the polls stalls, there is a need to be less orthodox. No doubt Mr McCarten will put energy and decisiveness into Labour's internal workings. He will have the ear of the leader and will assess internal poll results for potential gains and losses from Labour's leftward stance.

The latest fall in support for the Greens, in the One News poll, did not prompt a rise for Labour. The centre-left block shrank and National grew. Mr Cunliffe has doubled-down on his hunch that check-mating Mr Key will involve new moves from the left.

- NZ Herald

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